Halloween is here, that time of year
when we see ghosts everywhere.
“What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.”
– Harry Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits
Lately, there have been reports of unusual sounds on an American Airlines flight, which sounded like harsh breathing and ghostly moaning. Meanwhile, the mysterious howling sound coming from the Golden Gate Bridge now has a clear explanation: The slats on the railings of the suspension bridge have turned it into a kind of Aeolian harp when the weather is gusty (an explanation that only makes it scarier, as climate change has increased wind speed to a rate higher than the bridge was designed for).
As Halloween approaches, interest in spooky ghosties increases as much as the Golden Gate’s wind speed. So we took this opportunity to speak to three paranormal investigators, two skeptics, and a physicist in an attempt to examine the supernatural in terms of what we know best: data.
Are there data points that can prove the existence of ghosts and other paranormal activity? If ghosts, ghouls, and creeps (oh my) have a presence in our physical world, there must be data that describes their intersection with our plane of existence.
Well, we found some data that paranormal investigators say indicate supernatural activities in the natural world. Is it enough to prove their existence?
The paranormal investigators
Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer, Not a trace of doubt in my mind.
– Neil Diamond
Paranormal investigators usually combine a belief in the supernatural with a desire to understand the verifiable elements at the intersection of the otherworldly and the everyday world as we know it. Benny Ledford and Nicole Strickland use a variety of devices to record data signals in the environment that might indicate the presence of ghosts, while Loyd Auerbach focuses more on human observation.
Benny Ledford, Chief Investigator for the Southern Ghost Girls, said his crew uses a load of gear. This includes a digital audio recorder, an EMF gauge, a digital thermometer, a thermal camera, a structured light sensor (SLS) camera to detect figures, a REM pod to detect changes in temperature, something called a “Para4ce Paranormal Music Box” (a coffin-shaped music box?), a Spiritus Ghost Box (a radio with frequency scanning),LED dowsing rods, and an iPhone, whose video recording function he said will capture anomalies such as orbs.
Nicole Strickland, author and leader of the San Diego Paranormal Research Society, has investigated paranormal activities for 20 years. Her investigations have included the pursuit not just of ghosts but also cryptids, extraterrestrials, ultraterrestrials (beings from other dimensions), and other types of mysterious beings.
Her approach is critical of “cookie cutter” investigations in which a team will record the same things in the same ways every time, regardless of the type of phenomenon that has been reported. Strickland and her crew try to customize the traditional paranormal observational arsenal to reports they’re investigating.
Loyd Auerbach, a parapsychologist with 43 years of experience, author of ESP, Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Parapsychologist’s Handbook, and president of the Forever Family Foundation, uses electronic tools like his peers, but emphasizes the uncertainty of their conclusions.
“We’ve been using electromagnetic field detectors as well as temperature sensors. We don’t actually find the cold spots that ghost hunters constantly say they’re finding. So none of that equipment you see on TV detects ghosts. It can’t even be designed to do that.”
In the night, imagining some fear, How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
–Theseus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
Paranormal investigators believe ghosts use “energy” to manifest themselves in the physical world, and that is detectable on the EMF spectrum and by measuring temperature changes. How exactly does this energy manifest?
As we know from Noether’s Theorem and the Law of the Conservation of Energy, energy is neither created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed from one form to another or transferred from one system to another. For science-minded investigators such as statistician Kenny Biddle, energy, a popular term in the vocabulary of paranormal investigators, can’t just be a haphazard signifier. It has to come from somewhere and go somewhere else.
Biddle is the chief investigator for the Skeptical Inquirer. In the spirit of Harry Houdini, Biddle keeps an open mind when investigating paranormal phenomena but refuses to replace any lack of provable action with a fun, but undisciplined, explanation.
“If we can get a paranormal incident to repeat, there should be something there in the environment,” he says. “If we can monitor the environment, maybe we can find a change, and then focus on that.”
The problem is, if you find a rational explanation—expansion of a door frame due to temperature and humidity or a train passing at enough of a distance to be inaudible but close enough to vibrate the salt shaker—you’ve not proven the existence of a ghost but rather the existence of physics. To “prove” a ghost exists you would need one thing that is missing: the mechanism. How exactly does a ghost manifest? No one seems to know. Those hunting them seem instead more focused on their gear.
“EMF readings are extremely common with ghost hunters,” said Biddle. “They love it, mostly because the devices light up and beep. So trust me, if you have any gadget that beeps and lights up, it’s going to be a hit. I don’t know the origin of this fixation on EMF. I am trying to research it and figure out where it came from, but there is this tribal knowledge that ghosts somehow generate or affect or manipulate electromagnetic fields.”
Biddle uses a multi-directional Trifield EMF meter, which provides more accurate data and enables him to establish where any alleged energy (in this case, electricity) is coming from.
“I’ll go in with a Trifield meter and go up to the same places other investigators have been and I can say, ‘Look, this is picking up the wiring in the wall or in the floor. There’s nothing supernatural about it.’ It’s usually the wiring or an appliance that kicks on, like a refrigerator, a heater, or a boiler. When it kicks on, it sends a surge through the system and it exceeds the standard 60HZ cycle of the American residence.”
Overall, Biddle objects to the data collected by paranormal investigators as much as he does to the unexplained paranormal energy they fixate on.
“It’s not proper data,” he said. “The environment is not controlled. There are no controls whatsoever to guard against any known variables. There is no science with this. It’s just for fun. It’s amateurs doing pretend-science.” Biddle is concerned that the lack of science creates lingering fear. The serious part comes when investigators leave a family with lasting fear that demons, ghosts, or evil spirits are a continuing menace to their safety.
Jim Frost, a statistician who works primarily for universities, uses statistics to critically examine paranormal investigations. For Frost, ghost hunting is primarily fun. He investigated an abandoned asylum with his wife and a friend, all three of whom are skeptics, and they had a great time. But he also suggests there is a serious aspect.
As he explained in his post Ghost Hunting with a Statistical Mindset, when he examines any allegedly paranormal event, he asks himself one thing: Can he disprove the null set? The null set in this context is Ghosts do not exist.
“I failed to reject the null, which says I don’t have evidence to prove that they do exist, but that isn’t proof that they don’t exist,” said Frost.
“I think there are some people, whether they’re religious or not, who would like to believe in an afterlife,” said Frost. “But they need to find some evidence. If you find evidence of ghosts and they’re dead people, you’ve just proven life after death in some form.”
Again, this vulnerability means ghost hunting, though mostly fun and harmless, does have a serious side.
…they saw a ghostly cat materialize and walk out of the changing rooms, only to come back inside a few moments later.
The original idea behind this story was that we would ask a paranormal investigator for half a dozen data points, gleaned in an investigation, and we would share them with a physicist. We would ask that physicist what conclusions they gathered from that data set. Well, it didn’t work out exactly as planned. We got the data set. As you may have gathered from above, hard data, provable and duplicable, is in short supply in the world of ghost hunting.
We shared what was supposed to be a ghostly set of data derived from a series of investigations by Nicole Strickland’s team at Southern Ghost Girls with Prof. Rana Adhikari, experimental physicist, head of the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, a National Science Foundation Physics Frontiers Center, at CalTech.
“It was interesting to read,” said Prof. Adhikari. “But this is not yet in the category of things that can be proven or disproven; it’s just some anecdotes. A good example of good scientific practice in the paranormal is the Global Consciousness Project, which does use sound statistical practices. There, they make falsifiable hypotheses, and look at the data in a less biased way.”
Here’s Strickland’s data, which she and her team pulled from records of various investigations around the Southland. What do you think? Are you Team Institute for Quantum Information and Matter or Team Ghost Girls?
Divining rods, otherwise known as dowsing rods, are a divination technique sometimes used in paranormal research cases. It’s considered a metaphysical adjunct technique to other standardized methodologies, such as electronic voice phenomena (EVP) sessions.
Strickland’s team usually uses the rods for YES/NO questions. For example, they may ask for the rods to cross if it’s a YES answer and for them to separate out for NO answers.
One night while doing a divining rod session in the kitchen of the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe in Southern California, the team got two YES responses. The rods crossed for YES and after reviewing the EVP recording, they realized they captured something saying “yes” as well.
The team found the majordomo room, in the adobe where they were researching, to be particularly good for ITC (instrumental trans communication) experimentation, described as real-time communication between our world and the next. There are a variety of ITC gadgets available; one of the most common is the PSB7 or PSB11, which scans the AM/FM radio bands at a high rate. It’s theorized that spirits can utilize the frequency of the device’s scanning to say words or phrases. How this works remains a mystery.
Several times in the majordomo room, Strickland’s team acquired at least two to four ITC captures, which are clear and historically relevant to our questions.
EMF (electromagnetic field) readings are done before, during, and even after paranormal investigations and case studies. It’s theorized that places with high EMF can produce ghostly activity or that spirits can manipulate the EMF in the environment. Thus, investigators often get natural, intermittent EMF spikes, which usually correspond to some type of activity.
There have been situations where an investigator has had a personal experience (felt a cold spot, saw a fleeting shadow, or such), and the EMF will intermittently spike for a second or two. Spikes from 1mg (milligauss) to 7mg are typically reported for paranormal activity. Higher numbers usually correlate to something man-made. Constant readings indicate man-made electrical wiring or some type of electrical device.
During an investigation of the RMS Queen Mary’s, one investigator felt something touch her ankle. A few seconds later, they saw a ghostly cat materialize and walk out of the changing rooms, only to come back inside a few moments later. Once back inside, they heard a ghostly “meow,” which was captured on recording devices as an audible voice phenomenon (AVP).
Another example of this occurred at Preston Castle, a famously haunted former reform school in central California, according to Strickland. Researchers used comic books as a trigger object in the boys’ infirmary. When an investigator placed a comic book on one of the beds and let the spirits know that it was for them, they said they heard a disembodied “thank you,” which was also captured on recording devices.
At a private residence, an investigator felt an extreme cold spot. She was using a MEL meter, which measures ambient temperature and EMF simultaneously. The temperature dropped two degrees, the EMF intermittently spiked between 1-3mg, and she saw a shadowy figure move across the room.
The sleep of reason produces monsters
One of the hallmarks of human consciousness is our ability to recognize patterns and use our reason to understand what it is we are recognizing and why. But even then, we frequently fall victim to apophenia, which is a tendency to see patterns in random data (such as believing the number 3 is appearing in our environment out of proportion to its statistical likelihood) as well as pareidolia, the tendency to see pictures in ambiguous visual information (such as seeing a face in the stains on a wall).
We human beings also tend toward confirmation bias, our tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs—proof of the existence of ghosts, for instance, or proof they don’t exist.
Of course, no amount of reason is ever going to make walking through the woods at night without a flashlight into a relaxing stroll. No intellectual discipline is rigorous enough to allow for a sound sleep when the pipes in your 100-year-old house start rattling in the dead of night.
In the end, our motive question—Can data define a ghost?—is subject to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. Namely, any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. For now, that remains the answer. Who knows, however, how the future will address this question.