The Paramerican Summer Tour, promoting a brand-new paranormal documentary film called Sir NoFace by award-winning director Chad Calek, stopped off at St. Paul’s Mounds Theatre on its way through the Twin Cities last week. The touted documentary promised “definitive proof ghosts exist,” and there was no way I was going to pass this one up.
The Bigger They Are . . .
Chad Calek is a big guy. He has a big voice, makes big movements. He talks big too.
Due to communication delays concerning arrival time, I walked into the pre-event for Sir NoFace late. I tried to creep discreetly to my seat, but as it turned out, that caution wasn’t necessary. If I had walked in with a marching band on fire, I still don’t think it would have pulled the attention from Calek. He was in the middle of telling a story, an introduction to the preview of his project Black Sheep—another story about ghosts, just not the paranormal kind. And Calek, be it restless spirits of the dead or hauntings of the mind and heart, is a ghost hunter. He was seated on a backwards-facing chair, arms draped, knees spread, saying big things to an captivated audience. He talked about his band that almost made it, shared statistics about the popularity of their songs, about how their success was foiled by the singer’s girlfriend. He talked about getting a phone call out of the blue from Steven Spielberg, about his time on hit television show Paranormal State, about winning prestigious awards at prestigious film festivals. And the bigger he talked, the bigger he gestured, until he was up from the chair and prowling the stage, energized by his accomplishments, challenging something unnameable.
Calek presented himself as many things: a successful musician, a celebrated filmmaker, a celebrity-level ghost hunter. That success, he said, came from tenacity, from passion, from the push to go all in—for good or for ill.
And you know what they say . . . the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
What Calek challenged with his pacing, with his raised chin and radiating energy, was himself. This man is a storyteller. Not a weaver, but a teller. And his seemingly boastful tales of hit singles and Spielberg luncheons served the very intentional purpose of contrast to what came next: Calek turning the camera on himself. While he talks big, he is just as big in his humbleness where it’s needed, just as brutal and demanding of honesty when looking inward. Black Sheep—although that film was not the focus of the evening—is about the monster he became in his darkest hour, that monster he patrolled against on stage. He asked himself what it would take to be something else, to exorcise the ghosts of a life hard lived. I say these things because we can’t discuss the paranormal without discussing normal too. What is outside of our reality is defined by what is in it.
To talk about this movie at all, you need to know first about West Sydney Paranormal Research, or WSPR. This group of paranormal researchers was contacted by the Australian government with a request that they officially investigate the former convict prison now known as Cockatoo Island. This is a big deal, as it was the first officially sanctioned government investigation of a paranormal nature.
WSPR caught, on film and off, a plethora of occurrences. Phantom lights, noises, movement where there should be none, garden-variety “haunts.” The movie, however, focuses on one event in particular, and one that is anything but ordinary: a full-bodied apparition, dubbed Sir NoFace and hailed as “definitive proof” that ghosts exist. Indeed, a full-bodied apparition is the holy grail of even the most seasoned paranormal researchers.
The version of Sir NoFace I saw was a behind-the-scenes cut, an all-inclusive look with material yet to be trimmed. It spent a lot of time, perhaps too much, not on proving the existence of the paranormal but on proving the sincerity of the people involved with this project. The major player here is Craig Powell, a deeply thoughtful and observant man who has a lot to say but knows, to an almost artful level, when to say it.
Most of the film plays as an extensive collection of recorded phone calls and one-on-one interviews Calek conducted with Powell and the WSPR team, with footage of occurrences peppered throughout. The function this serves is to drive home the fact that these people are not liars. The motives someone might have for trying to pass off a hoax are extensively addressed, and Calek rips holes in each one. At first, for such important evidence to the paranormal world, I was hoping that more experts would be consulted; Calek mentions physicists and mathematicians and string theory but does not consult any on screen. We do get to see a casual analysis from CGI expert Dan Patterson (who happens to be Calek’s friend), but the rest of the focus remains on the members of WSPR and their promises of honesty.
The more I thought about this, though, the more interesting I found the focus on human elements over technical ones. These are people who have put their names and reputations and livelihoods, and those of their families, on the line. The members of WSPR have dedicated years of their lives to this endeavor. Calek’s and Powell’s children all appear quite prominantly in this film. Would they do that to them if they didn’t believe, with every fiber of their being, that what they were saying was true? In this digital age, there is no room for forgiveness, for missteps to be forgotten. And they know this. There is no question in my mind that Sir NoFace exists to Calek and Powell and WSPR. And to the Australian government, which, upon being presented with the findings they requested, shut down WSPR and banned them without explanation from Cockatoo Island.
And what started out as examining irrefutable proof of the paranormal ends up being an examination of the nature of belief, of us. What do we value? What do we trust? What do we need to see, and under what conditions? Coming full circle to Black Sheep, Calek asks the question, “What will it take?” What will it take for us to believe?
I’d love to see this footage examined under different microscopes, by more believers and skeptics of professional ilk in relevant fields. But that isn’t the point of this film, and Sir NoFace is a perfectly fitting entity, something vague, human shaped, recognizable as both an extension of self and yet inherently other. Chad isn’t asking his audience to believe. He is challenging them to question their beliefs about belief.
As part of the tour promoting Sir NoFace, Calek and Powell have been stopping at theaters and other locations with the reputation of being haunted, screening the film and offering audience members the chance to buy a pass that allows them access to a “ghost hunt” with the guys after the film screening. Here in the Twin Cities, they screened at the Mounds Theatre, an old Deco-style vaudeville theater hidden behind the I-94 sound barrier in St. Paul. There are a host of ghostly tales attached to it, with three separate entities that make appearances so frequently they’ve been named, and Calek and Powell graciously allowed me to hang around after the lights went out to try to catch a glimpse.
There were two distinctive sorts of people in the rather large group that elected to participate in the ghost hunt: the quiet, serious, and skeptical on the one hand and the giggly, haunted-house type on the other. The thrill seekers headed straight for the basement, so I hung back in the main area with those content to sit quietly and patiently in the dark, which included Powell and Calek. If the goal was experiencing some spooky stuff, I made the right choice.
One of the ghosts rumored to haunt the theater is a little girl named Mary, and the group was asking questions and getting no response. Following their lead, I asked aloud, “Mary, would you like to play?” As if on cue, a cracking noise from high up preceded a pebble skittering down next to Powell, who sat on the stage—it was clear that it had come from the area near the lights above the stage.* The house lights came up for a second and then went out; whispering and shuffling was heard. But creepiest of all, I had asked Mary if she wanted to play with me and a ball. I rolled the ball across the stage, where it anticlimactically sat. A bit later, I was sitting in a chair on the stage, close to where the ball was sitting, and in the ambient light I saw it move. A few inches at most, but that thing moved.
Maybe the stage was uneven, and some movement elsewhere in the theater caused it to roll. Probably. Maybe the pebble that seemed to be tossed at Powell was an eerie coincidence of an older building. Maybe the other strange things that happened could be chalked up to any number of things—the amount of people present, the wiring, someone being mischievous. I won’t gush to you about how I saw a ghost, and I’m confident in saying neither Calek nor Powell would want me to. They don’t seem to want enthusiastic yes-men, or people so wrapped up in wanting to see something that they dismiss critical thought. That is the point Sir NoFace drills at: use your mind. You experience your reality, you see what you see. Here is evidence, here is an experience. Do you believe?
And if people don’t?
“It’s not my job to make people believe,” Calek said with a pull from his cigarette after the audience cleared away, after he and Powell sat down on the sidewalk with me in the night heat. “Like all art, film, music. It’s to present a window to another world. To present the evidence and let the audience decide for themselves.” Calek says he makes his movies to follow his passion, but his second motivator is his audience, the people he knows share that passion. He has no delusions about skeptics, about critics, about people calling him a fraud and a fake. “You can’t make a perfect film for everyone.” They aren’t interested in this, don’t want this, he muses. It’s not for them. I asked him how he deals with the blowback; he explained he creates his films and then lets them go—once they are out, they don’t belong to him anymore. His and Powell’s first stop had thirteen people in the audience. At this point in the tour, every show is selling out. “That speaks for itself,” he said.
Powell, too, has grown thick skin. Because he’s had to. “You catch flak on a daily basis,” he told me. “I don’t care. I can sleep easy knowing this is real. Believe it or don’t. All I can do is present you with what I have, and it’s up to you to take it or leave it. The purpose of this project was to capture paranormal activity at Cockatoo Island at the request of the government. We accomplished that.”
I ask them what sets them apart from other “ghost hunters,” something that started as a niche hobby and turned into a cable cash grab with shows like Hillbilly Ghost Hunters and the dude-bro pectoral twitch fest called Ghost Adventures. Humility and humbleness were Powell’s answers. Research, and an academic approach. Calek added that with a Hollywood background, he can appreciate the big-budget spectacles and the drama. But none of that is sincere. And documentaries, he feels, push agendas more and more. Sir NoFace is about opening a window to another world and inviting people to look through.
And maybe those windows are more common than we think. Maybe they are right under our noses—or in this case, in a dilapidated old theater in our own backyard, lost to the roar of a highway.
* Editor’s note: The Mounds Theatre reached out on Twitter to say that “there is very little traffic on the ceiling,” so the falling pebble was very unusual. (Spooky!) The theater also corrected this article’s original description that the pebble had come from the catwalk—something the Mounds does not have. (Click here to return to the reference.)