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paranormal investigator

"Solving mysteries and understanding the world around us takes time and effort and investigation." -- Ben Radford

A paranormal investigator (PI) is a person who investigates claims regarding the presence of ghosts, demons, spirits, aliens, lake monsters, the chupacabra, and other "strange and bizarre" things. (The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) lists 45 subjects for investigation. The Skeptic's Dictionary Paranormal Topics page lists over 50 subjects.) The paranormal investigator should be distinguished from the parapsychologist or laboratory researcher of psi, although some paranormal investigators also do lab work.

field and house PIs

Some PIs are field PIs. Some are "house" PIs. The field PI goes on site to investigate. The house PI reads the reports of field PIs, but does not travel to the site of weird phenomena. House investigations are essential, since nobody can travel to all the places that warrant investigation. To get a complete picture of paranormal investigations, one must rely on the reports of others even if one is a field investigator.

true believers, debunkers, and deniers

There are those who do not go into the field to investigate, nor do they study the reports of those who do, yet they accept or reject the conclusions of a PI. Such people are sometimes characterized as either "true believers" or "debunkers." It is probably fair to designate someone who accepts a claim that a ghost or lake monster has been verified, even though he or she hasn't done any investigation or studied any reports, as a "true believer." I don't think it is accurate to refer to everyone who rejects a claim that a ghost has been verified, even though he or she hasn't done any field investigations or studied a specific report, as a "debunker." To debunk is to expose something as false or as not what it is claimed to be. You can't expose something by simply denying its existence. A better term for such people would be "paranormal denier," rather than debunker or skeptic. Debunking is often what a PI does after investigating a place that others have claimed to know is haunted or inhabited by a monster, etc. Debunking is also something that a house PI might do after studying the reports of field PIs.

We have thousands of years of stories about strange phenomena, and many years of investigation into paranormal claims, but no hard evidence yet that a single ghost, for example, exists. If one is familiar with the history of ghost stories and spirit hunting, and one has studied the reports of many PIs, one might reject a current claim that a ghost has been spotted or that a building is haunted by a demon without doing a personal investigation. Since the existing scientific evidence has failed to verify the existence of a single ghost, lake monster, spirit, or alien being, the likelihood of the next positive report being true is slim. Thus, being a paranormal denier seems much more reasonable than being a true believer, accepting a ghost story without investigating it. One should not claim to know that there is no ghost or demon, nor should one claim to know with absolute certainty that any investigation of allegedly haunted premises cannot possibly find the presence of a ghost or a natural explanation. Even a paranormal denier should admit that it is possible that the next ghost story will prove true, even if it is highly improbable.

wide variation in quality of PIs

As already noted, there are many subjects that a PI might focus on. One of the more popular areas of investigation these days concerns ghosts and haunted buildings. Although many PIs who investigate ghosts and hauntings claim to be scientific and skeptical, a cursory look at websites and television programs devoted to "ghost hunting," "ghostbusting," or "hauntings" indicates that the claim is often hollow.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individual PIs and PI groups around the world. A Google search for "paranormal investigator" on April 15, 2010, yielded about 686,000 results. Several popular television programs in the U.S. feature PIs investigating allegedly haunted places. A scientific PI does not assume that what he or she is investigating is haunted. The point of doing an investigation should be to investigate claims of weird phenomena and attempt to discover the cause or causes of the apparently paranormal experiences. The goal should  not be to prove or disprove the existence of anything in particular.

Many PIs seem to be more interested in fame, fortune, and fun than they are in serious scientific investigation of the paranormal. I'm thinking of those television programs where "investigators" keep bumping into each other and shining their flashlights in the dark while uttering things like "Oh my God! Did you feel that?!" Even police officers are getting into the act. Larry Potash of WGN in Chicago reported on some Chicago cops who work on the side as Paranormal Detectives. Regular cops trade in their guns for EMF detectors and infrared cameras as they investigate places thought to be haunted. One of them claims ghosts give off energy that can be detected by an EMF detector. Did he read that in the instructions? I doubt it. Why not use a hydrometer? Maybe ghosts give off moisture. Why not use a compass? Maybe ghosts have magnetic fields that point to true north. The cops seem unaware that police radios or a number of other things could affect their EMF detectors.

It is disturbing that grown men who work by day as police officers are wasting their time investigating things that go bump in the night when they have no idea what they're doing. It is even more disturbing to find that their bosses approve. When it was pointed out to both cops and bosses that somebody might question their credibility in court if it were known that these guys were ghost chasers, the boss said they'd cross that bridge if they ever get to it.

Not only does WGN question the work of the paranormal detectives and wonder about the negative effect such activity might have on public confidence in the competence of its police officers, it brings in a scientific investigator, James Underdown of Independent Investigations Group, to show an alternative way to do a paranormal investigation. The skeptical way involves having a toolkit with critical thinking as the chief investigative tool, a much more valuable tool than an EMF detector for such work. The scientific paranormal investigator looks for a natural explanation for unusual sounds, drafts, closing of doors, etc.

The Chicago cops seem sincere in their belief that their investigations might have some value, and they're willing to be made a laughingstock for their activities, at least as long as their bosses condone their foolishness. They do not, however, give paranormal investigation a good name.

the scientific PI

The scientific PI approaches an investigation with an open mind, collects and examines as much relevant evidence as is reasonable for the claim being investigated, develops hypotheses, and tries to falsify them. Yes, a scientist tries to falsify, not verify, his hypothesis. If you set out to verify your hypothesis you are very likely to be misdirected by confirmation bias. You will look only for those things that confirm what you believe and you will systematically ignore those things that might disconfirm your belief. To keep an open mind, the scientist, like a good detective, must not form hypotheses too early in the investigation, as the tendency of all of us is to confirm, not disconfirm, our hypotheses. Unless you are lucky, and your first guess happens to be the right one, you run the risk of building up a convincing case for a false claim. (The study of criminal profiling offers examples of the dangers of forming hypotheses too early in an investigation.) The importance of trying to collect data that is relevant to the investigation in such a way that one's biases don't lead one to ignore important avenues of investigation cannot be overemphasized.

A scientific PI also knows the purpose and limits of the technology he or she uses in the investigation. The main tools in the PI's toolkit should be critical thinking and a healthy skepticism. If he brings a camera or tape recorder to the scene, he uses them for documentation, not as tools for identifying "spirits" or "demons". If you're collecting data from measuring devices, you have to take multiple samples at different times on different days. The good scientist works first at ruling out natural and obvious sources of phenomena. When a gate closes behind him, he doesn't think 'the ghost of grandma', he thinks wind or gravity. When a rapid thumping or scratching noise is heard above the room, he doesn't think 'the ghost of a murdered guest'; he thinks squirrels or rats, or tree branches scraping the roof. When a temperature change occurs, he does not think 'Satan is here'; he thinks wind draft or architectural feature that needs exploring. When he feels a presence, he might think infrasound rather than ghost. When he sees something that looks like a light or a human form moving without visible cause, he might ask 'is my brain tricking me? Is there a physical source for these perceptions?'

A scientific PI does all the necessary groundwork before actually setting out to a location, including historical research and interviewing people. One example should suffice to illustrate this point. It comes from PI Ben Radford.

The ghost hunting team of Ghost Hunters International traveled to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to investigate “one of the world’s most haunted places”: Rose Hall, said to be haunted by the ghost of an evil woman named Annie Palmer, “The White Witch of Rose Hall.”

....Annie Palmer is in fact the title character in a famous Jamaican novel, The White Witch of Rose Hall, published in 1929 by Herbert G. de Lisser. There was no real Annie Palmer even remotely resembling that of the White Witch. Thus Annie Palmer never existed, thus they presumably could not have found any evidence of her ghost. Rose Hall, “the most haunted house in the Western Hemisphere” and indeed one of “the world’s most haunted places” is in reality merely myth passed off by careless writers as fact.

As psychologist Ray Hyman once quipped: don't try to explain something until you're first sure it happened.

There are a few individuals and groups who have earned the reputation of being scientific in their approach to paranormal investigations: Peter Brugger, Joe Nickell, Ben Radford, Jan Willem Nienhuys, Richard Wiseman, Chris French, Massimo Polidoro, Luigi Garlaschelli, Karen Stollznow, Independent Investigations Group, the Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society (SAPS), and a good part of The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP). Some might object to my examples because all of them except ASSAP are skeptics or affiliated with skeptical organizations. Skeptics might object to the inclusion of ASSAP because of its history. However, if you understand what a skeptic is, you shouldn't quibble with including the skeptics. Only if you mistakenly believe that a skeptic is automatically a denier who rejects without inquiry every claim about ghosts, demons, lake monsters, UFOs, etc., would you object to including these skeptics as scientific investigators. As noted above, being a denier is distinct from being a skeptic. Any good scientist must be a skeptic; no good scientist is a denier. The scientist must be open-minded, willing to investigate claims that will probably turn out to be unfounded, and willing to test several hypotheses in the search for the truth. ASSAP, I admit, is a mixed bag. In the area I will be focusing on—investigating ghosts and hauntings—it seems skeptical and scientific in its approach. With regard to things like past-life regression, remote viewing, morphic resonance (Rupert Sheldrake has been a long-time member), "operation lightning strike," and a few other paranormal things ASSAP seems to be in the "true believer" camp.

the pseudoscientific PI

Some PIs are so uncritical and unscientific in their approach to the investigation of paranormal claims, that they deserve to be ranked as "pseudoscientific PIs." The pseudoscientific PI (PPI) not only fails to do important preliminary investigative work, such as historical research, he usually leaves critical thinking out of his toolkit. Instead, he packs his equipment box with electronic gizmos: EMF detectors, Gaussmeters, audio and video recorders (including infrared cameras), thermometers, Geiger counters, radiation monitors, motion detectors, dowsing rods, Ouija boards, and even psychics. A typical PPI thinks of ghosts as "spirits," non-physical beings that have "crossed over" from the natural world to the supernatural world, or as "forms of energy" that somehow exist in space independent of any obvious material object. The PPI thinks his work can somehow prove the existence of life after death. Yet, the tools the PPI brings to an investigation are ridiculously inappropriate for detecting spirits or non-physical entities. While it is not impossible to conceive of an energy form that manifests itself to our senses as a human or animal form under certain conditions, the evidence that such energy beings exist is speculative.

tools and methods of investigation

Paranormal investigators must be skilled at evaluating sensory data and be well trained in evaluating data based on observation or testimony. They should also know the nature and limits of their technological equipment.

Using a psychic, a person who claims to have a special sense for detecting the presence of the spirit world, is evidence that the investigator is not being scientific or skeptical. The psychic says: "I feel so very emotionally and physically drained. It was like something grabbed me by the shoulders." He may be telling the truth but how do we know his feelings have anything to do with ghosts? If the psychic strongly believes in ghosts, for all we know it is her belief that is driving her experience and causing her to hallucinate. Unfortunately, we have no independent way of testing the connection between a psychic's feelings and the presence of ghosts.

Imagine a gold prospector who is told by a "gold sensitive" that she can feel the gold in the hill the miner is considering spending his money and time excavating. With no way to independently test the connection between the sensitive's feelings and the presence of gold, why would he use such a tool? At best the sensitive or psychic is irrelevant in our quest for either gold or ghosts.

Some ghost hunters use a Geiger counter in their investigations. These devices detect radiation involving the conversion of atoms or molecules into ions. Unless ghosts are made of atoms they are not emitting sub-atomic particles. What evidence is there that ghosts are made of atoms? I'm not aware of any such evidence. There is no reason to believe a Geiger counter would be useful in detecting a ghost. This tool is particularly ridiculous in the hands of ghost hunters who think ghosts are immaterial beings.

Some ghost hunters also use dowsing rods. These are wooden or metal sticks that dowsers use to find water, gold, oil, golf balls, etc. These devices have been studied and the evidence is that they are of no use in locating physical objects, except perhaps to lift the corner of a rug or curtain to see if a coin may have slipped under the edge. So, why would anyone think they would be useful in detecting ghosts?

Many, if not most, ghost hunters use video cameras and sound recorders in their investigations. Any data captured by these devices must be interpreted. This is especially problematic with sound, as anyone familiar with EVP (so-called electronic voice phenomena) knows. You hear something vague and nebulous and identify it as a voice of a ghost. Or you hear something clear and crisp and you identify it as a ghost. But how do you know the sounds were made by a ghost? Not only do the sounds have to be identified as being intelligible and coming from an intelligent creature, the origin of the sound is unknown. Rather than investigate various possible origins, the PPI jumps to the conclusion that the sounds are those of a ghost.

For those who think ghosts are spirits or energy beings, I ask: How do you videotape a non-physical being or "energy entity"? A video camera, even an infrared camera, seems like a very inappropriate tool for a PI, unless you are trying to detect a hoax or a mundane cause of some weird phenomenon. Infrared ("below red") wavelengths are longer than red light, the color of visible light with the longest wavelength, but there is no reason to suspect that anything picked up by an infrared camera isn't caused by a non-ghostly physical object.* Infrared detectors are used in night vision cameras. As those of us who have such cameras know, they allow you to see things in the dark that you can't see with the naked eye (unless you turn on a light!). They don't allow you to peek into another dimension of reality.

Some PIs use a motion detector in their investigations. They hook it up to a monitor and watch a site from a remote location. Anything affecting such a device would have to be physical, however, so why would this tool be useful to the ghost hunter who thinks he's looking for a spirit? If, on the other hand, you assume the ghost manifests itself physically, you still have the problem of determining when an instrument reading is cause by a ghost and when it is caused by something else. You can't just say that since you don't know the origin of the cause of the reading, it's probably caused by a ghost!

Many PIs use an EMF (Electro Magnetic Field) measuring device.* EMF meters detect electromagnetic radiation. You can get a pretty sophisticated one  for about $150, although you can get a standard ghost hunting kit for under $50. Any hand-held EMF meter has a limited range. It can only detect objects in the physical world that produce an electric or a magnetic field within its range. If ghosts produced an electric or magnetic field, they'd be indistinguishable from non-ghosts. So, unless the ghost you are looking for is also something like a cellular phone, a microwave oven, a police radio, or a light bulb, you are not going to detect it with an EMF device. And if the ghost is like those things, how are you able to distinguish it from one of those things? If you wear a white lab coat while carrying an EMF device in a haunted hotel, you might impress some people that you are indistinguishable from a real scientist, though you'd probably be more impressive if you just used the tools every investigator should rely on: critical thinking and logic.

Some ghost hunters might accept Michael Persinger's belief that there is "actual information in the environment" in the form of electromagnetic radiation that can cause hallucinations of ghosts. The normal brain can't detect this radiation but, some PIs think, an EMF meter can. Persinger is a cognitive scientist who has stimulated hallucinations in many people, including Susan Blackmiller and Mary Roach, by electromagnetic stimulation of the brain. He thinks the electromagnetic stimulation reduces melatonin, which leads to hallucinations. At this point, Persinger's views are just speculation. He thinks alien abduction experiences and experiences of UFOs might also be due to EMFs. There is no reason to believe, at this time, that a ghost is a hallucination caused by electromagnetic radiation that an EMF meter can detect. Maurice Townsend provides a strong argument against the utility of EMF measuring devices for paranormal investigations. Like Persinger, however, he thinks there might be information in the environment that could account for apparitions. Townsend recommends using a magnetometer, but such devices are out of the price range of most PIs (in the $10,000 range). In any case, it is speculation to infer that a magnetic field may exist in the environment that is causing apparitions from the fact that hallucinations can be induced by electromagnetic stimulation of the brain. This is an area, however, where scientific research may settle the question in the coming years.

One of the common superstitions about ghosts is that they only appear at night or in the dark. I would take it as a sign that you are dealing with a reputable PI if he works in broad daylight. If, on the other hand, the PI investigates only at night with the lights off, I'd ask why? What's the evidence that ghosts or spirits only show up at night in the dark? You might suspect that ghost hunters work in the dark for the same reason that séances were conducted in the dark: it's harder to see what's actually going on and it's easier to trick people.

spirits and technology

The belief that spirits manifest themselves in physical ways is rooted in superstition from time immemorial. The idea that scientific instruments can detect spirits is a recent development, of course. One of the earliest such devices was invented in 1854 by the American chemist Robert Hare (1781-1858). He developed an apparatus he called the Spiritoscope, designed to detect mediumistic fraud. Hare's design was to test Michael Faraday's claim that unconscious muscular movements (ideomotor action) of séance  participants made tables tilt. In the process of testing his machine, he became a spiritualist convert.

Hare's machine was not designed to detect spirits directly, however. He seems to have assumed that if he couldn't detect unconscious muscular movements of someone trying to contact a spirit to move something, then the spirit was actually present. (For more on similar attempts by scientists to detect spirits, see my "Short History of Psi Research.") Hare's technique is still used by some TV PIs. They place an object in the "haunted" place and ask the "ghost" to move it or do something with it to prove to those present that the ghost is there. If this technique sounds rather inane, that may be because it is.

a little more science and skepticism, please

Today's ghost hunters, however, do not invent technologies to detect spirits. Many PIs, however, use devices developed for other purposes and boldly assert not only that spirits or ghosts manifest themselves in exactly the same way that ordinary physical objects manifest themselves, but also that they know how to tell when the data they collect is from a spirit or ghost and when it is not. These PPIs assume something analogous to the psi assumption of their laboratory colleagues: they assume that ghosts make certain kinds of blips on their machines and when they get a blip they declare that the blip proves the presence of a ghost. The laboratory paranormal researcher assumes that departure from chance in an experiment supports the hypothesis of the presence of some psychic phenomenon, even though there may be several other explanations for the statistics they arrive at. So too, the PPI assumes the data he collects with his instruments support the claim that a spirit or ghost is present, even though there may be several other explanations for the readings of the equipment.

Examples of PIs that do not seem to be very scientific or skeptical in their approach include The Paranormal Research Society, originally called the Penn State Paranormal Research Society. In 2006, the A&E television network began filming these students for a show called Paranormal U, which morphed into Paranormal State. The success of Paranormal State spawned several copycat television programs, none of which feature skeptics or critical thinking, though they all claim to be scientific. Other examples include the Atlantic Paranormal Society, American Paranormal Investigations (number 1 on Google), Paranormalinvestigators.org (number 3 on Google), the Society for Paranormal Investigation, the Virginia Society of Paranormal Education and Research, ALPHA, and thousands more like them. One interesting group, the Paranormal Research Society of North America (PRSNA), has the web address of www.paranormalinvestigators.com/, so it is not surprising that it has a high Google rank (#2). PRSNA, apparently to indicate their professional demeanor, lists among its protocols:

...absolutely no smoking during an investigation.

...absolutely no drinking of alcoholic beverages before or during an investigation.

...absolutely no use of Ouija boards or séances during an investigation.

We do not take photographs during adverse weather conditions.

We do not take photos from moving vehicles because of the possibility of dust being stirred up.

All camera lenses are cleaned on the investigation site prior to the investigation.

All camera straps are removed or worn around the neck.

We attempt to cover all mirrors and reflective surfaces in the investigation area.

Long hair is worn pulled back or under a hat during investigations.

Anomalous 35mm prints are always compared with negatives for confirmation.

When an anomalous picture is captured on digital camera, several more pictures are taken from the same vantage point in quick succession to rule out natural explanations.

Respect for cemeteries, battlefields, and private residences is shown at all times.

Fresh audiotapes are always used for EVP recordings on analog recorders.

Silence is maintained during an EVP session, except for the person assigned to asking questions. If someone does make a noise, they note it in a loud clear voice so the noise can be identified when reviewing the recording.

PRSNA announces on its website in the first line of its main page: "We are a team of paranormal investigators whose primary goal is to document, and hopefully someday scientifically prove the existence of ghosts." It bears repeating: a scientific paranormal investigation is not conducted to prove the existence of ghosts. Having this goal will inevitably bias the investigation.

A random selection from a Google search of PIs reveals that many follow the same pattern as PRSNA. They claim they are skeptics and scientists. The claim is a hollow one, however. Anyone interested in hiring a PI may have a difficult time distinguishing scientific PIs from pseudoscientific ones.  The goal of many PIs is to find customers who want them to find ghosts. If claiming to be scientific or skeptical attracts customers, all the better, even if the claims are not true. Many PIs don't understand science and skepticism. They sincerely think that their protocols are scientific. They think that occasionally ruling out a ghost as the cause of some weird phenomenon establishes their skeptical credentials. As mentioned above, one sign of the pseudoscientific PI is the amount of gear he or she brings to the investigation site. The gear gives the impression of science, since many of the instruments are scientific instruments and were developed to assist scientific projects. I repeat, however, that none of these devices were developed to detect ghosts or spirits and none of the data they collect is known to support the ghost hypothesis.

To illustrate the difficulty in determining whether a PI group is scientific, I'll review the website of the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society. Its website tries to impress the viewer with its members’ credentials as skeptics and scientific investigators.

Because of the rise in popularity of all things "Paranormal" resulting from the romance given to it by various "reality" shows, we must emphasize the problems that come with popularity. The first concern is always fraudulence. Thieves know very well to jump onto bandwagons to find new targets. Secondly, we have serious concerns regarding the quality and legitimacy of most paranormal investigators, even those with good intentions.

A solid look at the following six areas will help you decide which group is best for you.

1. Scientific Approach

We go in with the intention of discovering the source of the activity whether it be "paranormal" or not. Most often, we discover very mundane sources and can educate the client and help them feel safe again.

We are also all heavily trained and cross-trained on the proper use of the equipment.

2. Training

Most groups also tend to view their equipment as "ghost detectors." There is no such thing.

To properly use the most commonly utilized equipment in paranormal research, you must first understand what the equipment was originally designed for in the first place. None of it was designed to find ghosts, so how can its use be adapted for our needs? Most often, the equipment is best used to discover the mundane cause of the reported activity.

3. Credentials

Contrary to popular belief and the sheer number of "ghost hunter" classes available, there is no such thing as a "Certified Paranormal Investigator" or "Certified Ghost Hunter."

4. "Other" Practices

The use of dowsing rods, pendulums, Ouija boards, tarot cards, Frank's boxes (Telephone to the dead), and other divination methods are highly dangerous....These are tools that are not proven to be of any use in an investigation or any public demonstration. The main use of divination tools is for personal development and entertainment.

5. Claims That Cannot Be Backed Up

Be aware that many in this field use claims such as "we are working with the police to solve cold cases."

There has never been a case in any police department on record that was solved because of the help of a psychic. Never.

6. Pricing

We never ever charge for our services.

Education is extremely important when dealing with this dangerously unregulated field.

Sounds impressive, doesn't it. Yet, under number 4 above, there is also this:

In the rare instance that we cannot find a mundane explanation (this is not to say that one does not exist) in an investigation, we look to other methods to bring comfort to the client. This can entail counseling, cleansings, and other "alternative" methods. This is extremely rare but also very effective.

Claiming to do "cleansings" and to use unspecified "alternative' methods should raise a red flag. This is not the language of a scientific, skeptical outfit. This group may be scientific and skeptical in some areas, but parts of their website are suspicious. For example, their page on "Research Tools" ends with an image of something that looks like a page out of a magazine or comic book touting "Ghost-chasing Tools." They claim that they spent years putting together "a specialized array of simple tools to help track down ghosts." They also suggest that, using the usual equipment of a PSI, they know how to tell a real ghost from a fake (i.e., what others might mistakenly think is a ghost).

Also, the claim of an investigator or investigations group to be working for free and not for profit can be misleading. Many individuals and groups have books and DVDs for sale. If you are dealing with a scientific investigator, such merchandise can be valuable. If, however, you are dealing with a pseudoscientific investigator, you will be wasting your money.


The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) is located in the U.K. and deserves its own separate discussion, if only because it is so comprehensive and has been around for many years. I also want to discuss it because it is not affiliated with any skeptical organizations, as I am. (Disclosure: I am a CSI fellow, a member of the James Randi Educational Foundation, and a member of the Skeptics Society.)

ASSAP's website says that its members have been "investigating "the weird seriously (and the seriously weird) since 1981. Our main aims are paranormal research and education." While the outfit covers many areas (as the word "anomalous" indicates), we will focus on their work concerning ghosts.

ASSAP says that it's "dedicated to discovering the scientific truth behind unexplained anomalous phenomena." It defines anomalous phenomena as "those reported events for which there is no widely accepted scientific explanation." It says that it uses the term interchangeably with "paranormal." It recognizes that many, if not most, paranormal events are due to misperception. If some, however, are real, then they must be part of the natural world and be amenable to scientific study.

ASSAP rejects the popular idea that ghosts are spirits. After more than a century of research by scientists, it says, the best we can say is that "a ghost (or apparition) is a human (sometimes animal) figure, witnessed by someone, which cannot be physically present." ASSAP admits that this definition makes ghosts sound like hallucinations. It also claims that research indicates several types of ghosts: "crisis apparitions, 'recording' ghosts, anniversary ghosts, road ghosts, and sentient ghosts." Maurice Townsend, co-editor of The Paranormal Investigator's Handbook, writes:

One of the least contentious kinds of ghost, seemingly, is the ‘recording' type. We all know cases where the same kind of phenomena recur at the same places time after time. Some people have hypothesised that the phenomenon is, in fact, a real recording of a past event, somehow imprinted onto the local surroundings. Attractive as the idea is, no one has yet demonstrated any convincing physical mechanism or medium for this recording.*

Above we discussed Michael Persinger's idea that a ghost is "actual information in the environment." Rupert Sheldrake's idea of morphic resonance also hypothesizes that there is information in the environment that is a record of the entire history of the place. Such information or recordings could explain the perception of ghosts, but the evidence for "environmental recordings" isn't very strong.

Ultimately, ASSAP admits that we don't know what ghosts are. If you don't know what something is, it is difficult to figure out how to study it. But, if you know how it manifests itself, you can study manifestations of the phenomena. That is why some investigators of paranormal phenomena focus on the psychology of anomalous perceptions. They study the perceiver of such phenomena and look for explanations not in the external world, but in the brain of the those who have paranormal experiences. ASSAP, on the other hand, recommends that PIs focus on questions that involve the people who experience paranormal phenomena:

So instead of starting yet another pointless debate about whether ghosts exist, why not ask an alternative question that can be answered, like - why do people report being haunted? It is a deceptively simple question but it leads into some promising avenues where surprisingly few paranormal researchers have trodden.

There are, of course, many subsidiary questions behind that new one. For instance:

--what do people who report hauntings think ghosts are (and why)?

--what do they understand to be the symptoms of a haunting?

Focusing on the paranormal experience, rather than searching for phenomena whose nature is unknown, seems like a good idea. However, first-person accounts are not necessarily reliable or accurate, nor are self-interpretations of strange experiences. Moving the focus to the person who has a weird experience, rather than using experts on perception, the brain, memory, interpreting experience, making causal connections, etc., might be misleading.

Using electronic equipment to document experience, rather than to prove the existence of ghosts—another ASSAP method—is also a good idea.

ASSAP is appropriately skeptical of the electronic gadgetry used by PSIs:

Some 'ghosts' are undoubtedly hallucinations (e.g., hynopompic, hypnagogic, sleep paralysis, etc). Other 'ghosts' are real people or objects mistaken for apparitions. Of the remaining unexplained sightings, no one seems to have been using any instrument when they were seen (or if they were, it wasn't widely reported!). So, even supposing it is possible to detect ghosts, we at ASSAP certainly don't know how to do it. If anyone else does, please do get in touch.

The methods suggested for investigating ghosts and hauntings by ASSAP seem skeptical and scientific. They are detailed in several articles by Maurice Townsend, who served as ASSAP chairman for 16 years.

Membership fees for ASSAP are modest and I could find no indication on its website that it hires out its investigators to find ghosts in homes, hotels, or tourists sites, an activity that seems to be common among PPIs. However, I am concerned that training for those members who want to become investigators is given annually on a single day or at weekend sessions. ASSAP claims that on a single day it can provide "members with a basic understanding of investigative techniques including interviewing, site research and vigils as well as offering advice in dealing with the media and problem cases." Such training would have to be overly simplistic. Nobody could learn to do a proper scientific investigation in a single day or weekend of training. Dave Wood, chairman of ASSAP, wrote me that "whilst learning focuses on the weekend it does involve pre-learning, post-learning, and post-assessment." From ASSAP's website it looks like training includes instruction in remote viewing and psychokinesis, questionable practices for a paranormal investigator, to say the least. According to Wood, "we do not cover subjects such as PK and RV on the Training Weekend."

The Ghost Club

The Ghost Club was founded in 1862 (according to the Club's website) and claims to be the oldest organization in the world devoted to psychical research. (An article in Wired on the Ghost Club says that it was originally called the Cambridge Association for Spiritual Enquiry, was founded in 1851, and moved to London in 1862.) The better known Society for Psychical Research was founded twenty years later. The latter, one might say, focuses on scientific testing of persons, while the Ghost Club focuses on the testing of places, although that wasn't always the case. The Ghost Club was apparently involved in discrediting the Davenport brothers,the Davenport brothers and their "spirit cabinet" magicians who claimed to have paranormal powers. The brothers were known for their "spirit cabinet," a large box from which they claimed they could conjure ghosts. If the Ghost Club's website is an accurate guide to the club's current activities, it is clear that debunking or discrediting claims of paranormal talents is not high on their list of things to do.

After viewing the Ghost Club's website, I hesitate to describe what the members do as "scientific." Anyone who pays the membership dues can become a member and join in on the ghost-hunting outings. They consider as good evidence for ghosts the personal interpretations of perceptions (visual, auditory, and even olfactory) of their members. (For a brief overview of what a Ghost Club investigation does, I recommend reading its account of an investigation into alleged haunting at the house of detention, Clerkenwell, London.) The club posts some photos that its members apparently think provide significant support for the ghostly hypothesis. The photos, one could say, could be interpreted in several ways. I would describe the Ghost Club as a social group that has outings to investigate ghost stories and to take people on tours of allegedly haunted places. The Ghost Club truly is a club. It does not publish scientific papers and only members get their newsletter detailing the latest investigation and are allowed to view "interesting footage from a recent investigation." The club's main value to non-members, one might say, is its keeping a historical record of places where people have reported seeing apparitions and ghosts.

ethics and ghost hunters

One of the more obvious ethical problems with paranormal investigators who specialize in hauntings and ghosts concerns the equipment and tools of the trade that were reviewed above. Selling these devices as "ghost-detecting" devices is itself immoral. None of these devices have been shown to be of any value in detecting ghosts or spirits. To imply otherwise when trying to sell them is fraudulent. I doubt if legislation restricting fraudulent claims for ghost-hunting devices would have much effect, however, except in driving the sellers to reword their advertising: "X, Y, and Z, as used by blah blah in the Avery House Mystery" or "Here's what blah blah says about X, Y, and Z" or "As seen on Paranormal State."

Another problem emerges from the fact that a paranormal investigator is not required to have any training, education, certification, or licensure. This fact opens the door to all kinds of unethical behavior. Individuals or groups can advertise and promote themselves as capable of determining whether a place is haunted and also be the ones to judge their own work and charge for "cleansing" the premises. Worse, anyone can set herself up as an "expert" and offer courses and certificates without any regulation. This is exactly what Patti Starr has done with Ghost Chasers International. Another outfit, the International Ghost Hunters Society (i.e., Dave and Sharon Oester), offers free membership and certificates for $35.









Even though there is no such thing as a "licensed paranormal investigator," there are still some characteristics you can look for to determine whether you are dealing with a reputable person or group with the expertise necessary to do a proper investigation. What training or background does the PI have in logic, science, and critical thinking? Does he have any forensics experience or training? Does he understand the nature and limits of perception and technology? How many investigations has he done? Were they varied or all of the same type? How successful were the investigations? Has the PI published books or articles in reputable magazines or journals? What reputation does the PI have in the scientific community? Frankly, if your PI has done dozens of cases and always finds a ghost, run the other way, especially if she shows up with a truckload of the tools and equipment discussed above. If he shows up with a psychic or a Ouija board, kick him down the steps. If, on the other hand, your PI has done hundreds of investigations and in every case has found either a natural explanation or an unsolved mystery, you've probably met the person you should hire for your investigation.

Brian Schill wrote an article on the morality of paranormal investigation for Haunted Times (2009). Paranormal investigator Karen Stollznow commented on Schill's recommendations in her essay "The 'Ethics' of Ghost Hunting?" The protocol for ghost hunting recommended by Schill

consists of a superficial list of obvious rules: respect private property, no illegal drug use, no intoxication, no discriminatory language. Strangely, the article then creates procedures of how to capture photographs of orbs and tips for recording electronic voice phenomena. Then the list of “standards” starts sounding like a playground warning: “There will be no running or horseplay at any time during an investigation. This type of behavior does not befit an investigator and it does not give the proper respect to the place or owner.”

Creating a code of ethics obscures the fact that ghost hunting is the problem itself. The very beliefs, practices, claims, conclusions, and cures of ghost hunters are often unethical.

Since there is no way to prove that the blips on their electronic devices aren't caused by ghosts, there is no way to prove they're ripping people off. Everything hinges on the trust the client has in the PI. Thus, the first ethical rule of every PI should be to avoid involvement in ‘cleansing’ places the PI deems haunted.

...once the ghost hunters have “diagnosed” a site as haunted, it is not ethical for them to attempt to “cure” the still-alleged phenomena. Some paranormal groups enlist psychics, demonologists, and other paranormal practitioners to “treat” hauntings with protective rituals, ghost clearings, cleansing ceremonies, blessings, exorcisms, and other Hollywood cures. “Curing” a haunting is at best a placebo for the apparent victim and at worst a fraud. (Stollznow 2009)

There are people who are truly afraid of ghosts and who act in good faith when they call in a PI. Such people are vulnerable and easily frightened. The unethical PI can easily take advantage of such people. Worse, the unethical PI could cause such people great harm by increasing their anxiety or ripping them off with promises of getting rid of demons and evil spirits that allegedly haunt their premises.

Even if you don't charge for the "cleansing", it's still unethical because there is no evidence that any particular activity or ritual can rid a place of ghosts. The activity of "cleansing" spirits or ghosts from places is nothing but superstition. Even if such activity relieves anxiety from a particularly superstitious client, I don't see how it is justified. Lying to make someone feel better might have a short-term benefit, but in the long run such unethical behavior cannot be beneficial either to the individual or to society.

Another ethical problem emerges with businesses such as hotels claiming they're haunted in order to drum up business. They might hire ghost hunters to verify the existence of ghosts. Of course, there will always be those who will give the customer anything he wants.

Ghost hunting...is encouraged by “haunted” restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that thrive on their folklore and often rely on the bias of ghost hunters.

The potential ethical problems arise when a troupe of ghost hunters forms a group, sets themselves up as a “business,” advertises their spurious “services,” attracts “clients,” and sets foot into private houses, even with the consent or invitation of their residents. (Stollznow 2009)

According to Stollznow: "To be truly ethical, ghost hunters should avoid private investigations and avoid becoming embroiled in the personal lives of others." On the other hand, an ethical paranormal investigator could prove beneficial by lessening the fears of anxious people who think their premises are haunted. Ethical PIs might be necessary in those places where an abundance of unethical PIs are taking advantage of frightened people by scaring them with unjustifiable conclusions based on their incompetent investigations and offering them superstitious rituals to exorcize spirits as if they were priests.

See also poltergeist, my review of Ghost Hunters - William James and the Hunt for Scientific Proof of Life After Death by Deborah Blum, "Using ghost stories to teach critical thinking," "Child's Play: Pretending to be Psychic," and "Crazy Therapies & Psychic Kids."

See topical index: paranormal for a list of the kinds of subjects of interest to a paranormal investigator.


Note: While preparing the above, I received the following e-mail from a PI who claims not to be scientific, but apparently does not think that using electronic tools for ghost hunting is pseudoscientific. In any case, I found her concerns interesting and wish to share them.

I am the founder of "XYZ" Paranormal Society in "xxx" (one of those crazy ghost hunters).  I read your article on applying critical thinking to paranormal investigation and found almost everything you said completely accurate.  We have no real idea how to detect an entity and most of the tools we use are unreliable at best.  Our organization does use the basic tools of the trade, the only way to test an instrument's usefulness in the field is to experiment with it.  However, we do not use occult tools such as Ouija boards, mediums, or dowsing rods.  I make it very clear to our investigators that we are NOT scientists.  I think of us more as historians or detectives.  Our greatest tool is rational thinking.  We are called in to find out what is really happening at a location, and we do this very well.  Our standards for video, EVP, or other "evidence" is very high.  Most cases of activity are completely explainable.  Unfortunately, TV has sensationalized the field and brought in too many thrill seekers and single-visioned believers.  I tend to turn to websites like yours when I'm searching for explanations to unexplained activity.  While I agree that this field is filled with many flaws, please remember that not all of us are the same.  Some of us are honestly only looking for the truth.  Thank you.

Founder-XYZ Paranormal Society

reply: Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough. Some people are better equipped than others to do paranormal investigations. Many PIs seem to be in it for the fun, and clearly are not doing scientific investigations. Is there any harm in this? Well, as XXXX says, not all ghost hunters are the same. Even so, I doubt that even the well-intentioned ones can do much good if they encourage themselves and others to think that devices like EMF readers can tell you whether there is a ghost present.

further reading

books and articles

Braithwaite, Jason J., Katty Perez-Aquino, Maurice Townsend. 2004. In search of magnetic anomalies associated with haunt-type experiences: pulses and patterns in dual time-synchronized measurements, Journal of Parapsychology.

Brugger, Peter. "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought," Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001).

Harris, Melvin. 2003. Investigating the Unexplained. Prometheus Books. This book was originally called Sorry, You've Been Duped (1986), Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Hood, Bruce. 2009. SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. HarperCollins.

Nickell, Joe. 1987. Inquest On The Shroud Of Turin Prometheus Books.

Nickell, Joe with John F. Fischer. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural: Investigating the World's Occult Mysteries. Prometheus Books.

Nickell, Joe with Robert A. Baker. 1992. Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries. Prometheus Books.

Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking For A Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures. Prometheus Books.

Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Prometheus Books.

Nickell, Joe. 2001. Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. The University Press of Kentucky.

Nickell, Joe. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files. The University Press of Kentucky.

Persinger, Michael. 1987. Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs. Praeger.

Polidoro, Massimo. 2003. Secrets of the Psychics: Investigating Paranormal Claims. Prometheus.

Radford, Benjamin. 2010a. The Psychic and the Serial Killer: Examining the 'Best Case' for Psychic Detectives. Skeptical Inquirer. March/April. Vol. 34, No. 2.

Radford, Benjamin. 2010b. Scientific Paranormal Investigation How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. Rhombus Publishing Company.

Randi, James. 1986. "The Columbus Poltergeist Case," in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier. Prometheus Books.

Roach, Mary. 2005. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. W.W. Norton. Please see my review of this book.

Sagan, Carl. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House.

Schick, Theodore, and Lewis Vaughn. 1998. How to Think About Weird Things 2nd ed. Mayfield Publishing Company.

Wiseman, Richard. 1997. Deception & Self-Deception: Investigating Psychics. Prometheus.

websites & blogs

So, You Want to be a Paranormal Researcher? Part 1

Joe Nickell: Paranormal Investigator "the world's only full-time, salaried professional paranormal investigator"

Joe Nickell: Ghostbuster

Ghost Hunters - Investigative Files - Joe Nickell Volume 30.5, September / October 2006

Ghost Hunters’ Unscientific, Win- Win Approach by Benjamin Radford

Hauntings: the Science of Ghosts with Richard Wiseman

Ghost Mining: Investigating a Haunted Hotel by Karen Stollznow

20 Questions with Karen Stollznow

Demons in Connecticut - Investigative Files - Joe Nickell Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

How Global Warming Creates Monsters by Benjamin Radford

Valuing Solutions Over Problems, Explanations Over Mysteries by Benjamin Radford

Sci Fi Investigates, Finds Only Pseudoscience by  Ben Radford Volume 31.2, March / April 2007

Another Real-World Example of Eyewitness Unreliability by Benjamin Radford

New Chupacabra Documentary: More Speculation than Investigation by Benjamin Radford

The Waverly Hills Sanatorium: The Business of Haunting by Karen Stollznow

The Stanley Hotel: An Investigation - The Naked Skeptic Karen Stollznow, December 21, 2009

The ‘Ethics’ of Ghost Hunting? - The Naked Skeptic Karen Stollznow, November 16, 2009

The Joe Nickell Files: Hauntings by John C. Snider

Review of Secrets of the Psychics: Investigating Paranormal Claims by Massimo Polidoro

Haunt - building an environment that feels "haunted"

Ghost Hunting Tools of the Trade by Brian Dunning Jan 1, 2007


"TAPS vs. SAPS - The Atlantic Paranormal Society meets the Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society."

Skeptiseum: Ghosts and Spirits

Richard Wiseman's work (in The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 7)

That's Not a Ghost, It's a Hum You Can't Hear by Paul Sieveking, editor of Fortean Times, the ‘Sunday Telegraph’, September 3rd 2000.

Palace ghost laid to rest 29 March, 2001 (Richard Wiseman's study of ghosts at Hampton palace)

Ghost Blusters April 18th, 2001 (Wiseman's study of ghosts in Edinburgh castle)

Ghosts of sisters past

Science wrecks a good ghost story By Robert Mathews

The Ghost in My House: An Exercise in Self-Deception by Bertram Rothschild, Skeptical Inquirer, Jan/Feb 2000

The Ghost Research Society - especially for the gullible

Burnt by Burnt Offerings by D. Trull

Waking Up to Sleep Paralysis by Chris Mooney

Old Hag

The Truth Behind the Amityville Horror by Benjamin Radford

The Amityville Horror - A Hoax according to Snopes.com

"The Haunted Tape Recorder" by Joe Nickell

Amityville: The Horror of It All by Joe Nickell

"Caveat Specter" by Tim Madigan

The Amityville Truth A Research Database developed by a Long Island, NY sub-Librarian and former Amityville resident

news stories

Connecticut dad builds gadgets for ghost hunters to honor late daughter The flagship device in the line is the Mel-8704-SB7-EMF meter, which detects a range of electromagnetic and temperature changes, has an AM/FM scanner, includes glow-in-the-dark buttons, and includes an "exclusive P-SB7 Integrated Sprit Box...." That $349.90 product is sold out, according to the site, but a range of similar gadgets are currently available. Sure, it detects electromagnetic frequencies. But does that mean it actually searches out ghosts? Of course not, but why let the truth get in the way of a good delusion?

Paranormal weekend to raise money for animal shelter Last weekend, the New England Paranormal Research (NEPR) hosted a paranormal weekend conference to benefit the Faxon Animal Rescue League. A quick look at the NEPR website shows that this is not a scientific outfit. They planned to teach folks about "actual police reports of zombie sightings and Indian ghosts!," among other things.

NEPR should not be confused with PRSNE (Paranormal Research Society of New England), the brainchild of John Zaffis, who boasts of having been trained by and having worked with Ed and Lorraine Warren, two "demonologists" active in the Amityville hoax. The Zaffis website is filled with tips on equipment needed to detect spirits and demons. For example: "When attempting psychic photography, the more roles of film used, the better the chance of capturing psychic Images." I didn't know that.

Ivy Tech to offer advanced paranormal course
Ivy Tech Community College is offering its first-ever advanced paranormal investigation course through its Department of Workforce and Economic Development. Ivy Tech Community College is the nation's largest state-wide community college with single accreditation. It is Indiana's largest public post-secondary institution serving more than 150,000 students a year at 23 campuses and online.

The advanced paranormal investigation class will be taught at the Kokomo campus by Al Taylor, PR Director of Indiana Ghost Trackers. According to the IT press release: "Students will learn advanced investigative techniques, visit a local family's house and also a cemetery, and cover electronic voice phenomena (EVP) and paranormal photography in depth."

The Indiana Ghost Trackers (IGT) is a statewide not-for-profit organization with chapters in Indiana and Chicago. According to their website: "We investigate paranormal activity using photography, voice recording, video and other technology that aids in the detection of unexplained phenomena. We provide no cost home and business investigations while maintaining privacy to all those requesting our help." They claim to use scientific methods, but some of their work is clearly not scientific. They have a page on their website devoted to the scientific method and they claim that all their investigations are done by "trained investigators." Other services (besides tracking ghosts) provided by IGT include cemetery restoration, guest speakers, public seminars, and workshops.

Two IGT pages raise red flags about the quality of their investigations: their education page and their hunt equipment page. IGT does most of its investigations in the dark, so two of the tools you need are a flashlight and a first-aid kit (in case the flashlight fails and you hurt yourself by tripping in the dark). In addition to some obvious items, IGT advises you bring along the usual electronic gadgetry and a compass. The latter "could direct you to a ghost or energy field or spin while a field is present. Or it could keep you from getting lost."

IGT offers a course in the "etheric body and EMF field" that examines "what a ghost is made up of and how the equipment we use detects them." Another course concerns "communication across planes of existence through scientific methods using a variety of techniques." Other courses train participants to use dowsing rods and psychic powers in an investigation, as well as how to use the latest ghost hunting gadgetry. They claim that "big league ghost hunters" use wireless monitoring, "a method of investigation that is very professional." IGT offers a class in psychic protection: "An essential class, which teaches members how to deal with overwhelming conditions of negative ghosts and other entities."

It that's not enough, IGT also trains members in public relations and website development. You can get a taste of these by visiting their website and studying the color scheme and fonts used.

Ghosts 'all in the mind' by Arran Frood

Scientist to create 'haunted house' July 24, 2003 (Richard Wiseman)

Paranormal Cops in Chicago. Larry Potash of WGN reports.

Ghost Lusters: If You Want to See a Specter Bad Enough, Will You? - Scientific American

Can ghosts be explained scientifically?

Hampton Court 'ghost' on film

According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 32% believe in ghosts, down from 38% five years earlier and up from 25% in 1990.


TV Psychics Haunted by Ghostless House

A taxonomy of paranomal shows Confessions of an addict..."My name is Therese Odell, and I am addicted to paranormal shows....the kind where people, filmed in grainy night vision, stomp around old hospitals, yelping that they SWEAR they saw a shadow in that corner, or wherein owners of Mr. Sufflepants explain that they’re just certain their house was haunted based on Mr. Snufflepant’s weird behavior accompanied by careful reenactments of a cat hissing at something unseen. That kind of paranormal show. I just can’t get enough of them."

Madcougar says: "My son and I never miss Ghost Adventures. Not because we are great fans of the show, but because we love to laugh at these three morons. Our favorite thing is when they introduce some new “technology” that allows them to communicate/capture ghosts on tape. Hilarious!"

Last updated 27-Oct-2015
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