Paranormal Investigations, Past & Present

The ancients had an excuse for believing in such things as ghosts.

As a people who didn’t understand the machinations of nature on any level other than what they could perceive with their five senses, this ignorance can be forgiven.

They did not always have the abstract capacity to assign natural causes to unexplained phenomenon.  Similarly, they lacked the technology to properly measure and assign values to their more casual observations. 


Ghost Forest 2Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011

When in doubt, the ancients tended toward a fatalistic view, sometimes blaming their gods, or ghosts, or the “wee folk” in the woods when bizarre phenomena presented themselves.   All sufficed as a reason for the unexplained.  But the leap of faith required connecting a strange sound or manifestation automatically to a ghost, jumping to such a conclusion (ignoring or excluding all other practical explanations), has no place in enlightened society.  Nor is it good science, either.   Modern ghost hunters are guilty of both, making facts fit their theories and employing bad science in the quest to prove that which can’t be proved.

Ghostly and Gullible
Ghost hunting has an interesting and rich history.

The trend began about the time Spiritualism came into vogue in the mid 1800s.  Séances were held.  People communed with the dead through table rappings, spirit trumpets (horns from which disembodied voices issued forth), and via ghost writings on slate tablets.  The world of Spiritualism, generally infested with charlatans, drew its share of serious scholars and other dabblers.

An early investigator (from about 1871 to 1874) of the unknown was Sir William Crookes, a physicist who believed it was a scientific duty to investigate such phenomena.

That is not to say the great Crookes was not above human frailties in his investigative efforts, however.  One particular medium, Florence Cook (a very attractive woman), came under his scrutiny. 

Florence used a “spirit guide”, a ghostly presence, named Katie King to produce messages from Beyond, and she was very popular.  During the course of her séances (always held in a dark room) a spirit would appear and answer questions for the sitters.  Magically, the spirit that manifested itself looked very much like Florence (except dressed in a ghostly white gown).  Other tricks were suspected as well.

Unfortunately, Crookes was smitten with this woman.  A physical attraction developed.  Although it is not certain a sexual relationship occurred (very likely it did since Florence needed to stay in business) he came away pronouncing her and her spirit manifestations as genuine.  He compromised his integrity with this episode and his report caused an uproar; his conclusions in this case lowered his credibility in the psychic investigations’ community. 

One of the more prominent believers in paranormal phenomena, with a belief born of healthy scholarly interest, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  As the celebrity creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle’s interest in the subject lent cachet and credibility to this field of study.

Other people like him (intellectuals, scientists, and erudite artistic types) formed societies to study trends in the field.  They also investigated (with the true scientist’s open mind) unusual phenomena.  Sometimes based upon their world experiences, they drew wrong conclusions.  But these people tended toward the exhaustive when it came to proving or disproving a ghost sighting or a medium’s levitation or other event.  They were sincere in their beliefs, diligent in their methods.

Wild About Harry(s)
Another early investigator of psychic phenomenon was the famous escape artist Harry Houdini.  His interest in the subject piqued upon the death of his beloved mother.  He wished to communicate with her, but after being defrauded and tricked by more than one medium he began a one-man crusade quest to expose all mediums as frauds.  He was very successful in his efforts, and made public the chicanery and parlor tricks of these spiritualists.  

The premier ghost hunter of all time would have to be Harry Price.  He began in the early 1920s investigating strange phenomena.  Price, highly educated, instigated creating the University ofHarry Price (paranormal investigator)Credit: William Hope (public domain) London Council for Psychical Investigation in 1934.  He served as honorary secretary and editor.  About this time he also joined London’s Ghost Club. 

Price and his cohorts spear-headed investigations of mediums, spirit photographers, and hauntings.  The mediums and spirit photographers, by and large, were discredited through the efforts of this group and others like it.

The general intent in these investigations, though (unless fraud was suspected in advance), was simply to document, report, and interpret the event.  In other words, they were good investigators. 

Hauntings made for steady investigative work for the group, and for Price in particular. 

Borley Rectory (a site once designated as the most haunted place in England) became a focus for a major investigative effort by Price in the early 1930s.  This locale was subject to ghostly manifestations and poltergeist activity.  Furthermore, one of its later occupants experienced some sort of possession herself, and mysterious handwriting appeared on walls addressing her by name.

Price diligently investigated these occurrences, and came away with much evidence to support a paranormal problem with the property.  However, he did not automatically conclude haunting was the sole reason for the mysterious events at the Rectory (gutted by fire in the mid-1930s).  Rather, he weighed his evidence, and spent a lot of time at the scene, not just a night or two.  He also conducted exhaustive interviews with eyewitnesses, and looked into the backgrounds of the James Randi (paranormal investigator)Credit: James Randi Educational Foundationclaimants.  Despite a few shortcomings, however, Harry Price was a good investigator, probably the best in his field at the time.

In today’s world the closest thing to a Harry Price is James Randi, a former sideshow magician, escape artist, and mentalist.

Randi, upon his retirement from his chosen line of work at the age of sixty, began to investigate purported psychic phenomena.  It was his belief that people claiming paranormal abilities were using other means to produce their effects.

In numerous cases Randi has exposed many false mediums, psychics, and telekinetics, most famously Uri Geller (the “mentalist” who could bend spoons and other items simply with the power of his mind).

Again, Randi, like Harry Price before him, approached these investigative efforts with a healthy dose of fair skepticism.

Tools of the Trade
This leaves one to consider what today passes for “ghost hunting”.  Sadly, this is now more of an entertainment/media creation than real science or diligent investigation.  Some modern ghost hunters, to lend an air of professionalism to the pseudoscience of paranormal studies, may refer to themselves loftily as “paranormal investigators”.  These individuals put themselves forth as bastions of logic and clinical detachment.  They claim to be experienced with certifications.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  There are no formally accredited programs, per se; all real training for this occupation is on-the-job.  There are classes one can take, but the field experience is the only thing that counts. 

The modern ghost hunter uses many pieces of genuine scientific equipment. Infrared and ambient light-gathering scopes, electro-magnetic fluctuation detectors, digital thermometers, Digital thermometersensitive microphones and digital audio recording equipment; in the hands of a ghost hunter these seem very impressive.

None of these detect ghosts or a ghost’s presence, however.  All they do is note fluctuations in forces and conditions in the typical EMF deviceCredit: Creative Commonsenvironment.  To suggest otherwise is idiocy.

Also, ghosts are supposedly “supernatural”; therefore (extending the argument) any scientific devices technically would not work in detecting them at all. 

So, all the impressive hardware is wasted.

Modern “Miracle” Workers?
Any real paranormal investigator requires professionalism and some skepticism to conduct an impartial investigation.

Most of today’s so-called “ghost hunters” are neither professional (like Harry Price) nor skeptical (like James Randi).  These hunters (with precious few exceptions) are true believers in ghosts and other psychic phenomena.  They will invariably conclude a site is haunted despite scanty evidence.

Today’s ghost hunter usually lacks a professional demeanor, too, and generally looks and talks like an aging skater boy, complete with baggy jeans, heavy tattoos, and facial piercings.  Many are no more than college students, thrown into a TV show with a night-vision camera, and left to wander around a “haunted house”, basically doing nothing more than scaring themselves. 

The televised paranormal investigations programs, of which there are now several, generally all follow a formula: the ghost hunter team visits a supposedly haunted place, they wander around, they shoot film, they hear sounds, and they record noises.  Then they proclaim the venue is haunted. 

Two cases show the difference between good paranormal investigative work and bad work.  These also illustrate the wildly disparate results that can be obtained.

First, the bad.

This event aired several years ago.  The “client” was a middle-aged white male who reported his house and his person were being subjected to poltergeist activity.  Objects flew from shelves.  He personally was under attack; scratched and punched, left with whelps and bruising.

The ghost hunters assigned to this case set up a lot of video equipment, motion activated cameras, and sound recorders.  They ambled around his home with EMF devices (recording minor changes in electromagnetic fields) and with digital thermometers (documenting minor changes in temperatures). 

The smartest thing this group did was keep this man under continual observation for the first few hours they were on site.  The investigation broke down completely, however, when the “victim” said he had to use the bathroom.

The investigators stupidly remained in the man’s living room while he left.  The man returned a few minutes later, shirtless, and with ugly scratch marks on his stomach and chest.  He claimed he’d been spectrally attacked in his bathroom.  The “investigators” looked at his injuries and exclaimed how mysterious they were.  They concluded it was obvious proof he had been strangely assaulted.

Not one member of that group pointed out what was really obvious: the placement, superficiality, and appearance of the wounds (combined with his being unobserved for several minutes) indicated they were clearly self-inflicted.  Anyone can do this—simply claw at the skin, and a red whelp remains.  The resultant injury’s severity depends only upon the self-mutilator’s pain threshold. 

In direct contrast to this bad work is the “Ghost in the Window” event.

This case appeared on a news magazine show about a decade ago.  A woman reported seeing an apparition appearing at random in one of her home’s windows.  A team came in and like so many others, set up all their equipment, wandered around, and awaited the ghost.

The woman finally came to one of the team members and said she could see the ghost in the window.  Naturally, the group became excited and rushed to the affected room.  Sure enough, there was a face and a figure projected onto the window in question.  As each began to jump to the conclusion that this was, indeed, a bona fide haunting, one member of this team actually took a step back and advised restraint.

He and another member went outside and scanned the environs.  They noticed a neighbor sitting in his living room in front of a picture window with his television turned on with no other lights on in the room.  This neighbor looked suspiciously like the apparition they’d just seen in the window.

After hypothesizing that the “ghost” was, through some fluke of reflection, nothing more than this man’s image projected upon the glass of the affected house, the ghost hunters took the time and proved this was so.  One of them was given permission to sit in the man’s lounge chair, and wave—cameras in the “haunted house” captured the action.  The team did not find a ghost, but they did something not many ghost hunters do—they explored an alternative, and more rational, theory that bore fruit.

Case closed.

Explaining the Unexplainable
“Unexplained” does not mean “supernatural”, “paranormal”, or “unexplainable”.

The movements of the planets within our Solar System were once an unexplained phenomena.  That, of course, is no longer true.

It is the absence of searching for alternatives to ghost sightings that fuels the continued controversy over whether or not ghosts exist (a controversy that should not exist in the first place as ghosts themselves are non-existent).  Jumping to the “ghost conclusion” is very popular, though, and makes for better entertainment.  The idea that some odd occurrence might be caused by something as pedestrian as an atmospheric pressure change or a gravitational anomaly (or a skittering, albino raccoon) seems beyond the grasp of the average paranormal investigator.   

Just because a specific, unusual occurrence at a particular place and time cannot be explained at that time does not mean the phenomenon can never be explained.  Nor does it automatically mean a ghostly presence is at work.  This is the failure of the modern ghost hunter.  The sensationalism, the automatic default conclusions, and lack of scientific training or discipline all make any ghost hunter’s findings inconclusive, unintentionally wrongheaded, naïve, or downright fraudulent

The world loves its ghost stories.  Conflating a noise or a creak into a ghost, however, is absurd.  Listening to a tape recording of ambient noises captured in a “haunted house” and claiming coherence and intelligence in the noises heard is also childish.  But, those are the conclusions drawn by ghost hunters (“I heard a strange noise—must be a ghost!”; “There’s a draft over here—must be a ghost!”).

One hardly ever hears something “could be a ghost”.  Certainly, one never hears a ghost hunter today say, “Let’s look and see what else it might be.”  No current paranormal investigator worth his paycheck would ever make such a statement.  No, it is more lucrative and makes for better press to read about ghost investigations, and it makes for more compelling television to watch ghost hunters really do no more than scare themselves when they jump and start at every little sound.  Filming in “night vision” makes these shows look even more eerie—it does nothing for the science, however.

In the end, ghosts really are only a matter of belief.  But belief cannot supplant a good, solid investigative effort.


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