This is a guest post written by Niels Böge Nothdurft from Denmark.
Long before I learned about critical thinking and became a skeptic I was fascinated by all kinds of what I would call woo today. That fascination hasn’t stopped, just my perspective on it. One of the things that fascinated me a lot – and still does – is ghosthunting. So let us dive into the fascinating world of ghosthunting.
We humans regularly experience things that we can’t explain right away and we have a tendency to ascribe agency to our experiences. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors couldn’t see how the wind moves, didn’t understand why it rained. Even in our modern age, we don’t always know why there are strange noises coming from the attic. If you can’t explain the examples I just mentioned and you lack scientific knowledge or critical thinking skills, chances are that you would probably think that they are caused by an invisible agent of some kind. Sometimes an invisible agent can be a god, but it can also be magical beings, like gnomes, fairies, or ghosts.
Add to that that a large number of the population believe in ghosts. According to polls, 45 percent of US citizens believe in ghosts and in the UK its 34 percent. In my own country of Denmark the number is 20 percent. So it’s not hard to imagine that hearing noises or experiencing other things they can’t explain makes a lot of people draw the conclusion that they are haunted.
A ghost is typically defined as the spirit of a dead person, who hasn’t moved on to an afterlife and therefore haunts an area for various reasons. But there are also claims of animal spirits and “nature” spirits haunting a place, and of course the more sinister demonic spirits. Some people even ascribe certain traits or abilities to different kinds of ghosts. The more benign spirits are those who smack the door once in a while and the malevolent are those that are demonic and attack people or possess them.
So who are people gonna call, if they think they might have a ghost problem? A ghosthunter of course. I have noticed that there are differences between ghosthunters in the US and Europe. Here in Europe they tend to be psychics, while the American ghosthunters rely more on technological gimmicks. Let us look at both types of ghosthunters.
The psychics are those I’m most familiar with, since I live in Europe. They tend to not be too dramatic about their ghosthunting. Things they have in common, regardless of where they live, are that they claim to be able to feel and communicate with ghosts, remove “bad energies”, or help ghosts cross over to an afterlife. They also typically believe in some sort of New Age religion. As I mentioned before, they aren’t very dramatic about their ghosthunting. They go into the house, “feel” the ghost, and persuade it to go “into the light”. Afterwards they tell a story about the ghosts, usually about some bloke who died unhappy some centuries ago. Finally they charge you for up to a few hundred bucks.
The American ghosthunters seem to rely more on technological devices and in some cases Christianity and they seem to be more interested in documenting ghostly activity than in removing it. The technology they rely on consists of various pieces of equipment that they claim can document ghost activities. When hunting for ghosts, they take their equipment with them out in the “field” to look for clues about ghost activity. The equipment they use typically consists of:
- A tape recorder: To record EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), claimed to be the voices of ghosts. Often it’s just static that is interpreted as speech or interference from a radio.
- A camera with night vision: To record shadows, movements, and ghostly “orbs”. Orbs are often dust on the camera lens or due to some kind of minor camera malfunction, and movement and shadows can of course be caused by all sorts of things. It is hard to know without controlled conditions.
- An EMF meter: To measure where there is ghostly activity. It is claimed that ghosts produce an electromagnetic field. The problem is though that we know that electronics and electric wiring have an electromagnetic field and that modern houses are full of electrical appliances and wires, so it’s easy to pick up a lamp and interpret it as a ghost.
Despite all the efforts by ghosthunters through the ages, no credible evidence for the existence of ghosts has been produced. The evidence put forward either lacks proper controlled conditions or is easily explained by things other than ghosts.
If the American ghosthunters decide to remove a ghost, they tend to do it a bit differently than Europeans. I have seen American ghosthunters use psychics in some cases, but in many cases they seem to fall back on Christianity, so they use priests instead. The stories about ghost removals in the US also seem to be a bit more dramatic than the European stories. It is not unusual to hear claims that the ghost attacked the people who tried to remove it or that it had possessed somebody, so that the priest had to perform an exorcism.
I can’t help but notice that the religiosity of people seem to play a role in ghosthunting. European countries tend to be less religious than the US and religious Europeans tend to adhere to a more deistic or New Age notion of a deity, while the religious Americans hold a belief in the Christian god.
I want to compare the removal of ghosts to exorcisms. They both employ the power of suggestion. In both cases you have an individual, or more, who is very convinced that what they experience and interpret as supernatural phenomena is in fact supernatural. There is also an authority figure, like a priest, who steps in and confirms that belief. The mood is now set for a sometimes dramatic experience, when the priest starts to perform a ritual to cleanse a person or a house from an evil spirit.
If like me you have an interest in ghosthunting or my post has made you curious about ghosthunting, I would like to recommend a few things for you.
I would highly recommend that you look up Derren Brown Investigates. Derren Brown, an English illusionist and skeptic, has made some interesting documentaries about supernatural claims. Derren Brown Investigates consists of three episodes, one of which is about ghosthunting (but check out his other stuff as well, he is awesome!). I would also recommend that you look up some of the American ghosthunting TV shows. They can be over-the-top at times, but they give you an insight into the pseudoscience of ghosthunting and also how people who believe in ghosts think. They are also a good exercise for your critical thinking skills, and the over-the-top stuff can give you a good laugh as well. And finally, if you love profanity and cheap magic tricks, you should look up the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode about ghosthunting (season 3 episode 10).