Ghost Hunting: What’s Important?

Ghost hunting means something different to every investigator.  It’s natural to expect others to think like you about this research.  You want them to be on your same wavelength… and maybe they are, pretty much.  However, no two people will feel exactly the same about every single aspect of ghost hunting.  Those aspects include:

  • Why you research ghosts and haunted places.
  • The evidence that you’re looking for… what you’ll excitedly tell others about, after the investigation.
  • The evidence that impresses you less.
  • The kinds of locations you like to investigate:  Battlefields, haunted residences and businesses, legendary sites (Salem Witch Trial sites, Bell Witch locations, the Myrtles Plantation, the Falstaffs Experience, etc.), cemeteries, abandoned hospitals and factories, etc.
  • The amount of time you’ll dedicate to one location, and how you prioritize your research when you’re there.
  • The size of your team and the skills of your team members.

These differences make each of us distinct, and uniquely able to contribute different evidence — and how we analyze it — to the field of ghost research, and paranormal studies in general.

Accepting those differences can be a challenge.  We all want to feel understood and supported in our respective research efforts.  This can be a very stressful field. It’s practically part of the job description.

Those of us experimenting with “what if..?” questions and research methods expect to be challenged, not just by eerie phenomena and anomalous discoveries, but by others in the field.  We’re not oblivious to the fact that some of our work looks a little odd.

Worse, we generally want to confirm our studies with years of supporting evidence, before presenting our theories.  In the interim, as we’re relatively quiet about our results — and sometimes ridiculed by those who don’t have our insights — it’s easy to have second thoughts about the “test pilot” roles we’ve adopted.

So, when looking at what others are doing, it may be important to suspend judgment or even disbelief.  A few factors can help you decide:

  • Is the person looking for attention?  If, from the start, the person has needed approval and attention from others on the team — in a distracting way — that’s a warning sign.  On the other hand, if the person seems to be happy enough, working quietly on his (or her) own, that can be a positive sign, depending on the circumstances.  (A person quietly testing incense as a “white noise” factor in visual anomalies can be a good thing.  A person who has to use a sage smudge at every site… not so good.)
  • Does the researcher have a track record for discovering things (that can be verified, impartially) that are unique and useful?  After all, someone had to be the first to try recording EVP, or measuring EMF anomalies.
  • Does the researcher generally adhere to consistent research standards and practices?  A one-time anomalous observation isn’t “proof” of anything. If it seems to happen eight times out of ten at a haunted site… that’s worth testing further.

However, no matter how the person rates in those terms, one factor outweighs them all:  Is the researcher honest?

That’s not just about the work he or she is doing, but about his or her life, in general.  Without credibility as a foundation, no research theories or results can be taken seriously.

There can be no “white lies” in paranormal research.

That’s not just about research-related claims (like inflated CVs related to ghost hunting experience) but also liability issues:

  • A researcher with a chronic theft or shoplifting problem is a risk if you’re investigating homes and businesses. (This issue is rare. I’ve only heard about it second-hand.)
  • A researcher who talks, hugs, and touches inappropriately — on ghost hunts and elsewhere — can’t be part of your team. He certainly can’t be trusted in the dark. (Some of us had to deal with this in 2009. That guy still pretends to be a ghost expert, and participates in ghost hunting events.)
  • A team member who insists she’s always sober during investigations, but keeps showing up unsteady on her feet, and rambling when you need silence for EVP recordings. She can be a liability on many levels. (Always watch for this, even with long-time team members. Everyone hits a difficult time in life. Some self-medicate to get through it.)

Those issues can extend into mental health areas, and it’s something team members need to be sensitive to.

But, at the core of our work, honesty is essential. It’s basic to genuine respect, within this field and among the public.

Mutual respect is equally important.  Once the professional slurs seep in, and reactive, defensive walls come up, we’ve lost important ground in this field.  Be aware of your biases, even when they seem well-founded.

EVP is controversial.  We know that EVP is fraught with credibility issues.  And, so far — EVP isn’t my strong suit.  The fact that I rarely get good recordings at even the most haunted sites… that doesn’t disprove EVP as a viable research tool.

As an example of someone working with extreme EVP techniques, see what John Sabol is doing.  For years, his unique and flamboyant research methods have raised eyebrows.  I was impressed from the start, but I’ve heard and read several unfair — and sometimes snide — comments about his work.

John now has a track record that’s earned him respect, and he’s invited to speak at ghost- and archaeology-related events, worldwide.  But, even within paranormal research, many people have never heard of John and his work. That’s a glaring omission, and a symptom of a larger problem in this field.

Real-time communication is controversial, especially non-standard techniques such as loosening the light bulb connection in a flashlight, on-the-fly EVP analysis, and tools such as a Frank’s Box.  I’ve seen all three work, convincingly, over and over again.

I’ve also seen (and heard) results where I blink and think, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

That doesn’t mean these tools and techniques aren’t valid.  Until we can standardize and refine our research methods, results must be evaluated by people who were there, and on a case-by-case basis.

Often, our conclusions are the result of the aggregate experience at a location.  It’s difficult to convey that context to someone who wasn’t there at the time.

Sometimes, when I’m trying to explain why some minute anomaly interests me, I’m reminded of when I try to tell jokes. (I’m terrible at jokes.)  As I describe flat-out weird anomalies, I find myself steadily saying, “Oh. Wait. I forgot to tell you…” And then I explain about the shadow figure.  Or the voice that the team recorded simultaneously on three different voice recorders, though no one heard anything like it in real life.

Ghost photos are still controversial, too.  I’ve steadily maintained that they can’t be the sole evidence on which you build your case for something paranormal.  And, I’ll admit that, for years, I was skeptical of most “orb” photos I’ve been shown.  Until I spent six years studying what I thought could cause false photographic anomalies, I dismissed the majority of orbs as reflections, moisture, and dust.

Mosquito at Portsmouth South Street cemetery.
Mosquito, not a fairy.

Not quite ghost hunting:  I’m receiving more “fairy” and “alien” photos from concerned ghost hunters.  The pictures are charming, and I hate to spoil people’s fun, but bugs are commonplace at many research sites.  It’s key to know what they look like in photos.

At right, that’s a mosquito. It’s one of many bug-related photos I took, deliberately, as part of my six-year study of photographic anomalies.

Is that kind of photo always an insect?  I’m not sure.  So far, I can easily create fake fairy and alien photos, but it’s a mistake to think that — just because something can be faked, easily — it’s always a fake.

My best tip for recognizing when bugs might be an issue at an outdoor investigation:  Regularly check streetlights near the research site.  If you see insects flying around them, you’ll probably see insects in your photos, as well.

However, I was dismayed when I was reading articles at a respected website — preparing to link to some of them — and I stumbled onto a dismissive phrase, “mere photos,” regarding evidence related to ghosts and haunted places.

I understand how that happens.  Defending what makes your own research unique, it’s easy to slight others’ research.   It can be unconsciously done, or it might be deliberate to align yourself (or attract supporters) who share that skepticism, whether it’s related to a specific researcher’s work, or a general category (such as ghost photos or EVP or EMF anomalies).

We need to become more aware of that easy habit — or misguided networking effort — especially as we expand into “what if…?” areas of paranormal research.

When you’re ghost hunting, it’s important to set goals and focus on them.

Your goals will determine what’s important to you.  Whether you’re at a haunted site for personal experience, to help a client, or to help a spirit, know your goals.

And then, keep improving yourself as a researcher, not to become better than everyone else, but to contribute expertise and theories to the ghost hunting field.

My advice

  • Know your own areas of expertise.   Even after 30 years of intensively studying ghost-related fields, I’m still an amateur in some aspects of paranormal research.  For example, when it comes to cryptozoology, I defer to Robin Pyatt Bellamy. Demons?  I refer people to John Zaffis and Pete Haviland, among others.
  • Know what you don’t really know.  If you haven’t done first-hand research, but you’re accepting the advice of experts (including me), test that advice yourself.  Trust no one.  Their information may be second-hand, it might be erroneous, or it might be correct.  Test everything.
  • Take time time to fill in your education gaps, when you can.  That’s especially important when only a handful of people have studied closely (and scientifically) one ghost hunting specialty.  If 100 people have carefully studied and analyzed data related to a paranormal topic, and posted (or published) that information so others can benefit from it, that’s good.  Updated studies are always useful.  However, if only two or three or even five people have studied something ghost-related and shared their results, and it appeals to you… please make that a high priority for your own research.
  • Share what you’ve learned.  Be clear about the areas in which you’ve exhaustively studied ghost hunting tools, methods, and phenomena.  Be equally clear when you’re making “educated guesses” about your findings. (And, the fact is, almost everything in ghost hunting is still an educated guess.)

Ghost Hunting, Archaeology, and tDAR

Ghost hunting and archaeologyExperienced ghost hunters routinely check the history of the areas where they’re investigating.  When it’s a new house that’s haunted,  I look for what was there before the house was built.

In the Americas, when it’s a truly weird haunting — a candidate for another Amityville horror story — we look for really early history, usually Native, early Colonial, battleground, or pioneer records.

If the home has a geographically advantageous placement — such as a hill or a site with panoramic views — the history is likely to include a Native community or a burial gound.  More recently, I may find that an early American fort or outpost was there.  In the Americas, an early community or a fort can connect with one or more incidents of broad-scale violence at or near the site.

In the UK, the history of haunted location may be surprising, as well.  The Falstaff’s Experience at Tudor World — one of England’s most haunted sites, and the strangest I’ve investigated in the UK — is in a building with a colorful history involving blood, death, and more than one tragedy that spread across England.  However, the land beneath it (and nearby) has an even older history, with additional reasons why Falstaff’s is home to myriad phenomena. (If you think Stratford-upon-Avon is just about Shakespeare… you haven’t visited the Falstaff’s Experience after dark.)

Until recently, the ghost hunters’ challenge has been finding documentation of that kind of history.  Urban legends aren’t enough, even when there’s supporting anecdotal evidence.

Professional researchers like me want more solid, factual information. That’s where archaeology enters the ghost hunting picture.

John Sabol, a professional archaeologist, and Mary Becker have been impressing many of us with their startling results in ghost excavation research. (If you have an opportunity to watch them work, don’t miss it.)

However, many of us don’t have the advantages of a degree in archaeology, as John has.  We need access to archaeological information… at least enough to give us a guess as to what might have been at the location, and what we can rule out.

That’s when the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) can be among ghost hunters’ most useful resources. However, I’ll warn you: If you’re not a geek about this, and academic research puts you to sleep, that site may disappoint you.  For the rest of us — an admittedly small group — it’ll make your pulse race.

At tDAR, you can search for the history of your target location and its surroundings.  At a glance, you can see what time periods have been explored with archaeological digs, what they were looking for and what they found.  The map feature shows you whether the reference is related to your location or not, and you can focus your database search with exact GPS coordinates.

Though the actual records may not be at the tDAR site, you’ll know exactly what to look for at public and university libraries.  In many cases, those libraries have online catalogues, with notations about whether that book or report is in the library, or if it’s been checked out.

Thus is a huge step forward for aggressive and conscientious ghost investigators.

Over the past 20+ years, my paranormal investigations moved from “ooh, what’s that noise?” to in-depth research with historical documentation and geographical references.  Today, before I even visit a site, I’ve spent a full day with databases and maps, plus two or more days taking notes from dusty history books.  Stories and uncertain spectral encounters aren’t enough for me.

tDAR is the kind of tool you’ll use if you delve deeply into paranormal research.  As ghost hunters, we need historical resources that take our reports beyond “well, it might be….” to “here’s solid evidence to explain the history of what’s going on here.”

The majority of ghost hunters investigate to confirm activity at a site.  Many homeowners only need to hear, “No, you’re not imagining things.  Strange things really are going on, here.”  They’re happy to hear that, and the research team has enough other cases to deal with.  They don’t have the time or interest to dig deeply into why the house is haunted.  If the homeowner says something about someone dying there, a century ago, or a cemetery that used to be across the street… that’s good enough.  You don’t need to conduct more research at or about that site.

On the other hand, if you remain in this field long enough to want far more from ghost hunting and paranormal research, tDAR may be the academic and historical tool you need.

If You Really Want to Be on a Paranormal TV Show

I avoid TV shows, but most people aren’t as reclusive as I am. So, here’s what you need to know.

One of the main resources for media exposure is Help a Reporter Out, aka “HARO.”

Remember, those listings are not screened or verified. You could be talking to some creepy guy with no media connections at all.

Never give out personal contact information unless you have confirmed the person’s professional references.  Call the network, production company, or publisher to verify the contact information for that person.

Got a job offer? Get everything in writing.  I’ve admitted (with embarrassment) that I worked for a TV show for about two months.  When they contacted me, they told me — up front, in email — exactly what I’d get paid for my work.  The pay was confirmed in a follow-up phone call. (It was $500 per lead, plus $500 for each of my leads they included in the show.)

I did the work they needed. Then, they didn’t pay me.

The lesson?  Get a contract in writing, on paper.  Make sure it’s very specific about what you’re expected to do, for how much money, and exactly when you’ll be paid.

(By the way, this was the same TV show that — when the producers cancelled it — they told the stars via email. Totally heartless and sleazy.)

Know the risks.  Another producer offered me a part on a new TV show.  She said it was going to be a serious, academic show.

The production company bought my plane ticket, said they’d reserved an upscale hotel room for me, and promised I’d have a full-time chauffeur during the filming.

Everything seemed ideal.

Then, right before I got on the plane, someone on the production crew blundered.  She told me the show’s real name. It was far from academic.

After that, I learned that the “upscale” hotel was on the edge of a neighborhood I avoid after dark. (That might be okay if I was only filming during daytime hours. But, really, it was a ghost hunting show. Of course I’d be returning to the hotel after dark.)

I cancelled.

So, make sure your contract says exactly which show you’re being filmed for.  Don’t give the production company (or the network) free rein to use your interview or appearance in any show they like.

Listen to the producers’ questions. 

  • Are they too eager to believe your story?  Suspect false sincerity.
  • Are they fishing for drama where they wasn’t any?  It’s one thing to build a good story that engages viewers.  It’s another to turn your experience into something far more extreme (and ridiculous) than it was.
  • Are they digging for something to discredit you, or portray you ?  Of course, producers want to avoid guests that could be a liability.  However, many producers are convinced that most paranormal encounters are caused by drugs, alcohol, extreme stress, or mental illness.  They may portray you (and your genuine ghostly encounter) in that context.  Make sure you’re okay with that.

Jason Gowin (from Extreme Paranormal) said this after his confidentiality agreement had expired:

Realize that nothing you do on television will be safe from manipulation… Rest assured, you are there to make money for them, not be a beacon of integrity. [Link]

Pay attention to your gut feeling.  If something doesn’t seem right, maybe it isn’t.

Don’t expect fame for yourself or your paranormal investigating team.  Most TV shows avoid guests who might profit from a TV appearance. Producers may edit out anything that might help your career, boost your income, or reveal the name of your ghost hunting team.  Expect that.

A paycheck is not guaranteed.  The producers’ (and the networks’) explanation is: A paid appearance could be misunderstood as a performance.

Many TV shows will get around this by offering to pay for your travel expenses and give you a “per diem” to cover additional out-of-pocket costs.

The per diem could barely cover meals from McD’s dollar menu.  Or, the per diem might pay for a nice big TV, to watch yourself later, when you’re on the show.  Generally, producers won’t tell you how much the per diem will be. Expect a tiny per diem, and hope to be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re going to be a cast member on a series, make sure you earn enough to cover your monthly bills.

I have a firm policy of not asking friends how much they earn from their shows.  I don’t want to know.  I already feel sorry for how much privacy they’ve given up, and how much they’re away from their families.

  • According to rumors, many stars earned a low four-figures, per episode, working seven days a week and 10- to 12-hour days.
  • I’ve heard that supporting cast members (not the two or three stars) earned about $500/episode. I hope I’m wrong about that.

You can be on TV if you really want to be.

If you’ve read this far, you probably think fame is worth the risks.

The first thing to consider is your strategy. Sometimes it’s easy to get on ghost-related TV shows. Sometimes, it’s easier to get on another kind of TV show, and use that as a credential to get on the show you want.  That’s why you’ll look at opportunities far beyond paranormal shows.

Start with the following resources.

Resources

I recommend HARO lists (linked above) and sites like RealityWanted.com (Sites like that appear and disappear rapidly. If you’re not dealing directly with the network, always be sure you’re talking with a reputable company.)

Also check network-specific webpages, such as casting calls for SyFy, MTV, ABC, VH1, TLC, HGTV, BBC (UK).

(You never know when a network will take an interest in paranormal programming.  I recall an episode of a food-related TV show where people competed by preparing ghost-themed cakes… and a real paranormal investigator was among the judges.)

You may find even more casting calls at production companies’ websites, such as Pilgrim (Ghost Hunters, etc.)

References

Get advice from experts.  Don’t leap into this field unprepared!  You may have just one chance to be on (or pitch) the show of your dreams.  Get it right the first time.

  • The 2006 book, Get on TV, is still one of the most popular books on this subject.  It’s not specifically about reality shows. It teaches you how to build a career by being on a wide range of TV shows.  If being a TV star has been your life-long goal, this book is worth reading.
  • If you’re interested in reality TV and you’d like to be a guest, a star, a producer or a writer, you’ll want to read Reality TV: An Insider Guide to TV’s Hottest Market.  This 2011 book gives you a good overview plus specific advice, and earns rave reviews from people in the industry.
  • This next book is by the winner of Big Brother 10 (U.S.), Dan Gheesling:  How to Get On Reality TV.  And, since it’s a Kindle book, you can download and read it immediately.

There are other books about this subject, but those look most useful.

Previous, related articles:

So…You Want to Be on TV?

Apparently, a lot of aspiring ghost hunters and ghost hunting teams still want to be on reality TV shows, especially ghost-related reality shows.

I’ve been offered more shows than I can count, and I’ve turned all of them down.

(Update: I was a guest on just one show. It was filmed in 2012.  I decided I really ought to see if TV was as bad as I thought. I wasn’t impressed. My contract prevents me from saying which show it was. They didn’t even tell me when the episode aired in August 2013, and again in October. Isn’t that weird? You’d think they’d want me to tell my friends and fans to watch it.)

Yes, I’m kind of an anomaly in this field. I don’t want to be a TV star. Even as a little kid, I never once said, “When I grow up, I want to be on TV.”

For those who do want to become a star, these are my best tips:

Have a haunted house or business?

Shows may be looking for you.  Check casting calls (linked below). They often include calls for locations, too.

Want to meet TV stars?

Some people want me to to introduce them to TV stars, hoping that connection will lead to fame & fortune.

Yes, I know most (not all) stars of 21st century paranormal TV shows.

However, I don’t provide introductions. You can meet TV stars at conferences & events. Go to the stars’ websites and see when they’ll be appearing in your area.

For ghost hunters, paranormal investigators and ghost-hunting teams

Here’s the surest way to become a star in the paranormal field: Build a respected reputation.

I can practically promise you: TV shows will find you, even if your phone number is unlisted, and even if you’ve said clearly — as I have — that you don’t want to be in front of the camera.

In addition, many TV shows — new ones and shows already in production — have open casting calls.

Start anywhere.

You might appear on one show that’s unrelated to ghosts, and make a connection that leads to appearances on paranormal shows. If the audience like you, that may be the only credential you’ll need.

If your dream is to be on a reality TV show, here are some links to find out who’s casting for current shows, including some with paranormal themes:

If you want to be on a specific TV show, use the name of the show plus “casting calls” at any search engine. (Remember, many established TV shows go through agents rather than offer open casting calls.)

Fan sites can be helpful, too. Of course, be very careful about posting your contact info at any forum or website.*

Some people find casting calls on Craigslist or Facebook. (For example, Vampire Diaries has issued open casting calls via Facebook.) Of course, double- and triple-check every listing, and never go alone to a casting call you find on social media or a Craigslist-type site.

You’ll also find websites dedicated to casting calls for reality TV shows; some are better than others. One is RealityWanted.com (that link leads to video interviews with casting staff).

So, if your goal in life is to be on a reality TV show, you may be able to achieve that. I don’t recommend it, but the resources listed above may be helpful.

Important: I grew up around celebrities and I’ve lived & worked in Hollywood. My opinions are based on my experiences in and around high-profile fields.

I respect people who are willing to appear on TV, but it’s not a career I’d recommend to friends.

Before you decide to pursue a career on reality TV, read my critical articles and listen to my related podcasts. The following are just a few at this website.

Photo credit: Michal Zacharzewski, Poland (SXC)

*I routinely delete contact information from people’s comments, to avoid liability risks. Please don’t attempt to post any “please, cast me!” comments at this site.

Talking About Ghosts – Checklist

For many years, I’ve spoken to groups of all ages, kinds and sizes. It’s a delight to tell people about this field.

I’ve learned a lot about what to say (and what not to say) and when to say it. I hope this checklist helps you when you’re asked to speak in public, too.

Remember: You don’t have to include everything from this list.  It’s a guideline to make presentations easier.

CHECKLIST

1. Introduction

  • Your name (or the name you use for this work) and where you are from.
  • How long you have been involved in paranormal research.
  • Why you began this research.
  • If you have a specialty, what it is and why it is important to this research.

2. About your team (if you are part of one)

  • Name of your team, where it is based, and the area you cover.
  • How long your team has been researching.
  • Introduce team members by name and specialties, if they are with you.
  • What services you provide to the public (investigations, training, talks like this one) and how much — if anything — you charge.

3. The tools you use

  • Hold up each tool and explain what it is called, what it does, and how often you use it in your work.
  • Describe what you have brought with you to demonstrate (such as how an EMF meter works) or what you will be presenting (audio, video, a walking tour, etc.).
  • Explain which tools can be used by anyone (hiking compass/EMF meter, flashlight for yes/no, etc.) and which are best for professionals (IR video cameras, Frank’s Box, and so on.)

4. Present your information

  • If you are reporting on one or more investigations:
    • Give an overview first.
    • Explain where you researched, when and why.
    • Describe your experiences floor-by-floor and room-by-room.  (A floor plan or map may help them visualize each encounter.)
    • Tell the audience what “normal” would be, before each recording or demonstration.
    • Demonstrate the research technique or play the recording three times (if it is short) and then ask if anyone has a question about that evidence.
    • Take general questions and discuss specific situations at the end of the talk.
    • If you are telling “ghost stories,” tell people whether they are fictional or your true experiences.
    • Illustrate your stories with photos, recordings and/or drawings.
    • Remember that your audience wants to be entertained.  Use broad gestures, lots of variety in your voice, and so on.
    • If you are taking the group on a walking tour, talk about where you are going, safety concerns, and your general rules (such as when they can ask questions).  Then, lead the tour. (Optional: Organize them in teams of two, so no one gets lost or left behind.)

5. Close the talk

  • Tell them that you have completed your presentation.
  • Ask for questions or comments.  Be sure they understand that there are no firm answers to most questions, and that is why we are still conducting research.
  • Refer the audience to your website, books, events, workshops, etc., for more information.
  • Close with contact information, and distribute any handouts you brought with you.
  • Explain that you have to leave at a certain time (be specific and stick to that) but you are happy to talk with people privately — for a just a few moments — if they have questions.
  • Thank them for attending.
  • Smile when they applaud.
  • Before leaving, thank your host/s and give them a small gift. (A book, a CD of EVP or a general presentation, a “ghost photo” from the location, etc.)

[Thanks to Claudia of Parahunt.com for restoring this.]