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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
In 1881, Sarah Winchester, the widow of famous gun maker Oliver Winchester, became convinced that she needed protection from the evil spirits of all the people killed by Winchester rifles. A psychic advised her to continually add rooms to her San Jose, California, mansion to confuse any ghosts that may try to find her. (It’s not clear why ghosts, which can supposedly move through walls, would be confused by the rooms, but anyway…) She did so for nearly forty years, adding over 100 rooms and staircases, until her death in 1922. After Sarah’s death, her own ghost was said to haunt the halls of her mazelike home. Today the mansion remains a popular tourist attraction, a bizarre monument to superstition and paranoia.
2) The Amityville Horror
On November 13, 1974, six members of an Amityville, New York, family were killed by one of the family’s sons, Ronald Jr. (“Butch”) DeFeo. In his legal defense, DeFeo claimed that demonic forces in the home drove him to kill. The new owner of the home at 112 Ocean Avenue later claimed a variety of ghostly phenomena, and the story was later further fictionalized into a best-selling novel and horror film. Yet the supernatural events were never verified, and DeFeo’s lawyer admitted that the story was a hoax.
The San Francisco Bay’s resident rock, and perhaps the most famous prison island in the world, Alcatraz has captured the public’s imagination in many films and books. The prison, a cold, dank hellhole, saw many murders, riots, and suicides during its twenty-nine years of service. Along the way it spawned tales of inexplicable sounds, cell doors closing on their own, disembodied screams, and scary apparitions.
4) The White House
The Washington, D.C., home of America’s presidents has surely seen untold tragedy through the centuries, from being burned down in 1814 by British troops to several assassinations and attempted assassinations. Among the White House’s spooky stories include the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, dabbled in the occult and held séances in the White House. Other reputed ghosts include Andrew Jackson, Dolley Madison, and Abigail Adams, though they are rarely seen today.
Though less well-known than the other haunted places, the Fox Sisters cottage is perhaps the most important haunted house of all, since the phenomena here in many ways set the standard for later hauntings and even launched a religion. In 1848 Hydesville, in Western New York, two young sisters named Maggie and Katie Fox began communicating with the ghost of a murdered peddler. The sisters, in a sort of crude séance, would ask questions of the spirit, who would answer back with mysterious knocks or raps. Many people, including their mother, were amazed at what seemed to be genuine contact with the dead. Both sisters eventually admitted that they had actually faked the sounds—there had been no murdered peddler, it had all been a prank. The women even demonstrated how they had done it. But by then the belief had taken on a life of its own as a religion called Spiritualism, which is still practiced today.
One of the most popular sites on the Web for discussions of ghosts, haunted houses, and spooky things is Ghostvillage.com. The founder, Jeff Belanger, has built a cottage industry of ghosts, having written several books on the topic. I interviewed Belanger about his site and his (thus-far fruitless) search for ghosts.
Benjamin Radford: How did you get the idea for Ghostvillage?
Jeff Belanger: Before starting Ghostvillage, I was writing for and editing a newspaper in northern Fairfield County, Connecticut. Around Halloween, the media seeks out the ghostly stories and we were no different. I had the chance to interview Ed and Lorraine Warren (two ghost hunters and authors who originally rose to prominence after the Amityville case in 1975). This was back in 1997, in the early days of the Internet. That article was on our newspaper’s Web site and generated more hits than all of the other pages combined. Sadly, the newspaper went out of business and the Web site faded away. That year I was asked to research and write a documentary film on Dudleytown, Connecticut’s infamous “ghost” town. I really got into this project, interviewing people who claimed they saw things in the woods, had been slapped by an invisible hand, and so one. I also explored an alleged “curse” placed on the Dudley family and interviewed people who live at the edge of Dudleytown who claimed there is nothing going on in the woods at all. The more people I spoke with, the more I wanted to examine every angle.
To make a long story short, the documentary never received funding. So I had this research and the interview with the Warrens. In 1999, I also wanted to teach myself HTML, so I built a little six-page Web site and named it Ghostvillage.com, partially based on Dudleytown, and because I wanted to create an online community where we could explore every angle of this subject—the believers, the skeptics, the religiously inclined, even the atheists. Back in 1999 I placed a line of text on our homepage that said, “Tell us about your ghost experiences,” and the site grew from there.
BR: What in your background drew you to this subject? Have you always been interested in ghosts?
JB: I grew up in an old New England town called Newtown, Connecticut, and from a young age I had friends who claimed their centuries-old houses were haunted. I was completely intrigued by their claims. So we would have sleepovers in some of these houses and break out the Ouija board and have our little ghost hunts around the building. I’ve been interested in the many different facets of the ghost experience ever since.
BR: Do you think that ghosts exist? What do you think they are?
JB: Yes, I think ghosts exist. I have this gut feeling that won’t go away. Plus I’ve had the opportunity to interview many hundreds of people about their experiences, and thousands of others have emailed me with their own personal accounts. I just can’t believe that they’re all crazy or lying. There’s a word for ghost in every language, there’s an understanding of the concept in every culture, and I find the collective eyewitness evidence overwhelming in support of the existence of ghosts.
BR: So what do you think they are?
Well, that’s the million dollar question. One theory is that ghosts are a type of psychic impression left on a location. For some reason, some people are able to tune into these place memories and get a glimpse of the past. Another theory is that ghosts are a type of thought projection by the living—the idea is that some people can cause bumps or move objects with their mind, maybe even project some kind of vision, or hologram, if you will, that other people can see. There’s also the traditional discarnate soul theory (i.e., an intelligent, interactive sentient being who was once a living person but died in physical form, yet their consciousness survives and is hanging around for a myriad of different reasons). And finally, there’s the theory that ghosts are simply a hallucination of the witness (a witness who may be on drugs, overtired, or suffering from some kind of mental debilitation). With the many people I’ve interviewed about their ghost experiences, I’ve heard of many examples that could fall in each of these categories. Some “ghosts” are simply a hallucination. I have no doubt of that. But I don’t believe every case can fall into that category. It’s those other three categories that keep me driven to learn more.
BR: If researchers have such widely different ideas about what ghosts are, how will they prove ghosts exist?
JB: I can’t speak for all researchers; I can only speak for myself. I’m not out to prove that ghosts exist. I believe they do, I’ve seen evidence to support this idea, and I’m happy to publish and discuss all of that evidence. My hope is that people look at the evidence objectively and decide for themselves.
BR: Do you consider yourself a ghost hunter, or a ghost researcher?
JB: Those are just labels, I don’t get hung up on them. I’m a writer and researcher, and I often go looking for ghosts. When I’m working on a book or article that involves interviewing someone about their alleged paranormal experience, I usually introduce myself as a writer working on a story. Ghost hunter, ghost researcher—you can even call me a skeptic if you like.
BR: What insights into ghost hunters/investigators did you get from meeting them and writing your books?
JB: Up until the early parts of the twentieth century, one didn’t need a Ph.D. nor tons of academic training to be a scientist or scholar. Then something happened along the way where it was socially acceptable for only certain types of people to pursue any kind of academic studies. The field of paranormal investigations has never been seriously considered or studied by the academic or scientific community—and nature abhors a vacuum. Enter the ghost investigators.
I think we all have a drive to learn something new and to try and leave some kind of mark behind. With ghost investigating, people can be white-collar workers or even plumbers by day, and pursue a field of study at night and on weekends. There’s no way to possibly categorize all ghost hunters, but I do appreciate anyone who asks questions of the world around them and seeks their own answers. Some investigators are very esoteric and take a psychic approach to the investigation, while others are only interested in the numbers their slew of instruments give off in an alleged haunted location. Others try to combine the scientific and the spiritual. I’ve met ghost hunters who are police officers, firemen, psychologists, Ph.D.s, housewives, doctors, ministers, plumbers, and software engineers. These are folks who are out to find proof, even if that proof is only for themselves.
BR: And yet that proof remains elusive. There are dozens of ghost investigation groups out there with thousands of members, and people have been searching for evidence of ghosts for decades or more. As yet, ghosts remain unproven, and investigators can’t even agree on what they are. How do you explain that? Judged solely by results, ghost hunters seem to have failed spectacularly at even proving that what they study actually exists.
JB: I disagree that ghosts remain unproven. I’ve spoken with hundreds and received emails from thousands more who had the existence of ghosts proved to them. They had the experience, and now they believe.
Again, I can’t speak for all ghost investigators, but my objective is to document and discuss my findings surrounding this experience. I’m interested in the history, the eyewitness testimony, and any other evidence that may be left behind. I know I’m not the only person who approaches the research in this way.
BR: As you know, I approach the topic of ghosts and hauntings from a skeptical, scientific perspective. I take ghosts seriously and make a genuine effort to explain and understand the phenomenon. How are skeptics such as myself viewed within the ghost enthusiast community?
JB: There are many ghost investigation groups who count skeptics among their members. These are people who don’t believe in ghosts at all who go along during investigations and try to point out everything they can that can explain phenomena reported in a location. They’re also present to review any evidence that may be collected. Skeptics are an important part of the research and discussion. When you bring a skeptic along, it stops you from going into a situation operating under the assumption that any given thing must be a ghost.
The problem is that some self-proclaimed skeptics aren’t really skeptics at all. Some skeptics are actually atheists who are subscribing to a rigid belief system complete with dogmas and ritual. These folks are not constructive to the furthering of any cause whatsoever. An atheist claims to know exactly what happens after we die, even though they have never died before. This group of people is also operating under the assumption that science is finished—that today we know everything there is to know about the universe. This is a ridiculous position to take, of course, because science makes discoveries all of the time that makes old ideas moot. There was a time when science said the world is flat, and that the Earth is the center of the universe. Not that long ago, science believed the speed of light to be a constant, but we learned that incredible gravitational forces (like the forces around a black hole) can bend light and slow it down as it passes by. When someone says, “Ghosts can’t exist, because the idea is against the law of physics,” that’s really not a good argument. It would do us all well to review the definition of “skeptic.” We should all have some degree of skepticism.
BR: I’d agree with that, which is why I think it’s important to actually investigate these things. But I don’t know of any skeptics or scientists who say that science knows everything. After all, one of the defining characteristics of science is that it is open to revision when better evidence comes along. I think that if ghosts exist, science will be the best way to prove them—not psychics or eyewitness accounts, but hard science.
JB: You’re correct. No one actually says we know everything, but some of the comments being said by people who claim to be skeptics operate under that assumption (i.e., “Ghosts can’t exist because it’s against the law of physics.” It’s against our current understanding of physics—there are certainly some interesting developments in quantum physics that may change some of these views. New theories and proofs enter science on a regular basis and render old ideas moot.)
BR: Do you think that TV shows like Ghost Hunters, Ghost Whisperer, Medium, etc. are good or bad for ghost hunters?
JB: Anything that brings the subject of the supernatural into the mainstream is a good thing to some degree. These television shows allow people to stand around the water cooler at work and say things like, “Hey, did you see Medium last night? Boy, was that weird, but you know what? Something like that happened to me once…” The more regular people talk about this subject, the more we can take it out of the realm of the bizarre. We’re all going to die one day and need to come to grips with that. Ghosts offer us the opportunity to explore our own mortality and spirituality.
I would hope that audiences can remember that television programs exist for one reason only: to sell commercial time. That’s it. Most people are smart enough to ask their own questions, and they will quickly figure out where science fiction ends and a serious study begins.
BR: I have noted that “The evidence for ghosts is no better today than it was a year ago, a decade ago, or a century ago.” Do you agree?
JB: No, I disagree that the evidence is no better than it was. First, society has diversified its beliefs and its idea of spirituality. A century ago, it was a lot more difficult to discuss the topic of ghosts in the mainstream without serious ridicule. Today, ghosts are in the mainstream, which allows us to collect data more quickly after an event happens. For example, it wasn’t too long ago that people hardly ever talked about their ghost encounters for fear of ridicule. Today, there are radio and television talk shows, Internet sites like mine, and books and magazines where people can discuss the vivid details of their experiences shortly after it happens. I’ve received many e-mails and phone calls over the years that begin with, “This just happened a few minutes ago…” This removes the “fuzzy memory” part of the equation.
Also, we have more advanced environmental monitoring equipment today than ever before. If objects are moving in a location, then we should be able to monitor some change in the environment. I know of one organization in the UK that is measuring every corner of a room for electromagnetic activity in an allegedly haunted location in Muncaster Castle. Researchers are finding correlations between electromagnetic field fluctuations and ghostly activity. Now, is it possible that these fluctuations are causing the brains of the witnesses to see something that may not be there? Sure. But we won’t find out for sure unless we keep exploring these theories and see them through to their conclusions.
BR: I don’t understand; how has the evidence for ghosts improved? Do you mean that because the number of ghost reports has gone up with the Internet and public acceptance, that is somehow good evidence for ghosts? How are a dozen ghost stories any better evidence than one ghost story?
JB: Our understanding of psychology and human behavior has greatly improved in the last century. We’re able to better quantify perception and experiences. We also understand that human memory can be trusted when it comes to profound and/or traumatic experiences. I also believe that a dozen ghost experiences are easily better than just one because the greater number of documented experiences shows that this event isn’t just a fluke. In the case for anything, a dozen credible eyewitnesses are better than one.
BR: If you think that the evidence for ghosts has improved, what are some facts that we know about ghosts now that we didn’t know about them a hundred years ago?
JB: The theories have evolved and improved. Because we can monitor the environment, we’re seeing correlations between electromagnetic fields and temperature and this experience. Because we understand human behavior and psychology better, we know the role perception and memory can play in the experience.
BR: So do you think that ghosts will be scientifically proven to exist one day?
JB: Ghosts (in the sense of the discarnate soul) won’t be scientifically proven any time soon because some people have rigid belief systems that won’t allow them to accept it—kind of like if some group within the scientific community came forward tomorrow and said, “Hey, you know what? We miscalculated. Two plus two is actually six.” Even if they went over the math with you hundreds of times, people just wouldn’t accept it.
BR: So the existence of ghosts comes down to belief instead of evidence? Are you saying that there’s good scientific evidence for ghosts, but the problem is that those with rigid belief systems reject it?
JB: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. There’s good scientific evidence for ghosts, but the problem is that those with rigid belief systems reject it.
BR: Do you think that it will always come down to controversial and ambiguous evidence like sightings and orbs?
JB: I’ll grant you orbs are and probably will continue to be ambiguous (at best), but I disagree that eyewitness sightings are ambiguous. Witnesses perceive the ghost event as real. It changes their lives in many cases. If I produced a witness who claims to have just seen the ghost of his grandmother who died many years ago, and this person could pass a lie detector test, could pass a drug test, and a psychological screening, there are plenty of people who still wouldn’t believe them even though they weren’t present at the time of the witness’s sighting.
BR: Of all the places you’ve been, what two or three are you most certain are haunted?
JB: My definition of a haunting is this: similar unexplained phenomena that has been experienced by multiple witnesses over a period of time. It also helps quite a bit if said witnesses have nothing to gain financially by the ghosts. I’m always leery of pub owners who start telling me ghost stories…
I have many favorites, but two that stand out are the Tower of London—a place with great history, some gruesome executions, and ghostly legends in every corner. I believe it’s haunted because of all of the stories that come in about it. I’ve interviewed some of the people who live and work in the tower—these are military officers, and many had some kind of unexplained event occur to them. One sergeant I spoke to in passing said his first night in his new quarters, he laid down to go to bed when he watched a teddy bear he’d had since childhood float out off the shelf it was on to the middle of the room, and then drop to the floor.
The other location I’m sure is haunted is Gettysburg. I have heard accounts come in from every corner of the battlefields and even from some of the buildings in town. Whether it’s an understanding of the history of the battle that triggers something in visitors or if the carnage of 51,000 dead or wounded men left a permanent mark, I’m not sure. But I do know that people have many sightings in this location.
For more on Belanger and Ghostvillage, visit www.ghostvillage.com.
One thing that ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs have in common is a lack of hard evidence for their existence. Many people report seeing these phenomena, though sightings are essentially stories, not proof.
According to many “ghost experts,” just about anyone can find evidence of ghosts using a device found in nearly every home: a camera. Ghost stories and sightings are fine, but what can we make of images claimed to be actual photographs of dead spirits? A few years ago an exhibition of spirit photography was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Several of the pictures on display were created by Boston photographer William H. Mumler, who first claimed to have captured ghosts on film. Mumler produced many “spirit photographs” in the latter half of the 1800s, depicting faint, ghostly images in otherwise normal portraits. This caused a sensation and convinced many people with his seemingly excellent proof of ghosts. Yet there was more to Mumler’s photographic proof of life after death than met the eye; he was exposed as a hoaxer when some of the “ghosts” he had photographed were seen very much alive, living and working in Boston. In the process of his work, Mumler had simply stumbled across a crude method of double exposure, and hatched a plan to make a fortune with his fakes. Thus, ghost photography began as an unseemly blend of photographic error and outright hoax.
The clear images of ghosts and dead souls depicted by Mumler are long gone. Despite dramatically improved optical equipment and cameras over the past century, most “ghost photos” fall into two categories: 1) hazy, indistinct shapes that can be interpreted as a human form; and 2) “mysterious” glowing white blobs called orbs. Both can be easily (and accidentally) created by photographic error, and the latter are by far the most common. Books, television shows, and Web sites about ghosts often include photographs of orbs that investigators (or just ordinary people) find scary, amazing, or simply puzzling. Orb photos are essentially Rorschach cards, though the forms are usually white and round instead of black and blobby. The interpretations of both, however, reveal much about how the viewer sees the world. Orbs may take a variety of forms. There is not one blanket cause for all orbs; many things can create the phenomena, including insects and dust close to the camera lens.
In a series of experiments, I was able to create orb photos under a wide range of circumstances. Orbs can be found in the most un-spooky of settings, and are actually fairly common in daily, amateur photography. They are usually only noticed when a person is actively looking for them as evidence of ghosts.
The easiest way to create an orb image is to take a flash photograph outdoors on a rainy night. The flash will reflect off the individual droplets and appear as white, floating orbs (the effect is most pronounced in a light rain, though even a little moisture in the air can create mysterious orbs). As researcher Joe Nickell notes in his book Camera Clues, unnoticed shiny surfaces are also common sources of orbs. (As well, flashes reflecting camera straps can produce other ghostly photo effects.)
During one investigation I conducted several years ago at Fort George (“Canada’s most haunted place,” in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), I examined a large, wooden soldiers’ barracks where ghosts and orbs had been reported. I took several flash photographs of the area, and I noticed that the building (essentially a barn-like structure) was quite dusty. As a television crew interviewed some ghost hunters, I noticed one orb, photographed it, and wondered what it might be.
It hovered about chest-high and did not move at all, suggesting that it was not an insect nor a dust particle; instead it seemed supernaturally suspended in the air. It was several feet away from the nearest post, wall, or other visible means of support. The phenomenon was very strange. I showed the image to one of the ghost hunters, who seemed pleased that I had captured what was obviously a ghost orb.
Not content to simply declare my orb a sure sign of the supernatural, a fellow investigator and I searched even harder for a solution. Sure enough, closer investigation revealed that the orb was in fact a tiny piece of dust or lint that clung to the remnants of a spider web. It was a very unusual place for a web, and had I not traced the long, nearly-invisible line to its arachnid anchor, I would have rejected a web as an explanation. But it was a very long strand and just far enough away from the walkway that all but the tallest passersby would not walk through it. The dust mote was very difficult to see, and only apparent when a dark color appeared behind it for contrast, or when caught in a flash photograph. Had an amateur ghost-hunter spent a few minutes taking flash photos of that room at night, the dust would likely have appeared as an orb–and its true cause almost certainly overlooked as an explanation.
Orbs seem otherworldly because they are almost always invisible to the naked eye and go unnoticed until the photo is examined, later revealing the presence of a ghostly, unnatural, glowing object, sometimes appearing over or around an unsuspecting person. To those unaware of scientific and optical explanations, it is no wonder that orbs spook people (as Mumler’s photos did 120 years ago). Most ghost investigators will admit that at least some orb photos are of ordinary phenomena. Still, they insist, there must be some orbs that defy rational explanation. None have yet been found. Of course it’s possible that ghosts and spirits do exist and can be photographed. But if so, where’s the proof? And why do images of ghosts look exactly like images of photographic errors?
Ghost enthusiasts are satisfied with hazy images and orbs, but this will never convince skeptics and scientists. So what would be good photographic proof of ghosts? An authentic photograph of anyone born before the invention of photography would be a good start: Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare, or any of thousands of other people for whom we have a good record of their likeness but no photograph. Just one such photo would be more convincing than a thousand glowing blobs. Unfortunately, all the ghost photos offered so far are indistinguishable from intentional fakes and optical mistakes.
Lily Dale is a small town in southwestern New York, about an hour from Buffalo on the wooded shores of Cassadaga Lake. It is a beautiful and serene place dotted with flowers and quaint houses with cats sleeping in windows. It is also home to Lily Dale Assembly, the oldest and largest Spiritualist community in the United States. Spiritualists are a religious group who believe that people continue to exist even after death. Some Spiritualists claim to be mediums with the ability to contact the dead. A medium, according to the philosophy of Spiritualism, “is sensitive to vibrations from the Spirit World and through whose instrumentality intelligence in that world are able to convey messages and produce the phenomena of Spiritualism” (NSAC 1994). Many houses hang shingles offering healing or messages from the dead. Workshops are held each year, drawing speakers on topics such as past-life regression, astrology, spirit communication, angel contact, therapeutic touch, and ESP. Internationally known speakers and self-proclaimed psychics lecture to sold-out crowds.
More than 20,000 people visit Lily Dale each year; some come for the lectures, others for spiritual guidance, and still others for contact with dead loved ones. Guest mediums join the dozen or so permanent resident clairvoyants to offer free daily “message services” to the visitors at a place called Inspiration Stump. The Stump can be found in a clearing a short distance into the woods, with rows of wooden benches facing a large cement block shaped like a giant tree stump. Sunlight trickles through the high trees and onto the filled benches, providing a beautiful and inspiring setting for contacting dead people.
I attended a message service there with my colleagues Joe Nickell and Kevin Christopher. The service began with a prayer, giving thanks for the area and the beauty of nature (the “sacred space”) surrounding us. The audience of about 200 people was about 80 percent female, mostly middle-aged, middle class whites. A few black people were present, as well as a handful of teenagers and young adults. After finishing the prayer, the leader reminded everyone to “pay attention because someone else’s message may be our own.”
One by one, six clairvoyant mediums were introduced and got up in front of the stump. Twenty-eight audience members got readings from the mediums over the course of about an hour. The mediums usually began by picking someone out of the crowd and asking, “May I touch with you?” This “touching” was not physical, but simply a Spiritualist term for doing a reading. The mediums also frequently asked to hear their subjects’ voices, saying “It helps the vibration.”
There have been several good articles written about mediums and their responses, in particular those by Richard Wiseman, Joe Nickell, and Peter Greasley. These discuss techniques used by mediums to give the illusion of providing information from the dead (mostly cold reading and clever answering); my intent here is to give the readers a feel for the people, setting, and techniques involved in Spiritualist communication with the dead.
I found that the responses fell into several broad, sometimes overlapping, categories:
- Banal Responses. These typically gave very general information that said little of substance or that likely apply to most people (e.g., “you are sometimes moody”), or that common sense would suggest (e.g., “Grandpa had health problems”), or words of encouragement (i.e., “Dad says he loves you”). At times seemingly specific information was given by the medium, such as when the first medium said, “You like to be by water, especially moving water.” Of course, most people like to be by moving water: a waterfall, a beach, a lake, a river, etc. Still water, such as from a puddle or toilet, usually doesn’t stir people’s emotions the way moving water does. Banal responses such as this are curious because they bring up the question of why, during the rather remarkable experience of actually delivering messages from beyond death, the dead person would bother to bring up such trite information such as that the subject likes water. I hope that if I am ever truly contacted by a loved one from the spirit world, I will get messages of somewhat greater importance.
- “Fishing Expeditions.” These are responses in the form of questions, designed to elicit a positive identification from the subject (e.g., “do you know anyone with a ‘J’ or ‘G’ in their name?”). Frequently the mediums started out motioning to groups of people, thereby increasing their odds of getting a “hit.” The more people they can apply their information to, the more likely it is that someone will have an Uncle named Simon or a cat that died.
- Incorrect Responses. When the mediums do get specific, these responses are sometimes incorrect (e.g., “you have stomach problems”). In those wrong answers, the mediums frequently went to great—and at times comical—lengths to rationalize why their obviously wrong response was in fact correct.
- Detailed Responses. At times the mediums described vivid images, for example “a lady played checkers with you”—which was wrong, or “do you have another grandfather who speaks French?”—which was right.
For the sake of brevity I have omitted a few of the banal and fishing responses in favor of discussing information that the subjects could verify. In some places I have added my comments, but the reader is invited to read over the responses to make their own judgments.
1) The first medium, a woman from Rochester, New York, told her first subject that “I see you are a friend of animals…You need to protect your heart more…You help others, but you need to take care of you.” (Banal responses: Most women like animals, and likely everyone can think of a relationship where he or she should have “protected their heart more,” however each person may interpret the phrase.)
She told the second subject about an Uncle Al who wore a suit from the 1950s and a fake diamond ring. When the subject replied that she had no uncle named Al, the medium hedged, “I don’t know if it is your uncle.… But he is coming to you because you are in turmoil and will be facing a choice.… Go with your heart.” (Banal and detailed but incorrect responses: Most people constantly face some sort of choice in their lives. And why would the spirit of someone else’s Uncle Al appear?)
2) The second medium, a thin blonde woman in her sixties, started out by motioning to the left-hand side of the benches. “Somebody in these first four rows…” she said. “Somebody from out of town? Somebody who is watching your house?” The people in those rows looked at each other with puzzlement for about five seconds. No one fit that description. Luckily for the medium, a black woman sitting eight rows back—about 100 feet away—pointed to her daughter and said, “She was sitting there.” The medium nodded and continued her reading, promising good health. (Apparently the spirits get confused when someone simply gets up and moves. If that’s true, one wonders how the spirits keep track from person to person and group to group.)
She pointed to another subject, a man, saying, “Somebody with glasses… Or going to get glasses… Or needs glasses.” Though this description will fit most people, it apparently meant nothing to the man. Finally the medium moved on, saying, “It has nothing to do with glasses. I am getting colored names.…” (Fishing and detailed but incorrect responses: If the message has “nothing to do with glasses,” why did she repeatedly ask about them?)
“Green or Brown or White?” she called to the group in front of her. A woman raised her hand and said her last name was White. “Do you have a wedding to get to?” the medium asked. The subject responded yes, and the medium asked if she knew why she was going to the wedding. The subject didn’t respond, so the medium finished up by telling her that she would spend more on the wedding than she had planned to. (Banal and detailed correct responses: The color question is clever, and almost guaranteed to get positive responses. Not only does it cover anyone named Green, Brown, or White, but possibly [for example] Whyte, Wight, Black, Redd, and the female first name Violet. Possible “hits” might be generated if a deceased loved one was known for favoring any particular color, or for example for wearing a favorite white suit, hat, or other piece of clothing. The medium was correct about the wedding, though out of a crowd of 200 it’s likely that at least a few had been invited to weddings.)
3) A thin, blonde British woman in her sixties took over, and her first reading was for Joe Nickell. She told Joe that “things will be coming together, looking into the future with ideas of your own.…In three to four years you will be successful with your own ideas.” She also mentioned that his father is looking down over him from above and that “the business is the way to go.”
The next subject was told, “I feel you trying to make new decisions… you are a good planner… When you plan well, the outcome is good.” The subject asked about her health, and was told “If you do as you are told you will be fine.” (Banal response: The woman is told she will be healthy as long as she does what she is told. But what does that really mean? As long as she’s told by whom? Friends? Family? Doctors? If the woman smokes, is overweight, or drives without a seatbelt, she is already not doing what she has been “told” by medical experts. Presumably the medium means to follow her doctor’s advice, which is generally a good idea, but did she really need to contact the dead to get such commonsense advice? Note also that the responsibility is thus placed on the patient: The medium is essentially telling the subject that if she gets sick, it’s her own fault.)
4) A small Asian woman in a red dress began by calling on a teenage girl in the front row. Apparently confirming the information she was getting from the spirit world, she asked, “Are you in high school?” The girl nodded yes. The medium was pleased to confirm this obvious inference and gave sage advice: “Don’t be talking about marriage or relationships.…Dating is fine but don’t let boys control your life.” (Banal responses.)
She then asked a man if he was an executive director. He said no. “Do you work in an office?” “No.” “Do you wear a suit at a desk, because I see a lot of paperwork on a desk.” Again the man shook his head. “No.” “Did you start a new job?” “Yes.” After getting one right answer out of four, the medium seemed pleased with her success. “Well, I am right then,” she proclaimed. (Detailed and incorrect responses: She did get one right, but since the medium gave no time frame, the “new job” could have begun weeks or months before.)
A woman was asked if she had a strong open relationship with her mother. “Is she always there for you? Are you going for your master’s [degree]?” The woman said yes, and the medium told her she would do well at her job. (Banal and detailed correct responses.)
5) A heavyset blonde woman began with a woman in front of her, saying, “I see a gentleman. His name starts with an ‘H’….” When the woman said she didn’t know anyone who had died whose name began with an ‘H’, the medium tried to salvage her reading: “This is not him, someone like a nephew to you…this person is a symbol of work, he wants to be an entrepreneur.” She said the spirit would guide the woman in her business. She also spoke of “a lady who had hearing difficulty, but never admitted it. She turned her head to hear.…” At this the woman enthusiastically agreed, recalling an older person who did that. (Incorrect and banal responses.)
To another woman, the medium said, “I am getting a woman who says she did work in an office. She wants to encourage you in the workplace.” The subject didn’t seem to understand, so the medium explained that the dead woman had had limited career opportunities as a young woman and wanted to encourage the subject to take advantage of women’s social progress. “I sense an old man who had dentures that didn’t fit very well, and that you would walk around the house and see dentures on the tables….” When that description also didn’t match anyone she knew, the medium went on: “Another man, I’m getting a ‘G.’ Greg? Gus? Garth? I’m getting a ‘Gr.’… not a father, someone you wouldn’t have known.” (Incorrect and fishing responses: The subject still didn’t know who the medium was talking about. And why would a spirit of a person unknown to the subject show up at all? If I’m going to the trouble to contact the dead, I’d want my relatives and loved ones sending messages, not some stranger’s spirit giving me information because he’s lonely or bored.)
For the next woman the medium claimed to hear messages from an older woman. “A relative of yours passed with emphysema or cancer…. I’m getting a lady, an old-fashioned lady with a checkerboard.” (The subject was puzzled.) “She played checkers with you when you were a little girl…. I’m getting an ‘L’… Ellen? Louise? Helen?” Once again, the woman knew no one fitting that name. The medium went on: “Is there a man with a lost limb? A lower leg with a cane?” (The subject shook her head, unable to think of anyone like that.) “He had a problem with his head or emphysema…” The subject finally thought of an old man who had died with a lung problem, and the medium added, “He is showing a move, maybe a real estate move.” (Banal and detailed but incorrect responses.)
6. The last medium, a large woman in denim with her hair in a bun and bright red rimmed glasses, began by calling to a man standing alongside the benches. “Do you know anyone named Joe or Joseph?” The man nodded and replied, “My grandfather.” “Do you have another who speaks French?” “My other grandfather,” the man said, visibly impressed. “You will do more work in a creative field… you are going to get a lot of offers, but you have to pace yourself.” (Fishing and correct responses.)
To an overweight black woman near the back, she asked “Do you know a Meg or Megra?” The woman said no. “I am seeing diabetes… The person who passed was not good at taking her medicine.” “I have diabetes,” the woman said. (The medium nodded as though the woman had confirmed her information. But notice that the medium implied that the dead person had diabetes, not the subject herself—and overweight blacks are at very high risk for diabetes.) The medium continued: “It is about your female friend who you are concerned about, and her relationships. You have to get real clear, it is not about love it is about what’s practical…she has to pay attention to her future…make sure about the education, focus on that.” (Banal and fishing responses.)
The final reading went to a man in the very back. “You come from a family of go-for-its,” she said. The man nodded. “I see a lot of problems in the stomach area, maybe stress… you work with structured, legal things… but there is a part of you that is very creative, you have an artistic lean to you. Are there three projects going on now? (“Yes”) Is there something to do in the house? (“Absolutely”) You’ll get it done. Just remember to go out and have fun.” (Banal and detailed correct responses.)
The readings relied a lot on the Barnum effect, in which general statements applicable to everyone are thought to apply specially to one person. This is seen in many sun sign horoscopes, and works in part because people selectively recall instances which fit the trait or characteristic described. For example, if a medium or psychic tells you that you are good with your hands or are a good planner, most people can recall times when that was true of them and agree. But in doing so they ignore the other times when the opposite is also true.
As the crowd left, I overheard a conversation among three women, one of whom had gone to a private session with a medium earlier that day. She was not pleased with her session, claiming it to be “lousy” and “horrible.” The woman told her companions, “She [the medium, confirming her spirit information] asked if I was Irish. I said, ‘No, I’m English,’ and she said, ‘That’s close enough!’” Close enough for an ill-informed Lily Dale Spiritualist perhaps, but not close enough for the subject, who did not accept the medium’s clumsy attempt to validate her incorrect answer. As this magazine’s readers are well aware, England and Ireland are two very distinct and separate countries and cultures, and the woman was offended at the medium’s response. Surely a deceased Englishperson would feel the same way. The response or message that English and Irish were “close enough” clearly came not from the spirit of a dead English person but a live medium with typical American myopia. More commonly, of course, the messages are of love and comfort, which are sure bets coming from dead loved ones. Many of the responses seemed less like actual messages from the dead than generic advice and reassuring sentiments.
In this regard responses from the dead are similar to responses from Facilitated Communication. In this analogy, the medium represents the facilitator, and the dead represent the autistic child, unable to speak for himself. A simple test was conducted to see where the message was coming from (i.e., was the child really communicating, or was the facilitator generating the messages?). When the child was asked questions that only he knew (but the facilitator didn’t), the child was unresponsive or gave incorrect answers; similarly, when the facilitator and child were shown two pictures, he only responded correctly when the same pictures were also seen by the facilitator. In short, it was clear that the facilitators were fooling themselves and simply typing out what they thought the child would say. In the same way, (assuming for a moment that contacting the dead is impossible) mediums must make up, guess, or infer what the dead would say to the listener.
All in all, the readings were fascinating. Though clearly non-supernatural techniques were at work in generating responses, it does not necessarily follow that the mediums were being intentionally deceptive. A (perhaps too) charitable explanation is that techniques of cold reading are being used unconsciously. Many psychics and healers genuinely believe they have paranormal powers, and there is no reason to assume that mediums are any different. Mediums may in fact believe that whatever images, messages, and feelings that pop into their heads during spirit communication come not from themselves but from the spirit realm.
As Nickell (2000) has noted, the shift in mediumship from the physical (producing phenomena such as floating spirit trumpets, for example) to the mental has served as an effective way to cloak the medium’s true intentions. Except in rare cases where mediums admit fakery (as M. Lamar Keene did with his book The Psychic Mafia), it is nearly impossible to tell if those claiming psychic powers actually believe in their abilities or not. Regardless of whether the mediums themselves do, many visitors believe in—and act on—guidance from the dead.
- Dillon, Kathleen M. 1993. Facilitated communication, autism, and Ouija. Skeptical Inquirer 17:3, Spring.
- Greasley, Peter. 2000. Management of positive and negative responses in a Spiritualist medium consultation. Skeptical Inquirer 24(5):45-49.
- Mulick, James A. John W. Jacobson, and Frank H. Kobe. 1993. Anguished silence and helping hands: Autism and facilitated communication. Skeptical Inquirer 17:3, Spring.
- Nickell, Joe. 1998. Investigating spirit communications. Skeptical Briefs 9(3).
- Nickell, Joe. 2000. Hustling heaven. Skeptical Briefs 10(3):1-3.
- Nickell, Joe. 2001. John Edward: Hustling the bereaved. Skeptical Inquirer 25(6).
- NSAC. 1994. Declaration of Principles and Definitions. Pamphlet. Lily Dale, New York. The National Spiritualist Association of Churches.