by Steve Gajadhar
An early warmup for Halloween.
Do you believe in ghosts? Most people do, but most people believe a lot of really funky stuff. And they believe these things as unconditionally and irrationally as they love, with no need for proof, or desire to question. Often the belief just has to feel
right, and be shared by people close to the believer. Charismatic charlatans and hoaxers have taken advantage of this side of human nature for as long as we have been crawling around this rock we call home--ouija boards, séances, channeling, psychics communicating with the other side, the list is as endless as it is varied. Now television is joining the gang, and ratings for ghost shows are on the upswing.
Ghost Hunters is the current king of ghost TV. There are others out there, but Ghost Hunters is a show that actually claims to take a reasonably skeptical stance. They go into every investigation with the goal of proving or disproving the existence of paranormal phenomenon. TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society), the association that Ghost Hunters is affiliated with, accepts no money for their investigations. This is a commendable thing to do, but it’s a bit like the vacuum salesman who does your rug for free—someone will buy what he’s selling. I’m pretty sure Ghost Hunters makes a bit of money from selling commercials, and TAPS probably does alright with membership dues, t-shirt sales, and conference appearances. If you google “taps”, the official TAPS website is the top response. There is money to be made exploiting belief, especially if the exploiters firmly believe in what they are doing.
A typical episode starts with the trip to the location and a recap of the reported phenomena. Then we get a brief history of the site and the inevitable tragic event that has left the psychic/paranormal entities lingering around. The investigators will often speculate on camera about what sorts of things they will find before they even start their work--so much for a that skeptical attitude going in. The show then moves into the video investigation stage. This is almost always shot at night with crappy, poor resolution, yet supposedly hi-tech gear. The various cameras and squads of investigators never capture any conclusive video (there has never been a credible paranormal photo, video or audio recording since such technology has been in existence), but they do see a lot of things the viewer doesn’t and they do get a lot of feelings
, which are of course backed up by their digital thermometers and EMF (electromagnetic field) sensors. For a bit of fun, I suggest a drinking game that makes you take a drink every time one of the investigators asks, “did you see that?!” That
is usually a shadow, or some other movement that is never captured by the camera. Other great lines to incorporate into the game include: “did you hear that?” or, “did you feel that?” I tried it. I was blitzed after an episode and a half. Episodes typically end with the examination stage, where the investigators supposedly examine all that data they collected during their romp. It’s riveting stuff.
Alternative explanations for the observed and recorded phenomena are rarely given. So I figured I’d take a quick look at some of the tools of the trade I mentioned above.Digital Thermometer
Investigators pour over the area with this beauty--high up in corners, low near the floor, nooks, crannies, the middle of the room--looking for any abnormal readings. Somehow a hot or cold spot is deemed evidence of a ghost or entity. If temperature differential is a true measure of paranormal activity, then every place on the planet is haunted. A volume of air will naturally have temperature variations, and these variations can be pretty extreme. Throw this reality into the invariably old and drafty haunted houses and the differentials will only get worse.EMF detector
This baby goes hand in hand with the digital thermometer. Nearly everything around us emits an EM field, and EMF meters have been around a long time. Someone somewhere noticed a bump on a meter when they felt spooked and the rest is ghost hunting history. No conclusive evidence has ever linked EM fields with ghosts. An interesting study in Sudbury used EM fields on subjects and then documented their responses. The subjects were placed in a sealed room and had EEG leads taped to their melons. The results were varied and startling: noises, sensations, feelings of a presence nearby. Some of the subjects reported nothing at all. Maybe some of us are tuned into EM fields and some of us aren’t? Maybe the churning EM fields of our TVs, cell phones and power lines are the ghosts instead?Audio recording devices
Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP). EVP is the holy grail of paranormal types, as in, ah ha! explain this! Okay I will. EVP is recorded snippets of voices or other sounds that are never heard during the recording, but are later heard upon playback--the recorder in the graveyard idea that some kids get up the courage to try (I did). According to paranormal types, EVP has been around as long as recording technology and it has never been debunked or explained. This is false. EVP came on the scene in 1959 after a fella named Friedrich Jurgenson wrote a book about it. EVP took off after this book planted the idea in the willing minds of all the paranormal investigators out there. EVP has been debunked, repeatedly. Another fella named David Ellis spent two years debunking EVP, he then wrote his own book about it. This book was largely ignored.
Hawaii has its own rich tradition of ghost folklore. The night marchers are undoubtedly the most famous of Hawaii’s ghost tales. The night marchers are the ghosts of dead warriors that band together and march through the night. Their arrival is heralded by drums and pounding feet and it is said that if you look at them they will kill you. Everyone has a story of a friend or a person they know who has seen the night marchers and lived to tell the tale. I had a discussion one night with some night marcher believers. A friend told me how her friend had seen the marchers in her hotel room. How this friend had screamed and called security, afraid she was going to die. She didn’t die. When I told my friend that I didn’t believe in ghosts, she asked me how I could possibly explain away the night marchers. Simple, I said. In any given year, how many people throughout the islands are discovered mysteriously dead in their beds, or tents, or wherever? None. If the night marchers really kill anyone who looks at them, and if they really exist, mightn’t there be a couple of unexplained deaths every year? She got very angry at me, and told me that the veil between worlds was very thin in Hawaii. She left shortly thereafter, unwilling to discuss it with me anymore. This is a disturbingly prevalent attitude whenever I try to engage in a rational discussion that questions any form of belief. I don’t understand why. I’m eager to learn things I don’t know, and the discovery of any truly unexplained phenomena would have to rate as one of the greatest learning experiences ever. Science does not explain everything, it doesn’t claim to. But science does explain a lot of things, and it explains away
a lot of other things. We shouldn’t hand out the unexplained label too quickly, lest we forget that electricity was once a mysterious force, or that climate change was once a hoax.
The world needs a healthy dose of skepticism. At the very least we should always apply the concept of Occam’s razor, which directly translates from the original Latin as “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” but is paraphrased by modern scholars in two ways:
1. All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one.
2. We should not assert that for which we do no have some proof.
I’m not sure where I stand on the harm that comes from false belief, certainly people are entitled to believe whatever they want, but I can’t help but hope that some of us are willing to examine our beliefs and perhaps change them if the evidence compels us to. Shows like Ghost Hunters are multiplying at an alarming rate. I’m worried that this coincides with schools teaching the alternative cosmological model of a world that is only 6,000 years old, and that we didn’t evolve from apes (because we didn’t, we branched off a long time ago). I’m worried that this increase in irrational TV points to a rise in irrational belief and a withdrawal (perhaps even a backlash) from science. In a world full of cars and computers this is a very profound form of irony. I hope it never becomes tragic irony.
Mary Roach, "Spook"
Carl Sagan, "The Demon Haunted World"
Michael Shermer, "Science Friction"
Pretty much anything by Richard Dawkins