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A Brief History of Ghost Investigating by Steven T. Parsons

A Brief History of Ghost Investigating

The First Ghost Hunters

Ghosts and apparitions have haunted man since the very beginning of recorded time. There are many references to ghosts in Mesopotamia. The religions of Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, and other early states considered that ghosts were created at the time of death, taking on the memory and personality of the dead person. There was also widespread belief in ghosts in ancient Egyptian culture in the sense of a continued existence of the soul and spirit after death, with the ability to assist or harm the living, and also the possibility of a second death.

The Greeks and the Romans had specific words to describe ghosts. In the Roman religion ‘Manes’ (pronounced ‘Man-Ess’) were spirits of the deceased who continued to wander the earth and could in many circumstances harm or at least disrupt normal life. Accordingly, they needed to be placated and honoured by feast and sacrifice to prevent them from returning to haunt the living. The dead were buried outside the town and city limits, usually at the junction of several roads, which served to both confuse any ghost set upon returning to his former home and to protect the township from unwelcome visitors, both the living and the dead!

Ghosts in medieval Europe tended to fall into two categories, the souls of the dead, and demons. The souls of the deceased returned for a specific purpose. Demonic ghosts were those that existed only to torment or tempt the living. The living could tell them apart by demanding their purpose in the name of Jesus Christ. The soul of a dead person would divulge their mission, while a demonic ghost would be banished at the sound of the holy name.

From the earliest days there were men of learning who set themselves the challenge of seeking to understand these ghostly visitors. Pliny the Younger wrote an account of a haunted house in Athens in 50. AD haunted by a chain-rattling ghost. The ghost was so troublesome that no one would occupy the property.  Pliny described how Athenodorus the philosopher took over the abandoned property and in time communicated with the ghost, subsequently discovering a shackled and chained skeleton buried within the garden. Upon the mortal remains being given a proper burial the haunting ceased.

In the same era, the Greek essayist Plutarch describes what might be considered as a test of the veracity of spirit communications. The Governor of Cilicia who was sceptical and critical of the supernatural resolved to test a soothsayer. He wrote his question on a wax tablet, sealing it and handing it to a trusted servant to take to the soothsayer without revealing the question or the identity of the Governor. Plutarch writes that a correct answer to the question was received.

Enlightened Investigators

In the twelfth century Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) wrote of several ghosts, “unclean spirits” in his Journey Through Wales (Itinerarium Cambriae, 1191) including one that affected the home of William Not. The account bears a close resemblance to what we might describe today as being a poltergeist:

They have been in the habit of manifesting themselves, throwing refuse all over the place, more keen perhaps to be a nuisance than to do any real harm…they were a cause of annoyance to both host and guests alike, ripping up their clothes of linen, and their woollen ones too, and even cutting holes in them. No matter what precautions were taken, there seemed to be no way of protecting these garments, not even if the doors were kept locked and bolted.

Other ghostly phenomena also get a mention by Gerald including the corpse candle (canwyll corff), small glowing balls of light often associated in Welsh culture with the spirits of the deceased. Not merely content with writing second-hand accounts of these supernatural occurrences, Gerald often took pains to visit the location and speak to those affected in order to obtain accurate information. He considered the causes of such manifestations, but professed to not know. However, he observed that in the case of William Not and in another similar manifestation at the home of Stephen Wiriet, in the same county there were some common features:

It has often been the presage, as they call it, of a sudden change from poverty to wealth, or more often still from wealth to poverty and utter desolation, as indeed, it was in both these cases. It seems most remarkable to me that places cannot be cleansed of visitations of this sort by the sprinkling of holy water, which is in general use and could be applied liberally, or by the performing of some other religious ceremony.

The investigation of seemingly ghostly activity tended to be the domain of the church or men of religion, most often with a desire to remove or exorcise the offending ghost or demon. In the Middle Ages being seen to be too interested in ghosts or supernatural phenomena was however likely to encourage charges of witchcraft or necromancy. Such was the case of Dr John Dee, a noted mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occultist, navigator and consultant to Queen Elizabeth I. In 1582, Dee and his companion Edward Kelley were accused of raising a spirit or ghost in order to learn its secrets. A more enlightened approach toward exploration of the supernatural began to take hold following the restoration of Charles II in 1660. Men of science and learning increasingly turned their attention to the question of ghosts and apparitions and attempted to discover by more methodical means what they could be and what they may represent. Religious beliefs still weighed heavily on their thoughts and many came out critically against ghosts and apparitions as being the agents of either God or the Devil. A small number of educated men opted for a more measured approach and thought the subject should be studied in order to gain a better understanding of what they might represent.

One of these was Joseph Glanvill the English writer, philosopher, and clergyman, well known for his work Sadducismus Triumphatus (1681), which decried scepticism about the existence and supernatural power mainly relating to witchcraft but in which he also dealt with a collection of seventeenth century ghost lore. Glanvill argued that the evidence for the existence or otherwise of ghosts should be judged without bias, being guided only by the evidence:

Matters of fact well proved ought not to be denied, because we cannot conceive how they can be performed. Nor is it a reasonable method of inference, first to presume the thing impossible, and thence to conclude that the fact cannot be proved. On the contrary, we should judge of the action by the evidence and not the evidence by the measures if our fancies about the action… Frequency of deceit and fallacy will warrant a greater care and caution in examining; and scrupulously and shyness of assent to things wherein fraud hath been practised, or may in the least degree be suspected: but to conclude, because that an old woman’s fancy abused her, or some knavish fellow put tricks upon the ignorant and timorous; that therefore whole assizes have been a thousand times deceived in judgements upon matters of fact, and numbers of sober persons have been forsworn in things wherein perjury could not advantage them. I say such inferences are as void of reason as they are of charity and good manners.

In 1696, English philosopher and Fellow of the Royal Society John Aubrey published his Miscellanies that contained many historic and contemporary accounts of apparitions and seemingly ghostly phenomena such as disembodied sounds. Largely consisting of brief accounts, frequently without additional comment by Aubrey, it provides researchers with a valuable resource although it did little for Aubrey who was seen as superstitious and credulous by many of his contemporaries when it was published.

Men of Science and Learning

The calls for a qualitative approach to the study of ghosts and apparitions increased throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1727, Daniel Defoe writing under the pseudonym of Andrew Moreton penned The Secrets of the Invisible World Disclosed or A Universal History of Apparitions. Defoe cautioned his readers to not blindly accept that all apparitions represented the work of supernatural forces but that they may have more mundane causes and it is only by a process of investigation that they may be distinguished. In the preface to his book he writes:

That we may be perfectly easy about this undetermined thing called apparition, I have endeavoured here to bring the thing into a narrow compass and to set it in a true light. I have given you several specimens of real apparitions well attested, and the truth of them so affirmed, that they may be depended upon: If in any of these I am not so well assured of the fact, though they may as certain, yet as I have frankly told you so and adhered to the moral only. But all together may convince the reader of the reason and reality of the thing itself.

On the other hand, I have given you specimens of those amusements and delusions which have been put upon the world of apparitions; and you may see the difference is so notorious, (whether the cheat be political or whimsical, magical or imaginary) that no man can be really deceived that will but make use of the eyes of his understanding, as well as those of his head.

The nineteenth century brought about renewed calls for science to take an interest in ghosts and apparitions. In 1819, Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace remembered as one of the greatest scientists of all time wrote his An Analytic Theory of Probabilities (Théorie analytique des probabilités) in which he discussed apparitions and the need for careful investigation to be conducted: -

That ‘any case, however apparently incredible, if it be a recurrent case, is as much entitled under the laws of induction, to be a fair valuation’. Determined sceptics may indeed deny that there exists any well-authenticated instance of an apparition. But that, at present, can only be a mere matter of opinion, since many persons as competent to judge as themselves maintain the contrary; and in the meantime I will arraign their right to make this objection till they themselves have qualified themselves to do so by a long course of patient and honest inquiry; always remembering that every instance of error or imposition discovered and adduced, has no positive value whatever in the argument, but as regards that single instance; though it may enforce upon us the necessity of strong evidence and careful investigation….

A few scientists were intrigued enough to study some of the phenomena that were being exhibited at this time.  In 1846, the Paris Academy of Sciences examined Angeliqué Cottin, who had demonstrated the extraordinary ability to cause heavy tables and chairs to move or even overturn in her presence.

Known throughout France as the ‘Electric girl’ the scientists were at a loss to explain her abilities but decided that she was charged with an excess of electric fluid. It was some time before the truth was finally revealed that she was in fact moving the table by using her leg muscles. In America in the mid nineteenth century, a number of committees were established at different times to study the claims of the Fox sisters, who for some time had been using a series of raps and other phenomena to contact the ghost of a murdered pedlar at their home in Hydesville, New York State. The various committees all failed to reach any conclusive decisions regarding the sister’s abilities but in 1888 two of the sisters, Margaret and Kate, publicly stated that the raps were fraudulently produced, made by cracking their toe joints. However, one year later Margaret recanted her confession.

In 1848, Catherine Crowe, an English author, challenged science to conduct proper studies of psychical phenomena in her book The Night Side of Nature. As she saw it, the reason why ignorance about ghosts and other psychic experiences existed was due to the intransigence and arrogance of contemporary science:

To minds which can admit nothing but what can be explained and demonstrated, an investigation of this sort must appear perfectly idle, for while on the one hand, the most acute intellect or the most powerful logic can throw little light on the subject, it is at the same time – though I have a confident hope that this will not always be the case – equally irreducible within the present bounds of science. Meanwhile, experience and observation must be our principal if not our only guides…

The Pharisaical scepticism which denies without investigation is quite perilous and much more contemptuous than the blind credulity which accepts all that is taught without enquiry. It is indeed but another form of ignorance assuming to be knowledge. And by investigation I do not mean the hasty, captious, angry notice of an unwelcome fact that too frequently claims the right of pronouncing on a question; but the slow, modest, painstaking examination that is content to wait upon Nature and humbly follow out her disclosures however opposed to preconceived theories or mortifying to human pride. If scientific men could but comprehend how they discredit the science they really profess by their despotic arrogance and exclusive scepticism they would surely, for the sake of that very science they love affect some liberality and candour…

No one who lives can assert the reappearance of the dead is impossible; all he has a right to say is, that he does not believe it and the interrogation that should immediately follow this declaration is “Have you devoted your life to sifting all the evidence that has been adduced on the other side, from the earliest periods of history and tradition?...

The observation of any phenomena, therefore, which enabled us to master the idea, must necessarily be extremely beneficial and it must be remembered that one single thoroughly well established instance of the reappearance of a deceased person would not only have this effect, but it would afford a demonstrative proof.

Psychical Scientists

Eventually the calls for science to take an interest in psychical studies started to take hold. Much of this renewed scientific interest in psychical research was driven by the claims being made by the Spiritualist movement, which began in 1848 in America and had spread rapidly throughout the United States and into Europe. Prior to the nineteenth century the investigation of ghosts and apparitions had relied solely upon eyewitness testimony and personal experience as the primary method of study. As science started to understand the natural world and instruments for measuring it became available, it was only a matter of time before scientists started to use these instruments and attempt to measure the reported phenomena and collect objective rather than merely subjective information. In the 1850’s, American chemistry professor Robert Hare began his own investigations into the claims of the Spiritualist movement and devised a number of instruments which, contrary to his expectations, conclusively proved that a power and intelligence, not that of those present, was at work. His book, Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestation published in 1855, summed up the results as follows:

The evidence may be contemplated under various phases; first, those in which rapping’s or other noises have been made which could not be traced to any mortal agency; secondly, those in which sounds were so made as to indicate letters forming grammatical, well-spelt sentences, affording proof that they were under the guidance of some rational being; thirdly, those in which the nature of the communication has been such as to prove that the being causing them must, agreeably to accompanying allegations, be some known acquaintance, friend, or relative of the inquirer.

By the mid 1860’s, the main issues had become clear. One either had to accept the occurrence of psychical phenomena, however astonishing or incredible, as a type of physical phenomena that had previously gone undetected or admit that the senses of seemingly sane people could deceive them in an unprecedented manner. Whatever view was taken, the facts remained; phenomena were being reported and observed which merited further investigations. It was therefore unfortunate that almost to a man the orthodox scientists of the day turned their backs on the problem. Fortunately, a small number did take up the challenge presented by the claims of Spiritualism. In the 1870’s, chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes reached the conclusion that science had a duty to study the psychical phenomena associated with spiritualism. He was determined to conduct his impartial inquiry and described the conditions he imposed on mediums as follows:  “It must be at my own house, and my own selection of friends and spectators, under my own conditions, and I may do whatever I like as regards apparatus”.

Crookes developed experiments, some of which were based upon the earlier experimental designs used by Robert Hare, in order to test a number of mediums. Among those he studied were Kate Fox, Florence Cook, and Daniel Dunglas Home. Crookes used delicate spring balances in his sessions with Home and he pioneered the use of further equipment including photography and the observation of pulse rate and temperature for testing the claims of the mediums. He reported on this research in 1874 and concluded that these phenomena could not be explained as conjuring, and that further research would be useful.

Established in 1867, the London Dialectical Society passed a resolution in January 1869: “To investigate the phenomena alleged to be spiritual manifestations and to report thereon”.

The Society appointed a committee of thirty-three people including several leading academics and scientists to examine the evidence. The committee reported in July 1870 and included the following statements:

1. That sounds of a very varied character apparently proceeding from articles of furniture, the floor and the wall of the room – the vibrations accompanying which sound are often distinctly perceptible to the touch – occur without being produced by muscular action or mechanical contrivance.

2. The movements of heavy bodies take place without mechanical contrivance of any kind or adequate exertion of muscular force by the persons present, and frequently without contact or connection with any person.

3. That these sounds and movements often occur at the times and in the manner asked for by persons present and by means of a simple code of signals; answer questions and spell out coherent communications.

4. That the circumstances under which the phenomena occur are variable; the most prominent fact being that the presence of certain persons seems necessary to their occurrence and that of others generally adverse; but this difference does not appear to depend upon any belief or disbelief concerning the phenomena.

5. That nevertheless the occurrence of the phenomena is not insured by the presence or absence of such persons respectively.

Upon its release, it was claimed by some that the report was biased and that little evidence had been considered from those who opposed such phenomena. The press were also generally highly critical of the Society’s findings. The Dialectical Society report concentrated solely upon the actual phenomena and did not consider the question of survival. However, the report drew the attentions of many qualified investigators to the subject, which must be its most important and lasting legacy.

Around the same time, a small group lead by the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgewick began to examine the question of ghosts and other psychical questions. As an undergraduate, Sidgewick had been a member of the Cambridge University Ghost Club which existed mainly for the collection and telling of ghost stories. In 1863, he had investigated a number of mediums and, although these early studies were inconclusive, he continued his interest and by 1873 had formed a small group of fellow researchers including Frederick Myers. In 1882, Myers was to lead this small group along with Edmund Gurney, Sir William Barrett and Frank Podmore in the formation of the first real organised attempt by science to study psychical phenomena with the founding of The Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  Its stated purpose given in the first Proceedings of the Society was: “...To approach these varied problems without prejudice or prepossession of any kind, and in the same spirit of exact and unimpassioned enquiry which has enabled Science to solve so many problems, once not less obscure nor less hotly debated.”

Initially six committees were established on Thought-Transference, Mesmerism, and similar phenomena, Mediumship, Reichenbach Phenomena (Odic Force), Apparitions and Haunted Houses, Physical Phenomena associated with Séances, and the Literary Committee which studied the history of these phenomena.

One significant undertaking was the Census of Hallucinations, in which 15,000 persons were asked to report on hallucinatory experiences while awake and in good health. Around ten per cent of those responding reported such experiences, and a small number of veridical hallucinations were also reported - that is hallucinations that appeared to convey information not known to the person hallucinating at the time, which was believed by the authors to be suggestive of telepathy. Critical SPR investigations into mediumship and the exposure of fake mediums led to a number of resignations in the 1880s by Spiritualist members. However, the Society continued to investigate mediums, studying Leonora Piper and Eusapia Palladino among others.

The SPR’s first substantial involvement in the investigation of a seemingly haunted house took place in the winter of 1897.

Ballechin House in Scotland had developed a reputation for being haunted. Members of the SPR were part of an invited group who took several months rental of the property in order to document and investigate the reports of ghosts and other phenomena. SPR member and medium Ada Goodrich-Freer, writing under the Nome de plume of ‘Miss X’ together with the Marquess of Bute published a book in 1899, The Alleged Haunting of ‘B’ House, that provides a detailed description of the investigation and the numerous experiences of the investigators and visitors. A very public dispute conducted in the letters column of The Times newspaper resulted in the credibility of the case being damaged. The dispute meant that the investigation of ‘B’ house was discontinued and plans to bring in phonographic and temperature recording equipment had to be abandoned. However, this does represent the first attempt at trying to conduct a long term and well-documented study of ghostly and haunting phenomena. Unfortunately the investigation was never recommenced and the building no longer exists.

Storytellers and Ghost Hunters

Meanwhile the Church did little or nothing to discourage the popular belief in ghosts as being the shades of the murder victims, suicides, and other unfortunates returning to haunt the living. The ghost story was one of the most popular forms of literature. The few amateur ghost investigators of this period pursued a subjective approach preferring to concentrate upon personal experience rather than objective measurement of any phenomena. Elliot O’Donnell and Marchioness Lady Townsend in the first half of the twentieth century had long and fruitful careers as ghost investigators. Both were content to visit haunted houses in the hope of seeing and experiencing the ghost for themselves and took no further action by way of investigation other than to simply document their own various experiences and those of their acquaintances in their numerous books. Lord Halifax was another who was passionate about collecting and re-telling ghost stories. His son produced several volumes of his father’s collected stories and tales of ghosts and the supernatural entitled Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book. The book provides accounts of hauntings at well-known locations such as Glamis Castle and Burton Agnes Hall but its style is one of mystery and romance and clearly has more than a touch of artistic licence, designed to exploit the growing fascination within the wider public of the supernatural.

Born in 1881, Harry Price was to become possibly the best known of all the ghost investigators. In time Price would establish ghost investigation as a meaningful pursuit in the minds of both the public and the media, writing a number of books and many more articles for newspapers and magazines on the subject. Price was first and foremost a man interested in investigating and understanding psychical phenomena. His first ghost investigation took place when he was just fifteen. Together with a school friend, Price attempted to capture photographic evidence of ghostly activity at an empty Shropshire house, an investigation which led to his claim to have “Shot the poltergeist to pieces!” following his misjudgement of the amount of powder required for the camera flash. From the very beginning, Price was interested in developing equipment that could be used to obtain objective information to verify and test the paranormal claims that were being made both within the séance room and more importantly in haunted houses. Price will forever be remembered for his investigation of Borley Rectory in Essex, which he first visited in 1929, at the invitation of the Daily Mirror newspaper. He continued to visit the site from time to time throughout the next decade which culminated in him hiring the rectory for a full year in order to conduct the fullest investigation possible. Through a newspaper advertisement, Price recruited a team of forty-eight volunteers to carry out the year-long investigation and he produced a book of notes and guidance for the investigators. Known as The Blue Book on account of the blue cardboard cover, this was the first attempt to set down some ground rules for the standardisation of ghost investigating methodology. Price was passionate that psychical research should become an academic pursuit and a recognised science in its own right, a cause he championed constantly throughout his life:

I said that it was our primary object to turn psychical research into a science, and it is of course, a corollary of that that psychical research is not or at any rate has not been up to the present, a science, at least in this country. As you probably know, official science tends to regard psychical research with a certain amount – I will not say of fear, but of disapprobation. There is a certain pulling up of the skirts on the part of official science when psychical research passes by. Now our object is to make an honest woman of psychical research. If you look back over her past, it has been, I fear very dubious; so dubious that directly the word is mentioned, whether to scientists or to journalists, there is a tendency to raise the eyebrows, or to giggle, or to think of ghosts and spooks or to become factitious at the expense of those who are investigating this highly equivocal territory…

…Official science, as I have said regards psychical research as something disreputable. But those who believe that here is a territory in which the methods of science, if carefully and scrupulously applied, would bear valuable and important fruit; those who believe that here are phenomena – perhaps not many, because when you sift the grain from the chaff there is not very much grain left, but there is some – those who believe that there is some grain that wants sifting and investigating cannot but regard this attitude of official science with regret…

Now wishes may father thoughts, but they do not breed evidence, and in my view there is no evidence from the séance room, whatever evidence there may be from other quarters, for the particular view, that abnormal psychical phenomena somehow point to or establish even the fact of survival… I have made many efforts to introduce psychical research into the universities and transform it into an official science. I have reason to be satisfied with the results to date:

The University of London, when discussing my offer to endow and equip a department of psychical research, declared that the investigation of paranormal phenomena was ‘a fit subject of university study and research (1934).

The formation of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation (1934).

The acceptance by London University of my psychic library and records, and the housing of the laboratory of the University Council (1936).

The German Government recognises psychical research as an official science (1937).

The German government and the University of Bonn seek my assistance in forming a Department of Parapsychology (1937).

Trinity College, Cambridge, accepts the Perrott bequest and establishes a Studentship in Psychical Research (1940).

New College, Oxford, accepts the Blennerhasset Trust for the promotion of Psychical Research (1941).

Since 1933, advances can be recorded in certain other universities e.g., Duke, North Carolina; Utrecht, Leiden and John Hopkins so my fight for academic recognition has borne fruit. Further advances would have been made had it not been for the Second World War.

Price was frequently accused of courting publicity and seeking personal fame, charges that led some within the SPR to try to discredit both his work at Borley and also Price himself. In 1956, the highly critical posthumous book The Haunting of Borley Rectory (E. Dingwall, K. Goldney, T. Hall) was published. Two of the authors Eric Dingwall and Kate Goldney had been former colleagues of Price. Their claims went largely unchallenged and were accepted as fact for over a decade by many until another SPR member Robert Hastings re-examined the original claims made by the three authors. In March 1969, the SPR produced his findings in an edition of their Proceedings (Vol. 55, Part 201). In An Examination of the Borley Report Hastings dismisses many of the claims made against Price but the damage done to Price’s reputation as a ghost investigator was considerable and continues to this day despite a reassessment and posthumous apology proffered to Price in recent years by the SPR.

Although lacking formal academic qualifications, Price was nonetheless a skilled engineer and inventor, abilities that served him and psychical research well. He designed and built many items of equipment such as the Telekinetoscope, which he used to test the abilities of medium Stella ‘C’ during the 1920’s. He used highly sensitive recording thermometers at Borley Rectory during which he documented some seemingly inexplicable temperature fluctuations. Price also put together what is the forerunner of all current ghost-hunting kits. Some of the items that Price included such as a bowl of mercury or the hanks of bell wire might not be in a modern ghost investigator’s flight cases but we still need the notebook and pens, torch, and many other items that were to be have been found in Price’s battered fibreboard suitcase. Price extensively used photography for psychical investigation and developed methods of photographing phenomena in low light using infrared film and adapted cameras. One of his stated wishes was to have the capability of recording movement using movie camera and infrared movie film, an ability almost every ghost investigator now has readily available in the form of infrared assisted night vision video cameras.

Price was not the first psychical researcher to use instrumentation for the study of psychic phenomena. As already mentioned, Robert Hare, William Crookes, and several others had taken instruments into the séance room and in 1915 a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Belfast University Dr W.J. Crawford began a two year study of physical phenomena taking place at a home séance circle in Belfast. His use of properly calibrated scales and other measuring equipment, together with a well thought out methodology and detailed recording of his many experiments must stand as a landmark in psychical investigation and the results still offer a challenge to the modern researcher. A series of phonograph recordings of the raps and other sounds were made but it is not known if they survive today.

Technology Takes Over

Following the Second World War, ghost investigation progressed slowly. As a body, the SPR took little interest in the active investigation of hauntings and apparitions. However a number of SPR members did undertake ghost investigation and the study of haunted houses. Their methods were still in the main experience orientated, with comparatively few attempts to obtain objective information to support the claims under investigation. Leading ghost investigator of the time, Peter Underwood visited and investigated many locations including the site of Borley Rectory and its adjacent church. Like Price, Underwood also wrote and broadcast extensively on the subject of his investigations. Underwood also revived The Ghost Club that had lapsed in 1948 following the death of Harry Price who had been an active supporter and of this prestigious group which claims to be the oldest surviving ghost group in the World, tracing its formation to 1862.

Another notable and highly acclaimed investigator during the post war years was Andrew Green, who was known as ‘The Spectre Inspector’ by the media. Green was an active ghost investigator for over sixty years until his death in 2004. Green wrote many accounts of his investigations that emphasised a scientific approach to the subject. His books include Ghost Hunting, A Practical Guide which was published in 1973. The book considers many aspects of ghost investigation such as the use of equipment, site examination, and the interviewing of witnesses; it remains a highly relevant book for the modern investigator although sadly Green is now almost a forgotten figure by many ghost investigators. Green’s book, now long out of print, contains a great deal of helpful information and it is pleasing to discover that there are plans for it to be re-issued.

Like Andrew Green, other investigators from within the SPR sought to develop a more objective approach to ghost investigations. The late Tony Cornell together with Alan Gauld developed ‘SPIDER’ (Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder) recognising that spontaneous cases had largely become ignored by the parapsychologists’ preference for laboratory work studying psi:

We need to know much more about the physical effects that are alleged to occur in many cases. Do objects really levitate as described at the time witnesses? From which direction do they come and at what speed? Do things really mysteriously disappear, only to be found later? Are the often-reported thumps, bangs, and temperature changes the result of paranormal forces or not?

SPIDER consisted of a linked series of sensors and recorders that could be triggered remotely, either manually or automatically. It was portable (just about) and many cases were monitored, photographically and electronically, using this equipment for over more than twenty years. Unfortunately, SPIDER failed to obtain the hoped-for definitive objective proof of paranormal phenomena but a number of inexplicable events were documented over the years. Prior to his death in 2010, Tony Cornell provided modern investigators with a lasting if sometimes overlooked legacy with the publication of his book Investigating The Paranormal (2002), one of the most considered accounts of modern ghost investigation and psychical research that has been compiled and one that should be considered as essential reading for everyone with an interest in the practical study of ghosts. Cornell and Gauld, together with a small number of SPR members, did continue with their efforts towards objectively investigating and documenting haunted locations. Maurice Grosse, along with Guy Lyon-Playfair, were responsible for the detailed investigation of the Enfield poltergeist case in 1977, one of the most interesting cases ever investigated by the SPR. Extensive use of sound recording and photography, together with the pioneering but ultimately unsuccessful use of video recording equipment at Enfield meant that many of the phenomena associated with poltergeist manifestations were for the first time properly recorded and made available for detailed examination.

The objective information meticulously collected by Playfair and Grosse still remains as a thorn in the side of the sceptics and demonstrates the importance of properly gathered objective information.

The SPR meanwhile has continued to shift its emphasis towards a more psychologically orientated study of psychical phenomena although they did produce a set of guidance notes for investigators of spontaneous cases, including cases of apparitions and poltergeists. These guidance notes are long out of print but the Society maintains a ‘Notes for Investigators’ page on its Internet site,

Founded in 1981, ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) set itself the challenge of investigating a broad range of paranormal subjects including ghosts but also UFO’s, earth mysteries, and cryptozoology. ASSAP focussed on the use of equipment in support of its ghost investigations. It also established a methodology that is still widely used by many ghost investigators. Location investigations were divided into set periods, typically of forty-five minutes of investigating followed by a break of equal duration before relocating for the next investigating period and so on. Notes of personal experiences were maintained and compared, but a strong emphasis was placed upon the information obtained by means of mechanical and electrical equipment. ASSAP also provided accreditation for investigators, and its members were encouraged to participate in organised training and investigation events. Alongside the SPR and ASSAP, there were a handful of amateur ghost investigation groups throughout the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Many undertook investigations of local haunted properties and revisited notorious sites including Borley, where the subject of their visits had become the church, the rectory having been demolished in 1944,  following a fire in 1939. These amateur investigators used a mix of psychic techniques including many that were recognisable as being derived from the Spiritualism and the séance room supported by an ever-increasing use of technology such as tape recorders, cameras, and thermometers.

Ghost Investigating in the 21st Century

In recent years there has been a huge increase in the number of people and groups who are investigating ghostly goings on. Driven by the media and by the Internet, the number of ghost investigation groups has soared from a mere handful of teams in the 1970’s to more than one thousand within the UK and almost double that number in the USA by 2010. Spurred on by television programmes such as Most Haunted in the UK and Ghost Hunters in the USA, thousands of people now devote their weekends to visiting and investigating haunted locations. All too frequently a poor understanding and knowledge of the subject, gained predominantly from the media or from theories popularised by social media, guides the actions of many of these willing amateurs. Often, despite claims to the contrary on their various websites and social media pages, many of these groups prefer to use a combination of pseudo-science and methods derived from Spiritualist or new age studies to support their investigations rather than adopting a more rigorous and critical methodology.

Ghosts and apparitions generally cannot be studied. The reality is that most people with an active interest in such spontaneous experiences usually only ever encounter verbal or written reports or images of alleged phenomena. Investigation is therefore in reality the study of second-hand and secondary sources of information. Such a situation leaves room for a great deal of doubt in the minds of some as to whether the phenomena we call ghosts has ever been genuinely encountered and properly documented. Much of the claimed evidence being presented as factual is poorly understood or has little to do with the actual subject at all. Dowsing for ghostly energy and the channelling of spirits by sensitives and mediums have become inexorably intertwined with modern gadgetry in the search for proof of the existence of ghosts and the survival of death. The overused depiction of such methods as providing scientific proof of the claims that are made by ghost investigators only adds to the state of confusion that currently exists. Central to all aspects of ghost investigation is the notion that there is a series of phenomena that can be easily studied simply by spending time in haunted locations. Virtually this entire premise of investigation assumes that there is intelligence behind these phenomena.

A popular viewpoint amongst those who undertake the investigation of ghosts is that the human spirit can survive death in some way and can return at will to locations frequented during their lifetime. A second equally popular view, suggests that the environment can in some way record a traumatic event or memory into the fabric of its surroundings to be played back at some later time. Often these two notions may be mixed together and presented as definitive explanations by those who champion such ideas. There may be some logic and rational thought behind both of these concepts but there is also much disagreement and a current lack of any coherent study being undertaken to test such ideas. The truth about ghost investigations is that the bulk of anomalous reports are continually being appropriated and hijacked by people with their own agendas, be they a believer, or a sceptic.

Whilst individual motivations may be well meaning, the results serve only to scatter the subject and cause disagreement. Evidence of ghosts and related paranormal activity is widely presented on the Internet, published in magazines and books, or shown on television. The major casualty of all this information is undisputed truth. Many interesting cases are now badly tainted by the poor standard and sensationalist nature of the evidence that is being presented by the investigators. The sceptical voices often display a poor understanding of cases they dispute and readily dismiss those who continue to investigate claims of ghosts and apparitions as scientific heretics.

There are a small number of more thorough investigations being undertaken, some of which are producing vital and challenging work. However, the continued sensationalist approach by the majority has left the subject of ghosts and hauntings, or as it used to be called spontaneous case investigation, largely in an academic limbo. Well documented reports of ghost and apparition encounters are fascinating and more substantial that many of the sceptics would like to admit but many of those researchers employed in university parapsychology and anomalous psychology departments regard amateurs in amateur investigation groups almost as a kind of ‘care in the community’ branch of the study, and, who can blame them given the current approach that most amateurs seem to be taking. Spontaneous case study is often seen as a sure route to career suicide for scientific researchers.

Research undertaken in psychology, physics, and sociology have made substantial contributions to the debate but have often failed to impress those involved in gathering field reports. In most cases, those active within investigation groups either don’t have access to or fail to understand the academic research, normally only to be found in obscure journals and written in a form that seems to be almost purposefully designed to exclude the non academics. Occasionally, the investigators get the gist of new ideas and theories but there is little encouragement and support from the mainstream sciences. Instead of guidance and the provision of solid foundations upon which to develop their investigations, the amateurs are abandoned, free to interpret the ideas, sometimes in novel or bizarre ways.

The modern ghost investigator has adopted a vast range of equipment for the task. Often, it is apparent that there is little substantive knowledge of why or what the equipment is actually measuring. Theories abound and increasingly bizarre claims for what the gadgets can achieve are being made. We now have meters that apparently can measure the energy emitted by ghosts or that can be utilised by the dead to communicate with the living by manipulating the ambient electromagnetic fields, sometimes both, using the same device. Simple portable AM and FM radios have also been modified for the purpose of direct communication with spirits and ghosts. Digital photography using either modified or unmodified cameras allows ghosts and spirits to be photographed or recorded onto video seemingly with results that are being claimed as offering convincing proof for the existence of ghosts. Another popular claim for producing convincing evidence is the extensive use of digital sound recording in haunted locations, it is frequently claimed that the voices of the deceased together with other discarnate entities can be recorded. The celebrity ghost hunter too has survived from the days of Harry Price and Peter Underwood, although their celebrity status is more often the result of their media persona instead of any actual contribution towards a greater understanding of the subject. Mainstream science has largely turned its back on ghosts and instead prefers to concentrate its efforts into areas of psychologically based study. Fortunately, there remain a bare handful of academic researchers who do have an active interest in hauntings and apparitions. Another comparatively recent development in ghost investigation is that psychics and mediums would traditionally confine themselves to conducting their activities within the séance room or Spiritualist meetings but they have now moved extensively into conducting ghost investigations. Many mediums now lead or take an active role within ghost investigation groups, often proclaiming their personal sceptical viewpoint but all too often using the ghost hunt and the presented evidence obtained as a means of promoting their own survivalist or assorted new age beliefs as factual and evidential.

Modern ghost investigation has now become primarily the domain of poorly informed amateurs and commercially driven ghost event companies who cater for a market more intent upon having a spooky night out rather than truly investigating and trying to understand what ghosts might actually represent.

What of the Future?

Is there a future for ghost investigating? To be honest, it seems a bleak one at present. Ghost hunting has become mass entertainment rather than the intriguing new branch of science that many of the earlier investigators hoped that it would in time become. The very popularity of the subject looks likely to condemn it even further into the fringe world of entertainment and thrill seeking. With so many groups now active and so many people spending their leisure time in pursuit of ghosts and apparitions it has become increasingly difficult to find cases and locations that have not been trampled in the rush to enjoy a personal encounter with a ghost or spirit.

Genuine cases have become lost and buried under a deluge of ghost hunters. Savvy venues have realised that they are sitting on a goldmine and now routinely charge extortionate amounts for a few hours access. No serious researcher begrudges paying a reasonable amount toward the costs of maintaining a location or paying for overnight staffing but does it really cost up to £1,000 to allow a few people to spend a night in an alleged haunted ruin? 

If spontaneous case investigation is to continue it needs to alter its approach radically. Sound practical and ethical guidelines need to be adopted by all investigators. It would be useless to try and impose such conditions upon the groups as too many hold tight to their entrenched beliefs and would fiercely resent the intrusion into their hobby and, in some cases, income. Fortunately, for ghost hunting there are still a number of researchers and investigators who continue to follow the route of using critical thinking and good methodology and who continue to contribute toward extending our knowledge of this often maligned and misrepresented area of study into what remains a fascinating human experience.

“A Brief History of Ghost Investigating” is an extract from Ghostology: The Art of the Ghost Hunter by Steven T. Parsons published by White Crow Books.

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