Ghost hunting is the process of investigating locations that are reported to be haunted by ghosts. Typically, a ghost-hunting team will attempt to collect evidence supporting the existence of paranormal activity. Ghost hunters use a variety of electronic devices, including EMF meters, digital thermometers, both handheld and static digital video cameras, including thermographic and night vision cameras, as well as digital audio recorders. Other more traditional techniques are also used, such as conducting interviews and researching the history of allegedly haunted sites. Ghost hunters may also refer to themselves as “paranormal investigators.”
Ghost hunting has been heavily criticized for its dismissal of the scientific method. No scientific study has ever been able to confirm the existence of ghosts. The practice is considered a pseudoscience by the vast majority of educators, academics, science writers, and skeptics. Science historian Brian Regal described ghost hunting as “an unorganized exercise in futility”.
Paranormal research dates back to the 18th century, with organizations such as the Society for Psychical Research investigating spiritual matters. Psychic researcher Harry Price published his Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter in 1936.
Ghost hunting was popularised in the 2000s by television series such as Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters, combined with the increasing availability of high-tech equipment. The Atlantic Paranormal Society reported a doubling in their membership in the late 2000s, attributing this to the television programs. Despite its lack of acceptance in academic circles, the popularity of ghost-hunting reality TV shows has influenced a number of individuals to take up the pursuit.
Small businesses offering ghost-hunting equipment and paranormal investigation services increased in the early 2000s. Many offer electromagnetic field (EMF) meters, infrared motion sensors and devices billed as “ghost detectors”. The paranormal boom is such that some small ghost-hunting related businesses are enjoying increased profits through podcast and web site advertising, books, DVDs, videos and other commercial enterprises.
One ghost-hunting group called “A Midwest Haunting” based in Macomb, Illinois, reported that the number of people taking its tours had tripled, jumping from about 600 in 2006 to 1,800 in 2008. Others, such as Marie Cuff of “Idaho Spirit Seekers” pointed to increased traffic on their websites and message boards as an indication that ghost hunting was becoming more accepted. Participants say that ghost hunting allows them to enjoy the friendship of like-minded people and actively pursue their interest in the paranormal. According to Jim Willis of “Ghosts of Ohio”, his group’s membership had doubled, growing to 30 members since it was founded in 1999 and includes both true believers and total skeptics. Willis says his group is “looking for answers, one way or another” and that skepticism is a prerequisite for those who desire to be “taken seriously in this field.”
Author John Potts says that the present day pursuit of “amateur ghost hunting” can be traced back to the Spiritualist era and early organizations founded to investigate paranormal phenomena, like London’s The Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research, but that modern investigations are unrelated to academic parapsychology. Potts writes that modern ghost hunting groups ignore the scientific method and instead follow a form of “techno-mysticism”.
The popularity of ghost hunting has led to some injuries. Unaware that a “spooky home” in Worthington, Ohio was occupied, a group of teenagers stepped on the edge of the property to explore. The homeowner fired on the teenagers’ automobile as they were leaving, seriously injuring one. A woman hunting for ghosts was killed in a fall from a University of Toronto building.
An offshoot of ghost hunting is the commercial ghost tour conducted by a local guide or tour operator who is often a member of a local ghost-hunting or paranormal investigation group. Since both the tour operators and owners of the reportedly haunted properties share profits of such enterprises (admissions typically range between $50 and $100 per person), some believe the claims of hauntings are exaggerated or fabricated in order to increase attendance. The city of Savannah, Georgia is said to be the American city with the most ghost tours, having more than 31 as of 2003.
According to a survey conducted in October 2008 by the Associated Press and Ipsos, 34 percent of Americans say they believe in the existence of ghosts. Moreover, a Gallup poll conducted on June 6–8, 2005 showed that one-third (32%) of Americans believe that ghosts exist, with belief declining with age. Having surveyed three countries (the United States, Canada, and Great Britain), the poll also mentioned that more people believe in haunted houses than any of the other paranormal items tested, with 37% of Americans, 28% of Canadians, and 40% of Britons believing.
In 2002, the National Science Foundation identified haunted houses, ghosts, and communication with the dead among pseudoscientific beliefs.
Critics question ghost hunting’s methodology, particularly its use of instrumentation, as there is no scientifically proven link between the existence of ghosts and cold spots or electromagnetic fields. According to skeptical investigator Joe Nickell, the typical ghost hunter is practicing pseudoscience. Nickell says that ghost hunters often arm themselves with EMF meters, thermometers that can identify cold spots, and wireless microphones that eliminate background noise, pointing out the equipment being used to try to detect ghosts is not designed for the job. “The least likely explanation for any given reading is it is a ghost,” maintains Nickell. Orbs of light that show up on photos, he says, are often particles of dust or moisture. “Voices” picked up by tape recorders can be radio signals or noise from the recorder, EMF detectors can be set off by faulty wiring, microwave towers, iron, recording equipment, or cell phones, and heat sensors can pick up reflections off of mirrors or other metal surfaces. Nickell has also criticized the practice of searching only in the dark, saying that since some ghosts are described as “shadows or dark entities,” he conducts searches in lighted rather than darkened conditions.
According to investigator Benjamin Radford, most ghost-hunting groups including The Atlantic Paranormal Society make many methodological mistakes. “After watching episodes of Ghost Hunters and other similar programs, it quickly becomes clear to anyone with a background in science that the methods used are both illogical and unscientific”. Anyone can be a ghost investigator, “failing to consider alternative explanations for anomalous … phenomena”, considering emotions and feelings as “evidence of ghostly encounters”. “Improper and unscientific investigation methods” for example “using unproven tools and equipment”, “sampling errors”, “ineffectively using recording devices” and “focusing on the history of the location…and not the phenomena”. In his article for Skeptical Inquirer Radford concludes that ghost hunters should care about doing a truly scientific investigation “I believe that if ghosts exist, they are important and deserve to be taken seriously. Most of the efforts to investigate ghosts so far have been badly flawed and unscientific – and, not surprisingly, fruitless.”
Although some ghost hunters believe orbs are of supernatural origin, skeptic Brian Dunning says that they are usually particles of dust that are reflected by light when a picture is taken, sometimes it may be bugs or water droplets. He contends that “there are no plausible hypotheses that describe the mechanism by which a person who dies will become a hovering ball of light that appears on film but is invisible to the eye.” He does not believe there is any science behind these beliefs; if there were then there would be some kind of discussion of who, what and why this can happen. In his investigations he can not find any “plausible hypothesis” that orbs are anything paranormal.
Science writer Sharon Hill reviewed over 1,000 “amateur research and investigation groups” (ARIGs), writing that “879 identified with the category of “ghosts”. Hill reports that many groups used the terms “science” or “scientific” when describing themselves; however “they overwhelmingly display neither understanding of nor adherence to scientific norms”.
“ARIGs often promote their paranormalist viewpoint as scientifically based, especially in community presentations or lectures at educational facilities. While scientifically minded observers can readily spot the anemic and shoddy scholarship of popular paranormal investigation, the public, unaware of the fundamental errors ARIGs make, can be persuaded by jargon and “sciencey” symbols.”
Hill sees the supernatural bias of such groups as an indication of how “far removed ARIG participants really are from the established scientific community”.
In Hill’s 2017 book Scientifical Americans reviewed by historian Brian Regal for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Regal writes, that this is a timely book as it comes during an era when many question science. Regal wonders why believers think that “untutored amateurs know more (and are more trustworthy) than professional scholars”. He asks why there is little discussion on “philosophical and theological aspects of their work” for example he theoretical questions like “What is a ghost?” and “Does one’s religion in life determine if they can become a ghost in death?”. Hill gives a historiography of the field of “modern paranormal interest: monsters, UFO’s, and ghosts.” She does not insult or ridicule the people she writes about, but explains their stories through case studies. Regal feels that this book will not deter believers in the paranormal, but it is an important part of a “growing literature on amateur paranormal research”. Regal states that paranormal researchers are not engaging in scientific discovery but are engaging “blithely in confirmation bias, selective evidence compiling, and the backfire effect while all the time complaining that it is the other side doing it. … They, like all of us, are ultimately not searching for ghosts … they are looking for themselves.”
Methods and equipment
Ghost hunters use a variety of techniques and tools to investigate alleged paranormal activity. While there is no universal acceptance among ghost hunters of the following methodologies, a number of these are commonly used by ghost hunting groups.
- Still photography and video: using digital, night vision, infrared, and even disposable cameras.
- EMF meter: to detect possibly unexplained fluctuations in electromagnetic fields.
- Tablet PC: to record data, audio, video and even environmental fluctuations such as electromagnetic fields.
- Ambient temperature measurement: using thermographic cameras, thermal imaging cameras, infrared thermometers, and other infrared temperature sensors. All of these methods only measure surface temperature and not ambient temperature.
- Digital and analog audio recording: to capture any unexplained noises and electronic voice phenomena (EVPs), that may be interpreted as disembodied voices.
- Compass: some ghost hunters use a compass to determine the location of paranormal spots, similar to EMFs.
- Geiger counter: to measure fluctuations in radiation.
- Infrared and/or ultrasonic motion sensors: to detect possible anomalous movement within a given area, or to assist in creating a controlled environment where any human movement is detected.
- Air quality monitoring equipment: to assess the levels of gases such as carbon monoxide, which are thought to contribute to reports of paranormal activity.
- Infrasound monitoring equipment: to assess the level of sound vibrations.
- Dowsing rods: usually constructed of brass and bent into an L-shape.
- Psychics, mediums, or clairvoyants: trance mediums or “sensitive” individuals thought to have the ability to identify and make contact with spiritual entities.
- Demonologists, exorcists, and clergy: individuals who may say prayers, give blessings, or perform rituals for the purpose of cleansing a location of alleged ghosts, demons, poltergeists, or “negative energy”.
- Lights out: according to ghost hunting enthusiast websites, many ghost hunters prefer to conduct their investigations during “peak” evening hours (midnight to 4 a.m.).
- Ghost Box: a discredited electronic device that some ghost hunters claim allows communication with spirits.
- Interviews: collecting testimony and accounts about alleged hauntings.
- Historical research: researching the history behind the site being investigated.
- A Ouija board to communicate with spirits.
- According to a psychic medium, “dogs growling and barking at certain places on a property” and cats gravitating or looking into a particular area as if someone were present are believed to indicate a haunting.
According to ghost hunters, a cold spot is an area of localized coldness or a sudden decrease in ambient temperature. Many ghost hunters use digital thermometers or heat sensing devices to measure such temperature changes. Believers claim that cold spots are an indicator of paranormal or spirit activity in the area; however there are many natural explanations for rapid temperature variations within structures, and there is no scientifically confirmed evidence that spirit entities exist or can affect air temperatures.
Some ghost hunters claim that circular artifacts appearing in photographs are spirits of the dead or other paranormal phenomena, however, such visual artifacts are a result of flash photography illuminating a mote of dust or other particle, and are especially common with modern compact and ultra-compact digital cameras.