Ghost Hunting for Dummies by Zak Bagans—and Many Others

Kenneth Biddle

I really did not want to read the book this article is about. I know that will likely give away the tone of this overall piece, but it’s just my honest reaction. When I saw the first announcements on social media that semi-celebrity Zak Bagans was releasing a new book titled Ghost Hunting for Dummies, I immediately groaned, deciding I’d pass on reviewing it. I’ve amassed quite a collection of “How to Ghost Hunt” type books since the 1990s, and I didn’t see any possibility of Bagans offering anything new—especially given his spotless track record of completely failing to find good evidence of ghosts during his decade-plus on television. At the time, I had no idea how right I’d be about that.

A close friend and colleague, Mellanie Ramsey, mentioned she was going to review the book on a podcast. After a brief conversation, she urged me to read it and participate in the podcast. I reluctantly agreed, placing an Amazon order and receiving my copy of Ghost Hunting for Dummies two days later. The book is over 400 pages and published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., under the For Dummies brand, which boasts over 2,400 titles (Wiley 2020a). The “Dummies” books are meant to “transform the hard-to-understand into easy-to-use,” according to the company’s website (Wiley 2020b).

My first impression comes from the front cover, which I found to be an overall poor design compared to the Dummies format I was used to seeing: the slanted title, a pronounced and stylized Dummies logo, and either a character with a triangle-shaped head or a photo representing the content of the book. The cover of Ghost Hunting features the title printed straight across with a much smaller and less stylized version of the Dummies logo. The word for is so small that when I showed the book to my wife, she asked “Why did you buy a book called ‘Ghost Hunting Dummies’?” The cover also features a photograph of a basement stairway and door, along with an odd photograph of Bagans with his right hand extended toward the camera, like he’s reaching out to take your money. Overall, it’s just not an attractive cover.

Inside the book, the first thing I noticed was a lack of references; there are no citations or references listed anywhere and no bibliography at the end of the book. For me, this is a red flag; references tell us where the author obtained their information, quotes, study results, and so on. When a book is supposed to be educating you on a specific topic (or in this case, multiple topics), I expect to know the source material from which the information came. However, because this is the first book from the Dummies brand that I’ve purchased, I wasn’t sure if the lack of a bibliography was the standard format. I headed over to my local Barnes & Noble store and flipped through more than forty different Dummies titles, none of which contained references. I also noticed that all of the titles I checked, from Medical Terminology to 3D Printing, were copyrighted by Wiley Publishing/John Wiley & Sons. Ghost Hunting for Dummies is instead copyrighted by Zak Bagans.

There are several indications this book was rushed into publication for the 2019 holiday season. Chief among them are the extensive number of errors: typos, misspellings, repeated words, and missing words are littered throughout the pages. Another indication of premature release comes from the lack of the classic Dummies icons. On page 2, it’s explained that “Throughout the margins of this book are small images, known as icons. These icons mark important tidbits of information” (Bagans 2020). We are presented with four icons: the Tip (a lightbulb), the Remember (hand with string tied around one finger), the Warning (triangle with exclamation point inside), and the “Zak Says” (Zak’s face), which “Highlights my [Zak’s] words of wisdom or personal experiences” (Bagans 2020, 3). Over the 426 pages, there are only thirteen icons to be found throughout: five Tips, four Remembers, three Warnings, and one “Zak Says.” I guess Bagans didn’t have much wisdom to impart upon his readers.

Throughout much of the book, Bagans displays a strong bias against skeptics and scientists, even going as far as to claim to understand scientific concepts better than actual scientists. For example, while relating why he believes human consciousness can exist outside of the body, Bagans mentions Albert Einstein’s well-known quote, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another.” Bagans follows this with, “it’s baffling why this concept is so easy to understand for a paranormal investigator but not for a mainstream scientist” (Bagans 2020, 108).

It’s actually mainstream scientists who understand this and Bagans who’s confused. The answer is very simple. Ben Radford addressed this common mistake in his March/April 2012 Skeptical Inquirer column “Do Einstein’s Laws Endorse Ghosts?”:

The human body’s energy, after it dies, goes where all organisms’ energy goes after death: into the environment. When we eat dead plants and animals, we are consuming their energy and converting it for our own use. When a human dies, the energy stored in its body is released in the form of heat, and transferred into the animals that eat us (i.e., wild animals if we are left unburied, or worms and bacteria if we are interred), and the plants that absorb us. If we are cremated, the energy in our bodies is released in the form of heat and light.

Not surprisingly, Bagans fails to relate his alleged superior understanding of energy to his readers. When it comes to matters of science, I’ll put my money on Team Scientists rather than an overdramatic ghost hunter.

There are a few good bits of advice scattered throughout the book. Chapter Fifteen covers several ways to research the history of a location by searching through old newspapers, old maps, vintage photographs, building permits, and more. In fact, I use many of the same techniques during my own investigations. Sadly, I’ve seen little (if any) of these techniques demonstrated by the author himself. For example, when Bagans “investigated” the Conjuring House in Rhode Island, he failed to verify the popular folklore involving several deaths that have been falsely attributed to the house. Digging through old newspapers would have cleared up those errors pretty darn quick.

Bagans also gets a lot wrong. One example (which is personal for me as a paranormal nerd) is his take on the origin story of the famous 1984 film Ghostbusters. Bagans claims that Harold Ramis came up with the idea of the film, inspired by the stories of a haunted building on the campus of Washington University, which Ramis attended in the 1960s. Bagans writes, “staff members called in a local paranormal investigation team to take a look. Ramis was so impressed with the idea of a group of ghost-hunters that he later turned the idea into a film” (Bagans 2020, 120). In fact, it was Dan Aykroyd who penned the original script, being inspired by an article he read in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, as he clearly states in the Netflix show The Movies That Made Us: Ghostbusters. Ivan Reitman, the director of the film, added the “going into business” element of the story, along with trapping ghosts. Ramis was brought in to help with re-writes and eventually became a larger part of the project. However, there is no mention of Ramis basing the script on a personal paranormal experience. In fact, in a 2006 interview for Script.com (reposted online), Ramis talks about “Danny’s script” and how it needed some work, but he never mentions a haunted house from college (Gutin 2019).

As I continued reading the book, my “skeptic sense” went off a lot. My skeptic sense is kind of like Spiderman’s “Spidey sense,” except instead of warning me of impending danger, mine tells me when I’ve read something before. It’s not a magical power; I just read a lot. In addition, the other non-superpower skill that has become useful is noticing different writing styles throughout the book. I kept thinking there must have been several contributing authors, though there is no attribution to anyone other than Bagans. He is credited as the sole author.

As I read Chapter Seven, under the section explaining what Traditional Hauntings were supposed to be, I got the feeling I’d read it before (Bagans 2020, 139). I typed a few lines into Google, and the first result was a webpage called What Is a Haunting? by a ghost hunting group called R.E.A.P. Investigations (Reap 2015). As I read down the page, I came across a section describing The Intelligent (haunting). The description was very similar to what I had just read in Bagans’s book. Although some lines were rearranged and select words were replaced with synonyms, several lines had been copied verbatim. I’m acquainted with the owner of this webpage, Bill Reap, and reached out to him. After some discussion, Reap verified that his wife had written the contents of the page herself, and it was originally uploaded on January 28, 2015. The image below is a side-by-side (well, top-and-bottom) view of the book section and a screenshot of the webpage.

On the left is from ReapInvestigations.com; on the right is from Ghost Hunting from Dummies.

 

Of course, this got me wondering about the rest of the book. Plagiarism is a serious issue that seems to run rampant throughout the various paranormal websites, but I’ve rarely seen it in print. According to Plagiarism.org, “plagiarism is a common (and often misunderstood) problem that is often the result of a lack of knowledge and skills” (Turnitin 2017). Furthermore, Plagiarism.org provides examples of what is considered plagiarism: “turning in someone else’s work as your own, copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit, failing to put a quotation in quotation marks, giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation, changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit, and/or copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not” (Turnitin 2017).

I figured I’d spend a few minutes checking random sections of Ghost Hunting for Dummies, typing a sentence or two into Google to see if anything came up. I flipped through the pages and landed on a section describing a ghost hunting device called a REM Pod, which is just a smaller version of the first synthesizer, called a theremin (MadLab 2019). I typed two sentences from the description into Google, which returned several results. The top result was an article from a website called Higgypop, which “offers the latest on the paranormal, conspiracies, urban exploration and weird news” (Higgins 2018). The article was titled, “What Is a REM Pod & How Does It Detect Ghost?” As I read through it, I kept looking back at the pages from Ghost Hunting for Dummies. I was reading the same paragraphs almost word-for-word. The entire section on the Rem Pod (Bagans 2020, 194–195) was copied directly from this article, which was posted in May of 2018. I couldn’t find the author of the website article, so I sent them a message through their contact page. The next morning, I received an email from Steve Higgins, the author. After a short discussion, he confirmed that not only had he written the article, but he had checked online and found that Bagans had indeed copied his work.

On the left from Higgypop.com; on the right is the section from Ghost Hunting for Dummies.

 

Going back to the Ghost Hunting book, I flipped to another section, “Exploiting Spirit Photography: Novelty Photos and Widespread Fraud,” (Bagans 2020, 222–223). Once again, I typed a few lines into Google and got a match. This time I was led to the American Hauntings website run by Troy Taylor, a well-known author of paranormal books. As I looked over the section called “Spirit Photography: The Strange and Controversial History” (Taylor 2003), I started shaking my head in disgust. Like the article on the REM Pod, I found myself reading the very same section, paragraph by paragraph, that I had just read in Ghost Hunting for Dummies. As you can see from the image below, there’s little doubt Taylor’s work has been copied.

On the left is a screen-capture of Spirit Photography: The Strange and Controversial History by Troy Taylor; on the right is page 223 of Ghost Hunting for Dummies by Zak Bagans.

 

I skipped ahead to the chapter featuring “A Brief History of Photography” (Bagans 2020, 208–216), because I have considerable experience in the hobby. This section detailed the evolution of photography and photographic processes, such as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. As I began reading the chapter, my “skeptic sense” went off like a fireworks finale on the fourth of July. I’ve read this before—many times in fact—and knew exactly where this section came from. With a quick Google search, I opened an ebook copy of Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation by Joe Nickell, senior research fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. I went to Chapter 2 of Nickell’s book, The History of Photography, and started comparing the texts. I was able to confirm that approximately seven pages worth of content had been directly copied from Nickell’s book and included in Ghost Hunting for Dummies.

On the left is a page from Camera Clues by Joe Nickell; on the right, a page from Ghost Hunting for Dummies.

 

It’s pretty bold for a well-known TV ghost hunter to outright copy the work of a prominent skeptical author who’s been legitimately investigating paranormal claims with proper methods and science for the past fifty years. Bagans should be learning from Joe Nickell, not stealing from him.

I contacted my friend Mellanie, who originally convinced me to read this book. She was aware of the rampant plagiarism as well and had been conducting her own investigation with her partner, Tommy Lyttle. They had uncovered quite a bit themselves. So the three of us kept searching, trying to find out how much more content came from other uncredited sources. The more we looked, the more we found. I started an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the examples I found. The list grew to thirty-eight examples in which another author’s work had been copied, ranging from a line or two to several pages, all without any attribution. Just from my own short list, I found about sixty-five pages worth of material taken from the works of other authors. The winner for the most material taken was Troy Taylor, with at least twenty pages worth of material copied.1 I can’t help but wonder how much of the book, if any, Bagans wrote himself (or perhaps a “ghost writer” was used).

The next step was to contact John Wiley & Sons, the parent company of the Dummies brand. Navigating the Wiley website to contact the appropriate representative was not easy, but I was eventually put in contact with Lauran Curlett, a senior specialist, global communications and branding, with Wiley. She requested additional information to expedite her investigation of suspected plagiarism. I was also contacted by Tracy Boggier, senior acquisitions editor at John Wiley & Sons. Boggier wrote, “We take these matters very seriously and have already taken action, including adding appropriate source information. These changes will be reflected in the eBook immediately and in the print version at the next printing” (Boggier 2020).

I’m curious as to whether “adding appropriate source information” to the ebook and next printing is the extent of their actions. Due to the huge amount of appropriated material, I certainly hope there is not a second printing, even with “appropriate source information” added. These aren’t small blurbs that were used as reference material. Many of the examples that were found encompass entire articles and book chapters, copied and presented as if it were original material from the “author” (which it obviously wasn’t). When I provided Curlett, the senior specialist at Wiley, a portion of my list of sources where material was taken from, I couldn’t help but wonder if I did part of their job correcting the plagiarism.

I also contacted several of the authors that were on my list, informing them of the potential plagiarism. Additional examples are provided below, so anyone interested can check for themselves. The examples are listed by page number and section title in Ghost Hunting for Dummies, then information of the likely source which has the original text:

Pages 24–27, “The Cock Lane Ghost” (four pages)
Source – Scratching Fanny the Ghost of Cock Lane (2015)
By Lenora
https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/scratching-fanny-the-ghost-of-cock-lane/

Pages 160–161 “The Hands Resist Him” (two pages)
This ‘haunted’ painting has been terrifying people for decades 10/31/2013
Fernando Alfonso III
https://www.dailydot.com/irl/hands-resist-him-haunted-ebay-painting/

Pages 202–203 “Allergies” (two pages)
Source – Ghost Hunting – Health and Safety Issues (2012 )
By Fiona Broome
https://hollowhill.com/ghost-hunting-health-and-safety-issues/

According to Legalzoom.com, “Although plagiarism is not a criminal or civil offense, plagiarism is illegal if it infringes an author’s intellectual property rights, including copyright or trademark” (Morrow 2009). The bottom line is plagiarism is no joke; it’s unethical, unprofessional, dishonest, and just plain lazy. I’m quite familiar with how much work goes into researching the history of a location or early pioneers of a given field, then constantly revising your writing so that it addresses all the necessary points while still coming across as coherent and interesting. When someone comes along with a few clicks of their mouse, exchanging a few synonyms here and there, and starts selling your work for their own gain, that’s bullshit. It’s also plagiarism.

The scope of the copied text appears to go far beyond fair use, a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances, including criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research (Copyright.gov 2019). Proving fair use, or unfair use, is not an easy task. Courts must consider several factors, including the amount of work copied, whether the use is for a commercial nature or nonprofit educational purposes, and more. The details can be found under “17 U.S. Code §107, Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use” (Cornell 2019).

In the end, when it comes to Ghost Hunting for Dummies, my advice is to avoid it completely. Although it provides some decent historical information, it seems a good chunk of the information contained within was written by other people who are not getting the credit they deserve. The book offers nothing new to paranormal enthusiasts, repeating—quite literally—the same things that can be found in dozens of other books that have been available for decades. Purchasing this book would not only be a waste of money, it would be supporting plagiarism.

 


Note

  1. The “twenty pages” refers to only what I had uncovered in my limited search. With other projects waiting for me, I could no longer spend any more time checking a 400-page book line-by-line. If interested readers would like to spend time uncovering additional text seemingly taken by Bagans and presented as his own, please contact me so I can add it to the spreadsheet.

 


Acknowledgments

Special appreciation goes to Mellanie Ramsey and Thomas Lyttle, who convinced me to review this book. This piece would not have been written without them.

 


References