Does a room in your home suddenly get freezing cold? Do you hear disembodied voices, moaning, or scratches at the door? You might have a ghost problem. But before you organize a sÃ?Â©ance or order an exorcism, log on to the Internet and consult one of the web’s many ghost hunting societies. These “ghost busters” may not lasso spooks with electrical backpacks but they do use some of the most modern scientific equipment to gather evidence of spirits. Some groups do it just for the thrill of “capturing” a ghost on film, others are out to help the haunted and the haunter find peace.
The deceased are finding quite a following in cyberspace. The International Ghost Hunters Society (www.ghostweb.com) – an Internet-based group of investigators – claims over 18,000 members and 30,000 people per day visit the website of ghost hunting’s rock stars, TAPS. TAPS, short for The Atlantic Paranormal Society (www.the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com), is a group based out of Warwick, Rhode Island. Its members are the stars of the Sci-Fi Channel’s highly-rated reality show “Ghost Hunters.” Despite their fame, though, they provide their services to the spooked free of charge. And like nearly all investigators they have a day job. TAPS’ founders, Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes, are Roto-Rooter plumbers. Members of the group are in the ghost business to seek the immaterial not the material. TAPS’ mission is simply “to put people at ease and research and document anything that we can truly not explain,” says Dustin Pari, TAPS’ technical advisor.
Ghost hunting has come a long way from the early 20th century when spiritualists used clever parlor tricks to fleece widows. Through strict professionalism and careful documentation of evidence, 21st century paranormal investigators are shedding the taboo of charlatanism and piquing public interest. “I think that we are really on the tip of a new spiritual and intellectual chapter of the human experience. With the present state of the world today a lot of people are looking for answers to unanswerable questions,” says Scott Lambert of Ghostly Talk (www.ghostlytalk.com), an Internet talk show that attracts thousands of listeners weekly. Every Sunday, listeners can log on to the website and hear Lambert and his fellow hosts talk about the spirit world and all things paranormal.
The first step toward understanding ghost hunters is to know their prey. Most investigators agree that there are four different types of haunting. The first type is the poltergeist. Coming from the German term for “noisy spirits,” this “ghost” usually manifests itself with loud noises, moving objects, and sometimes even spontaneous fires. Most investigators now do not consider poltergeists ghosts at all but the psychic manifestations of a person’s repressed anger or sexual tension.
The second type of haunting is of the demonic variety. This fantastical type of ghost, which seems like the stuff of Milton, is considered by some to be a “fallen angel” who hates humans and often manifests itself as a half-human, half-beast entity. The presence of this being is often accompanied by the smell of sulfuric acid or rotting flesh. It interacts with humans by pushing, hitting, and scratching. These ghosts are not science fiction to ghost hunters, they take demons very seriously. The end result of a demonic haunt, they say, is eventual possession of the human.
So-called “intelligent haunts” are the third type of ghosts. These spirits are “lost souls,” stuck on the earthly plain. Investigators find that they are aware of their surroundings and will often try to communicate with humans. They may be still lingering because they want to stay in their home or because they don’t know that they are dead. These souls are usually benign but, as ghost hunters point out, if you’re a jerk when you’re alive, you’ll be a jerk when you’re dead.
The last type of haunting, the residual haunt, is also the most controversial. This is when ghosts repeat the same action over and over in a specific place. It could be a soldier that still paces the battlefield or a jilted lover that gazes off a widow’s walk. Groups like TAPS believe that these spirits are really just impressions in time of a spirit’s energy. The soul isn’t there, just its image. Dr. Dave Oester, co-founder of The International Ghost Hunters Society, disagrees. “We do not believe that residual haunts exist, ghosts do not repeat the same actions over and over. This is a misconception and a myth. Our experience has taught us that the ghost soldiers of Gettysburg are not residual hauntings: [their] actions are different each and every time.” This disagreement is really just part of a bigger feud between the two groups (more on that later).
Skeptics make no distinction between ghosts. To them, all spooks are merely the product of an innate wish for the afterlife. Pat Linse, co-founder of the Skeptic’s Society (www.skeptic.com), says it’s all in your head. “Ghosts tend to be culturally specific. Different groups have ghosts that serve different functions in a particular subculture, suggesting strongly that ghosts are a creation of the human mind.”
Despite revolutions in the ghost hunting field, one thing that has stayed the same is the method of investigation. The image of a ghost hunter stalking through dark, creaky houses at midnight with flashlights is more or less accurate. Modern investigators, though, don’t rely on psychics who reach out to spirits with their senses and whose findings are unreliable. Instead, most ghost hunters use the newest technology to capture empirical data.
TAPS, for example, has an arsenal of ghost hunting equipment ranging from basic still cameras to digital thermometers. Another high-tech tool is the electromagnetic field recorder. Though controversial among some ghost hunters, the recorder registers fluctuations in electromagnetic fields, which are given off by things like televisions and power lines. Endorsers of the technology say that spirits emit electromagnetic energy as well and that a spike in the meter may indicate the presence of a ghost
A more accepted fact among paranormal investigators is that spirits require energy to materialize and thus create cold – or sometimes hot – spots in the environment. To record this, ghost hunters use thermal-imaging digital cameras. The resulting images are a psychedelic wash of colors, corresponding to different temperatures. In a recent episode of “Ghost Hunters,” the TAPS team caught the outline of a deceased soldier using thermal imaging in an Arkansas morgue. For ghost hunters like TAPS co-founder, Grant Wilson, capturing a full-body apparition like that is the “holy grail” of paranormal investigation.
This is because most evidence that ghost hunters claim as paranormal is more mundane than creepy. Any investigator with a digital camera can snap pictures of orbs, which appear in images as small circles of white – or sometimes blue – light. Believers say orbs are spirit energy and that ghosts traverse the human plain in this way. They theorize that spirits choose this method because it takes less energy than fully materializing. Skeptics have a less romantic definition of the orb phenomenon: dust. Airborne particles, moisture, and reflected light are the real cause of these “spirit balls,” they say. TAPS accepts that there may be genuine orbs but does not consider them evidence of the paranormal. For Grant Wilson, an “orb is just a collection of energy not the manifestation of a ghost. While orbs are usually present during paranormal activity, you can have orbs show up without paranormal activity.”
More hair-raising and fascinating to many ghost hunters is one of the newer areas of inquiry, EVP. Electronic Voice Phenomenon is the recording of voice or sounds on audio when there is no apparent physical source. Ghost hunters equip themselves with digital audio recorders and address the spirits to elicit responses that appear only after the recording is played back. The resulting audio evidence is often chilling. Though sometimes nearly inaudible, a disembodied voice may answer a question posed by the ghost hunter, repeat the same phrase continuously, or merely tell him or her to “get out.” This area of investigation has especially thrived with the availability of new, inexpensive handheld digital records and the ability to post EVP on the Internet. Skeptics are not convinced that these apparent voices are anything more than static: “During certain circumstances – while listening to white noise or background buzz for example – our mind begins to fill in the blanks and produces false noise sensations,” says Linse.
While interest in the paranormal heats up so is the competition between ghost hunting organizations. The largest feud is between TAPS and the International Ghost Hunters Society. TAPS says IGHS founders, Drs. Dave Oester and Dr. Sharon Gill, are latter-day charlatans. IGHS, in turn, accuses TAPS of being “amateurs” and having its members send hate mail. TAPS says IGHS creates controversy to sell its online instructional manuals. In fact, TAPS states, Drs. Oester and Gill purchased their PhD’s online for $35. IGHS charges for its instructional courses and to access many of its online paranormal evidence. TAPS offers its services free of charge.
The real struggle in this ghost hunting feud is over the future of paranormal investigation. Many in the field feel that ghost hunting must move beyond a profit-motive to continue to earn legitimacy. Only when the public trusts the intentions of ghost hunters will it believe that a ball of light is a spirit or that white noise contains voices from beyond. Skeptics may never be convinced of its status as an investigative science. “Just because somebody has a scientific-looking device doesn’t mean they are doing science or anything even remotely related to science,” says Linse. Next time, though, you see dead people, you just might want to look a ghost hunter up.