paranormal investigation Methods and techniques employed in investigating reports of Ghosts, Apparitions, Poltergeists, and other paranormal phenomena. The purpose of investigation is to determine if natural explanations can be found; if not, phenomena are “unexplained” or “paranormal.”
“Paranormal investigation” has become preferred over earlier terms, such as “ghost investigation,” “ghost research,” and “ghost hunting.” Paranormal investigation is broader than ghosts and Hauntings and extends to sightings of mysterious creatures, Demonic activity, mysterious places, and even UFO sightings. Most paranormal investigators are laypersons.
Paranormal investigations include both Scientific and psychic approaches.
Investigators estimate that the majority of all reports of haunting phenomena have natural explanations, such as tricks of light and shadow, peculiar atmospheric conditions, geomagnetic or electromagnetic influences, or animal noises. Some cases are exposed as fraud. Other cases seem to be centered on human agents, especially poltergeist cases, in which phenomena are caused by unconscious Psychokinesis (PK).
Scientific investigations of the paranormal became well established in the late 19th century, as a result of interest in Spiritualism phenomena. Psychical Research focused especially on the physical phenomena of Mediumship. Research relied heavily upon eyewitness evidence; scientists became sitters at Séances. Important evidence also included photographs (see Spirit Photography).
Parapsychology, which evolved from psychical research, has concentrated on Scientific protocols observed under controlled laboratory conditions to study PSI, DREAMS, and psychokinesis and related areas. Psychic phenomena are difficult to replicate on demand.
Both scientists and laypersons have engaged in research of ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists, and hauntings. Up to the late 20th century, techniques were still heavily based on personal observation and witness interviews, photography, and simple measurements of physical properties, such as temperature, humidity, and so forth. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR), London, established guidelines for investigations, with effects divided into five classifi cations: 1) unaccountable movement of objects; 2) unaccountable noises (including voices and music) and smells; 3) apparitions, mysterious lights and shadows; 4) unaccountable touches, pushes, and feelings of heat and cold; and 5) feelings of fear, horror, disgust, and of unseen “presences.”
In the 1990s, the nature of paranormal investigation changed dramatically. A wider range of high-quality, hightechnology equipment enabled more people to undertake more sophisticated research. And, the popularity of ghosts and hauntings swelled the ranks of lay investigators. Many investigators are organized into groups and have developed their own procedures.
Characteristics of Investigation
The good investigator must be an open-minded skeptic and look first for all possible natural causes. These fall into two classes, mechanical and personal. Mechanical causes include machinery vibrations and lights, road noises, electromagnetic and electrical sources, and the like. Personal causes are people. For example, someone might unwittingly cause floorboards to creak and ascribe the noise to a ghost. Some people purposefully create trick phenomena.
Eliminating potential causes requires thorough investigation of a site. Ideally investigators should make more than one visit during both day and night to determine natural lights, shadows, and noises. Maps should be consulted to show fault lines, power lines, and underground streams, mines, tunnels, etc., that might be responsible.
Investigators also should do historical research, such as about events recorded in newspapers, periodicals, and government documents; geological conditions; and construction activity.
Three basic investigative techniques are used: description, experimentation, and detection.
Description involves personal observation and taking eyewitness accounts. Witnesses should be interviewed separately to avoid influencing one another’s accounts. In addition to details of the experience, witnesses are asked to provide information about their circumstances, health, and states of mind; previous knowledge, if any, of similar experiences; and any previous paranormal experiences or occult activities. Investigators must keep in mind that in the reconstruction of an experience, every witness may see the same experience quite differently.
Experimention involves bringing in a psychic or Medium to see if his or her impressions tally with those of the eyewitnesses and to mark a floorplan of the house or building to show spots where hauntings occurred, based upon their sensations of “cold spots” (unusually cold areas) and clairvoyant impressions. Opinions vary concerning the use of mediums. Some investigators consider them unreliable and prefer to base investigations solely upon equipment data. However, psychics and mediums can provide details and information that can be researched in records.
Detection technique involves such procedures as securing rooms and objects to test their disturbance; setting up electronic surveillance equipment (cameras and camcorders, recorders, temperature sensors, Geiger counters, electromagnetic field meters, thermal scanners, lasers, etc.). Simpler detection methods are the spreading of fl our, salt, or powder on surfaces to see if they are disturbed. Equipment readings can help to validate anecdotal reports. For example, an extreme cold spot in a room said to be haunted can be documented with data. Photography and Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) also are important. But excessive reliance upon devices may show natural environmental factors and not paranormal factors.
Use of High-Technology Tools
Scientists who studied mediumship phenomena employed various technological tools besides cameras. In the 1870s, Sir William Crookes used a special device to try to measure physical effects produced by D.D. Home and other mediums. In the 1930s, Eugene Osty used specially designed infrared and ultraviolet instrumentation in sittings with Rudi Schneider (see Schneider Brothers).
High-tech ghost investigation got its start in England. Harry Price was among the first to use modern technology in his ghost investigations, the most celebrated of which was Borley Rectory in England. Price leased the rectory and created a laboratory. He conducted tests with 48 volunteers, using the modern technology of the time: felt overshoes, steel tape measures, string, electric bells (for motion detection), a film camera, a remote-control movie camera, mercury (for detection of vibrations), fingerprinting equipment, telescope, portable telephone, chalk, and other items. Price still was not able to prove the existence of ghosts. He wrote about his investigation in The Most Haunted House in England (1940). Several years after his death, critics contended that he had manipulated data and facts.
Some of the basics for investigations have not changed significantly over the years: notebook and pen, flashlight and extra batteries, small tool kit, measuring tape, colored tape to mark locations, film or digital camera, camcorder, digital or tape recorder, and compass. Other gear are twoway radios for communicating with other team members, dowsing rods, or pendulums. A substantial amount of data can be obtained with simple gear.
Most of the serious lay investigators also use some, but not necessarily all, of the following:
• Electromagnetic field (EMF) detector, a device that measures magnetic fields (there are different types of EMF meters, the pros and cons of which are debated by investigators)
• Digital thermometer for fast and sensitive temperature readings
• Field strength meter, which observes radiation patterns of antennae
• Night-vision scopes and goggles
• Relative humidity gauge, for measuring changes in the air
• Negative ion generator, which some investigators believe attracts ghosts
• Negative ion detector, for finding areas high in negative, or free, ions, and may reveal explainable sources
• Geiger counter, which detects radiation and also some anomalous phenomena
• Tremolo meter, a voice-stress analyzer useful for interviewing witnesses, which may reveal possible fraudulent claims
• Thermal image camera
• Motion detector
• Oscilloscope for measuring electrical voltage
• Laptop computer as a command center
• Video monitors for remote viewing
Like earlier investigators, some modern investigators design their own special equipment. The GRS has a multiple- equipment setup run by computer called GEIST, the German term for ghost. GEIST stands for Geophysically Equipped Instrument of Scientific Testing. A laptop computer and a polling box are hooked up to several devices: a geiger counter, EMF meter, negative ion detector, ultraviolet and infrared detectors, temperature sensor, and camera. Whenever a device is activated, the camera snaps a picture. Every event is automatically recorded on the hard drive of the computer. GEIST can automatically reset itself after each event. GRS investigators can monitor a house or an environment without any investigator being present. The investigators can see which device went off and when. GEIST undergoes continuing improvements with technological advances.
Similarly, Joshua P. Warren uses a “Paranormal PC,” a computer hooked to seven meters that monitor different fields of data.
Parapsychologist TONY CORNELL and Howard Wilkinson developed a device in 1982 called SPIDER (Spontaneous Psychophysical Incidence Data Electronic Recorder), an array of cameras hooked to a temperature sensor. Changes in temperature trigger the cameras. SPIDER evolved in various models.
Parapsychologist MICHAELEEN MAHER used a “Demon Detector,” a computer connected to a random-number generator, which attempts to detect manipulation by unknown sources.
When digital cameras gained popularity, many investigators disapproved of their use, arguing that they easily created ORBS, mistaken for paranormal phenomena, and were easy tools for fake photographs. Most investigators have either switched to digital or use both film and digital cameras. Digital cameras have improved in quality and also have information embedded in the images that make fraud more difficult.
Most investigators use digital recorders rather than tape recorders for EVP, or employ both.
Elements of Investigation
Individuals and groups develop their own preferred methods, but most follow basic procedures. First, a case is qualifi ed by preliminary research. An individual who reports a haunting is interviewed. Many times, potential cases can be disqualifi ed in this manner. A preliminary visit may be made to a site to check out physical and geophysical factors. Investigators make maps of sites and floor plans.
An investigation plan is drawn up. Many teams prefer to keep their numbers small—up to six or eight persons. The larger the group, the harder it is to control an investigation, and the chances of capturing data decrease. If a vigil or ghost watch is undertaken—usually a nighttime observation session lasting several hours or all night—a team is divided into pairs with specific duties. Written records are kept.
If a psychic participates, the psychic may enter the site first in order to obtain impressions that may prove useful for the placement of equipment or for the research of information. Sometimes psychics conduct Séances at a site.
Sometimes circumstances do not permit advance reconnaissance, and a group makes it initial visit to a site for the actual surveillance.
Results are analyzed and shared with the individuals who requested the investigation. Sometimes groups investigate open, public places for their own data collection. Most paranormal investigators and groups do not charge fees for investigations.
Reality shows and docudramas about hauntings and investigations often portray an idealized investigation: a team sets up its equipment and immediately strange things happen. However, many investigations involve long hours of patient surveillance, with little or no results.
Challenges in the Field
Ideally, investigation results are intended to further the understanding of the paranormal. Investigators advocate data sharing. Some collaborations and consortiums are formed, but many of them do not last long, for most investigators like to pursue their activities as they, and not others, see fit.
Lay paranormal investigation remains an uneven field. Levels of investigator expertise and knowledge vary significantly. Media popularity encourages people with no background or training to buy a few pieces of gear and set themselves up in business, without knowing much about investigation or about the nature of the paranormal. Inexperienced investigators run the risk of misinterpreting data (see ORBS) and making erroneous statements to the media. Sometimes there is a rush to get public attention and be “first,” and investigators put questionable data on the Internet. Some investigators who do share their data find it pirated. Increasing media attention during the 1990s into the early 21st century made paranormal investigation competitive and more vulnerable to exploitation and distortion.
A few groups and organizations say they “certify” paranormal investigators through training, but no formal standards exist.
On the positive side, paranormal investigation has helped to change some public perception of the paranormal. Public awareness is largely shaped by the media and entertainment industry, which usually sensationalizes the negative. Paranormal investigation may help many people at least think about and discuss Survival After Death and other aspects of phenomena.
In addition, paranormal investigation stands to contribute to research in quantum consciousness, intentionality, and the interaction between consciousness and energy of place.
- Auerbach, Loyd. ESP, Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Parapsychologist’s Handbook. New York: Warner Books, 1986.
- Cornell, Tony. Investigating the Paranormal. New York: Helix Press, 2002.
- Kaczmarek, Dale. A Field Guide to Spirit Photography. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2002.
- Nesbitt, Mark. The Ghost Hunter’s Field Guide: Gettysburg & Beyond. Gettysburg, Pa.: Second Chance Publications, 2005.
- Taylor, Troy. The Ghost Hunter’s Guidebook: The Essential Guide to Investigating Ghosts & Hauntings. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Press, 2004.
- Underwood, Peter. The Ghost Hunter’s Guide. Poole, Dorset: Blandford House, 1986.
- Warren, Joshua P. How to Hunt Ghosts. New York: Fireside, 2003.
Back to Ghost Glossary