Ghost Hunting Goes Wrong Because We’re Human


I used to believe that ghosts were real and that I communicated with them while on ghost investigations and I can remember how powerful that made me feel. As the founder of the paranormal team I would often be the one who led the seances or the glass divination or table tipping… I’d be the one who called out to see if I could encourage a reaction from the ghosts that we were convinced were present.  When the glass moved in response to questions or when something happened that we thought was significant it would make me feel a real buzz to have instigated that response.

When you truly believe that what you are experiencing is the work of ghosts it provides a huge surge of adrenaline, and when you have a group of like-minded people working with you it’s easy to whip yourself up into a frenzy of self justification where all you actually do is practice confirmation bias.

Over the years I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my experiences as a belief-led ghost hunter while observing the behaviour of other ghost hunters and I have come to conclude that if you’re not careful your approach to ghost research can become extremely self serving without you realising it, and in recent years I have noticed (perhaps anecdotally) a rise in the number of ghost research groups who, despite acting as though they are spiritual people and the humble discoverers of the truth who are just trying to help others, are doing more harm than good.

Over at the Rational Paranormal blog Robert Lea has documented a case where ghost hunters are doing just this to a person in a potentially vulnerable position and it fills me with such a feeling of despair and anger. It is such an egotistical thing for ghost hunters to presume they are acting in the best interests of a person who is in a difficult position when really all they’re doing is stoking their own sense of self importance by playing the hero and using the situation of another person to confirm their own biases and prove to themselves that they are right with the way in which they see the world.

Death, ghosts, spiritualism and the paranormal are legitimately interesting topics to explore. Indeed, my own exploration of these subjects turned me into the humanist that I am today… yet so many people who become involved in paranormal research fail to respect that death and all that may or may not come with it is human at its very core and if you don’t have any respect for that then you’re going to fail to conduct yourself in an ethical manner and if you put yourself before the human element that exists at the very core of these subjects and further your sense of being correct at the expense of another then you should feel deeply ashamed.

When someone behaves in this way it’s very unlikely that they will accept that their behaviour is wrong. It’s easy to listen only to those who encourage you or agree with you and to ignore those who suggest that you’re not correct. We are literally self sabotaging creatures and doesn’t it hurt?

The Harm Of Belief: Does Believing In Ghost Make You Vulnerable?


Yesterday evening I spoke to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub group. It was a really enjoyable evening and I was glad to have been invited to speak by the organisers. Several people in the audience asked me about the potential for belief in paranormal ideas to cause harm to the believer and whether I personally think it’s okay for people to believe spiritualist ideas if they’re not harming others. These were some good topics to discuss but I didn’t have the chance to talk in depth about them at the time and I want to address them here.

One of the key messages I try to deliver in my public talks is that people have weird experiences. That’s a fact – I’ve had weird experiences, I know other non-believers who have had weird experiences and so on. Sometimes, for some people, these odd experiences can be profound and what one person would count as ‘just a bit odd’ someone else might consider to be significant. This could be because of things happening in their lives, because of their peer groups, their pre-existing belief systems and other such circumstances.

When I was asked if I thought it was okay for people to believe in paranormal ideas as long as they don’t harm people I answered that, in my opinion, of course it’s okay. If someone believes that ghosts are real based on an experience they’ve had then as long as they do nobody harm that’s fine. We are all entitled to believe or not believe in things, after all. As long as you don’t take offence to people questioning your claims related to your belief then I think that’s all cool.

Some people disagreed with me. This, I think, is because some people in the audience were worried that people who are in a vulnerable position may be preyed upon by bad people who see them as potential profit. Now, I’ve met plenty of non-believers who think “stupid” believers deserve what ever happens to them for being so ignorant, so it was lovely to see people seeing beyond that and sharing their concerns for their fellow humans. To see the human situation at the centre of a paranormal belief system truly requires an open mind. More skeptics like the Birmingham audience, I say.

I also completely get where they’re coming from too. But it gets really complicated when you try to define how someone who believes in something paranormal can harm another person or can be harmed. You might instantly think of psychic con-artists tricking believers out of their cash in return for a few psychological tricks, or the haunted venues who promise they’re haunted but don’t tell you about the man hiding in the attic making the knocking noises.

These are legitimate issues to be worried about. But what’s the alternative? Well, it’s to try with every bit of energy in your body to convince people that their paranormal beliefs are wrong or irrational – but is that actually useful? My opinion is that it isn’t useful at all. Firstly, you could actually push the person you’re trying to convince into the arms of the dodgy psychics and secondly, you might actually cause them harm yourself.

As I told the audience last night, as a paranormal researcher I sometimes find myself in the tricky position of communicating with people who are in a vulnerable place because of their circumstances and it would be inappropriate for me to work with them in any aspect. All that I can do is kindly suggest they speak to their GP about grief counselling, or listen to what they have to say from a neutral position (because some people just need to share their experiences and not be rejected because of them.)

It doesn’t achieve much but I’m fine with that because I understand the complexity of the human belief in the paranormal. I once wrote a piece called The Ghosts of Widowhood in which I touched upon the complex situation of paranormal beliefs forming part of the grieving process.  In it I spoke about research published in the British Medical Journal in 1971 by W Dewi Rees. The paper was called The Hallucinations of Widowhood and showed that roughly half of those interviewed (293 widows and widowers) reported hallucinations or illusions (e.g. non-visual experiences) of their dead spouse/spouses, and that these experiences were most common in the first ten years following the death. The paper stated

‘It was unusual for the hallucinations to have been disclosed, even to close friends or relatives. These hallucinations are considered to be normal and helpful accompaniments of widowhood. [1]

There is real potential for the belief that these mourners have/had that their dead loved ones are/were still with them to make them vulnerable to the lecherous advances of con-artists, but at the same time these beliefs were helpful to them at the a very difficult time of their lives and it would be wrong to try and turn them away from that, even out of concern for their well-being.

I genuinely do not believe that there is a simple resolution to this topic. Not everybody who believes in the paranormal is in a vulnerable position, and paranormal belief doesn’t automatically make you stupid enough that you fall for scams but there is the potential for this to happen, yet at the same time it might not be useful to try and convince somebody that what they believe is wrong or irrational. I guess all that we can do is continue to call out the bad guys who would prey upon the grieving, continue look out for each other and continue to care about people regardless of what they do or do not believe.


Weakly Ghost Bulletin: A Conclusion


For the last nine weeks I have been scouring the news to find the worst ghost related news items to report on. It has been quite a depressing experience that doesn’t bring very much to the table but from which I have drawn a number of interesting conclusions, as follows.

It seems that the ghost hunting community has changed a lot since I was involved in it ten years ago. Back then you would go to the newspapers if you thought you’d found something interesting on camera, but it seems that today more and more ghost hunting teams approach the media just because they’re conducting an investigation at a location before they’ve even set foot inside or drawn up a plan. It’s such a bizarre thing, but as I scoured online news sources each day I would have to skip past all of the news items about people who were going to conduct a ghost hunt at some historic location, or the press releases from the plethora of paranormal themed event companies who take the public on “ghost hunting nights” that are as realistic as Mickey Mouse. These things are not news worthy.

Then again, neither are many of the ghost related news items that I would report on. It also became abundantly clear to me in the last few months that the media cannot keep up with the demand for 24 hour rolling news and therefore any ghost story will make it to print, no matter how ridiculous it is. If there’s an interesting photo, story or video involved it seems the press will happily report on it without even analysing the story critically. They will even publish obvious hoaxes just to fill the demand for content! This isn’t a ground breaking discovery, but it is something that was really brought home when I found myself reading the most ridiculous, straw grasping news coverage of absolute nonsense.

It begs the question: is 24-hour rolling news making society see ghosts in the slightest odd encounter instead of dismissing it or trying to rationalise it, making us contact the local paper? The answer is that as a collective, our species has always been this superstitious, this willing to make leaps of logic, to see meaning when there is none and to take comfort from it, but it’s only in recent years that we’ve been given an international platform from which to share this. Let’s just hope that not everybody believes everything they read in the newspapers, though judging from the conversations I overhear that might just be the case.

This has led to my decision not to continue with the Weakly Ghost Bulletin because it just seems a fruitless task and a waste of time. I will, of course, write about those media stories that I think are interesting to examine but I won’t do so in the style of a weekly summary because it often felt as though I was scraping the barrel and I really don’t want to share the habits of the ghost-happy media.

When Ghost Investigators See Ghosts

lego ghosts

The investigator is supposed to be a rational figure who enters the scene, looks at the evidence and solves the case with an explanation that was right in front of everyone the whole time. Yet sometimes the investigator becomes an eye-witness. I sometimes see ghosts.

I don’t believe that they are the souls of dead people who have somehow survived the death of the body. I think that is a too-simple explanation, easy to use to explain away every odd thing that is encountered in the context of a ghost investigation. Boring and unimaginative.

I used to find it enthralling to witness something mysterious. I would hear a strange sound in the silence of a haunted house and that would tick all of my boxes. I once sat on the stage of a Victorian theatre and watched a door open on its own and in the panic that followed (as we all scrambled over one another to get to the door) a huge smile covered my face because that was the jackpot. Now, that would be the start of something even more interesting.

Seeing “ghosts” is inevitable for ghost researchers whether they believe in ghosts or not when you think about it. Weird stuff happens and many people who report these encounters just aren’t familiar with these occurrences, some people just have a low threshold for what counts as evidence of something supernatural. I get sent accounts or photos that I can find a solution for easily because I’ve seen similar dozens of times before, but sometimes cases are presented to investigators that are baffling that you really have to think about. I strongly believe that these weird things have a rational explanation – you just have to look for it… and this is where people tend to divide within the field.

Many people involved in paranormal research are satisfied with just these weird experiences. In their quest to find “the truth” with an open mind they will experience odd things (that undoubtedly have a rational cause) and will leave it there, content that they’ve found what they were looking for. Yet, with the right questions and the right research there could be something even more interesting to discover.

It is important to continue to believe that ghosts are real for many of the people who are involved in paranormal research. Such a shame, then, that for this to be a reality these people must sacrifice a truly open minded approach to their cases and make do with one that reaches the same comforting conclusions time and time again.

That a paranormal researcher encounters odd stuff out in the field shouldn’t be surprising, but those odd experiences should be the catalyst, the launch pad that leads to the discovery of what’s actually happening and not where the investigation ends.

Lembit Öpik Said What About ESP?!

zener card

One of the subjects on the latest episode (S8 E8) of The Big Questions was ‘Are we right to dismiss astrology?’ The discussion was prompted after an interview with Conservative MP David Tredinnick (who sits on the Commons Health Committee) was published in the Astrological Journal quoting him as saying “I do foresee that one day astrology will have a role to play in healthcare.” He also claimed that opposition to astrology is based on superstition, ignorance and prejudice.

The discussion covered the usual ground with people both against and in favour of astrology putting their points across but what really stood out for me were claims made by former politician Lembit Öpik during the show. Early in the discussion Öpik explained that he had a hard time accepting that there was anything to astrology because “the star signs are an accident, they’re not cohesive units in space. In a million years time all the star signs will look different because they’re all moving relative to each other … If astrology was a proper science it would make measurable predictions and it doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun, it doesn’t harm anyone but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.”

These are valid points, but a little later in the show he suggested that the reading of astrological charts might somehow be more valid if people were approaching it as a product of psychic ability. He said “when I was at university I did Parapsychology research and there was no doubt in our evidence that people have psychic capabilities. I dismissed the zodiac … but when it comes to the science of psychics a chap called J B Rhine almost 100 years ago pretty conclusively proved that we have ESP, if you’re going down that path, now you’re talking.”

Öpik is a bit out of date when it comes to ESP research, it seems. The Zener card tests that he used in his own research into ESP during his final year at university were popularised by J B Rhine whose research was considered pretty conclusive when it was first published, but it has since emerged that there were methodological flaws with the research that it is likely contributed to positive results.

The cards were easily identifiable due to either being thin and quite transparent or because of markings and other distinguishing factors on them. Not only this but the way in which the experiments were conducted – sitting in front of one another across a desk – gave the subjects the opportunity to use reflection in the glasses or eyes of the person testing them to see the symbol (a technique often used by magicians in their tricks), and there was also the potential for the person testing them to unconsciously provide clues through their body language etc.

There were also problems with the apparent randomness of the tests. As Brian Clegg writes in his excellent book Extra Sensory‘manual shuffling is a very unreliable way of randomizing a set of cards … Even if the shuffling was perfect, the very nature of a Zener card deck – or at least the way it was used – means that there would inevitable be deviations from random expectations. The problem is that the deck contains only five of each symbol. Because the cards were discarded after each guess rather than reinserted into the pack, this makes runs of a symbol less likely than would happen with a true random sequence.

If the first two cards I turn up from a Zener pack are both triangles, then for true randomness there should still be a 1 in 5 chance that the next card is also a triangle … The chances of the next card being a triangle is 3 in 23 rather than 1 in 5 … combine this automatic tendency of the pack to produce fewer long runs than randomness requires with the human being’s natural tendency to dream up sequences with little or no repetition and you will get a totally fictitious apparent psi ability that emerges from the statistics alone.’

There are a whole host of other issues with the Zener card tests that Clegg covers in his book (which is a must read for anyone with an interest in the subject of psychics and ESP.) It’s such a shame Lembit Öpik made such inaccurate claims on national television and claimed to be doing so from a position of authority.