The Shady Science of Ghost Hunting

Ghosts are big business. For entities that may or may not exist, the

 

 

y seem to be everywhere, especially during Halloween.

They are in books and on television shows, such as CBS’s “The Ghost Whisperer” and NBC’s “Medium.” Dozens of “ghost hunter” organizations exist across North America, small groups of self-styled ghost buffs who lurk around reputedly haunted places, hoping to glimpse or photograph a spirit.

The most famous ghost hunters are two plumbers who moonlight as paranormal investigators, seen in the popular Sci-Fi Channel reality show/soap opera series “Ghost Hunters.” They go to haunted places and find “evidence” of ghosts such as cold spots, photographic anomalies called orbs, and other such spookiness.

The two featured investigators, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, are proudly blue-collar workers, not egghead Ph.D. scientists, which adds to their strong “regular guy” appeal.

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Where are the ghosts?

While one doesn’t need to be a scientist to search for ghosts, the pair (like most ghost hunters) could benefit greatly from a little critical thinking. They claim to be skeptics but are very credulous and seem to have no real understanding of scientific methods or real investigation. (Audiences don’t seem to wonder why these “expert” ghost hunters always fail: Even after two seasons and over ten years of research, they still have yet to prove that ghosts exist!)

Though most ghost investigators’ worst crime is wasting time, sometimes they make nuisances of themselves and even break the law.

In October 2005, three ghost hunters in Salem, Massachusetts, were arrested for trespassing on private property in search of ghosts. They had entered an abandoned hospital reputed to be haunted. The group was so busy looking for spirits they failed to notice the police station across the street; all three were arrested, fined, and sent home. Trespassing or vandalizing ghost hunters have also been arrested in cemeteries in Illinois, Connecticut, and other states.

Ghost detectors

When it comes to searching for ghosts, you’d think that only the most reliable methods would be used in an attempt to get solid evidence for something as mysterious and elusive as a spirit. Yet in ghost hunting, often the less scientific the methods and equipment, the more likely a researcher is to find “evidence” for ghosts.

Ghost hunters use a variety of creative—and dubious—methods to detect their quarry’s presence, including psychics. Psychics not only claim to locate ghosts but also to communicate with the spirits, who unfortunately don’t provide any useful or verifiable information from the afterlife [see a séance].

Virtually all ghost hunter groups claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, and infrared cameras [and sensitive microphones]. Yet the equipment is only as scientific as the person using it; you may own the world’s most sophisticated thermometer, but if you are using it as a barometer, your measurements are worthless.

Just as using a calculator doesn’t make you a mathematician, using a scientific instrument doesn’t make you a scientist.

Devices that don’t work

In 2003, while I was investigating a haunted house in Buffalo, New York, the owner of the house asked me what equipment I planned to use. He had glanced in my duffel bag, which contained two cameras, a tape recorder, notebooks, a tape measure, a flashlight, and a few other items. Perhaps he was expecting to see a Negative Ionizer Ghost Containment backpack like the kind Bill Murray wore in Ghostbusters.

An EMF meter is among the most common devices used by ghost hunters today. I spoke to Tom Cook, of TomsGadgets.com, a British purveyor of “scientific” paranormal kits for the enterprising (and gullible) investigator. Starter kits begin at £105 (US$180) and reach up to £500 (US$850) for a custom ghost-hunting kit. (Negative Ionizer Ghost Containment packs were not listed.)

I asked Cook what, exactly, the scientific rationale was behind the equipment he sold.

“At a haunted location,” Cook said, “strong, erratic fluctuating EMFs are commonly found. It seems these energy fields have some definite connection to the presence of ghosts. The exact nature of that connection is still a mystery. However, the anomalous fields are easy to find. Whenever you locate one, a ghost might be present…. any erratic EMF fluctuations you may detect may indicate ghostly activity.”

In the final analysis, Cook admitted, “there exists no device that can conclusively detect ghosts.”

Uncomfortable reality

The uncomfortable reality that ghost hunters carefully avoid—the elephant in the tiny, haunted room—is of course that no one has ever shown that any of this equipment actually detects ghosts.

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