A glut of ghost hunters

CNN does a feature story on the thousands of ghost hunting groups. Where have they been? This is certainly not a new phenomenon. Paranormal teams have been tripping over one another and elbowing for space for many years now. When does this fad go away? That’s what I’d like to know.

Ghost hunters haunted by new terror: competition – CNN.com.

We’ve heard of ghosts that harass the living. Now people are starting to harass the ghosts. Virtually every night on television, a paranormal investigator like [Zak] Bagans can be seen trying to summon a ghost or “dark spirit.” All across America, novice investigative teams are creeping through people’s homes at night, trying to get rid of their paranormal pests.

The public’s fascination with the paranormal, though, has created a problem. Ghost-hunting teams are chasing television gigs more than ghosts, some investigators say. The allure of fame, they say, has done what the forces of darkness could not do — turn ghost hunters against one another.

The stars of some paranormal shows feud over whose show is real or fake. Local ghost-hunting teams refuse to work together because they see each other as business rivals. Some teams refuse to share spooky “evidence” captured on film because they plan to use it as a demo tape for a potential television pilot or a Hollywood movie like “The Conjuring,” investigators say.

I did extensive research into amateur paranormal investigation groups for a Masters thesis in 2010. My thesis is here [PDF] and a popular article about what I found is here: Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things – CSI. What is in this CNN feature is nothing new to me. But it is disappointing. At least there is a small token skeptic quote from Joe Nickell.

For many and various reasons, I don’t buy these outrageous, extraordinary claims of hauntings. I would be amenable to helping with an investigation. But no one asks for a skeptic or scientist to be on the team. In fact, they kind of hate that. From what we see on TV, in movies and in the thousands of paranormal teams, people are interested in seeking mystery, not searching until they find the best answer.

To the Warrens, profiled in this piece and in the hit movie, The Conjuring, everything bad was caused by demons or dark forces and could be solved by God. Even if it wasn’t demonic, the Warrens MADE it demonic. They were rather despicable in that regard, preying on people’s religious beliefs and literally putting the fear of the devil into them.

Warren is a devout Christian who says she became a paranormal investigator to bring people closer to God. “The Conjuring” is filled with chilling moments, but she doesn’t consider herself brave.

“I’m brave in my faith,” she says. “That’s where my bravery comes from.”

The bottom line is, people really believe this stuff. What is happening to them could have a hundred different explanations. If there is actual paranormal activity occurring, it’s about damn time we should have had some decent documentation. TV shows ain’t it!

Ghost hunters need to get their act together and stop playing pretend scientist. They are failing.

  12 comments for “A glut of ghost hunters

  1. September 7, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    All paranormal TV shows are scripted and “evidence” faked to make a good story for ratings. No matter how blatant the attempt is at staging events, most para-people still eat it up and stick to their blind faith beliefs. I am beginning to think the shows purposely do a bad job at faking in order to build in a covert disclaimer that it is not reality. Here’s an example of a poorly done episode segment of a VERY popular current TV show.

  2. September 7, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    I am not kidding, Bigfoot Club found out the local ghost hunting group (the one not associated with the local colleges, each of the three local colleges has their own ghost hunting group) went out looking for Bigfoot…and they are LIVID. We don’t go looking for ghosts! Why are they looking for Bigfoot! They even brought their psychic (we do not use psychics) and they did DOWSING! And they wrote it up for their site. HOW DARE THEY! blah blah blah blah…I adore my Bigfoot group (should be noted the local ghost hunters did not want me), but everyone that goes in the woods is looking for Bigfoot (or certainly if he shows up they will snap a photo). also everyone wants a TV show. Everyone. (except Bigfoot Club, which is why I really enjoy them, they are honestly looking for the squatch and do a good job of being honest about it)

  3. September 7, 2013 at 10:13 PM

    First rule of Bigfoot Fight Club, there is no Bigfoot.

  4. Chris Howard
    September 8, 2013 at 9:13 AM

    And “Bigfoot Fight Club” just made my best band names, ever! list.

    Thanks for the thesis link. I just started reading it. Very cool!

  5. spookyparadigm
    September 8, 2013 at 6:20 PM

    Jason Colavito has a post relevant to this, which I just commented on. The hook is a “history” of horror movies that turns out to be a thinly veiled anthology of people running around in the woods with night vision goggles, again. It’s just bizarre. As I ask in the comments: Is it really that much cheaper to make this stuff than even the most basic filler documentaries? Why do people like this stuff?


    I think it’s relevant over here because if it really is that cheap, meaning that so little money goes out to those “lucky” enough to get a show, it puts the topic over here in a new perspective. Sharon has written about the convention business before, that this is where paranormal tv stars make their money with panels, autographs, and merchandise. But is it really that much money? Enough for people to chase as hard as they do? Especially since unlike say acting or music or any of the performing arts, there is no career path here. It’s not like the path where one goes and trains to be an actor, or practices their musical art, and then when it doesn’t work out, they end up scrabbling for whatever work there is. There isn’t really a career path that would lead to being a paranormal tv star, at least not one anyone could plan for. It’s all dodge and hustle, opportunity seizing, etc..

    As a secular monk ensconced in the plastic faux ivory tower of academia, I’m going to be honest and say I just don’t get this.

  6. September 9, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    People like mystery. I wonder, though, why they hunt for ghosts instead, of say, working police cold cases. Every town has a cold case file – in big cities the police file on cold cases is usually out on the web. If you like roaming around the woods looking for something spine-tingling, you could hunt for missing persons. It’s just as morbid as ghost hunting and might actually be helpful.

  7. spookyparadigm
    September 9, 2013 at 10:56 AM

    People do that too, and I think there probably is overlap between the two communities. But I’m not sure I’d necessarily argue for it. You get that with famous cases (the Black Dahlia comes to mind, but there are plenty of others), and it usually just seems to be breeding ground for conspiracy theory, and the potential for clouding potential evidence. The grand-daddy of them all being the JFK assassination. I can’t remember the case, but there was some well known murder or disappearance that an amateur investigator years later tied to a shovel found near an important site (I really can’t remember the details, but I think it was covered on DN). The problem is, several have been found there over the years, so now what do you do with it? All sorts of issues with chain of evidence, data collecting, etc.. All the problems that exist with ghost hunting or Bigfooting or alien abduction would be present, except they’d be directly injected into the justice system,

    As much as I like the amateur sleuth idea, it just seems like it would inevitably produce some awful results even worse than the occasional ghost hunters getting hit by a train or falling through a rotted floor.

    This is an issue we face in archaeology, as there is a whole community of amateur enthusiasts who find artifacts who are neither professional archaeologists, nor mercantile looters aiming their goods primarily at the market (but sometimes are involved in the trade).

    Some archaeologists find it valuable to work with avocationals because they know where sites are, or have good if less-than-provenienced examples of artifacts. A similar dynamic is much hairier in for example Latin America, where some scholars who are interested in just the painted iconography on pottery vessels or carvings and inscriptions on stone tablets are willing to work with collectors who do buy from looters who bring them the best complete pieces [as well as fakes], a practice anathema to more excavation-focused archaeologists. Other archaeologists only view avocational diggers or fieldwalkers as the enemy destroying the archaeological record, and note that there is not a firm wall between some avocational collectors and the looting world, even though there are efforts in the avocational world to erect one.

    I’ve had some, but not tremendous, experience with this, including working with museum collections, and I have to say, my feelings are mixed and complicated and evolving.

    At the same time, I also recognize that no matter what we do in regards to fighting pseudoarchaeology, there is a significant group of people out there aren’t just not being reached out to, but also reject what we as professionals have to offer. It isn’t an issue of education or lack of opportunity, but of ideology.

    And that gets us back to the ghost thing. I am of the opinion, and this is just an opinion based on somewhat informed guesswork, not hard directed research, that the upswing in paranormal interest roughly mirrors religiosity and particularly politicized Christianity in the US and that ghosthunting, the rise of paranormal explanations in non-supernatural paranormality (UFOs and crypto), and particularly the explosion of tying these topics to alternative archaeology are reflections of a larger antiscience movement. A glance at the history of ghost hunting, which moved from academic and pseudoacademic parapsychology labs in the mid-20th century to exuberantly populist ghosthunting groups (increasingly citing demons rather than stone tapes or psychokinesis) focused more on local stories and on media success than on scientific and scholarly discovery, also reflects this.

    Pseudosciences are not, IMO, heretic branches of science in most cases. But they are good indicators of popular ideas about science, and easier to fully examine away from biases of entanglement with existing institutions. If for no other reason (and there are plenty), the scholarly world needs to pay attention to pseudoscience for this self-interested reason.

  8. Erique
    September 10, 2013 at 4:02 AM

    Well said, Ma’am!!

    Thing is, as we all know, TV is just scripted entertainment, even most ‘reality’ shows have the participants primed somewhat, to use a theatrical expression: “It puts bums on seats” to have things happening, rather than the mundane, obvious and the truthful. They’re not going to get many viewing figures if every episode has some scientist or psychologist ‘naysaying’ every event. That is why they prefer the non-professional and the untrained observers and untrained ‘thinkers’.

    They know that doing it the cheap with the gullible and the foolish, has more chance of making a buck than an expensive show with scientists, psychologists and real critical thinkers. For a start, from the outset the professionals and academics would rule out the format, no way can the show leap to any paranormal explanation until all avenues are examined. Yet, in these shows, we have a leap straight to ghosts, spirits and demons, I’ve been on similar ‘adventures’ myself in the past, and if your brain is fully functioning you just shake your head at the ‘explanations’. The appeal to ignorance is rife: “I know what I saw, and I have no idea what it was, I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life -no one can tell me I didn’t see it or what it was” etc

    It is telling, I think, that almost exclusively the ‘Ghost Hunters’ have no scientific education, maybe some open college or mail-order course, but I’ve never come across one with a degree worth the cost of its postage relevant to the field they alleged to be investigating. The ‘cult’ does have people with degrees and even a few ‘doctors’ , but they are usually some useless or irrelevant qualification, how does a PhD in Literature, art or humanities make you an analytical and skeptical ‘ghost researcher’?

    Now in the UK ASSAP are introducing some kind of paranormal investigation qualification to make the amateurs feel full-grown investigators. How the heck can 90 hours of online ‘schooling’ come even close to several years degree/masters/doctorate study?

    I think courses like that say it all, that mainstream REAL and professional scientists and critical thinkers have no interest in a topic that is, essentially, bunk. Scientists won’t play the game, so we’ll change the rules for the players that do.

    I wrote recently, somewhere, about how much time is wasted by these ‘fools’, a hoaxer can spend a few minutes creating a photo, and all the ‘skeptical’ amateur ‘ghost hunters’ spend combined thousands of hours worldwide ‘debunking’ it. When a true skeptic wouldn’t waste but a moment on it, because they know that one photo is never going to prove the existence of ‘ghosts’, so why waste time on it when the same amount of time can be spent on important communal good, like stopping quacks killing people?

    ‘Ghost Hunting’ is a complete waste of time, and I think that it is a topic taken up by people who’d fail in any other area of investigation, it can make a plumber, a road-sweeper, or humble ticket office clerk feel relevant and important. Think about it, how many of these ‘paranormal’ researchers would have any presence in reality, outside of their work profile? They’d be unheard of except by their mom {whom they’re probably still living with} and Mrs Jones when she has her drains unblocked or buys a ticket.

    If ‘ghost hunting’ serves any purpose at all, it is to make uneducated, irrelevant non-achievers feel good about themselves, and feel important, this is why they rush out to defend a ‘cult’ that has NO evidence beyond anecdote and belief – just like God, Allah and unicorns.

  9. idoubtit
    September 10, 2013 at 7:16 AM

    I wouldn’t go that far. They mean well and are trying the best they can but how did they learn any science? Our schools don’t teach critical thinking. Our society does not encourage it. Our pop culture encourages hype and drama and speculation. Real science is hard and boring and takes a long time.

    Sadly, I think these amateur ghost hunters are having fun but really wasting their time if they are indeed searching for answers.

    If their goal is to just have fun, then they are getting that at least though ghost hunting has consequences.

    I don’t agree we should berate them for their interest. My goal is to try and show what can be done better. But, that is typically not what they want to hear. It’s not fun or easy to do and they won’t get the satisfying answer of “paranormal activity” all the time.

  10. erique
    September 10, 2013 at 8:26 AM

    Hi idoubtit,

    Hmmm, many seem to see such endeavours as a shortcut to be taken seriously in this world, and being ‘something’ in that world, there are a lot of egos on both sides for sure, but those on the side of science and rationality don’t just have subjective anecdotes to support their case.

    Once upon a time I was a bit ‘woo’, and know a little of the mindset, they love that science can’t prove ghosts do not exist; “You can’t prove a negative”, they love that science has been wrong in the past “They thought the Sun went round the Earth once”, they love that the Quantum/String world and the Cosmological immensity of reality is mostly unexplained “Science says that all the matter in the universe only adds up to 6 to 10% of the mass – dark energy and dark matter are the realms of the paranormal”.

    I see ‘ghost hunters’ as gullible people, easily lead and used, a little like the alien hypothesis UFO community, the wider community giving validation for the hierarchy, through watching crap TV shows, and paying silly money to go to a haunted venue, feeding the egos of a few, who, I believe, don’t really care too much for their belief/hobby/delusion.

    Science, or rather the learning of it, is the big problem, I think…I’d guess that most societies know the cost in time and asset to teach science effectively, and since most folks at school are a) never going to ‘get’ science; b) never need to use it in their careers or life; then why go to the expense? Why have a workforce of Physics PhDs who are only ever going to sweep streets, sale tickets or wash cars?

    Also, if you are not ‘turned on’ by science at an early age, it is as boring as heck…worse than mathematics…and we are trying to establish science interest into a demographic that have more ‘interesting’ and fun things to be diverted by…music, hanging out etc Hey, we even have the crazy situation where young ‘uns just want to be famous fro a career, and have no idea what to be famous for…and in today’s world famous scientists are pretty rare to the general populace, yet someone only has to appear on a reality show or come up with some crazy notion to be famous, and possibly rich.

    I think my issue is that IF these ‘ghost hunters’ could see that that they are not serious investigators, and that all their thousands of hours spent ‘researching’ it, are wasted. IF there are spirits around us, walking around dark rooms with some EMF meter, screaming every now and then, will never prove it, but you’ll not convince them…it is as much a cult as any religion…

    Personally, I don’t think that they want to do ‘better’, that would mean too much hard work and getting better educated in the ways of science and critical thinking, could just be that their minds are not capable of the task in the first place, we can’t all be nuclear scientists or oil portrait artists after all.

    The best explanations, so far as I can see, for what people observe, are psychological – brainfarts maybe – and for sure no research has found any foundation for a physical reality for ghosts – of course, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t lol – so, if all of science can’t put it in a ‘test tube’, why does a plumber, ticket clerk or a part-time speleologist think they can?

    They are wasting their time, that is entirely up to them, of course, if they’d rather spend Saturday night walking around in the dark instead of helping out the community early Sunday morning, fine, just don’t pretend that you are professional and serious investigators.

    Near where I live is an old Jacobean mansion, reputed to be the most haunted in my country {yeah, another one lol} it is the only place I have ever been to and seen something that I had no idea what it was…I was frowned upon because I admitted seeing it, but denied it was a ‘spirit’ lol It does get regular sightings, and for sure it has a ‘feel’ when you enter {probably the crap decor and furnishings}, it would make a great place for any scientific research, imo, I have in the past tried to get critical minded people interested, but, ultimately, the establishment concerned is only concerned with the bottom line, it has at least two ‘Ghost Nights’ a month, and charges at least 2,000 bucks a night, and it has all rights to any ‘evidence’. A good investigation would need the place clear of amateurs for months to get a baseline and see IF anything was really happening. The management would never let a scientific minded crew in there knowing that one of its main income streams would end as soon as they say; “No ghosts here”.

    Ghost hunters should be just seen as fringe hobbyists at best, akin to the alien hypothesis UFO guys and gals, I see something in them all akin to children playing doctor or scientist or something.

    Like most hobby amateurs, you don’t expect too much from them, so are not really that disappointed when they disappoint, a bit like watching a Sunday pub Soccer team, knowing that you are not going to see World Cup class international players. The reason being, the world-class players aren’t interested in the amateur game – nothing to see there, they won’t even watch a game, leave alone play one, the same with ‘Ghost Hunting”, IMO, it is an amateur game played by amateurs.

  11. spookyparadigm
    September 10, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    I think Erique is a bit harsh, but there is a lot there worth thinking about as well. I’ve mentioned numerous times in the past in comments here and elsewhere that I agree with the game aspect, citing the conclusions in this report on a famous alien abduction case as an insightful POV on this (in short: the case involved things that people in the real world would react differently to, including kidnapping and violence, yet it was all handled within the alien abduction community and not that of law enforcement or other outsiders most of us would involve in the same circumstances; in other words, the participants stayed within the shared boundaries of the “game” in the same way D&D players stay in character during their game)


    But the part that stuck out for me was the issue of the bigger picture vs. individual experiences and cases. This, in my opinion, is the largest stumbling block to so much in the world of “paranormal investigation.” For those, in the terminology used in Bader et al’s book Paranormal America, who are interested in enlightenment, well ok. But for those who frame what they are doing as discovery (and here we’d put the vast majority of cryptozoologists, many ghost hunters though not all, most ufologists, most “alternative” archaeologists historians, and more I’m forgetting), the most core element of research design is often missing: what will this accomplish? Never mind bad research methods in regards to biases, instruments, etc., those are all related problems to be sure.

    But the great problem is going from individual “cases” (cases of what?) to actually producing usable knowledge. And that’s where it all falls down, because there is no road map from point A to point B that seems to work. The most common method is the collection of anecdotes, the attempt to prove the existence of something by producing 100 “cases” (testimonials for the most part) of various degrees of problematic.

    But I think the bigger problem is that a number of researchers have gone beyond that, and have actually followed methods borrowed from more traditional investigation and scholarship. Collecting testimonials, starting to see patterns in an inductive manner, and dismissing hypotheses by getting more data. And when they do, a certain conclusions seems to pop up again and again, the mystical. You see this in ufology, when investigators who are willing to start making comparisons and going bigger picture, or when cryptozoologists become honest and stop throwing out the weirder cases. These roads all lead to some version of tulpas, extradimensionals, tricksters, synchronicity, and so on. Not spaceships, not megafauna, or any of the other face value explanations these researchers usually had when they started.

    I think these researchers have been successful in their work, they’ve found the root cause, human cognition and culture, and all of the weird variations these can manifest. But that answer is not desirable. First off, it isn’t a fun answer, it isn’t a giant ape or spacemen. Second, it’s an answer that was already known (it’s folklore). There already are folklorists and sociologists and anthropologists and religion scholars, no one needs some one (and won’t buy books or pay attention to) who re-invented that wheel. Secondly, it starts to hit cognitive dissonance territory. Years are spent investigating monsters and spirits, only to find that it is human cognition and resulting cultural behavior. This is embarrassing and problematic.

    And so for a variety of reasons, including some of the emotional anti-intellectuals noted by Erique above, the answer of folklore and belief is discarded for these esoteric answers, or you occasionally see a reversion back to a more fundamentalist form, going back to the face value answer with renewed vigor.

    That said, I’d disagree with Erique’s stance regarding humanities etc. in approaching these topics. These are not issues of physics so much as they are issues of human testimonials and culture. Students of human behavior and belief are exactly who are needed here. In fact, if I had to suggest a protocol, it would be that there does need to be a physical sciences examination at times of cases (whether it is worth it to “debunk” every single one is a legitimate question. I can see various answers here). Once that has put a material answer to bed, or made it clear the “case” is uninteresting from a physical sciences perspective, then it becomes data for higher theoretical examination of human behavior and experience.

  12. Banana
    September 10, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    I would quite like to go ghost hunting. I see no problem with it as long as you’re honest with yourself and with others. It’s just spooky sightseeing and a night out with friends in cool old houses.
    I also like watching Ghost Hunters, but as with American Chopper and Pawn Stars etc., take everything with a huge grain of salt. (The first seasons seemed -more- genuine and they had some members who really did try to be sensible, or as sensible as you can. They sure seemed to debunk nearly every debunkable claim. And catch a few people trying to set them up. My guess, without the TV cams they’d be honest folks. … maybe. Okay maybe not.)

    The “‘scientific’ ghost hunting” scene as a whole, though, has really gone further down the pooper than one would think is possible. The “K2” meter, as they call it, is the tip of the ice berg. Before, they’d grab an “emf meter” that would detect electromagnetic fields which some nutjobs claim is ghost residue (or less nutty jobs claim can cause unpleasant feelings and mild paranoia some people can mistake for ghostly presences when it’s just poor wiring. I have no idea whether hat is true, but it’s probably way more likely than the first.). The K2 is basically a cheap emf detector hooked up to some led lights that light up when the em fluctuates. Which it is wound to do anyway.More or less randomly. And they think ghosts can manipulate it to give answers to your questions. It’s basically a cold reader’s favourite toy. “Blink once for yes, blink twice for no. Are you the little victorian girl singing in the hallways? … Double yes!”

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