Sites – Legal and Illegal

video camera warning to ghost hunters
photo courtesy of Jason Antony and FreeImages.com

In the past, ghost hunters could discreetly slip into haunted sites that weren’t clearly open to the public. If it was public property — or abandoned — and it wasn’t posted, some investigators thought, “Why not?”

I’ve always advised against investigating sites that aren’t clearly open to the public for ghost research.

For example, in New England, Danvers (MA) State Hospital site has been notorious for trespassing, vandalism, and arrests of well-meaning ghost enthusiasts.

It’s one of many locations with eerie reputations, and vigilant security or police patrols.

Like many other locations in isolated spots, it’s easy for police to observe trespassers from a distance. Ghost hunters are at risk as soon as they drive up the road or driveway, or turn on their flashlights. Quite literally, they shed light on their own crimes.

Today, surveillance cameras and other devices — similar to the tools we use in our research — make trespassing even more risky.

The following December 2015 story —  from KUTV (Utah, USA) — is a good example of what can happen if you break the law.

‘Haunted’ Property Owner Asks Trespassers to Keep Out

(KUTV)In Northern Utah, authorities are looking to the public in help finding a few people they want to talk to after vandalism was discovered at a former Catholic retreat believed to be haunted. The pictures are clear, taken from surveillance video a new property owner installed in recent weeks… Despite multiple signs posted on the property – “No Trespassing” and “Keep Out”, threatening fines and jail time for violators, individuals are still coming through the area… In some publications and online sites, the area has been described as a good ghost hunting location, a fun place to take a date and get a thrill, but authorities say this is no laughing matter. (Emphasis added.)

[Click here to read the rest of the article at KUTV’s website.]

That particular location — St. Anne’s, in Logan Canyon — is mentioned at many websites, including credible YouTube videos, as a reliable place to find ghosts. You can even find St. Anne’s ghost story at otherwise-trustworthy websites like the Weird US site.

This is why you must investigate site accessibility, even before you decide if a location might be haunted enough to explore.

If you don’t, or if you choose to risk getting caught, the quality of surveillance footage — day or night — can be good enough to convict you.

Don’t expect to see warning signs.

Don’t waste your time looking for the cameras, either. They can be tiny or well-concealed in hollowed-out tree branches or fence posts.

Ghost hunting might not be as popular as it once was, but modern surveillance equipment has become inexpensive and easy to use. Many locations are using it to detect trespassers, and fine them for vandalism they might be responsible for.

In the case of the Utah ghost hunters, that’s a $10,000 door that someone had kicked in.

(Really, if you’re facing a jury and trying to explain that, yes, you did trespass, but no, you didn’t damage anything, do you expect them to believe you? Is ghost hunting worth that risk?)

Trespassing can be a felony in some American communities. Jail time can be as much as a year, and fines can be as high as $4,000 per person, at the discretion of the judge.

If you’re an American convicted of a felony, you can be denied your right to vote in the U.S. You can also be denied travel to some other countries, including Canada and parts of Europe. If an employer or landlord runs a background check on you, a felony conviction looks very bad.

Since my earliest articles at Yankee Haunts (mid-1990s) and HollowHill.com, I’ve always focused on haunted locations people can investigate, with permission. Nearly all sites I talk about — at websites, on TV and radio, and in books — are open to the public.

What happened to the kids who were caught in Utah could happen to anyone. Don’t take that chance.

If you’re not sure whether a location is open to the public for ghost investigations:

  • Visit the location and look for signs, or ask the staff (if any) about restrictions.
  • Ask the reference librarian at the local public library, or check with the regional historical society.
  • Stop at the local visitors’ center or chamber of commerce, and verify the location and the hours it’s open to the public.

Of course, I always recommend visiting each haunted site during the daytime, to evaluate it for research and plan your investigation.

But, if that’s not possible, be sure to confirm when the location is open to the public for ghost hunting, and if any fees, rules, or limits apply.

Or, limit your ghost hunting to daytime hours, as well as ghost tours, public ghost hunting events, and ghost vigils.

Haunted Houses and Carbon Monoxide

What does carbon monoxide have to do with a haunted house?

When people contact me about a haunted house, they often say things like:

  • dangers of the paranormal“Sometimes, when I’m in that part of the house, I get shaky, dizzy, and I feel weak all over.”
  • “I get a tightness in my chest, and I can’t catch my breath. Do you suppose the ghost died of a heart attack?”
  • “I’m okay during the day, but at night — especially when it’s cold out — it’s like something floats into my room through the bedroom window, and I can’t breathe.”
  • “The baby gets fussy in that room and seems to be looking at something that I don’t see, and the dog won’t go in there, ever.”
  • “I’m fine all day, but at night, when we close up the house and go to bed, I get headaches, it feels really stuffy in the room, and sometimes I feel kind of sick. I always have to get up and open the window, just to feel the breeze. About an hour or two later, around midnight, everything’s fine again.”

Well, those “symptoms” of a haunting can be caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. That’s why carbon monoxide is now the first thing to check in a house that might be haunted. This is especially true if the ghosts started to be a problem when the house was sealed up for the winter, or — in warm climates — for the summer.

The following is an edited excerpt from the book, Is Your House Haunted?, by Fiona Broome.


Before you do anything else…

Check the carbon monoxide levels at the possibly-haunted site.

Carbon monoxide is nicknamed “the silent killer.” Pets and children often react to it first. Carbon monoxide (CO), also called carbonous oxide, is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. It is highly toxic to humans and animals in higher quantities. It can come from a variety of sources, including gas appliances, woodstoves, car exhaust, blocked flues, and even cigarette smoke.

Some people are more sensitive to carbon monoxide, and may show symptoms before others do.

Any of the following symptoms may indicate high levels of carbon monoxide.

  • Headaches.
  • A tight sensation in the chest.
  • Nausea.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Vomiting.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fatigue.
  • A feeling of weakness.
  • Confusion or disorientation.
  • Visual disturbances.
  • Fainting and seizures.
  • Flu symptoms.
  • Infants may be irritable.
  • Pets can avoid certain areas.

Carbon monoxide can also affect the heart and central nervous system, and raise blood pressure. Carbon monoxide poisoning can damage the fetus of a pregnant woman. Many areas in the UK, the US, and Canada have laws recommending (or even requiring) the use of carbon monoxide detectors in homes. Older homeowners may not realize that. Even if the homeowner has no fireplace or woodstove, and no gas appliances, check the levels anyway.

For example, if a nearby neighbor has a wood stove and you (or the client) sleep with your window open, elevated carbon monoxide could explain some “symptoms” of a haunting.

If you regularly investigate haunted sites, be sure your home has very low levels of carbon monoxide, too. If you’ve been sensitized to the gas, even low levels might trigger your symptoms at a “haunted” site. It could happen. Rule this out, immediately.

When you’re investigating a potentially haunted house and any symptoms match the warning list, carbon monoxide levels must be checked first.

If the homeowner does not have a carbon monoxide detector installed, and you don’t have a handheld monitor, call the fire department for advice.

Note: Before buying a handheld carbon monoxide meter, be sure to read the reviews.

If you’re investigating haunted homes and you can’t afford a good carbon monoxide detector, don’t bother with a cheap one. Either have the homeowner install carbon monoxide detectors in several places in the home — and use them for at least a week before you investigate — or ask the fire department if someone in the community can test the air for the homeowner.

A carbon monoxide meter that works is important. A cheap one that’s not reliable could put you and your client at risk.

So, either use a good detector or have the homeowner or someone else handle that part of the investigation.

Dangers of the Paranormal

dangers of the paranormalFor years, many of us have been warning about dangerous aspects of ghost hunting.  From physical safety to legal issues, and from personal liabilities to spiritual protection, this field has more pitfalls than many hobbies and professions.

In general, the paranormal community can be divided into three groups:

  • Those who know the risks and take appropriate precautions.
  • Those who don’t know the risks, or have only a vague idea, and aren’t as cautious as they might be.
  • Those who see the warning signs (literal and figurative) and ignore them, thinking they’re immune to the risks.

I want to be sympathetic when someone is arrested for ignoring a “no trespassing” sign, or when they go to Vale End (or a similar site) and return home, terrified… a fear that stays with them for years.  I’ve warned about scams and con artists, and sleazy people who like the cover of darkness.

Physical injury and illness aren’t as unusual as I’d like, and — in most cases — the victim never saw the problem coming.

Obviously, experienced professionals usually know the risks and do what they can to minimize them.  Event planners try to organize activities so no one is placed in unnecessary danger.

Trespassing

A wide spectrum of ghost enthusiasts seem to be oblivious to all risks.  I see that in my email in-box, with questions and tales of woe, daily.

But, the symptoms aren’t only in my incoming email.  Looking for good videos to explain issues related to haunted Eloise Insane Asylum in Michigan, I found three videos with the following kind of content.  All were filmed by a group of kids, emulating Ghost Hunters.

First, they filmed the no trespassing sign.  Then, they ignored it and entered the property anyway.

Eloise hospital - No Trespassing sign

Then, they actually captioned portions of their videos, repeatedly proclaiming that they were on private property.

And, even when one of the kids said she was afraid to slip under the fence because she might be arrested, her friends talked her into breaking the law.

  

Okay, they’re 12-year-old kids, so you might ask, “Where were the parents?”

The answer…?  In at least one part of the video, the mom was holding the camera.

I don’t want to single out these kids as if they’re an example of the primary problem.  They’re not.  Adults are doing this kind of thing even more often than kids are.  This group of amateur “ghost hunters” just happened to put their videos online.  (Not a smart move, if someone calls Child Protective Services.)

My point is: Ignoring safety issues is a problem in this field.

Also, the trespassing issue isn’t isolated to this field.  From homeless people seeking shelter to urban explorers, plenty of people ignore “no trespassing” signs.  However, in many cases, they’re constantly aware of the risks.

The “no trespassing” signs are more than legal warnings.  Frankly, many people are let off with a warning, the first time or two that they’re caught… though I wouldn’t want to trivialize trespassing laws.

The bigger issue is what the “no trespassing” signs can indicate.  Often, those signs indicate safety problems.  They might include something as simple (but deadly) as asbestos dust or as urgently perilous as structural damage.  An issue might be toxic waste underground, or a site known for harboring territorial, poisonous snakes.

And, almost all abandoned structures have rodent issues.  I talked about that risk in my earlier podcast about ghost hunting and respiratory risks and my article about ghost hunting and health issues.

Here’s the reason for alarm: With the “no trespassing” signs prominently displayed, many site owners and communities figure they’ll make repairs later, when they have more funds to work with. They (reasonably) assume that the signs will protect an unwary visitor from putting him- or herself at risk.

The problem could be minor or it could be truly dangerous.  “No trespassing” signs rarely go into detail. (When I last checked, the fenced-off area near Gilson Road Cemetery in Nashua, NH, did not explain that it’s a Superfund site.)

But, don’t rely on “no trespassing” signs as warnings.  Sometimes, we’re called into homes and businesses (in use, not abandoned) with significant risks — structural and health issues — as we explore moldy basements and attics with rodent droppings.  So, every researcher needs to be aware of the dangers, as well as precautions to take.

Other dangers in ghost hunting

From blunders with Ouija boards to sleazy people groping team members in the dark, and from cult-like groups to adrenaline addiction, this field can seem like a minefield to the unwary.

The key word is “unwary.”  Once you’re aware of the risks, you can evaluate which you’re okay with and what limits to place on your research.

In the past, I’ve mentioned — and sometimes ranted about — many risks in my articles.  I’ve avoided covering those topics in depth because… well, that’s not the focus of this website.  In the 1990s, I wanted to interest people in ghost hunting.  After Ghost Hunters and other TV shows made my earlier efforts redundant, my articles shifted to education — including my free course — so ghost enthusiasts can get the best results from their investigations.

Also, risks need to be assessed on a site-by-site basis.

It’s one thing to go into a paved, haunted cemetery after dark, when — even though it’s posted — you’ll meet dozens of joggers and dog-walkers cheerfully ignoring the faded “closed at dusk” sign.

It’s quite another to go into an abandoned building, exposed to the elements, presenting a wide range of structural concerns.

So, I rarely go into detail about the dangers you may encounter as a ghost hunter.  Every site presents its own challenges and risks.

Now, a website (by someone else) is dedicated to the dangers of paranormal research.  It’s a topic that needs a central clearinghouse of information, and I’m delighted that someone has taken responsibility for that. Here’s the link:  Dangers of the Paranormal.

Ghost Hunting and Respiratory Risks

biohazardWith the death of Sara Harris, ghost hunting health risks are now in the spotlight.

In my earlier article — written before Sara’s death — I touched on basic health and safety concerns, including respiratory issues and simple steps to reduce your risks.  Today, I’ve had time for a more in-depth study of the problem, and I’ve re-recorded my December 1st podcast — released early because it’s so important — with more comprehensive information. This is a 16-minute podcast.

Remember, I am not a medical professional or doctor and this is not intended as medical advice.  For hantavirus information and recommended protection, here’s a link to the CDC website.  (Scroll down that page to where they recommend N100 masks.)

I’m trying to strike a sensible balance but even one death is too many, so I’d rather lean in the direction of raising excessive concerns, than treat this too lightly.

Points you need to know

  • Airborne risks in dusty locations aren’t news.  Since speculation about “King Tut’s Curse,” people have been concerned about airborne diseases, especially those that have been dormant at locations where bodies may have been stored (including abandoned hospital morgues) or tombs.
  • The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists a wide range of rodent-related diseases, from Hanta to plague to one form of meningitis. Most are spread by “breathing in dust that is contaminated with rodent urine or droppings.”  Just last week, I’d pointed to a large mouse or rat in one ghost hunting video, but I think we’ve all investigated sites where mice and rats had once been (or still are) and they’ve left droppings.
  • Many abandoned hospitals that were described as “insane asylums” were also hospitals for victims of tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases.  Eloise Insane Asylum  (in Michigan, USA) is a good example of this.  Take extra precautions at sites where people have been ill.
  • Surgical masks are usually designed to protect the environment from the wearer, not vice versa.  If you’re buying blue masks, keep this in mind.  Depending on their design, those blue masks usually test between 15% and 80% effective.  The best are designed to filter the smallest particles, and have something at the nose so air isn’t entering and exiting, unfiltered, at the top edge of the mask.
  • Masks usually filter particles, they don’t disinfect anything.  If you have significant health issues leaving you especially vulnerable, or you’re going to extremes, look for military-grade gas masks designed to protect from chemical and biological agents, as well as flu pandemics.  At that level, you’ll achieve maximum protection.
  • Most medical-style masks do not filter out carbon monoxide or other toxic gases.
  • Indoors (with no open windows), setting up an air purifier ahead of time may help if it’s designed to HEPA standards.  (HEPA filters remove more than 99% of airborne particles, usually down to 0.3 microns.)  However, most air purifiers are designed to filter tobacco smoke, pollen, and dust, not chemical or bacterial agents.  Make sure the air purifier removes dust, and choose an air purifier with a CADR rating number at least 2/3 the square footage of the space you need to treat. (So, if it’s a room with 120 square feet, you’re looking for a CADR rating that’s at least 80.)
  • Remember that your hands, hair, and clothing can pick up the same particles you’re trying to avoid with a mask.  Keep your mask on when you shake your hair to dislodge particles, and when you change your clothes.  Disposable gloves — available in bulk from many pharmacies and beauty salon supply stores (like Sally Beauty Supply) — can be helpful when you might have to touch items that put you at risk, or in locations that are coated with dirt or dust.

There is a happy medium (no pun intended) between making ghost hunting so complex and fearful it’s a chore, and being far too casual about health and safety risks.  The precautions you take will vary from person to person, and from one investigation site to another.

Someone investigating in northern Maine and eastern Canada will have very different concerns than someone investigating in Louisiana or an area that’s been affected by flooding.  And, someone with severe allergies or respiratory issues will take different precautions than someone who rarely catches a cold and enjoys exceptionally good immunity.

What I’m adding to my own ghost hunting supplies

  • Basic blue surgical masks, for my own use and for anyone who’s with me that didn’t bring respiratory protection, and a few P95 or N95 masks, just to have them on hand for severe situations that surprise us.
  • I like the looks of WoodyKnows nose filters for discreet, short-term use, since they’re praised by people who use them for allergies.
  • N100 or P100 masks, preferably with the Cool-Flow feature, for hot climates.
  • Disposable gloves, for places where I don’t want to touch anything.  (I have a very low “ick!” threshold.)
  • A more comprehensive HEPA-style breathing mask, in the $30 – $50 price range.  I’m still researching them.
  • A personal air purifier that’s been proved effective in scientific studies.  My choice is the Wein As150mm Ionic Air Purifier.  It’s small and can be worn as a pendant.  As long as it doesn’t interfere with electronic sensing devices or other ghost hunting tools, it’s the kind of thing I’d wear routinely in dusty locations, basements and attics, and abandoned buildings… and when I’m on an airplane.

Ghost Hunting – Health and Safety Issues

Note: I’d prepared this article for the first week of December 2012.  When — on 28 Nov 2012 — I heard about the death of ghost researcher Sara Harris, I decided to publish it early.

Updating this article in 2016, I’ve changed some of the preface, below. I have no idea what happened to Shane Harris and his foundation.

It sounded like Shane Harris and his wife, Sara, visited a derelict home with ghost stories. Plenty of people had investigated that site — including its basement — in the past.

However, Sara returned home with a lung problem, later diagnosed as something she’d contracted at the haunted site. The basement had dust, dirt, and rodent droppings. That’s not unusual in abandoned haunted buildings.

Sara’s health declined, rapidly, and she died within days. That was a shock for many of us.

Her story wasn’t the first I’ve heard about investigation-related respiratory infections, but it is among the worst.

Her widower, Shane Harris, started the Sara Harris Foundation to educate paranormal investigators about issues of health and safety. He also planned to provide masks and first aid kits to ghost hunting teams that can’t afford them.

Respiratory risks are real at some abandoned, derelict, and rodent-infested sites.

In addition, a follow-up article at Paranormal Insider included even more reasons for concern among ghost hunters.

My article (below) barely brushes the surface of the problem. But — in the interest of sharing this information, immediately — I’ve decided to publish it early.

Among ghost hunters, I’ve heard some really scary stories.  They’re not about the ghosts.  They’re about health and safety issues.

This is especially important during the winter, when we’re often investigating indoor locations.  Energy-saving measures — such as doors and windows with weatherstripping, and storm doors and windows — mean less air circulation.  The air isn’t as healthy, especially when someone has “indoor allergies” or environmental sensitivities.

  • Many researchers don’t take allergy medications before an investigation, especially if those medications might affect their alertness.  That can put them more at risk for respiratory distress.
  • Sometimes, a client blames physical phenomena — like dizziness or depression in just one part of the home or business — on ghosts when the actual issue is something environmental, like allergies, off-gassing from new wall-t0-wall carpeting, or oil-based wall paint with high VOCs.  That’s going to affect some investigators on the scene, as well.
  • Are you or team members allergic to pets?  Ask the site owner if he or she has animals in the home or business.  Since people often isolate their pets before an investigation team arrives, it’s a mistake to assume that there are no pets, just because you don’t see or hear them.

Allergies are the tip of the iceberg.

Basements and attics often present safety issues. In at least one case this year, an otherwise healthy investigator was hospitalized with a life-threatening respiratory complaint, after conducting research at a site with rodent droppings.

  • Structural issues – Attic floorboards can be old and unable to support much weight.  Ask the owner before you venture up there.
  • Dust in attics isn’t just an issue when you’re trying to take credible orb photos.  It’s also an allergen for many people.
  • Basements are prone to mold and mildew.  Against cement or stone walls, the problems may not be obvious until someone starts wheezing.
  • In cities and warm climates where cockroaches are a steady problem, remember that it’s not always the insects but their droppings that present the worst respiratory challenges for people with allergies.
  • Histoplasmosis – Bat droppings can put you at risk. It’s not just “bats in the belfry,” but bats (and sometimes birds) in the attic and the basement.  Histoplasmosis can be a serious respiratory disease and a significant threat in some areas.  As it says at Bats and Rabies, “To be safe, avoid breathing dust in areas where there are animal droppings… wear a respirator that can guard against particles as small as two microns.”  Every researcher should have — at the very least — a few simple, paper masks in his or her ghost hunting kit. (However, not all blue medical masks protect at the level you need. Read the label!)
  • If you’re exploring a haunted cave (such as the Bell Witch cave), a mask is an especially good idea, if you’re subject to respiratory issues.
  • Investigating an abandoned hospital?  Some people worry about visiting old tuberculosis hospitals; they’re usually called sanitoriums.  Generally, TB can only be spread from human to human, and only when the contagious person has an active case of the disease.  However, some doctors are now saying that tuberculosis “is spread usually from person to person by breathing infected air during close contact.”  (Emphasis added.)  Should you wear a mask in dusty, abandoned hospitals?  Probably, but not because of TB.  At deserted sites, there’s a greater potential for disease-containing animal and insect droppings.

This isn’t a complete list of the risks involved in exploring old sites, especially those that haven’t been maintained, but it gives you the general idea.

Skip the scrubs, but consider the blue mask, seriously.
Skip the scrubs, but consider the blue mask. Be safe, no matter where you investigate.

With recent reports of ghost investigators becoming ill with life-threatening respiratory issues — and with the death of Sara Harris — we all need to be more aware of the dusty places we visit when we’re looking for ghosts.

You’re probably going to be in the dark, anyway.  Why not wear a mask if there are any reasons to be concerned?

A ten-cent paper mask can help protect your health, reduce your chances of an allergic reaction or asthma,  and — in extreme cases — might save your life.  Get a box for yourself, or your team, and carry some masks with you, no matter where you’re investigating.

Depending on your health concerns, and the environments where you’re researching, stronger protection may be necessary if biological hazards are a very real issue.

However, for the casual researcher visiting sites that may contain irritants, allergens, and significant dust, the basic mask is one that protects you from 2-micron size particles or smaller.  Inexpensive surgical masks are the simplest option, but be sure to read the labels.

(Also see Brian Cano’s comment, below. He makes some very good points.)