Erin Potter, like many kids growing up, had an imaginary friend.

She said they had a game where he would take her doll clothes or toys and hide them, and then she and her sister would find them.

Then Potter had a thought: Imaginary friends can't move things.

It was then that the Aliso Viejo resident "realized what a ghost was."

In June 2010, Potter and friends Kirsten Thorne and Marsha Covert-Garcia started Paranormal Housewives in an effort to further their interest and education in paranormal investigations.

The women started the all-female group as a response to the male-dominated groups they encountered.

Potter would try to join other investigative groups, but she said the mostly-male groups would plan trips spontaneously, which was difficult for her with two kids and a husband.

"We were tired of the drama," Potter said with a laugh.

In their group, organizing investigations around family's schedules is the norm, with most of the wives having at least one child.

Their gender may actually help in investigations, Covert-Garcia said, because they're sensitive and want to respect the dead.

While some paranormal TV shows might command the spirits to "show themselves," Covert-Garcia said the women don't walk in with demands.

"We walk in as if we are meeting someone for the first time," she said.

"As guests," Thorne added.

Before they investigate a home or building, they research the site and ground themselves spiritually. Each has her own method: Potter does a sign of a shield; Thorne sprays sage (because she's allergic to the herb), and has crucifixes and religious idols for protection; Covert-Garcia prays.

"We're trying to bring the calm back to the home," Potter said.

She added that many people aren't trying to eradicate spirits but want to learn how to coexist with them peacefully.

They use a K-II EMF meter that reads electromagnetic fields and fluctuates based on energy in the room. They also use the iPhone Ghost Radar app, a compass and a temperature reader because rooms tend to drop in temperature when a spirit appears, Potter said.

Thorne, who has a Ph.D. in Spanish literature and culture and is a professor at Pierce College in Los Angeles, said she had to move out of her Long Beach home due to paranormal activities. Neighbors complained about lights going on and off and loud opera singing in the kitchen — all happening when Thorne was gone.

When a light and its switch box was torn out of the wall, an action Thorne said isn't easily done because it requires removing long screws and wiring, she was ready to move.

"The force that takes … You couldn't pull that out on your own," she said.

Jennifer Storey, who joined the group in the past year, said she was always into ghost stories but truly became interested after an experience at age 19, when she felt something crawl up her body.

Covert-Garcia said she grew up in haunted homes, and she said her current home is haunted. The spirit of a young girl showed itself to her 11-year-old son, she said, and they often feel touched or hear whispers.

There are some things the group does say no to, such as requests for investigations of demonic activity. They refer the requests to other groups. As wives and mothers, they want to maintain their safety.

Potter likes to point out that their group is unique because they encourage newcomers to tag along for investigations. When Potter was a rookie, she said only one out of 50 groups would allow her to come along, so she's made it a goal to educate "newbies."

The group has investigated historic Olvera Street buildings in L.A., and some ghostly spots in the Sierra Nevada towns of Silver City and Kernville, according to its website, http://www.paranormalhousewives.com.

However, Thorne has a word of caution for those who want to start investigating the paranormal world.

"It's something we take really seriously," she said. "This is not for the person looking for entertainment. It's for the person looking for answers."

joanna.clay@latimes.com

Twitter: @joannaclay