Ghost Hunting – Reality v. TV Shows, Revisited

In the early 2000s, ghost hunting TV shows helped many people learn more about paranormal research and haunted sites. That helped this field expand, almost overnight.

However, many viewers were disappointed when they went ghost hunting, themselves.

I’ve talked about this in the past, and – I’ll admit – ranted more than a little. Here are my current thoughts about ghost hunting TV shows.

If you’re busy and you’d like to listen to this instead of reading it, here’s the six-minute recording:

Ghost Hunting – Reality v. TV, revisited

In April 2019, with a new (and different) season of TV shows, Fiona revisited the topic of ghost hunting on television versus what happens in real life. Six-minute recording. Related article: Ghost Hunting TV Shows, Revisited

Recently, a news report confirmed what I’ve been saying… and more concisely (and perhaps with more authority) than I have.

The article is “5 Myths about Reality Television,” and it was in the Washington Post newspaper.

Here’s part of what the article said:

With very few notable exceptions (like “Big Brother”…), most reality television is shot first over a period of days or weeks, then edited. A month in the field could be whittled down to 44 or 22 minutes of action. That way, the audience sees reality stars only in essential moments… Almost nothing airs exactly as it fell into the lens, but the final product is usually more or less what happened.

That’s true about many (not all) ghost hunting TV shows. A typical one-hour episode might require three to five days of daily filming at the site.

Then there’s editing, to make the show compelling to watch, with cliffhangers immediately before each commercial break.

What viewers see are the highlights of an investigation. They don’t see time spent waiting while nothing happens… and that can most of what goes on, at many (perhaps most) investigations.

We sit for an hour, and then something odd happens. We investigate it and debunk it, and then sit or walk around for another hour. And then something creepy happens, and it’s memorable. When we can’t debunk it, that’s what makes the wait worthwhile.

It starts with a good location.

Viewers don’t see the dozens of locations scouted by people like me, where ghost stories turn out to be more fiction than fact.

(That’s typical in any community; if you’ve gone ghost hunting, I’m sure you’ve visited many places where absolutely nothing noteworthy happened. It can be discouraging.)

When a producer contacts me to identify good sites for filming, the majority of “haunted” sites either aren’t haunted or the owners (or tenants) prefer not to be featured in a TV show. (The good news is, I almost always find a few genuinely impressive haunted sites in the area, with owners willing to grant access to investigators and the camera crew.)

Ghost hunting is more than what you see on reality TV showsSo, from my experience, most sites features on TV shows are actually haunted. Also, what viewers see is usually more or less what happened.

I’m seeing a shift – towards almost radical authenticity – in some ghost hunting TV shows.

Most Haunted remains one of the leaders in this trend. (In the UK, it’s on Really, usually on Fridays.)

Also, Most Haunted producers suggested they may air shows featuring outtakes. That’s a fun idea. (See @OnlyMostHaunted at Twitter.)

While more authentic ghost hunting TV shows – like Most Haunted – aren’t the adrenaline fuel of their fast-paced, highly edited counterparts, I like this trend.

And, for the record: the only sites I’ve investigated for just 22 minutes (the length of a 30-minute TV show, sans commercial breaks) are those that seemed too dangerous for research.

Usually, that had nothing to do with ghosts; instead it was about creepy people in the area, or imminent lightning strikes.

My average investigation at a haunted home or large site is probably around two to three hours. I may revisit that location multiple times, and each additional visit can last several hours.

Or, if I’m familiar with a site, I might investigate just 45 minutes (the content of a one-hour TV show). But, something that brief is probably a follow-up visit, to debunk (or confirm) anomalies noted during an earlier investigation.

Though this isn’t exactly new news, I was glad to see mainstream media mention the reality behind many “reality” TV shows.

If you’re new to ghost hunting, don’t expect something startling every five or ten minutes. Instead, arrive at events and investigations with low expectations. Lots of waiting may be required.

But, that’s a good opportunity for you to do a thorough (and sometimes repeated) “baseline yourself” check, so you’re always aware when weird things start happening at a haunted site.

What you see on TV rarely represents everything that happens during a ghost investigation. I’d describe it as “ghost hunting without the boring bits.” (That’s a nod to Horrible Histories.)

However, TV shows can show you the wide range of phenomena you might encounter at an extraordinarily haunted site. For that, shows that emphasize real ghost hunting experiences… they’re well worth your viewing time.

Related articles

And, if you want to be on a ghost hunting TV show, search related keywords at sites like AuditionsFree.comBackstage.com, and – for the UK – Starnow.co.nz, TheStage.co.uk, and similar sites. (There are many.)

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.