October 6th, 2004. The First Episode of Ghost Hunters, a new made-for-tv paranormal reality show burst onto SyFy Channel. Follow the escapades of Jason, Grant, Brian, Steve, and more, this show was an immediate hit. As a consequence, interest in the paranormal grew, and interest in the science of ghost hunting really hit a new stratosphere.
This was shortly after I graduated High School, and I remember being drawn into the show for a wide variety of reasons. Prior experience as a child, with doors shutting themselves, apparitions moving around our property, and strange knocking on the windows at night with no explanation. All of these, collectively, developed my love and curiosity for the paranormal from an early age.
Ghost programming was nothing new. I remember watching "The Castle Ghosts of Ireland, Scotland, and England", and "Unsolved Mysteries" ghost programs quite commonly in the mid to late 1990's. Stories of Banshee, Faeries, Native American spirits, and so on were common reading material. It was the reality element that was so interesting. It was the science, and the pursuit of evidence of paranormal and not simply continued story telling that helped pull me into this field.
Reality TV in the documentary format was, at least at this point, relatively new. American Chopper, the docu-series on the screaming Teutuls and the custom bikes generated a massive wave of enthusiasm, and suddenly this type of entertainment was in high demand, as programmers and developers looked to cash in on the next big trend. Ghost Hunters was one of the many series that followed.
What followed was a wave of enthusiasm for the paranormal, and various programs began to show up on air. Ghost Adventures, Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters International, and the list goes on. Today, paranormal shows are about as common place as news programming and sports. Paranormal TV has become "trendy" again, and while that has done great things to keep the science in the limelight, it has also driven some intended, and unintended, consequences.
I will start by admitting the obvious, for any reputable paranormal investigator. The "science" of paranormal investigation is, at best a pseudo-science, and at worst a fantastical stretch. Some examples of this include:
1) Paranormal investigators use equipment that is, largely, designed for another purpose. Often we use equipment in a way that is contrary to the traditional use of the device. This draws scrutiny from any number of those on the skeptic side.
2) There is ZERO proof in recorded science of paranormal activity, in our case, spirits or ghosts. The question we always get is "Where is the evidence?" Unfortunately, there are only snippets here and there that could be considered, but even the best evidence neglects to solve the fundamental question - are ghosts real?
3) There are so many ways to debunk evidence. Modern science affords us numerous opportunities. From digital image restoration, the video editing, and the magnificence of computers, we now know that a majority of paranormal "evidence" collected is the result of, at best, identification, and at worst a blatant attempt at manipulation. This doesn't help the cause of the paranormal investigator that, truly, wants to find answers.
Given all of this, the reputable paranormal investigator, I find, aims to try and find plausible solutions. Doors shutting - breeze, an uneven slant to the floor or a door drooping on the hinges. Unexplained lights turning on and off - electrical faults. Unexplained sounds - buildings settling, pipes knocking. The list goes on and on.
Too often, where paranormal TV fails today, is that evidence is shoddy at best and easy enough to manipulate that it draws into question the whole process. Strange sounds on a digital recorder - yeah, definitely an EVP. Strange shadow on video - definitely a demonic entity, bent on world domination. These are what I call the dreamers...
The dreamer sees evidence everywhere. No matter what it is, the ultimate result is the same. The building is definitely haunted. The person is definitely possessed. The dreamer sees faces in every picture, and orbs in every photo. The list goes on and on. The dreamer ignores the science because he/she so desperately wants to experience the paranormal, that they are willing to ignore the fundamentals.
Another type of paranormal investigator, especially on TV, is the actor. The person who claims to be possessed, only to lash out verbally or physically at his teammates. We all know that type. While it is POSSIBLE that they are under the influence of some unseen force, it is far more plausible that, in ratings driven programming, that there is some level of manipulation going on. These folks, unfortunately, cast a long shadow over the paranormal investigators who search for evidence of the POSSIBILITY of a haunting, or evidence that debunks what is experienced.
When Ghost Hunters began, the field was small enough and, with limited exposure still maintained some of the mystery and the truth seeking element. It was clear that these guys were open minded, but at the same time were also just as happy to debunk and discuss with owners, signs of hauntings and plausible causes.
In today's environment, however, the methods are extremely questionable. Sensationalism sells, whether it be an "attack" by a demonic spirit, or equipment that is designed to provide evidence without fail.
The K-II, a staple for paranormal investigators, has drawn scrutiny because, in terms of its use, it is not the most reliable piece of equipment. It operates on one axis, and due to this, requires an element of movement to get proper readings. In a sedentary state, K-II meters will often "blip" in an unexplained way, which can lead the novice investigator to assume that it MUST be a spirit. K-II Meters, and all EMF detectors, are unshielded devices, and can receive interference from things like radios, microwaves, TVs, WIFI routers, and even cell phone chargers. The reputable investigator MUST look for these in order to eliminate the possibility of interference.
Spirit Boxes are a recent trend, and are realistically a modified AM/FM Radio, that has been physically manipulated by cutting the "tuner stop" feature, which forces the radio to consistently scan all frequencies in rapid succession. What often results is a confusing mix of radio signals, all coming in very quickly and with mixed strength. Essentially, it is Russian Roulette, you are not sure what you are going get, but the likelihood is you might get something that could be construe as an answer to a question, or a paranormal message from the underworld.
Recently, a host of apps have began to appear on cell phones, actively marketing themselves as "Ghost Hunters" apps, with built in EMF detectors. The problem, here, is that the phone itself is producing EMF. Cell phones are, essentially, a two-way radio with added cellular technology. They produce EMF as a byproduct of their power source, and the radio signals that they utilize to operate.
Other personal pet peeves, of things that I have observed on various ghost hunting programs, include using EM pumps or Tesla Coils and EMF Detectors simultaneously. This one isn't that hard, and yet I have seen it several times. EVP Review as well, with conveniently located loud music, is another gripe. Granted, the idea is to raise suspense, but it often feels as though it is scripted to make the casuals happy.
Ultimately, the made-for-tv ghosts shows, while some are often better than others about truly demonstrating what the reputable investigator does, are tied to ratings. Without sufficient evidence, they cannot survive. When Ghost Hunters began so many years ago, I remember several episodes where the haunting was either debunked, or no evidence was collected. Oddly enough, in today's television environment and the need for immediate gratification, it seems like the investigators on TV never miss out on any sound or any sign of the paranormal.
It is up to those in the field today to carry the torch of reason. This is not a play to make the believer a disbeliever, mind you. Instead, it is a plea to all of those in the field and not on TV, to pay attention to the details. It is ok to debunk the clients, or at least not to validate their every waking report! It is ok to find historical evidence that contradicts the claims! It is ok to admit that our science is still growing, still developing, and to acknowledge faults while pushing forward. It is ok to look at a fellow investigator, who claims to have pictures of orbs or strange reflections, and offer alternatives!
By doing this, we acknowledge that work continues, and that more evidence is needed to confirm or deny hauntings! By doing this, we save ourselves from the skeptics, who look upon us with waiting eyes, hungry for the next piece of "evidence" they can shred through alternative solutions. By stepping aside, and trying to do the best job of investigating possible that can help substantiate or disprove the claims, we preserve the science and the scientific method!
Brian Clary - Co-founder and Lead Investigator