Since there are so many amateur ghost-hunting groups popping up around the country, and I am getting so many questions on how one becomes a paranormal investigator, I thought it appropriate to pass along some (hopefully) good information on the why and the how to for those who want to become spirit stalkers. This will take a couple of my columns, so be prepared to come back to the December issue of FATE for the next installment.
First of all, ask yourself “why” you want to do this? Is it the hope that you will have an encounter with an apparition? Or perhaps you expect to see things flying around with no apparent motive force? Or you want to join the throng of people who are waving around photos of “spirit orbs”?
Or are you actually interested in understanding the experiences people have, understanding the phenomena and even finding what may be normal – though exotic – explanations for ghosts and such? Are you interested in helping people deal with their hauntings and the problems they bring?
These questions are extremely important. Your motivation for becoming involved in paranormal investigations will push you in a couple of directions; one towards many of the popular misconceptions and amateurism, the other towards the work that has been done and professionalism.
Most of the ghost-hunting groups popping up are focused on “getting something,” and in general that something appears in photos. They do seem to be getting a variety of somethings on their pictures, but as I’ve written in past columns, photos by themselves are lousy evidence, not proof. Photos are not considered proof in a court of law; they are evidence.
Without something more, at the minimum another measure of something anomalous in the environment, all you have are photos of orbs, streaks, etc. With some other measure – say an unusual electromagnetic field with no apparent cause – you can at least connect the photo effect to some other anomaly. However, almost all of the groups and individuals focusing on photography and other technology miss one very important detail: the human experience.
What makes a place haunted is in fact the experience(s) of people. Without that, you may have a spooky place, like a cemetery, but no real connection between that place – or your photos – and a ghost. I find it both bizarre and amusing that so many of the amateurs camp out in cemeteries or abandoned buildings trying to get their ghost photos while the overwhelming majority of ghosts and hauntings are seen, heard or experienced in places where there are people living or working. If you were a ghost, why would you be hanging around a cemetery (unless, of course, you were the ghost of a gravedigger or mortician)?
One other thing I wonder about, having done so many investigations where nothing actually happens: how many orb photos can a ghost-hunter take before getting bored with the whole thing? Think about that before you go down the tech-only path.
THE HUMAN MOTIVATION
The other motivation puts you into the same realm as the original psychical researchers and most of today’s parapsychological investigators: curiosity about human experience. We are curious about the phenomena. We want to understand why people have these experiences. We want to figure out what’s really going on and how the experiences can add to the question of whether there is a life after death (of the body). We want to add to our (humanity’s) understanding of what we call apparitions, hauntings and poltergeists and therefore to the understanding of people and consciousness (both living and dead).
And we want to help the people having these experiences.
I recently read a report of an investigation conducted by a local amateur ghost-hunting group. They visited an estate with building once used as a sanitarium looking for ghosts, even though there’s nothing in their report indicating that people considered the place haunted or reported ghostly encounters in the recent or more distant past. Why did they go in for an “investigation”? Nothing is explained in their website’s report.
But they apparently felt things and got lots of orb photos, and got some local media coverage.
There are several problems with that, not the least of which is that the skeptics would be right in saying that these folks likely went in with the expectation of experiencing something and getting ghost photos in the spooky place. Unfortunately, spooky old buildings can be psychologically suggestive. Without comparison to the experiences of others in the same place, or comparison to events that happened in the locations history, their experiences have no objective value.
Readers of my column know what I think of the orb photos (too many other explanations).
To my mind, though, the one thing really missing from the above-mentioned explanation is a good ghost story. It is the reported experiences of people in such places that ought to drive the investigation. Without such reports, what is there to understand or explain? Why even “investigate” when there’s nothing to investigate? The amateur investigators mentioned above now need to go back and take an objective look for non-paranormal explanations for their experiences and photos.
With witness testimony, especially current witness testimony of experiences, sightings, etc., one at least has a framework within which to look for normal and paranormal explanations for what has been reported. Without such testimony, there’s nothing to investigate. One might just as well go to the local high school football field or shopping mall looking for orbs.
The testimony of people, the human element, drives parapsychologists and other professional paranormal investigators to locations, and drives the investigation. It gives us something to investigate. And when we experience or encounter no phenomena during the investigation, it’s the witness testimony, the ghost stories, that keep most of us interested.
LOOKING FOR RESOLUTIONS
Most people who call parapsychologists, paranormal investigators or even ghost-hunters are calling for help. They’ve had an encounter, an experience with something they believe is ghostly or paranormal, and they’re looking for validation of that experience, for explanations and for resolution (if the experiences and/or phenomena are continuing). Walking into a house and taking orb photos may offer some back-handed validation for their experiences, but not an explanation and certainly not a resolution to the problem causing the experiences.
Amateur ghost-hunters, even those calling themselves “certified” (and those doing the certification) are ill-equipped to help people deal with their experiences or resolve the situations. They are certainly not trained to look for all sorts of normal (though often unusual) explanations for what could be causing the experiences. Neither are the vast majority of skeptics, by the way.
WHAT TO EXPECT ON AN INVESTIGATION
Amateurs often get into this arena to have experiences of their own.
The reality is that like a police stakeout, most of the time nothing happens.
While I’ve been fortunate to have my own experiences in cases I’ve worked on, it’s been rare. Most of the time, nothing happens (other than the occasional unusual reading on an EMF detector, and that’s often nothing related to the reported phenomena). In fact, at one point it used to be said that the best way to get rid of a ghost was to “bring in a parapsychologist.”
So, if you can’t expect to have a personal experience, what would be interesting to you?
To me, it’s the experiences of the witnesses, how they tie together with one another’s stories, and how the case looks overall; in effect, a good ghost story.
Each investigation is like a detective mystery. The investigator questions witnesses, checks out the scene, looks for evidence, motives and explanations. One looks for the explanations not just for the case as a whole, but for each individual event or experience. All too often, a person who has had an actual apparitional encounter is so frightened or sensitive that every natural sound they never noticed before becomes “the ghost did it.”
The best tools an investigator can have and use are his/her interviewing skills, the ability to listen and observe, the ability to make logical inferences and deductions and the ability to make intuitive leaps. In other words, sometimes you need to be Sherlock Holmes (or USA TV’s Monk).
One must always consider normal explanations, even ones that may seem ludicrous at the time. For until the “normal” is explained away, how can one study the paranormal?
Technology can help find a physically detected anomaly that might connect to the witnesses’ experiences, or not. A number of cases I’ve had provided EMF and other physical data that had no apparent connection (even trying to stretch connections) between what the people were experiencing and what we thought was going on.
But as there is currently no technology confirmed to detect ghosts, as there is no understanding or consensus of what a ghost is composed of (or what energies a ghost might emit, or how the ghost might interact with the environment), we cannot point a Tri-Field Meter or a digital camera at a spot, get “something” and declare “we got one!”
It is important to remember that there is no consensus as to whether Consciousness is something separate from the Brain or even detectable. And if Science and Technology can’t come to terms with the definition – let alone the detection – of consciousness where we know it should be (in the body), how can we state with any certainty that what these devices are detecting is consciousness-without-a-body (a disembodied entity) when we can’t even be sure the ghost is in the room when we take such anomalous readings?
So, it is the witnesses’ interactions with the phenomena that drive our investigations. No story, no real reason to investigate.
The needs of the witnesses drive our responsibility to people who ask for the investigation.
Only getting data does not help them. If you are planning on conducting an investigation just to get photos of spirit orbs or get other readings on other devices, you are doing a great disservice to the people who asked for your help in the first place. More on this later.
Let’s move on to the nitty-gritty a bit before I take a break until the December issue.
TO INVESTIGATE, OR NOT TO INVESTIGATE
Most of us are interested in hearing about people's experiences, and certainly interested in helping people deal with them and understand what's going on with them. But to warrant investigation, certain criteria have to be filled.
First of all, and one of the most important: is the experience a current one? In other words, is the apparition appearing at the present time (or within the past few days or weeks)? Are the physical disturbances that may indicate a poltergeist still going on now, or have they stopped (and is the person merely calling to make a report)?
Usually, people don't ask for help in stopping something unless it still going on. If this is the case, then we'd be closer to the decision to investigate. If they're merely reporting or calling for information, that will be taken into account, and generally no in-person visit will be necessary, simply a bit of interviewing, information exchange, and perhaps counseling or referral.
Secondly, have ordinary explanations been looked at and ruled out? Granted, the average person is not generally capable of knowing all the things to rule out, but in conversation the investigator can usually get an idea whether it's a possible paranormal occurrence or a misinterpreted normal event. If such things have been fairly well ruled out, the final determination of the "paranormal" or "psychic" status may be put off pending an in-person look.
Are there any other witnesses, and are they available as well? If there are corroborating witnesses, the final determination to investigate becomes a bit easier. If the same thing has been seen by independent observers, the situation becomes more interesting to the investigator. Sometimes, unfortunately, when the investigator does interview the witnesses, it turns out that they did not see or experience the same thing as the person who reported the disturbance. However, in the situation of physical disturbances (poltergeists), the decision is easier, simply because there are objectively observed happenings as opposed to an apparitional sighting, which may not be open to shared observation by all witnesses.
Finally, a practical consideration: what is the location of the case and the logistics necessary to get there and investigate it? How much will it cost the investigators to do a decent job on the case? How much time would be required? Is this all within the investigator's "budget" of time and money?
One other consideration up front has to do with one’s ability to assess the psychological state of mind of the person reporting the phenomena. While most of us are not psychologists, it’s important to know that some people will need counseling or more serious psychological help because of the experience and how they’ve reacted to it, and others may be reporting the phenomena because they are psychologically disturbed. Either way, it’s important to try to provide a referral to appropriate psychological or psychiatric resources.
If you ask many questions, you’ll begin to get an understanding of which is which – who may be disturbed and having experiences because of that, and who may be disturbed by the phenomena.
On the other hand, sometimes people act psychologically disturbed or even slightly insane because they have made the wrong conclusions about what’s really going on. For example, I had one case years ago where a man believed his neighbor was using technology to beam thoughts at him, causing him to be ill. He also said the neighbor was taping into his electricity to do this.
After much questioning, something about the story and the person reporting it made me suggest he call the local utilities company to report the “theft” of electricity. It turned out the neighbor was in fact doing this, and was actually a disturbed individual who had so much technology (stereo and other electronic equipment) around his place, it was emitting low frequency sound that was giving people around his house serious headaches.
In that case, the “crazy person” was not the person having the experience. He’d just made some incorrect assumptions and conclusions.
Such assessments are tough to make, and often impossible to determine over the initial phone call. Just be certain not to be on your own when conducting the investigation.
The fact is, as far as safety goes, it’s not the dead you have to worry about, it’s the living. Ghosts don’t carry guns and knives.
EASY STEPS TO INITIAL ASSESSMENT
The late British SPR researcher Brian C. Nisbet did a nice summary of some of the considerations for taking on a paranormal investigation in an article in Psychical Research: A Guide to its History, Principles, & Practices (edited by Ivor Grattan-Guinness. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: The Aquarian Press, 1982), which I’ll draw on here, though I’m adding to both the number of steps to be taken, as well as expanding his points.
1. Take as much information as possible during the first contact or any subsequent phone calls before heading out. If it's possible to tape the interview off the phone, do so (but don't forget to ask the callers permission… that's the law).
2. Decide if the case is really worthy of investigation (currentness, witnesses, logistics, etc.).
3. Contact witnesses for their versions of the situation.
4. Find out whom else has been contacted (i.e., a priest, police, etc.) and try to get their impressions of what may be going on. Also, has the press and contacted at all? If so, what does this say about the callers’ motivations? Will the media be there and get in the way?
5. Do an initial assessment of the situation, but try not to absolutely categorize the reported experiences, even in your own mind. Don't go into a situation with heavy preconceptions or biases.
6. Arrange for as many of the people involved to be there. Try to speak with any others who may have been consulted and gotten impressions about the case, such as local police, priests, rabbis, psychics, etc.
7. Suggest that they (the people directly involved) began to keep track of any and all experiences that occur before you actually get there. In other words, involve them in the investigative process.
8. You might want to take along (or send in advance) information about psychic phenomena (especially those things that they appear to be experiencing) to lessen any fear reactions or clear up any misconceptions they might have.
9. Do a little research into the parapsychological literature about the reported experience if you are not fully familiar with it.
10. Consult a parapsychologist about hints for the investigation. You might establish a line of communication with someone, so as to get another opinion on what may be going on and what to do about it.
Next: “You’ve decided to go on a ghost investigation…now what?”