“Ghost hunting is like fishing,” says Pete Kandel. “And the best bait is us.”
Kandel and his brother Stew are the Ghost Doctors. “It’s embarrassing to say how long we’ve been doing this,” Stew says, but suffice it to say, the brothers have been researching both the science and history of spirits for decades. The majority of their careers took place in their native New York City, where they did ghost tours of locations including Central Park and Flushing Meadows Park.
But the heritage of Manassas attracted the pair to ply their ethereal trade in Northern Virginia. “It has thousands of years of history,” says Pete, pointing to the Powhatan tribe that populated Prince William County before the arrival of European colonists.
On a summer Saturday night, the Kandels had to turn away guests hoping to tour with them. Due to COVID, they both wear masks and prefer to keep groups small. There are eight curious souls in the group, at least among the living. The tour begins in front of the Manassas Museum at 8:30 p.m.
There, Pete pulls out a weathered black 19th-century doctor’s bag. Inside are electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors for everyone. Well, almost everyone. “Who here has butter fingers?” they ask. Those who do are invited to use their phones’ cameras to take shots of the group as the EMF machines start lighting up, rather than being trusted with the pricey equipment. Pete also carries a thermographic imager to take pictures of the group’s heat signatures (“This is what you look like in the Predator’s eyes,” he says, referring to the ’80s movie monster) while Stew uses a digital audio recorder.
The Ghost Doctors tell us to keep all of our senses sharp. “You’re much better than this equipment,” says Pete. Changes in temperature and odors are as important as sights and sounds, they say. So are good vibes and live music. “It increases the energy in the area,” reasons Stew.
From the museum, fledgling ghost hunters trek with the brothers up Battle Street to the historic Hopkins Candy Factory, now ARTfactory. At each stop, the Kandels encourage guests to touch the buildings and see if their EMF machines light up. Sometimes they do; often they don’t. “Ghost hunting is not like the TV shows,” they admit. “It may be thousands of hours before you find something.”
On a 3-mile walk around Old Town Manassas, the group enjoys the dynamic duo’s rapid-fire, whip-smart banter and their exhaustive knowledge of local lore. “The one thing with ghost hunting is, wherever you go, you’re constantly studying the history. You’ve really gotta know your stuff,” says Pete, crediting the Manassas Historical Society with much of the team’s acquired expertise.
As you return to the front of the Museum and the brothers test the group’s abilities with Zener cards, a deck intended to measure a person’s level of ESP, one thing becomes clear: On this tour, the living are at least as interesting as the dead, especially the Ghost Doctors themselves.