This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.
In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?
First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.
Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.
I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences. In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:
1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)
2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)
3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)
It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.
Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.
The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.
In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.
A person making an extraordinary claim may feel very special. A couple that I met recently who do paranormal research described some acquaintances’ behavior during an investigation of a supposedly haunted place : a woman “swooned” as the spirit overcame her. It was all very dramatic, they said. I’ve seen similar when one ghost hunter of a group claims sighting of a full-body apparition. The rest of the group pays rapt attention to the experiencer, openly wishing they had the encounter as described.
I recently gave a talk at a local paranormal-themed event about science and the paranormal, part of which was a description of “supernatural creep”. This week, I was reminded how powerful the pull of the supernatural is to some and that they will slide towards ever more sensational and dramatic interpretations.
Pursuit of paranormal investigation can be a path to personal empowerment. It becomes serious leisure – part of the definition of self. Some curious people that I thought were grounded have left the ground, metaphorically speaking. Paranormal people I thought were worthy collaborators turned out to be jokers and self-promoters, first and foremost. They’ve either lost contact with reality via small steps, or they have deliberately pursued sensationalist fantasy for some reason or another. (I can’t really say why, don’t know.)
Supernatural creep happens when an investigator takes eyewitness stories at face value, including supernatural qualities of the encounter, and incorporates these features into the description of the phenomenon. Such features include invoking spirits, demons, angels, miracles, or physical implausibilities such as time- or inter-dimensional travel, psychic communication, or other behaviors that do not align with the laws of nature. Read More »
Paul Cropper sent me a copy of his new book with co-author Tony Healy, Australian Poltergeist: The Stone-throwing Spook of Humpty Doo and Many Other Cases. He must have known how much I love this topic and was eager to learn about various cases around the world.
I learned about the concept of poltergeists before many of today’s weekend ghost hunters were out of diapers. It seems like today’s paranormal investigators do not know much about the long and detailed history about this particular type of haunting. I didn’t know as much as I wanted to but Australian Poltergeist gave me great info but also an increased interest in seeking out more.
Regarding paranormal research, there is no comparison between the work that comes out in print (paper or digital) and the mostly crap posted online from paranormal groups or the media. You are hard-pressed to find anyone online who knows what they are talking about when it comes to solid paranormal scholarship and writes well. Here’s another example – A new book by Jacob Middleton called Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Imposture, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society. It was available to borrow for free from the Kindle lenders library (if you have a Prime membership). So I “borrowed” it for as long as I wanted.
I’ve read a lot of paranormal books, a lot on the web, even “long-haired” academic-type books and papers but I must have missed the fascinating story about the prowling ghost phenomenon of the 19th century. I had an incomplete idea about these old-time spooks. As far as I knew, there was only one Spring-heeled Jack who harassed people of London for a while. I didn’t know his origins or his ultimate fate. (I’m still waiting for Mike Dash’s book to come out.)
In today’s paranormal pop culture, we seek haunted spaces. Middleton’s book describes a strange time where “ghosts” wandered the streets looking for people to frighten. They hid behind hedgerows and in dark alleys. They had no purpose except to be surprising and scary. People really did wear white sheets! (No mention if they said “Boo!”)
The prowling ghost was a well-known phenomena on the outskirts of the big towns in Britain. This book explores the particularly British phenomena in some of its more famous manifestations and how this related to society at that time. In several respects, it is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking story not many American paranormal researchers know of.
People living in Hammersmith in the early 1800s half expected to meet a specter when out alone at night. There was no public lighting at this time so travel after dark was a serious hazard. The Hammersmith ghost manifested repeatedly in the 1820s and 30s – his identity (presumably multiple) was not resolved. This “ghost” and others like it sought out people to victimize. The goal seemed to be to elicit a good scare but in some cases, there was physical assault. Obviously, women were particularly vulnerable. There is not a lot of info about this aspect, given that the most lurid details were often left out of newspaper accounts, but there is ample suggestion that sexual assault was certainly perpetrated. Females were often targeted, their clothes ripped and skin scratched by long nails or claws of the “ghost”.
The tale of the Hammersmith ghost spread beyond the locals. This was not a normally behaved ghost. It seemed an obvious hoax; someone (or more than one) was deliberately doing this. The most common guess was that it was bored aristocrat boys who, if caught, were able to buy their way out of trouble. Besides, law enforcement was lax. Often, gun fire would not draw police attention since it was so common. As fear in the town increased, so did vigilanteism as the citizens had to take matters into their own hands.
The Hammersmith ghost activity came to a crescendo when it resulted in a mistaken death. Thomas Millwood was shot in what was judged to be a case of mistaken identity. He was mistaken for the ghost because he was wearing a bricklayers light clothing. The shooter, Francis Smith, was repentant, but was to be hanged. He was pardoned due to sympathy for the man who thought he was shooting the troublesome “ghost”.
Several more such tricksters appeared. The most famous off all these terrorizing characters was Spring-heeled Jack (1837 onwards). While this book contains excellent info about the Jack phenomena — such as documentation that almost all remarkable traits of Spring Heeled Jack (claws, flame, jumping, etc.) appeared to have precedent from earlier marauders — it is not a definitive book on Jack. What it does do is place Jack into the tail-end chronology of prowling ghosts of Britain.
The term “spring-heeled jack” eventually became a personification of any threat, attack, or display of aggression by an assailant. Even though some attacks were real, it appeared Jack was very much an early urban legend generating lurid tales for the newspapers and penny dreadfuls.
Army barracks were often the reported locations of ghost sightings with armed soldiers reporting a “spring-heeled jack”. Guards would see apparitions in the night temporarily forgetting their fellow officers were not beyond playing tricks. Confronting a ghost was a brave act.
The bogeyman of Spring-heeled Jack was replaced in society by fear of a more notorious Jack in the late 1800s. The prowling ghosts disappeared as society evolved greater personal security measures.
If there is one concept that all paranormal researcher should understand is that ghosts are a product of their time. To those of us used to hearing about the transparent, amorphous, contemporary shadow person or ghost, the physicality of the Georgian and Victorian “ghost” descriptions are strange. They were solid, like people. Many of them WERE people. There were misperceptions, of course, sightings of people who were going about their business in the dead of night but in unfortunate clothing or circumstances for which they were mistaken as a paranormal marauder. Most people assumed they were hoaxes. But even when you know it’s a fake, the surprise encounter can be disarming and intimidating.
Speaking of surprising encounters, funnily enough, nudity was considered ghostly. Nude, likely disturbed, people running around in the night were mistaken for ghosts. In several instances Middleton points out that deviant sexual activity was conflated with the supernatural. Again, we see things through the lens of that time.
The book can be a bit wandering in places, the chronology was difficult for me to track, maybe because some ghosts made return appearances, but I learned so much that was new to me. The sociology of ghosts is fascinating; ghosts live off of human belief.
Expecting a low-quality amateurish piece like so many paranormal books out these days, Spirits of an Industrial Age is surprisingly well done. I enjoyed it so much that I purchased it as a Kindle e-book because I didn’t want to give it up!
If I could teach a class about paranormal history to today’s Dunning-Kruger suffering ghost hunters, I would include this book. An important addition to the cultural study of ghosts (as well as history and historical crime), it’s well worth the price for those of us that love real ghost stories. Ghost back in those days were WAY more interesting than the mists and floating balls of dust today. Ghosts then were far more exciting, but potentially more dangerous because they were “real”.
As one who runs a website about weird news, it’s been a crazy start to the year. A number of hoaxes proliferating around the media the first week of this year. They are passed on almost with the same respect as actual news. If you resolve to do anything this year, resolve to doubt the news when it sounds too outrageous or too weird to be true. Because it’s probably not.
There are too many urban legends and popular rumors going around to follow at any one time, but let’s take a quick look at some of the major hoaxes that recently created hype in the media.
Made for TV hoaxes
Not counting the Punk’d and Candid Camera-type practical joke setups that are humorous (if rather mean), several television programs aim their hoaxes at the public, making them realistic, and keeping the background a secret as the bizarre video goes viral across the web.
In July, in Whitstable, Kent, U.K, a video from a medicine shop’s closed circuit television showed a man surprised by a falling box. But before the fall, the camera captures the box defying gravity, levitating off the shelf, hanging there for a moment, then dropping.
The case of the glowing squid-like mystery creature in Bristol harbor, also in the U.K., didn’t hang on quite as long. People in the harbor sounded amazed to see and film a bright, pulsating animal that did not look like a machine. It looked like something out of this world!
I spent the weekend at a paranormal convention in Gettysburg, PA. Now, to most Skeptics, they may not have been able to hold out three days but, actually, it’s a truly enlightening experience. I’ve been to a few paranormal events like this before. I’m certain I was the only card-carrying Skeptic at this one. I’ll be writing and talking about it in various outlets soon but I wanted to give you the quick takeaways.
These conferences are fun and rewarding for the people who attend. They feel like they are among their “kind”. In their spare time, they do paranormal investigations so their regular jobs do not compare. This is no different than a skeptical or any other hobby con. But the big difference between a skeptic event like Skepticamp or a conference is the worldview of the attendees. At a Skeptics convention, the scholarship is high, mistakes are pointed out, serious critiques are brought up in the questioning and it’s all about thinking, not feelings. For this event it was very much the opposite. It was all about suspending scientific thought, very much more spiritual (in the religious sense) than I anticipated. It did not matter what religion you subscribed to (it all sort of mashed together) but your belief will protect and heal you. References and evidence were weak, emotion was strong. Personal stories are welcomed – when were you most scared and most vulnerable? People are very profoundly altered by experiences they had and are struggling to understand them. Without critical thinking tools or framework, it appears explainable in the spiritual sense. Often, what is lacking from Skeptics is empathy towards others’ struggles to understand their frightening experiences. In fact, empathy is downright rare.