Ghostbusting in Hamden

July 1996
by Robert Novella

Tales of ghosts and apparitions have fascinated people for uncounted generations. They have a universal appeal that cuts across all social and cultural boundaries. A trip to any library or video store reveals a plethora of books and movies to choose from on the topic. The newly proliferating paranormal tv shows are yet another popular avenue for showcasing our interest in these ‘ectoplasmic beings’.

The most popular venue for ghosts has always been a house. The hallmarks of a haunted house usually involve hearing unusual sounds, seeing a vaporous shape , cold spots, or objects that appear to move by themselves. There are many paranormal investigators who go to these haunted houses to verify their authenticity. Unfortunately, a very small percentage of these investigators go searching for alternate answers that are much more likely and don’t rely on a paranormal explanation. The following is an example of a haunted house investigation that involved both kinds of investigators.

For a recent Halloween promotion for a local radio station, a New Haven car dealership was offering $5,000 for evidence of a verified haunted house. To authenticate the alleged haunting in question, five members were sent from The New England Society of Psychical Research, whose members are closely associated with the infamous Warrens. To balance the investigators who were clearly predisposed to accept such claims, I was asked to put together a team of skeptics to help in the investigation.

The night of October 30th arrived and the two groups of investigators met at the radio station in New Haven at 9:30 p.m. From there we jumped in our cars and headed to Hamden, home of the elusive spirits. The first thing we did after we arrived was to check the grounds. We weren’t looking for anything specific, just anything that was out of the ordinary. Nothing unusual was found so we entered the house and found it to be surprisingly crowded. Mary, the owner of the house, was there with six friends and relatives; there were also the two D.J.s and five other radio personnel, seven skeptics, five representatives of the Warrens and a hypnotherapist and his colleague. The hypnotist relaxed Mary, preparing the way for our questions.

During the next half hour we talked about the history of the house, the events she witnessed, other eye witnesses, her medical history etc. We learned that since she was five or six she has been seeing ghostly images of children, deceased relatives and an Indian. The children would typically walk into the living room or her bedroom and stand around, never talking but occasionally nodding their heads or making gestures. The tall Indian usually appeared by her bed wearing a headdress and a loin cloth. Mary’s’ family had at times also seen similar images but not with the same frequency. Also, Mary said that coworkers had at times felt a presence in her house. During this question and answer period part of my group broke off to explore the interior of the house, again finding nothing unusual.

At this point two representatives from each group of investigators made opening statements for D.J’s Glen and Pat. We stated that we were looking for any possible mundane explanation for Mary’s experiences. For instance, we discovered that Mary, like many people today, readily accepts paranormal events as common every day occurrences and she does not question them in any way. She has lived in the house all her life and these people that appear are like friends that are here to visit her, they are very comforting and she is highly motivated to accept them as real phenomenon. She is therefore not critical of them. We further explained that we find this to be the case in many claimed paranormal activities. Although some cases are straightforward hoaxes, most of the time the people involved are just not being critical or skeptical thinkers. They have a strong desire to believe in a metaphysical explanation and they never think about or examine any other possibilities.

Next Glen asked an NESPR representative what his impressions were. He stressed that he believed Mary to be a very sincere person. He said that anyone who was willing to subject herself to having so many people in her home must honestly believe the events are happening. He ended by saying that the interview was a little chaotic but she answered the questions sincerely and she believes that this is happening. I pointed out that sincerity should never be confused with authenticity.

Next, we split into groups consisting of people from both camps. Each group went into a different room, turned out the lights, and waited for something to happen. This continued for about two hours with the following result – a NESPR representative stated that in a downstairs bedroom he had seen a cluster of blue lights that formed into a cigar shaped cloud-like figure roughly the size of a person. He was very reluctant to make a big deal of this since the rules stated that at least three people had to witness the event and the two skeptics in the room who had looked and stood in the spot had not seen nor felt anything. A NESPR representative explained the discrepancy by stating that his colleague was particularly sensitive.

Asked by one of the D.J.’s for a possible explanation for these late night appearances of ghosts, I said that one possibility was a waking dream or hypnagogic hallucinations (see CT Skeptic vol.1 issue 2). Briefly, this is a neurological phenomenon that can occur when waking up or going to sleep. It is an intermediary stage between sleep and wakefulness where strange images can be seen or unusual sounds heard.

Later in the evening someone else from the NESPR stated that he was seeing glowing balls of light flying around in front of a closet in the same bedroom as the earlier sighting. He compared it to fireflies. This time there were seven people in the room including the D.J. Glen, three skeptics and one other “psychic” and, as before, no one else witnessed the reported lights. One possible explanation for this has to do with the way the human eye responds to lack of light stimulation or a prolonged stare at a fixed spot. Both of these can produce unusual spontaneous images on the retina.

We did have the opportunity this time, however, to take some photographs of the area. Glen and Pat suggested that since no ghostly evidence had surfaced that night, they would let the photographs decide whether or not Mary wins the $5,000. All parties agreed, so the skeptics consented as well, despite the fact, as I pointed out, that photographs are not an entirely reliable medium. They are subject to numerous sources of artifact, such as a leaky battery, lens flares, (caused by the interreflection between lens surfaces), flaws in the optics, improper darkroom technique, strobes, and double exposures.

Ghost stories can be fun, even compelling. When all was said and done, however, not a scrap of evidence for any paranormal occurrence was uncovered. The presence of the skeptics kept the imaginations of the believers from blossoming into yet another ghost story. The radio station did not follow up their story with the results of the photographs. I had to call the station to confirm what I already knew, that the photographs revealed nothing save a dark room.