ST. PETERSBURG — A dead man greets visitors to Dave's Aqua Lounge, a nice spot for booze, blues and, maybe, a haunting. • Inside the front door, local music legend Rock Bottom extends an inviting hand and harmonica — in a nicotine-stained photo taken shortly before his death. • Hang around to hear tales of more departed regulars: Groper Man (yes, he was a frisky one) chain-smoked and drank too much straight V.O. at that corner spot at the bar, where a plaque salutes his memory. Big Butt Bonnie died in a car crash. Crazy Chris' aching jaw turned out to be mouth cancer. Boxcar Bob should've quit drinking earlier. Blues musicians Diamond Teeth Mary and Hollywood Dave visibly wasted away over years of stage performances.
"We've seen a lot of people pass through these doors," owner Dave Mamber Jr. says. "Then they pass away. That's what people do.
"Sometimes we're lucky enough to collect a bar tab before they go."
After closing, while Mamber, 57, counts the day's receipts, he occasionally wonders if he's really alone.
Doors open. Bottles faintly clink. Mamber glimpses shadowy movement on the feed from a dance floor security camera, or the storage area outside his office. But nobody's there.
Mamber wonders if his bar is haunted. Maybe a dead regular looking for a nightcap, or one of the prostitutes who used to hook fishermen and Derby Lane gamblers in the 1930s when the place was called Bucket of Blood, before Mamber's late father bought the business. Maybe Dad is checking on his son.
"You really have to be careful talking about this stuff," Mamber says. "People will think you're a little off, or: 'Hey, buddy, you been drinking again?' "
• • •
Sure, it's easy to laugh. But Mamber might have more sympathizers than he knows. Think of all the people who are alternately terrified and entertained by ghost stories, and all who find comfort in the possibility of the hereafter.
Authors from Homer to Shakespeare to Stephen King have relied on ghosts to advance plots. Movies as heartwarming as Field of Dreams and as frightening as The Shining include visitors from beyond the ether. The paranormal is an enduring television staple, from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir to Medium and The Ghost Whisperer.
People want answers that aren't readily available. Many of us like believing another realm exists beyond this one, where we can be reunited with loved ones. Is it so hard to understand the appeal of seeing a beloved friend again without leaving the known world?
Enter the Tampa Ghost Watchers, an all-volunteer paranormal investigation club combing Dave's Aqua Lounge in search of the unknown, armed with video and still cameras, digital recorders and electromagnetic meters.
By day, club president Bill Sharpe runs an online marketing company and publishes the Davis Islands Community News. By night, he's a ghost watcher, collecting data and poring over the results.
"People don't realize how time-consuming this is," Sharpe, 55, says after arriving at Dave's, located on Gandy Boulevard, one steamy July night. "We're going to be here probably three hours tonight. That means around 300 hours of time invested back into finding what we've got. A month from now we'll still be digging through stuff we find tonight."
Sharpe's group boasts better than 100 members, who have searched a Cedar Key lighthouse and homes from Lakeland to Savannah, Ga., hoping to brush the other side.
Ghost Watcher Mike Burton, 59, of Tampa, a Vietnam veteran and former police officer, says he's had paranormal experiences — occasional apparitions and voices — since age 3.
"A blessing or a curse, whatever you want to call it," he says.
Burton's preferred Ghost Watching tools are his instincts and brass dousing rods, thought by some to detect water, minerals and supernatural energy.
He aims them like pistols at the dance floor, after sensing a spirit dressed in a natty white suit and Panama hat, emerging from mist and quickly disappearing. The rods don't move. Other Ghost Watchers poke cameras and recorders at the spot.
Later, in the storage area where Mamber has seen shadows move, Burton stops abruptly. He doesn't want to walk through an invisible force he has detected. The name "Margie" or "Marge" whispers in his head, he announces.
"Margie, if you're there, move the rods to the left," Burton says.
Both rods slowly swing left, though Burton's hands do not move.
"She's right here in front of us. Now cross them for me, Margie."
The rods form an X. Again, without any perceptible movement by Burton. Then the rods straighten and Margie is gone.
Mamber walks in, and Burton asks if he knows anyone named Margie or Marge. Yes, about 15 years ago there was a bartender named Margie, a sassy 50-something bombshell who died of cancer.
"I haven't thought of her in years," Mamber says. "She was with us for a long time."
"She's still here," Burton says. "She looked pretty good for an elderly dead lady."
• • •
Pat Linse thinks paranormal investigations are subconscious bunk at best, scams at worst. Not surprising, since Linse is co-founder of the Skeptics Society in Altadena, Calif.
"Who is to say what an indication is of a ghost?" Linse, 60, says during a telephone interview. "Who decided what method proves there's a dead spirit floating around?"
Hundreds of supernatural events are submitted to the Skeptics Society for vetting each year. UFOs, miracle drugs, you name it. Paranormal inquiries usually top the list, so Linse is familiar with Burton's dousing rods technique.
"It is what's called the ideomotor effect," she says. "Making small movements without actually knowing you're making them.
"There are good reasons why people think there are ghosts, but they're largely psychological.
"Sometimes people want something to happen so much that they'll make it happen."
• • •
Sharpe is no stranger to doubters.
"Even if I caught a ghost someone wouldn't believe it," he says. "There is no sure, pure thing. If there was, wouldn't we really know already that ghosts are out there?
"I've experienced paranormal things. Can I convince you that it's true? Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't matter. It all comes down to belief."
Two weeks after the Dave's Aqua Lounge investigation, Sharpe passes along three photos showing glowing orbs near the bar counter. Later, Linse says such images are common, and usually caused by reflections. Ambient noise makes the audio practically useless. Burton's visions and dousing rods are the best evidence that the nightclub is haunted.
Mamber doesn't know whether to believe the photos, the audio, the rods, the visions, all of it or none of it. But he's enjoyed the evening, sharing his place and memories with the ghost hunters. He closes the bar late, feeling more at ease now with things going bump in the night.
In the morning, he unlocks the door and says hello to Margie.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.