How to Actually Hunt a Ghost
Late at night, the lights off, armed with only a thermal camera, Ghost Hunters' Jason and Steve walk along a corridor in a decrepit mansion on the campus of Southern Vermont College. Suddenly a human figure silently strolls from left to right across the camera's viewfinder roughly thirty feet down the hall. The two investigators think it's a ghost's thermal signature, especially considering the heated apparition seemed to walk through two closed doors!
That, or it was a clever piece of editing.
We may never know for sure. Ghost Hunters wrapped up it's final season in 2016 and lead investigator Grant Wilson insists that they were forbidden from faking "evidence" on the show.
But even if the popular program wasn't fraudulent outright, the show's investigators still had no idea how to properly probe the paranormal.
“Bless them, they don’t know what they’re doing," professional paranormal investigator Joe Nickell remarked on a recent episode of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. He says most ghost hunters you see on reality TV who utilize "fancy" equipment are most likely just detecting themselves, not ghosts. Disturbed dust floating in the air can reflect light off of camera flashes to give the impression of shimmering specters. Electromagnetic fields can emanate from nearby recording equipment, iron, faulty wiring, or cell phones. Heat signatures can reflect off metal surfaces or mirrors, which likely explains the aforementioned ghost "sighting" at Southern Vermont College.
Colin Dickey, author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, agrees.
"The best tools for tracking down spirits have always been the ones fallible enough to find something," he wrote for The Atlantic.
Nickell, who has been scrutinizing the mystical and unexplained since the 1980s, often eschews the use of devices like electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, geiger counters, infrared cameras, or overly sensitive microphones, opting instead for common sense. For example, he almost always hunts for ghosts with the lights on, not off.
"There are no other objects or entities in the world that anyone would think are better observed in darkness instead of light; why would ghosts be any different?" he wrote at the Skeptical Inquirer. "Although some report seeing ghosts as glowing figures, many people report them as shadows or dark entities. Searching a dark room for a shadowy figure is an exercise in futility."
As you can tell, unlike others in his line of work, Nickell plies his trade with a less credulous mindset. After all, to prove the existence of ghosts or similar phenomena would be a world-changing discovery! All other explanations for unsolved paranormal mysteries must be rooted out first, and any corroborating evidence must be critically assessed.
Nickell has developed a basic guide for investigating the paranormal, which anyone with a reasonable head on their shoulders can follow:
Investigate on site. Check details of an account. Research precedents [the site's history and the people involved]. Carefully examine physical evidence. Analyze development of a phenomenon. Assess a claim with a controlled test or experiment. Consider an innovative analysis. Attempt to recreate the "impossible." Go undercover to investigate.
Following this simple checklist, Nickell concluded that the "Flatwoods monster" of Braxton County, West Virginia was more likely a startled barn owl, that Tennessee's "Bell Witch" poltergeist was a mischievous child, and that strange moans and occurences at an old Shaker house in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky were ordinary things misinterpreted by people drowning in a blinding bath of superstitious fear.
Nickell didn't need fallible, fancy equipment to sleuth out these ghost stories. All he required was a scientific way of thinking.
"It is the scientific approach that solves mysteries," Nickell wrote. "Indeed, we could see the advance of science as a progression of solved mysteries."
In Nickell's extensive personal experience, there has never been a real ghost at the end of a solved mystery.