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Ghost Hunting: Conditioning Phobias

Kenneth Biddle

Skeptical Briefs Volume 23.3, Fall 2013

In August of 2009, I was asked to tag along with a ghost-hunting group that was going to do a paranormal investigation of a private residence. During a previous visit, the owner had described multiple experiences he has had over the course of a few months—from falling objects and disembodied voices to darting shadows and apparitions. Despite the fact that there were simple and very plausible explanations for everything he experienced, the owner was completely convinced he had purchased a haunted house.

Why? Well, for starters, he hadn’t been able to explain the strange experiences on his own, so he came to the conclusion that the events simply “could not be explained.” In addition, the owner’s girlfriend told him “Yes, there were spirits here.” Since she is a fan of (un)reality paranormal TV shows and a self-proclaimed “sensitive,” this apparently qualifies her to determine if a house has ghosts. Both of them were convinced the previous owner (an elderly woman) was the main ghost because she had died (not even in the house but at the hospital). However, “previous owner died” is apparently a popular motive for ghosts to haunt a location. All of this had put the owner on edge—he was barely sleeping (if at all), he was uneasy being in the house alone, sometimes staying at work for double-shifts so he wouldn’t have to be in the house. As we spoke, I noticed his hands were in constant motion, never able to remain still.

The homeowner’s situation was already bad enough, but it would get worse. A member of the ghost group that was now “investigating” the house, brought up from the basement a brick wrapped in aluminum foil. The owner calmly explained that these bricks had been found in all of the bedrooms after he had taken over the house. His face then grew worried as he asked, “Is this bad?” Against my pleading, this ghost hunter began giving his personal explanation of the meaning behind this finding: they were protection spells keeping dangerous, possibly demonic, entities trapped within the foil-wrapped bricks. That was enough—the owner literally freaked out. He wanted to sell the house; he wanted to leave because he was fearful that there had been demons in his new home. He called his girlfriend, who proceeded to instruct him on Native American rituals he needed to perform to not only protect him but to “cleanse” the house. He was also advised to get the bricks out of the house.

I attempted to offer a more reasonable explanation for the bricks. Since one had been found in each bedroom, the simplest explanation to come to mind was that of an old-fashion form of cheap heat over a cold winter night—bed warmers. Houses built in the 1900s were not as well insulated against the elements as those built today. The foil-wrapped bricks would be placed in the oven (or by the fireplace if the residence had one) for about an hour. Once they were sufficiently warm, they were wrapped in thick newspaper, old blanket remnants, or towels. They were then placed between the sheets, keeping the sleeper’s feet warm. It was a popular belief that if your feet stayed warm, your whole body would stay warm throughout the night (Shingleton 2011; Hale 2007).

Despite the obvious signs of stress the homeowner was exhibiting, the ghost hunter continued on his path of destruction. Another member of this ghost-hunting team had brought out a device called an “Ovilus 1”—which is basically a random word generator loaded with 512 preprogrammed words, each word being assigned to a specific EMF value. According to the instruction manual, the Ovilus will pick words “using environmental energy” to speak (Chappell 2008). An interview with the creator of the device defines the “environmental energy” it samples as EMF, static electricity, and ionization (Belanger 2012). When I got my hands on one, I found that when the device takes a real-time EMF reading, it matches that value to the pre-assigned word in its library and announces it through a speaker. The “voice” is computer generated and difficult to understand, which you can imagine opens up plenty of opportunity for different interpretations.

After the robotic voice produced several words that were deemed unworthy of consideration (disposing of data because it did not support their belief), the ghost hunters perked up upon hearing words they interpreted as “upstairs” and “green” (not to­gether, mind you, there were a few words between them)—which were taken as a convenient description of one of four bedrooms in the house. To top it off, the device then spoke a word that received the most attention, yet had three different interpretations from three members—“Peter,” “meter,” and “demon.” The effect this had on the owner was rather dramatic. Between the red brick explanation and the random word generator, the owner was now convinced he not only had ghosts in his new home but also angry demons.

Over the course of a few hours, I watched the homeowner go from a slightly nervous man who was concerned that something strange was going on in his new home to a guy who was so scared silly to be in his own house that he was willing to do whatever he could to avoid being there. He was grasping at any idea, no matter how ridiculous, that sounded like it would help him be rid of what now seemed to be a team of demonic entities waiting to spring forth from their brick prisons and devour him limb from limb. (Perhaps I have dramatized a bit, but I assure you this is pretty darn close to how hysterical he was).

What happened here?

I contacted Kathleen Stengel to find out. Stengel is a board certified behavioral analyst with the Clarity Service Group (Southamp­ton, Pennsylvania), a nationally certified organization and member of The Pennhurst Group. With several emails back and forth, where I filled her in on the specifics, we agreed on a night to speak. After a busy day, I was able to steal a precious hour from her to talk about behaviors, fears, and ghost hunters.

The first issue to tackle: how the homeowner convinced himself so thoroughly, before the arrival of the ghost hunters, that his house was infested with ghosts of every sort. Stengel explained:

Interestingly enough, I actually did some research as an undergrad and in grad school about Superstitious Responding. Superstitious Responding is typically defined as responding that is maintained through accidental correlation with reinforcement contingencies. So, in layman’s terms what that means is your behavior continues to occur only by accidental inadvertent association with reinforcement . . . you’re responding not because of what is actually going on and what the actual consequences and environmental contingencies are set up for . . . you’re responding because in the past, there was an associated exposure. For example: if a baseball player wears the same socks for every game he happens to win, not because they actually had some effect on the greater good of the team . . . but because he’s worn those socks several times in a row and they just happened to win. It’s a conditioning that happens by accident. (Stengel 2001)

The homeowner would hear voices down the hallway that faded by the time he walked over to them. Since he couldn’t see anyone, he began to assume it was coming from thin air. He never realized they originated from the adjoining house. When shadows danced along the bedroom walls and had the owner frozen in momentary fear, he never got to see the lone car that drove down the street and disappeared around the corner. And the list goes on. The big issue was that events going on outside the house were having an indirect effect inside the house. As Stengel told me, “Superstitious Responding happens because the environment is set to reinforce patterns of behavior” (Stengel 2001). The experiences of the homeowner had played out over and over again, over the course of several months. The owner never looked for a natural cause for more than a few seconds and never found a natural explanation, deeming the experiences “unexplainable”—not to mention a bit frightening to him. Ghosts seemed to be the only solution the homeowner could come up with.

I now had a pretty good idea of how the homeowner’s fears started out, but I knew there had to be more. What I had attended was the second “investigation” of this house; the first had been done several weeks earlier. I learned that the same ghost hunter who believed demons were trapped in bricks had also been present for the team’s first visit. I also learned that he had offered several “explanations” for the ghostly experiences: Yes, there was something there, and he had audio recordings (with static-sounding whispering) and other misinterpreted readings from useless gadgets that “confirmed” the place was haunted. He had also advised the homeowner on what he could do to protect himself and possibly rid the house of these ghosts.

Stengel had this to say:

In terms of the self-proclaimed experts giving the bad advice, this creates more of an interesting paradigm. Now you have some­one who already has Superstitious Re­spond­ing and an authority who validates this contingency. We call these types of behavior contingencies “Rule Governed.” When you put rules into place from an authority figure, you’re going to trust them because of the years and years of authorities being correct. You trust that the information is going to be accurate. Any type of authority figure—whether they got the authority because someone told you they were an authority, they wrote a book, they are a proclaimed “ghost-hunter expert” and/or they have many letters after their name, whether true or artificial experts, they propose a theory that will validate the Superstitious Responding and now the behavior is more solidified in his or her repertoire. Now, you’re actually setting the occasion for behaviors that are going to respond stronger because they have been validated by an authority (Rule Governed) and shaped through accidental consequences (Superstitious Responding). In terms of a behavioral paradigm—this is a perfect storm of contingencies. A person believes this construct and that it is validated by an expert. Essentially, the authority figure conditions a response to avoid unexplained phenomena with little having to do with actual events or fact in the environment. Now you are conditioning a phobia. (Stengel 2001)

A phobia is a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as an excessive, irrational, and persistent fear of an object or situation. In most cases, the individual goes to great lengths to avoid the feared object. If for some reason the phobia cannot be avoided entirely, the sufferer will endure the situation or object with obvious distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities (Bourne 2011; Fritscher 2011). Stengel explains that “Phobias are those types of behaviors that get conditioned to avoid something and to stay away from [it]. I’m a behaviorist, so I like to break it down into measurable things—I see an increase in heart rate, I see an increase in blood pressure . . . I see a physiological responding that I can, in fact, measure in response to a certain set of stimuli and watch people attempt to avoid these stimuli both in the environment and physiologically. Now you’ve got somebody [homeowner] who is actually having physiological responses and stimuli avoidance behaviors, which most psychologists would say now you have an anxiety re­sponse” (Stengel 2001).

According to Medical News Today, anxiety is a general term used to describe several disorders that cause nervousness, fear, apprehension, and worrying. These disorders affect how we feel and behave, and they can manifest real physical symptoms (Nordqvist 2009). All of us have normal fears, like the few minutes before having to speak to a crowd or going to an interview. Anxiety becomes an issue when these fears affect how a person functions during their daily life.

“These people [ghost hunters] are conditioning all of these extraneous things as aversive stimuli. Now whenever anything ‘unexplainable’ happens, it immediately produces a physiological response—it puts your body in a Fight or Flight situation. A lot of people would call this stress. They’re putting people in a stressful situation” (Stengel 2001). Stress is the body’s natural reaction when you feel threatened, be it a real or imagined danger. When this happens, your hypothalamus (a tiny area at the base of your brain) tells your adrenal glands to releases stress hormones into the blood stream, such as cortisol and adrenaline (Mayo Clinic 2010). Your muscles tighten up, your heart beats quicker, blood pressure shoots up, and your senses become sharper—you’re ready for immediate action.

Stress can be helpful in certain situations. It makes us stronger, more focused, and our reaction time quickens—excellent when fighting off an attacker or avoiding an accident. However, when it gets beyond a certain point, stress begins to damage your health and overall quality of life. Just where that “certain point” is . . . well, it’s different for each of us. Some of us can handle more than others. Once you cross over to the dark side, long-term exposure to these hormones can screw up your system and put you at greater risk of heart disease, depression, obesity, memory impairment, and sleep problems (Mayo Clinic 2010).

The symptoms of stress and anxiety include any and/or all of the following: Ex­cessive, ongoing worry and tension; an un­realistic view of problems; fatigue; restlessness; irritability; muscle tension; head­aches; sweating; lack of focus; nausea; frequent trips to the bathroom; trouble falling or staying asleep; trembling; and easily being startled (Mayo Clinic 2010). It’s easy to understand how prolonged exposure to such issues can destroy a normal lifestyle, leading to some serious health issues.

I’ve seen this type of behavior in many homeowners who have come to me, either directly or through a friend, believing their home to be infested with ghosts. In most cases they describe countless sleepless nights, refusing to enter certain rooms or areas, nervousness, heightened stress, nightmares . . . the list goes on. What I’ve frequently ob­served is that these fears are started by thehomeowner, but are being solidified into true phobias by the ghost hunters who claim to offer “professional help.” Unfortunately, their idea of “help” has resulted in more damage to these people and their quality of life than anything remotely beneficial.

In the real world, we take advice from those we deem experts—mechanics who fix our cars, plumbers who fix our leaky pipes, and doctors who fix our bodies. We derive their expertise from many sources: licenses, permits, certifications, advertisements, equipment, and simply from owning or being employed by an actual business. In the Age of Instant Access, we usually find professionals/experts we’re looking for by surfing through their websites—fast and easy.

Unfortunately for someone who is already stressed, scared, and somewhat desperate for answers, a fancy website that boasts a lot of “scientifical” (Hill 2011) information is viewed as an authority on the subject of the paranormal. Self-titled ghost hunters (with many taking on the moniker of “paranormal investigator”) arrive at homes and businesses—armed with technology they don’t understand or use correctly, “knowledge” with no factual basis, and opinions they pass off as concrete facts—all of which present them as an authority to the common public. The team does their “woo woo” investigation, and in a few hours they declare the site haunted . . . then proceed to give advice based on bad information, even worse techniques, and conclusions that are basically made-up on the spot.

Oh, and they are apparently conditioning and reinforcing phobias that produce anxiety, stress, a decrease in the quality of life, and even substantial financial losses. These ghost hunters need to understand that this is not just some hobby that makes their weekends a good time; they are dealing with people’s lives (whole families at times). They’re giving advice on matters they do not truly understand, that fearful people are taking seriously and adjusting their lives to accommodate. What’s worse is they’re doing it completely unsupervised, answering to no one but themselves.

In the case I detailed in the beginning of this article, the two self-proclaimed, “expert” paranormal investigators managed to send the poor homeowner into a panic. Without the ghost-hunting group there, I really don’t think the owner’s fears would have escalated so much in such a short amount of time. I have no doubt that the group’s presence only made this man’s situation much worse than it actually was. Not long after the debacle they called an “investigation,” the owner sold the house to his niece . . . never mentioning a word about his experiences/fears, and taking a financial loss. He stated that he “just wanted to be done with it and away from there.” He could no longer handle being in a house that he believed was literally possessed by evil spirits.

Ghost hunters and their “clients” suffer from the same problem that caused the situation above, as well as hundreds of similar cases—a lack of critical thinking. Ghost hunters accept much of their “knowledge” at face value, taking what they learn from their favorite ParaTV shows, books by other ghost hunters, and the tons of science-sounding websites. Believing they are helping the public and furthering the “field of ghost research,” they are free to pass along this knowledge without fear of consequences or being held accountable when they are wrong (which is normally the case).

There are no certifications from accredited institutions on ghost hunting or paranormal investigation. There are no licenses, permits, or government seals of approval for investigating the paranormal. The point is that ghost hunters have no actual training on how to do what they claim they do; they simply mimic what they see on TV and the Internet. Critical thinking, asking questions, asking for educational and training background—these are some of the tools that can help the general paranormal-believing public avoid many of the issues discussed in this article, as well as would-be ghost-hunting “authorities.”


Belanger, Jeff. Episode 39—Paranormal Inventor Bill Chappell. 30 Odd Minutes. Available at

Bourne, E.J. 2011. The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook 5th Ed.New Harbinger Publications, 50–51.

Chappell, Bill. 2008. The Ovilus 1 instruction manual. Digital Dowsing, LLC, 3.

Fritscher, Lisa. 2011. What is a phobia? Understanding your phobia. Available at

Hale, Leon. 2007. Hale: Simple brick drives away night chills. Available at

Hill, Sharon. 2011. Scientific or scientifical? Doubtful News. Available at

Mayo Clinic. 2010. Stress management. Available at

Nordqvist, Christan. 2009. What is anxiety? What causes anxiety? What to do about it. Medical News Today. Available at

Shingleton, Pat. 2011. Hot bricks and bed warmers. Available at

Stengel, Kathleen. 2001. Personal communication with the author (December 13).

Kenneth Biddle

Kenneth Biddle is a skeptical investigator of paranormal claims. He contributes to The Bent Spoon online skeptical magazine and is an independent photographic consultant for MUFON. He routinely lectures on mistakes and misinformation concerning paranormal photography, gadgets, and methods.