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.)

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