The tourist trap: when ‘ghost tourism’ pretends to be paranormal investigation

Recently, I was invited on a ‘paranormal investigation’. I am not going to name the group or the location and, considering I was invited along for free, I feel a bit mean concerning what I’m about to write. The good intentions of this group I’ve decided to take on trust; it’s their methods that are the focus of my criticism.

My suspicions were roused when I realised that the group charges a fee for participation in their ‘investigations’. Anyone is free to attend, provided they stump up the entrance fee. If you imagine why the police don’t offer similar access to their investigations, I hope you’ll sympathise why this didn’t seem to me a good sign.

My heart sank further when I saw the range of equipment on offer, which we were strongly encouraged to pick up and use. There were EMF meters of various types, spot thermometers, motion detectors, night-vision goggles – and more besides. Indeed, when I was caught empty-handed by one of the organisers, an EMF meter was thrust into my hand. And there were also magickal gadgets available as well: ouija boards, crucifixes, dowsing rods and scrying mirrors.

It was apparent that the organisers had made up their minds that (1) ghosts exist, and (2) that ghosts are (in some form) dead people. The ‘investigation’ was really nothing of the kind, but rather an attempt to communicate with ghosts on the basis of assumptions (1) and (2). The function of the equipment was to produce a haze of noise into which we could read supposed communications from the ghosts. I call it ‘noise’ because no attempt was made to use the equipment in a controlled manner or with a specific method. EMF meters, for instance, will detect electromagnetic fields produced by electrical wiring, lighting and other devices, and there were plenty of these in the venue, yet there was no advice from the organisers against reading the output from the meters as the communications of spirits.

Just in case the participants weren’t reading enough into the uncontrolled responses from our gadgets, the group was led (during the time I was present) by a psychic medium, whose function – through calling out questions to the spirits, and relaying his impressions of those with whom he claimed contact – was apparently to lead us yet further down avenues of unsupported assumption. I would not claim to know that the intuitions of all psychic mediums are false, but putting a medium in charge of a group does not seem to me the best way to examine the veracity of his claims.

We should expect claims of the paranormal from a medium, of course, but the biggest shock of the evening came from the group’s technical and scientific specialist. Demonstrating the various types of EMF meter on offer, he informed us that a reading from a more sensitive device should be backed up with one from a less sensitive device. If the latter registers nothing at the same location (we were advised) then the source is paranormal.

If his thinking were correct on this, he would be due (at least) the Koestler Chair for his services to parapsychology. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine how his reasoning could be any more wrong.

The investigation was scheduled to finish at 3 a.m., but by midnight I’d had enough and I slunk off during the coffee break. The team hadn’t even told us why we were investigating this particular location. There was no information on what had been experienced there, or by whom, or when. Did anyone anywhere have any grounds at all to suppose this place was haunted? What I experienced that night had not led me to suppose so.

But others in the group seemed to be having a different experience. During a vigil in a smaller team, one of our members began relaying her own psychic impressions of people she sensed had lived on the site. Another became quite animated, apparently regarding it as noteworthy from a paranormal perspective that her legs had turned cold.

It’s this, I think, which is the hallmark of ghost tourism rather than actual investigation: the experience counts over and beyond the collection of data, because the aim is entertainment rather than arrival at knowledge, or the confrontation of any real challenges to assumptions.