More Options

The ‘Ethics’ of Ghost Hunting?

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

November 16, 2009

If a doctor engages in malpractice, the practitioner is accountable to professional organizations. However, if a ghost hunter is accused of misconduct, there is no regulatory board, no code of conduct, and no guide to good ghost practices. What recourse does the client have when the poltergeists come back or the ghosts don’t leave?

Following accusations of unethical and illegal practices, the ethics of ghost hunting is currently a controversial topic among the paranormal community. In an effort to legitimize the practice, some ghost hunters have attempted to create a set of standards and ethics. Why, even the pet psychic community has a code of ethics!1

Do Ghost Hunters Need a Hippocratic Oath?

To address this need, “Investigation Morality” in Haunted Times presents a protocol for ghost hunting. This consists of a superficial list of obvious rules: respect private property, no illegal drug use, no intoxication, no discriminatory language. Strangely, the article then creates procedures of how to capture photographs of orbs and tips for recording electronic voice phenomena. Then the list of “standards” starts sounding like a playground warning: “There will be no running or horseplay at any time during an investigation. This type of behavior does not befit an investigator and it does not give the proper respect to the place or owner.”2

Creating a code of ethics obscures the fact that ghost hunting is the problem itself. The very beliefs, practices, claims, conclusions, and cures of ghost hunters are often unethical. Is it simply unethical for ghost hunting groups to investigate at all?

Ghost hunting is hardly a civil right, but anyone can do it. Indeed, it is encouraged by “haunted” restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that thrive on their folklore and often rely on the bias of ghost hunters. Many “haunted” sites are public places. Within certain hours, cemeteries are open to visitors whether they want to mourn by a graveside, dangle a pendulum over a grave, or attempt to raise a spirit from beneath it.

The potential ethical problems arise when a troupe of ghost hunters forms a group, sets themselves up as a “business,” advertises their spurious “services,” attracts “clients,” and sets foot into private houses, even with the consent or invitation of their residents. It’s like phoning your local Kingdom Hall and inviting a few Jehovah’s Witnesses into your home…

Ghost hunting is an industry today. Inspired by the plethora of reality TV shows, ghost hunting groups are as popular today as video shops were in the 1990s. There are potentially thousands of these groups nationally. In one informal online search, an estimated 140 paranormal groups were found in Denver, Colorado, alone.3 A few of these groups even claim nonprofit status.

These groups exist because there is a need, however illegitimate it may often be. The need is not only provoked by these TV shows but stems from popular beliefs. When members of the public fear their businesses and homes are haunted, they contact these paranormal groups; they don’t come to us. From skeptics they expect a lack of sympathy and ridicule. From believers they expect sympathy and similar belief systems. When they should want fact, they seek familiarity. But the assurance is that these teams are comprised of ghost hunters who claim to be “professional,” “trained,” and “qualified.”

PhD (Ghost Hunting)

Image Copyright Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society 2009.

© Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society 2009.

Put simply, none of us are “qualified.” There are no ghost hunting qualifications. There is no apprenticeship, training, course, or degree needed to become a ghost hunter, ghost chaser, paranormal investigator, or skeptical investigator of the paranormal. That is, there are no legitimate courses. Ghost Chasers International and other organizations offer courses that ensure you will become a “Certified Ghost Hunter,”4 if not certifiable…

By this description, no one is “unqualified” either, but some are more unqualified than others. Some professions can be more relevant to the field: physicists can explain the way the natural world works; historians can compare claims of dates, people, and places against records; and electricians can explain strange behavior caused by faulty circuits. Even the infamous plumbers of television’s TAPS5 can bring to bear specialist knowledge…until they go beyond their knowledge base.

It is important that the investigator doesn’t venture beyond his or her area of expertise. Unfortunately, it is venturing beyond their area of expertise for some ghost hunters to investigate at all.

All investigators are varying degrees of amateur. For most, it’s a haphazard hobby. No degree in physics or “metaphysics” will prepare someone to investigate the paranormal. It takes many people from many different backgrounds to piece together paranormal puzzles; provided all players are playing the same game.

Image Copyright Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society 2009.

© Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society 2009.

There is no professional organization, regulatory body, union, or code of ethics to regulate ghost hunting research and practices. Should such courses and resources exist? Probably not; ghost hunting is not a structured field or standardized practice. It is based in legend and myth, and many claims involve the paranormal interpretation of natural phenomena. To date, there is no solid evidence for the existence of ghosts.

Ghost hunting seems to be the alchemy of our day.

The (Not So) Scientific Method

Ghost hunting is not a science, but any claim can be studied scientifically. By and large, investigating the paranormal is a legitimate study studied illegitimately.

There is no formal or rigorous model or methodology to investigating claims of hauntings. There is no one right way to approach it but many wrong ways. Ghost hunting can and should employ the scientific method, but most hunters don’t, or even worse, they do … but badly.

It is not field work when the data consists of photographs of orbs, recordings of electronic voice phenomena, and anecdotal evidence of ghost sightings. It’s not the scientific method when the premise is that ghosts exist.

It is not experimental research when dubious tools are used. Some devices are bogus: the “Telephone to the Dead,” a bad radio that reputedly receives garbled messages from the deceased that can be “translated” for a price.6 Some equipment is overkill: using a Geiger counter to find spirits is like using a concrete mixer to blend cake batter (and an imaginary cake at that). Some instruments are irrelevant: as the name suggests, Electromagnetic Field Detectors measure electromagnetic fields, not ghosts. Thermometers, ion meters, and motion sensors were not designed for the purposes of ghost hunting.

Just because someone is using scientific equipment does not mean they are using the scientific method.

Diagnosis: Paranormal

Image Copyright Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society 2009.

© Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society 2009.

Following this fundamentally flawed experimentation, it is not conclusive when the ghost hunters pronounce a location “haunted.” Belief often gets in the way of reality, and it’s easier to have blind faith than to undertake double-blind tests. Ghost hunters and clients often live in a supernatural symbiosis. The claims justify the existence of the ghost hunters, and the ghost hunters substantiate the claims, which leads to confirmation bias. It’s often the ghost hunters themselves who bring the ghosts.

Occasionally, paranormal cases are driven by underlying physical or mental health conditions, which the ghost hunter is incapable of discerning unless he or she moonlights as a medical doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. And unless they are the client’s chosen or assigned therapist, it’s not ethical for them to become involved at all even if they are a licensed therapist. To corroborate these claims is unconscionable, and to attempt to resolve these cases is dangerous; the ghost hunter is sorely out of his or her depth.

To be truly ethical, ghost hunters should avoid private investigations and avoid becoming embroiled in the personal lives of others.

Finally, once the ghost hunters have “diagnosed” a site as haunted, it is not ethical for them to attempt to “cure” the still-alleged phenomena. Some paranormal groups enlist psychics, demonologists, and other paranormal practitioners to “treat” hauntings with protective rituals, ghost clearings, cleansing ceremonies, blessings, exorcisms, and other Hollywood cures. “Curing” a haunting is at best a placebo for the apparent victim and at worst a fraud.

An investigation should aim to solve a mystery, not claim to be curative. The goals in investigating claims of the paranormal should be to establish whether or not there is a claim, to examine the claim carefully and logically, and hopefully to explain the phenomena. Sometimes our job is simply to accept explanations as they are found, as mundane as they may sound in comparison to the claim.

The simplest explanations can be the most difficult to accept by those who are already convinced of the presence of the paranormal.

Ghost hunting is fraught with potential ethical concerns for all parties involved. The ghost hunter and clients faces legal, moral, and safety issues. The locations are vulnerable to vandalism, theft, and damage. Then there are the more intangible dangers of ghost hunting: the destruction of history, the creation of pseudoscience, and the misrepresentation of the natural world as supernatural.

Perhaps ghost hunters don’t need a code of ethics because no one needs “ghost hunters.”

References:

  1. Code of Ethics for Animal Communication. Available at http://www.herbsandanimals.com/codeofethics.html (accessed November 6, 2009).
  2. Schill, Brian. 2009. Investigation Morality: Moral Dilemma—Investigating Cemeteries and MCIs. Haunted Times 4, no. 2.
  3. Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society. Available at http://www.rockymountainparanormal.com/ (accessed November 9, 2009).
  4. Ghost Chasers International. Available at http://www.ghosthunter.com/ (accessed November 9, 2009).
  5. The Atlantic Paranormal Society. Available at http://www.the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com/ (accessed November 9, 2009).
  6. The Telephone to the Dead. Available at http://thetelephonetothedead.com/ (accessed November 9, 2009).

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.