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The Paranormal Visit

Larry Weinstein

Skeptical Briefs Volume 11.2, June 2001

It was a dark and stormy night. Eerie lights flickered and strange moans sounded as the specially equipped vehicles screamed up to the haunted house. This was no ordinary case and the seasoned team members were relieved to have Joe Nickell, a top ghostbuster, riding shotgun.

Wellllll, no. It was dark and Joe Nickell is the country’s most experienced paranormal investigator, but the rest of that is just not true.

It started when Eva Clarke in the Old Dominion University Psychology Department received a phone call looking for a parapsychologist to investigate strange happenings at a local house. There are no parapsychologists at most universities but Eva, a member of Science and Reason in Hampton Roads (SRHR), knew who to call.

Right after “George” and “Mary” and their five pets (all names have been changed to protect confidentiality) moved into their home that summer, a neighbor told them horrible stories about the person who was shot in the house and about the little boy who lived there but died of cancer. When a door slammed by itself when George and Mary separately saw a large bright form move across the kitchen at night, Mary thought her new house was haunted.

In November, when they moved into their new bedroom and were just going to bed, Mary heard a child giggling at the foot of the bed. Then they both saw the window blinds swaying violently. Mary was “really starting to frighten” herself. She wasn’t scared of physical harm but she hated the feeling of being watched: “I didn’t want to be naked in my house because I thought someone was spying on me.”

They started looking around for help. The call to the spiritualist in Virginia Beach produced an offer to chase out the bad spirits for $140 per hour with no guarantee of success.

Fortunately, Joe Nickell, Ph.D., a Senior Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) and author of sixteen books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin and Looking for a Miracle, was coming to Norfolk to help launch Science and Reason in Hampton Roads (SRHR,, the newly formed local group which cooperates with CSICOP. Nickell, who has investigated dozens of haunted houses, agreed to take on the case.

Together with Sandy Brenner and and Larry Weinstein of SRHR, he visited the house and listened carefully to George and Mary. Joe, as he likes to be called, didn’t question their sincerity or sanity for a moment. Instead, he discussed the limitations of human perception and pointed out possible physical causes of each of the events they witnessed. For example, only one door slammed and only during the summer. Joe noted the nearby wall-mounted air conditioner and the fire place with the open flue, both of which could cause pressure changes, slamming the door. Similarly, the large bright form seen moving across the kitchen could well have been caused by headlights shining through the living room window behind the chair they were sitting in.

Mary also admitted that most of the sightings were seen out of the corner of her eye. Joe explained that peripheral vision is very sensitive and can easily mislead, especially late at night, when the brain is tired and more likely to misinterpret sights and sounds.

Joe pointed out repeatedly that “the least likely explanation for something like this is a ghost” since there is no scientific evidence for ghosts. “Once the idea of a ghost appears in a household . . . no longer is an object merely mislaid. . . . There gets to be a dynamic in a place where the idea that it’s haunted takes on a life of its own.” One-of-a-kind quirks that could never be repeated all become further evidence of the haunting.

He counseled that “If you enjoy having a household friend” then enjoy it. But “if you want it to go away, just ignore it. . . . Look for an explanation; don’t let it bother you. . . . The only harm I've seen from ghosts in thirty years is what people make of them.” A followup call to Mary found her thinking very differently about the mysterious phenomena. She had thrown back the bedcovers and discovered that they could make the blinds sway. She was quite thankful for Joe’s visit, “I feel more comfortable. . . . He did us a great service.”