(CNN) — Nina De Santo was about to close her New Jersey hair salon one winter’s night when she saw him standing outside the shop’s glass front door.
It was Michael. He was a soft-spoken customer who’d been going through a brutal patch in his life. His wife had divorced him after having an affair with his stepbrother, and he had lost custody of his boy and girl in the ensuing battle.
He was emotionally shattered, but De Santo had tried to help. She’d listened to his problems, given him pep talks, taken him out for drinks.
When De Santo opened the door that Saturday night, Michael was smiling.
“Nina, I can’t stay long,” he said, pausing in the doorway. “I just wanted to stop by and say thank you for everything.”
They chatted a bit more before Michael left and De Santo went home. On Sunday she received a strange call from a salon employee. Michael’s body had been found the previous morning — at least nine hours before she talked to him at her shop. He had committed suicide.
If Michael was dead, who, or what, did she talk to that night?
“It was very bizarre,” she said of the 2001 encounter. “I went through a period of disbelief. How can you tell someone that you saw this man, solid as ever, walk in and talk to you, but he’s dead?”
Today, De Santo has a name for what happened that night: “crisis apparition.” She stumbled onto the term while reading about paranormal activities after the incident. According to paranormal investigators, a crisis apparition is the spirit of a recently deceased person who visits someone they had a close emotional connection with, usually to say goodbye.
Reports of these eerie encounters are materializing in online discussion groups, books such as “Messages” — which features stories of people making contact with loved ones lost on September 11 — and local ghost hunting groups that have sprung up across the country amid a surge of interest in the paranormal.
Although such encounters are chilling, they can also be comforting, witnesses and paranormal investigators say. These encounters suggest the bond that exists between loved ones is not erased by death.
“We don’t know what to do with these stories. Some people say that they are proof that there’s life after death,” said Steve Volk, author of “Fringe-ology,” a book on paranormal experiences such as telepathy, psychics and house hauntings.
Scientific research on crisis apparitions is scant, but theories abound.
One theory: A person in crisis — someone who is critically ill or dying — telepathically transmits an image of themselves to someone they have a close relationship with, but they’re usually unaware they’re sending a message.
Others suggest crisis apparitions are guardian angels sent to comfort the grieving. Another theory says it’s all a trick of the brain — that people in mourning unconsciously produce apparitions to console themselves after losing a loved one.
A telepathic link between loved ones
Whatever the source for these apparitions, they often leave people shaken.
Nor are apparitions limited to visions. The spirit of a dead person can communicate with a loved one through something as subtle as the sudden whiff of a favorite perfume, Volk says.
“Sometimes you just sense the presence of someone close to you, and it seemingly comes out of nowhere,” Volk said. “And afterward, you find out that person was in some kind of crisis at the time of the vision.”
Many people who don’t even believe in ghosts still experience a mini-version of a crisis-apparition encounter, paranormal investigators say.
Did you ever hear a story of a mother who somehow knows before anyone told her that something awful has happened to her child? Have you ever met a set of twins who seem to be able to read each other’s minds?
People who are extremely close develop a virtual telepathic link that exists in, and beyond, this world, said Jeff Belanger, a journalist who collected ghost stories for his book, “Our Haunted Lives: True Life Ghost Encounters.”
“People have these experiences all the time,” Belanger said. “There’s an interconnectedness between people. Do you know how you’re close to someone, and you just know they’re sick or something is wrong?”
An eerie phone call at night
Simma Lieberman said she’s experienced that ominous feeling and has never forgotten it — though it took place more than 40 years ago.
Today, Lieberman is a workplace diversity consultant based in Albany, California. In the late 1960s though, she was a young woman in love.
Her boyfriend, Johnny, was a mellow hippie “who loved everybody,” a guy so nice that friends called him a pushover, she said. She loved Johnny, and they purchased an apartment together and decided to marry.
Then one night, while Lieberman was at her mother’s home in the Bronx, the phone rang and she answered. Johnny was on the line, sounding rushed and far away. Static crackled.
“I just want you to know that I love you, and I’ll never be mean to anybody again,” he said.
There was more static, and then the line went dead. Lieberman was left with just a dial tone.
She tried to call him back to no avail. When she awoke the next morning, an unsettled feeling came over her. She said it’s hard to put into words, but she could no longer feel Johnny’s presence.
Then she found out why.
“Several hours later, I got a call from his mother that he had been murdered the night before,” she said.
Johnny was shot in the head as he sat in a car that night. Lieberman thinks Johnny somehow contacted her after his death — a crisis apparition reaching out not through a vision or a whiff of perfume, but across telephone lines.
She’s sorted through the alternatives over the years. Could he have called before or during his murder? Lieberman doesn’t think so.
This was the era before cell phones. She said the murderer wasn’t likely to let him use a pay phone, and he couldn’t have called after he was shot because he died instantly.
Only years later, when she read an article about other static-filled calls people claimed to have received from beyond the grave, did it make sense, she said.
Johnny was calling to say goodbye.
“The whole thing was so bizarre,” she said. “I could never understand it.”