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Ghost Hunters

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 30.5, September / October 2006

Belief that spirits of the dead exist and can appear to the living is both ancient and widespread, yet the actual study of ghostly phenomena has largely been lacking. So-called “investigation” has ranged from mere collecting of ghost tales to the use of “psychic” impressions to a pseudoscientific reliance on technology applied in a questionable fashion. Real science has largely been ignored.

Collecting Tales

What passed for investigation in earlier times is illustrated by a “true” ghost story related by Pliny the Younger (ca. 100 a.d.). It has been “regarded as the first investigated ghost story” (Finucane 2001). A hearsay tale, already a century old when Pliny told it, it involved a house in Athens haunted by the specter of an emaciated, fettered man. It rattled its chains at night and brought disease and death to visitors. Undaunted, however, a stoic philosopher named Athenodorus bought the house, tried first to ignore the beckoning phantom, then calmly followed it into the garden where it vanished. The next day he had local officials dig at the site where they found a skeleton in rusty chains. After a proper burial which appeased the ghost, the haunting ceased.

But Pliny’s tale is as suspect as it is dated, with its motifs of clanking chains, malevolent atmosphere, and ritual appeasement. Over time, people’s notions of ghosts and hauntings have continually changed. According to R.C. Finucane, in his Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts (1984, 223):

Each epoch has perceived its specters according to specific sets of expectations; as these change so too do the specters. From this point of view it is clear that the suffering souls of purgatory in the days of Aquinas, the shades of a murdered mistress in Charles II’s era, and the silent grey ladies of Victoria’s reign represent not beings of that other world, but of this.

Even in a given era, ghosts seem to behave according to individual expectations, being as likely to walk through a wall as to knock on a door before entering (Finucane 1984, 223).

While collecting ghost stories can be helpful in showing just such trends, much that is claimed as the “investigation” of hauntings never rises above mere mystery mongering. Necessarily there is a reliance on anecdotal, eyewitness testimony. Moreover, accounts may be exaggerated and are frequently offered with the implication that the “unexplainable” phenomena are proof of the reality of spirits. Actually, such a view is an example of a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance (“we don’t know what caused the door to slam, therefore it was a ghost”). One cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. Besides, an event may not be unexplainable at all, only unexplained, possibly later being solved (e.g., a slamming door might have been caused by a draft or may have been a prank).

Uncritical collections of ghost tales—rife with weaselly phrases like “is said to be” and “some believe that” (e.g., Hauck 1996, 1, 12)—are ubiquitous. They include Dennis William Hauck’s Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996) and The International Directory of Haunted Places (2000), as well as a hundred or so books by “ghost hunter” Hans Holzer alone.

The ‘Psychic’ Method

Actually, Hans Holzer sometimes goes beyond mere story relating, relying on alleged contact with the spirit realm. Belief in such contact is called spiritualism, and it is as ancient as the Old Testament’s Witch of Endor who purportedly conjured up the ghost of Samuel at the request of King Saul (1 Sam. 28:7—20). Modern spiritualism began in 1848 at Hydesville, New York, when two young girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler. Although four decades later they confessed how their “spirit rappings” had been faked, in the meantime spiritualism had spread across the United States and beyond.

Interest in spiritualism inspired ghost hunting. The first organization devoted to the cause was a ghost society formed at Cambridge University in 1851. It was followed by London’s Ghost Club in 1862, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1882, and an American counterpart (ASPR) in 1885. Such organizations attracted both scientists and spiritualists, many hoping to unite science and religion by validating spiritualist phenomena (Guiley 200, 6—7, 151—153, 353—354).

Out of that tradition comes Holzer, who terms himself a parapsychologist. In his book America’s Haunted Houses he relates his “investigation” of Ringwood Manor in northern New Jersey. Holzer arrived at Ringwood with “psychic” Ethel Meyers in tow, a dubious choice given her involvement in the “Amityville Horror” case wherein she failed to realize it was a hoax. She supposedly made contact with former servants of Ringwood, saying that one, “Jeremiah,” had “complained bitterly about his mistress,” a Mrs. Erskine. However, the curator of Ringwood told me he doubted the house was haunted, and disparaged the notion that Mrs. Erskine mistreated any servant—whether “Jeremiah” or not. He observed that the present house was never seen by her, and “isn’t even near the location of the original house!” (Prol 1993) Thus when Holzer writes, “The center of the hauntings seems to be what was once the area of Mrs. Erskine’s bedroom” (Holzer 1991, 125), he betrays an utter lack of historical credibility.

Holzer, while a prolific mystery monger, is not the worst such offender. He observes: “Amateur ‘investigators’ can do more damage than good at times, “especially when they travel as ‘demonologists’ looking for demons and devils as the cause of a haunting” (Holzer 1991, 7).

He could be referring to an elderly couple, Ed and Lorraine Warren, who operate something they call the New England Society for Psychic Research. Ed, the director, has a business card that bills him as a “Demonologist.” Lorraine, sporting a bouffant hairdo, claims to be a “clairvoyant.” They have been called other things, ranging from “passionate and religious people” and “ghost hunters” to “scaremongers” and other appellations, including “charlatans” (Duckett 1991).

The Warrens’ usual modus operandi has them arriving at a “haunted” house where ghost and poltergeist hijinks are blown into incredible accounts of “demonic possession.” Soon the horrific tales become chapters or entire books touting the Warrens’ “cases,” such as the Amityville “horror,” (Amityville, New York, 1975—1976) and the Snedeker family haunting (Southington, Connecticut, 1986—1988).

In the latter case, in addition to Lorraine Warren, “psychics” brought into the house (a former funeral home) included a Warren grandson and a nephew. They were soon reporting their own sightings of ghosts and other phenomena, while also denying that there was any book deal in progress. In fact, such a book did materialize (Warren and Warren et al. 1992).

Alas, when I appeared on the pre-Halloween 1992 Sally Jessy Raphael show with the Warrens and Snedekers, I began an investigation that would thoroughly demolish the case (although it was hyped again later with a made-for-TV movie). “Neighbors of the Snedeker” came on the Sally show to debunk many of the claims. One was an across-the-street resident, Kathy Altemus, who had kept a journal during the events and shared it with me when I subsequently visited Southington.

The journal shed light on the ghostly occurrences. For example, “vibrations” felt in in the house were easily explained by the passing of heavy trucks. Other events could perhaps be attributed to various passersby mentioned in the journal as “pulling pranks on the ‘haunted house’” (Altemus 1988—92). Certain other incidents—including visiting nieces being groped by “an unseen hand”—turned out to have been caused by the Snedekers’ son “Steven” (as he is called in the book). He confessed to police that he had fondled the girls as they slept. He used drugs and was diagnosed as schizophrenic (Nickell 1995, 133—139).

While there is no convincing evidence that demons were at work in the house, the arrival of the Warrens, with their publicity-seeking actions, convinced some people otherwise. Their book—written by a professional horror-tale writer and timed for Halloween release and promotion—was a travesty. It represented the worst of the “psychic” approach to ghost hunting.

As such evidence demonstrates—whether alleged psychics claim to enter a “trance” state, like Holzer’s favorite mediums, Ethel Meyers and Sybil Leek (Holzer 1991, 24, 36), or whether they rely on “channeling tools” such as a Ouija board, dowsing rod, or psychic pendulum as others prefer (Belanger 2005, 17)—psychics have a poor track record. They typically offer unsubstantiated, even unverifiable claims, or information that can be gleaned from research sources or from knowledgeable persons by “cold reading” (an artful method of fishing for information). Alternatively, the psychic may simply make a number of pronouncements, trusting that the credulous will count the apparent hits and ignore, or interpret appropriately, the misses.

Still, not all such offerings are insincere. Those who fancy themselves psychics may exhibit traits associated with a “fantasy-prone” personality—a designation for an otherwise normal person’s heightened propensity to fantasize. Some field research I have done shows a correlation between the number and intensity of ghostly experiences on the one hand and the number of exhibited traits associated with fantasy-proneness on the other (Nickell 2000).

Ghostbusters

With the resurgence of spiritualism in the mid-nineteenth century, mediums sought to prove the existence of spirits through certain physical phenomena. Allegedly in dark-room séances, spirits materialized, spoke, wrote messages on slates, posed for photographs, and produced apports (teleported objects)—or so it appeared. Magician Harry Houdini (1874—1926) spent his last years crusading against such phony spirit tricks (Nickell 1995, 17—38).

One of the first to use “modern technology” for ghost hunting was England’s Harry Price (1881—1948). Marrying a wealthy heiress, he was able to indulge his interests in spiritualism and psychical research. A member of the SPR, he became disgruntled with the society’s skepticism of physical phenomena and set up his own research laboratory.

For ghost hunting, Price employed such devices as a camera with infrared filter and film, a remote-control motion-picture camera, “a sensitive transmitting thermograph, with charts, to measure the slightest variation in temperature in supposed haunted rooms,” and an electric signaling instrument to reveal the “movement of any object in any part of the house” (Price 1940, 6—7).

Despite his gadgets, Price still was unable to prove the reality of ghosts. Worse, he “is suspected of fraud in connection with several of his investigations, including the most famous one, the Borley Rectory haunting” (Guiley 2000, 299), which he wrote about in his The Most Haunted House in England (1940). (For a discussion, see Dingwall et al. 1956.)

Ghost hunting began to be popular in the late 1970s with the founding of the Chicago-area Ghost Tracker’s Club. It became the Ghost Research Society (GRS) in 1981, being headed the following year by Dale Kaczmarek, a former Army chaplain’s assistant turned grocery-distribution employee. According to The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits (Guiley 2000, 157), “most GRS members, including Kaczmarek, have seen enough unexplained phenomena to conclude that ghosts do exist and that there is survival after death”—a typical example of arguing from ignorance.

The popularity of the Ghostbusters movie of 1984 may have boosted the proliferation of ghost clubs. Some include psychics and dowsers, but virtually all utilize high-tech equipment for the supposed detection of ghostly “energy.” Unfortunately, that is unknown to science, and the approach of the typical ghost hunter—a nonscientist using equipment for a purpose for which it was not made and has not been shown to be effective—is sheer pseudoscience.

Space permits only a brief overview of their alleged findings and the equipment involved.

Ghost photos

The earliest photographs —daguerreotype (from 1839), ambrotypes (1855) and tintypes (1856)—did not show ghosts. However, following the advent of glass-plate negatives, which permitted double exposures, in 1862 a Boston engraver named William H. Mumler began to produce “spirit” photos. He was revealed a fraud when some of his spirit “extras” were recognized as living Bostonians. Various means of faking ghost photos followed. As well, unintended ghostly effects have been caused by imperfections in film or camera or by conditions under which the photo was made (Nickell 1994, 146—159). Some “ghosts” are only simulacra—faces or other shapes perceived due to the mind’s tendency to “recognize” images in random patterns (Nickell 2004).

Orbs

Typically unwitnessed but showing up in photographs—especially flash photos—orbs are bright spheres touted as “spirit energy” (Belanger 2005, 342). In fact however, orbs are easily made anywhere (as I have done in experimental photographs). When they are not mere reflections from shiny surfaces, they most often result from the flash rebounding from particles of dust or droplets of water close to the lens (Nickell 2002). The characteristics of orbs can vary, depending on how they are photographed. Orbs are more likely to be caused by cameras having the flash located close to the lens, according to Fujifilm (What’s 2006). Also, digital cameras, having a greater depth of field, may be a more frequent offender (Orbs 2006). Responding to the evidence, some ghost hunters now claim to be able to differentiate “genuine” ghost orbs from “false orbs” (Guiley 2000, 270), while still being unable to prove the existence of the former.

Ectoplasm

Ghost hunters often tout the existence of “ectoplasm”—originally a substance supposedly extruded from the body of a medium. It was shown in photographs, extending umbilical-like from the medium’s mouth, nose, or ears, but again and again it was revealed to have been faked with strips of gauze, chewed-up paper, concoctions of soap and gelatin, etc. (Guiley 2000, 116—117). Ghost hunters have seized on ectoplasm as a pseudo explanation for various strand and mist effects in photos. Such effects can be caused by the flash rebounding from the camera’s wrist strap, jewelry, hair, insects, a wandering fingertip, etc., etc. (Nickell 1996; 2002). Or they may be due to other glitches.

Spirit energy

In addition to photography, ghost hunters search for their elusive quarry with a panoply of devices, notably electromagnetic field (EMF) meters. These are highly sensitive and—depending on the model—can be influenced by a number of very real energy sources, including faulty electric wiring, inadvertently magnetized objects (such as a metal bed frame), radio waves, microwave emissions, solar activity, electrical thunderstorms, and many other influences—even the human body! Watching hapless ghost hunters on TV crocumentaries, one often sees them operating EMF meters while holding them in the hand and moving about—a sure recipe for “unexplained” (to them) fluctuations. See figure 1.

Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)

Following the nineteenth-century attempts to amplify spirit voices with tin trumpets, Thomas A. Edison suggested it might be possible to make an electronic device that permitted spirit communication (Gardner 1996). That never materialized, but today’s ghost hunters make audiotape recordings of what they believe are “voices of the dead.” These are unheard during taping but are manifested on playback. Skeptics contend they are either voices from radio, television, or two-way radio transmissions, or that they are imagined. Like visual simulacra, syllable-like effects may be perceived in the randomness of static and background noise (Guiley 2000, 120—121; Flynn 2006).

Cold spots

Ghost buffs tout temperature fluctuations and “cold spots” as evidence a house is haunted. Supposedly, they indicate areas where ghosts reside, and in the past they were picked by alleged psychics. To counter the inherent subjectivity of such an approach (a spooky place may give one “cold chills”), modern ghost hunters employ heat sensors, such as digital thermal scanners which measure instant temperature changes. The practice persists despite a lack of scientific evidence or theory to support equating the temperature with ghosts and the fact that temperatures can vary throughout a building due to normal causes (Warren 2003, 171—172; Guiley 2000, 155; Baker 1992, 123).

The pseudoscientific approach is presented—one might almost say caricatured—by a ghostly reality show airing weekly on the Sci-Fi Channel. Called Ghost Hunters, it features two hapless paranormalists—Jason Hewes and Grant Wilson—who, by day, are Roto Rooter plumbers in New Jersey, and, by night, leaders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS). With some skepticism to enhance overall credibility (a token nonbeliever on each show), the duo present “evidence” for alleged hauntings.

Apparently ignoring my debunking of the “haunted” Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana (Nickell 2003), they visited the site for their second-season premier, July 27, 2005. Among their presentations was a video sequence of a lamp gliding across a table in the plantation’s “slave shack.” Many viewers were outraged, according to 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. And the so-called slave shack, Internet researchers said, was built recently and never housed slaves.

A Sci-Fi programming executive said lamely, “It’s definitely important to us that this show is not manufacturing anything, and our assurance comes from those doing that show, because it’s even more important to them—Jason and Grant’s reputations are riding on this more than anybody’s.” He added, “I believe the show is real and I’m the biggest skeptic, out there.”

Scientific Investigation

The scientific approach to hauntings does not begin with the unproven, seemingly contradictory notion that entities are at once nonmaterial and quasi physical. Rather, in scientific inquiry one seeks to gather, study, and follow the evidence, only positing a supernatural or paranormal cause when all natural explanations have been decisively eliminated. Investigation seeks neither to foster nor debunk mysteries but instead to solve them.

This approach can involve scholarly methods (such as historical research and folkloristic analysis) as well as scientific techniques like those used in crime-scene investigation. Indeed, in pursuing the Atlanta House of Blood mystery of 1987, I learned that after the suburban home was reported to spurt blood “like a sprinkler,” police had taken samples and made photographs. I was able to have the latter subjected to blood-pattern analysis. It revealed that the blood had not sprung from the floors and walls as alleged by the residents but indeed had been squirted onto the surfaces—indicating a hoax (Nickell 1995, 92—97).

Another hoax was uncovered by simple interrogation. This was an Indiana case I investigated with my friend and colleague the late Robert A. Baker, famed psychologist and inveterate ghostbuster. The subject, a little boy questioned by Baker, soon blurted out, “You aren’t going to tell on me are you?” (The answer was no, and the matter was handled diplomatically; see Nickell 2001, 219.)

On-site investigation solved my first haunting case, that of the Mackenzie House in Toronto in 1972. Caretakers abed late at night really were hearing footsteps on the stairs when there was no one else in the house. But the footfalls were coming from a parallel iron staircase in the adjacent building (Nickell 2001, 217).

As shown by these and other closed cases (I call them “ex-files”), it is the scientific approach that solves mysteries. Indeed, we could see the advance of science as a progression of solved mysteries.

Acknowledgments

Vaughn Rees, Thomas Flynn, and Timothy Binga were critical in helping me research and evaluate many of the claims addressed in this article.

References

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.