Note: This glossary was first written around 2003. Some entries have been updated, but some need major revisions.
Ghost hunters use certain words in reference to ghosts and haunted places. The following list explains some of them, and their usual meanings. Regional terms and definitions may vary.
Afterlife – One of several terms used interchangeably to refer to life after death. The word “afterlife” has been used since 1615. Other popular terms include “crossing over,” “the Otherworld,” and “the other side.” Most ghost hunters avoid specific religious terms such as “heaven” and “the Summerland” when discussing ghosts and hauntings.
Aliens – Visitors from other planets or galaxies. We differentiate aliens from visitors that live in potentially parallel worlds, or in what’s generally characterized as the afterlife.
Some ghost hunters believe in UFOs and aliens; others don’t. Generally, ghost hunters don’t mix those studies.
Anomaly – Something that is unusual, out of place, and unexplained. In paranormal studies, this word refers to any phenomena that – so far – we cannot explain.
Apparition – Since the early 17th century, this means a ghost that seems to have material substance, with evidence that we can actually see. If a spirit appears in any physical form, including a vapor-like image, it may be called an apparition.
Banshee – From the Irish, bean sidhe, meaning female spirit. According to folklore, most families with Irish ancestors have at least one banshee that watches over the family as a sort of “guardian angel.” The banshee’s wail does not always mean death. She does not cause anyone to die. Generally, she’s not a ghost.
Clearing, or space clearing – The spiritual or physical process of ridding an area of lingering, unpleasant energy. It does not “kill” a ghost.
An effective space clearing may take three to five days to work. In the meantime, the ghost (or ghosts) may be noisier and more obnoxious than usual. In the most haunted settings, space clearings may be repeated several times so that all negative or residual energy has cleared out.
Cryptozoology or crypto zoology – The controversial study of animals and hybrid creatures generally omitted from mainstream biology. That is, many scientists regard them as extinct, legendary or entirely fictional. Though some crypto creatures may seem man-like, they are not ghosts.
Since around 2010, an increasing number of ghost hunters have reported odd or unexplained animal forms near haunted locations. (These are usually different from the ghosts of household pets.)
Demons – Historically, this term has sometimes included deceased individuals. However, since the early 18th century, the word “demon” usually refers to an evil spirit, sometimes more powerful than man, but less than Deity.
Today, we don’t use this term to indicate a deceased human being.
Trivia: the female demon, very rarely mentioned, is a demoness.
Demons and possessions are rarely connected to routine hauntings.
The “Amityville horror” is an exception where the story seemed to include both ghosts and possessions, but I have doubts about some of the tales.
Note: Generally, ghosts do not attempt to take over a living body. In most cases, ghostly entities insist that they’re still alive and each of them already has his or her own body. They’re not interested in anyone else’s.
However, there can be a fine line between the trance medium state and allowing a spirit to “take over” the person’s body. If that spirit is malicious or even demonic, the trance medium may not be equipped to deal with the problem without help.
I strongly advise against allowing any entity at a haunted site to access your body, or even your voice, to communicate.
Doppelganger – A concept popularized in the early 19th century, especially by Shelley and Byron. The doppelganger is the apparition, or double, of a living person. This may be a paranormal phenomenon, but it’s not a ghost. It does not necessarily forecast anything tragic, either.
Dowsing rods – These are usually single rods, split rods, or L-shaped wires or twigs. I use specially designed dowsing rods (that do not put me at spiritual risk) to locate underground springs or cables that might affect our research results.
I no longer recommend using dowsing rods to contact spiritual energy or entities. It’s too easy for investigators to think of their hands as conduits to the ghosts, or what may represent themselves as ghosts, and are actually malicious.
Ectoplasm – Often referred to as “ecto,” this is the physical residue of psychic energy. It’s the basis for “slime” used in the Ghostbusters movies. Some ectoplasm can be seen by the naked eye. It’s best viewed in dark settings, since it is translucent and tends to glow. It is very unusual.
Researchers often describe it as a vivid, X-Files kind of lime green, but I’ve heard first-person reports of other colors, too. It usually fades from sight gradually. It may explain some “sparkles” (see that definition).
EMF – The initials stand for Electro Magnetic Field, or – more rarely – Electro Magnetic Frequency.
In the broadest terms, EMF is a combination of electrical and magnetic fields. You’ll find EMF around power sources, fuse boxes, electrical outlets, computer monitors, microwave ovens, some cellphones or related towers, etc.
Abnormally high levels of EMF can cause people to feel ill or agitated. Around high EMF levels, some people misinterpret normal phenomena as “ghosts” or aliens. Others can feel angry or paranoid. So, it’s important to rule out that normal (if unusual) explanation for odd activity.
EMF fields can be measured with various tools, including an EMF meter or even a hiking compass.
Entity – An entity is any being, including people, animals, and ghosts. It can also refer to aliens, faeries, mystical beasts, and a wide range of paranormal creatures. If you use this term — and many ghost hunters do — be sure to make the context clear.
ESP – ESP is the abbreviation for Extra Sensory Perception. It means the ability to perceive things beyond the usual five senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste, and sight.
Some paranormal researchers seem to have this ability to varying degrees. Others don’t.
With practice, experienced ghost hunters can usually tell the difference between normal detection with the five senses, and things detected with the “sixth sense” or psychic abilities.
EVP – Electronic Voice Phenomena is the recording of unexplained voices, usually in haunted settings.
Sometimes the voices are heard during the investigation, without any special equipment. More often, the voices are whispers, understood only when a sound recording is processed, filtered, and amplified with a computer.
EVP may be heard via special devices in real time, or after the recording is processed, later.
Years ago, when people first recorded EVP, they insisted on total silence. Today, some researchers believe that ghosts need ambient noise to create sounds and speech.
Faeries – Large and small beings that may live in an Otherworld or Underworld, parallel to our world or not far from it. Many (perhaps most) ghost hunters don’t believe in faeries.
Similar to the subject of aliens and UFOs, it’s best to separate faerie research from your ghost hunting.
Fear – Most ghost hunters have a healthy respect for ghosts and paranormal phenomena. If ghost hunting actually scares you, you may be at risk.
Ghost hunting should never be a “dare” or an endurance test. I am firmly opposed to the idea of a “good scare.”
Important: If you’re truly frightened in any setting — haunted or not — leave immediately. If this happens regularly when you’re ghost hunting, choose a different hobby. You may be too vulnerable to safely visit haunted sites.
Flashlight communications – Using a flashlight with its contacts loosened just enough for the light bulb to flash intermittently. Generally used for yes/no real-time communications with ghosts. Many report the best results with flashlights that have a metal case, not plastic.
Due to the non-standard nature of this technique, it’s the frequent – and easy – target of skeptical critics.
Ghost – Usually – but not always – the term means a sentient entity or spirit that is our world, after he/she/they lived among us as a human being. However, “ghost” can be a confusing catch-all term. (See my article, Ghosts v. Spirits.)
Also, some researchers have seen evidence of ghostly animals and pets.
Ghost hunters generally use different terms for other entities such as aliens, crypto creatures, and faeries.
Ghost boxer – A perhaps-outdated, informal term for someone who uses a ghost box or other ITC device to listen to or communicate with ghosts. (See ITC, below.)
Ghoul – This word has been mistakenly used to mean a ghost. “Ghoul” comes from Middle Eastern lore, where it may refer to an evil spirit that robs graves.
Haunted – Describes a setting where ghostly activity seems to produce significant and consistent anomalies. The word “haunt” originally meant “to frequent.”
Hollow Hill – Hollow Hill is the name of Fiona Broome’s ghost hunting website, http://HollowHill.com/ In 1999, after several years at sites such as GeoCities, it launched under the Hollow Hill name and included both ghost information and faerie lore.
By 2010, it had over 600 original articles, specifically for ghost hunters. (By then, the faerie folklore had been removed.)
The term “hollow hill” refers to the home of the Tuatha De Danann, with a nod to the ghost stories of Sleepy Hollow.
Infrasound – Low-level sound waves, below the range of human hearing. It can result from a variety of natural and man-made sources. NASA studies and research by the late Vic Tandy suggest it can cause visual distortions.
If a haunted site is near a highway or a bridge that has heavy trucks crossing during your research, or underground springs or streams, infrasound may explain some of what researchers experience.
Approximately 80% of the sites I investigate could be affected by infrasound. The site may still be haunted, but infrasound cannot be wholly dismissed if if may be a factor. Additional research and phenomena must be considered.
ITC – Instrumental Transcommunication, or ghost “voices” heard over a radio that rapidly scans radio frequencies, picking up sounds and bits of words. Those sounds may combine to form words and sentences, sometimes in a single, distinct voice and accent.
Early, effective ITC devices were produced around 2002 by the late Frank Sumption. ITC devices – called “ghost boxes” – by Frank were nicknamed “Frank’s Boxes.” Since then, Radio Shack radios have been altered as “Shack Hack” ghost boxes. Similar devices have been called spirit boxes, and other names.
ITC seems to work better for some people than others. No physical contact with the box is necessary. Some speech is more clearly heard in recordings from the ITC devices, rather than when the boxes are “talking.”
KII, K2, Kii or K-II meter – One of several kinds of EMF meters designed for ghost hunting. In early research, the KII seemed more “ghost-friendly” than many other meters, and was successful in direct communication with spirits.
Medium – This word usually refers to something in the middle, relative to size or duration.
In ghost hunting, it means anyone able to convey communications from departed spirits. That is, the person maintains a position between the world of the living and those who’ve crossed over, and talks with (or for) those on “the other side.”
I advise against allowing any entity, no matter how apparently benign, to access your body – including your voice – to communicate.
This term was popularized in the mid 19th century. Today, it’s often used interchangeably with the word “psychic.” (Compare that definition in this glossary.)
Some people call themselves psychic mediums because they can communicate with the other side, but also sense other paranormal energy and work with ESP.
Occult – From the Latin, meaning something that is concealed or covered. Since the 16th century, it has meant anything mysterious. In 21st century America, it generally refers to magical, mystical and experimental studies.
Orb – An orb is a round, whitish or pastel-colored translucent area in photos. Generally, they are perfectly circular, not oval. Many researchers believe they represent spirits or ghosts.
It’s important to differentiate between an area of broken pixels (called an “artifact”) and the translucent, circular image that is an orb.
Likewise, make sure your camera – especially if you’re using a flash camera – isn’t highlighting dust or moisture.
In most cases, ghost hunters do not see orbs when they’re at a haunted site. Usually, orbs show up only in photos. They’re among the most common kinds of evidence – false as well as genuine – at hauntings.
Critics often dismiss orbs as lens flares and artifacts. I was among those critics until I tried to create convincing fake orbs in my own photos… and had considerable difficulty. (My greatest success has been achieved by exhaling while taking the photo, but most of those false anomalies aren’t orb-like.)
Unexplained orbs appear more often at haunted sites than at locations with no reason for ghostly phenomena.
Test this yourself. In a location where your photos include orbs, pause. Then move to a nearby, related location. (If you’re in a haunted cemetery, leave and walk 100+ feet down the road. Eliminate “ghostly energy” as a possibility.)
Take more photos. Do they have orbs, as well? If so, there may be a normal explanation. If not, maybe your orb photos aren’t dust, bugs, reflected highlights, moisture, or lens flares.
Ouija – From the French and German words for “yes,” this is a spelling board used with a planchette. The device might communicate with the spirit world, receiving answers to questions.
Many ghost hunters – including me – strongly advise against using Ouija boards or anything similar to them. We don’t really know who’s communicating, and whether their messages can be believed. For some chilling stories, see videos by John Zaffis, including his experience with an entity called Zozo.
Almost every demonic case I’ve been consulted about, started with someone using a Ouija board.
Ovilus – A hand-held electronic device that appears to use changes in EMF levels to trigger speech based on a pre-programmed vocabulary.
Ghost hunters use this tool with a focus on anomalies. That is, we notice when the Ovilus announces a word (or name) that’s not in its vocabulary, or when it repeats words in excess of the statistical norm.
This is one of many high-tech devices created by Digital Dowsing, a forerunner in ghost hunting devices.
Paranormal – The prefix, “para” indicates something that is irregular, faulty, or operating outside the usual boundaries. So, “paranormal” refers to anything outside the realm and experiences that we consider normal.
It doesn’t necessarily mean a ghost or spirit. It just indicates something outside the norm.
Parapsychology – The study of mental abilities and effects outside the usual realm of psychology.
Parapsychology includes the study of ESP, ghosts, luck, psychokinesis, and other paranormal phenomena.
Many parapsychologists believe in ESP but are skeptical of ghostly phenomena.
Pendulum – A small weight at the end of a cord or chain that is usually about six to ten inches long. The movement of the weight, uninfluenced by other factors, can detect areas of unexplained energy. Some believe that a pendulum can also be used to communicate with spirits.
Due to the ease of allowing an unseen entity to channel energy through your hand, and thereby accessing your body, I no longer recommend pendulums for ghost research.
Poltergeist – From the German meaning “noisy ghost.” The term has been popular since the early 19th century. It means a spirit that makes noise, or otherwise plays pranks… usually annoying. Physical phenomena are very common in these cases. Unlike other ghosts, poltergeists can move from one location to another, following the person they’ve chosen to torment.
Many psychologists believe that poltergeists are not ghosts at all, but some form of psychokinesis or remote activity.
Portal – a doorway or gate. This term suggests a specific location through which spirits enter and leave our world. When multiple phenomena occur in a confined area, such as an abundance of unexplained orbs, some people call this a “ghost portal.”
Possession – When an entity attempts to take control of a body that does not belong to them, it’s called a possession.
In ghost hunting, this phenomenon is rare, but some psychics and mediums allow ghosts to speak through them. (See “trance medium.”)
In extreme cases, a malicious spirit may attempt to take over an unwilling person’s body. Most ghost hunters will never witness this kind of possession, though it’s a popular scene in horror movies.
Unwilling possession is often linked to demonic activity.
Proof – This is a mathematical and scientific term. In math, it means an established rule that will always be true, within the respective mathematical system.
In science, it means verification or disproof. Unlike maths, science is not absolute. We can only verify something, not say it is absolutely, positively, without exception, true.
There is no “proof” of ghosts. People who won’t believe in ghosts will always find other explanations for any evidence of hauntings.
In most cases, it takes a profound paranormal encounter to change a skeptical critic’s mind about haunted places.
Protection – Some researchers use objects, rituals, routines, tactics, or specific processes to protect themselves against spiritual and paranormal threats. This is a personal matter and rarely discussed during a ghost hunt.
Bringing a Christian symbol such as a Bible or religious cross/crucifix into a haunted site may enrage demonic energy that was not previously perceived. I strongly advise against this, unless the investigator is an experienced religious minister and trained in how to cope with enraged demonic forces. (I still attribute the very public downfall of one TV “ghost hunter” to that person’s habit of starting each investigation by waving a cross in front of the entering team. It’s possible that repeated demonic exposure led to that person’s later, poor decisions.)
Psi – “Psi” or “psy” is a popular term used to mean any psychic phenomena or psychic abilities. This term sometimes includes paranormal disturbances as well. (In combination with other terms, it can refer to psychology or psychiatry.)
Psychic / Psychical – From the Greek word meaning of the soul, or of life (Paul used it in the Bible, I Cor ii, 14), this word usually refers to the world outside the domain of physical law.
When someone is described as a psychic, it usually means that he or she is able to perceive things that are outside traditional physical laws and perceptions.
Psychokinesis, or psycho kinesis – To move something with the powers of one’s mind, and nothing else. It may be a factor in some hauntings. It may explain some poltergeist cases. It’s usually called “PK.” (Also see telekinesis.)
Residual energy – Many ghost hunters believe that emotionally charged events leave an energy imprint or residue on the physical objects nearby. That’s called a “residual energy haunting,” or – in recent years – simply a “residual haunting.”
Residual energy is different from an active, intelligent, or sentient haunting. The energy or impressions repeat consistently, as if on a loop. The level may increase or decrease, but the content remains the same with each manifestation.
By contrast, during an active, intelligent, or sentient haunting, the ghost may respond to environmental stimuli and direct contact.
Sixth sense – Anything experienced outside the normal five senses (smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight). Usually, this indicates psychic detection or ESP.
Since M. Knight Shyamalan’s movie of the same name (recommended), people usually think that the sixth sense refers to seeing ghosts.
In reality, few people see ghosts as full figures (“apparitions”) or as if they’re living people.
Sparkles – This paranormal visual effect resembles the sparkle of embers falling immediately after a fireworks display. Sparkles are seen during and especially immediately after the flash on a camera is used.
Unlike highlighted bugs, dust, or moisture, even the most vivid sparkles will not show up on film. We believe they’re paranormal phenomena.
“Sparkles” is a term I developed in the 1990s, during research for Hollow Hill. Since then, some other researchers have adopted the term to describe this unique visual phenomenon.
Spirit – This word comes from the Latin, meaning that which breathes. It means that which animates life, or the soul of the being.
Table tapping, table tipping – Two related terms dating back to the 19th century, describing a few methods of spirit communications. Several people may sit around a table with their hands on it, or holding hands on top of the table. Then, they ask the spirits to reply to communicate by tapping on the table, perhaps once for yes and twice for no.
Table tipping is when ghosts lift the table very slightly to show that they are present. After that, the ghosts may tap their replies, move a Ouija-type platen, a glass placed upside-down on the table, or use some other means to communicate with movement around the table.
One of the most famous, related studies was The Philip Experiment, in Canada. I had the opportunity to spend time with one of the participants in that experiment, and he was very guarded about what he said. Mostly, I think he had some regrets about his participation, and how “Philip” affected almost everyone connected with the experiment.
If you experiment with this, placing your hands on the table, do not open yourself to ghostly energy or “channel” the energy through your hands to assist whatever might move the table or tap on it. It may leave you vulnerable to energy or entities that should not be given even the slightest access point.
Tarot – The history of the Tarot deck is still unclear. However, since its use in 14th century Italy, “Tarot” refers to playing cards used for fortune telling or divination. Some psychics use Tarot cards to discern the history of spirits and why the individual ghost remains.
I no longer recommend using cards of any kind, including the Tarot, for paranormal research. Especially in the hands of amateurs, almost any divinatory tool can provide an entry to possession (or at least bad advice) by a malicious or demonic entity.
Telekinesis – From a Greek word meaning any motion that is activated from a distance. Technically, this could describe a remote-controlled toy boat or airplane, so most people use the word psychokinesis in ghost research.
Trance mediums, trance channeling – An encounter with a spirit that temporarily “takes over” the body of the medium, usually with her permission. Usually, the ghost seems to speak through the medium using a voice, vocabulary and/or accent similar to what the ghost had during his or her lifetime.
“Trance medium” performances are becoming more commonplace at entertainment-style events, raising questions of authenticity in all settings. The topic is controversial.
Never allow an entity to “take over” your body for any reason. It may not leave. (If you’ve made that mistake, please consult – in real life – a mainstream, full-time, trained religious minister for help. Do not trust anyone online to help you.)
Vortex – Since the time of Descartes, this has indicated the rotation of cosmic energy around a central point or axis.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, the word “vortex” means any whirling movement of energy or particles.
Some people use this term to explain lines or narrow cylinders that appear highlighted in ghost photos.
I’m able to duplicate most of them with a camera strap or a piece of hair. (See my photo of hair, at right. Every streak looks like a ghost vortex image.)
However, just because someone can fake a ghost photo… that doesn’t mean all similar photos are false anomalies.