The Wretched State of Modern Ghost Hunting

I spent Saturday with friends at a conference on the paranormal by ASSAP at the University of Bath. ASSAP are one of the old school ghosthunting/ paranormal investigation societies. They were formed 30 or so years ago to investigate spontaneous cases occurring in the outside world, as opposed to the laboratory based approach of the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR itself has been going for over a century now, and was founded by serious, prominent scientists, philosophers and intellectuals in the Victorian period to investigate the-then new phenomenon of Spiritualism. This raised the question of whether there was an afterlife and there were hidden powers of the mind, like telepathy, telekinesis and so on. I realise that this is very much fringe science, and to many people it’s unscientific nonsense. But these societies really are rigorously scientific in their approach to studying the paranormal. Many of their members and active officials are qualified and practising scientists, medical professionals, engineers and IT specialists, as well as academics from other disciplines, like history, anthropology and so on. In their investigations they formulate and apply the methods of science. Phenomena are thoroughly investigated, and only after natural explanations have been ruled out is it suggested that whatever strange events have occurred may be supernatural. That can mean long nights in supposedly haunted houses sitting quietly bored waiting for something to happen. They also have a strict code of conduct to regulate dealing with scared, vulnerable people. And this means not dabbling with things that are well outside their competence, such as people’s mental or physical health. There was a fascinating panel discussion with five leading investigators. And one of the issues they discussed was this. One panel member said that he had one person from a case he was investigating phone him up worried, as the ghost had started scratching them. He promptly advised them to see their GP as he was not qualified to investigate that. There are clear ethical issues involved, and the professionals make sure that they protect and look after the welfare of the people experiencing the haunting or whatever.

All of this contrasts very strongly with the approach of many of the contemporary ghosthunting groups. One of the talks I attended was by a female Ph.D. student, discussing why she no longer considers herself a ghosthunter. She very definitely was a ghosthunter, it must be said, but her old school approach was far too different from that of most of the ghosthunting groups that were now around. She stated at the outset that she wasn’t trying to shame or embarrass anyone. She was just trying to show what it was like now. And it was grim.

If she was correct, then contemporary ghosthunting is not driven by the goals and methods of science. ASSAP, the SPR and the other, older paranormal societies contain both believers and sceptics. These new societies were composed almost solely of believers, who were determined to obtain evidence. They were also very much creatures of today’s media-driven culture. They had their websites, on which they put up the video footage they believed they had obtained, which demonstrated paranormal activity. They also had their own merchandising, such a T-shirts and caps bearing their group’s logos. Quiet, scientific investigation was out. In old school investigations, things tend to be calm and quiet, with everyone knowing where everyone else is. In these investigations, there’s much excitement with people running around here and there. They are keen to have scientific equipment, like EMF meters. These register changes in the Earth’s magnetic field. But they don’t know how to use them. They’ll also have tape recorders in order to record any voices from the spirits. However, most of the time these record simply noise, and so they spend their time messing around with them trying not just to clean them up, but effectively editing the tape so it produces what they want to hear. The speaker said that these groups were strongly influenced by programmes like Most Haunted, where there was a lot of running about, a lot of excitement, and people got possessed. She showed one tweet from a group, which said they had had a quiet night. They had only encountered two spirits and a third had chased them home. This, she said, beat all the quiet times she had on investigations in haunted locations where absolutely zip happened.

They were also completely irresponsible with the members of the public they dealt with. One family were frightened to go up in their attack after they were told by the investigators that there was a demon up there, ’cause they’d caught it laughing on tape. Yes, it did sound like someone laughing. However, the sound was eventually revealed to be due to plumbing, rather than the paranormal. Another family made £10,000 worth of alterations to their property after another medium told them that they had a portal to the underworld. Yet another family were scared to go back to their house after a medium told them they also had a portal to the underworld. She wasn’t capable of dealing with it. She could, she said, give them an address of a shaman, but he had moved away. She made the point that this was incredibly irresponsible. She’d frightened these people, and then left with them with it.

She was also pessimistic about what could be done about this problem. It’s the hope of groups like ASSAP and the SPR that someday parapsychology will be given its due respect as a genuine scientific discipline. But there seems to be little chance of this with the field dominated by this new kind of ghosthunter. They were keen to defend the reality of the paranormal, and any criticism was met with the accusation that the critic was a ‘hater’, who should be ignored. This meant that the sceptics were even more determined to disparage and ignore parapsychology. The speaker had hoped that these groups would die out, but they seemed to multiply and breed like viruses.

It was a fascinating, if dispiriting – no pun intended – talk, and I really don’t know what can be done about this situation. The speaker said she didn’t want to shame anyone, as these groups genuinely believe that what they’re doing is right. Perhaps. But if they’re making ordinary people terrified in their own homes, then clearly they’re a menace. Listening to her, it struck me that ‘ghosthunting’ in the traditional sense was very much a misnomer for these people. They’re actually legend trippers. ‘Legend tripping’ is the term folklorists use to describe the practice of people, mostly youngsters, going to a haunted or supposedly paranormal location, in order to experience something weird. Quite often they also have an ulterior motive as well, as they’ll often bring alcohol and their girlfriends. I am not saying that these groups are also there to drink and have a bit of romance, but they do seem to show the same mindset as those seeking to experience the paranormal on legend trips.

But if these groups dominate ghosthunting now, perhaps there is still some hope. Possibly that style of ghosthunting may fall out of fashion, even though it hasn’t done so far. What I think groups like ASSAP can do is carry on with their thorough, scientific investigations and make sure that these are given due prominence, in the hope that their influence will carry. Hopefully, a few, at least, of the other groups may get the message of how to investigate the paranormal properly.

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5 Responses to “The Wretched State of Modern Ghost Hunting”

  1. trev Says:

    Very interesting. I agree with the opinions regarding modern ‘ghost hunting’ as I have watched, with despair, all those ridiculous TV shows featuring so-called Paranormal ‘experts’ with their EVPs and EMF meters, and some highly dubious Psychics, but these shows are really just intended to be entertainment. If anyone is serious about investigating these sorts of subjects then I would suggest begin by doing research, read and study the wealth of written material and testimony, read the books of William Stainton Moses, George Vale Owen, Edgar Cayce, Wellsley Tudor Pole, Arthur Findlay, Walter Hinz, and many more including the channeled material of Grace Cooke/White Eagle, and Maurice Barbanell, etc. and draw your own conclusions. Visit Spiritualist Churches and attend demonstrations of Mediumship. I have never actually seen a ghost but have had many experiences of a Psychic/Spiritual/Mystical nature at various points throughout my life, and have heard footsteps walking across the bedroom ceiling as a child, me and my younger sister were both terrified! We also heard someone run or gallop down our stairs and slam the front door, this was on a Saturday afternoon in broad daylight also witnessed by my father who quickly jumped up to investigate only to find the front door was locked! I’ll never forget the look of astonishment on his face.

    • trev Says:

      P.S.
      ‘The Door Marked Summer’ is another good book that touches on psychic experiences, written by Michael Bentine (he of the Goons and Potty Time fame), it’s an interesting read mainly about his early life and wartime experiences in British Intelligence and Bomber Command.

      • trev Says:

        And ‘Doors of the Mind’ by same

      • beastrabban Says:

        I’ve got those! 🙂 I went to see Bentine here in Bristol at the Old Vic when he doing his one man show, ‘From the Sublime to the Paranormal’. He was both funny, and very serious, as when he talked about some of the paranormal events he’d witnessed and the use of spectacle and theatre by Hitler to trap the minds of the German people. He thought that Hitler must have been a black magician. I don’t believe Hitler was, but Bentine was right about the ability to brainwash people through mass displays and spectacle like the Nuremberg rallies. It’s why he was always suspicious about what was shown on television.

      • trev Says:

        I believe that some of the Nazi leadership were practising Black Magic, if not Hitler himself. Gerald Gardner and his bunch of octogenarian followers were countering that with White Magic, and Wellesley Tudor Pole founded the Big Ben Silent Minute to similar effect, as well as co-founding the Lamplighters Society AND working for British Intelligence as a Psychic spy, able to go out of body or project his mind to spy on the Germans and keep Churchill informed!
        And Bentine was a fascinating character who had some incredible experiences.

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