The Science of Ghost Hunting: Logical Leaps of Faith
It’s getting to be the busy time of the year, especially for those of us involved in research of the strange and unusual. This probably has less to do with the actual presence of strange specters and hidden creatures coming out of the woodwork to coincide with the Halloween season, but instead the surge in interest that our celebration of goblins and ghouls tends to provide annually.
For me, things have been particularly interesting because I’ve been wrapping up a book project that deals with stories of hauntings at an antebellum mansion in Western North Carolina. Indeed, I had fallen away from interest in stories of ghosts, as well as research into the nature of their being, for a number of reasons; this primarily had to do with the focus I have lent to the study of UFOs over the last several years, however. But at the request of the owners of the home in question, a place called Reynolds Mansion, which now operates as a bed and breakfast, I found the experience not only rewarding, but a bit humbling too. If anything, my experiences there helped to greatly change the way I view the supernatural in general.
While studying the history and the various other stories associated with the house, I began to apply some of these to preciselywhata ghost really is; are we dealing with spirits of the dead? Are ghosts really just projections, more along the lines of what we might call “Time Slip” phenomenon? Or are the appearance of apparitions really more a product of the workings of our own minds?
While I don’t think that ghosts are simply imaginary artifacts, I do feel that there are indeed a number of logical leaps of faith that occur in their study. Thus, below I have included an excerpt from my upcoming book, Reynolds Mansion: An Invitation to the Past, which discusses some of these issues that I feel are key items that must be considered before the serious study of any “ghostly” phenomenon.
Many believe that each person is born intended to fulfill some kind of purpose in life. Some will fully embrace whatever it is that they sense as being their calling, while others may only happen upon some aspect of their intended purpose by mere chance alone. In my case, it became obvious at an early age that my interest in the fringe and unusual aspects of life would lead me into pursuit of uncanny mysteries; a veritable quest for the shadows that linger past the still hours, and the hope that there might exist some rational basis for reuniting such oddities with respected science. For me, this has indeed manifested itself as a calling; but our sense of longing to fulfill certain things might not only pertain to our operations in this lifetime. Others might have us believe that when we don’t fulfill our life’s greater purposes, or perhaps when we are prevented from doing so by untimely death, our spirits will linger among the living in a restless state, with hope of caring for the proverbial “unfinished business” that is said to trouble many specters of the dead.
In other words, being a ghost isn’t perceived as being a desirable thing, per se. And yet, the thrill and appeal often associated with “ghost hunting,” popularized in the modern era by television shows that have made a hobby—or even a business—out of the practice of parapsychology, is obvious. Our culture in the West has become permeated by the notion that anyone can gather a few quirky gadgets like electromagnetic field detectors, infrared cameras, laser thermometers, and other devices, and with little or no practice, they can suit up and enter the homes of the willing, pursuing their passion for contact with realms beyond on a nightly basis.
I began as one of these researchers in the early 2000s, still wet behind the ears and eager to go into old homes, churches, and historic buildings to try and find evidence of an afterlife. I also learned rather quickly that investigations of the paranormal, contrary to what we see on television programs, seldom (if ever) involve the terror and thrill many self-proclaimed investigators and their respective research organizations claim to encounter. While I had been intrigued early on by he appearance of things such as electromagnetic anomalies in an environment purported to be haunted, my experiences trying to disseminate anything of value from these sorts of observations were sparing, at best. For instance, while many researchers will claim to observe weak electric fields that appear to move about an environment as though they were intelligently controlled, it remains an obvious fact that there is no way to prove conclusively what the source of that kind of energy may really be. Nonetheless, the paranormal investigator will often cite this kind of observation as some kind of proof of an otherworldly presence. I eventually found myself asking why, exactly, this should be the case.
One reason for my skepticism had been the obvious problem with there being no physical presence in the room—a body, in other words—to produce the energy. But why should this be an issue, if the idea that a ghost being able to manifest in the first place must involve the presence of some kind of energy just as well?
One reason for my concern in this regard involves the convolution that erupts between observing such things as how an electromagnetic field meter behaves in two very different circumstances; namely, these would be in the presence of a human being, versus an empty room in an environment purported to be haunted. Certain quality EM detectors available for purchase, such as the TriField Natural EM Meter, allow the user to adjust variable controls on the device that tune it to react to specific kinds of natural electromagnetic fields. One setting will perceive radio and microwave sources, for instance, while another may even react to the natural magnetic field our bodies produce. But here’s where things begin to get tricky: when a device such as this is capable of reacting to the human body, many paranormal investigators will use this as justification for the idea that if the device behaves in a similar way when there is no one standing nearby, then perhaps the meter is measuring some energetic presence that a spirit is able to possess, even in the absence of a physical body.
While this may very well be the case, the problem with this logic is that the more likely source within the human body for energy a device like this may react to would stem from the body itself. We are bioelectric beings, in the sense that our bodies, as a byproduct of being alive and expending energy, produce electric fields that are indeed measurable. Therefore, if we accept this easily provable precept, we must then ask what, if anything, in the absence of that physical body would still cause an EM meter to react in such a way? Justifying this mystery with the otherwise scientifically unquantifiable notion of there being a spirit that can exist outside the body presents a troublesome leap in logic, knowing so little as we do about the true nature of that thing we call the human soul.
Approaching this same conundrum from the opposite perspective, on many occasions I’ve observed investigators using lower quality, consumer grade EM meters to detect various kinds of energy fields in an environment, pointing to the inexplicable nature of the circumstances as “proof” of something, due entirely to the way their instruments seem to react to an unidentifiable source.
In these circumstances, it is often the case that these devices are specifically calibrated for use in detecting electromagnetic pollution in the home or office, like excessive electromagnetic radiation stemming from microwave ovens and other household devices. However, meters that are designed for use in such applications around the home are typically not capable of measuring energies the human body produces. Thus, we must also ask what kind of energy, which the body does not produce, would suddenly manifest once the spirit exists alone? Furthermore, why would this mysterious source conveniently become measurable using the same devices that determine the safe distances one can operate around various electrical appliances? Does a soul or spirit only become capable of being observed and measured scientifically after it leaves the body? This hardly seems plausible.
Thus, the final element that would aspire to reconcile these two issues would be to assume that certain spirits of the dead are able to conjure energies from the environment around them in a unique way, allowing them to manifest as ghosts. It is this act of drawing the energies together, the paranormalist would assume, that becomes measurable using EM meters and other devices, rather than the soul itself. Following this logic, one might even assume that such energies must be present, since it would obviously require some energy source for an apparition to be able to manifest in the first place.
While this scenario may work well as long as we’re only speculating, we cannot make such assumptions without evidence to support them, and then use these as the justification for similar varieties of unexplainable phenomena. In other words, we can’t go about taking various observations out of context, and then use them to justify a preconceived notion such as the idea that an old building might be “haunted,” or that ghosts are always, without question, “spirits of the dead.” Furthermore, it becomes dangerous when we use bold, unproven speculation as a foundation for those observations, uniting them under the claim of being “scientific.” Such is the very essence of pseudoscience, and engaging in such frivolity no more aids us in understanding our world’s mysteries than following suit with the ostrich, who, as Pliny the Elder noted long ago, would rather bury her head in the sand than to perceive the real world that exists around her.
My intention here is not to sound like a debunker, nor is it to try and make the case for ghosts and related phenomena being mere fantasy. Quite the contrary, it is my feeling that ghosts are not only very real, but that belief in their existence points to a strong undercurrent within our own cultural and psychological makeup. The prolific presence of what appear to be encounters with spirits of the dead in cultures around the world also has scientific implications, in the sense that it may point to physics anomalies that could exist within the framework of our reality, suggesting that time and space are indeed not entirely what they seem to be. There are religious implications here just as well, for while some will warn that anything professing to be the ghost of a dead loved one is really some malevolent minion of the dark side, for others the presence of deceased spirits among the living is proof that some aspect of ourselves—whatever the proverbial other side may truly entail—does continue on after we die.
In learning to think critically about claims of the paranormal, my worldview began to change with time, and eventually it became clear to me that using “scientific” meters and cumbersome gadgetry when trying to observe and understand the supernatural perhaps did more harm than good. As paranormal researcher and writer Jeff Belanger wrote in the introduction to his book The World’s Most Haunted Places, “Exploring the paranormal isn’t just about great stories—though that’s a part of it. And it’s not science, though many have made attempts to apply science to the subject. The paranormal is about delving into big questions within all of us. It’s a spiritual and philosophical quest, full of emotion, pitfalls, problems, excitement, history, psychology, and a whole range of human experiences.”