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Playing Witch Doctor: Hidden Ethics in Skeptical Ghost Investigation

Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Briefs Volume 24.3, Fall 2014

The drive from my apartment to the haunted house was about twenty minutes, but I found myself wishing it would take longer. I wanted more time to get a handle on what I was going to say, how I was going to tell the family that their house was not haunted by a demon or angry ghost.

In theory, it should have been a straightforward conversation, not unlike telling a nervous child, “There’s nothing under the bed, now go to sleep.” It should have been a comforting and satisfying task for a prominent, experienced skeptical investigator. In practice, however, there were real people with real fears and real feelings, people who had been misled and lied to. And I’d probably have to lie to them again—or at least not tell them the whole truth.

• • •

About two weeks earlier I had gotten a call from a panicked woman named Monica who believed her house was haunted. She, her husband Tom, and their two-year-old daughter had fled their home just after Halloween and had not been back since. They were staying with her mother and were desperate for help with what was lurking in their bedrooms and hallways. Though busy with many other projects, I agreed to look into it because the family was clearly genuinely frightened, and because I was intrigued; though I had done scientific and skeptical paranormal investigations for years, this was one of the most complex and in-depth ghost investigations I’d attempted.

It was also the first time I’d interacted closely with a family whose home was believed to be haunted. I investigated their claims over the course of about ten days. I sat with them at night, waiting for angry spirits to appear. I listened to their hopes and fears. I was not merely their volunteer scientific ghost hunter; I became their counselor and confidant. I didn’t realize it at the time, but by agreeing to take on this case I had accepted a host of implicit, hidden ethical responsibilities.

The case involved many classic ghostly phenomena, including white orbs and demonic faces in photos, mysterious cold spots, and ghostly voices and footsteps. Tom even claimed that he’d been physically attacked by the ghost. Tom, raised Roman Catholic, had called a priest to perform an exorcism on the house on October 30. Tom later said he felt that the procedure was done just to humor him, and the disturbances got worse. Later that night they fled the house and were afraid to return except in daylight.

Their daughter had been displaced, moved out of her home, and was clearly aware that her parents were terrified. As my visits continued, and they could tell that I was taking them—and their experiences—seriously, the family gradually grew more comfortable in their home. My presence reassured them. There had been no new phenomena, and with each minor mystery I explained they grew more confident that not everything they had taken as a sign of haunting necessarily was one. (My investigation is far too complex to go into here, but it can be found as the fifth chapter in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries.)

I was knowledgeable, credible, and treating them respectfully. Tom and Monica both felt comfortable enough downstairs (on the sofa and floor) while I was there, but neither would sleep upstairs. With each visit I did more investigation, solved more mysteries, and then returned as time allowed (I investigated the case on my personal time, mostly nights and weekends). I planned to meet with Tom and Monica one final time to discuss my conclusions.

• • •

So here I was, returning to the decreasingly haunted house for the fourth or fifth time, to give Tom and Monica my final word on what I found. I realized that what I said to them would carry great weight; they trusted me. If I had told them their house really was haunted, they might have moved into a hotel or put the house up for sale.

What do I tell them? I asked myself.

As I said, the answer should have been simple. The completely honest answer was that I was certain that there was no ghost in the house, and there never had been. I had explained all of the ghostly phenomena through careful, skeptical investigation, and shared the results of each experiment with them at each step, so they could see for themselves what the answer was.

But I had also spent enough time around the family to know that they both believed that they had probably experienced something weird and supernatural in their home. I couldn’t tell them that there had never been any spirit or ghost in their house, because though it was true, they might not believe me. Though they accepted my scientific, rational explanations, I could tell that they harbored small lingering doubts and believed that at least some of their strange, scary experiences at least could have been real.

I was well aware of just how powerful personal experience and belief can be. All the arguments and evidence in the world won’t convince people who glimpsed what they believe is a UFO or ghost that they might be wrong. I had to leave the door open to the possibility that they might still deep down be convinced that a ghost visited them. My ability to help them hinged upon whether they believed I understood what was going on, and if I stated flat-out that ghosts do not exist, I would lose my credibility with them. So I couldn’t tell them the truth.

Still, Tom and Monica had already been lied to enough. The couple had watched TV shows like Ghost Hunters, which misled them into misinterpreting normal phenomena as supernatural. Monica had gone to the library and bookstore to find books on ghosts and hauntings—none of which were skeptical and only fanned their fears. They even consulted a local psychic—who, without doing a shred of actual investigation or even setting foot in the home—lied to the family, telling them “Your house is full of ghosts.”

I wrestled with the ethics of what to tell them. If I told them that I chased away an evil spirit, was it a cop-out? Was it a lie? Would I lose my credibility (or self-respect) as a scientific paranormal investigator? Was it any different than a doctor prescribing a placebo treatment, knowing that it had no active ingredient but would make the patient feel better?

I realized that my larger purpose as a skeptical investigator (in this case at least) was less about investigating ghosts than about helping people. I abandoned my planned skeptical speech about ghosts; this family didn’t care about EMF detectors or types of hauntings or the scientific explanation behind why people hear “ghostly” voices in random sounds or why Ghost Hunters is bullshit. They wanted to sleep in their own beds and not be terrified in their own home at night. They wanted their daughter to sleep through the night without crying. They needed comfort, not skeptical analysis or science-speak.

• • •

When I arrived at the house I sat down with Tom and Monica while their daughter played nearby. I pulled out a notebook, scanned my notes briefly and officiously, and chose my words very carefully: “We went through the ghostly phenomenon one by one, and we came up with normal explanations for all of them. . . . Now, I guess it’s possible that there was something here before I started investigating. I wasn’t here, so I don’t know. But I can tell you that I looked at everything you gave me and I haven’t found any evidence of a ghost or demon or spirit or anything else. Basically, if there was something here before, it’s definitely not here now. You don’t need to worry.”

I had begun the investigation a scientist and ended up a witch doctor. It wasn’t a role I was completely comfortable with, but when I saw their relieved reactions I knew I’d spoken the right incantation. I’d chosen the right magic words, phrases, and belief loopholes to allay their fears. I hadn’t really lied, but I hadn’t really told the truth; I did the best I could.

When audiences see ghost investigation on television, it’s easy to forget the real people affected by genuine fear and panic. Those who experience ghosts are not stupid, gullible fools to be mocked or ridiculed. They are ordinary people just like our friends, neighbors, and family who don’t have the skeptical knowledge to recognize when they are being misinformed by unethical ghost “experts.” This ghost investigation was not a funny lark or a midnight candlelight romp through a graveyard or abandoned warehouse to taunt unseen spirits. This was not a TV show or a game; these were real people who were losing sleep, chain-smoking, and showing signs of psychological disturbance.

All turned out well; I followed up with them a week later, and because of my investigation the family was home for Thanksgiving. I wrote up my investigation in Skeptical Inquirer (and as a chapter in one of my books) and moved on. I used the experience and insights I’d gained from that case in later investigations, but otherwise thought little more about it.

Then, the following year I got an email from a fellow ghost investigator who’d read my case study on this haunting, how I solved the case and handled the family. He wrote:

I would like to thank you for your “case book” report on the haunted house in New York State. It was exactly what I was looking for. I am the Archdeacon of the northern territory of the Province of Quebec and am currently being asked to investigate a similar situation north of Montreal. Although I am an Anglican Priest . . . I tend to approach investigations of haunting with a great deal of scepticism. Although as a Priest I must be open minded about the eschatological beliefs of my faith my main concern is really a pastoral one for those who are living in fear.

He asked for advice about his investigation techniques, and concluded with comments that echoed my own experience:

I hate having to resort to “priest craft” and feel like a witch doctor playing a game of psychological “gotcha” when I am forced to (luckily only a few times in my career). I would much prefer to take the approach you have taken and show step by step that there is no basis for the “haunting” and then bless the house for the comfort of those who live there. However, usually the people want to “fight” supernatural forces with more supernatural forces. If that is their firmly held worldview it is difficult for me during my short involvement with the people to do other than just play along for their own benefit.

In the end I feel like a cheat because they really do not accept the rational expiations and I have to play witch doctor. People often seem to prefer to believe they are being stalked by a malevolent spirit whilst they sleep than believing that it is just a particular type of dream state. Perhaps people find the rational descriptions of things takes the mystery out of life. I find the opposite—science can produce in me feelings of awe similar to poetry and music. Yet I do not seem to be in the majority here. The only thing that worked with this family was to play the part of the exorcist.

I suggested to him that perhaps what we experienced was a case of “the devil you know”—rational, scientific explanations may seem like egghead mumbo-jumbo to a layperson, while if they believe they are being tormented by evil forces, it’s at least an archetype they understand. The good-versus-evil idea is easier to grasp than the nuances of anomalous psychological experiences.

I was struck that a nonreligious professional skeptical paranormal investigator struggled with the same ethical ghost-investigation issues as an Anglican Archdeacon. We both used science and skepticism to solve mysteries and help those who’d been misled—sometimes by their own senses or logical lapses, other times by unethical, misinformation-spewing ghost hunters and psychics.

We had both been forced, if not to lie then to at least pretend, to be something we were not. I have a deep and profound respect for the power of truth and science, but at times the will to believe reduces us to witch doctors and exorcists.

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits (2018).