Photo of, “The Pillars,” in Bolivar, Tennessee. Photo credit goes to original photographer.
After my unexpected rendezvous with a website promoting an alternative view of reality back in 2002, I knew immediately that I wanted to understand how someone thinks who falls on a different side of the fence of opinion than do I. Before I am berated for having too skeptical an outlook on life, hopefully, it can be seen that I actually took the correct approach to the question of whether the, “paranormal,” is indeed part of our reality (more about semantics later as I will devote a blog entry to a discussion of terms and definitions)? My conscious decision did not only include an effort to begin reading and researching the opinions of the paranormalist. There was also that part of me that said in order to be objective, I needed to put things to the test. The wrong approach is to simply sit back and scoff at the ideas and presume, a priori, that all claims are, by default, hogwash. The correct approach is to actually go into the field and put yourself where the claims are. This correct approach is something I began to do whenever my schedule would allow.
When it comes to discussing an investigative approach to ghosts, it is often helpful to give examples of case studies so someone can gain a better understanding of application. Here I am including a summary of a fun journey I made out into the field during October of 2017. What I don’t want to give the impression of is that a single example of one of my adventurous jaunts dispels all claims of ghostly activity. Each case of a claim has to be treated individually and evaluated based on the available evidence. But, that’s not to say that there aren’t very apparent trends and motifs in ghost hunting that must be registered and considered comparatively when it comes to the risk of environmental misinterpretation.
The example I am referencing is of a visit I made to take a ghost tour of a purportedly haunted historical property. On this night to which I am referring, I first got to take a tour of the multiple historical locations around the town and hear wonderful ghost stories affiliated with the different locales. But, the main reason I attended the activities of the night was because it was going to conclude with our tour guide and another ghost hunter treating our group to a bit of a seance in the parlor of the historical home that is pictured above. We tourists got to take in a mini-investigation at the end of the evening.
In order to break down some of the practices one might see from ghost hunters, in this entry I am summarizing both the events of the night and the summary that I initially wrote to one of the members here in the chapter of the International Brotherhood of Magicians that is closest to me. The point of this blog entry is to try and put the reader in the middle of a ghost hunting excursion, while also making the effort to encourage the reader to think their way through the events of the exercise. Again, this commentary is not meant to discourage any belief an individual might have in ghosts. Rather, it is simply a caution that if a person has the objective of finding evidence for ghosts, they need to be careful, despite whatever presuppositions they might have. I am humbly saying that on this particular night at the haunted home I visited, I did not experience an encounter with the afterlife. Instead, I simply interpreted the environment around me for what was actually occurring and not for what was being espoused as communication with a ghostly entity.
In the parlor of the historical home where our group was first led into a communication session with the departed, two flashlights were already placed on the mantle. For those of you who are paranormal enthusiasts, you already know that the flashlights were going to be used as communication signal devices that ghosts are supposedly good at manipulating so that they might interact with the living. In case you are a reader of this blog and not a follower of the paranormal scene, you should know that it is easily to manipulate a flashlight so that it will intermittently light up, whether one loosens the connection to the battery by slightly unscrewing the cap, or through slightly more ambitious means. If you have been a regular viewer of some ghost hunting shows, you have seen how the flashlights are used as a supposed conduit for allowing spirits to communicate. Since I wasn’t allowed to inspect the flashlights before our seance started, I, of course, discounted any activity the flashlights might have exhibited later during the night for talking to the resident spirits.
Furthermore, there was a PSB scanner set up on the coffee table. PSB scanners just rapidly scan frequencies of a certain range over the open air. A lot of ghost hunters have chosen to make use of them, with the assumption being that a ghost can exploit one of the frequencies and get a word or phrase across so as to directly communicate with us in the here-and-now. Conveniently enough, and an incredibly important point of note, during this visit of mine, a K-II meter was also placed almost adjacent to the PSB scanner on the coffee table.
While the ghost hunters were making us aware of the equipment being used in the room, they also randomly picked someone in our tour group to pick a word that would have been commonly used during the antebellum time period that would be suspected to coincide with that of the ghosts resident to the house. The person choosing the word was supposed to keep it secret until the end of the seance. Well, of course, my radar immediately went up. As one who began trying to learn some magic so I could better evaluate psi claims, at that very point I was wondering if the ghost hunters were actually going to perform a mentalism trick, in which case I would have known that the underlying intent of the night was to make sure the audience went home with something to talk about rather than having conducted any kind of objective investigation.
With flashlights in place, PSB scanner roiling away, and with secret word chosen, the ghost hunters began to ask questions aloud of the spirits. Thankfully, by the end of the seance, I saw how things were structured and I didn’t have to worry about crying foul too loudly about staged tricks, or at least not in full. The scenario was a bit of that known as, “equivoque,” to magicians. If the flashlights didn’t light up the way they did for the group prior to us, then that just meant the spirits weren’t in the mood to communicate with us right then. One of the ghost hunters assured us that in real life investigation things aren’t as they are portrayed on TV. Well, in this case, what that comment really translated to was the fact that you might have to wait for the scanner to finally hit a frequency that gave you some garble so you could then say the spirits were trying to talk. The whole time the scanner was in operation, I never heard any intelligible words; only broken language that was due to the interruption of open air broadcasts from the scanner’s rapid scanning. In fact, all I really did hear that I could make out definitely was some music, or maybe a commercial jingle, from what sounded like a radio station. Towards the end of the session, there was only suggestion leading members of our tour group to believe they heard meaningful words, when in fact, the blurbs we did hear did not sound like the words being quoted as tour members conversed amongst themselves. A case of audible pareidolia was taking place.
One moment of excitement was when the scanner did flake out, but it was not due to any spirit activity. What happened was that the scanner went into a locked mode, and in the process it gave off a brief electrical spike, which in turn made the K-II EMF meter next to it light up. This effect would be expected to happen with a K-II when it is sitting right next to another electrical device. The scanner just needed power cycling to remedy its state, but of course, the fact that the scanner locked and the EMF meter showed activity at the same time, it gave dramatic license for attributing the interaction to spirits.
Also, because the principle at hand is that spirits manipulate energy in the immediate environment so they can interact through electronic devices, the young man sitting next to me asked the ghost hunters if he could place his phone charger on the coffee table, too. I was glad for this request to have been made. Because of his question, we could use his charger as a measuring tool, although I didn’t get to inspect it either. Nevertheless, at night’s end I made sure to check the power reading on the charger versus when it was placed on the table. The power reading did not change; no spirits drained the charger of any power.
As a group, we were also allowed to walk through the lower floor of the historical home using headphones that amplified all ambient sound. My four person group gave me the headphones and I was glad for that opportunity, as well, because I was focusing on background noise in real time and monitoring my watch in case anyone proposed at a later time that a disembodied voice was being heard played back on the electronic medium.
Finally, the secret word was revealed at the end of the night’s ghost hunt, and although connections were stretched so as to make it sound that the word possibly came across the scanner, I never heard anything come across the PSB that remotely sounded like the trigger word. A tour member had also brought a Harry Potter book from what she felt was a communication to her on a previous ghost tour of the same home. One of the spirits attached to the home is supposed to be a younger male who may be keeping up on his pop fiction in the modern day. The ghost hunters were both very personable individuals, and I think they believe in their investigation methods. One of the ghost hunters, our tour guide on the ride around town, was a wonderful young man still in school at that time and he is supposed to have brought at least one of his teachers to see him make his presentation on a prior ghost tour. I enjoyed the evening and told both of the gentlemen that I hoped to go back for the tour the next year (regrettably, my schedule did not allow it, and I don’t think the same events were rescheduled).
The way things were set up, the ghost hunters simply had outs built in to their narrative about ghosts making attempts at interaction. Now, it did turn out that the young tour guide later picked up one of the flashlights and realized it was COMPLETELY powered down. I immediately tried to listen to his comments. As stated above, the way the flashlight effect on ghost hunts is often accomplished is through manually creating a loose connection so that the light will go in and out on its own. If the light pops on unexpectedly when spirits are being questioned aloud, then all a tour guide has to say is, oh look, the ghosts are talking to us. If the lights don’t light up, as was the case in our session, then the ghosts are just shy at that point and time. But, because I was sitting across the room and couldn’t hear the discussion in full, I cannot say for certain that they typically used any flashlights in any compromised state.
The ghost hunters also made sure our group heard them ask who could have possibly turned off the flashlights? It must have been the ghosts, because no one else had been in the room in between tours. So, there were no actual tricks, except for maybe giving the flashlights a little intended help, and the secret word is just given liberty because of the interpretation factor when a tour group hears quick blurbs coming across a scanner that will inevitably be interpreted in different ways within the context of a group.
The night was a thoroughly enjoyable visit, and again, I thought the world of my hosts. They were incredibly hospitable and down-to-earth human beings. As a proponent of science education, how do I feel about a young high school student having his teacher see him lead a ghost hunt? I am certainly not a killjoy, and I was glad to hear that a teacher came out to support a gifted and talented young man. However, there is that part of me, too, that I guess doesn’t want a young man to be led down a path where he may believe errant methodologies are uniting him with a spirit world. An atheist/skeptic reader of this blog would accuse me of the same errancy by my retaining a belief in God. Most of all, I would want that young man to lead a healthy and balanced life that includes fun, and ghost hunting is simply very much a part of our pop culture.
I am highly understanding of the fact that not everyone’s mission, when it comes to ghosts, is the same as mine. My focus is to break down evidence and to be aware of how the vicinity around me that is reportedly haunted is being interpreted. When there are simple explanations for the course of events that I witnessed on this particular cited night, I cannot take these events and turn them into an interlude with a, “paranormal,” reality when that is plainly not what happened. On this one night in question, the existence of ghosts simply weren’t proven to me, and that is ok.
The idea of ghosts being real is an amazing one and such a reality would be wonderful because of the marvelous implications. But, as for me personally, I cannot settle for manufactured correlations. If I have done my job in this blog posting, then, hopefully, the reader better understands how a property that is reputed to be haunted needs to be approached and properly observed before pronouncing it rife with ghosts from the other side.
Thanks for reading.