Things that Go Bump in the Night

3 out of 5 stars
Things that Go Bump in the Night: How to Investigate and Challenge Ghostly Experiences
Emily Peach (London: Aquarian Press, 1991).

'Things That Go Bump In The Night', by Emily PeachA commendatory aside in Hilary Evans’s Seeing Ghosts drew me to this book. What quickly becomes evident is how much Evans’s book owes to it: there are similarities in both format and method, although maybe this is because of the debt that both owe to the SPR material from which they draw their case material.

Peach takes a phenomenological approach, arguing that – to the extent people report them, and those reports share certain characteristics – therefore ghosts ‘exist’. She spends the first third of the book marshalling some classic cases and organising ghosts into five categories, all of which challenge the common notion of ghosts received from fiction and folklore.

This first part, for me, was the most rigorous and compelling. In the second part, on theories, niggles set in. Due to her phenomenological approach, the sceptical theory of misperception does not receive the attention it deserves; and – although she tries to insist otherwise – Peach is obviously partial to what she labels ‘the occult theory’ (‘a hypothesis regarding a subtle environment that underlies the physical’ [p. 115]), which trumps the four other theories she pits against it by consistently explaining all the ‘facts’ about ghosts.

The third section deals with how to investigate cases. It is a little dated, but most of the advice it gives seems sound. Yet now that we are down to practicalities, a host of factors become relevant that were not given consideration in the earlier sections. We are suddenly obliged to consider whether witnesses have been boozing, or if their mental health is not good (p. 133); and urged to consult geological survey maps (p. 147) before citing ghosts as the cause of creaks and bangs.

‘Some intestinal ailments have been linked with telekinesis’ (p. 132), Peach asserts, in a startling aside that calls out for a supporting reference (but in vain). It was the rare lapses like this that made me wonder whether the reasoned voice in which the book is written is entirely Peach’s own. So too does the decision to include the section on investigation. The title of the book promises to ‘challenge’ ghostly experiences, yet this was always going to sit uneasily with the phenomenological approach espoused in the first two thirds.

Nevertheless, this is mostly a compelling and useful book. Second hand copies are cheap and easy to obtain, and are worth seeking out.

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Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide

4 out of 5 stars
Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide
John Fraser (Stroud: The History Press, 2010).

John Fraser, Ghost Hunting: a Survivor's GuideThis is a highly readable portrait of present-day, rational ghost-hunting by an author who is a prominent member of both The Ghost Club and The Society for Psychical Research – and I’ve heard him give talks also at ASSAP events (The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena).

Fraser has evidently been in the thick of ghost-hunting for years, and shares the benefit of his wide experience. In essence, what this book offers, apart from a history of the subject and much practical advice on how to approach and organise the investigation of ghosts, is a sustained meditation on what the activity of ghost-hunting might actually amount to.

I was surprised, and a little disturbed at first, by his liberalism. Where circumstances ethically allow, Fraser is not averse to the use of Ouija boards (p. 110), self-proclaimed ‘psychics’ (p. 128) and other pseudo-scientific assets whilst investigating a case. He is not dismissive of historical research into sites (p. 140) – as opposed to concentrating exclusively on current phenomena – nor does he regard commercial ‘ghost tourism’ (p. 51) as necessarily all bad.

I received my training from ASSAP, where all of these were presented as big no-noes, but Fraser’s reasoning behind not ignoring them entirely is based on what is surely a realistic assessment of what ghost-hunting can be expected to achieve. ‘Ghost hunters,’ he writes, ‘should not really be trying to be Newton or Einstein – providers of a whole new science of the supernatural. This is not our strength and we would look silly trying to do it’ (p. 183).

On the site of an alleged ‘haunting’, Fraser suggests, it is highly unlikely that sufficient controls could ever be in place for us to prove the paranormal. By the end of the book I had decided that I quite admired the author’s disinclination to fool himself that the strongest motivation for ghost-hunting lies in the challenge of establishing adequate scientific protocols, rather than in our personal desire to confront our preoccupations with what might happen to us after death, and in the emotional, visceral reaction that arises in response to the ‘spookiness’ of allegedly haunted sites.

Fraser’s book is a practical guide to making ghost-hunting as rational as it can be, yet without losing what makes it so emotionally engaging.

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.

The Production of Haunted Space

3 out of 5 stars
The Production of Haunted Space: Its Meaning and Excavation
John G. Sabol Jr. (Bedford, PA: Ghost Excavation Books, 2013).

The Production of Haunted SpaceProbably one of the oddest and most original books I have read. I saw the author give a talk at a paranormal investigation conference, where he went down like a lead balloon, because most of the audience misidentified what he is doing with the usual ‘paranormal reality-show’ schtick. It is more sophisticated than that. Yet whether it offers a valid approach to paranormal research is a separate question.

Sabol is an archaeologist by training. In mainstream scientific paranormal research it is not known what a ‘ghost’ is nor what ‘haunted’ means. Sabol’s approach, in contrast, is to use archaeological concepts to ‘produce’ ghosts and hauntings. He identifies a site, takes his team onto it, and re-enacts historical incidents that took place at the site, recording as he goes. His is a social science methodology that utilises fundamentally pragmatist and postmodern concepts in its approach. A ‘historical incident’ for Sabol is a set of culturally-conditioned codes whose traces persist through time in one form or another. If he can identify traces of those codes in his recordings – for example, sounds that resemble words that could have been spoken on the battlefield – then a trace of those codes has been retrieved and is re-presenting itself to us for interpretation in the present. This is a ‘haunting’, a ‘ghost’. There is nothing ‘paranormal’ for Sabol about haunted sites. A ‘haunting’ is the persistence and retrieval at a site of social codes, of signs. A ‘haunting’ is a semiotic process, rather than anything ‘spiritual’ or – indeed – exclusively material. What differentiates Sabol’s method from your run-of-the-mill ghost hunter is that the traces returned by it will have some kind of historical accuracy.

This is not science, because it re-creates hauntings according to a particular definition, rather than seeking to establish what a haunting is through material evidence. But it is not magick either, because no claim of truth or validity is being made for the phenomena that the method creates – the phenomena are regarded simply as signs, open to further interpretation.

Sadly, there are a lot of typos in the text, which lets it down a little. It is such an uncompromisingly original book, however, I cannot help but admire it. On the question of whether it constitutes a substantial contribution to the understanding of paranormal phenomena in general, or offers instead only one angle on a particular spectrum of experiences – I am tending towards the latter. But it is a unique book and it certainly provoked a lot of thoughts.