The day that ghost hunting died

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I don’t know when it died but one thing I am sure of is that ghost hunting is dead. That isn’t a ghost-related joke either, it really has ceased to exist and it seems that very few people have noticed.

Looking back at my time as a ghost hunter I guess I should have seen the early stages of the onset of its death – ghost hunting teams set up simply as vessels through which the team members aimed for their slice of paranormal related fame. Their own television show, perhaps. More and more of these crap shows appearing, more and more tech being marketed at suckers who wanted to be their idols from their ghost hunting television shows.

I didn’t see it coming though as I was truly engrossed with my own fact finding mission – one that would lead me to my current skeptical-yet-curious position.

Recently, a number of members of my old ghost hunting team thought it would be nice to arrange a one off evening of ghost hunting for old times sake. A chance to meet up again and trade tales of the good old days. It never happened though because all of the locations that we visited between 2005 – 2008 as curious-yet-naive ghost hunters suddenly wanted us to pay over £300 or had such a long line of ghost hunting teams already visiting that they couldn’t fit us in. We thought perhaps the first venue this happened with was an unfortunate one off, but then the second venue did the same, and the third, the fourth…

Then we realised that the traditional approach to ghost hunting that we had so loved has been skinned alive, and instead of allowing it to rest in peace a more modern version is parading around wearing its flesh. The modern version is adventure tourism with the lights turned off; copying those cool looking people off the television who have action filled nights in the most haunted of venues across the world.

Claiming to be like the old school ghost hunters when they’re anything but…

These teams typically visit the same locations as other teams, paying over the odds for access for the night and charging their members and friends so they can afford the charges. The venues you visit are like medals you collect – ‘ooh, they’ve been to all the castles, I wish we were as cool as them’. Teams will spend roughly 5 – 8 hours at the location and that is it, so these modern ghost hunters have to make it worth their while by using all sorts of nonsense devices and techniques to find and communicate with ghosts. The bigger your arsenal of devices, the better you are. Bit like Pokemon card collections (only sillier).

It’s a popularity contest. Keep up or go away.

The modern ghost hunters want to replicate activity that has been reported. They want to see if they can experience it too, rather than spending hours trying to work out what might have caused it. There seems to be little or no interest in researching techniques – if it’s good enough for those other teams then it must be okay. I spoke to a modern ghost hunter recently who dropped into the conversation ‘we use religious provocation if we have to, we’re there to find the ghosts’. 

Ghost Hunting as we know it is dead. Any old school researchers deserve better than to be likened to modern ghost hunting teams and celebrities who have latched onto something that was good and have dragged in into the mud. Ghost hunting is dead, let’s just hope it soon realises it so that we can all get on with decent paranormal research without these wannabe’s pretending they represent us all. Ugh.

Bringing Bad Science to the Classroom

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I recently held a workshop in my local library for children aged 10 years+ that was marketed as ‘How to be a Ghost Buster’. I taught the attendees how to spot faked ghost photos, misidentified ghost photos, and what a scientific approach to odd activity looked like. I taught them how dodgy human memory is, and we often see meaning where there is none. None of what I told them was personal opinion and was all based on research and studies. I answered their questions as objectively as I could and yet I was still terrified that I might say or do the wrong thing to a potentially vulnerable audience.

This is why alarm bells rang when I read about a Milwaukee paranormal researcher who tried to hold a Ghost Hunting 101 class at a school and was met with angry protest from Christians who felt that the only spirits that should be discussed were the Holy Spirit.

Greg Neukirk of WhoForted reports that ‘Arn Quakkelaar, a member of the Christian Emergency Network, told WTMJ News Radio that the Holy Ghost is the only ghost children should be seeking. “There could very well be ghosts. We’re not against believing that. We believe in the Holy Spirit, and that’s what we’re focused on.”’

The paranormal researcher in question, Noah Leigh, wanted to demonstrate some of the techniques used by people who investigate anomalous phenomena. “We’re not going in there with Ouija boards, dowsing rods, to conjure things up. This is not the point. We’re there to document what may have been reported,” Leigh told the local news.

Apparently the school weren’t happy to allow the religious to have the monopoly on what extra-curricular lessons the children could have and Leigh was allowed to proceed with the ghost research classes. However, there are a number of issues raised in this story that I wanted to explore in a bit more detail.

It turns out that Arn Quakkelaar hosts something called ‘Prayer Walks’ at schools. This extract taken from Arn’s ‘Brothers and Sisters in Christ Serving’ newsletter explains how this works.

A Prayer Walk is simply a group of “Prayer Warriors” walking  around, in and throughout a building . . stopping to pray at  specific locations or troubled areas in a school which the  teachers, staff and/or principals are concerned about. Past  testimonies by Principals and staff have declared how effective the power of prayer in their respective schools have changed the attitudes of students and staff.

This is a weird and inappropriate activity to be taking place in an educational facility, but then again I’m a dirty secularist and would say that. Yet, with that in mind, I also wonder if the Ghost Hunting 101 class is appropriate too. Noah Leigh belongs to a research team called Paranormal Investigators of Milwakee and their website suggests they are a scientific team but a quick look at their approach, methodology and equipment suggests otherwise. There is lots being used that probably leads to baseless speculation about activity being paranormal. Moon phases? Really?

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Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs and if the Paranormal Investigators of Milwakee want to explore buildings in the dark with their Mel Meters and so on, then this is entirely up to them. It is an entirely different ball game though, when this is presented in schools as a scientific approach when it simply isn’t.

Using technological devices does not make you a scientific paranormal researcher, and the science associated with a lot of these pieces of ghost research equipment is often shaky, in need of replication and further testing, or still in progress. Ghost hunters often misunderstand the science and misrepresent it, unknowingly, during their research. Ghost hunters often use these devices in a ‘just in case’ style, yet still use any positive hits as evidence of something weird. This is bad science.

Bad science should not be presented in a school environment as anything other than an example of what bad science looks like. Some have argued that if the prayer group are allowed into the school then ghost hunters should be allowed in too, but this is a poor selection process for determining who should get to talk to children about what they believe to be true.

Noah Leigh said  “We’re not going in there with Ouija boards, dowsing rods, to conjure things up. This is not the point. We’re there to document what may have been reported,” but I would suggest that the techniques he would have been telling the children about are just as bad as dowsing rods and ouija boards – they may have no religious relevance, but they’re still nonsense.

Nonsense does not belong in the classroom and does not get a free pass just because someone else gets to bring a different flavour of nonsense into the classroom.

When is a cat not a cat?

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When it’s a hardly visible line-shaped thing on a poor quality piece of footage that is 2 seconds long. That’s when.

To clarify for those not in the know, a piece of footage has been doing the rounds in the paranormal interest communities that it is claimed shows an apparition of a ghost cat running across the hallway. The footage was taken from an IR DVR camera in The Shanley Hotel in Napanoch, New York but what we see is a low quality copy of the original that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

When I first read the story and saw the video on the WhoForted.com site I commented that it might be the product of ghosting which can happen on some CCTV and Camcorder systems, but having watching it over it could just as easily be a piece of lint floating on a breeze.

As my ghost research colleague, Bob Dezon, points out ‘without viewing the undegraded footage at full resolution, and unedited, we cannot be certain wtf caused this effect. Tis all supposition of what it could be, and what it “could be” is determined by the clarity of the original footage.’ Bob also pointed out that this effect could be created by shining a beam of IR light from behind the camera, but let’s not cast stones just yet.

In conclusion: This 2 second clip of a ghost cat isn’t that impressive and only becomes interesting when you allow yourself to wildly speculate.

Pythagoras’ Trousers & more

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Over Halloween I was spectacularly busy and totally forgot to plug the interview I did with Rhys Philips of Pythagoras’ Trousers, a Science & Technology Radio show broadcast on Radio Cardiff. It was a great interview with much better questioning than another recent interview I did…

You can listen to it online by clicking here. I’m sorry that I forgot to plug it before now.

It’s probably also worth mentioning that the latest episode of Be Reasonable is out and features an interview with Jacqui O’Reilly. Jacqui believes she has an ability to make readings and predictions with unnerving accuracy, and discusses the use of her abilities in locating missing persons, as well as the need to test her skills scientifically. You can listen to it here.

‘That was simply the worst show we’ve ever done’

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It would seem that I have really annoyed Alex Botten who is a host for the Fundamentally Flawed podcast that I was interviewed live for this evening (Sat 16 Nov). You can watch it here. The quote that makes the title of this blog post is what Botton wrote on the public Youtube thread for the show as it was broadcast, shortly after he suggested during the live show that I was simply validating peoples delusions by giving their experiences of a ghostly nature the time of day.

Botten also spectacularly missed the point when he commented

I don’t think she actually said anything of substance – she talked about a whole lot of nothing that she herself stated she didn’t believe in

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It’s always nice when a host for the podcast you are invited onto as a guest researches what you do before they interview you about it, but enough sarcasm from me. I want to address the two accusations from Botten (one on air and off air) that he didn’t “get” what I do and thinks I just validate peoples delusions.

It is important to firstly point out that we are all delusional in one way or another and that not all delusions are bad and damaging things. I pointed out during the show, for example, that studies have shown that believing you have seen or sensed the ghost of a loved one can help with the grieving process. Not harmful. That isn’t to say that all belief in ghosts or an afterlife isn’t harmful because there is potential for harm, but I pointed that out too and spoke about the complicated ethics of ghost research. 

…and if people believe in ghosts and it isn’t harming them, then so what? You might consider it a silly thing to believe in, but what’s the deal? Is that really such a bad thing?

The answer, in case you were wondering, is no…

Unless, of course, you are the kind of someone who cannot accept that other people have a different version of reality to yourself. Unless, of course, you’re also the kind of someone who simply cannot abide people accepting nonsense as sense. Unless, of course, you are the kind of someone who insists that your view is the correct view and you will not listen to alternative points of view, and unless, of course, you’re the kind of someone who has made their mind up way before discussing the issue with people who hold opposing views than those you hold.

But I digress…

I don’t believe ghosts exist as a supernatural phenomenon but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in them as a cultural and social phenomenon, and by listening to people tell me about their weird experiences and offering potential alternative explanations I am not going to validate any delusions they may or may not have.

Giving ghost phenomenon the time of day, as a skeptic or as a non-believer, does not validate the idea that ghosts exist. I am simply acknowledging that people report having weird experiences that they sometimes believe to be ghost-related.

More often than not the people who come to me with their sightings or photos are just genuinely interested to hear what they actually might have seen or photographed. They don’t necessarily believe it was a ghost, but they’re curious and think I might be able to tell them. Those who do believe in ghosts have usually already made their minds up about the matter and nothing I say is going to convince them otherwise, or further what they already believe (and I’m always honest about my non-belief).

When I appear in the press time and time again uncovering ghost hoaxes I don’t validate delusions, when I debate pseudo-scientific ghost hunters live on radio I don’t validate delusions, when I host “ghost busting” workshops teaching children how to uncover ghost hoaxes and photographic mis-identifications and illusions I don’t validate delusions, when I analyse photographs and work out what is really in them I don’t validate delusions, when I visit haunted locations and work out the real cause for the alleged ghost sightings I do. not. validate. delusions. 

Alex Botten would have known this had he researched me as a guest for his podcast before interviewing me, he would have known this had he asked good and probing questions during the interview, he would have known this if he had asked those questions because he was genuinely curious… but he didn’t research what I do, he didn’t ask good probing questions and he wasn’t genuinely curious.

He had already made his mind up about me before the show had already started, and that is why it ‘was simply the worst show‘ they’ve ever done.

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