This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are not spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting: we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts; they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.
In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?
First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomenon. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1,000 paranormal investigation groups in the United States, the majority of which researched hauntings (Hill 2010). It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.
Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes toward finding out about the world, deciding what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperating and trusting within a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.
I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. In this piece (of which this is the first part), I mention eleven books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences. I will also review four books on the basis of the following:
- Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)
- Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs. speculation, factual correctness)
- Overall value as a cultural product (buy it or not?)
I picked these particular books for several reasons. They span a significant spectrum in time over which we can watch the evolution of ghost hunting technique. I think they are generally representative of this narrow niche. There are better and worse ones, I’m sure. In searching for a selection, I realized I could not possibly read them all, nor would I want to spend money on them. Many appear to be self-published since several ghost investigation group leaders feel the need to have their own personal volume to use.
Please note that when I mention today’s “modern” ghost hunters, I am referring to those who have watched Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Paranormal State, and other television shows of this genre. It’s well-established (Hill 2010) that today’s popular hobby grew from fans of these shows who copied what they saw on TV as their preferred method.
Ghost Hunting: A Practical Guide (UK), Andrew Green, 1973
Andrew Green was called the “Spectre Inspector” and was a well-educated pursuer of ghosts for sixty years. He felt that there was such an interest in the subject of ghosts that there was a need for a small, non-technical guide for the amateur. This is the “first-ever do-it-yourself guide for the psychic researcher.” Green eschews fanaticism and suggests that those interested in the ghost phenomenon study parapsychology, thus reflecting the thinking at that time that academic parapsychology would unlock the mystery of life after death. Therefore, a good portion of the book describes parapsychological concepts, such as telepathy, which he states can be an important consideration as to the cause of the phenomenon. He describes Zener card experiments, which would later appear as what ghost researchers study in Ghostbusters (1984). This portion of the book will be rather strange to those weaned on twenty-first-century ghost TV shows (if they manage to find and read this book at all).
Green was certain that psychic powers would soon be recognized (and respected) by science, the church, and society. He remarked that the existence of ghosts can hardly be challenged in the face of all the cases that have been reported—a common justification for investigators to do their thing. As with many paranormal investigators, Green considered serious ghost hunting important and “groundbreaking” work and the researchers as mavericks.
Contrasting Green’s book with modern ghost guides, we can see some striking differences:
- Crisis apparitions were described as “thought pictures.” These types of events were more commonly reported then (as were poltergeists). Both were seen to be manifestations of psychical powers. Today’s ghost hunters are rarely fluent in these historical parapsychological terms.
- EVPs were called Raudive voices and are not emphasized as evidence. Green thought there were too many potential pitfalls to use them this way.
- The technology was primitive compared with what we have today. Equipment included very basic detective-type materials: level, compass, strain-gage, sand or sugar, powder for fingerprints, thread, and maybe a camera. But the idea of measuring environmental variables was already being pursued by the Society of Psychical Research.
- Green mentions exorcism, but it was clearly not as common as today, and people were less bold about it. Today, the concept pervades pop culture, and it is treated as a stunt or a ritual that you can train yourself to do. It’s taken less seriously.
- Green’s advice is that the investigator must be thorough and careful in research and provide a sophisticated investigation. He recommends studying the geology, geography, and past owners. I get the impression that Green’s investigations were not the weekend overnighters of today’s ghost hunters. They were long-term investments in time and effort. The resulting report was to be of print quality!
- The investigator should never get involved in publicity for the case, Green advises. He recognized that some people are in it just for the attention, and this was not a proper impetus to do this work. Well, maybe that hasn’t changed. But to restrict all publicity is not what today’s investigators would agree to.
Green judges the “client” in terms of credentials. Note this curious “test”: “The production of a caseful of apparatus at the commencement of an investigation in itself constitutes a test, for the witness of a genuine phenomena [sic] will be, or should be, impressed with the serious nature of ghost hunting, while the fraudulent will be worried by the prospect of being exposed.”
That’s quaint. Times have changed.
Green states “I believe” this is the process and how it works, but—as with all other ghost hunting guides reviewed here—no support is given for these suppositions. For example: Heat extracted from the environment will energize a haunting. Such ideas about ghost manifestations are very old but have yet to be supported or well-argued.
In summary, Green subscribes to ghosts as real, but this guide provides a number of pieces of sound advice and many examples of normal causes that you will not find in any recent book. He is not as careless and overtly credulous as modern ghost hunters. Even though he makes some howlers, he knows his history. This book is well-written and properly edited; the language is written at a higher reading level than most. Some sources are cited in the text but not enough.
How to Be a Ghost Hunter, Richard Southall, 2003
This book appears to have been written in 2001 from the front information. That was at the start of the massive proliferation of ghost hunting groups in the United States. Southall is located in Parkersburg, West Virginia, so examples from around that area are included. He calls it a “unique handbook,” and it possibly was at the time. It is not now.
The book is of the “Confessions of a Ghost Hunter” type: ghosts are defined, historical aspects are mentioned, prior cases related, procedures and equipment are suggested, collection of data and evidence are described, and advice on forming a team is offered. Southall states he has a degree in journalism and psychology; the book also has a genuine publisher (of New Age books), which brings the quality and readability of this guide above most others. However, it follows the typical outline of information and includes many unsupported claims, assumptions, and statements of “fact.”
Here are some examples:
- Southall assumes that ghosts exist, that paranormal activity is ghost activity, and these certain descriptions are characteristics of ghosts. How he “knows” this is never explained. No sources are supplied.
- Various unsourced, undetailed anecdotes are included. The reader is asked to accept these “just so” without proper justification.• Undefined, science-sounding terms are used throughout: “highest amount of paranormal energy,” “life force,” “psychic energy.”
- If you investigate enough, you will encounter a “demonic entity.” The Ouija board can invite it in, so that device is dangerous to use. “The entity will concentrate on the one with the lowest psyche.”
- You can “recharge” a haunting with an object.
- “It is common knowledge in parapsychology and metaphysics” that everything has a life force or aura.
- Orbs are indications that an area contains a great deal of psychic energy. They concentrate around a person emanating psychic energy.
Why did Southall do a ghost hunting guide? To promote the topic. He was running a ghost tour at the time. He states his role shifted from investigation to teaching. This book fails to supply us with any sense of the author’s scientific credibility. He refers to fictional movies, such as The Sixth Sense, to suggest the real world is really like this. Southall states that the scientific method is the means to get “tangible, measurable evidence” as opposed to psychic impressions and divination, though the two methods can validate each other. He is not a scientist and it shows.
This book also shows its age. The equipment portion is written for someone who has never owned a camera. It is dull, overly simplistic, and sorely out of date with regards to use of digital equipment. He states this howler: “A photograph of a ghost cannot be denied.” This wasn’t even rational advice at the time, let alone in the age of phone apps.
He states a good investigator should be unbiased, but the language from start to finish is completely biased in the belief that an area is likely haunted. Short shrift is given to examination of mundane causes. But he advises to talk up your own credibility: “Clients love credentials and memberships.” The bibliography contains no journals or scientific sources, just references to other ghost hunters’ books and mass marketed paranormal pablum.
Southall’s writing projects the attitude of a good person who is concerned with people who are having a paranormal problem and want answers that he believes he can provide. He understands that people need reassurance that what they experience is understandable and things will be okay. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and misinformation like this makes it worse.
See the next issue of the Skeptical Briefs for more ghost hunting guide reviews from Sharon Hill.
Sharon Hill is a scientific and technical consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and creator of DoubtfulNews.com. Read more at SharonAHill.com.
Hill, Sharon. 2010. “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.” A thesis submitted to the faculty of the Graduate School of the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, in partial fulfillment of requirements for Degree of Master of Education (EdM). Online at https://idoubtit.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/hill_arigs_being_scientifical_thesis.pdf.