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How Ghost Hunters Demonstrate Hauntings - And Why It's Mostly Nonsense

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I'm going to tell you right now: Most hauntings aren't real. In fact, in the entire history of paranormal investigations, no one has verified a real haunting. Could there still be ghosts? Sure. But there could be good Kevin Smith movies, too. The point is, no one has discovered any.

Still, producers of ghost-hunting TV shows know that most people don't know that there are sound, nonghoulish explanations for spooky voices and bumps in the night. And they know that if they manipulate their footage just right (even without adding any special effects), they can create a pretty convincing "haunting."

The same may be true for local ghost hunters. Although many of them are sincere, their methods leave a lot to be desired. I've been investigating paranormal claims for several years, and I've never run into anything that couldn't be explained with a little science. Here are the top 7 things you can look for, so you don't get hoodwinked:

7. "Did You Hear That?"

It is amazing how low the bar drops for what constitutes a "creepy noise" on a ghost-hunting show. Suddenly, the tiniest squeak or hum, which you would have completely ignored before, becomes William Howard Taft, communicating with you from beyond the grave.

Sure, a weird bang or a vaguely voicelike echo gives everyone the creeps, but ask yourself this: "Is it more likely that the floor is settling, or that humans survive the death of their bodies in order to hang out exclusively in old houses and cemeteries?"

Voice-like sounds are especially suspect, because of a phenomenon called pareidolia. That's when your brain looks for patterns that aren't there—particularly patterns that would indicate that a human or animal is nearby. You were evolved to do this because it's better to mistake a bush for a human, than to mistake a human for a bush. The human could kill you, and the bush can't. So we are especially likely to hear things that sound like voices or footsteps, and to see things that look like bodies and faces (think the Man on the Moon, clouds shaped like chihuahuas, or the famous face on Mars).

This especially comes into play with old houses and buildings, where the floor is regularly settling, pipes are squeaking, and the wind is howling against an old, weak windowsill. Your brain is much more likely to tell you that sound was a little girl crying, more than that it was a mouse under this disgusting old trash heap of a house, even if the mouse is much more likely.

6. Dowsing Rods

If your guide pulls out dowsing rods, your "Wait a Minute" meter should shoot into the red, because dowsing rods have never been shown to work. The L-shaped or Y-shaped rods were originally developed as a tool for finding water or metals; the user would walk around holding the sticks, and when they mysteriously pointed in one direction, seemingly by themselves, the user would assume they were pointing to water, or copper, or whatever it was they were seeking.

Dowsing rods can appear to work because of something called the ideomotor affect, whereby your subconscious brain uses minuscule muscle movements to control the thing you're holding without your conscious brain knowing anything about it (that's also what's at work in Ouija boards).

So when a paranormal investigator pulls out dowsing rods to ask a ghost questions, know that either she doesn't understand what she's using, or she understands them perfectly, and is trying to fool you.

5. Orbs Of Light

Have you ever seen a photo with mysterious orbs floating above the scenery? Could they be g-g-g-ghosts? Nope, that's dust.

When you use the flash on your camera, you're essentially sending photons (particles of light) out into space. Those photons are totally indiscriminate about where they land. They don't know you're trying to take a photo of the old, crusty library bookcase 5 feet away, so they are just as likely to land on some dust floating a foot away that you couldn't see with your bare eye.

And it ends up looking like this.

Nothing spooky here, unless you have allergies.

Another trick: Wipe your lens. You never know what is hiding there, waiting for just the right conditions to turn a thumb print into the looming figure of a demon.

4. Spirit Boxes

Of all paranormal investigator gadgets, "spirit boxes" might take the cake as the weirdest. Also called "ghost boxes," these devices rapidly flip through radio frequencies, playing tiny bits of sound as they go. We're not just talking about your local radio stations. We're talking about any frequency that can be accessed by a machine. That could mean a faint signal from a walkie-talkie, a radio station just out of range, or a control tower. Naturally, they pick up orphaned sounds that come through for a second and then disappear.

Ghost hunters say that the makeshift radios give ghosts a way to communicate with us, by "landing" on one of the frequencies and using it to speak. So, if you hear, say, the name "Juliet" come through, someone out there is telling you to hit on Juliet, the librarian who never talks to you, but is totally into you, you're sure of it!

The problem, of course, is that there's a very earthly explanation for this. Faint sounds are coming in from all sorts of sources, and because we are primed to hear voices (remember that pareidolia thing?), we can give meaning to the most inhuman of grumbles. And voilà, you have a message from the beyond.

3. Electromagnetic Frequency

You're not a true ghost-hunting fanatic unless you own an EMF meter. They're the gadgets you see investigators pull out to measure something-or-other in the air. There is typically a display panel with either a digital readout or (more dramatically) the old wand-type reader. When ghosts are near, they say, the wand shoots over to the right. Because, apparently, spirits have high electromagnetic fields. According to investigator Sharon Hill, even ghost hunters aren't sure why that would be.

The best EMF meters also use flashing lights and sounds to let you know when you've hit a real pocket of electromagnetic frequency. No, wait. The best ones are inexplicably shaped like teddy bears. But you get the idea.

The problem, of course, is that EMFs are simply indicators of variance in voltage, and they can have all sorts of sources: thunderstorms, geological formations, the polarity of the Earth (that's how your compass works), X-rays, TV antennas, radios, electric and electronic appliances. Basically, all the things that make modern life possible. So, yeah, you found some EMF in an abandoned house. You'd find some in your house, too. Are ghosts around us all the time? Maybe. But more likely, your toaster is on.

2. Mysterious Messages On Tape

In my experience, the best part of any good ghost investigation is the EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomena. They usually go something like this: The investigator goes into a particularly "haunted" area and brings a tape or digital recorder. While everyone stands perfectly still and silent, the lead investigator asks the spirits questions.

"John Jacob, killed in 1841, are you here?"

But since ghosts apparently can't always be heard by the human ear (but can be heard by tapes and digital recorders), there follows a long silence, where the ghosts are given a chance to answer. The response will then later be reviewed on the tape. And so the questions continue.

"Are you happy?"

Pause.

"Do you like being visited?"

Pause.

"What's your favorite holiday?"

Pause.

"Why didn't you continue to heaven?"

Pause.

According to one long-time paranormal investigator who performs ghost hunts on the legendary Queen Mary ship, ghosts tire of hearing the same questions over and over, so varied, more spontaneous questions are encouraged. Which is how you end up finding out that a ghost's favorite color is red, but still have no idea how they died or why they are coming back from the hereafter to give you such banal information.

Once the recordings are finished, the investigators play back the audio to see what they found. Very often, in hours of EVP recordings, not a single EVP will be found. Other times, one or two will be there. Rarely are there more. And the voices are almost always very difficult to decipher. A quick low grumble will be interpreted as a voice, even when it might be a chair moving or one of the investigators sighing or coughing. With hours of audio, it's especially difficult to remember that Ralph coughed after Question 18.

But sometimes the sounds are remarkable—hollow, otherworldly voices seemingly answering the question presented. To make the words more audible, the tapes are played at a fraction of their regular speed, slowing the "voices" to a deep growl. Then you hear it.

"Are you happy here?"

"Yes."

At this point, you know that pareidolia could be tricking you into hearing the word you expected. But why did it pick up this sound in the first place?

To answer that question, you need a radio producer, or anyone else who has worked extensively with audio. Like, say, me. I have a master's in journalism, I studied radio, and I host and co-produce a podcast, so I've worked with audio a lot. And let me tell you: Getting errant sounds on a recording is a piece of cake. It's getting them off that's difficult.

Every room has a bunch of noises you don't hear, or don't notice. The hum of a fridge, the settling of a floor, the buzz of a light in the next room. While our ears assimilate these things beautifully, a tape recorder has no idea that you don't want to keep that sound. In fact, its job is to search for sounds and capture them. And that's especially true if you use the automatic settings on your recorder.

An "auto gain" feature, for example, allows your recorder to pick up small sounds and amplify them so that they sound as loud as everything else. So the tiny, forgettable sound of a pipe might be amplified into a deep, guttural growl. To make things even more complicated, when the gain switches back and forth between settings, it sometimes creates its own "clicks," adding a burst of sound to your tape. The clicks aren't that noticeable when you're listening back, but slow them down and search desperately for a voice, and by gum, you'll hear one.

1. Cold Spots And Creepy Feelings

Years ago, I lived in what I thought was a haunted building. Whenever I entered, I got a foreboding feeling, as if a presence were there, telling me to leave. There was a pressure on my chest that would come and go, and drafts of air would inexplicably kick up in my living room, even with the doors closed. It was one of the scariest times of my life.

That is, until someone told me about carbon monoxide leaks. CO leaks are common, especially in old houses. The colorless, odorless gas can quickly kill residents, especially if the leak is substantial. But if it is slow and weak, the effect can last longer and, hopefully, not kill anyone before it is discovered and repaired.

Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include weakness, nausea, dizziness, confusion, auditory and visual hallucinations, feelings of foreboding, and pressure on the chest or shoulders. One plumbling, heating, and air company has an entire page on its website devoted to the ways they can repair "haunted houses." (Note: None of them include sage.)

There are many cases of "haunted houses" that turned out to be gas leaks. Old buildings are especially at risk, where gas pipes are weaker and more fragile. The same goes for cold spots and unexplained drafts. Unless you are a builder or an engineer, an "unexplained" draft may just be unexplained to you. Professionals identify "air leaks" all the time, which may turn out to be caused by a weakness in a wall at the other end of the room. Many different factors can control the path of a breeze, sometimes sending it to the least-expected places.

So, the next time you see a ghost hunting show on TV, maybe stay a bit skeptical.

And if your house is haunted, please call the gas company.

"Orb" Photo: J. Todd Poling | Flickr

Cemetery Photo: Jessica Cramer | Flickr

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