I’m researching the history of the Stone Tape “theory” of haunting for my Spooky Geology site. It’s something I’ve been working on in bits and pieces for several years now. I’ve watched the movie The Stone Tape (thanks to mooching off Blake Smith’s Plex account) and have keyed into any mention of the idea from various paranormalists. One website mentioned that some paranormalists may have been influenced by a book by Don Robins called The Secret Language of Stone. From 1988, it obviously is later than the 1972 movie. But the write-up seemed interesting. With no luck finding a copy in a library, I picked up a used copy and read it in a week. By the time I was done, I was ready to punch Robins. It’s an annoying book. I don’t think it would have influenced many people who could have made it through the techno-babbling, tangents, and connecting of random threads to get to a frustrating end. Here’s another case of me reading a book so you don’t have to… Continue reading
This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.
In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?
First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.
Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.
I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences. In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:
1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)
2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)
3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)
It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.
Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.
The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.
In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.
In a recent post on Skeptoid blog, I suggest that paranormal-based tourism, such as ghost tours and monster festivals, which are growing in popularity, border on fraud.
“Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality.”
Commenters remarked that I might be getting too worked up over it. Meanwhile, I found this commentary from a local who thinks his town needs one of them monsters to draw tourists and he is not beyond creating one from scratch. Continue reading
About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. 
As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications. Continue reading
I like to occasionally check out the juvenile literature section of the local library to see what is in the paranormal-themed books for kids. I picked up this book from the library recently:
Ghosts: And Real-Life Ghost Hunters (24/7: Science Behind the Scenes: Mystery Files) by Michael Teitelbaum, 2008, and was pleasantly surprised. What a nice book for the curious kid aged 8-12. Continue reading
This past March, I registered for a seminar on Scientific Paranormal Investigation at CFI – Washington, DC. Ben Radford was presenting and the event description mentioned his upcoming book of the same name. This was fortuitous since I was working on developing a thesis project about the prevalence of sham inquiry, focusing on amateur investigation groups, such as Bigfoot, UFO and ghost hunters. Sadly, I missed the event because of the death of my grandmother.
As my thesis idea gelled, I realized Ben’s new book would be a must-have for my references. So, I purchased it directly from his website (www.radfordbooks.com) as soon as it was announced, before it even made it to Amazon. He noted in the inscription that I was his first order.
This unique volume includes so much about the topics on which I’m focused for my project -laypersons conducting investigations into paranormal activities and what it means to be “scientific”. I wondered how this book would compare with Missing Pieces by Baker and Nickell. It’s different in content, focus and scope. For starters, at this point in time, there has never been so many paranormal investigation groups. Thanks to the internet and television, these groups number over a thousand on any given day in the U.S. alone. Millions of people view Ghost Hunters on television and think that’s an example of how scientific investigation is done. It’s a timely topic. Continue reading
I came across this story about “haunted” Lafayette, Indiana.
It’s a typical soft news story about local authors and their new book of collected yarns. It also provided a little Fortean kick since, according to Mysterious America by Loren Coleman, place names that include “Fayette” or “Lafayette” have unusual activity or bad luck associated with them. I won’t go into depth about how that is totally selective cherry-picking and uninteresting. But, it is both.
In Lafayette, the authors rightly thought that a combination of interesting stories and local history would be winner. “I thought people would read about history if a ghost story was attached.” The article notes that the authors are “not ghost hunters, but writers who decided to document people’s stories about supernatural folklore.” They use the usual disclaimer, “We leave it up to the reader to decide whether they believe it or not.”
There’s a problem with that idea. These stories aren’t categorized outright as fiction. They get shelved under “local interest” or “travel”. The concept of ghosts as genuine entities lacks scientific validity. The stories, however, can fall nicely into folklore as suggested. So, file ghost stories under “fiction” or “folklore” and quit treating them as “true stories”.
Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.
Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities. Continue reading
Book review: Ghost Hunters
by Deborah Blum, 2006