There are plenty of strange things about Las Vegas, but perhaps the most perplexing is this: I just told the concierge at The Venetian that I'm in town hunting the ghost of Liberace, and he didn't even look up.
Ghosts are as common in Sin City as top-heavy drink girls. Bugsy Siegel floats through the garden of the Flamingo, Houdini roams the showroom of the Plaza, and Redd Foxx stalks the halls of his mansion, dick snaking unapologetically out of his bathrobe. And that's not even counting the myriad crapped-out suicides. But around these parts, in death as in life, it's Liberace who steals the show.
Since succumbing to complications from AIDS in 1987, Liberace has taken up residence at a restaurant called Carluccio's Tivoli Gardens, a few blocks off the Strip. Liberace owned the place and even had his own private lounge attached to the dining room, allowing him to slip in and man the glittering keys to the delight of unsuspecting diners. Walk inside Carluccio's and you wonder whether the cartoonishly flamboyant pianist ever really left. Besides the all-mirror-and-plastic-flower interior, there are the continued reports of hauntings: electrical surges, ladies' restroom stalls that lock and unlock themselves, crashing bottles.
Tonight, the L. V. Paranormal Investigation team of Mike Carrico and Osvaldo Luna have gathered to see if the man whose mama called him Lee can come out to play. By day the two 36-year-olds work at the casinos—Carrico supervises porters; Luna is a housekeeping manager. By night they're on the prowl for the paranormal. "My wife thinks I'm full of shit, and my father-in-law thinks I'm a joke," Carrico says. "But it's a calling."
Carrico and Luna are the kind of guys who have been giving the International Ghost Hunting society a more youthful demographic lately. The governing body of the boo-curious, the IGHS says its list of 15,000 members in 87 countries is thick with young recruits. The society's goal is to distance itself from the taint of Ouija boards and babbling psychics, modernizing—and perhaps even legitimizing—ghost-hunting with tools that promise tangible proof: thermal scanners, electromagnetic-field meters, Geiger counters, night cameras, motion detectors, and tape recorders.
But is it for real? Could Grammy Mae still be trolling the kitchen from beyond the grave pimping her famous lemon icebox pie? Among the thousands of IGHS-approved Internet sites, there are countless pictures of "orbs," mysterious balls of light of varying size said to signify the presence of a specter. To the skeptic they could just be bits of floating dust, refracted light, or a finger in the lens. But electronic voice phenomena, known as EVPs, are harder to shake off. Tape recorders left running in haunted areas often pick up faint, disembodied voices crying out from the other side. (EVPs form the basis of White Noise, a new film starring Michael Keaton—speaking of life after death—and figure prominently in the new Sci-Fi Channel docu-series Ghost Hunters.) "We were the first ghost organization to teach that ghost voices are filled with emotions," says Dr. Dave Oester, co-founder of the IGHS. "They're not monotone, as taught by traditional groups."
Jason Snider employs all this state-of-the-art spirit-sensing technology as the leader of a team of 60 afterlife aficionados in Illinois called the Crawford County Ghost Hunters. A veteran of 3,000 paranormal investigations, Snider, at 24, is one of the most successful ghost hunters in the country. Just this week he has recorded an angry spirit in an opera house ordering him to "get out" and a long-dead Indian at a burial mound asking for directions to "the light." He posted the tapes of both conversations on his Web site. "I used to have to sleep with the lights on, but after a while you get used to it," Snider says. "Now, if a full-body apparition floated by me"—which, he says, has happened before—"I wouldn't run away. I'd take a picture of it." These days it's only the freshly dead that truly creep him out. A member of a first-response EMT team, he's often there to pick up the pieces when the worst happens. After bagging the bodies and riding away in his ambulance, he sometimes feels a cattle prod of cold fear: the distinct sense he's not alone.
"It gets weird," he says, with an uneasy laugh. "You can feel the dead. It's like they're still there, watching you."
The hunt for Liberace begins with interviews of Carluccio's employees. Oscar Ortiz has worked in the restaurant for 13 years and is the only one who's seen the ghost face to face. Nine years ago, while polishing an eight-foot mirror, Ortiz glimpsed the reflection of what he describes as "a giant sparkling cape" floating up behind him. When he turned around, it was gone. Ortiz figures Liberace is just "a good ghost who's watching to make sure his place is clean."
Kelly Stanley, on the other hand, thinks Lee's got a chip on his rhinestone-clad shoulder. "Getting AIDS is not the way he wanted to die," she says through the smoke of her Capri cigarette. "And I think he's a little upset we came in." Stanley has been on Liberace's shit list for most of her 17 years tending bar here. She sometimes repeats jokes about the former owner—like the one that goes, "Why did they bury Liberace face down? So his friends could come by for a cold one"—and one night while she was dispensing some of this humor, a wine bottle flew off its rack and smashed to the ground inches from her feet. She's also heard voices, walked through cold spots, and watched toilets flush for no apparent reason. "I've seen a lot of weird things," she tells the ghost hunters. "Well, you guys wouldn't think it's weird." Stanley may also have been visited by aliens as a teen, but that's another story.
Properly geeked out, Carrico and Luna begin creeping through the restaurant, electromagnetic meters and thermal scanners cocked like pistols. The bar, shaped like a giant grand piano, comes up cold on Luna's thermal readout, meaning there may be spooks about. Near the door to Liberace's room, Carrico's electromagnetic meter is reading positive. "We may have something," he says. The two ghostbusters begin taking pictures with digital, film, and Polaroid cameras.
"Mr. Liberace," Carrico shouts into the silence, "we ask that if you're here you allow us to photograph you."
Out of nowhere a hollow voice bellows: "Pork...the other white meat!" Carrico and I snap to attention. "Is that you?" he asks. Just as we're about to conclude that Liberace is now spokesman-in-eternity for the Pork Board, John Hosier, Carluccio's manager, points to our feet. We look down and realize we've set off a goddamn Billy Bass talking fish.
A tad embarrassed, our party heads into the women's restroom—a hotbed of inter-dimensional action in the past, but a flop tonight. From the men's crapper we hear Carrico yelp giddily: "I've got something!" We walk in to find him pointing at a pink urinal cake. His meter is doing jumping jacks. "He's here," he says. Flashbulbs pop as Stanley leads us past the life-threatening wine rack and into the kitchen, where blenders and freezers and lights have been known to operate with minds of their own.
Our walk-through completed, we huddle around a table spread with spent Polaroids, searching frantically for orbs. Nothing. Without an orb, these investigators won't declare that a ghost was in the house. The lyrics from Liberace's hit "I'll Be Seeing You," etched into the surrounding mirrors, seem to mock us.
Luna grows philosophical. "It's about finding the truth and helping people," he says. "It doesn't always work, but I like the word vindicate. That's what we're really trying to do. I don't think it's right that people think you're crazy if you say you've seen a ghost."
At this point, freezing in the predawn desert air, I'm ready to chalk both Carrico and Luna up as just that: crazy. As shit-house rats. Then a smile creeps across Carrico's face. He motions me over and hands me his digital camera. On the screen is a picture of Stanley taken in the kitchen. Covering the right side of her face is large shark fin of light that looks to be boring into her skull. There's no explanation for it except for, you know, Liberace's ghost having it out for her. Everyone gasps.
"We did experience a ghost here tonight," Carrico says. He sounds... vindicated.
As I watch his DOC WHO vanity plate recede into the lights of the Strip, I can't argue with him. I do believe in spooks. I do, I do, I do...