De mortuis nihil nisi bonum

graves

Sir Michael Parkinson once said that British reality-television star, Jade Goody, had come to represent ‘all that’s paltry and wretched about Britain’. He was criticised for his comments because Goody had recently died of cancer at the age of 27. Had his comments been made when she was alive and not dying hardly anybody would have cared because his comments were harsh but fair.

The criticism came because of his timing.

In Thoughts for the Times on War and Death Freud wrote that society seems to adopt ‘a special attitude towards the dead, something almost like admiration for one who has accomplished a very difficult feat. We suspend criticism of him, overlooking whatever wrongs he may have done … This consideration for the dead, which he really no longer needs, is more important to us than the truth, and, to most of us, certainly, it is more important than consideration for the living.’

Speaking ill of the dead is considered socially inappropriate even to those who do not believe the dead continue to exist in some form post mortem. Although it’s true that even the worst people have good qualities and that death is a time for reflection it is slightly baffling that people refuse to speak ill of those no longer living.

Ignoring the terrible qualities or actions of a person just because they’re dead isn’t honest and is unfair to those who fell victim to those qualities or actions. Death doesn’t cancel out the life you lived so why do we pretend it does?

I write this on the day that the news has broken that Fred Phelps of  Westboro Baptist Church [WBC] fame has died. Phelps hurt people through the actions of the WBC and through his words. WBC protested at the funerals of strangers with him in command, they set up websites to monitor the length of time gay men had been in hell following their deaths, and they are abusive and repulsive on every platform they are ever offered. His death has been welcomed by many because he was a horrendous, hateful, intolerant and angry person.

Fred Phelps

There is talk of people protesting at his funeral and people are debating whether it’s a good idea or not. People have criticised the idea as distasteful and sinking to the level of the WBC, others feel strongly that a taste of their own medicine would do the Phelps family good, and then there are those who just want to lash out. The anger and hatred of Fred Phelps is justified, but so too are the questions of the tastefulness of protesting at his funeral.

There are no winners in this game, and although a bad man died today the world didn’t change. The earth belongs to the living, not to the dead and so the Phelps legacy lives on regardless of how we speak about a dead man. With this in mind I have instead made a donation to Stonewall and the Terence Higgins Trust in memory of Fred Phelps. It’s the best ‘fuck you‘ I can muster. I’d urge you to do the same.

The Cassiobury Park Ghost

The mist

The Watford Observer has reported that ghost hunters from the Watford area have captured evidence of a spiritual presence on camera while in the Cassiobury park looking for ghosts. A bigger coincidence there never was. Below is the evidence captured by the Watford Paranormal Group.

The mist
The mist.
The orbs.
The orbs.

Ghostly mists and orbs are said by some to be the first stages of a spirit manifesting itself, and that’s exactly what Watford Paranormal Group claim to have captured in the above photos (and a few more viewable in their Facebook group). The investigators claim that they were holding their breath at the time these photographs were taken, they also claim that they can make out a series of faces in the mist in one of the photographs.

Any faces or familiar shapes seen in the mist are most likely just a product of the psychological phenomenon called Pareidolia. This is where we humans perceive vague shapes as significant – examples include faces in clouds, trees that look like people, and religious figures on burnt toast. The mist is most likely caused by breath or smoke from a cigarette or candle and the orbs (the round-ish balls of light) are out of focus particles in front of the camera that reflecting the flash.

It’s easy to convince yourself that you weren’t breathing as you took a photograph even when you were. In fact, the more you want there to be a ghost in the photo, the more likely you are to misremember what happened to create a positive result. This is often done unconsciously (and I used to do exactly this back in my ghost hunting days all of the time). This is called Confirmation bias, which is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses – in this case that there is a ghost or ghosts in Cassiobury Park.

Ghost mist from 2010
The same group in a photo from 2010

This isn’t the first time that this particular group have been in The Watford Observer because they caught a mist on camera in the park and it may well not be the last. I think the Watford Paranormal Group are barking up the wrong tree with this irrational approach to ‘evidence’. There is a rational way to investigate ghosts and capturing photos of orbs and mists isn’t it.

Out and about

Charlie and Jon
Charlie and Jon
Charlie and Jon

Before I get to the subject of this post I wanted to share something really cool in the hope that you’ll show your support. My brother Charlie and his friend Jon are cycling from London to Paris to raise funds for Mind – the mental health charity who provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem, campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.

I can’t even ride to the next town over without struggling so if you have anything you can donate please do consider supporting them. Click here to make a donation. 

Now onto the subject…

I will be delivering my talk ‘A skeptics guide to Ghost Hunting’ twice over the next month and it would be great to see people who read my blog in the audience! My challenge to you is to come up with a question that hasn’t been asked before for the Q&A session.

March 26th: Bristol Skeptics in the Pub
April 8th: Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub

I’m not able to do as many public talks as I used to due to work commitments and I’m sorry to all of those groups whose invitations I’ve had to decline this year.

I’m also attending QEDcon again this year with my brother Charlie who some of you may have met last year. We’re arriving on the Friday and will there until Sunday. I’m really looking forward to it. Apparently there are less than 40 tickets left so I’d advise anyone considering attending who hasn’t already booked to think about doing so ASAP. If you read my blog and see me do say hello. I don’t bite at all since I’ve had the brain surgery.

Television Clones: When Ghost Hunting Goes BAD!

k2

The Thorne and District Gazette ran a story recently about how a reporter for the paper spent some time with ‘professional ghost hunters’ at Cusworth Hall which is rumoured to be haunted. When reading the piece and watching the accompanying video it becomes clear very quickly that the alleged professional ghost hunters are, in fact, a ghost tourism organisation called Simply Ghost Nights.

I call them a ghost tourism organisation as it’s difficult to find another way to describe groups like Simply Ghost Nights because, although most ghost tourism organisations present themselves as paranormal research teams or present their ghost hunts as a form of paranormal research, what actually occurs when they’re at a venue is anything but research.

Such groups tend to focus on presenting evidence of ghosts to their paying public. Their approach is biased towards finding spooks… and it has become increasingly popular in recent years.

When I first started ghost hunting in 2005 there was one ghost tourism company in the UK who made it clear their events were for entertainment. In recent years the dozens of ghost hunting teams who have branched out into tourism events have muddied the water substantially with their claims of being serious researchers while running ghost themed entertainment evenings.

You can often ‘book’ onto events without being members of their ghost hunting groups, yet often it will be the same people who attend the events as a way of spreading the cost of visiting popular venues that charge. Either way, their time spent at supposedly haunted places is not an investigation of any sort, and is a thrill seeking ghost adventure in which popular paranormal television shows such as Most Haunted and Ghost Adventures are re-enacted. These groups tend to enter a venue with their mind already made up about the haunting and just want to communicate with ghosts while playing the role of ‘investigator’. There is limited time at the venue and so they have to make the most of what they’ve paid for.

I was a ghost hunter for about two years before I learned the errors of my reasoning (I’ve been working to improve myself as a researcher ever since.) Our ghost hunts never resembled what seems to be the norm of today. We very rarely paid (only when visiting the premises of a charity, to help cover staffing costs etc. incurred because of our visit), we very rarely visited locations that others had investigated, and when we did there had only ever been one or two teams there previously. We also didn’t wear combat boots (more on that later.)

Today ghost hunting has morphed into something weirder where adventure and bravado seems to be at the core of what many modern groups do. It never used to be normal for ghost hunting groups to also host ghost hunting events for the public but it seems almost mainstream for that to happen now which surely causes a conflict of interest? How can you claim to conduct unbiased research if you’ve got members of the public who have paid for a night of thrill-seeking?

Ghost hunting shows hold a huge influence over modern ghost hunters and their methodology, standards, approach and even how they dress, which should indicate what their priorities are. Your priorities are either decent research with good methodology and a code of ethics, or visiting the popular locations like everyone else, taking the general public with you for a cost, using the popular gadgets, and looking the part in your matching clothing and utility vests.

The team images viewable on the website of a British ghost hunting team The Ghostfinder Paranormal Society show team members dressed in a manner that resembles the way in which popular characters on ghost hunting television shows dress (see one example here.)

It’s all about the utility vests and bravado

GPS, who claim on their site to be ‘an experienced group of professional ghost hunters and paranormal experts that operate across most parts of the United Kingdom investigating reports of hauntings, poltergeists, residual energy and all forms of paranormal or supernatural phenomena’ also host a range of public ghost hunting events. Some would say that this is a very mixed message.

The equipment and methods used by ghost hunters to help them find ghosts and to communicate with them are also inspired by television shows who promote which equipment works best. A while ago I bought a Ghost Laser Grid as a joke after it was featured on the US television show Ghost Hunters and yet ghost hunting team after ghost hunting team uses the device as part of their “research”. The same can be said of the Ovilus device which it is claimed translates Electro-Magnetic fluctuations into messages from spirit. This device is often used on Ghost Adventures, and as a result is extremely popular with ghost hunting teams.

My personal collection of silly ghost gadgets.
My personal collection of silly ghost gadgets.

Neither of these devices (nor the dozens of others) are actually able to contribute to paranormal research and instead simply feed into the biases of those using them. After all, a meter will only read what it is designed to read – it’s how the person who uses the devices interprets the reading that makes the difference between it being considered normal or abnormal.

For example, the equipment shown on the website equipment page for Ghost Hunters Stoke on Trent does not do what ghost hunters and ghost hunting television shows typically believe it is able to do in the search for evidence of ghosts. There is no scientific evidence that these devices communicate or detect ghosts. I presume that this team search for evidence of ghosts and try to communicate with them because there is also an automatic writing board on the table and that has no place in unbiased research. From their website you can see that they have a Spring Ouija Board too – one of the latest gimmicky pieces of equipment to be released onto the market.

I don’t believe it is possible to act this way – to follow pop-culture trends – and have a scientific methodology at the heart of what you do, yet this is what so many of these teams, groups and organisations claim. It’s fine to want to be like your heroes from television, but television tends to be for entertainment purposes. Paranormal themed television programs are marketed towards those with a vested interest in paranormal subjects and will tell the audience what they want to hear so that they carry on watching the show.

As a result, the science presented in these shows is often not accurate and is distorted to fit with the core message of the show – that ghosts/monsters/aliens/fairies exist. When people re-enact what they see on television without realising that it’s a parody of actual science because they haven’t thought to conduct some research into the claims from the shows, it furthers the problem of psuedo-scientific paranormal research. It saddens me that when people think of paranormal research they think of these ghost hunting groups instead of the decent multi-disciplinary research being conducted into all sorts of strange phenomena across the globe.

Last year I wrote a blog post called ‘The Ghost Hunters are alright‘ after I attended the Seriously Strange conference and saw first hand how many paranormal researchers present wanted to be good researchers with sound methodologies. I concluded that the ghost hunters were alright and that progress would come from within the paranormal research field when it came to improving standards.

The researchers I spoke of were not these Television Clones who halt that progress. The television clones are not alright.

The Folly of Ghost Hunters

pawn

I started ghost hunting just after I turned Eighteen. I didn’t know anything about the subculture that is ghost hunting culture and the two years that followed me starting up a paranormal research team were eye-opening and a bit scary at times. Just prior to losing my belief in ghosts I was screamed at down the phone by the founder of another local ghost hunting team who threatened to attack me, and yet another local team sabotaged many of the ghost hunts that my co-founder had organised for us.

Not all paranormal research is like this, but ghost hunting is peppered with this childish behaviour and I wonder now if it might have been such behaviour that led me to question what exactly was going on which, in turn, led me to question my beliefs and ultimately reject them. British ghost hunting culture is odd. In the last few years it has drastically morphed into a mix of late night tourism and spiritualist communication sessions all rolled into one. It is largely (though not completely) compromised of adults who think they are communicating with ghosts using techniques and methods that are at best questionable and at worst dodgy while trying to reassure people that they are professional, ethical, moral and caring people.

Randomly choose a ghost hunting team website and it’s likely that you’ll find “investigation reports” that read like:

K2 Activity [a/n: k2 is a sort of cheat EMF meter, but quite possibly actually a Flux Meter instead] was constant throughout this vigil going up to 4 lights. HELLO was given to the team via the spirit board and a male spirit came through trying to spell his name. He kept giving FLJ, FLJ. His name was FRANK JAMES born 1944, aged 33. He’d lived in the house from birth and his parents had lived there for 59 years but had since passed. His siblings were 2 brothers & 3 sisters. Some were still alive. His mums name was ELSIE & Dad’s was GEORGE. He said he’d been killed but that it wasn’t work related. He said he was killed on purpose then changed his mind saying it was an accidental death …

That’s part of a report from Louth Paranormal taken from an investigation they did at a private house where the resident was scared that they might have ghosts and asked them to investigate. The whole report reads the same – spirit communication, spirit communication, spirit communication. There is no attempt to help resolve the case, and the same occurs on other private property investigations again and again.

An ethical ghost researcher would not have touched this case because the resident is a current user of local mental health services and has a support network already in place. Louth Paranormal, however, did enter the location, and did so allegedly without the residents advocate being present. This rings alarm bells for a number of reasons.

I could write a lengthy and damning criticism but I won’t because their behaviour is unfortunately typical of ghost hunting teams. They have no concept of what impact their actions actually have and won’t listen if you tell them about what an ethical investigation actually looks like, so I’m not going to. That’s something people have to discover for themselves, and when they do so they will then be haunted by what they’ve done in the past just as I am today.

I know this will disappoint at least one person – the person (let’s call them Boo) who sent me the report that I quoted above that isn’t available online. I believe this was done in an attempt to use me and my blog as some sort of pawn in a personal disagreement between two ghost hunting teams who operate in the same area. Thing is… I was already aware of the disagreement because of the very public Facebook posts from Boo about Louth Paranormal whom Boo seems to dislike very much. Boo fed me numerous pieces of information about the group that Boo knew would anger someone, like me, who often writes about the ethics of ghost investigation. It is almost insulting that Boo would think I was stupid enough to react blindly and without getting my facts straight. Nice try.

A little digging and the motivations became very clear and felt very familiar. People who have a similar interest (in this case ghosts and ghost hunting) often fall out and create splinter ghost hunting teams that then become rivals of the team they used to belong to. As they’re operating in the same geographical area they start to wind each other up in ghost hunter turf wars, bragging about the “unique” locations they have booked to go ghost hunting in. Suddenly their desire to communicate with ghosts morphs into a desire to communicate with ghosts better than those others, and to communicate with ghosts in places those others can’t. He said, She said becomes order of the day, and antagonistic posts are made on websites and social media pages to score points. It’s pathetic!

new team member brag

I asked Boo why they got in touch with me about this case and what exactly I was supposed to do, and they told me ‘ … you know how to get things out in the public domain. And several people suggested I run this by you.’ Yeah, Fuck you. I will not allow my blog to be used in your attempt to get one over on your rival ghost hunting team.

It makes me sick when ghost research groups claim to be moral and ethical and yet can’t rise above petty and childish arguments. If your actions are continually selfish how can you ever claim to have the best interest of clients at the heart of what you do? I acted like this when I was a teenager and then I grew the fuck up.