Well before the 2000s craze for ghost-hunting reality TV shows, St. Petersburg College humanities and religion professor Dr. Brandy Stark was scouring Tampa Bay for the undead.
In 2021, Stark and her team of five investigators – plus two paranormal hunter pugs Achilles and Patroclus – are the faces behind the Spirits of St. Petersburg ghostly investigation team.
While Stark, who is also an accomplished artist, keeps one foot in academia, she keeps another in the spirit world, hosting Paradise Tours Haunted Bus Tour in Downtown St. Petersburg.
“When I was younger I would terrify myself reading books,” Stark said. “As I got older I learned that there is much more value in the role of ghosts in culture than just a ghost story.”
The Real and the Unreal
It was 1997 when Stark began tinkering with electronic voice phenomena (EVP) and video recording to document historically haunted places.
She started “Spirits” as a hobby, but it soon evolved into a group that currently performs 8 to 12 investigations yearly. Stark has investigated spirits at Albert Whitted Airport and a haunted room at The Vinoy, amongst others.
The professor doesn’t charge a penny for her investigative services, which can be in private homes or public spaces, like her most recent examination of the Suntan Arts Center at 3300 Gulf Blvd. on St. Pete Beach.
“I have an ethical issue with charging for these services,” Stark said. “If someone wants to give us a love donation, that’s fine. I make most of the money from hosting tours.”
Most of the time, she says, the “paranormal” can be written off by the mundane – a creaky door, an insect in front of a camera casting a shadow – but not always.
“I think I heard a male voice downstairs,” said Carrisa, one of Stark’s team members, while at the Suntan Arts Center.
They later discovered that their equipment had picked up what sounded like a soft male voice in the midst of her all-female crew.
Stark does her research, and goes into her investigations with a head full of history. On this particular trip, she suspects the source of the husky voice may be Carl Beard – builder of the Don CeSar – or Thomas Rowe, the original owner who commissioned the “Pink Palace” as a tribute to his lost love.
The Don CeSar towers next door, over the arts center, and is where Rowe died.
“I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and people have started telling me their experiences. Someone that works here told me they felt something when there’s no one else around,” Stark recalled. “She described a fellow in a Panama type suit, which would be Thomas Rowe.”
Stark, who is on the board of the Suntan Arts Center, recently hosted the “World’s Largest Ghost Hunt” at the building on September 25, which doubled as a fundraiser for Suntan.
“I try to stay positive when I’m working. If you become afraid it really skews what you’re doing,” Stark said. “If there is a time when people feel unsafe, we would exit together, but that’s never happened.”
See past footage and find out more at spiritsofstpete.com.