It was nightfall in Spring, Texas, when I approached a perfumery called Crazy Mama’s Celestial Emporium. A bright teal one-story bungalow, unmissable even in the twilight, housed the shop. A small group of women had gathered there to commune with a ghost child named Shelby. As I walked up the porch steps, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

“I’m so excited,” said the shop’s owner, Diana Diamonds. She had long white hair and piercing blue eyes, and she wore a white tank top, white pants, and a white duster that stopped just above the heels of her camel-colored cowboy boots. Her gaze was arresting, and her bubbly energy was infectious. “She likes to visit and play in the shop,” Diamonds said of Shelby. “I think she followed us over from our old location next door.”

Around Diamonds, the bubblegum pink walls of the emporium were lined with merchandise from floor to ceiling. Framed prints and photographs hung next to shelves stocked with essential oils, crystals, and hundreds of antique cut-glass bottles, decanters, and many-colored perfume flacons. A wildly varied collection of hats, scarves, and jewelry hung from display hooks and a few statues around the store.

Besides me, three women had joined Diamonds for the night’s séance. Diamonds’s friend Dorcie Collier, TikTok star Brittany Tomlinson, professionally known as Brittany Broski and occasionally as “kombucha girl,” and Tomlinson’s mother, Heather Long. Long is one half of the ghost-hunting duo Texas Ghost Gals: she and her friend Joanna Sauceda carry out home inspections and meet up with other local paranormal groups around the state to investigate potential hauntings and ghostly activity at least once a month. Long would be leading the proceedings that night.

When Diamonds, who first met Long as a customer five years ago, had finished puttering around the shop grabbing chairs and drinks, she led the group into the back room. Like the rest of the store, the room was overflowing with merchandise. A few bookcases along the wall were lined with vintage shoes, and a display case full of earrings, pendants, and other knickknacks was situated in front of the only window. Its sapphire drapes had been pulled shut, but lamps were scattered around the room.

The sound of a nearby train rattled past outside the window. Tomlinson and Long looked for plugs to power up four different cameras and an Xbox Kinect, a motion-sensing device, which had been outfitted with a Windows tablet, infrared recording, and screen-capture technology. Though the Kinect is essentially obsolete for gamers, it’s found a second life in the ghost-hunting community. The device’s camera is meant to detect human players, with facial-recognition software and a semiconductor that allows it to “see” in 3D, but some users have noticed that the Kinect often seems to pick up human shapes that aren’t visible in the room.

Long pulled more items out of her backpack: a couple of electromagnetic field (EMF) sensors, a digital recorder, a few small toys for Shelby to interact with, an infrared thermometer, and a flashlight. She also took out four divining rods—handheld copper sticks which cross and uncross in the hands of a ghost hunter, possibly indicating dispatches from the beyond. Finally, at 9:30 p.m., it was time to start.

The group gathered in a lopsided circle. Long sat with her legs crisscrossed on the floor, I settled on a leopard-print footstool, Diamonds and Collier sat in chairs borrowed from the next room, and Tomlinson, on a chaise lounge, set up the Kinect.

For a minute, the room was quiet, with just the sound of the crickets chirping outside. As we prepared to commune with the ghosts, Long casually mentioned that Shelby was already in the building. “She was in the bathroom a few minutes ago,” Collier agreed.

“What do you mean?” Tomlinson asked, panic creeping into her voice.

“I feel her behind me now,” Long said.

“Quit!” snapped Tomlinson.

With that, Long kicked things off, calling out to any spirits that might be in the room, telling them we meant them no harm.

She spoke to Shelby, reminding her that she had heard from them before. She told Shelby that she’d love to learn more about her. Then she ran through a quick checklist with Diamonds to ensure that there was no router or other electrical equipment in the room that might interfere with her tools. Seconds later, Tomlinson spotted a figure on the Kinect.

Crazy Mama’s Celestial Emporium in Spring, on August 28, 2021.
Crazy Mama’s Celestial Emporium in Spring, on August 28, 2021. Photograph by Cat Cardenas
Long sets up her spirit-detecting gear.
Long sets up her spirit-detecting gear. Photograph by Cat Cardenas

Earlier that day, I’d met Long, 52, and Tomlinson, 24, at Plane & Level, a tapas bar in the historic railroad town turned charming shopping center of Old Town Spring. Long had driven in from her home in nearby Conroe, while Tomlinson was visiting from Los Angeles. This would be their second ghost hunt together (Tomlinson’s first was also at Crazy Mama’s). When I arrived, the women were laughing with the bartenders and looking over the wine menu.

“So, how much do you know about Old Town Spring?” Long asked me. Her curly gray hair framed the Texas Ghost Gals logo on her baseball tee, and her smile was warm and friendly. When I said I’d never visited the neighborhood, or heard of it, Long dove into its history. It was practically abandoned for years after the Great Depression, she said, but it started booming again in the sixties. Some of the boutiques that lined the streets were houses that had been moved from nearby Houston (including, allegedly, the former home of prolific Texas serial killer Dean Corll), she said, carrying their energy with them.

She described haunting experiences from past visits and told stories she’d heard from locals: heavy doors that opened of their own accord, faucets that turned themselves on, and a fire years ago whose origins couldn’t be explained.

“But do you know that for sure?” Tomlinson chimed in, turning to her mother and narrowing her eyes as she let out a huge laugh. She’s used to her mom’s stories about ghosts, but she doesn’t always believe them. “I’m open-minded,” she said, “but I don’t know if I believe in ghosts a hundred percent.”

“Brittany’s a skeptic, but we need skeptics,” Long said between bites of crispy croquetas. “We actually invite them.”

In a November 2020 YouTube video titled “Interviewing My Ghost Hunting Mom,” Tomlinson and Long discussed the latter’s sensitivity to spirits and passion for the supernatural. Long, a former teacher, has been investigating (and sometimes debunking) paranormal happenings across the state since 2012, when she founded Texas Ghost Gals and brought on Sauceda. In the video and in person, the two had a playful dynamic, with Tomlinson alternating between gently ribbing her mom and asking earnest questions about past ghost hunts.

Long had been drawn to the occult and the mystical her whole life. She’s always known she had a sixth sense—a sensitivity for feeling energies and perceiving presences that other family members or friends couldn’t always detect. One of her earliest memories is of running through her grandmother’s house at six years old, trying to avoid lingering in a particular room where she always felt like something was watching her. Later, her grandmother confirmed her suspicions. “She told me, ‘Yeah, there’s something in there. It moves the curtains.’ ”

But Long didn’t get serious about honing her sensitivities until she was an adult. When Tomlinson was in high school, she watched her mother stock up on equipment and head out to go on hunts. “There was a point in time where I’d ask to hang out and she’d be like, ‘Well, I’ve got to hunt; I have to see if I’m free this weekend,’ ” Tomlinson joked, admitting she was a bit doubtful at first. “I kind of came around once I saw that she was validating so many people who thought maybe they were crazy because they were hearing or seeing things around their house.”

“She’s called me crazy more than once,” Long said, laughing.

Long, who’s currently getting her PhD in metaphysical parapsychology from the University of Sedona (a post-secondary school that specializes in metaphysics), is ever the teacher: she delights in sharing her experiences and asking people about their beliefs (or lack thereof) in ghosts. She’s never preachy; she finds that the staunchest skeptics are usually just afraid of the unknown.

After hundreds of ghost hunts, Long knows that everything, from the weather to the Wi-Fi to the people in the room, might affect whether she sees a ghost. And that uncertainty is fine by her. Her passion for ghost hunting isn’t about parlor tricks. (“Ghosts don’t perform for us,” she said.) It’s about something bigger—not just the idea of an afterlife, but the peace of mind it might bring someone to believe their loved one is watching over them, or to believe that a bad presence has been banished from their home.

There’s a procedure for everything, Long explained, from removing a demon to disposing of a Ouija board. A few years ago, she was contacted by a psychic who was hearing hooves clopping upstairs and had seen a figure with the head of a goat in her home. The team Long was working with at the time confirmed that there was a demonic presence in the house. She saw the psychic’s children drawing the goatlike figure from memory, and one appeared to be communicating directly with it. “It freaked me out,” she said. “She was letting it in. We told her we wanted to cleanse the house and she said no.” Long was so unsettled by the interaction that she decided not to continue the hunt; that was the only time her curiosity didn’t outweigh her fear.

“Every time I would go out, it was something different and I was so fascinated,” she said. “When you believe you have contact with something from beyond the veil, it makes you want to keep seeing what else is out there.”

Later, in the back room at Crazy Mama’s, I laughed uncomfortably while Tomlinson looked back and forth between me and the screen.

“There’s clearly someone else on Cat right now,” Tomlinson announced to the room. “It looks like they’re leaning up against—I don’t know if I want to do this anymore. It’s a completely different person.”

As detected by the Kinect, the small ghost on Tomlinson’s monitor looked like a green stick figure waving its stick-figure arms. It was on the countertop right next to me, now swinging its legs over the edge of the display case.

“Nuh-uh, this is why I don’t like this,” Tomlinson said. She was laughing, but she also looked a little spooked. She got out her phone to film the monitor, while Diamonds excitedly scooted next to her, squealing with delight at what she was seeing. I froze.

Though the figure was small, we couldn’t be positive it was Shelby yet. Collier turned off the lights, and the room was dark apart from a couple flickering candles. “The air conditioner is on; that’s why the candles are doing that,” Long said, making a note to herself so it wouldn’t mistakenly be categorized as evidence later.

She grabbed two copper divining rods, resting her elbows firmly on her legs. She began delivering instructions to Shelby. “All right, you’ll see that I have these rods here,” she said in a gentle tone. “If your answer is yes to something, you’re going to cross these rods for me. If it’s no, then these rods won’t cross at all. Go ahead and use your energy to uncross these rods and make them parallel so that I know you’re here. I’ll wait.”

The L-shaped rods wobbled away from each other a few moments later, forming two parallel lines. “Thank you,” Long said. “Is this Shelby?” she asked. Once again, the rods wobbled together, crossing in an X to say “yes.” Shelby was here.

“Ask her if she likes being at the shop,” Diamonds asked Long, her anticipation palpable. The rods crossed again. Diamonds was delighted to hear from Shelby through the divining rods, but said she was disappointed that Shelby wouldn’t cooperate with some of the other methods of communication, such as the “ghost box” (a device, not unlike a white-noise machine, which ghosts can “commandeer” to speak to the living).

At one point the Kinect picked up a couple figures perched in the corner of the ceiling. Tomlinson had mentioned hearing that spirits who hang out in the corners of rooms can be demonic, but Long used the rods to deduce that the figures were two benevolent male presences. But, she added, Shelby gets uncomfortable around men and wanted us to banish the spirits. “Same, girl,” Tomlinson joked.

By midnight, we’d taken dozens of videos. Long declared the night had been a successful investigation: she had enough “proof” to examine on her own later. We packed up our supplies and wandered back toward a table near the front of the shop to compare thoughts and munch on snacks laid out by Diamonds.

Certainty is impossible in Long’s field, but in a phone call a few months after our ghost hunt, we circled back to the feeling of being in the room when the energy started to change—that moment when the divining rods first crossed, and the prickle on the back of my neck that made me feel like someone was behind me.

“Trying to describe that sensation to someone looking for ‘proof’ is hard,” Long admitted. “You just have to be there to feel it and open your mind to it. But that moment of intrigue is the whole reason I do this. You get a little piece of information, and you want to keep reaching out and learning more.”

“This isn’t all that’s out there for us,” she said. “I have to believe that.”