Q: Why do ghost hunters look for ghosts at night with the lights off? Obviously it’s more dramatic, but is there some specific reason or investigative rationale behind it?
A: Nearly every ghost-themed “reality” TV show and film has one or more scenes in which the investigators walk around a darkened place, usually at night, looking for ghosts. Much of the reason that modern ghost hunters look for their quarry in the dark has nothing to do with science or investigation but instead early Spiritualist fraud and fakery—specifically the conditions under which ghostly hoaxing by psychic mediums would least likely be detected and visitors would be most open to misperception and psychological suggestion.
In her book on the Spiritualist town of Lily Dale—the site of various CSI investigations over the years (see, for example, Radford 2002)—Christine Wicker notes that “mediums so disliked light that they nailed planks over the windows of their séance rooms…. The mediums further improved their chances by constructing so-called spirit cabinets—curtained-off portions of the room from which the spirits emerged once all the lights were extinguished. Spirits demanded such conditions, the mediums said” (Wicker 2003, 65).
Whether ghosts indeed had a clause in their contracts to appear only out of the spotlight is unknown, but the darkness certainly helped mediums hide hoaxing and trickery. It’s the same reason that magicians carefully control where their audience sits; they are keenly aware of the angles from which they can be observed and use that to their advantage in hiding their illusions. While it’s an unspoken rule that an inquisitive audience member is not allowed backstage—or onstage behind the magician while he or she performs—mediums offering a ghostly experience would give clear instructions about where their audiences could sit, what they could do, and so on.
When mediums and ghost conjurors were caught faking, it was often because the investigators did not follow the rules carefully set for them but instead took steps to get a clearer view of what was going on, for example by bringing out hidden flashlights or whisking a dark cloth they’d been told not to touch off a prop concealing trickery. Keep in mind of course that bringing literal and metaphorical light to supposed ghost activity would only reveal fakery and presumably not deter real paranormal entities. If automatic writings really did magically appear on mediums’ slates by ghostly hands—or the spirit trumpets really did float in the air from otherworldly forces—there’s no reason it couldn’t be done in a brightly lit room. The same holds true today; that ghosts are more apt to appear when close scrutiny and open investigation are thwarted is not a coincidence.
Some ghost hunters believe that darkness helps to draw out ghostly entities. Yet even a casual review of ghost reports reveals that this is not true: most sightings do not occur in darkness. People have reported seeing ghosts in broad daylight, in the morning, and at all times of the day. Well over a century ago, it was recognized that ghosts were not necessarily associated with the dark—popular perception notwithstanding. Educator and researcher Eleanor Sidgwick of the Society for Psychical Research concluded around 1885 when analyzing hundreds of eyewitness ghost reports that “ghosts may be seen in daylight or in artificial light, at dawn or at dusk, and in various parts of a house or outside in the yard,” according to Michaeleen Maher (2015, 328).
It is true that people are statistically more likely to report seeing a ghost in the evening, but it does not logically follow that ghosts must be more active after sunset. There are several nonsupernatural reasons why ghost reports would occur more often at night, especially in homes. For one thing, there’s a sampling bias: most people are not at home during the daytime, and most of their waking hours while at home occur in the evening. Obviously, people are more likely to report potential ghostly activity at night in their homes instead of during the day at an office job, post office, or assembly plant. Furthermore, people are more likely to be in psychological states that can induce misperceptions (and even mild hallucinations) in the evening. The evening hours—which of course largely overlap with the darkness hours—are when people typically get off work to relax; sometimes they drink alcohol or use recreational drugs. Others succumb to another common mental state that has been clinically proven to greatly increase misperceptions and hallucinations: ordinary fatigue.
This of course does not mean that everyone who is tired after a long day will necessarily see or hear things that aren’t there, but fatigue is a real and significant factor that cannot be dismissed. Ironically, ghosts are almost never reported under the conditions that most ghost hunters search for them: in near darkness with flashlights and EMF detectors.
Conducting an investigation in the dark is the equivalent of tying an anvil to a marathon runner’s foot. It intentionally hobbles the investigation and is completely counterproductive. It also violates common sense and logic; if you are trying to identify an unknown object, is it better to look for it under bright lights or in a darkened room? There are virtually no other objects or entities on Earth that anyone would think are better observed in darkness instead of light; why would ghosts be any different? Humans are visual creatures, and our eyes need light to see—the more light the better. Darkness, by definition, severely limits the amount of information available. Searching at night in the dark puts investigators at an immediate and obvious disadvantage in trying to identify and understand what’s going on around them. If limiting the investigator’s ability to detect things around them helps find ghosts, why not take it a step further and use blindfolds and earplugs?
Furthermore, this strategy fails on its own terms. While some report seeing ghosts as glowing figures, many people report them as shadows or dark entities. Searching a dark room for a shadowy figure is an exercise in futility. If it were an established fact that ghosts emit light, there would be some logic to looking for them in a dark room. Unless a ghost or entity has been specifically and repeatedly reported or photographed emitting light, there’s no valid, logical reason that ghost investigators would work figuratively (and literally) in the dark.
There is no logical or scientific reason that ghosts would not (or could not) manifest themselves in bright light and under well-observed conditions. In fact, while many ghost activities are said to be liminal, others have been claimed to be very clear and obvious, such as in poltergeist cases in which dishes, telephones, and other large items are claimed to suddenly fly off tables and shelves. Some ghosts have even been claimed to move and rearrange furniture, including chairs and tables. These are not faint, brief sounds or light arguably best perceived in the dark but instead large and loud obvious ghostly displays that presumably should and could occur in bright daylight and while cameras are recording—yet do not.
This quest for minimal light creates an amusing paradox in which ghost hunters’ desire for ghost-friendly (not to mention error- and suggestion-prone) darkness must be weighed against the fact that ghost hunters must be able to see something in order to sustain the pretense of investigation. So a compromise is often reached in which ghost hunters use flashlights. That’s right: after choosing to remove a bright, fixed light from the investigation area (by looking after dark, turning lights off, etc.) the ghost hunters then re-introduce small amounts of light into the area, thus clearly illuminating only what is directly in front of the flashlight, whose light constantly moves along with the ghost hunters and thus introduces moving shadows into an area in which moving shadows are easily mistaken for ghosts. If a ghost hunter has reason to believe—based, for example, on multiple eyewitness reports or videos—that ghosts emit light, then the investigation to find those entities should be done in complete darkness; if not, then it should be done in bright light. But to turn lights off in an investigation area and then turn smaller lights back on is illogical and a very poor investigative strategy virtually guaranteed to fail.
It’s like trying to record auditory evidence for ghosts by turning off stereos and devices generating ambient noise—but then putting on headphones to listen to music while investigating. It’s as if the ghost hunters are unwittingly doing everything they can to introduce false-positive evidence of ghosts and make it as difficult as possible to determine whether something paranormal is truly occurring or not.
As Thomas Paine wrote, “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry”; thus ghost hunters should not be content to sabotage their own research by turning the lights off or otherwise impeding their ability to investigate and identify the source of any anomalies, whether natural or supernatural. The reason it’s often done for television shows is obvious: it makes for dramatic footage. It’s spookier and more visually interesting to film the ghost investigators with infrared cameras. If the purpose of the investigation is to get spooky footage, turn the lights off. If the purpose is to scientifically search for evidence of ghosts, leave the lights on.
- Maher, Michaeleen. 2015. Ghosts and poltergeists. Chapter 25 in Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century. Ed. by Etzel Cardena, John Palmer, and David Marcussen-Clavertz. New York: McFarland.
- Radford, Benjamin. 2002. Messages from beyond at a Spiritualist meeting. Skeptical Briefs, June.
- Wicker, Christine. 2003. Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead. New York: HarperCollins.