5 Things I Learned as a Ghost Hunter (TV Won't Show You)
You're probably aware of the bafflingly popular "reality show about ghost hunters" genre. These, uh, paragons of journalistic excellence make the field of paranormal investigation seem like a cross between Scooby-Doo and True Detective, only with a drunk handling the lighting. But the guys on TV are doing it to entertain you; they're going to find something creepy, no matter where they "investigate," because otherwise there's no episode.
There are, however, paranormal investigators who try to take a serious approach to it. But trust us, that isn't easy. We're Clint and Jessica Harris, a pair of paranormal investigators with more than a decade of experience, and here's what you probably didn't know about the world of ghost hunting:
Yes, We Believe in the Work (and That Is Insanely Frustrating)
First of all, despite what you probably think from all of the ghost hunter reality shows and supposedly "based on a true story" horror movies, not everyone is doing this job looking to cash in with Hollywood. For most of us, there's no money in it, and we don't charge for our services (beware anyone who does). On top of that, equipment is expensive, and the vast majority of it isn't even designed to be used for the work you're using it for anyway.
"Welcome to Radio Shack, are you in the market for a ghost camera today?"
And, obviously, nearly everything you record and review turns out to be a whole lot of nothing. For example, we record EVP (electronic voice phenomena -- purported messages from the beyond hiding in the "noise" of an electronic recording), and you'll occasionally get something cool. For example, this EVP kind of sounds like an old man with the voice of a heavy smoker saying, "She's sleeping here now," and it was captured near a fresh, unmarked grave that turned out to be for a newly buried young girl:
That's the kind of shit that keeps you going. Still, at best, the work you do is considered a hobbyist's stab at scientific research -- some bastard child of soft and hard science, flirting with physics, psychology, folklore, historical research, and urban exploration. And good luck convincing a scientist that your evidence is valid, much less the evidence of other teams, since nobody's tools, methods, motives, or practices are standardized.
This isn't even factoring in metric ghost measurements from outside the U.S.
So why do we do it? Well, investigators come from all walks of life, with various levels of education and professional expertise. Many get started because of a personal experience they can't explain, or are simply looking for answers to age-old questions. And most of us do believe in paranormal occurrences based on the occasional freaky stuff we run across. But to get the cool stuff, you have to sift through countless hours of nothing and deal with people who can make this hobby a nightmare. For example ...
Psychics and Mediums Are Terrifying (Because They're Insane)
We're not psychics, and we don't claim to be able to summon the dead or perform any other kind of magic. Many of our clients, however, do think they have a connection to the spirit world. And sometimes these are people with problems that go deeper than hearing their dead granny shuffling around in her housecoat at night. On our intake questionnaire, we ask clients to volunteer information that might be helpful to the investigation (and our safety), such as "Are you taking any medications?" The response was sometimes a list of anti-psychotics that read like the formulary for Arkham Asylum.
"So ... somehow you have menopausal depression."
The worst psychics were the ones who spent the entire visit channeling spirits, always connecting with some demonic "angry male" lurking in the basement, or any other triggery nightmare fuel for someone who might be popping haloperidol like M&Ms. One psychic in particular spent the whole time claiming she was being touched in a sexual manner and would respond either with flirtation or by shouting down her invisible attacker and folding into the fetal position.
Then you get the professional psychics who get called in along with us to try to talk to the "spirit." Get more than one of them in a room (like if the client also claims to be psychic) and they start competing with each other. It's like a rap battle, only all the "bitches" and "yo mama" snaps are replaced with "suicide" and "so many bodies buried in the yard ..." The end result (weirdly often) is Angry Male being told to leave and the trapped little ghost girl (always named Sarah) being told to go into the light. One psychic once insisted she sensed a spirit outside the back door of the kitchen inside one of the trash cans, like some sort of phantasmal Oscar the Grouch.
"Tell them to stop Grover ... while they can ..."
In spite of our best efforts at damage control, by the time the psychics were holding cleansing vigils and busting out the White Light, the clients either had gone into the depths of a fear spiral or were so eager to see a resolution to the drama that they could hardly wait to see what we found. At the "reveal" where we go over our recordings, they would usually be crushed by the monumental lack of any paranormal evidence whatsoever. No EVPs, no video, nothing.
So if you're a homeowner who thinks you have spirits roaming the halls, who are you going to listen to: the psychic with an awesome, harrowing tale of tortured spirits and murdered children, or the team of academics with recording equipment saying, "If there's something here, we aren't detecting it"? So now you're starting to see the problem ...
Businesses Love to Pretend to Be Haunted
The Stanley Hotel in Colorado has become a flagship of paranormal studies in the U.S. Before interest in ghost hunting became popular, it was just a big-ass creepy building on the hill outside town. Now it's a major tourist destination, and you can bet your Ecto Containment Units that being widely viewed as "crazy haunted" is great for business. It didn't take long for other business owners to realize that being host to a "ghost" was worth significantly more than its non-weight in gold.
Unlike private-residence cases (which tend to require that our presence be kept on the down low), businesses turn investigations into events to draw customers, which is like trying to collect data during a frat party. So, for instance, the Stanley Hotel offers a five-hour ghost tour to its visitors for $50. People don't pay that kind of money to walk around sober. It is hard enough to find evidence in a quiet building, after hours, but it's nearly impossible to find anything while leading a pack of liquored-up assholes that won't stop warbling quotes from Ghostbusters.
Everything was fine until dickless here.
While most businesses won't go out of their way to rig up a fake haunting to get publicity, they're all too happy to attribute the results of shitty maintenance to "ghosts, man." In a hotel with dozens of rooms, there will be a lot of weird shit happening due to water pressure, temperature changes, leaks, electricity, drafts, smells, and noises. Rather than admit that you probably need to renovate, you can continue to fill vacancies by attributing these phenomena to the lost spirits of murdered brides and dead children at play. It's the perfect crime! At least until Congress gets off its collective butt and passes the Ghost Fraud Act.
And, even worse ...
Scammers Are Everywhere
As you can imagine, proprietors of the aforementioned businesses aren't happy when we search their place and don't find anything weird. There aren't enough comped fondues or free stays in the world that will make a place haunted if it isn't, but there are plenty of other paranormal investigators. So, you can guess what happens: These clients will contact group after group until they find one that will tell them what they want to hear.
"Hey, for what you're paying, we can recreate the pottery scene from Ghost if you want."
Businesses aren't alone in this; private residences do it, too, making it downright epidemic in the paranormal community. This is another reason why it's almost impossible to get any results taken seriously -- there is all sorts of motivation to "find" something, or to build a reputation as the group who always finds something, like those online IQ tests that come back "genius" every time. It's good business for everyone involved.
If you're wondering why a private homeowner would do this, well, one case turned out to be a classic example of gaslighting. A man convinced his wife that their apartment was haunted by several spirits and had been terrorizing her to the point where she was afraid to sleep, or even be alone in the home without him. He was "confident" we would get some evidence, and we did: We got a shot of him on an infrared camera whispering "I'm in here!" in falsetto to a digital recording device in the closet. On top of tormenting the poor woman, faking a haunting was likely to get her rich parents to bankroll a new house for them. So, yes, we found substantial proof that this guy was a douchebag.
"Also, the ghost was a fisherman. I really think them getting us a new schooner will help put his spirit to rest."
And don't forget that most people want to be famous. After the popularity of paranormal television shows exploded, it became clear that everyone wanted to be on TV. Oftentimes, the first question a client would ask was when the Ghost Hunters film crew would be arriving. The response was always the same: "They're not." At that point, claims of activity usually fizzled.
Sometimes a celebrity in the field would be at an event, and even fellow investigators would go all starfuckery, angling to score TV airtime. Afterward, they would be constantly name-dropping and making vague references to their own impending stardom. Fame that would be based on finding something. So say goodbye to any kind of objective approach.
The Job Is Truly Horrifying (But Not for the Reasons You'd Think)
Part of being a paranormal investigator is taking calls at someone-better-be-dead-o'clock at night from terrified clients. These range from "tense" to "I have vibrating alien implants!" With practice, most investigators become adept at assessing a client within the first two minutes of any conversation ... such as the client who claimed to have bugs crawling from her vagina.
You don't need an investigation. You need crabs shampoo.
The client's reports of activity included waking up to the "smell of goat" and demonic voices (sometimes speaking Latin) that discussed various sexual acts -- many of which seemed impossibly uncomfortable and likely illegal in a minimum of 10 states. Still, the woman's main complaint boiled down to what can only be described as the worst case of genital crabs ever diagnosed. Being trained to keep an open mind, we promised to call a prominent demonologist (yes, we do have the coolest Rolodex ever, thanks for asking!). Two days later, the demonologist strongly waved us away from the case because the client was not only crazy, but a known stalker (we wound up changing our phone number).
On another case, this one in the rural South, we arrived at the scene and quickly discovered that the place had served as the set for more than a few ill-advised DIY sex flicks. The location was a veritable porn dungeon, complete with chains hanging from the ceiling, mattresses surrounded by camera stands, and a bare bed frame with bungee cords. There was an archive of 100 DVDs with titles like On Waterbed, On Stairs, and our personal favorite: With Cats. Did I mention the cats? There were upward of 50 feral cats, because apparently when you are making fuck films, you want lots and lots of cats around. So yeah, if somebody was hearing weird sounds or smelling weird smells, there were probably multiple non-ghost explanations for it.
"After every taco night, we get these weird rumbling sounds and sulfur smells."
Another case led us to a no-shit dyed in the wool "Let's cook, bitch!" meth lab, complete with unexplainable floor stains, urine-esque fumes, and a passel of partially decomposing mice displayed on and around the furniture, as if they were accent pieces to the overall rodentia et mortus theme. In fairness, the dead mice were only slightly more disgusting than the pile after pile of dog shit found everywhere else. It would seem the dogs were very considerate of the mouse decor and unwilling to disturb the tableau. At some point the team became so uncomfortable (or high from the fumes) that we became slap-happy and had uncontrollable giggling fits while taking EMF readings off dead mice, joking about who was going to catch parvo first.
And once again you're probably asking why the hell we'd willingly go to a place like that ( unpaid!). Well, that meth lab remains one of the more active houses the team ever investigated. For example, we walked away with an EVP recording that sounds awfully like "I'm not fucking with you."
You can make of that what you will, but you have to admit: If you died and came back to haunt somebody, isn't that exactly the sort of thing you'd say to a bunch of ghost investigators?
For over 10 years, Jessica Harris was a paranormal investigator, spending the last six as founder of her own group, Colorado Paranormal Research and Investigations, researching cases throughout Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Clint is a writer and a history and folklore enthusiast, and he drives a desk at a university. During his years with CPR&I, he was a lead investigator and resident skeptic.
Robert Evans doesn't personally believe in ghosts, but he does believe in talking to people with interesting lives. You can reach him here.
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