Technology of Ghost Hunting

Technology of Ghost Hunting

 

The best tools for tracking down spirits have always been the ones fallible enough to find something.

COLIN DICKEY

 

The small, Syracuse, New York-based company K-II Enterprises makes a number of handheld electronic devices—including the Dog Dazer (a supposedly safe, humane device that deters aggressive dogs with high-pitched radio signals)—but it is best known for the Safe Range EMF. The size of a television remote, the Safe Range EMF detects electromagnetic fields, or EMF, measuring them with a bright LED array that moves from green to red depending on their strength. Designed to locate potentially harmful EMF radiation from nearby power lines or household appliances, the Safe Range has become popular for another use: detecting ghosts.

Since its appearance in the show Ghost Hunters, where the ghost hunter Grant Wilson claimed that it has been “specially calibrated for paranormal investigators,” the Safe Range (usually referred to as a K-II meter) has become ubiquitous among those looking for spirits. Search for it on Amazon, and many listings will refer to it as a “ghost meter,” an indispensable tool in the ghost hunter’s arsenal. It isn’t alone among EMF meters: Of the best-selling EMF meters on Amazon, two out of the top three are explicitly marketed as ghost meters.

Scanning the various product descriptions and reviews, though, what becomes clear is that the K-II Safe Range is a relatively unreliable electromagnetic field meter. It operates only on one axis (you have to wave it around to get a proper reading), and it’s unshielded, meaning that it can be set off by a cell phone, a two-way radio, or virtually any kind of electronic device that occasionally gives off electromagnetic waves. The reviewer Kenny Biddle found he could set it off with, among other things, a computer mouse and a camera battery pack.

Yet it’s precisely because it’s not particularly good at its primary purpose that makes it a popular device for ghost hunters. Erratic, prone to false positives, easily manipulated, its flashy LED display will light up any darkened room of a haunted hotel or castle. Which is to say, its popularity as a ghost hunting tool stems mainly from its fallibility.

The K-II isn’t the only consumer-electronic item used by ghost hunters. Often it’s sold in kits that contain other devices, such as a Couples Ghost Hunt Kit, with two of everything, so you can build “trust and lasting memories when the two of you, alone in some spooky stakeout, look to each other for confirmation of your findings and reassurance!” There are devices that have been engineered specifically for ghost hunters, like a ghost box, which works by randomly scanning through FM and AM frequencies to pick up spirits’ words in the white noise. But mostly, ghost hunters use pre-existing technology: not just EMF meters, but also run-of-the-mill digital recorders, used to capture electronic voice phenomena, or EVP. An investigator records her or himself asking questions in an empty room, with the hope that upon playback ghostly voices will appear.

All of this technology—both the custom and the repurposed—works along more or less the same principle: generating a lot of static and random effects, hoping to capture random noise and other ephemera. The ghost hunter, in turn, looks for patterns, momentary convergences, serendipity, meaningful coincidence. For the believer, this is where ghosts live: in static, in glitches and in blurs.

Ghost hunting was born out of a love of technological failure. In 1861, William H. Mumler, a jeweller’s engraver, was studying the new trade of photography when the shadowy figure of a young girl appeared on a plate he was developing. As Crista Cloutier describes in  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, Mumler knew it to be an error, a consequence of accidentally reusing a plate that hadn’t been sufficiently scrubbed of its previous exposure. But then he showed the curiosity to a Spiritualist friend of his. “Not at that time being inclined much to the spiritual belief myself, and being of a jovial disposition, always ready for a joke,” he later admitted, “I concluded to have a little fun, as I thought, at his expense.”

He told the Spiritualist that the image was authentic, and that no one else had been around when he’d taken the photograph. His friend took the joke all too seriously, and in short order, Spiritualist publications had reprinted Mumler’s mistake as proof of life after death. Mumler himself soon changed his tune, claiming he’d discovered a “wonderful phenomenon that really needed investigation,” and began offering to make spirit photographs in earnest. For ten dollars (normal sittings cost about a quarter at the time), he’d take your photo, with the proviso he couldn’t guarantee a ghost’s materialization.

Mumler’s inadvertent invention of spirit photography cemented a connection between ghosts and technology that endures to this day—and specifically, the ways that mistakes and accidents of technology appear as manifestations of the paranormal. Consumer technologies from photography to telegraphy to radio to the internet are almost always immediately seized on by believers as offering further proof of the paranormal.

In 1953, three children were watching Ding Dong School one afternoon on Long Island when the ghostly face of an unknown woman appeared on the screen. The face would not dissipate, even after the television was turned off, and their father was forced to face the television to the wall “for gross misbehaviour in frightening little children,” as The New York Times reportedThe television died completely a day later, but not before its paranormal nature had made it a minor celebrity.

For Friedrich Jürgenson, it was a cassette recorder. In the late 1950s, Jürgenson, a painter and filmmaker, was experimenting with recording birds in his garden; when he played them back, he heard voices on the tape that he claimed belonged to his dead father and wife, calling his name. After several years refining his technique, he published his findings in a 1967 book called Radio Contact with the DeadA few years later, a Latvian psychologist named Konstantin Raudive further developed and elaborated on Jürgenson’s techniques, releasing his own book on the science of recording the voices of the dead in 1971.

Raudive’s transcriptions included some disturbing messages from the beyond. One voice told him: “Here is night brothers, here the birds burn.” Another reported: “Secret reports … it is bad here.” But Raudive confessed that the ghosts didn’t always speak so clearly. He claimed that spirits would speak in multiple languages, sometimes in the same sentence. Sometimes they would speak backward. Deciphering EVP became a matter of sifting through any acoustic anomaly that shows up on a tape, however minor or incoherent, and then torturing that noise into some kind of meaning.

Electronic voice phenomena have continued to rank among the most prominent “evidence” offered of paranormal activity, it seems, precisely because humans are hardwired to dredge meaning out of chaos. Evolutionarily, we have long needed to discern the sight or sound of a predator despite its camouflage, which has led us to look for patterns where they might not be immediately evident. The quirks and shortcomings of technology plays directly into this biological need: throwing out random static and noise that is primed to be transmuted into meaningful signals. Ghost hunters work through confirmation bias. Looking for proof of the paranormal, they will find it in anything, but most readily in static, gibberish, and errata—technological noise in which we’re hardwired to find false positives.   The only thing that’s changed recently is the proliferation of consumer electronics associated with ghost hunting.

In an age of iPhones and Fitbits, ghost hunters are just one more niche market, lapping up the latest and greatest gadgets for sale. But there’s one crucial difference: most purveyors of consumer electronics keep their consumers happy by constantly refining them until they’re free of bugs. Ghost tech works the other way, by actively engineering glitches—the more, the better.

Such seekers can easily be written off as kooks and outliers, but there’s something paradigmatic in their use of faulty devices. The rise of the internet and other new technologies promised a new Information Age, one in which data, truth, and knowledge were the new currency, where the future would be built on information itself. Twenty years on, there’s an endless labyrinth of conspiracy theories, fake memes, trumped up stats, and fabricated evidence. The world’s knowledge is just a Google search away, but it comes to us inextricably intertwined with the world’s bullshit.

The 21st-century media consumer is always working to sift through the noise in search of a signal. Whether it’s a cousin’s anti-vax Facebook post, the endless Farmville requests that have to be filtered out of a feed, or the colossal avalanche of half-truths and lies dumped during this election, most people’s primary challenge online these days is blocking out the endless assault of static, trying to torture it into some kind of meaning.

The Shady Science of Ghost Hunting

By Benjamin Radford published October 27, 2006

Ghosts are big business. For entities that may or may not exist, they seem to be everywhere, especially during Halloween.

They are in books and on television shows, such as CBS’s “The Ghost Whisperer” and NBC’s “Medium.” Dozens of “ghost hunter” organizations exist across North America, small groups of self-styled ghost buffs who lurk around reputedly haunted places, hoping to glimpse or photograph a spirit.

The most famous ghost hunters are two plumbers who moonlight as paranormal investigators, seen in the popular Sci-Fi Channel reality show/soap opera series “Ghost Hunters.” They go to haunted places and find “evidence” of ghosts such as cold spots, photographic anomalies called orbs, and other such spookiness.

The two featured investigators, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, are proudly blue-collar workers, not egghead Ph.D. scientists, which adds to their strong “regular guy” appeal.

Where are the ghosts?

While one doesn’t need to be a scientist to search for ghosts, the pair (like most ghost hunters) could benefit greatly from a little critical thinking. They claim to be skeptics but are very credulous and seem to have no real understanding of scientific methods or real investigation. (Audiences don’t seem to wonder why these “expert” ghost hunters always fail: Even after two seasons and over ten years of research, they still have yet to prove that ghosts exist!)

Though most ghost investigators’ worst crime is wasting time, sometimes they make nuisances of themselves and even break the law.

In October 2005, three ghost hunters in Salem, Massachusetts, were arrested for trespassing on private property in search of ghosts. They had entered an abandoned hospital reputed to be haunted. The group was so busy looking for spirits they failed to notice the police station across the street; all three were arrested, fined, and sent home. Trespassing or vandalizing ghost hunters have also been arrested in cemeteries in Illinois, Connecticut, and other states.

Ghost detectors

When it comes to searching for ghosts, you’d think that only the most reliable methods would be used in an attempt to get solid evidence for something as mysterious and elusive as a spirit. Yet in ghost hunting, often the less scientific the methods and equipment, the more likely a researcher is to find “evidence” for ghosts.

Ghost hunters use a variety of creative—and dubious—methods to detect their quarry’s presence, including psychics. Psychics not only claim to locate ghosts but also to communicate with the spirits, who unfortunately don’t provide any useful or verifiable information from the afterlife [see a séance].

Virtually all ghost hunter groups claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, and infrared cameras [and sensitive microphones]. Yet the equipment is only as scientific as the person using it; you may own the world’s most sophisticated thermometer, but if you are using it as a barometer, your measurements are worthless.

Just as using a calculator doesn’t make you a mathematician, using a scientific instrument doesn’t make you a scientist.

 Devices that don’t work

In 2003, while I was investigating a haunted house in Buffalo, New York, the owner of the house asked me what equipment I planned to use. He had glanced in my duffel bag, which contained two cameras, a tape recorder, notebooks, a tape measure, a flashlight, and a few other items. Perhaps he was expecting to see a Negative Ionizer Ghost Containment backpack like the kind Bill Murray wore in Ghostbusters.

An EMF meter is among the most common devices used by ghost hunters today. I spoke to Tom Cook, of TomsGadgets.com, a British purveyor of “scientific” paranormal kits for the enterprising (and gullible) investigator. Starter kits begin at £105 (US$180) and reach up to £500 (US$850) for a custom ghost-hunting kit. (Negative Ionizer Ghost Containment packs were not listed.)

I asked Cook what, exactly, the scientific rationale was behind the equipment he sold.

“At a haunted location,” Cook said, “strong, erratic fluctuating EMFs are commonly found. It seems these energy fields have some definite connection to the presence of ghosts. The exact nature of that connection is still a mystery. However, the anomalous fields are easy to find. Whenever you locate one, a ghost might be present…. any erratic EMF fluctuations you may detect may indicate ghostly activity.”

In the final analysis, Cook admitted, “there exists no device that can conclusively detect ghosts.”

Uncomfortable reality

The uncomfortable reality that ghost hunters carefully avoid—the elephant in the tiny, haunted room—is of course that no one has ever shown that any of this equipment actually detects ghosts.

The supposed links between ghosts and electromagnetic fields, low temperatures, radiation, odd photographic images, and so on are based on nothing more than guesses, unproven theories, and wild conjecture. If a device could reliably determine the presence or absence of ghosts, then by definition, ghosts would be proven to exist.

I own an EMF meter, but since it’s useless for ghost investigations—it finds not spirits but red herrings—I use it in my lectures and seminars as an example of pseudoscience. The most important tools in this or any investigation are a questioning mind and a solid understanding of scientific principles.

The ghost hunters’ anti-scientific illogic is clear: if one area of a home is colder than another, that may indicate a ghost; if an EMF meter detects a field, that too may be a ghost; if dowsing rods cross, that might be a ghost. Just about any “anomaly,” anything that anyone considers odd for any reason, from an undetermined sound to a “bad feeling” to a blurry photo, can be (and has been) considered evidence of ghosts.

I was even at one investigation where a ghost supposedly caused a person’s mild headache. Because the standard of evidence is so low, it’s little wonder that ghost hunters often find “evidence” (but never proof) of ghosts.

 Reality check

The whole idea of ghosts runs into trouble as soon as a little logic is applied.

There’s not even agreement on what ghosts are—or might be. A common claim is that ghosts are spirits of the dead who have been wronged or murdered. Let’s inject some real-world statistics into that assumption and see what we get.

If murder victims whose killings remains unsolved are truly destined to walk the earth and haunt the living, then we should expect to encounter ghosts nearly everywhere. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly a quarter of all homicides remains unsolved each year. (In fact, fewer homicides are solved now than in the past; in 1976, 79 percent of homicides were cleared, down to 64 percent in 2002.) There are about 30,000 homicides in America each year.

Using the most recent numbers, that’s about 11,000 unsolved murders per year, and 110,000 over the course of only ten years, and probably well over million over the course of the twentieth century in America alone.

Where are all the ghosts?

And why aren’t they helping to bring their killers to justice, with so many crimes unsolved? Why would they hang out in scary mansions instead of directing police to evidence that would avenge their murders?

For that matter, why are ghosts seen wearing clothing? It’s one thing to suggest that a person’s spirit has a soul that can be seen after death; but do shoes, coats, hats, and belts also have souls? Logically, ghosts should appear naked. The fact that they don’t suggests that people’s ideas of what ghosts are—and what they look like—are strongly influenced by social and cultural expectations. (For an excellent discussion of this, see Richard Finucane’s book “Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead & Cultural Transformation.”)

If ghosts exist, why are we no closer to finding out what they really are, after so much research?

The evidence for ghosts is no better today than it was a year ago, a decade ago, or a century ago. Ultimately, ghost hunting is not about the evidence (if it was, the search would have been abandoned long ago). Instead, it’s about having fun with friends, telling ghost stories, and the enjoyment of pretending you are searching the edge of the unknown. (It’s also about making money selling “Ghost Hunters” T-shirts, books, and videos.) Ghost hunters may be spinning their wheels, but at least they are enjoying the ride.

 

© [Luton Paranormal Society ] [2003]