A popular saying goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” In the decades I’ve watched ghost hunters featured on TV shows and read about them in books, I’ve seen the same formula, with no new groundbreaking results. The formula has been ingrained in our collective consciousness for decades thanks to popular culture. Ghost Ship from 1952 is an example. Ghostly goings-on prompt the owners to contact a scientist who studies the paranormal. He brings equipment that can detect “vibrations” as well a psychic (the “real deal”) and they discover the secret that helps the ghost “move on”.
This formula, in various incarnations, is still featured on popular TV ghost hunting “reality” shows and copied by ghost hunting teams today. And yet, there have been no headlines announcing any breakthroughs in paranormal research. Maybe that’s because it’s not working. If we want paranormal research to make any real progress, perhaps it’s time to retire some of the counter-productive notions and practices commonly seen in the field.
Investigating in the dark:
There is no logical reason to investigate paranormal claims in the dark. Yes, many paranormal reports occur at night, but many people report experiences during the day as well. As outlined in my article, “Believing is Seeing“, there are plenty of issues with visual perception in well-lit conditions. Investigating in dark sets one up even more for misperception and misidentification, because our eyes are not designed to see well in darkness. Since our retinal cone cells don’t function well in the dark, our central vision will be poor and we must rely more on our peripheral vision, which is lacking when it comes to processing details and color. In dark or low light conditions, we don’t interpret the shape of objects accurately or see color well enough, causing objects to look like shadows or even lights. Another optical illusion occurring in dark conditions is autokinesis. If you stare at objects or light sources long enough, they will appear to move. Our peripheral vision’s strength is detecting movement. But without our central vision functioning well in low light, our ability to see what is moving, or how, is poor. It is not difficult to understand how this causes misperception. Also, another common issue is that sitting in total (or near total) darkness for a period of time is a form of sensory deprivation that causes some to see lights or colors (phosphenes). This is something I experienced in my father’s dark room in his professional photography studio.
Putting visual misperceptions aside, investigating in the dark causes misidentification in video and photographs. Slower shutter speeds due to the low light causes light streaks, motion blurs (which can make objects and people look transparent), and grainy, pixilated blobs that can be misinterpreted into just about anything. In video, “shadows” can form from the autofocus trying to work in low light conditions. Night vision video not only is often grainy, but sometimes there are “hot spots” where parts of the picture is blurry. Another common issue is that sometimes reflections from surfaces are amplified, making it appear there is a light that really isn’t there. FLIR cameras, if you can afford them, also have false positives with reflective surfaces and residual heat signatures.
Then there are common sense safety issues. Many ghost hunters like to investigate deteriorating old buildings, which present dangers in bright daylight, let alone hazards hidden in darkness.
Orbs, ectoplasm, vortices, and other photographic effects:
It amazes me that 10 years after the most popular ghost hunting TV show explained orbs are airborne particles, there are still paranormal investigators who go into people’s homes, declaring orbs are paranormal. The orb craze gained traction after the popularity of early digital cameras. While it is possible to capture orbs with 35 mm cameras, it is far less common. The point and shoot digital cameras had a greater depth of field compared to 35mm cameras, because of a smaller focal distance, and with the flash source closer to the lens, it made capturing airborne particles much easier. Despite explanations from camera manufacturers, professional photographers and videographers and mountains of experiments demonstrating how orbs are photographed and videoed, there are those with an agenda, who cling to and promote the false notion they are proof of the paranormal.
Some argue dust or moisture can’t “move that way”. Well, yes it can and it does. The air is not static. Even without an obvious source like an open door or window, there are air currents. Some are caused by change in air pressure, humidity, or the difference between temperature on the inside versus the outside of the building. Even if we could rule out currents, there is Brownian motion to consider. Air is a mixture of gases. If a larger particle (such as a dust particle) collides with a large set of smaller particles (molecules of a gas) which move with different velocities in different random directions, it can change direction.
Others argue they have seen orbs with their own eyes. As explained above, there are faults visual perception. But even if an orb is visible, it is a huge leap of logic to conclude it is the spirit of a dead person or anything paranormal. There are other natural explanations to consider first. For example, despite it being a rare phenomena, I know a few people, each at a different location, who witnessed ball lightning indoors.
Another common misidentification in photos are “ghost mists”, AKA ectoplasm. These can easily be replicated by breath, cigarette smoke, ground fog, humidity or dust. Some have argued with me that they were inside a building, so it couldn’t be cold enough. This is false. I have been in plenty of buildings (including the same ones in some arguments) that get cold enough to produce breath mists. Even if you don’t see it with the naked eye, the camera can. Incidentally, ectoplasm is a term manufactured by mediums during the spiritualist movement. Mediums would hide cheesecloth or gauze (or in some cases, swallow it) and produce it during a seance. Even though ectoplasm was debunked at the time, over a century later, some people still believe in it.
Thanks to popular paranormal shows, bleached out photos of hair have become known as energy vortices. Never mind that energy vortices have yet to be proven and these photos are easily recreated with hair, thread, string, spider webs, etc., there are still ghost hunting groups promoting them as something paranormal.
In my opinion, those who still promote orbs and other explainable photographic “anomalies”as paranormal, are either supporting an agenda (like profitable ghost tours or TV shows) or are so desperate to have “proof” that they abandoned common sense for wish fulfillment.
While it makes for dramatic entertainment to have someone walk in, roll their eyes back, and claim, “There’s a presence here”, it doesn’t do a thing to further paranormal research. First off, there is already the assumption there is ghost at the site, or else ghost hunters wouldn’t be there. Secondly, there is no way to validate a psychic’s “hits” during an investigation. Are they truly in communication with the “other side”, or, as has been duplicated by mentalists, magicians, psychologists and a philosophy professor I know, is it a product of cold reading? In today’s search engine world, it is too easy for anyone to access prior information about a location and its owners. A psychic’s ability, even if genuine, is too subjective to be considered evidence.
This leads into another unsubstantiated notion: that someone can “clear” a house of paranormal activity or convince a ghost to “move on”. Again, there is no objective way of validating this. While some have claimed activity stopped after a so-called cleansing, many others have reported their situation became worse afterwards. Not long ago, there was a client who thought they had a negative entity, thanks to “signs” promoted on some paranormal TV shows: headaches, fatigue, moodiness, trouble concentrating, etc. The client had a team come in to cleanse the home, and not surprisingly, it didn’t work. Finally, a team who looks for rational explanations came in and found there was a faulty furnace that was causing a build up of fumes – which cause the same symptoms as a supposed negative presence. Professionals were called, furnace fixed, no more “signs” of an entity plaguing the family.
If we truly want to help people, as so many paranormal investigators claim, then we should do so with something that can be backed up with objective, verifiable information instead of something that could mislead them, ignore a real danger (as described above) or feed a troubled mind, making a situation worse.
Ovulus, spirit boxes, flashlight “communication”:
There are a lot of gadgets out there that are used to supposedly communicate with the dead. The problem with them is they are highly subjective, with priming and suggestibility increasing the misinterpretation of “hits”. To me, they are high tech versions of an Ouija board. The Ovulus and other such gadgets are not magic. They are random word generators built using an algorithm. Since they are designed for ghost hunters, and even the makers say they are “for entertainment only” it is not surprising that overzealous investigators find seemingly relevant words.
Spirit boxes and “Shack Hacks” are manipulated radios. There is no scientific evidence that ghosts, if they exist, can anticipate radio broadcasts and manipulate them to communicate. Again, this is a highly subjective methodology, with priming and suggestibility heavily influencing what people perceive. A while back, I attended a session hosted by a well-known TV demonologist. Even though he said he didn’t put stock in these devices, he clearly encouraged the group when they thought they got relevant words. The word “soldier” came up a couple of times. We were in a train terminal where soldiers were transported during WWII, so they thought this”proved” a ghostly soldier was trying to communicate. I argued that since it was Memorial Day Weekend, the probability of the word “soldier” being said on the radio was quite high. (I did not win any popularity points for this.) Even if a word or phrase is clearly heard, it is impossible to prove it came from a ghost, especially using a machine designed to pick up radio.
Another entertaining method to communicate with the dead is using manipulated flashlights. This became popular after a TV show (which is edited) featured it. Again, it’s highly subjective. Many ghost hunters seem to focus on the 1 “hit” out of 10 questions, ignoring the 9 misses. More importantly, scientific experiments have shown thermodynamics are behind the flashlight coming on and off. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqNwGeXTQJk So even if a manipulated flashlight going on “by itself” seems to correlate with specific questions, again, it’s impossible to prove a ghost is behind it, especially when there is a scientific explanation that can be demonstrated.
Many ghost hunters use EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors, ion detectors, Geiger counters, etc. to “detect” ghosts. No one knows what ghosts, if they exist, are comprised of, nor how they interact with the environment (or even if they are able to). Many ghosts hunters do not fully understand how these various gadget work, or fully understand the fields they are designed to measure, or what can cause false positives. For example, EMF detectors, a favorite among ghost hunters, can also pick up radio frequencies including ELFs (extremely low frequencies). Moving metal, static electricity, our own natural biological fields can also generate a “hit”. I get a kick out of groups who turn off all the power in a building so there are no fields. Yet, they use cameras, recorders, various gadgets, which all throw off EMFs. Not to mention EMFs are not static, they bounce around. They don’t honor boundaries, so something outside of the location can create a spike. And again, even if someone knowledgable picks up an “anomalous” reading, how can they prove it was due to a ghost? As I’ve said before, it is a huge leap in logic to conclude something we don’t have an immediate explanation for is a disembodied spirit of a dead person.
Cheap recorders and poor recording techniques:
As I’ve said in an article I wrote for The Bent Spoon Magazine, “EVP and the Voice of Reason“, there are too many factors for me to accept people are recording voices from beyond the grave. However, I recognize EVP (electronic voice phenomena) is the favorite “evidence” for ghost hunters and very few are going to be convinced to let go of it. So instead, I encourage investigators to at least do everything possible to reduce false positives. The truth is, it takes more time, money and effort. While I understand not everyone has a big budget put aside for their ghost hunting, it is frustrating to witness teams skimp on the time and effort, which are free.
Inexpensive recorders produce false positives due to their poor frequency response and low sample rates. So ambient noise is even more prone to sounding like a voice or word. Lower-end recorders also have poor shielding, so they can be affected by radio frequencies or pick up static from other electric devices. I advise those who are serious about EVP to invest in higher-end recorders, if possible. I also advise to invest in more than one because of acoustics and how the microphones pick up sound. What one picks up on one side of the room might sound differently on the other side of the room, so what may sound like a voice or whisper can be crossed referenced. Let me share an example of how sound resonates differently in the same room: during one investigation, two of us were sitting in the center of a room in a very large building. We suddenly heard footsteps running up the stairs and quickly went to see who there. The third investigator, who was sitting against the wall by a window, thought we lost our minds. He heard the ka-thunk, ka-thunk of a skateboarder zipping by on the sidewalk (who he saw as well). But the way it reverberated in the center of the room sounded exactly like someone on the stairs – and it recorded that way as well.
One of the worst ways to use recorders is often seen on TV ghost hunting shows: holding it and walking around with it while recording. This is one of the best ways to create false positives. The mics pick up the investigator’s breath, the movement of their clothes as they walk, the sound of their hands rubbing agains the recorder, etc. The best way to reduce these issues is to set a recorder down a few feet away, and have investigators sit still during a session. I personally encourage to have as few investigators as possible in the room, and instead utilize video to monitor the location and use as cross reference if something odd comes up on playback. You would be surprised upon video review of how many “EVPs” turn out to be from investigators shifting positions, scratching an itch, yawning, etc.
Another technique I learned from Midwest Preternatural Research is controlled silence. They spend at least 30 minutes recording the ambient sound of each room they are going to investigate. Yes, it takes time out of the more fun “Is anybody here with us?” part of the EVP session, but it provides necessary data to use as cross reference.
A common mistake investigators make is priming and influencing others when they present their “evidence”. When you label an EVP “female voice saying help me”, you primed your audience to hear exactly that. There have been studies where researchers primed subjects to hear specific words or even phrases in white noise, and many of the subjects indeed heard them. In order to get more objective reviews, it is more constructive to just label it “possible anomaly – what do you hear?” and ask people to give their answers in private messages, as to not influence each other. When investigators post in this manner, they more often get varied responses, demonstrating how subjective the EVP technique is.
Being snap-happy with cameras:
I don’t know how many investigations I’ve been on where people just randomly point and shoot their cameras, without any methodology or protocols whatsoever. Then they get upset when skeptics don’t take their photos seriously. Just like EVPs, it takes much more time and effort to get the most benefit from taking pictures on an investigation.
Like recorders, the better the camera, the lesser the chance for false positives and misidentification due to poor resolution. But even with the priciest camera, without implementing some basic protocols, you are wasting your time.
First off: control shots. Take well-lit shots of every area you are going to investigate. Cover every angle, wall, ceiling and floor. This ensures you capture every surface for cross-reference for your pictures during the investigation as well as video you record. You will be surprised how many surfaces can reflect light and cause a seemingly paranormal glow. But by referencing the surfaces and angles, many mysteries are soon cleared up.
Invest in a good tripod. This reduces the chances for blurring, light streaks, shadowing etc. On one of my first investigations, I was using a cheaper camera without a tripod, so even though I was taking several pictures from the same spot, the slight movement between each picture made it look like a shadow was growing. Take a series of comparison shots. If you have a claim of an apparition in a particular spot, take a series of at least 5 – 7 shots versus one click. Adjust the tripod higher and repeat. Adjust the tripod lower and repeat. Move the tripod from a different angle and repeat the previous steps. If there is a weird blob in only one picture in a series caught in the same conditions, that would be of more interest that one shot taken randomly. I’m not suggesting it means you caught a ghost, but it would be something interesting to investigate further.
Practice with your camera outside of investigations, in various conditions. This will help you become familiar with, and recognize common things often mistaken for anomalies.
This should be obvious, but know where other investigators are at all times and plan your photo session accordingly. (This is why I strongly encourage video surveillance.) I don’t know how many times I caught a shadow or an “unexplained” light that really was from someone not following directions and wandering off aimlessly.
Accepting the history and claims of a location at face value:
There have been several examples of investigators doing their own in-depth research into the background of famous “haunted” locations and finding the history presented and stories associated with ghostly claims have been either manipulated or outright fabricated. This has caused some discontent in the paranormal community for some who didn’t like their illusions challenged. To be fair, sometimes the owner is just passing on what they’ve been told. But in many cases, the stories crop up as a business opportunity. One example in my area is an old hotel, complete with a ghostly soldier. It’s been featured on TV and is a hot spot for local ghost hunters. However, the former owner’s daughter has been known to say it’s all nonsense and her family, in all the years they ran the hotel, never had any paranormal experiences. I have been to a few well-known haunted locations and heard the very same stories on the tours that have been presented on TV, only to later learn they weren’t true. On the other hand, there was a private case where an owner told us someone had been murdered at the location. The story was pretty cliche, so I admit I had some doubts, but I contacted the county historian who confirmed it happened. If we call ourselves paranormal investigators, more of us need to do actual investigating, which includes fact checking.
During a training session for my former team, the lead officers conducted an experiment on claims and expectations. We brought our team to a location, told them the actual claims reported by the client, but also made up a claim about a murdered little girl. Not surprisingly, some of our members claimed to hear a voice of a little girl, and others saw shadows about the size of a little girl. When we told them there was never any murdered little girl at the location, they weren’t thrilled with us, but it did demonstrate to them the power of suggestion and how it influences what we think we see or hear.
SO… after we ditch some of these things that haven’t been working for us as paranormal investigators, how do we move forward? In my opinion, it is by changing the common approach to investigating. Many ghost hunters use scientific terminology and science-y gadgets, but fail to apply scientific methodology. A lot of paranormal investigators go into a case assuming there are ghosts, and try to find evidence of them. But in order to benefit both the clients who call for assistance and to contribute to valid research of paranormal claims, we should instead be challenging our own assumptions and beliefs and look for rational causes first. We need to study and explore environmental, physiological and psychological factors that can contribute to seemingly paranormal experiences. When something is out of our scope of education or experience, we need to solicit the help of experts in relevant fields. Finding natural causes may reduce our “evidence” to present from an investigation, but it is a positive thing for the field, because we all learn from it and can apply it to future cases. Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I’d like to add it requires extraordinary effort. To satisfy science, only after we’ve exhausted all natural possibilities can we consider something paranormal. And if that day ever comes, what a remarkable payoff it will be.