This is going to be a controversial article, and is going to annoy a lot of people. It is about ghosts, and how we investigate them, and how we try to learn about the nature of paranormal phenomena. The UK has become full of groups who say they scientifically investigate spooks. Given the tens of thousands of person hours being spent by people off ghosthunting every week you might have thought that by now we might have built working proton packs and pk meters, and be way ahead of the fictional ghosthunters. At least we would have pretty solid and convincing evidence for the reality of the phenomena?
Of course we haven’t. We have got nowhere much, and while individuals might have had experiences they find personally compelling, most of the UK population, Brian “nobber” Cox, and the scientific community are all awaiting decent rigorous and experimentally validated evidence and theories that tie spooks in with the Standard Model of Physics ( if they are not too busy sneering at us “ghostbusters” 😉 ).
I therefore put it to you that the ghosthunting scene has fundamantally screwed up, and that we are going nowhere fast. It is in fact possible that in our enthusiasm we are actually slowing down or preventing progress in the field, as cases that used ot reach people with better methodologies are now dealt with by someone who is a big fan of Ghost Strippers (OK, I made that show up!) but clueless.
Now some big assumptions here. This article won’t apply to many of you. If you only go ghost hunting for your personal satisfaction, or the thrills, or the women, or the sitting around in the dark being bored, or whatever turns you on – fair enough. If you go to Fright Nights or wherever and have a great time with your mates, and you enjoy it — that’s grand, and you keep doing it!
Ghosthunting is a fun romantic and exciting hobby, like when teenagers drive to spooky places and get excited and scream – legend tripping is the technical term. I am absolutely 100% behind this, and you go enjoy yourselves – just don’t damage anything – especially yourselves – and don’t end up in jail. Go have fun, I mean you clearly don’t need my permission but heck you have my enthusiastic support! Such romantic scary shenanigans are killed stone dead by scientific methodology and critical thinking – so go get spooked, fall in love, and scream a lot, but don’t bother reading this. It is not aimed at you.
No I am writing to the OTHER ghosthunters – the ones who are serious, intent on finding evidence, and intent on being part of a wider community, and who regard their methods as scientific and their work as useful research. I think a lot of us have made some fundamental mistakes, and I am going to try and put them forward – not to put anyone down, but to OPEN UP A DISCUSSION ABOUT THE WAY FORWARD. I am going to ask you to “think outside the box” as corporate types used to say, and examine a lot of stuff we have been taking for granted. You may well get offended: in which case I ask you to laugh, call me a moron, and then (politely if you can) tell me why I am wrong below.
So What Is Wrong With the Ghosthunting Community?
Firstly – discontinuity. Let’s go back to the 1980’s. Peter Underwood, Andrew Green, Tony Cornell, The Ghost Club, the SPR and ASSAP etc were all active. Ghost hunting had developed some tried and tested methods, and a lot of them involved throwing new technologies at the problem of what a haunting is.
Often it was referred to as Spontaneous Case Investigation as most parapsychologists were messing around in the lab doing hardcore science to investigate the nature and existence of ESP and the Psi hypothesis. Have you heard of these people? Have you read their books? Quite probably. And you assume we are in their tradition?
We aren’t. We are in the tradition of Yvette Fielding, Zac Bagans and the plumbers from TAPS, Alan Robson and maybe the early 20th century Ghosthunter Elliot O’ Donnell. We are not even in the tradition of Harry Price. Our default assumptions are not learned from books or from old ghosthunting snobs – we learn how to investigate to a tremendous extent from TV shows, or nowadays from streaming shows.
That in itself is no bad thing. There is nothing wrong with cable TV, and I have learned more about some aspects of science and history from TV documentaries than I have ever learned from textbooks and journals – and I am an academic. Popular does not mean bad. Elitist does not mean good. Snobs can get lost.
The problem is that we can trace from Scariest Places on Earth and Most Haunted to the modern day how the TV format of paranormal programming has developed. Now not all shows follow the core format I will critique, but many do.
At the time when Paranormal TV suddenly exploded there was a move away from soap opera, aspirational TV and Hollywood fantasy towards shows about “ordinary people” living like the viewers – Reality TV. Some suggest it grew out of the webcam girls of the 90’s, or the increasing prevalence of CCTV – but reality and authenticity were now prized. Most Haunted is basically Reality TV ghosthunting and all credit is due to Karl Beattie and Yvette Fielding who created a whole new genre with their show. And stuffy elitist old academic ghosthunters — well some disparaged it, some loved it, and most of us thought it was fun and took the cheques to appear. I had spent the previous decade doing TV talking-head slots about ghosts, but this was the first time any of us reached a mass audience.
What we did not realise was these harmless seeming shows were to completely change how people looked at investigating ghosts. Now that is often a good thing – it is what I want to do with this article, though the chances of anyone bothering to read it or it having any impact are slim. The problem is however that ghosthunting nowadays is not like ghosthunting in the 80s – it is a new thing, using different methods, shaped by the needs of Television and the audience.
The old school ghosthunter like say Steve Parsons is a dinosaur now, a relic of an older generations methodologies and ideas. The problem is that their methods may have worked better – and a huge scale experiment with tens of thousands of people spending hundreds of thousands of hours in what I will call the New Ghost Hunting hasn’t got us anywhere in 20 years.
Are the New Ghost Hunters No Good Then?
Many of the New Ghost Hunters are way more skilled, intelligent and experienced than even the biggest names of the past. They know how to use a lot more technical equipment, have dedicated far more hours than even Harry Price could dream of to research and have got impressive results on occasion.
They are often really great people too, whereas some of the Old Guard were a bit — well politics is nothing new in the paranormal research community.
My argument is not that the New Ghost Hunters are no good; they are great. My argument is that they could be even better, if they could see the things that are holding them back.
We all move in cultural contexts, our thinking shaped by the ideas around us. To British ghosthunters this is most evident when they look at their USA colleagues obsession with demons. I believe it was C. S. Lewis who remarked that the young believer often sees demons behind every rosebush – if they are American ghosthunters they really do.
Now Britain is essential atheistic, and that even the religious part of our population are unlikely to attend church outside of christenings, funerals and wedding, and we don’t take demons any more seriously than we do Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy on the whole. (Now I am from a Church college, so I do – but most Brits just find it all a bit daft). We might accept dead guys hang around, and vague Spiritualist ideas – though Underwood and Green would have no truck with them as I recall – but on the whole we don’t think in terms of demonic forces.
Whereas in the USA, the culture is permeated by Christianity, and unlike here where we sing hymns at school and academically study religions for years in the classroom putting us off by the age of ten, in he USA there is a great popular piety (well maybe not in SF and NY, but you gte the picture). Furthermore, Americans are likely to have been influenced by the weird Catholic parachurch tradition which I associated with Ed and Lorraine Warren and their friends, and indeed the strength of traditional Roman Catholic belief in many of parts of the United States as compared to here. Of course there are numerous exceptions in both countries and the Internet has a global influence.
Now whether the British or American approach to the true nature of what a haunting is right will not be the point I’m concerned with today – though it is one we must address one day. No my point in raising demons (er, not like that, Faust!) is that the cultural context is something we swim in like fish in water, and while many British ghosthunters are often disparaging about organised religion, many Americans have sharply different ideas. (Interestingly British and American UFOlogy has sharp divides as well. And let us not even mention the French or the Germans! 😉 )
So What Has This Got To Do With TV?
Grab a pen and paper. Think about the format of a paranormal TV show you used to watch. What happens in it? Make a list of things and assumptions. You will find way more things than I have. Keep the list – and next time you watch a paranormal TV show make more notes. This is a work in progress, and while the formats vary from show to show, many of the assumptions are similar. Here are a few of the assumptions I have identified…
- The Investigators must visit the property. This seems like a no brainer, but actually an awful lot of pretty hard core ghost research was conducted for over a hundred years by correpondence, and some ghost investigations never needed anyone on location. I personally did a lot of work without visiting locations, because I couldn’t
- The Investigators must try and experience the haunting themselves. I think this is a huge difference from when I was first active. I would go and record the testimony, take photographs, and try and work out what had occurred. The only times I would stay after sunset was when the family asked me for a meal or needed me to sleep over to reassure them they were going to be OK. I did experience some very strange phenomena, but it was incidental to the investigation. That probably sounds very odd nowadays.
- It is all about the Investigators. In the Old Ghosthunting, the primary job was to interview and record what the witnesses had experienced, like a detective – not to stand around and shout for the murderer, sorry ghost, to come and slap you! Most ghosthunting shows are about the stars visit to ye olde haunted pub- so we hear very little about what others have experienced there before.
- The Investigators often don’t know what others have experienced before entering the property. Now I can sort of understand this if your primary aim is to witness the phenomena, but again it is a major departure from methods often used in the past. We would try and learn all we could about the stories, and interview time and time again the witnesses. We would test the theoretical material against what they had reportedly experienced. In a lot of modern ghosthunts what has gone before is only revealed at the end. Now this might be the case if you are trying something like Gertrude Schmideler’s Quantatitive Investigation of A Haunted House approach, and it has its place there – but it is hard to understand what the witness experienced if you are unaware what the experience was.
- The Investigation is one night only. “24 hours in a haunted house” was a motto of Most Haunted. So the TV show ignores what came before, what comes after, and what lies outside of the property. The small screen seeks what TV writers call “a classic unity of time and place” – you don’t want to distract the viewer with the bigger picture. History, geography, geology and climate are ignored in favour of keeping it centrered on human drama and the building. Ghosthunting TV decontextualises the phenomena. This may be the biggest tragedy of adopting TV genre ideas – people only investigate a haunting in relationto their own visit, and often never return. The occupants and witnesses are excluded during the vigil. If the Antique Moose Pub does not produce anything the night they are there, they say “not haunted” and move on. They do not look in to the history, previous owners, historical records, folklore and other properties in the area, let alone try and understand the human terrain. We once spent several months living and working with a family in a haunted pub, becoming part of the psychological set up and witnessing the phenomena. People now are upset if nothing happens in three hours…
- Paranormal phenomena is primarily physical. So ghosts will appear on camera, objects will move and people will be scratched, shoved or levitated. Now actually an awful lot of phenomena is physical in haunting reports, but what ghost hunters report and what people in historical hauntings reported are often quite distinct. The classic study on this was Dr. Becky Smith’s M.A. dissertation on the Spook Book from the Station Hotel, Dudley, where she analysed two years worth of ghosthunting groups reports after the hotel featured on an episode of Most Haunted. The problem with the physical assumption is it is directly contrary to a lot of theoretical work on apparitions, and we don’t have many good photos of ghosts. We do have several cases where witnesses have seen a ghost, and the person standing next to them has not. People often think hallucination means unreal, not being familiar with the idea of a veridical apparition in psychical research. The use of technology requires physically present entities I guess?
- There are no Experts in the Paranormal (except the TV stars!). Now unlike Chemistry, Physics or many other sciences, we actually know not a lot about the phenomena in question. I have suggested the analogy of the parnormal as the Recycle Bin of Sciencein the past. However, there are experts in the paranormal. There were experts in poltergeists (Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell to start with), experts in apparitions (G.N.M Tyrell, Arthur Myers, Louisa Rhine), experts in OOBE (Celia Green) and experts in Ganzfeld Psi experiments (Honorton, Hyman, many many others). There is a very sizeable peer reviewed literature, and it is easy to amass a sizeable library of books on the subject with something worth reading in. There are loads of experts, and they are hard to shut up. My old essay here has quite a few books in the bibliography that you should seek out. However just because you don’t like reading or are not academic is no reason not to be a ghost hunter; almost every skill is relevant in some case or another, from being a good listener, knowing about how to chat to a distressed family, carpentry, knitting to electrical knowledge and the ability to calm a wary dog! Common Sense, something I personally lack, is invaluable!
- You need to call out and offer to let Spirits use your energy. So if spirits are real things, is this actually a good idea? What is going on when someone is possessed? Is this good for them? Are there long term repercussions? Do spirits even exist? Why are we doing this? In the old ghosthunting table tipping etc was often used to keep a family on one place and under observation. People did sometimes try and ‘provoke’ ghosts, but I was normally too busy running away if anything happened. 😉 And to be fair, this calling out thing does have the disadvantage of priming you to interpret whatever happens next in paranormal terms, and making you sound like loonies toanyone not involved in the investigation.
- Psychics are an integral part of every investigation. From what I recall Yvette and Karl did not intend ot have a psychic on Most Haunted, but Living TV had Derek on contract, so a psychic was added. The rest is history! I am not sure if psychics and mediums are big in the US ghost hunting shows? (I really should watch some). However in the UK a ghost hunt without a psychic is like Christmas without a tree it seems these days? I actually did experiment quite a bit with psychics in the 90s, so maybe it is my fault?
- It’s all about the ghost, baby! We want you to perfom, little ghosties. Out you come, do some tricks, give us thrills, and then our medium will move you on to another place (but come back on the 25th as we have another vigil booked). It wasn’t like this y’know? We used to help people, you know distressed families, and take recordings for science if we could. primarily we tried to stop distress, and increase the expertise of the research community as a whole by publishing our results. Nowadays people don’t publish, they just post videos shot on nightvision cam that look like a very dull relative of Paris Hilton’s infamous sex tape (not that I have seen it). That’s because no one cares about other people’s findings any more, because it is ALL about the experience and you have to be there. 😦
- Hauntings are place centered, and ghosts are essentially invisible people who live in houses (as opposed to person centred, and arising out of family dynamics or being associated with one person, an agent). Except they move house with families, and certain people seem to attract lots of “paranormal incdents” while others never experience anything? However you can’t really make a TV show about haunted Donna if Donna is not one of your stars…
So What Do We Do Then?
My argument is not that the New Ghosthunters are bad – they aren’t – it is that they have adopted assumptions from these TV shows that aim to entertain an audience, keep it simple enough to please a Producer and exciting enough to keep a jaded Comissioning Editor happy. Not all these assumptions are bad – some may be useful even – but they are dangerous if you are not aware of them, don’t question them, and assume it is just “the way Ghosthunting is done”. If you want to advance our knowledge of hauntings, you ne4ed to think about how to share your findings with others. You need to question what you have learned, and be willing to unlearn bad habits. Most of all, you have to help move beyond the current methods, the tired old cliches, and think about how you can move forward, and where you are trying to get to with your research.
I hesitated to write this piece, because I can see some people being offended. I honestly believe the time has come for a serious critical look though at what TV has taught us, and a grown up conversation about how we can create a Newer Ghosthunting that is tough on Paranormal TV, and tougher on the causes of Paranormal TV.
So I need you to think about these issues, and if I am right or wrong, comment if you find htis helpful or not, and look at ways we can al develop and improve our research. And if you are able to join me at the (very reasonably priced) ASSAP Conference this September you can buy me a drink (or throw one over me!)
All the best