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Establishing the strange -- why can't ghost hunters get results?

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Establishing the strange — why can’t ghost hunters get results?

‘Wow, this could be huge! Oh well, I’m gonna nap.’

A few years ago, I got a query from a friend (“K”), who asked my advice on investigating mysterious marks on a wall. Her friend, “M,” had some strange paranormal things happening to her, and others had witnessed it:

Strange blue marks appear on the walls throughout the house. It’s not paint, marker, pen or chalk, but magic eraser takes them off the walls. And no, it’s not their daughter, as some of the places where the marks appear are up way too high. They had a clergyperson bless the house, who also suggested that this “presence” is following the daughter since it’s happened in more than one house. I’m pretty much at a loss of what even to suggest to my friend. Do you have any suggestions?

I replied to K after examining the photos:

“I don’t know how you want to handle this. The marks on the wall were probably made by a right-handed person, most likely M but maybe someone else, I suppose. The fact that they first appeared on Halloween isn’t surprising. It’s not uncommon for ‘ghost’ events to occur in households with teenagers, and many are done for attention by teenagers. I don’t have enough information to know 100% if that’s what’s going on here but it’s very likely. I understand how a family would not want to think that a teen is faking it, and I’m not accusing anyone, I’m just telling you what the most likely explanation is based on my research and experience.

“The marks didn’t simply appear on the wall by themselves: something — or someone — made them. Obviously I can’t drop what I’m doing to fly out there and conduct a full investigation, but I do have a technique that will very likely prevent it from happening again: Buy one or more cameras to record what happens in the house. They cost between $60 and $150. Set up the cameras in places where the writing has appeared before, and if it happens again then whatever, or whoever, made it will be on tape.

The marks didn’t simply appear on the wall by themselves: something — or someone — made them.

“After that, they have three options: 1) Make sure M knows that the cameras are being put in (in which case if it’s her, the writing will happen in other places, but if it’s not her then presumably the writing will paranormally appear); 2) Don’t tell M that the cameras are there (in which case it’s likely that she will be seen doing something suspicious); or 3) Tell M that one camera is being put in at one location, and put others in three or four different locations to see if something odd happens there (obviously they’d have to be different types/brands of hidden cameras).

“If this is done, and they get any sort of mysterious, unexplained footage of writing on the walls or anything else, I’ll be happy to look at it.”

About a week later I got the following forwarded reply from K:

Tell Ben thanks for the time and thought he put into it. Our first thought was that it was M, but it couldn’t be her with the cups flying out of the cupboard, and some of the blue marks appeared when she was gone. We really can’t afford to go out and buy cameras. … We will keep a very close eye on things and think more towards her causing it if and when it happens again.

I replied to K:

“Yes, that was the response I was expecting: ‘It can’t be the person it most likely is, and we’re not interested in putting in the time and money to prove what’s going on. …’ The fact is that if what they’re saying is true — that the writing appears mysteriously when no one is around — then they could get very rich by recording that happening, they could sell it to TV stations and probably have a movie made about it.

“Seriously: they could make tens of thousands of dollars if they had clear, genuine video of marks or writing appearing on walls in their home. If that’s really what’s going on — and it’s not a hoax or a prank by someone for attention — then a $100 hidden camera would be the best investment they could make. I hope it all works out.”

I never heard back (nor did I expect to), but this highlights a stark distinction between how scientists and skeptics approach anomalous phenomena and how ghost hunters do. If there was a specific location where the known principles of science did not seem to apply — say, a given building or public area where repeated, demonstrable paranormal activity was believed to occur — scientists would return to the spot daily for months, years, or decades (however long it takes) to study, examine, and document this amazing anomaly.

Ghost hunters, however, even when they confidently claim to have experienced or recorded something ghostly or paranormal at a haunted house, often leave the place satisfied with their ambiguous evidence and don’t return unless it’s for a specific event, such as Halloween or another ghost hunt. They claim to be (and many apparently believe themselves to be) exploring on the edge of the unknown — on the cusp of proving once and for all that otherworldly entities exist and are communicating with them, potentially making a worldwide breakthrough in human history — but casually pack it in after an overnight stay and go back to their boring day jobs until next time.

ghost hunters

Are these guys really trying to find anything?

When I encounter people raising questions or researching topics such as ghosts or Bigfoot, I’m often disappointed (and a bit baffled) by their seeming lack of genuine interest in establishing the truth behind these claims. They act as if the topic is urgent and important, that establishing the truth behind them is paramount and worthy of devoting lives and fortunes to, but when it comes down to implementing good practice or doing scientific research, they lose interest.

I’ve done hundreds of investigations over the years: journalistic investigations, folkloric research, paranormal investigations, and so on. Though topics have varied greatly, from mass hysteria to chupacabras, media literacy to psychic detectives, the common theme is that my goal is to solve the mystery and understand what’s going on. If I’m going to devote time and effort into looking into a subject, I want to take it seriously and investigate it to the best of my ability (within financial and other practical constraints).

These topics — if real — are important. If psychic powers exist, that would be incredibly important to know, and for science to understand (not to mention put to practical use finding missing persons and preventing pandemics, for example). If Bigfoot exist, that too is of legitimate interest to biologists, zoologists, and others; we’d need to understand what these animals are, where they fit into the tree of life, and how thousands of them have somehow managed to exist into the modern day leaving no physical traces of their presence.

While some of these people have indeed taken their searches seriously, the vast majority are what Sharon Hill has termed in her book Scientifical Americans “amateur research and investigation groups.” These are generally well-intentioned enthusiasts who enjoy hunting ghosts or looking into crop circles or UFOs as a hobby, but have little or no expertise in science, research design, evidence collection, investigation, and so on.

As Hill notes, most such fields are woefully lacking in quality evidence, which is a direct result of poor research. Some of it is due to a lack of investigative rigor, but that can be overcome by study. There are a handful of useful books on practical skeptical investigation (I modestly note I may have written one or two of them) that are inexpensive or free, and that require only a few hours and a library card. The information is there for those who want it.

Doing real investigation into seemingly mysterious phenomena takes time, preparation, effort, and sometimes money. Some investigations I’ve done have only taken a few minutes, while others take days or even weeks. A few have taken months, and a handful took several years.

Often a mystery remains unsolved or a question unanswered for the simple reason that people don’t put in the time and effort required to find solutions. If you give up before you find the answer (or don’t even bother to look), then of course the “unexplained” will remain so.

For investigators who actually get some sh*t solved, Ben Radford suggests the work of Joe Nickell, Massimo Polidoro, and Kenny Biddle.

The world is scary right now, even more than usual. That’s why, for the next few weeks, AIPT Science is taking skepticism back to its roots with some more lighthearted fare. Keep coming back for stories on ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and everything in-between, in OUR NEW PARANORMAL. For a more serious example of what happens when people don’t bother investigating a claim, check out Radford’s COVID-19 “empty hospital” article here.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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