The science of spirit-sleuthing

"Orbs," such as the circles of light in the photo above, frequently appear in photos, but most are disregarded as small particles or insects illuminated by the camera's flash. Other anomalies, such as streaks, mists, or curiously human forms have also appeared in images taken by ghost hunters and everday citizens. Photo courtesy of Rockford Interdisciplinary Parainvestigations

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

The ghosts of bony fortunetellers, eccentric mystics, sideshow charlatans and screwball comedies haunt modern paranormal researchers, but the field has taken a decidedly scientific turn in recent decades, perhaps in an effort to renew the legitimacy of its research.

Cable television has exploded with reality programs about ghost hunters, and their popularity has spawned myriad groups of amateur paranormal investigators, including some right here in the Rockford area.

In the weeks approaching Halloween, The Rock River Times will introduce you to renowned paranormal investigators, as well as some right here in our back yard. This installment, however, will focus on some of the most common tools employed by ghost hunters as they try to bridge the gap between science and spirit.

The ghost hunter’s tool kit

Was it just the house settling, or was something else responsible for that knock you heard? What was it you saw out of the corner of your eye? If you really want to know, a few basic tools can get you on your way to answering these questions.

Many of the gadgets toted by paranormal investigators are inexpensive and can be found in just about any large chain store. Chances are you have one or more of them already.

Infrared thermometer
Infrared thermometer

Digital voice recorder
Digital voice recorder

Digital voice recorders have replaced analog tape recorders as staples of paranormal research. The devices are used to record electronic voice phenomena, or EVPs, which are anomalies many researchers believe to be disembodied voices from beyond the grave.

EVP sessions in allegedly-haunted locations typically involve questions being asked by an investigator. Although any responses would be inaudible to researchers during the sessions, chillingly-relevant EVP responses have been discovered upon playback of recordings.

Cameras have always had a place on the paranormal investigator’s tool belt. Although digital still cameras have replaced the old compact and 35 millimeter cameras in most homes, investigators generally agree film still has a place among their camera arrays.

Not unlike tape and digital recorders used to capture ghostly sounds, cameras are used in an effort to document what may not be visible to the human eye.

“Orbs” frequently appear in photos, but most are disregarded as small particles or insects illuminated by the camera’s flash. Other anomalies, such as streaks, mists, or curiously human forms have also appeared in images taken by ghost hunters and everyday citizens.

Most consumer-grade camcorders have a feature called “Nightshot,” an infrared (IR) mode that is ideal for low-light settings. Ghost-hunting teams frequently use a series of simple IR security cameras in tandem with a digital video recorder, or DVR, stationed in a designated command center during investigations.

For those with more of a budget, forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, thermal imaging devices are used by ghost hunters to detect heat signatures or cold spots that are often reported in purportedly haunted locations.

IR technology has become a mainstay for modern paranormal investigators, who typically work in the dark.

IR thermometers are another way ghost hunters try to detect temperature anomalies. The handheld device emits a laser, which returns an accurate temperature reading of whatever the thermometer is pointed at, even from across a large room.

EMF meters are used by paranormal investigators to monitor electromagnetic frequency levels, which often appear to have a direct correlation to ghostly encounters.

In many cases where paranormal activity has been reported, investigators can debunk a variety of claims by identifying an EMF hotspot that could be present in the location, frequently the result of shoddy electrical wiring.

Computer monitors, among a number of other common household items, emit EMF, but especially high levels are known to cause a variety of maladies, including paranoia and hallucinations.

These days, many ghost hunters incorporate a degree of objective skepticism into their approach. A growing number of teams first try to debunk claims of the paranormal. By not automatically assuming a site to be haunted, the causes of alleged paranormal activity can often be explained without having to blame the departed.

But the EMF meter isn’t only used as a debunking tool. During an initial walkthrough, investigators typically take base readings to identify EMF sources before “going lights-out” for the investigation.

Although EMF meters are not definitive proof for or against the existence of ghosts, EMF “spikes” can be used to corroborate strange occurrences during an investigation. Many ghost hunters believe the devices can literally detect the presence of a spirit, if no other source for the spike can be identified.

Compasses are also believed to respond erratically in the presence of spirits.

K-II meters are essentially EMF meters designed specifically for paranormal investigation. Ghost hunters tend to employ K-IIs while attempting to interact with spirits, usually through a series of yes-or-no questions asked in different ways to test consistency. In theory, a spirit is believed to respond to questions by lighting up the meter, usually once or twice to answer “yes” or “no.”

In next week’s issue, real paranormal investigators will share their experiences, theories and tips for aspiring ghost hunters, and a few local legends may give you a reason to sleep with the lights on.

EMF meter
EMF meter
K-II meter
K-II meter

Is your home haunted?

If you believe your home is haunted, and you’d welcome an investigation by local paranormal researchers for a future article, e-mail The Rock River Times at or, or call (815) 964-9767.

From the October 14-20, 2009 issue

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