The Ethics of Ghost Research

When I first got involved in paranormal research as a teenager I thought a good code of conduct looked like the one that can be found here. Most people who get involved in paranormal research do so with good intentions, but sometimes good intentions aren’t enough. There are things I have done in the name of ‘paranormal research’ that were unethical and damaging to the people involved. I should have known better but I didn’t and as time has gone on I have been able to cast my mind back to those instances and see how I would have done things differently had I been more aware of the unethical implications my desire to communicate with dead people could have on others.

There was an instance a few years ago when I was asked to conduct an educational investigation at a reputedly haunted pub in Bristol. The idea was that I would lead the investigation and walk people through the pseudo-scientific methods of ghost hunting. This included using the ouija board, and as we sat around the table conducting a faux ouija board session a member of staff that lived in the pub walked into the room, saw the board and started to panic.

I didn’t know people lived on premises, I hadn’t thought to ask the organisers of the event about such things, and as a result one resident got very scared and I’m pretty sure that would have had a knock on effect. Unfortunately I cannot change the past no matter how much I want to, all I can do is learn from my mistakes and hope that perhaps the lessons I have learnt through trial and error as a paranormal investigator can help others avoid such mistakes.

I interviewed the chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), Dave Wood, alongside long time researcher CJ Romer about the ethical implications of spontaneous phenomena investigations a while ago and you can read the transcript of the interview by clicking here. Very recently I have observed numerous instances of paranormal researchers demonstrating either unethical behaviour or a lack of understanding about what ethical implications their actions may have on those they encounter. Rather than just name, shame and moan about what I had seen I’ve decided to both transcribe the interview I did with Dave and CJ (as linked to above) and write up a summary about the basic things to consider when it comes to ethical ghost research.

Ethical Ghost Research – the basics

When investigating spontaneous phenomena you will come into contact with all sorts of people who are both involved in the case and not involved in it. As a researcher (whether professional or amateur) the welfare of those affected by your research is paramount. Being guided by your common sense or morality is often not enough to ensure you have considered all possible implications that your presence at a location as a researcher may have on those you come into contact with.  This is why it is paramount that paranormal researcher organisations draw up a code of ethics to which organisation members are to abide by while on location.

Who can be harmed by paranormal researchers?

There are four groups of people that paranormal researchers may come into contact with who should be considered in a code of ethics drawn up by research organisations.

1 – The recently bereaved 

Paranormal Researchers should not work with those who have experienced the loss of a loved one within at least a six month period. Grief can make a person extremely emotionally vulnerable and only those professionals with specialist training in coping with grief and depression should work with those who have experienced such a recent loss.

2 – Children

Cases involving those under the age of Eighteen are an ethical nightmare for paranormal researchers. Some claim that it is okay to work with children, but I personally agree with CJ Romer and Dave Wood when they point out that only those Social Welfare Professionals with specialist training should work with children – and only when called upon to do so in a professional capacity.

3 – Statutorily vulnerable adult

Vulnerable adults may be those with mental health issues, learning difficulties, who are very elderly or frail, or someone who’s recently bereaved. Paranormal investigators should consider very carefully about whether it is appropriate to work with such people. Of people with these circumstances Dave Wood, the chairman of ASSAP says

‘they would fall into the category of statutorily vulnerable and that means they have some kind of care needs and you [paranormal researchers] shouldn’t be working with those people at all because they should already have professional networks of support.’

4 – Non-Statutorily vulnerable adults

Adults who are not vulnerable can still be harmed by the actions of paranormal researchers – the previously mentioned barmaid who stumbled upon the Ouija board session would fall under this label. Many ghost researchers enter a location in the pursuit of ‘evidence’ that ghosts exist, this can not only misinform the people they come into contact with but it can scare them too and cause them to feel uncomfortable, unsafe or scared of their own home or place of work. It’s a sure sign that you need to review your code of ethics when the hunt for evidence takes priority over the well being of those involved in the case – or the well being of those you come into contact with isn’t even considered in the first place!

How can people be harmed by paranormal researchers?

Through the sharing of information

When ghost researchers conduct an investigation they often conclude by writing and sharing a report about the investigation. If no code of ethics is in place, the way in which information is shared by the ghost researchers can have a harmful effect on the people involved in the case being researched.

Occasionally the reports that ghost researchers put together can describe pretty horrific things they believe they encountered as locations, such as being pushed, scratched, made to feel unwell, things being thrown or moved, sounds being heard and things being seen. These things can be upsetting and scary to those who live or work in the location – especially when the paranormal research teams findings may be pseudo-scientific and erroneous.

Not only this but sometimes it isn’t appropriate to name the people involved, or even the location involved as this can bring unwanted attention upon those being named. Confidentiality is something that all paranormal researchers should respect above all else.

Often paranormal investigators will visit locations where they don’t really come into contact with anyone they could cause harm through their actions, but then claim to talk to spirits while at the location. Publishing the details of the spirits they believe they have encountered could also be unethical in the cases where those spirits were real people who may have living relatives who could stumble upon the report containing details about their deceased loved ones.

By acting as a professional in a non-professional capacity

Many paranormal research organisations have members who are qualified in roles that might aid those who are listed above as potentially vulnerable. Some ghost researchers may be psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, grief councilors, GP’s etc. but acting in their professional capacity when on an investigation is unprofessional and may have negative outcomes for the people they advise. Most vulnerable adults and children have a care network in place with such professionals already working for them and so anyone in a ghost research team who happens to have those credentials should not consider it their place to act in such a manner.

By breaking the law

A very big problem is caused by paranormal researchers who gain access to locations without permission from land owners. There have been horror stories of people being seriously injured and killed because they trespassed on private property to look for ghosts there. Even some graveyards have limited opening hours and by accessing the graveyard outside of these opening hours could mean you are breaking the law.

Not everyone who accesses a location illegally is respectful of the location and there have been instances of ghost researchers using locations as a toilet, vandalism, spraying graffiti and littering. I think the unethical implications of such behaviour speaks for itself.

Ethical conduct is a huge topic and the above has hardly scratched the surface, but then this was only intended as a brief introduction to the ethics of ghost hunting. The points made above are the most common mistakes I have seen paranormal researchers make again and again in the few years I have been involved in such research. Keeping research ethical is a big deal for researchers of all disciplines, but sometimes ghost researchers are so desperate to get out there and talk to ghosts that they don’t stop to think that this means them too.

I haven’t written out a list of rules that I think ghost researchers should follow, or a dummy code of ethics. I’ve just listed all of the above as my pointers on what to consider and hope that those researchers without a code of ethics will consider the information I have shared and draw up their own code of ethics.

About Hayley Stevens 448 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

11 Comments on The Ethics of Ghost Research

  1. wow, you need to get this to Joe Nickell and I think any skeptic magazines you have in the UK. I applaud this so much. I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought, even the skeptics that do paranormal investigations, need some good basic ethical rules.

  2. When I first started out in investigation I was a member of a group based somewhere up north. I would say they were, at best, like some kind of over-excited Most-Haunted-wannabe Scooby Doo tribute band. They committed several of the transgressions you mentioned above – the one that got me the most was that they would not only allow a girl who was (at the time) fourteen years old to come on overnight investigations, but would also happily allow her to travel halfway across England on her own to do so (the fact that her parent gave her permission also flabbergasted me). They released some, quite frankly, shockingly embarrassing reports to the owners of the locations who had graciously allowed us onto their premises.
    After a long period of banging my head against metaphorical and real walls, I gave up writing investigation reports and started writing reports on the team members instead. I then defected to another group.

  3. I was part of a paranormal group at one time that broke pretty much all of these and ones you didnt even think of adding cause theyre common sense. I left, and me and a few others who used to be part of it now have our own paranormal group.

    It was terrible. The team leader once turned up at the door of family members of a murder victim, claiming to be able to contact his ghost and find the body. Members would bully eachother, especially if one was skeptical of some of their “evidence”, mixed in with liking eachother too much-between group members there were love triangles/squares/too much to count. Everything got a bit crazy, with every investigation seeming to contact demons.

  4. Good article… My team in Dorset have a code of conduct… or as I call it the bible!! It not only helps in everyone knowing what is expected and how to behave. It also means that there are no embarrassing incidents at a location.

    I also have a thorough clearance form that I go through with the location that talks very honestly of things that need to be right for us and the location before we attend.

    This has been met with nothing but respect from locations in the past. It also shows the owners of the home, business, historical location that we care about their building and those involved in it as much as anything we might gain from our night in the dark.

  5. I would love to see their code as well. We can all learn from each other. It is so important. I have seen some crapy things that investigators do. I’d love to see a lot more of the good we do! Great post Hayley!

  6. What about the paranormal groups who do have a code of ethics? Being a sceptic does not make you special in the paranormal field we have plenty, yet they still have respect for what we do! I would assume the best thing to do would be to place your investigations alongside the paranormal investigations. It just doesn’t sound like good buisenness sense to openly insult people who believe in something you don’t, it’s like saying its acceptable to openly insult other religions because they don’t believe in what you do.

    • Er… I am a paranormal investigator and have never claimed to not be. It’s a bit odd that you’ve seen I am a skeptic and automatically assumed I am completely separate from other paranormal investigators. Also, who says it isn’t acceptable to insult religions? Sure, insulting people who are religious is a bit anti-social, but I can insult ideas as much as I like. Nobody has a right to not be offended, after all 😉

  7. Hi Hayley..

    Great site that I’ve just stumbled on..I’m an investigator (and self-confessed skeptic). I’ve recently set up my own team (along with my two daughters and others) and while we’re relatively new to the investigation aspect, I have had a passion for all things paranormal and supernatural for a long time.
    I applaud your stance on taking to task those who look to turn the investigation into nothing more than a ‘Most Haunted’ style of (non)investigation. However, and this, I’m finding, is the problem with what I do…I will always look for a non-paranormal cause before I go looking for a (potentially) paranormal cause (?), but there are those who come with me that will, no matter how much I look to explain the potential occurrence using scientific or normal methods. always see the occurrence as paranormal.
    Now, I have no problem with that because, as I tell all those who attend with me, the reality we each live in is a making of our own experiences and the things we experience through our own senses is unique to each person (for example, my blue may not be your blue).
    I attended an ‘ investigation’ with a leading ‘Paranormal Events Company’, and the (mis)information gleaned on the night was shocking to say the least….but I came away having learned something…no matter the strength or amount of the evidence, there will always be those who still believe…and that it harms no one if those who attend are made aware from the outset that the techniques used are used for entertainment purposes only (which didn’t happen on the night).
    A quick example..I use EMF meters and K2 meters on my investigations because there are those out there who expect those things to be used. I am well aware that they are completely useless and offer nothing to the overall investigation, BUT by using them, I look to educate those who are with me so that when they go on other investigations they have the confidence to question the necessity of using such equipment (don’t get me started on Ouija boards!).

  8. I’ve also considered the ethics surrounding so-called paranormal investigations, and though you have listed the most applicable groups to whom may be harmed by such antics. I wonder if there is the possible scope to include the ‘other world’ as also a such group that may be harmed?
    I mean the whole premise of such investigations is to explore the possibility of survival of physical death, as such if we were to put aside our skepticism and just consider that there may be a possibility of a ghost or spirit occupying a place or building, no matter how small that possibility may be. Would I be wrong to suggest that perhaps the antics that go on as such investigations may not only harm those on our side but also may cause distress to those in the other world? If the other world existed? No matter how small the chances?

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