A Skeptic on a Ghost Hunt

A Skeptic on a Ghost Hunt

Sometimes, as skeptics, it is really easy to get bored with those same old “woo woo” topics that have been done to death again and again. And it is so easy to dismiss claims and experiences off the cuff because, dammit, we know these things have been investigated before. Ghost hunting is one of those topics where the techniques have been talked about and exposed and, dare I say, debunked time and time again. And yet, they are still so popular in the mainstream. Why? I decided it was about time to find out with a first hand experience into the dark and spooky world of the ghost hunt.

Okay, really? The opportunity presented itself while I was doing something completely different, so I figured, why not? I was at a small local sci-fi and fantasy convention some months ago where I had been asked to speak about astronomy and skepticism. While browsing some of the fan tables, I noticed that there were several local ghost-hunting groups in attendance. Even better, they were planning a ghost hunting experience right there at the Con for free! How could I NOT sign up?

Late that night, my ever-faithful boyfriend and I came back to the conference center for our spooky experience. Tim is, may I say, quite a good sport. He lets me drag him around to all sorts of crazy events related to science and skepticism and now this ghost hunt. Thought he would never self-identify as a “skeptic,” he didn’t exactly expect to make contact with the other side and probably thought I was silly for wanting to do this. I, however, was damn determined to treat this like a mini-science project and observe all that I could about the experience. If any ghosties wanted to make themselves known, now was the time with a skeptic in the room!

I didn’t actually tell anyone that I was a skeptic, of course. In fact, I really, really, REALLY wanted something unexplainable to happen. I’m a little bit Scully and a little bit Mulder like that. The ghost hunter groups were very nice and friendly, and most of the people who showed up really didn’t know what to expect. We were split off into two groups and out group wandered off to one of the small conference rooms to begin our “hunt.” They apologized for not having brought all their equipment for it was kind of a last minute setup. Frankly, I was relieved, since abusing an infrared camera is just silly, in my book. We settled in to the room and it was explained that they would have a tape recorder to capture any EVPs while we tried to make contact with whatever spirits happened to be nearby. The room would be completely dark and we had to be absolutely silent. In fact, anyone making an accidental noise had to follow it up with, “Sorry, that was me,” as to distinguish it from what might be considered a real EVP. (Note: EVP stands for electronic voice phenomenon, which follows from the belief that spirits can leave a voice imprint on a recording that can be heard later. Since I have no idea what they later found or didn’t find on the tape, I won’t go into that so much here.)

And so, we started. Well, we waited. The next several hours were spent in a dark room with complete strangers, listening, looking, and even smelling for any sign of an other-worldly presence. You might think that this was completely boring. In fact, I know that Tim got a bit fidgety and bailed at the first chance he could. (Sorry, dear.) But I found the experience fascinating from a psychological perspective. We didn’t sit in complete silence, after all. We asked questions. We went around the room, experienced hunters and noobs, asking questions of the hypothetical ghosts that might be listening in and carefully listening for any answer in the form of a knock, a word, a light, a cold spot, a warm spot, a weird smell, a breeze… okay, just about anything unusual was noted or called out. Several of the visitors who were not part of the groups got very, very into the experience. They were smelling all kind fo honeysuckle perfume and noticing weird shadows and just sure that they were making some sort of contact. The room was pitch black, but I could almost feel some of the experienced group members rolling their eyes a bit. They wanted something more concrete. They wanted repeatable sounds. To give them credit, they never got all excited about every single weirdness that was reported from the audience.

It felt as if we were constructing a story. Though our questions were never truly answered by a ghostly being, people in the room would pick up threads and go down a path. We asked about a hotel fire, if “they” were upset, if they remembered their deaths and if they knew they were dead. There were men, women, and children that we asked about. We got soft and comforting; we got loud and demanding. The same old haunting tropes made their ways through these “stories” as we constructed them, and I could almost imagine these people we’d created, that we were trying to contact, as if they were standing in front of us telling the story. If anyone wanted to reach beyond the grave, now was the time. We were there and being as damn attentive as we could. My inner Mulder actually WANTED to hear a ghostly voice whisper and answer to us, as long as my inner Scully was satisfied that it couldn’t be explained in a natural way. I was probably so suggestible at that point that I’m somewhat amazed that I didn’t trick myself into hearing of feeling something strange indeed.

There was another interesting sociological observation that I made. And that was the treatment of gender. There was a concern that any frightened female spirits might be put off by having so many men in the room, so it was suggested that the men leave and the women stay and try to communicate. (This is the point at which Tim bailed.) The few of us ladies in the room were okay with that, so the men left and we tried our questions again with just women. As our results were no better alone, we switched it up and let the men have their turn. At this point, I was able to chat with one of the ghost hunters, a woman, in the hallway while the men tried their luck. She was really nice and was happy to answer all my questions. Of course, we weren’t in an ideal scenario in a hotel where, even late at night, con things were going on. But this was pretty standard format for an EVP session, and, in fact, the gender split thing was a regular occurrence. That’s right, the men who would never dare sit alone in a supposedly haunted house all by themselves regularly had the one female member of the group do that so as to not put off the female spirits. This woman gets a gold star for bravery in my book, frankly. Believer or not, that has to be way spooky.

These ghost hunters were amateurs, just doing this for fun and out of interest in their own spare time. In this way, they are like many, many skeptics who do this out of passion, in their spare time, not looking to make any money off of it. Though I would disagree with their methods and their conclusions, they do seem genuinely curious about the phenomena of hauntings, ghosts, and spirits. I think that’s important to remember when talking with believers. We may be coming from the same place and trying to reach “the truth” whatever that may be. I politely offered some possible natural explanations for ghost orb photos that I was shown or an EM meter that was waving its little needle around, but I had no intention of getting into a debate or trying to change minds. These people weren’t charlatans falsifying data to make a buck. Though I suspect that creeping around old houses at night isn’t the safest hobby to have, I’ve also jumped out of airplanes for fun, so who am I to admonish? These were just nice people, interested in a thing, pursuing a hobby. These are people that might, given a second look, find the skeptical side more appealing after all, and so I wouldn’t want to turn them away right off the bat by being aggressive.

For me, this was not just a lesson in how “the other side” conducts its business, but a glimpse into the world of a believer, which is easy to forget although I once was one. And so I encourage skeptics to get up out of the armchair, away from the keyboard, and check out the beliefs and practices of those around you if you want to be able to understand them and then, maybe, eventually, change minds.

(But they still need better evidence than a faint whiff of honeysuckle.)

Featured Image “Ghost Suburbs” by OpalMirror on Flickr.

Avatar of Nicole
Nicole Gugliucci is a Ph.D astronomer and works with the fabulous project known as CosmoQuest. Her home on the internet can be found at One Astronomer's Noise.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar of madoc

    I really like your balanced judgement, and strongly agree.

  2. Avatar of here_fishy

    This reminds me of the ghost tour I took in Edinburgh years ago. I saw a sign on the Royal Mile advertising the tours (“Meet here at 10 pm and pay £5 for a ghost tour!!), and I couldn’t resist. At 10 pm, on a dark, foggy Jack-the-Ripper type of night, I stood around the sign with a diverse group of tourists and backpackers, when up walked a tall guy with long, black hair, dark trenchcoat, and knee-high Doc Martens to take us on our tour.

    The tour mostly consisted of a walking tour through the old town, while our guide described all of the horrible things that used to go on in the Middle Ages (torture, plague, wars, etc..). At the end of the tour, he led us into the back of the graveyard and into one of the tombs. There, he separated us so that men were on one side and women on the other, all the while telling us terrible stories of what happens if we mix. Then, in the pitch black, he instructs us to focus on a spot above his head, and a blue light should appear. We all focus attentively… until some guy leaps through the doorway and yells, and all of us scream and pile out of there. The screams gave way to giggles because we all knew we’d been had. I don’t think anyone had any delusions about actually seeing ghosts, but it was fun to get the crap scared out of you in an Edinburgh graveyard in the dead of night.

  3. Avatar of idoubtit

    It is REALLY important to see the other side. Having researched amateur paranormal groups, it’s clear that many think they are helping, want to advance the science and are searching for answers they feel they need for themselves.

    To disregard or belittle that is to do so at our peril. (i.e., we come off as assholes)

    Nicole, Tim Farley and I had a great discussion on this topic at Dragon Con. We have all ventured over to peek at the other side and it was EDUCATIONAL (if certainly trying on our patience). I’ve been to Bigfoot and UFO conferences, sat through Ryan Buell’s paranormal presentation and several of the paranormal sessions at D*C. The key is to be polite, ask good questions and observe from their point of view. You feel like a spy but it’s worth the insight.

    Great skeptical activism and post, Nicole.

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