Part II: Bridging the gap between science and spirit
By Stuart R. Wahlin
Although modern paranormal research increasingly relies on electronic gadgetry in an attempt to document the unknown (see the first installment of “The science of spirit-sleuthing” in the Oct. 14-20, 2009, issue), shaking its stigma as a pseudoscience continues to be a challenge for investigators.
Because paranormal investigation is not an exact discipline, and most ghost hunters are not scientists, the field has lacked the concrete physical evidence required to satisfy scientific rigor.
The data and evidence collected by paranormal investigators is most often anecdotal, readings from various instruments, or photos, video and audio—which skeptics would argue can be easily manipulated or fabricated.
Undeterred by the abundance of scrutiny, doubt and skepticism, however, researchers continue seeking evidence of the paranormal.
The Rock River Times consulted renowned parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach, as well as local investigators from the Forest City Paranormal Society (FCPS), to explain some of the latest theories behind paranormal research, and to speculate whether the field may ever be accepted by mainstream science.
What is a ghost?
Despite the familiar, traditional image of a human form draped in a white sheet, modern paranormal research has painted a new picture about the natures of ghosts and hauntings.
Paranormal investigators generally concur that there are several different types of hauntings, but some researchers argue not all of them are the work of the dead.
In his book A Paranormal Casebook: Ghost Hunting in the New Millennium, Auerbach defined three types of “ghosts.”
“What I call my ‘big three’ are apparitions, hauntings and poltergeists,” Auerbach explained. “In shortened form, they are spirits, recordings and living-agent psychokinesis.”
The first type, an apparition, is what comes to mind when most people think of ghosts.
“For me, the term ‘ghost’ defines any sort of entity that was once living and has since crossed to another plane of existence without crossing over completely,” explained FCPS member Sara Bowker. “This can be a human entity, or animal.”
Apparitions are also regarded as “intelligent hauntings,” because the ghost is allegedly able to interact with the living.
“For example, if we asked someone to let us know they were with us by rapping on something three times, and we get three successive raps, we’d consider it to be intelligent,” Bowker indicated.
Reportedly, one can see, hear, feel or smell an apparition, despite the ghost’s lack of a physical form. Auerbach believes he may have an explanation for the elusiveness of physical evidence.
“The model of an apparition is that it is consciousness without form,” he began. “As the apparition has no form, and no sensory organs or normal ability to communicate, he or she essentially connects to the minds of living people. The apparition essentially broadcasts sensory information.
“It’s why in a crowded room with lots of living people and a ghost, some see the ghost, some hear him, some feel his presence, some smell his cologne, and some get different combinations of those perceptions,” he added. “And of course, lots of people in the room may get nothing at all. This is also why ghosts can’t be photographed—they don’t reflect light.”
The second type identified by researchers is a “residual haunting,” usually attributable to a theory called “place memory.”
“[Place memory] is a term parapsychologists and psychics use to denote the imprinting of historical information—events in the past—on a location,” Auerbach indicated. “It could be a man’s figure walking up and down the hallway, or footsteps heard from the attic, or a man and woman physically fighting until one is dead, or even the sounds of two people making love.”
Under the place memory theory, researchers believe the imprints can be recorded into locations, structures and even objects.
“Maybe that rocking chair you pick up at an antique mall, or a child’s doll from yesteryear,” Bowker suggested. “It can sometimes have a spirit attached to it who might be very fond of the object.”
During a recent lecture about Rockford-area ghost legends, fellow FCPS member Michael Kleen, a writer and historian, noted the presence of Hopi Indian kachina dolls at one nearby allegedly-haunted location—Rockford College’s Maddox Theater.
“These kachina dolls are traditionally supposed to embody the spirits of either ancestors, or some other kind of spirit,” Kleen said. “Before these artifacts were on display, they were sitting in a storage room. According to some, there were janitorial workers who would refuse to go in that room and clean it, because they felt very uneasy. They felt a strong, angry presence in that room.”
Like apparitions, residual hauntings may produce perceivable ghosts. Unlike intelligent hauntings, however, the ghosts reportedly do not interact with, or respond to, the living.
Bowker described residual hauntings as “something that occurs approximately the same time, or under the same conditions, with or without anyone present to witness it.
“It’s akin to a record stuck on a loop,” she added. “They have no idea that you are even there.”
Auerbach asserts not all such phenomena represent those who have passed, however.
“We all leave imprints in the environment, especially locations in which we live for a long time,” Auerbach believes. “So, new residents to your previous home might actually pick up on the impressions you made in the environment.”
As noted in his book Ghost Hunting: How to Investigate the Paranormal, for instance, Auerbach reported a “haunting” apparently caused by impressions left by those who were still very much alive.
“I had a case where the imprint was of two people making love,” he noted. “The haunting consisted of the sounds of the couple having sex, as heard from the next bedroom. As is sometimes the case in hauntings, the people who caused the impression—the previous owners of the home—were still alive.”
There is some disagreement in the paranormal community regarding the third type of case, poltergeist, which translates literally to “noisy ghost.”
Poltergeists are often associated with cases in which the movement of objects has been reported, but a growing number of paranormal researchers believe the phenomenon is caused by the living, albeit subconsciously.
“I know poltergeists can be thought of in two ways,” Bowker acknowledged. “One, they are attributed to someone in the home—usually a preteen or teen-ager, since they suffer from fluctuating hormones—who is subconsciously moving objects and creating a disturbance telekinetically.
“Other way, the ghost is legitimate and just incredibly pesky,” she added. “Almost like a misbehaving child who refuses to not get their own way.”
Bill Rose, president and co-founder of FCPS, explained the first type is entirely attributable to psychokinesis (PK), or “mind over matter,” by the living.
In those cases, Rose explained, “This person’s brain is powerful enough to cause movement of objects, floating, and other paranormal occurrences.”
The second type, Rose added, is similar, except that the PK is accompanied by communication from an alleged spirit.
Auerbach, however, feels poltergeist cases are always caused by living agents having a “telekinetic temper tantrum.”
“If we were dealing with ghosts in such cases, I find it hard to believe they’d stop harassing people with PK simply because the parapsychologist found a living person to blame,” Auerbach joked.
“It is PK that happens without conscious control, and happens over and over. It doesn’t come from an apparition or ghost, but from someone living or working in the environment where the poltergeist outbreak is happening,” he asserted. “The events stop when we can pinpoint the poltergeist agent and work either to relieve the stress, or get the agent to accept that he or she is doing the PK.”
In non-poltergeist cases where objects are observed to move, Auerbach says, apparitions are able to do so via PK, just as he believes they are able to project thoughts, feelings, sounds, smells and visions.
A growing number of paranormal researchers believe hauntings, poltergeist cases in particular, may be augmented by the geology of an area. Limestone, which the Rockford area is rich with, is believed to be one such feature conducive to paranormal activity.
Can skeptics be convinced?
Famed skeptic James Randi doesn’t believe in the paranormal. In fact, the James Randi Educational Foundation offers a $1 million reward “to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.”
Although more than 1,000 have taken the challenge, none has made it past preliminary tests.
Rose indicated, “We all know that labs are neither haunted, nor that paranormal activity can be tested in a lab to perform tests at will.”
For this reason, Rose fears paranormal activity will never deliver the kind of hard evidence scientists crave.
“We do know that qualitative data is just as important and can supplement for what we lack scientifically, even though I believe finding data through EMF detectors, temperature readings and other instruments as sufficient,” Rose asserted.
“Eighty years ago, psychology and sociology were considered pseudoscience,” he noted. “Often, sociology is seen as a pseudoscience, because many of the theories cannot be tested in a lab. But with paranormal studies, our lab is our investigation environment, much like it is to sociology.”
Auerbach explained: “We define a ghost or apparition as consciousness. Unfortunately, the existence of consciousness and an understanding of what it is, or might be, is still up in the air as far as mainstream science is concerned. In other words, there’s no physical evidence for consciousness among the living, other than our own behaviors and thoughts.”
Until the existence of consciousness can be confirmed to be where we assume it is—in our minds—Auerbach doubts consciousness outside one’s body can be proven.
“The only way to study consciousness, whether it is consciousness of the living or dead, is by the experiences of people,” Auerbach argued. “Parapsychology is primarily a social science, though we try to bring in measuring tools of the physical sciences.”
Despite the technological arrays employed by most ghost hunters, Auerbach believes witnesses provide the most valuable evidence.
“The best cases are those where there are multiple witnesses and information provided by the ghost that can be later verified,” he stated. “But while the issue of consciousness is still up in the air, so is our proof for ghosts.”
Auerbach warned against being too reliant on the electronics associated with modern ghost hunting, however. Instead, he says people are his preferred “detectors” of the paranormal.
“Using technological devices does not make an investigation scientific,” he noted. “It’s the application of scientific—physical and social sciences—methodologies that applies here. Unless a sensing device is used properly…and the data gathered is appropriately assessed and applied, there’s nothing scientific about its use. A chimpanzee can be taught to use a sensing device such as we use.”
Unless data provided by the instrument correlates with paranormal activity experienced by people, Auerbach argued the reading is simply anomalous—not necessarily an indicator of the paranormal.
Forced to choose the most important electronic gadget in a ghost hunter’s tool chest, Auerbach opts for an electromagnetic frequency (EMF) meter.
“Magnetic field detectors seem to be the most useful when used properly, as there is the greatest correlation to the experiences of people in the environment,” he explained.
Bowker remains hopeful paranormal research may yet be embraced by mainstream science.
“There are always going to be people who will never believe, regardless of the evidence produced,” she acknowledged. “ However, I would agree that physical evidence is a large part of proving that there is something else out there.
“Being a science major myself, it isn’t hard to see similarities between the evolution of modern science and the paranormal field. Mainstream scientists have to remember that all aspects of scientific discovery came about through a change in collective thought,” she added. “I think with time, persistence, and accurate data recording, we might be able to bridge the gap. The more we plug away at it, and the better the records that we keep of both the experiment and the findings, the more likely we can finally be taken seriously.”
The roles of psychics and mediums
Asked whether psychics and mediums have roles to play in the scientific pursuit of the paranormal, Rose emphatically responded in the affirmative.
Rose acknowledged he used to believe they were frauds, but has since concluded that “some humans have the ability to sense things, much like other animals have evolved.”
“I really was skeptical of mediums a while back, but a few mediums on my team have proven me wrong too often,” he added.
In addition to being an electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) specialist for FCPS, Bowker considers herself a “sensitive.” She feels her ability is “another tool” her team can use to investigate the paranormal.
“Sometimes we pick up and report things only experienced by the homeowner or facility staff,” she explained. “For FCPS, we enhance the findings, not define them. Our scientific research is extremely important to us, so we rely on that. While there are only two of us [sensitives] in FCPS, everyone has the ability to a certain extent.
“Your body gives you cues about things all the time, especially at a reportedly-haunted site,” she added. “We’re scientists first, psychics second.”
Auerbach agrees a psychic or medium can be an asset to an investigation as another “detector.”
“The good ones have trained themselves to focus in a way you’ll be hard pressed to get the witnesses to do,” he noted.
The paranormal on TV—How real is it?
Television shows depicting real-life ghost hunters have exploded in popularity in recent years, blurring the line between entertainment and legitimate research.
Paranormal investigators—at least those who don’t star in their own TV shows—have mixed feelings about broadcast portrayals of the paranormal field. Rose is no exception.
“Sometimes, the shows are extremely accurate. Other times, they make you want to reach through the TV and choke the investigator,” he joked. “I find that often the real research is done at the local level, and often through investigators who are not out to make the big bucks. …I’m not sure anyone making money off these shows adds to the credibility to ghost hunting.”
Despite myriad “reality” shows about the paranormal, Rose and Bowker remind readers there are no “experts” in the field of paranormal study.
Bowker acknowledged: “I still enjoy watching Ghost Hunters. They really helped open the collective door, and get people talking about the paranormal at times beyond just Halloween.
“I feel the shows add credibility when they spend much of their time trying to search for a way that it might not be paranormal,” she indicated. “For example, we’ve done an investigation at a farm, and some other teams reported hearing a woman scream somewhere far off in a field. As it turns out, it was an easy explanation. Barn owls scream—often sounding like a woman or a child in peril—instead of hoot, like most people would expect. So, knowing what is around you helps. Running around, screaming your head off, or overreacting definitely discredits what a lot of us are trying to do. Sure, there are scary times, but you need to keep your head about you, or you really end up looking foolish, and no scientific field is going to listen to that.”
Although admitting she watches all the paranormal programs cable TV has to offer, Bowker is clearly less ecstatic about shows like Paranormal State, in which a team of investigators from Penn State frequently squares off against what it claims to be “demonic” forces.
“That is a giant misconception,” she asserted, “The number of actual demonic ‘hauntings’ is extremely low—not at all what the cable network would have you believe.”
“As for the explosion of ghost hunters, it’s good and bad,” Auerbach echoed local investigators. “It’s great to see so many people interested. It’s very, very bad for the field that the majority of them are merely enthralled with the tech—cameras, EVP, EMF meters—and running around getting their thrills hanging out in cemeteries or other spooky places trying to get orbs and readings.”
As one might expect, the recent rash of paranormal TV shows—real or not—has produced a baby-boom of amateur investigators rushing out to imitate their favorite TV ghost-trackers.
“So few of them are interested in the human experience, and less are interested in trying to understand what the experiences and the phenomena represent,” Auerbach argued. “Most have little awareness of the range of normal explanations that can account for so much of what they get excited about.”
Nevertheless, the paranormal investigators we consulted offered some basic tips for aspiring ghost hunters.
While movies and TV have taught us graveyards may be spooky, alluring destinations for investigations, don’t expect to find a ghost in one, Auerbach says.
“People rarely die in cemeteries. People even more rarely live in cemeteries,” he noted. “People rarely have any connection to the burial plot given that, other than perhaps picking it out, there’s nothing to connect them in life, and so nothing to connect them in death.”
With hundreds of investigations under his belt, Auerbach noted his scariest moments on ghost hunts were not caused by the dead.
“Nothing to fear from ghosts or hauntings,” he asserted, “but remember that living people can carry guns and knives.”
Although they may appear to be the perfect hiding spot for ghosts, Bowker warned against trespassing or breaking into abandoned properties. She and Rose also warned against investigating properties that could be structurally unsafe.
“You always need to practice safety, but you should also prepare your mind,” Bowker noted. “Going into a place that is reportedly haunted has a psychological effect, too. You expect to be startled or scared, and it can cause you to think you are experiencing things paranormal when there is really a rational explanation. This is also a great time for people to overreact, run and hurt themselves.”
In next week’s final installment of “The science of spirit-sleuthing,” several allegedly-haunted sites in Rockford will be profiled, including results from one local paranormal investigation team’s analysis.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or call (815) 964-9767.
From the October 21-27, 2009 issue