In the dark room of a historic downtown building, flashlights reveal two plastic human skeletons; the mold of a hunched, sinister-looking butler statue by a corner window; and a plastic baby missing its left eye, left big toe and lips.
Herded behind a wall of shelves are more than a dozen mannequins covered in plastic sheeting, some disassembled at the torso, many with missing arms and hands lying at their feet.
Though eerie, the mannequins and skeletons are not what the members of the Montana Paranormal Research Society are hunting. The group looks past the items, in storage for some of the Moss Mansion's annual Halloween festivities, searching for evidence of paranormal activity in the building.
On a recent September night, the group explored the Moss Mansion — their fifth time there since 2007.
Curtis Mattox heads toward a wooden ladder leading through the ceiling and into the attic.
Earlier, when Mattox was setting up camera and audio recording equipment in the attic, he gestured toward the wooden beams crisscrossing the space above the attic’s entry.
The chalk marks scrawled across the beams are remnants of the play of some of the six Moss family children, he said.
After disappearing into the dark above, Mattox seats himself in the attic and begins talking calmly, pausing occasionally to let the silence sink and give someone — or something — a chance to reply.
“If someone would like to come forward and talk to us, tell us how your life was, how much you enjoyed the place here … ” Mattox says in the attic. “Again, we mean you no harm.”
He continues speaking in a calm, quiet voice. “What was your favorite game to play up here?” Mattox says. “Are you aware of the time gone by, how Billings has grown and become more populated?”
The changes Billings has undergone since the time of the Moss family are undeniable, yet one constant has been the public's interest in the ornate brick building.
The mansion was designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, the same architect who designed the original Waldorf Astoria and Plaza Hotels in New York City. Family patriarch and entrepreneur Preston Boyd "P.B." Moss built the structure in 1903.
Born in Paris, Missouri, in 1863, P.B. Moss moved to Billings in 1892, where he would go on to found a newspaper, organize the first area telephone company and work in the banking industry, among other endeavors.
Moss and his wife, Martha Ursula Woodson Moss, had six children, three boys and three girls. Their last child, Virginia died of diphtheria at the age of 5.
The last member of the Moss family to live in the home was the Moss' youngest daughter Melville Hollingsworth Moss. She died in the home in 1984 at the age of 88.
Since then the structure has been converted into a museum, which fields thousands of visitors every year, many with questions about the building and its original inhabitants.
“Is it haunted?” is one common question that Moss Mansion executive director Jenna Richter said she and her staff often get.
Richter says she hasn't had any spooky encounters in the time she's worked there, and she has heard little of note from most Mansion staff. Nevertheless, the questions remain.
It’s possible Melville’s solitary final years, witnessed in glimpses and embellished in the stories of neighborhood children, have let to the speculation of something supernatural in the mansion, Richter says.
Or maybe it’s Richter herself.
“I am the spirit. I am the one roaming the halls late at night,” Richter says, laughing as she described her late working hours.
“I have no doubt there are people who have seen me,” and thought they’d seen a ghost, Richter says.
The decision to allow the MTPRS to share its findings was not made lightly, Richter says. Halloween activities and events have been a growing draw for Moss Mansion visitors in recent years, she says. Still, the main goal of the Moss Mansion staff remains preserving the structure and sharing the story of the Moss family, she says.
Part of that story involves the social gatherings, pranks and sense of humor the family enjoyed, Richter says.
“Whenever we pull out a new drive or fundraiser, we want it to be something the Moss family would approve of,” she says. “Knowing some of their personalities through letters and journals, I think some of the family would get a kick out if it.”
Preparation for the long night begins around 5 p.m. as seven MTPRS members set up microphones and remote-controlled video cameras throughout the home.
The sights and sounds captured are fed to computers set up in the former servant’s quarters in the mansion's basement. This is known as the command center, or “command” for short.
During the roughly two hours of setup, group members filter in and out of command. They walk up the narrow staircase as they head toward various parts of the house, careful not to catch their feet on the veins of extension cords running through the home.
In the ballroom, some group members leave two stuffed animals, a frog and a dog, sitting about five feet apart, staring at each other. Called “trigger objects” the items are placed and photographed near where the Moss children were known to play.
Other methods will be used throughout the night. Mini Maglite flashlights will be twisted just to the point of turning off and left to see if they turn back on, which could potentially point to the presence of energy associated with the paranormal, says MTPRS director Dustin Benner.
By the time the night ends at 3 a.m. a combined 125 hours of footage will have been collected across devices, Benner says.
Past the home’s Moorish Entrance, Benner stops to describe an experience he had during a previous investigation. He points to a corner near the staircase where Melville Moss’ bed sat during her sickened final days. It was there where Benner says he heard a voice saying, “We’re right near you.”
In the French parlor, Benner recalls a time he felt a tap on his shoulder when the room was otherwise empty. “I said ‘You can come with us,’” Benner says. “We caught an audio recording very clearly: ‘I can’t come with you.’”
Lora Mattox says the house sometimes sounds alive in the upstairs Billiards Room at night.
“If you sit here at night, if you sit out in the Billiards Room, it sounds like there are people in the house,” she says. “You can hear drawers opening and closing, people talking.
“When you sit here, you just feel like they’re still at home, doing their thing.”
The group's beginnings
MTPRS originally formed in 2005 after Benner, Robbie Blakely and Ryan Dorn, who were already friends and coworkers, realized they all believed they had experienced something paranormal.
From there the group expanded, reaching double-digit membership before shrinking down to the current seven members, who range in age from their 20s to their 60s and work in a variety of fields including computer science and local government, Benner says.
The group is certified by the The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS. Members go through annual criminal background checks for the group to maintain its status, Benner says. TAPS sends the group "cases submitted to them for this area," Benner says.
Benner, along with Lora and Curtis Mattox, said that the increased popularity of TV ghost-hunting and paranormal investigation shows helped build their interest in the pursuit of the supernatural.
They have investigated all over the state at places like the old state prison in Deer Lodge, the Elks Lodge in Miles City and the Western Heritage Center in Billings. The group has also done investigations of private residences.
Benner likens the group’s investigative process to the scientific method.
“If I can’t play it to you, let you see it, hear it — What is it?” he said. “A personal experience.”
Benner’s own personal experience in the late 1990s in Bozeman left him stunned and looking for answers. He says he saw what appeared to be a small girl down a hallway in an empty building. When he got closer, there was nothing there.
Still, he chooses his words carefully when describing findings. “I’ll say 'activity,'” he says. “Could it be ghosts? Maybe.”
He describes the group as skeptics, though the level of skepticism varies among those involved.
Karen Stevens, a local author who has written on haunted places in Montana, says she grew up in a haunted house in Minnesota. She said she tries to remain “at least one percent skeptical.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Lora Mattox’s husband, Curtis Mattox.
“Curtis is a great debunker,” Stevens says, describing a time when she saw what appeared to be shadowy figures moving along a wall. Curtis then pointed out that they were insects casting shadows.
In another instance, the group heard a scream and a thud heard inside the Elks Lodge in Miles City. Luminol spray was used to try to detect traces of blood. Lora Mattox scattered baby powder near the location of the sound to try and catch faint footsteps.
“There was a leak in the roof so we caught some raindrops,” her husband says, laughing.
Curtis Mattox was enlisted to jump up and down in an attempt to replicate the thud, and Lora Mattox went outside to replicate the scream.
“I went outside in Miles City at 11 at night and screamed my head off,” Lora Mattox says.
Curtis Mattox also tried a technique called “provoking” in which antagonistic statements are made to try and get a reaction.
Laughter is mixed with their description of the night, but seriousness creeps back into Curtis Mattox’s voice when he remembers the feeling of hearing what he believes was a scream.
“Of all the things we’ve caught,” he said. “That’s the only one that gave me goosebumps."
The investigation begins
After setup, the group allows their devices to run in the empty house to get a base reading of structural noise levels.
During that time, the group heads to Perkins for a traditional pre-investigation meal. After, the group makes a convenience store supply run.
Snacks and caffeine, particularly Diet Mountain Dew, are a must in command to make it through investigations that sometimes last until dawn, Lora Mattox says.
The group returns to the mansion around 9 p.m.
Members go out in rotating shifts while others in command monitor video feeds. For Lora Mattox, fear was not among her expectations for the night.
“There’s nothing scary here in the house,” she says. “It’s the family.”
She, Benner and Blakely comprise the first group. Wearing headphones and holding a parabolic microphone, Mattox states the time, group members and destination into a digital recorder as the group walks toward the billiard room on the home’s second floor.
Except for command, the lights are off throughout the house. After 15 minutes in the billiard room a sound rings out twice. “Was that the phone?” Mattox says.
“Was that the servant’s bell?” Benner replies. Curious, he returns to command. A few minutes later he’s back to debunk the noise — Stevens stepped on the servant's bell at command.
Soon Benner begins speaking gently into the darkness. Whirring fans can be heard in adjoining rooms. Blakely sits in a corner, and Mattox holds a REM-pod device, a sensitive piece of technology that lights up at the touch.
“Lora’s got a device. If you want to talk to her, you can stand in front of her and talk,” Benner says. “Is any of the Moss family here with us tonight?"
This is how an Electronic Voice Phenomenon or EVP session, is carried out, Benner says. Questions are posed, and whatever might be listening is given a chance to respond.
About a quiet half hour and a few false alarms later — one caused by music from down the street, another by a grumbling stomach — the group heads back down to command. The next group assembles and heads out and the MTPRS begins to fall into the rhythms of their work.
While others roam the house, those in command will review old footage and recordings, respond to walkie-talkie chatter and monitor video feeds. The night wears on as the group continues their hunt.
The findings of the Montana Paranormal Society’s investigation are to be presented at an Oct. 15 event at Moss Mansion called “Shocktails.”
While the group was still reviewing footage from the night two weeks after the investigation, Benner said they seem to have come away with several potential findings, including what sounded like the voice of a woman singing in the servant's stairwell. As of press time, Benner said further attempts at debunking were needed to vet the evidence.
If nothing makes the cut for true paranormal activity, it will likely be no surprise to Stevens. Earlier that night back at Perkins, she summed up the highs and lows of the paranormal investigator.
“Ninety-five percent of the time nothing happens. We go home with a stiff neck and sore feet,” she says. “It’s the 5 percent when something happens that totally is worth it.”