The Variants in Ghost Hunting Methodology


   This is actually a small chapter in one of my forthcoming books. Since it is a book that is revealing the findings of several paranormal investigations, it is essential to understand the process by which these places were investigated. The issue here is that ghosts and hauntings are not what people generally think they are. The vast majority of ghost hunters are also quite unknowledgeable about the professional studies that have been done on the subject as well. To understand this enigma, we first have to go through a little history to show where the misconceptions came from and how they affected the public's perception of what ghosts are.


   Although ghost stories have existed throughout time and across many cultures, the beginning of the serious study of ghosts started in 1840 with the creation of spiritualism. Spiritualism is a religious movement based on the belief that the spirits of the dead exist and have both the inclination and the ability to communicate with the living. The afterlife, or the "spirit world," is seen by spiritualists as one in which spirits continue to evolve. These two beliefs, that contact with spirits is possible, and that spirits are more advanced than humans,  lead spiritualists to also believe that ghosts are capable of providing some sort of knowledge about moral issues and even the nature of God. It flourished for a half-century without canonical texts or any formal organization. Instead, it achieved unity through various published periodicals, camp meetings and through tours that were performed by trance lecturers. By the late 1880s, the credibility of the informal movement had weakened due to accusations of fraud that was perpetrated by the mediums.  As a result, formal Spiritualist organizations began to appear.

    The claims of spiritualists and others regarding the actual existence of ghosts were investigated by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) which was founded in London in 1882. The society also set up a committee on haunted houses. However much of the early work involved investigating, exposing and even duplicating fake phenomena in several cases in the late 19th century.  SPR's investigations into séance phenomena would eventually lead to the exposure of many fraudulent mediums. One such example occurred in 1884 when SPR investigator Richard Hodgson was sent to India to investigate a medium named Helena Blavatsky. He concluded that her claims of psychic powers were fraudulent and were performed through deception.

   In 1886 and 1887 a series of publications were published by S. J. Davey, Hodgson and Henry Sidgwick in the SPR journal that exposed the slate writing tricks of the medium William Eglinton. Hodgson and Davey had also conducted fake séances to educate the public on the techniques and tricks used by mediums. Davey gave sittings under an assumed name, while the phenomena were duplicated by Eglinton. They then proceeded to point out to the sitters how they had been deceived. Because of this, some spiritualist members such as Stainton Moses resigned from the SPR.

   The final straw came In 1891 when Alfred Russel Wallace requested for the Society to investigate spirit photography properly. Eleanor Sidgwick, Henry's wife, wrote a critical paper that cast serious doubt on the validity of the subject and discussed the fraudulent methods that spirit photographers were using to produce their "spirit" images.

   Due to the exposure of the fraudulent mediums and spirit photography, Arthur Conan Doyle led a mass resignation of eighty-four members of the Society for Psychical Research, as they believed the Society was opposed to spiritualism.

    Science historian William Brock has noted that;


 "By the 1900s most avowed spiritualists had left the SPR and gone back to the BNAS (the London Spiritualist Alliance), having become upset by the skeptical tone of most of the SPR's investigations."


   While spiritualism has affected the perception about what ghosts are, the public has also been biased by the popularity of ghost stories in fiction. Fictional ghost stories are predominately based on superstition and folklore, not observed phenomenon that parapsychologists and others have researched and documented. An excellent example of this is the concept of looking for ghosts during the evening when it is dark or investigating a location with the lights off. The belief that ghosts are only active when it is dark is actually based on folklore.

   Hollywood soon found the entertainment value of ghost stories as well and began producing horror movies which featured ghosts and various other paranormal phenomena. In the early years these were often quite comedic and featured famous comedians of the day such as Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges, but by the late 1960's the themes became dark, often involving demonic possession and evil entities.

   The misinformation dramatically increased as "true life ghost stories" began appearing in books and other media venues.  Some of these "real-life" cases may have been initially devised as nothing more than a good ghost story, but then they were presented as authentic in the hope of enhancing their commercial potential. This resulted in a variety of television programs that featured such locations. "Sightings," "Unexplained Mysteries" and "In search of…." have become some of the more popular programs that showcased these locations and events. However, the best example of this is the Amityville Horror, a book by author Jay Anson that was published in September 1977. By 1979 it became a basis of a major Hollywood film that was based on the supposed paranormal experiences of the Lutz family while living in a "real" haunted house in Amityville, New York.

   The house itself was the scene of real horror. On November 13, 1974, Ronald DeFeo Jr. shot and killed his parents and four siblings. Later, George and Kathy Lutz and William Weber, DeFeo's defense attorney, created the "real life" haunt which in turn spawned more scams and lawsuits.

   According to Lloyd Auerbach's book titled "ESP, Hauntings, and Poltergeists," after the Lutzes fled from the house, the American Society for Psychical Research and the Psychical Research Foundation investigated the home. Ultimately, they found that the stories were not real and had been fabricated. One of the significant clues came from seeing a sample of Ronald DeFeo Jr's handwriting on a contract for profits from a book and a film. Additionally, William Weber, the defense attorney for Ronald DeFeo, Jr.,  admitted in a radio interview, and to the press, that the Amityville haunting was a hoax that was concocted to make money. The Catholic Diocese of Rockville Center and the Amityville Police Department also debunked the scam. Even the Lutzes repudiated some parts of their story.

   Father Ralph Pecararo, "Mancuso," in the book, sued Prentice-Hall and the Lutzes for exaggerating his involvement in the "haunting" and for the invasion of privacy. The case was eventually settling out of court. Parapsychologist Anita Gregory also sued for libel and won.

   Weber sued for his share of the profits from the book and from the original movie. Presiding U.S. District Court Judge Jack Weinstein said evidence showed that the Lutzes were acting in a way consistent with having a book published. This resulted in another out of court settlement. The Lutzes then sued Weber on the basis that this was not a hoax, but the haunting events had actually happened. They lost.

   Jim and Barbara Cromarty, the subsequent owners of the house, experienced nothing paranormal at the home. However, they were inundated by curiosity seekers because of the book's notoriety. The new owners changed the house's façade and address in an attempt to protect their privacy. They eventually sued Prentice-Hall and Jay Anson for the invasion of privacy. They received an out-of-court settlement as well.

   Despite the controversy and lawsuits over its truthfulness, the "real" paranormal investigators of the case became celebrities. Some of these individuals need to be discussed briefly because of their impact on the public perception of ghosts and hauntings.

   The first is Hans Holzer. He was an American paranormal researcher and author that wrote more than 120 books on paranormal and occult subjects and even hosted his own television show called "Ghost Hunter."  While Holzer claimed to be a parapsychologist, his peers criticized him for using Spiritualist methodologies and making unsubstantiated and unverifiable claims. His endorsement of psychics in ghost hunting was criticized in an article for the Journal for the Society for Psychical Research which "cast considerable doubt on the objectivity and reliability of his work as a whole." 

   This can be clearly seen in his investigation into The Amityville Horror case. Holzer's spiritual medium Ethel Meyers claimed that the house had been built over an ancient Native American burial ground and the angry spirit of a Shinnecock Indian Chief, named  "Rolling Thunder," had possessed Ronald Defeo Jr., driving him to murder his family. The claim that the house was built on Indian sacred land was denied by the local Amityville Historical Society as it was the Montaukett Indians, and not the Shinnecocks, who had been the original settlers in the area. Since then no one has been able to confirm the burial of an Indian chief on or near the property.

Hans Holzer

Hans Holzer

   Holzer also published a study of spirit photography in 1970 called Psychic Photography: Threshold of a New Science? Even though spirit photography was thoroughly debunked by SPR in 1891. His book included photographs that were taken by the spirit photographer John Myers. Myers was exposed as a fraud by multiple people, in 1932 by the Marquess of Donegall and again by J. B. McIndoe, president of the Spiritualists' National Union in 1935. However, the book did introduce to the concept of spirit photography to the world of amateur ghost hunters who readily accepted the notion that the "psychic energy" of ghosts and spirits can be photographed. Several of Holzer's books also became the handbooks and "how to" guides for ghost hunters in the 70's and 80's.

   Other investigators in the controversial Amityville haunting were Ed and Lorraine Warren. They were American paranormal investigators and authors associated with several famous cases of hauntings. Ed was a self-professed demonologist, author, and lecturer while his wife Lorraine claimed to be a clairvoyant and a light trance medium. They authored numerous books about the paranormal and about their private investigations into various haunted locations.

   In a 1997 interview with the Connecticut Post, Steve Novella and Perry DeAngelis investigated the Warrens for the New England Skeptical Society (NESS). While it was made clear that they did not believe that the Warrens would intentionally cause harm to anyone, they did caution that claims like the Warrens' served to reinforce delusions and confuse the public about legitimate scientific methodology. However, this did not stop the ghost hunters of that time from utilizing the ideology and methods the Warrens promoted.  Demons, curses and the notion that material objects can be haunted in addition to specific places were adapted and placed into the ghost hunter's toolbox.

   With the invention of the World Wide Web in 1990, the creation of ghost hunting teams increased. However, the increasing numbers created some conflict as different belief systems and methodology clashed. However, due to the exposure by the media and Hollywood, the paranormal was becoming vogue, and the spiritualist take on ghost hunting was in demand due to its perceived entertainment value.

   In 2004 the television show "Ghost Hunters" lit the fuse on the bomb that would dramatically influence the general perception of ghosts and the paranormal. Its popularity has achieved some of the highest ratings of any SyFy reality programming while the team's website has over 90 million annual visitors. This was done despite having multiple accusations of staging evidence and criticism of using Spiritualist methodologies in their investigations.  This included using various instruments to "detect" ghosts, communication with spirits, mostly by utilizing the electronic voice communication (EVP) technique and considering emotions and feelings as "evidence of ghostly encounters."

   Like their predecessors in Spiritualism, they have refused to include scholars from the field of parapsychology, often relying solely on the self-taught methods that have been passed down through Holzer and the Warrens.

   The popularity of the show quickly created hybrids and spin-off shows including "Ghost Adventures" and generated hundreds of books on ghost hunting and haunted places. The TV exposure has also led to the creation of thousands of ghost hunting and paranormal investigative teams, most of which are practicing the Spiritualism model in conducting ghost hunts and investigations.

   The popularity of ghost hunting within the last decade has also influenced the tourist industry with ghost tours, "haunted tourism" and a thriving industry in creating the newest gadgets to use during ghost investigations. There are also multiple "ghost hunting" apps you can download for your phone or tablet. Yet, despite all of the attention, ghosts still have not been proven to exist.  So while the Spiritualist method may be entertaining, it is far from being scientific.

Because of its dominance in the media, the Spiritualist approach to ghosts is what the public is familiar with. However, it is not the only path.  The phenomenon has been seriously looked into by psychical research and parapsychology, and this path shows something a little different.



   Information on the phenomenology of apparitional experiences comes from several collections of spontaneous case studies.  Many cases have been presented to societies for psychical research and were investigated carefully to determine their reliability of the data that was collected. Ignoring the fictional accounts, several case study collections provide some rather compelling testimony to the phenomenology of ghostly activity and apparitional experiences. A brief list of many of these systematic studies is below. Items listed in parenthesis were published as books.


1894 – "Census of Hallucinations"

1885 – Phantasms of the Dead

1886 – Phantasms of the Living (Podmore, Myers, and Gurney)

1894 – Census of Hallucinations

1948 – D.J West's Mass Observation Survey

1942 to 1963 – Tyrrell ("Apparitions")

1974 – McCreeley & Green ("Ghosts")

1990's – D.J. West's Pilot Survey

2002 – Dr. Hilary Evans ("Seeing Ghosts")

2008 – Wiseman and Watt Online study

2008 – Dave Wood (ASSAP Chair)

2009 – Romer & Smith: The Accidental Census

2010 -2012 – Strange Survey, Rebecca Smith's Ph.D. study


Henry Sidgwick

Henry Sidgwick

     Robert Dale Owen's "Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World"  (1860) was among the first surveys to classify and analyze hauntings and apparitions in an organized way. In some ways, this mirrored a change in the public's attitude towards a more scientific approach. Twenty years later, a scientific and unprejudiced examination of the subject was begun by the newly founded Society for Psychical Research (SPR).

   The first major study conducted by SPR was the 1894 "Census of Hallucinations."  Overseen by a Cambridge philosopher named Henry Sidgwick, SPR mobilized 410 interviewers to investigate 17,000 individuals with claims of ghostly experiences in the United Kingdom. Reports of dreams and other non-hallucinatory phenomena were excluded from the investigation, and Sidgwick's committee also weeded out all dubious cases. The results of this cross-sectional survey suggested that 9.9% of the non-institutionalized population in the United Kingdom could remember having had one or more hallucinations. As the committee was particularly interested in signs of life from beyond, Sidgwick also focused on reports involving individuals who had died within a time frame of 12 hours before or after appearing in one of the participants' hallucinations. After rejecting all accounts in which foreknowledge of the illness or impending death of the person in question could have played a role, the committee was left with 350 first-hand reports of death-related visions. According to the committee, this number was 440 times higher than one would expect from chance alone. As a consequence, the general conclusion of the committee was that "between deaths and apparitions of the dying person a connection exists which is not due to chance alone."

    The consensus of 18th and 19th-century scholars was that ghosts are just imagination, mental aberrations, or simply misperceptions of ordinary (or unusual) events. All of this is perfectly reasonable and naturally accounts for a considerable number of "ghost" experiences. However, the hallucination idea did solve several of the problems concerning ghostly phenomenon. Consider the following questions.


 Why do ghosts wear clothes?

 If ghosts are human souls, why do they appear clothed with inanimate objects like hats, canes, swords or other types of objects? Shouldn't they just appear nude?

What about ghost trains, cars, and ships? These things do not have souls, so how can they exist?

How can a ghost, without organs and vocal chords,  produce speech or screams?

If a place is really haunted, why haven't scientists been able to set up shop there and finally capture genuine paranormal phenomena?


   The concept of the phenomenon manifesting in the brain of the witness as a hallucination provides the only reasonable explanation. Soon psychical researchers started calling this phenomenon veridical hallucinations.  Veridical hallucinations are an alleged fantasy or impossible occurrence, like the sighting of a ghost, which is regardless, still seen by more than one individual. Since it contains a perception instead of a stimulant, the encounter is categorized as a hallucination; that being said since it is a mutual experience. It is considered to be veridical instead of illusory.

   To differentiate between veridical and other types of hallucinatory experiences, the other types were merely called "Falsidical hallucinations."

   We all can hallucinate, even if our only experience of hallucination is a dream. However such "ghosts" will share certain properties, being the product of a "disordered" brain. If ghosts were nothing more than Falsidical hallucinations then the theoretical properties of these hallucinations  in relation to ghosts are;


1.) They will only appear to one witness at a time.

2.) They will convey no information to the percipient not known to them at the time.

3.) They will not objectively cause physical ‘real world' effects.

4.) They will not reappear in the same place over time to different witnesses.


G.N.M. Tyrrell

G.N.M. Tyrrell

   However, some of the researchers who worked on the theories of apparitions were strongly opposed to the "spiritualist" explanations of the phenomena.  Myers and Gurney, in particular, believed that they had found evidence of telepathy.  As a result, their opinion was that apparitions were all hallucinations that were "seeded" by an ESP message and their findings seemed to support this hypothesis. The first results are embodied in the volumes of Phantasms of the Living (Frank Podmore, Myers and Gurney), and in Gurney's essay, "Hallucinations." Evidence for telepathy was supposed to be established by the experiments chronicled in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, and it was argued that similar experiences occurred spontaneously. However, the SPR theorists did not ask about objects moving, or ghosts physically affecting objects because they had decided they were telepathically induced hallucinations. As such, these associated phenomena were incompatible with their hypothesis.

   Tyrrell's book "Apparitions" was based on a smaller number of cases that were intensively investigated by the SPR and is considered to be a classic in its field. However, the difficulty with these corroborated cases is that the SPR researchers required that there be evidence that the experience was more than a mere hallucination. Again a simple report of an apparitional figure was insufficient. It had to be demonstrated that the ghost had to communicate information of which the witness could be shown to have been unaware of, or the experience had to coincide with an unexpected significant event that involved a ghost.

   Another one of the interesting studies is Green and McCreery's (1975) "Apparitions" which surveyed even more uninvestigated experiences. More recently, Haraldsson (1994) conducted extensive research on apparitions of the dead among Icelanders. Apart from these, there have been only a few surveys of Parapsychological experiences that have included items on ghostly encounters (e.g., Haraldsson et al., 1977; Palmer, 1979).

   The significant phenomenological findings of these systematic studies outline everything that is known about ghosts from the viewpoint of parapsychology. These elements will now be summarized. Each of these categories was used to compose a standard that ghost hunters can use to validate the claims made by witnesses of paranormal phenomenon concerning ghosts and hauntings. Since these findings come from the systematic studies performed by the scholars in parapsychology, they are considered to be more reliable than the "no rules" approach of the Spiritualists. 



   The duration of an apparitional encounter is variable. In Green and McCreery's (1975, p.143) survey about half of the respondents considered their experience to have lasted less than one minute, although 20 percent estimated its duration to exceed five minutes. However, the shortest length that was reported was seven seconds, so this becomes the standard. The experience must have lasted longer than seven seconds.

Sensory Modality

   Apparitional experiences only involve one or two of the senses. Green and McCreery (1975)  report that of their cases 61 percent were perceived with one sense only, with an additional 25 percent limited to two senses. The majority of apparitional experiences are visual, 84 percent according to Green and McCreery. Haraldsson and Sidgwick are within two percent of this figure (see Haraldsson, 1994; Sidgwick et al., 1894). Roughly one-third of the cases have an auditory component, with 14 percent being a solely an acoustic experience. Consequently, visual apparitional experiences are not always dominant in every survey (cf. Palmer, 1979, p. 228).

   Another exciting discovery was that the apparitional imagery may be in a sensory system that is impaired. For example, one "totally deaf" man described hearing the rustle of an apparition's dress (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 169). It is also important to note that a small number of cases are sensory, comprising the feeling of a "presence" nearby. These instances of a sense of a presence represented only 8 percent of Green and McCreery's (1975, p. 118) cases, although there was a slightly higher incidence in Haraldsson's (1985, p. 152) Icelandic sample.

   During the interview with a witness of a paranormal event, the ghost hunter should include sensory related questions in the interview to discover which and how many senses were involved in the experience. If more than two senses are reported, the phenomena may have an alternative explanation. It is also important to note that the feelings of a sensed presence in the systematic studies are very low (7%) as compared to the Spiritualist approach where such feelings are immediately considered as evidence for a ghostly encounter.


Characteristics of Apparitions

   The systematic studies of apparitions have also identified several distinct features that can aid a ghost hunter in determining the validity of the experience. These characteristics are as follows;

Number of Witnesses, the nature of experience

    In many cases, apparitions have been witnessed by several people at the same time. Green and McCreery (1975, p. 41) report up to eight people simultaneously experiencing an apparition. About a quarter of witnesses present their case as having been a collective experience (Haraldsson, 1994; Palmer, 1979, p. 228). However, not all members of the group will necessarily perceive the apparition. This is believed to be an effect of the veridical hallucination as those people who do not see the apparition are typically farther away from the phenomenon than those who do perceive it. On the other hand, in the cases where more than one person was present, only one-third of the apparitions seem to have been collectively experienced (Sidgwick et al., 1894; Tyrrell, 1942/1963).  Because of this ghost hunters are typically very interested when apparitions are not perceived by a member of the group of witnesses.

Characteristics of apparition's appearance

   Typically the distance from the apparition is within 10 feet (3 meters) from the witness (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 123).  The extreme range that was reported in the studies is 30 feet.

Apparitions appear real and solid and are often mistaken for living people. Their appearance changes as the witness move around them. They occlude objects they move in front of and are occluded by objects they move behind. They may cast a shadow, and the witness may also perceive their reflection in a mirror. This is in stark contrast to the transparent misty forms popularized in fiction.

   If the witness is close to the apparition, a sensation of coldness may be felt. However, it is essential to recognize that the sensation of cold is a trait of an apparitional experience, not the "sign" of a ghost manifesting as suggested by Spiritualists.

   In the majority of cases, the apparition is not recognized by the witness (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 178). About 70 percent of recognized apparitions are of people whom the witness knew to be dead (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 188; Haraldsson, 1985). Green and McCreery's (1975) analysis of apparitional cases has also revealed several other important characteristics. The apparition's background may remain the same, or it may change in its appearance as part of the experience. For example, the witness may perceive that the environment has changed and looks like it did at an earlier time.

Apparition's appearance and disappearance

   The systematic studies show that apparitions typically manifest as a complete figure rather than building up or solidifying before the witness's eyes. At the end of the apparitional experience, the figure usually vanishes instantly, however in a smaller number of cases it fades gradually, either as a whole or part by part, or it may just leave the area (e.g., by walking out of the room). Many of these phenomenological trends are confirmed in Persinger's (1974, pp. 159–161) Canadian survey.

   The apparition may also carry accessories, like a walking stick or an umbrella. It cannot be seen by the percipient with eyes shut, which is a further indication that it is not a purely falsidical hallucinatory event.

   The majority of apparitions appear unexpectedly (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 135) Typically apparitions are seen in familiar everyday surroundings, most often in the witness's home or in its immediate vicinity (Persinger, 1974, p. 157). By contrast, only 12 percent of Green and McCreery's (1975, p. 123) cases occurred in a place that the subject had never visited before.

The behavior of the apparition

   The majority of apparitions appear to have an awareness of their surroundings although this is less characteristic of haunting type ghosts. They seem to leave a room by the door rather than walk through a wall like the fictional stereotype. Noises made by apparitions tend to be appropriate, like the footsteps or the rustling of clothes rather than clanking chains and soulful moans. In some apparitional accounts, the apparition is claimed to have spoken, although any spoken communication usually is limited to only a few words.

   Most attempts to touch an apparition are unsuccessful, however people who did so generally report that their hand went through the apparition itself. An example in which the apparition eludes the witness' hand can be found in the Morton Ghost case, in which Rosina Despard describes her attempts to touch the apparition of a deceased widow. She stated that "It was not that there was nothing there to touch, but that she always seemed to be beyond me, and if followed into a corner, simply disappeared." This statement is important because it suggests that the non-physical features of an apparition may relate to distortions in perception on the part of the witness. Again this also reinforces the concept of a perceived phenomenon such as a hallucination. It is being observed in the mind of the witness and is not a physical object that exists in the space independently. 

   The apparition may appear to pick up an object or to open doors when physically these have not moved at all. Apparitions usually leave no physical traces such as footprints, nor can they be photographed or recorded on an audio device, according to Tyrrell.

   Finally, Haraldsson (1994) notes that only 30 percent of the recognized apparitional figures in his Icelandic case studies were reported to have died by violent means. Consequently, Italian investigator Ernest Bozzano reported that more than 80% were found to be linked to a death in the premises in an analysis of 374 cases.

   Wood and Sewell's survey (2008) discovered most visual apparitions occurred in the afternoon. In their sample, 37% of sightings occurred during the day, but after removing cases associated with sleep paralysis and edge of sleep phenomena, they were left with roughly 50% of cases occurring in daylight, and 50% in darkness. The sample was too small to be sure if this is significant, and there was no strong seasonal association, beyond a slight prevalence of cases in the summer months.


Taxonomy of Apparitions

   The distinction between apparitions of the living and apparitions of the dead have been refined into a more detailed taxonomy. Tyrrell (1942/1963, p. 35ff) proposed four classes of apparitional experiences: experimental cases, crisis cases, postmortem cases, and ghosts or haunting cases. However, parapsychologists have redefined these categories over the years to include some of the additional findings from studies performed after Tyrrell's study. Each of these is described below along with the relevance to ghost hunting.


 Experimental apparitional experiences

    In these cases living people have deliberately tried, allegedly with success, to make an apparition of themselves appear before a chosen percipient. Some of the most famous cases are attributed to S. H. Beard (Gurney et al., 1886, Vol. 1, pp. 93–94). These experimental cases are rare and typically do not involve ghost hunters.


Crisis Apparitions

    In crisis cases, a recognized apparition is experienced at a time when the person represented by the apparition is undergoing some kind of crisis.  According to Gauld (1977, p. 602) crisis cases are the most frequently reported type of apparitional experience under the SPR criteria for selection. However, Green & McCreery, (1975, p. 179) report that crisis cases are in the minority.  While this is fascinating for parapsychologists,  ghost hunters are not typically interested in these types of cases as the "event" has already occurred. There is nothing for the amateur to investigate.


Death Bed Apparitions

    This is an apparition seen by a dying person that is unknown to them to be dead, and likewise unknown to the family to be dead. (Such as a relative who unexpectedly died hours or days before, but the news of the death had not yet reached the family, so they assumed them to be alive. The dying person sees the deceased family member, which is later confirmed. In some cases, the family may be aware of the death but have decided not to tell the witness about in fear that it would make the situation worse, and just before they die, they see the familiar figure. Again, ghost hunters are not involved with these types of cases. The event has already occurred.


Recurrent apparitional experiences

   Recurrent apparitional experiences are unique in that they tend to have a deceased friend or relative as the referent person (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 65). Recurrent apparitions of animals, particularly cats, also are not uncommon (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 63). The farther one gets from a person's time of death, the less frequently that person's apparition appears. The data from the various studies show that these type of phenomenon generally vanish entirely after seven years. Many ghost hunters have issues with investigating these types of cases. This is predominately due to warnings by parapsychologists that the phenomenon the witness is experiencing can have rational explanations due to mental instability and medical issues. As such, sensible ghost hunters believe that investigating these types of cases is unethical because they do not have the proper expertise to diagnose problems in those areas.  


Postmortem apparitional experiences

   As implied by its name, a post-mortem apparition appears after a person's death, anywhere from several hours to several years after. About two-thirds of recognized apparitions are of the dead (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 188; Haraldsson, 1985, 1994; Persinger, 1974, p. 150). The standard feature of postmortem cases is that the apparition seemingly tries to convey specific information that is unknown to the witness. One of the most frequently cited instances of this type is the so-called "Chaffin will" case where the apparition of a deceased father told his son the location of the family's will. ("Case…," 1927).

   Again these types of cases are often over before ghost hunters even discover it, so they are typically not involved in the immediate process.  However, some ghost hunters may be interested in analyzing the facts of the case for veridical information.


Residual Apparitions (Hauntings)

    Apparitions of the dead (ghosts) are usually associated with a particular building (haunting). The same figure(s) have been witnessed in the same locality on many occasions, often by many different witnesses. The ghosts in these experiences reportedly show less awareness of the witnesses and their surroundings than do other types of apparitional figures. Additionally, ghosts seem more automated in their movements. Some ghosts reportedly perform the same actions in the same location on each occasion they are experienced. The witness is seeing something that exists independently of, and generally out of awareness of, the mind of the witness.

   Hauntings are the forte of ghost hunters. As such, it is essential to understand the observed characteristics of hauntings as defined in the systematic studies. Five criteria must be met to consider a location to be haunted.


1. Repeating Behavior

   The primary trait of a haunting is repeating behavior. Without this trait, you do not have a haunting.

2. Longevity

   The haunting must have longevity. If the haunting is tied into a tragic event or the death of a particular person, the accounts of paranormal activity must be proven to extend back to that time. For example, if the haunting involves a person that died on the property in 1932, then there should be accounts of those hauntings in the 30's, 40's, etc. all the way up to the current year.

3. Multiple Witnesses

   Another one of the significant traits of a haunting is having numerous witnesses. These are required to perform the next step of the criteria.

4.  Witness testimony contains veridical information

   The testimony of the witnesses should correlate with each other. The big question is "are the witnesses seeing and experiencing the same things?" In the case of a haunting they should. One of the most common techniques, when an apparition is involved, is to interview the witnesses at length regarding the apparition's appearance. For example, let's take the typical "woman in white" ghost. Several descriptors could prove more detail of what the witness saw. How long is the dress? Did the dress have short sleeves or long sleeves? Could you see any patterns in the material? What did the neckline of the dress look like? How long was the apparition's hair? Can you identify the color and/or the style of the hair?

   If the answers regarding these 7 questions from three witnesses match then the conditional probability of this occurring by chance is just under a half of a percent. Therefore it can be argued that the witnesses have all seen the same figure but only if it is certain that those details were not available and that the witnesses have not revealed any of the information to each other. The accuracy of the veridical information is often one of the most debated issues in ghost investigations.

5. The claims of paranormal activity are consistent

   The accounts of the paranormal activity should not dramatically change over time. These changes often include the addition of more ghosts or dramatic changes to the back story of the haunting to make the incident more spooky. Usually, this is also done by adding historical elements that are not accurate or simply invented.

   The reason I added the taxidermy of apparitions to this chapter is to show that out of the full range of paranormal experiences, ghost hunters actually only deal with a few of them. Therefore, if the ghost hunters say a location is not haunted, they are not saying that nothing paranormal occurred. They are merely saying that the criteria for a haunting are not there.


PSI Events (formerly called Poltergeist cases)

   For many decades the phenomena that were covered by the term "poltergeist" has been revised by extensive work in the field of parapsychology. It is now believed to be a living agent, who is under emotional and other stresses, whose unconscious mind essentially acts out with psychokinetic ability. There has been extensive parapsychological research and investigations behind this type of case. According to parapsychologists, resolving the cause of the situation brings an end to the phenomena.

   Ghost hunters mostly treat this phenomenon separately from ghosts and apparitions and leave these types of cases to the parapsychologists. However, it is essential to have a basic understanding of them as PSI events can resemble the haunting type of cases. Two primary differences can be identified between the two. In haunting type cases, there is repeating behavior and apparitions are often apart of the witnesses experience. On the other hand, PSI events are entirely random in nature and do have apparitional phenomena associated with them.


The use of instrumentation

   If you have watched any of the television shows on ghost hunting, you probably have noticed the ghost hunters using various types of instruments to look for the ghosts. There is a wide range of gadgets that are used for the Spiritualist type of investigations. These include EMF detectors, the Spirit box, infrared cameras and thermal scanners just to name a few. The question is, do these items really detect paranormal activity?

Tony Cornell

Tony Cornell

   In 1997, at a Society for Psychical Research talk, council member Tony Cornell mentioned that their infra-red triggered monitoring system (called 'SPIDER') had been used for 10 years and had not produced one single, verifiable paranormal event on tape. It has only apparently triggered once in hundreds of deployments, and this was only after 53 days "in the field!" It is also believed that the one trigger was due to a glitch in the system as the unit was being taken down to be moved. I need to mention here that Tony was not just your average amateur ghost hunter. He was a member of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research and was appointed Research Officer in 1958 and President in 1968.  He was also the author of numerous papers on ghosts and poltergeists and expressed some cautious opinions on the Scole, SORRAT Min-lab (USA) and Enfield cases. He co-authored the book Poltergeists with Alan Gauld in 1979, and his last major work was a book titled "Investigating the Paranormal" (Helix Press, New York, 2002).

   In 1992, ASSAP's Tony Wells constructed EMU1 (Environmental Monitoring Unit). This, too, took the output from several different sensors but only after it was triggered by some event (a change in readings from a sensor). However, it too recorded very few "events" despite being deployed for long periods of time.  While there have been several others that have attempted to use various forms of instrumentation to search for ghosts, the truth is it is not that simple. If it were, it would have been done decades ago.


The phenomena of ghosts are actually quite rare.

   Despite the belief systems of the Spiritualists, ghosts and haunting phenomenon are actually quite rare.

   Tony Cornell spent over 50 years investigating the paranormal and came to the conclusion that most paranormal cases turn out to have natural explanations such as the result of fraud, pranks, and misidentification. Cornell estimated that of the 800 cases that he investigated, only twenty percent were difficult to explain and only a handful was paranormal.

   Up to this point, this chapter has focused on providing information about the phenomenon known as ghosts and hauntings.  Hopefully, it has demonstrated that there are two distinct types of ghost hunters. Spiritualist ghost hunting has its basis in superstition, folklore, deception, and fantasy. Because of its perceived entertainment value, it has greatly influenced the general perception about what ghosts and hauntings are.  On the other hand, parapsychology is based on systematic studies and observations based on witness accounts.  If you were going to use one of these two approaches to investigating paranormal phenomenon, which would you choose?

   This was the dilemma we faced in 1985 when the group that would become the Southwest Ghost Hunter's Association (SGHA) was formed. We were a mixed lot, two were believers, two were skeptics, and then there was me, stuck somewhere in the middle.

A couple of the popular mantras from Spiritualists are;


"There are no experts in the paranormal."

"No one knows what the paranormal is, that is why it is paranormal."


   As I have just demonstrated in this chapter, both of these ideas are entirely incorrect. The reason these sayings are so popular with Spiritualists has to do with their primary objective, which is to have a paranormal experience. With no rules, guides or experts, anything from an odd feeling to an "unexplained" sound could be taken as evidence of a supernatural encounter. It is really not about investigating anything or attempting to discover the truth about what is really going on. It is merely to confirm their own belief systems.

   Even back then, as teenagers, my friends and I saw the problems with the Spiritualist approach to ghost hunting. We did not want our group to be a dog that is chasing its own tail. There had to be some sort of guidelines or established criteria for the ghost hunting part of what we do. So when the Southwest Ghost Hunters Association (SGHA) was formed, we chose to go with the parapsychology model.


Enter the ghost hunters

   So if you cannot detect ghosts using instrumentation and you cannot photograph or take video of them, how are you going to investigate the phenomenon?

   Fortunately, a method for investigating paranormal claims that involve ghosts have already been developed and has existed for several decades. This is SPR's "Low grade/High grade" system. The system works by evaluating the facts of the case which have been gathered through historical research and through interviewing the witnesses of the phenomenon. If the facts contain elements from the systematic studies, they are considered to be high grade. If they do not, then they are classified as low grade.

   "Grading" cases and observations and understanding the results of prior research is a vital part in the examination of paranormal claims as it dictates the direction and methodology a ghost hunter should use to examine the available testimony and evidence to reach a conclusion. Low-Grade cases are often explainable by adequately identifying the reported phenomenon as natural or man-made in origin. High-Grade cases are much more difficult to tackle and will present more of a challenge.  If a case reaches this point, then the elements that are considered to be high grade must be scrutinized. If a location is indeed haunted, then it should be able to survive that scrutiny.

   This is actually a part of the scientific process known as the Falsification Principle. The basis of the principle states that scientific evidence cannot be verified by any possible accumulation of observational evidence. The reason for this is that the formation of the hypothesis is primarily a creative process that involves the imagination and as such, it is not a passive reaction to the observed phenomenon. A scientific test consists of a persevering search for negative, falsifying instances. If a hypothesis survives continuing and serious attempts to falsify it, then it has "proved its mettle'' and can be provisionally accepted, but it can never be established conclusively. Later corroboration generates a series of hypothesis into a scientific theory.

   The final results from the investigations are then published to allow a proper review of the material and data from professionals who have the appropriate academic qualifications and the ability to perform more detailed research regardless if it is a parapsychology group or a skeptical organization.


Enter the investigators

   Since the very beginning, SGHA felt the need to differentiate between the believer and skeptical viewpoints. The believers became the ghost hunters, while the skeptics became the investigators. The objective of the investigators was to question the findings of the ghost hunters and look at the facts from a different perspective. Another primary task is identifying and testing alternative explanations for the paranormal activity that was being reported. I will now go over some of the elements that investigators look for.


The five traits of a haunting type case

   Since the ghost hunters put a considerable emphasis on the observed characteristics of hauntings and its required criteria, it is essential to understand the alternative viewpoints of these observed characteristics.

Repeating Behavior

   Repeating behavior is can often be identified as an explainable phenomenon that is being mistaken for a paranormal occurrence. One of these alternative possibilities is known as seeding and suggestion. This concept was introduced by Houran and Lange (1996). Their hypothesis is based on the fact that in any environment, there is a constant supply of events that could be interpreted as paranormal. Once these potential anomalies have been noticed, people begin to pay more attention to them. This causes an increase in the numbers of events to be observed. They tested their theory by asking a married couple to make a 30-day diary of odd occurrences in their home. The home had no previous reputation for haunt-type phenomena or any other type of paranormal activity. The couple was given a list of the phenomena they were supposed to be looking for. These included visual and auditory phenomena, the unexplained movement of objects, and sensed presences. When the thirty day period was finished, the couple had reported 22 "unusual" events.  As predicted, the frequency of "odd" events increased. This resulted in yet another study that analyzed over 900 experiences of hauntings to test the hypothesis that contextual variables such as belief in the paranormal and situational embedded cues, might construct and shape the content of such experiences. Again the researchers' predictions were supported (Lange, Houran, Harte & Havens, 1996).

   Two additional studies were performed in 2003 (Wiseman, Watt, Stevens, Greening & O'Keeffe) In these studies volunteers were asked to record any unusual experiences they had while walking around historical sites. Some areas had a reputation for being haunted while others did not. The test revealed two interesting discoveries. The first was that the participants reported significantly more unusual experiences in the "haunted" areas than in the control areas. This was due to the "seeding" of information by the location that the area was haunted and thus affected the participants' knowledge of the sites. In most of the studies, the reported experiences were quite subtle and were in a relatively small proportion.

   The second finding of the studies was that those participants who reported a prior belief in ghosts had a significantly higher number of experiences than disbelievers, providing some support for the expectancy hypothesis.

   Many of the "haunted places" unwittingly seed information about their "hauntings" on their websites or in the form of printed material that is kept at the location. For example, in many "haunted" hotels, the ghost stories are contained in the room in a folder with the hotel's amenities and room service menu.  For some visitors, this can create the expectation of the paranormal phenomenon that they could encounter and in many instances lead to misattribution of normal events instead of "paranormal" ones.

   An excellent example of this occurred during an investigation at the Congress hotel. According to a local book on the building, the footsteps of a murdered woman can be heard walking up and down the main stairs on certain evenings. The ghost hunters had identified this as a "repeating behavior" and began interviewing the witness. Their search resulted in locating two people who claimed to have heard the phantom footsteps one evening while staying in the hotel. Having the notes from the witness interview, the investigators began to look for alternative explanations for the phenomenon. This was when it was noticed that the room the couple was staying in was actually located on the far side of the building and was quite a distance away from the stairs. This lead to a simple question. Was it possible for the couple to even hear the sounds of someone walking up and down the stairs? This was quite easy to test. Several investigators waited in the room while another went to walk up and down the staircase.

   However, even with an investigator stomping up and down the stairs, the noise could not be heard in the room itself. So while the couple may have heard something, it definitely was not coming from the stairs.

    After several more ideas were tested, the mysterious sound of footsteps was discovered to be originating from the adjoining hall. If anyone walked down that hallway, it sounded exactly like footsteps and the sounds also appeared to be coming from the general direction of the stairs.

   So how could the couple misidentify the origin of the sounds they heard? The answer was in the ghost hunters' interview. They had purchased the book and had also asked the night clerk about the ghostly activity they read about. Of course, the night clerk told them about the ghost that walks on the stairs. So when they heard the noises later that evening, they just assumed that the sounds were coming from the stairs and did not consider any other possibilities. They just had a supernatural encounter!


   The vast majority of "haunted places" actually started out as ghost stories and are nothing more than that. One of the easiest ways to identify this is through the longevity of the stories. While they often claim to have ghosts that have haunted the building for a significant amount of time, the majority of the stories have their beginnings in the late 1970's or sometime afterward. This is due to the media exposure of the paranormal at that time. The stories have since grown into a "real life" haunt due to myth-building.

   Myth-building is the elaboration of elements in a story. These elements may have some degree of truth while others may be completely false. It is the essential building blocks that aid in the construction of myths and urban legends. This affects the story's veracity and indicates that it is in circulation, exhibits variation over time, and carries some significance that motivates the community in preserving and propagating it. Essentially, it is nothing more than a ghost story. Myth-building can only be identified through the historical research, especially research of the ghost stories themselves.

 Multiple witnesses and veridical information

   As all of the phenomena we are investigating are defined by human witnesses and their experiences, we start with the witness reports. You can't investigate the paranormal without the ability to interview witnesses/people who have had the experiences. When it comes to the reports of paranormal events, there are only three possibilities.


1. Everything happened exactly the way the witness described it.

   However, just because the witness may describe something accurately does not mean that it was paranormal in nature. There are several factors that need to be considered about the witness's testimony as well.

   The first is the exaggeration of details. While the authors of Phantasms of the Living found little evidence that people exaggerated the telling of incidents that had occurred to themselves, the elaboration of events was much more common when they were describing an incident that had happened to another person. This is important because many of the ghost stories that are circulated around haunted places are second and third-hand accounts. However, humans are storytellers so it would be wise to assume that witnesses will have added some creative details to their story because of repeated retellings. They may also omit significant information that may help explain what they have witnessed. 

   The second issue is that humans have an imperfect memory  Typically you are going to be dealing with a person's memory of an incident that occurred months or years earlier, so it will be far less precise and detailed than one that has just taken place. Dates and incidents can become confused, forgotten or mixed up. Even the exact locations where the event occurred may be incorrectly identified. Fleeting events can rarely be recalled without errors, and those errors may often create an illusion that what the witness experienced was paranormal. There are also potential issues with collaborative testimony. Witnesses of a collective apparitional experience may discuss what they saw and arrive at an account to which all parties agree. This will create a problem because the consensus account may not accurately reflect the original individual experiences. This may cause issues in determining the veridical components.

   If the testimony from different witnesses matches to accurately, collaboration is most likely the culprit as individual accounts should show some variation from person to person as people perceive the world around them in a unique way. The witness testimony will also be accurate if the witness has experienced hypnopompic and/or hypnagogic imagery.  Surprisingly realistic imagery can be observed on the threshold of waking (hypnopompic) or sleeping (hypnagogic) and to the witness, these events will be perceived as a paranormal phenomenon. This phenomenon is the most common type of explainable occurrence is "haunted" hotels. If the witness is in bed during the event, hypnopompic and hypnagogic imagery cannot be disproven as the cause of the phenomena.


2. The witness misidentified an ordinary event and instead interpreted it as a paranormal one.

   The most common errors are merely mistaken identity. For visual phenomena, the key things to look for here is the distance from the witness to the "ghost" and the lighting of the environment. The focus of the witnesses vision is also vital. Was the figure seen directly or in their peripheral vision? How long was the duration of the sighting? In words, what is the quality of the observation?

   Alternative explanations for olfactory phenomena can be discovered by searching the location for similar scents. It is also interesting to know that apparitional figures seen outside are often more likely to be the result of mistaken identity than those seen inside.

   As mentioned earlier, expectation can create an illusion of validity. It is well known that expectation can create visions, and should be suspected in cases of repeated ghost sightings in supposedly haunted locations. This will often be found in combination with suggestion. The first sighting (the primary event) has unwittingly created subsequent sightings (secondary effects) that may be spurious.


3. It is a hoax.

   Hoaxing is actually quite common today, so it is an option that has to be considered. It must be suspected where the witness appears to have gained something by the deception. This could range from getting free press publicity for a business, getting "likes" and "follows" on social media or otherwise attracting attention.


Consistency of the Claims

   Another problem with the consistency of the claims is that fictional ghost stories and folklore promote a particular stereotype of an apparitional experience. So it is feasible that the witnesses' accounts of their experience are unwittingly distorted to conform to these popular expectations. Therefore, investigators must be a little wary of accepting consistencies in a haunting case as indications of the nature of apparitions because those consistencies may only reveal the fictional conception of apparitions.



   Hopefully, this article has given the reader some fundamental insight into why there are different kinds of ghost hunters and how the hobby became so diverse. Many people do not know that there is scientific literature available that covers paranormal investigations. There are literally hundreds of books, including volumes of the early journals and proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and its American counterpart (ASPR). There are also contemporary issues of the SPR and ASPR journal, as well as various research papers and peer reviews of paranormal oriented topics in the Journal of Scientific Exploration and others. It is also important to look at the "other side of the coin" to examine the various papers and studies that have been printed by various skeptical organizations as well.



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copyright 2018 by Cody Polston. All rights reserved


About Hitman

Cody Polston is an author, historian and ghost investigator. He is the author of multiple books on history and paranormal topics. He was the host and producer of the popular podcast Ecto Radio and a writer for Ghosthunter X magazine. He is one of the founders of the Southwest Ghost Hunter's Association and has been investigating paranormal claims since 1985. In the 1990's several other ghost hunting groups gave him the moniker the "Hitman" due to his involvement in "debunking" several well known haunted locations in Texas. Although the nickname was intended to be a negative insult, Cody adopted the nickname and began using in on his podcasts and other media venues.

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