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"It all began four years ago," Richard Senate explains. "While on a dig at the San Antonio de Padua Mission near King City, Calif., I was cataloging artifacts for their museum. One night I decided to raid the icebox before bed, headed through the unlighted courtyard and saw a small flame, like a candle. As I got within 12 feet I could discern the figure of a monk. Then it disappeared, flame and all. There was no wind, no door the form could have slipped through. I felt a chill go down my spine, and lost all interest in eating."

The shade that Senate, now 34, saw at the mission didn't have the flash of those in Poltergeist, but to him it was unnerving. The next morning he told his hosts. "Oh, yes," the brothers yawned. "We've seen many ghosts." Recalls Senate: "They proceeded to tell me stories about how ghosts help people and could actually make things better for them. I decided to learn all I could about apparitions." He read widely, interviewed others who had seen ghosts, toured haunted houses and assembled files on more than 300 spooky phenomena. Soon he was renowned as "the ghost hunter of Ventura County." In 1979 he was asked by Ventura Community College to teach the History of Ghosts and Ghost Hunting, a five-week, noncredit course.

Senate's 40 students take no tests and are required to do little reading. They join him once a week for a two-hour class in which he lectures with the sober posture of a scholar who cares about his subject but maintains a proper academic distance. "Your average ghost," he intones, "is pretty much like a normal human being. All that scary business—the skull-like face, the clanking chains, the transparent shroud—is strictly Hollywood." He eschews spine-chilling stories (but does say, "No one remains an atheist after seeing a ghost"). He scoffs at the notions that spirits are transparent (they appear in daylight as well as at night) and walk through walls. "When you see a ghost go through a wall," he says, "it's actually walking through a psychic door, a door that existed in that spot in the past." No one, including himself, "really knows what ghosts are," Senate says. But he is persuaded that there really are haunted places. "I believe that we're all living creatures, made up of energy. Wherever we go, we leave that energy behind. The haunting type ghosts are like a roll of film being played over and over."

Before visiting a haunted house, Senate tells students to be skeptical—to check first for natural causes for allegedly supernatural disturbances. "Many times," he says, reports of ghosts result from "nothing more than a loose floorboard or a window shade slapping in the breeze." Spook watching can be dull, he warns: "Your most valuable tools, aside from your tape recorder, notebook, infrared camera and a good psychic, are plenty of sandwiches and coffee."

The bachelor son of an artist and a housewife, both deceased, Senate grew up in Los Angeles. His family moved to Ventura in 1966, where he attended the college at which he now teaches. He had done post-grad work in history at Cal State, Long Beach, when he had his vision at the mission. Since then he has had other ghostly experiences, among them a 1979 class trip with a couple of psychics to a haunted mansion in Ojai. "It was about 9:30 at night when we felt an icy blast come into the room," he recalls. "One of the psychics said, 'I sense a woman present. She's leaving now, going out into the corridor.' " Senate and company caught up with her in the ballroom. "I saw the figure of a woman in a long, 19th-century dress," he says. "She looked very real. I stood for several seconds watching her as each of my students described her, in the same way I was seeing her. She began to move slowly away from us, and then seemed to just melt away..."

From his students, Senate has heard many bizarre stories, including one from a woman who said she had a little green friend from Mars who kept her posted on coming events. Then there was a burly construction worker who confided he'd seen a 15-foot black rooster outside his favorite bar. "Could be," says Senate. Then he smiles and adds, "The main thing I tell students is, 'All that glitters isn't gold, and all that shimmers isn't a ghost.' "