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Scientific Investigation vs. Ghost Hunters

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 20.3, September 2010

I have often crossed paths with The Atlantic Paranormal Society (T.A.P.S.), headed by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, stars of the popular Ghost Hunters series on Syfy (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel). On Saturday, July 26, 2008, my wife, Diana Harris, and I attended their presentation at Lily Dale, the spiritualist village in Western New York. Jason and Grant were kind enough to single me out—favorably—during their talk, and I accepted their invitation for a beer afterward. They graciously bestowed on me an autographed copy of their book Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from the Atlantic Paranormal Society, produced with, well, ghostwriter Michael Jan Friedman (Hawes and Wilson 2007). Interestingly, Friedman authors “science fiction and fantasy novels.”

The book gave me a chance to compare notes with Hawes and Wilson. Because I had preceded them in examining several of the “haunted” places featured on the show, I was able to contrast my findings with theirs. Our mutual cases include The Myrtles Plantation (in St. Francisville, Louisiana), the Winchester Mystery House (San Jose, California), and the St. Augustine Lighthouse (on Florida’s east coast).

The Myrtles

Located in the Louisiana bayou, The Myrtles Plantation is actively promoted by its owners as a haunted place. Indeed, says Jason, “Grant and I could barely contain ourselves. The Myrtles was known as one of the most haunted places in America. It was every paranormal investigator’s dream to check the place out” (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 137). Well, I had been there, done that—courtesy of the Discovery Channel for a documentary.

The MyrtlesFigure 1. The Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana is billed as “America’s Most Haunted Home.” (Photo by Joe Nickell)

In February 2005, the T.A.P.S. team got off to a good start at The Myrtles. They were shown a “ghost” photo, but it had been so enhanced by a “paranormal guy” that they promptly labeled it “tampered.” But then came the incident with the lamp: In the plantation’s “slave shack” (a structure of recent vintage that never held a slave), a lamp glided eerily across a table behind the pair while they were on camera. Although they conceded that “Grant might have snagged the lamp cord with his foot and dragged it without knowing it,” the pair later decided to attribute this incident only to “a supernatural force” (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 146). Unfortunately, as reported by Television Week (Hibbard 2005, 19), “Upon close inspection, fans concluded the lamp was being pulled by its own cord. Even worse: a night-vision shot appears to show the cord extending from behind the table to Mr. Wilson’s hand.” Yet Grant maintained, “If we were looking for a sign that we were doing something worthwhile, we couldn’t have asked for a better one than the lamp.” The pair concluded, “The place was haunted” (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 146, 147).

In my own investigation at The Myrtles (including staying alone overnight there August 14–15, 2001), I had reached a very different conclusion about the place. Although its owners and staff hype the tale of a murderous slave named Chloe—a “legend” that Hawes and Wilson repeat in some detail—my research revealed Chloe to be fictitious and the tale not folklore but fakelore. Ghostly phenomena reported at the site can be explained without invoking the supernatural. For instance, a mysteriously swinging door was simply hung off center, and banging noises heard at night were attributable to a loose shutter (Nickell 2003).

Winchester Mystery HouseFigure 2. The author visits San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House, a mansion of bizarre architecture and a legendary curse. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

Winchester Mystery House

San Jose’s Winchester Mystery House is remarkable indeed. Even after the Gothic Victorian mansion was greatly reduced in size by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, eccentric widow Sarah Winchester continued to add to the architectural wonder until her death in 1922. At that time it contained 160 rooms and included bizarre architectural details such as stairways that led nowhere. Legend holds that a Boston spirit medium had directed Mrs. Winchester to go West and build, without ceasing, a home for spirits. This was to halt an alleged curse on the Winchesters resulting from the “terrible weapon” (the repeating firearm) they had produced.

Jason and Grant retell the legend without skepticism, although the tale is unproved and exists in many contradictory versions. Neither is there any real evidence that Mrs. Winchester was herself a spiritualist. Indeed her close companion for years, Henrietta Severs, denied that she was (Rambo 1967, 8).

Visiting the mansion in July 2005, Hawes and Wilson (2007, 225–29) “didn’t find anything of a supernatural origin”—and even concluded that “odd banging sounds” were probably “the result of a plumbing problem.” Nevertheless, they and their T.A.P.S. team continued their pseudoscientific approach to ghost hunting (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 225–29). That is, they relied heavily on alleged ghost-detecting equipment that does not, in fact, detect ghosts. A reading on an electromagnetic field (EMF) meter, for instance, can be caused by faulty wiring, microwaves, solar activity, or any of a number of other non-ghostly sources. There is no credible scientific evidence that ghosts exist, let alone that they are electromagnetic—or radioactive: the T.A.P.S. team also on occasion uses a “portable Geiger counter” (Ghost 2006). Other ghost-hunting equipment is similarly useless, especially in the hands of nonscientists (Nickell 2006).

I investigated the Winchester Mansion in 2001 (with colleague Vaughn Rees) and found that temperature variations, the settling of an old structure, and other similar characteristics accounted for cold spots, odd noises, and ghostly phenomena (Nickell 2002). I have learned that people’s level of ghost experiences is approximately proportional to their psychological tendency to fantasize (Nickell 2000)—evidence for psychologist Robert A. Baker’s wise saying that there are no haunted places, “only haunted people.”

St. Augustine LighthouseFigure 3. The St. Augustine Lighthouse is one of the most towering “haunted” places in the United States. (Photo by Joe Nickell)

St. Augustine Lighthouse

Among the tallest such structures in the United States, the St. Augustine lighthouse is claimed to feature, in the keeper’s dwelling, a girl in a red dress who suddenly vanishes and the lingering smell of cigar smoke. In the tower, various unexplained noises are often perceived (Elizabeth and Roberts 1999, 40–49).

Once again, the T.A.P.S. team lugged in the fancy equipment on which their pseudoscientific approach to ghost hunting depends. They placed a wireless audio unit up in the tower; at the bottom, a thermal camera was positioned to shoot upward “just to see what we could pick up” (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 234–35). The team claims to have seen a shadowy figure and heard a woman’s cry as they went up the stairs. Jason ran toward it but “couldn’t catch more than a glimpse of the dark figure” as he gained the stairs (2007, 236). Afterward, their “video footage clearly showed a shadow at the top of the stairs. A moment later, we heard a female voice crying for help, and saw the shadow dart to the right” (2007, 238). They concluded that the St. Augustine Lighthouse was indeed haunted.

That lighthouse was one of several I investigated for my Skeptical Inquirer article “Lighthouse Specters” (Nickell 2008). (My wife and I even stayed as “assistant keepers” at a couple of remote sites.) On March 23, 2004, I climbed the 219 steps to check out the St. Augustine Lighthouse’s tower and also explored the keeper’s house. The occasional perception of cigar smoke in the latter may have a ready explanation. There is often confusion as to the true nature of the smoke (attributed alternately to cigars, cigarettes, burning wiring, etc.), and real smoke can drift inside or its smell be carried in on people’s clothing (Nickell 2008, 24–25). The power of suggestion may be at work as well.

Apparitions at “haunted” sites are also explainable. For example, private citizens who rented the St. Augustine keeper’s dwelling (after the light was automated in 1955) sometimes woke to see a young girl at their bedside (Elizabeth and Roberts 1999, 44). Such sightings are easily explained scientifically as “waking dreams,” which occur in the state between sleep and wakefulness. Similarly, apparitions may occur when the percipient is in an altered mental state, such as daydreaming, and a mental image becomes superimposed on the visual scene (Nickell 2008, 22–23).

As to noises in the tower, there are a number of plausible explanations, beginning with the wind. Indeed, Hawes and Wilson themselves found one culprit in the form of a window “free to swing with the wind” (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 235). Temperature changes can also cause old steel to make noises as it expands and contracts (Thompson 1998, 73). One such screeching sound was interpreted as “a female voice crying for help” (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 238). (Another possibility is seagulls; the birds may “shriek” and “sound almost like humans screaming” [Vercillo 2008, 50].)

Glimpsed shadows might have an equally simple explanation. I studied the T.A.P.S. team’s St. Augustine Lighthouse video episode (Ghost 2006) with two colleagues, Tim Binga and Tom Flynn, and all of us were underwhelmed. Flynn, CFI’s video expert, summed up the evidence by stating: “These visual effects are so ambiguous that they may signify nothing at all.” He added, “The observed effect might even be the shadows of the ghost hunters themselves as they moved about, several landings below” (Flynn 2009).

* * *

As this comparison of cases shows, the approach of so-called “ghost hunters” is simply one of mystery mongering. Like claims for the paranormal in general, their assertions that certain places are haunted are based on the logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance: “We don’t know what caused such-and-such (a noise, say), so it must have been a ghost.” In fact, one cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. The problem is exacerbated by the pseudoscientific use of scientific equipment and by the distinct possibility that ghost hunters are actually causing—even if unintentionally—some of the very phenomena they are experiencing!

In contrast is the scientific investigator’s approach: begin with the phenomenon in question, try to ascertain whether it in fact happened, develop hypotheses to explain it, and seek to find the most likely explanation—keeping in mind that one cannot explain one mystery by attributing it to another.

References

Elizabeth, Norma, and Bruce Roberts. 1999. Lighthouse Ghosts: 13 Bona Fide Apparitions Standing Watch Over America’s Shores. N.p.: Crane Hill Publishers.

Flynn, Thomas. 2009. Video analysis and interview by Joe Nickell, September 1.

Ghost Hunters Season Two: Part 2 (DVD). 2006. “St Augustine Lighthouse.”

Hawes, Jason, and Grant Wilson, with Michael Jan Friedman. 2007. Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from the Atlantic Paranormal Society. New York: Pocket Books.

Hibbard, James. 2005. In search of ghost stories. Television Week, August 22; 1, 19.

Nickell, Joe. 2000. Haunted inns. Skeptical Inquirer 24(5) (September/October): 17–21.

———. 2002. Winchester mystery house. Skeptical Inquirer 26(5) (September/October), 20–23.

———. 2003. Haunted plantation. Skeptical Inquirer 27(5) (September/October), 12–15.

———. 2006. Ghost hunters. Skeptical Inquirer 30(5) (September/October): 23–26.

———. 2008. Lighthouse specters. Skeptical Inquirer 32(5) (September/October), 22–25.

Rambo, Ralph. 1967. Lady of Mystery. San Jose, California: The Press.

St. Augustine Lighthouse. 2009. Available online at www.staugustinelighthouse.com/abt_ghosts.php; accessed August 25, 2009.

Thompson, William O. 1998. Lighthouse Legends and Hauntings. Kennebunk, Maine: ’Scapes Me.

Vercillo, Kathryn. 2008. Ghosts of Alcatraz. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.