Jun 22 2009

Hunting the Ghost Hunters

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I will be away this week, so I am dusting off some of my oldest skeptical writings and updating them. Below is a piece I wrote 12 years ago on ghost hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The article is still relevant, and I enhanced it with some updated info. I also employed the wayback machine to provide links to old websites that are no longer active. I will be mostly out of touch, and only rarely monitoring the comments, so forgive me if I don’t respond quickly or at all.

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Belief in the supernatural seems to be a nearly universal part of the human condition, but the details of specific paranormal belief systems depend on culture and location. In New England we have ghosts – or at least ghost hunters. So it is not surprising that in our younger days as activist skeptics, Perry DeAngelis, Evan Bernstein, my brother, Bob, and I (the investigative team of the New England Skeptical Society) cut our skeptical teeth investigating ghost hunters.

Taking on the New England ghost-busting industry led us inevitably to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the patriarch and matriarch of ghost hunting in New England. Ed and Lorraine hunted ghosts (Ed has since passed) – ghosts, apparitions, demons, possessed people, places and things. They did so for decades, and claim to have looked at nearly 4000 cases. They were made famous by books and movies, and as luck would have it lived only a couple towns over in Monroe Connecticut.

We sought to evaluate the phenomenon of ghosts (in the generic sense, referring to all manner of spiritual manifestations) and see if there was any evidence to support the hypothesis that the phenomenon exists. On the matter of hauntings, the Warrens were one of the preeminent experts, and they were local, so naturally we decided to look into their work. Also, they claim to have scientific evidence which does indeed prove the existence of ghosts, which sounds like a testable claim that we can sink our investigative teeth into.

What we found was a very nice couple, some genuinely sincere people, but absolutely no compelling evidence, or, more precisely, there was a ton of “evidence,” but none of it stands up to rigorous scientific testing, and most of it not even to cursory testing. None of it.

Like all pseudosciences, the field of ghost hunting makes bold pretense to being legitimate science. The Warrens called their organization the New England Society for Psychic Research (NESPR), but as we will see, they were a “research” organization in name only. They still have a presence on the web, and Lorraine still gives ghost lectures. Their original website proudly proclaimed that “Our mission is to move the area of psychic phenomena out of the dark ages into the mainstream of rigorous scientific thought and inquiry.” But upon inspection, their methods lack the components of genuine scientific inquiry or even the most fundamental attempt at scientific rigor. Rather than an earnest search for the truth, regardless of what that may be, their society seeks only to support their a priori assumption that the phenomenon is real.

Our investigation began with a tour through the Warren’s rather unique museum, housed in their basement, and alleged to be the most haunted place in Connecticut. From the moment we met Ed and Lorraine, two things became very clear to us. One, seem sincere – to honestly believe the things they say. And two, that they have precious little evidence to support their beliefs. What they do have in abundance are ghost stories and low-grade ambiguous evidence. During that first visit, and in the five hour interview that followed, we were treated to scores of Warren stories. However, despite their insistence to the contrary, stories are not evidence.

On the museum tour, Ed warned us not to touch anything in the main room, as we would open ourselves up to possible possession. If we did accidentally rub against something (which was nearly unavoidable in that crammed space), we were to report it, so that he could purify our auras before we left. The room was a clutter of collected stuff garnered over the Warren’s forty year career. This included paintings, masks, statuettes, and many books. One of these ghostly tomes was an “Unearthed Arcana,” a Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game book. I still have a copy collecting dust in my closet.

Ed claimed that the most dangerous item in the house, however, was a Raggedy-Ann doll that was said to still be possessed by a demonic entity. He keeps this enclosed in a glass case for safety, and chillingly relates the tale of the man who ignored his warnings and taunted the doll, only to die hours later in a tragic motorcycle accident.

Born in 1926, Ed Warren has been involved with the ghostly world since the age of five when he saw the apparition of a recently deceased landlady. Ed’s father was a Connecticut State Trooper who went to mass everyday. His grandfather was also very pious, and bequeathed the bulk of his estate to the Catholic church for the purchase of a stained glass window. It is not difficult to see the basis of Ed’s belief structure, being reared in such a devout environment. The Catholic church does hold that supernatural entities can and do interact with the physical world.

Ed also refers to NESPR as a “theological institute,” and states that his investigations are intimately associated with his religious convictions. In fact, one of his first questions to us, just as with other skeptics he has confronted in the past, is whether or not we believe in God, for without faith we could not understand his research.

Lorraine, born in 1927, is said to be a “sensitive,” or clairvoyant. This is a person that can feel things psychically. When the Warren’s go into an alleged haunted dwelling for the first time, three sensitives are utilized. If all three come up with positive “readings,” or feelings, it is said to be powerful evidence of a supernatural presence. Of course, using an unproven method to measure an unproven phenomenon is of little scientific value.

As our probing into the Warren’s evidence continued, proceeding next into a prolonged interview, we asked to examine their most impressive or most convincing evidence, a request that we would repeat many times. But first, we needed to learn at least some of the jargon that is associated with the ghost phenomenon. Ed was kind enough to give us a crash course.

The “psychic” hours, Ed told us, are from 9 PM to 6 AM and the most vicious hauntings occur around 3 AM. Why? Because that is an insult to the Holy Trinity. A “ghost” is a luminescence without definable form, but on the other hand, an “apparition” has form and features. The countless photos we have seen of balls of light, are known as “ghost globules,” and the elongated patches as “light rods.” There are human spirits, and then there are the real bad guys, inhuman spirits. These are, of course, the essences of things never alive, or demonic entities. Ed also gave us some tips: always keep a vial of blessed water on your person to compel entities; if a possessed person meets your gaze, never be the first to break it, as that demonstrates weakness. And on it went, rules and jargon of the trade.

The Photographic Evidence

The vast majority of the Warren’s physical evidence is photographs. They have hundreds of ghost shots, taken by them and those who work for them. The Carousel Restaurant, a frequent “haunt” of the Warrens and said to be haunted, have their own collection of such photographs. Other ghost hunting societies, such as the Cosmic Society, another local group comprised of defectors from NESPR, also have a collection of such photos as their primary claim to evidence. But quantity is not a substitute for quality.

The bulk of these photos are simply blobs of light on a piece of film. There are dozens of ways to get such light artifacts onto film, but most fit into one of three categories: flashback, light defraction, or camera cords. Rare double or multiple exposures create more interesting, but still artifactual, photographs. It is significant to note that in almost every occurrence of a ghost photograph, the ghost is not seen at the time the photo is taken. It is not until the picture is developed that the ghost or glob or rod is seen, a strong indication that the picture is a result of photographic artifact.

Flashback is simply light from the camera flash reflected back at the lens, causing a hazy overexposed region on the film. The result is often a whispy and blurry light image on the film. It is easy to tell when a flash was used, because of the sharp shadows that are created and because objects in the foreground are brightly lit. The Warren’s website even suggests that using a flash will help create ghost photographs, and “the brighter the flash the better.” It also recommends to include a foreground object – something to reflect the flash. Although they admit that this is paradoxical and was not expected at first, especially since they claim that such photographs are the result of psychically created images. However, there is no discussion or any recognition at all that the light images might be the result of photographic artifact created by the flash.

So-called “ghost globules” are spheres of light, rather than whispy forms. The images, however, are curiously reminiscent of light defracting around a point source. A small amount of condensation on the camera lens is enough to mass produce such ghost globules. Under the right conditions, any discrete source of light can produce this effect.

The camera cord effect is easily reproducedParanormal investigator for CSICOP, Joe Nickell, made a valuable contribution to the field of photographic artifact when he discovered through experimentation and common sense the camera cord effect. The cord or strap of an instamatic camera can easily fall in front of the lens, and go unnoticed with cameras that do not view through the lens but through a separate aperture. Even black cords will look like white blobs or streaks of light when they reflect the light of a flash. We were able to reproduce this effect (see photograph on this page) on our first try, creating a “ghost” photograph as good as any we have seen.

The age of digital photography has also created some new sources of photographic artifact. We were asked to investigate a curious photo with several colored streaks across an otherwise still and focused picture. After some digging (the advantage of digital cameras is that the image files contain all sorts of technical information about the picture – exposure time, etc.) we figured out that the camera was accidentally set to “twilight mode.” This mode will use the flash, but then keep the shutter open for a second or two to expose a dim background.

Copious examples of all of the three above common artifacts can be seen on the websites of the Warrens, the Cosmic Society, and other similar sites. What is lacking in all of them, however, is any consideration of alternate explanations of the photographs other than genuine ghosts. There is no investigation into natural sources for the blobs of light, no discussion of alternatives, no discussion at all, in fact. There is only the simple and unquestioned pronouncement that such blobs of light are evidence of the paranormal.

Video Evidence

The other evidence that the Warrens possess is video. Their piece-de-resistance is Ed’s video of the famous White Lady of Union Cemetery, in Easton Connecticut. We have only been able to view this tape in the Warren’s home because Ed refused to give it to us for analysis, a common theme in our investigation. The tape shows an apparent white human figure moving behind some tomb stones. Like videos of UFO’s, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness monster, however, the figure is at that perfect distance and resolution so that a provocative shape can be seen, but no details which would aid definitive identification. Ed Warren has not investigated the video with any scientific rigor, and refuses to allow others to do so. Despite Ed’s insistence that he was engaged in scientific research, he continued to jealously horde his alleged evidence, rather than allow it to be critically analyzed, as is necessary in genuine scientific endeavors.

The Warrens did, however, give us one of their other pieces of video evidence. This showed a man “dematerializing.” It was taken by a mounted camera in a dining room in the middle of the night during one of their investigations. On the tape, a young man walks into the room, scratches his head, and “Poof!” disappears. This extraordinary occurrence is quickly followed by a “ghost light” appearing momentarily on the window behind the scene.

We gladly accepted the tape and took it to the HB Group for detailed video analysis. An excerpt from that analysis is below:

“We are witnessing a wipe in this segment of videotape. Although there are several different ways in video editing to achieve a wiping effect, the most simple of ways has been employed here. Deliberately or accidentally, the camcorder stopped recording on the final frame of the person in the room and resumed recording just a few seconds after the person had moved outside of the view of the camera.
“On a related observation, the properties of light alone could dictate a hundred different explanations for the mysterious “dot” of light that appears a few seconds after the man “vanishes.” However, I believe that this dot of light was caused by the reflection through the dining room window of the headlights of a passing car. The passing headlights can be seen if you watch the right hand side of the screen just after the “dot” of light fades out.”

As you can see, the only piece of evidence that we were given turned out to be less than compelling. It was, in fact, a simple malfunction at best, and fraud at worst. Even cursory analysis of this piece of tape would have revealed what we found to the Warrens. Yet no one in the Warren’s investigatory network bothered to check it out. Rather then take this obvious first step, one of their investigators simply declared that the “ghost light” was “unexplainable.” This turned out to be the reflection of a car headlight. Further, none of the people in the tape were aware that anything had even occurred until the following day when the tape was viewed (again, the fingerprint of artifact), including the young man who allegedly dematerialized! Ed put his credibility in serious jeopardy when he looked at that tape, and without any verification, stated that experts, “… can only come to one conclusion, that kid disappeared.”

Despite numerous attempts to examine other physical evidence the Warrens claim to possess, we were given nothing else. Instead, we were given excuses such as “The film was erased,” “The people in the film want privacy,” “We had just turned off the recording equipment, when…” Forty years of “research” into a phenomenon and precious little to show for it.

Eyewitness Testimony

Vastly outnumbering the Warren’s low grade physical evidence, is their copious anecdotal evidence. They are great tellers of ghost stories, leading, in no small measure, to their popularity on the lecture circuit, which Lorraine continues now that Ed is gone. They did not seem to understand, however, that the case for the reality of ghosts will never be made by stories alone.

In this respect, however, the Warrens are typical of the majority of people, who are compelled by a gripping story and lack a deep understanding of how flimsy and unreliable human memory and perception really is. Good skeptics, like good scientists, strive to increase their awareness of such weaknesses, so that they can be controlled for in the quest for knowledge. Ed and his ilk, on the other hand, are continuously seeking the “reliable witness.” But even pilots, firefighters, police chiefs, and physicians are just people. Their gray matter is the same as everyone else’s.

In short, memory is fallible. This is due to the fact that all of our perceptions are filtered through our own unique polyglot of prejudices, preconceptions, misconceptions, insecurities and physical frailties. The mind can dilute, mix up, and even manufacture memories. And we have no way to determine which are which. Without external verification, there is no way to distinguish a delusion from a hallucination from a genuine experience.

Further, many sightings or interactions with an entity (whether ghost or alien) take place in the bedroom, late at night, or very early in the morning – times and places connected with sleep, or, more accurately, the near-sleep state. A classic example is Jack Smirle, investigated by the Warrens themselves, who related the tale of awakening in the early morning, being paralysed, sensing an entity in the room, being overcome with terror, then being raped by a ghost.

There is a well described neurological phenomenon known as hypnagogia. This occurs when we are between the waking and sleeping states, semi-conscious, but not fully aware. It is during these times that the majority of such experiences occur. Many believe that they are being abducted by aliens from their beds, others, such as the case above, and others investigated by the Warrens, that they are visited by ghosts. During a hypnagogic hallucination our brain shuts off the neurons that connect to our spinal column during REM sleep to keep us from acting out our dreams.

When we offered this to Ed as a possible alternate explanation, he seemed intrigued. “But,” he continued confidently, “What about the pressure on the victim’s chest when the entity is trying to get into them…?” Well, we were sorry to tell Ed that pressure on the chest and shortness of breath are also a well described aspect of hypnagogia.

“Oh,” said Ed.

Many investigations of haunted houses take place into the wee hours of the night. Investigators are often called upon to stay up all night, creating sleep deprivation. In the sleep deprived state our brains are highly susceptible to hallucinations, and here is yet another fertile source of ghostly experiences.

Another prolific source is the human imagination. Different people have different capacities for imagination and fantasy. At the far end of the spectrum are individuals who are particularly prone to fantasy. Coupled with a desire to believe and immersion into a belief system with group support, such fantasy prone people can generate a tremendous amount of alleged paranormal experiences.

There is good reason to believe that groups such as NESPR would attract such individuals. With their widespread exposure, there is ample opportunity to inadvertantly “screen” many individuals. Hundred or thousands will see one of their lectures in a year. Out of those, dozens will make the effort to go to one of their weekly classes. The ones that stay on for the long haul are invited on investigations. And among those, a few are deemed to be “sensitive,” which means that they can see things that other people cannot.

Now, we do not expect everybody to be versed in hypnagogia, the effects of sleep deprivation, and the vagaries of the human imagination, but we do expect it from someone who claims to be conducting scientific research in a field where such phenomena play an important role. Ed Warren, however, had clearly not heard of hypnagogia prior to his association with us. Although he claims that his critics are closed-minded, he himself dismissed out-of-hand any alternative explanation of his evidence to the paranormal hypothesis, without investigation designed to do so. What passes for research in NESPR, and the field of ghost hunting in general, is passive documentation of anecdote and summary paranormal interpretation.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, the field of research into spiritual and ghostly phenomena lacks any scientific rigor. The field is fully and unreservedly a pseudoscience. Although they claimed to be engaged in a scientific quest for the truth, the Warrens and their society were suspicious, overly sensitive to criticism and any attempt at seeking mundane alternative explanations for their experiences, completely lacking in knowledge of scientific method, and completely lacking in any compelling evidence to support their claims. They refused to allow us to observe one of their investigations, and they refused to allow scientific scrutiny of their alleged evidence. Although nothing can be learned about the reality of ghosts from their activities, a great deal can be learned about the human psyche.

In the years since we investigated the Warrens, the ghost-hunting industry they helped to create has flourished. The Warrens themselves spun off dozens of ghost hunting organizations in the New England area. With the rise of the internet and reality TV, ghost hunting shows have also taken off. They employ more sophisticated gadgets – which amount to nothing more than the trappings of pseudoscience – but their methodology is the same.What they are really hunting for are anomalies – anything even slightly strange. In the ghost-hunting world, anomaly = ghost. Scientific investigation does not enter into the equation.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Hunting the Ghost Hunters”

  1. Mueroon 22 Jun 2009 at 10:39 am

    You should’ve asked them whether the ghosts take daylight savings time into account when they try to “insult the Holy Trinity.” Ghosts might have some trouble in Indiana, where they have such odd time zone rules that even the TV show “The West Wing” made fun of them. The DST “fall back” day must be an especially fun time for the ghosts, because 3 AM happens twice!

  2. HHCon 22 Jun 2009 at 11:43 am

    In the late 1950’s my folks bought a new home in an undeveloped area. My mom was sure that the home’s attic was haunted. She sent my brother to repeatedly check the attic for ghosts. Unfortunately, my brother’s trips to the attic the the ghosts “noises” were never syncrononized.

    Years later, my dad died in the upstairs bedroom of this house where I had grown up. I found him quite dead early one morning with rigor mortis setting in on the right side of his body. His eyes were “blown.” Mom was still sleepy at 8:00 AM and told me not to disturb dad. She didn’t realize she was sleeping next to a dead body. When the fire department paramedics came out they were spooked to find that there were some residual readings on their equipment with respect to dad. It was obvious to me that he was brain dead. They shattered and broke the glass front door when they took out his body to the hospital.

    Anyway, when I was trying to sell the house, some of the realtors would shutter and utter fearful words whenever they went upstairs. The story had made the local rounds. I would enjoy when I left the windows open upstairs and the wind would shut the doors consecutively. The winds scared the some of the workmen like clockwork. Needless to say, I really enjoyed fixing it up and selling it for a good price. It was fun to watch the folks behave strangely to this “haunted” house.

  3. Calli Arcaleon 22 Jun 2009 at 1:01 pm

    While I’m sure it was fun, I’d be cautious about playing such pranks while you’re trying to sell the place, unless you’re not too concerned about how much you sell it for. Deaths on the property can spook off a lot of buyers, even if there’s nothing weird associated with the death and the death itself had nothing to do with the property. Part of the trouble is that there are usually a number of houses suiting their requirements, and they may fix upon that as a simple way to exclude your house and make their selection easeir.

    Of course, five years ago it was a seller’s market, and you could probably get away with that. In today’s market, you might find yourself unable to sell if enough word got out about “ghosts”. Even rational buyers may be creeped out.

    Thinking of rational people being creeped out, I remember one night, back when I was in high school, pulling an all-nighter to finish a research paper that I was doing for my literature class. If you read it, you could really tell where things started to fall apart mentally, because although it’s coherent, it’s really rambling. The first five stories that I discussed each got roughly a page. The next five ranged from three to ten! (Fortunately, the teacher allowed us all an opportunity to *edit* our work and resubmit. Mine was pruned almost in half.)

    Anyway, I was working out in this big, cavernous room in the middle of the house. The great room. It’s where most of the family’s activities would happen, and was attached to the kitchen and dining room. It’s generally a very warm, inviting place. But at 2AM, after writing extensively about a rather creepy bit of Russian literature, I started to see things. I kept seeing this dark man lurking in the doorway between the kitchen and the hallway beyond. (The hallway led to the entryway, so that’s where anyone entering the house would most likely enter the main living area.)

    A couple of years later, I got a copy of the computer game “The Seventh Guest”, an adventure game in the style of “Myst”, where you point and click on things and have to solve puzzles to advance. “Seventh Guest” is creepier than “Myst”, though. The scenario is that you are wandering this big old house, with no idea of how you got there, solving puzzles that had been set by a demented toy maker in order to trap six well-to-do guests who wound up killed at the house some time previously. (You get treated to ghostly apparitions of all six guests as you start to unravel the story of what happened here — and who the Seventh Guest actually is.) One night, I had stayed up particularly late on an especially troublesome puzzle. (It has these brilliant but damnably frustrating chess puzzles in it. Genius.) I again saw apparitions of male figures out of the corner of my eye, and although I could never fix my eye upon them, they’d drag at my eye whenever I’d look away….eventually I had to give up on the puzzle and go to bed before I could freak out. 😛

  4. petrucioon 23 Jun 2009 at 12:13 am

    Man, that picture appears to be in 256 colors!

    Now THAT is spooky stuff!

  5. taustinon 23 Jun 2009 at 1:26 am

    My father got in to investigating haunted houses for a while. Most that he looked in to turned out to have some source of low level methane somewhere in the house. One had an uncapped well choked with rotting vegetation in the basement. Low level methane, especially when one is near sleep, is hallucinagenic. (When the well was properly capped by the next owners, the ghosts disappeared.)

    Sleep paralysis hallucinations are also a reliable indicator of the sort of world view the person suffering them holds. Religious people see demons, new age mysticism types see ghosts, and more secular people see aliens. There are documented cases of someone’s world view changing – a religious crisis resulting in loss of faith, for instance – and the “things” tormenting their sleep changing accordingly.

    One should also never ignore the potential for sensory deprivation. People who live in big city environments are surrounded, day and night, with both light and noise, even in a darkened bedroom at night. Take someone who has lived in such an environment all their lives and put them on a straight, flat, boring road in the middle of nowhere, late at night when they’re tired anyway, and you can get genuine sensory deprivation hallucinations. This is not an uncommon scenario for alien abductions stories. (Fallign asleep at the wheel, sitting up, might also be a trigger for the sleep paralysis with hypnic hallucinations thing, since that is apparently sensitive to the physical position one sleeps in – some are cured by simply sleeping in a different position.)

  6. Brian Englishon 23 Jun 2009 at 2:00 am

    You mean that Supernatural tv series isn’t a documentary? I’m shocked.

  7. krazy9000on 23 Jun 2009 at 12:49 pm

    I think it’s funny that ghost believers never report seeing cavemen hauntings… it’s always civil war era dead people, or creepy women in white gowns. Where are all the fraking cavemen ghosts!?! And why the heck do all of these investigations have to take place when it’s dark and scary? Are ghosts afraid of the light?

  8. HHCon 24 Jun 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Newsflash: The Illinois Paranormal Society proposed to the city of Galena to bring in A&E’s camera crew to investigate a building in Galena, Illinois which has “excessive paranormal activity”.

  9. Joe Bon 25 Jun 2009 at 12:30 am

    I don’t sleep on my back anymore after some fun experiences with hypnagogia. I had pretty regular shocks awake from vertigo instead of full on sleep paralysis with hallucinations, but I’ve had a few hallucinations from it and that’s what got me off my back full time.

    I guess I’m weird I didn’t have demon, ghost or alien hallucinations. The one that happened when I was little it was an anthropomorphized version of my alarm clock. It was more funny that scary because it was regular sized and all it was doing was sitting on the other side of the room making fun of me for not being able to move. The pants crapper for me didn’t have a visual, just pressure on my chest, couldn’t move and felt something drag lightly across my cheek. Tactile hallucinations are fun.

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