Hunting the Ghost Hunters

July 1997
by Perry DeAngelis and Steven Novella, MD

Ed and Lorraine Warren have been investigating hauntings for over 40 years and claim to have mountains of proof for the existence of ghosts. We sought to examine their evidence to see if it stands up to the scientific rigor they claim to endorse.

Ed and Lorraine Warren hunt ghosts – ghosts, apparitions, demons, possessed people, places and things. They have been doing so for decades, and claim to have looked at nearly 8000 cases. They are world renowned for this practice, and they dwell right here in Monroe Connecticut.

As a regional skeptical organization, we have taken on the task of investigating local paranormal claims. We sought to evaluate the phenomenon of ghosts (in the generic sense, referring to all manner of spiritual manifestations) and see if there is any evidence to support the hypothesis that the phenomenon exists. On the matter of hauntings, the Warrens are one of the preeminent experts, and they are 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 into which we can sink our investigative teeth. 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 call their organization the New England Society for Psychic Research (NESPR), but as we will see, they are a “research” organization in name only. Their website proudly proclaims 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.” Yet 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. Shortly after meeting Ed and Lorraine, two things became very clear to us. One, that they are sincere. They 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. 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 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. 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 vile 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, location for the Warrens weekly classes 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. Yet 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. The website even admits that this flash effect is paradoxical, and was not expected, since they claim that such ghostly images are often psychically placed on the film by the spirits. 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.

Paranormal 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 (Skeptical Inquirer, vol 20, No 4, 1996 p13-14). The cord or strap of a 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 (called “light rods”) 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.

Copious examples of all three of these 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 apparently shows a 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 is engaged in scientific research, he continues to jealously horde his alleged evidence, rather than allowing 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, a professional video company, 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 than take this obvious first step, one of their investigators simply declared that the “ghost light” (the car headlights mentioned above) was “unexplainable.” 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. They do 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, however, are just people. Their gray matter is the same as everyone elses.

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 vivid dream 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 Smurl, investigated by the Warrens themselves, who related the tale of awakening in the early morning, being paralyzed, 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 (see our article on Hypnagogia in The Connecticut Skeptic, vol.1, issue 2). This occurs when we are between the waking and sleeping states, semi-conscious, and not fully aware. It is during these times that many alleged paranormal experiences manifest. Many believe that they are being abducted by aliens from their beds, others, like Jack Smurl, that they are visited by ghosts. During REM sleep, and continuing into waking dreams, our brain turns off the neurons that connect to our spinal column in order to keep us from acting out our dreams, and resulting in the sensation of paralysis during hypnagogia.

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 is also a well described aspect of hypnagogia.

“Oh,” said Ed.

Many investigations of haunted houses take place into the wee hours of the night, forcing the investigators to stay up all night and 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 the Warren’s widespread exposure, there is ample opportunity to inadvertently “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 dismisses 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.

As skeptics, we are often asked, “What harm does belief in the paranormal do?” To this question, there is a very serious reply. To foster the air of gullibility that our society is awash in today is toxic, financially, emotionally, and sometimes terminally so. One need only look back several months to the 39 people snuffed out in an insane attempt to ride a UFO for a vivid example. In the case of the Warrens, aside from adding to this aura of gullibility in general, they recount a case that brings the danger into sharp focus.

In July of 1996, the Warrens were contacted by a family in Westport, claiming to have a young girl who was possessed. They went to the home, with some new investigators, and took in the scene of an adolescent girl surrounded by her extended family, obviously in some kind of distress. In their desperation, however, the parents had also taken their child to a psychiatrist at Yale, who insisted that the Warrens not be involved in their child’s case. Thankfully, the parents followed his advice, and the Warrens withdrew.

Yet what if the parents had not followed the physician’s advice? The Warrens, who were feeding this poor girl’s delusions, would have likely driven her deeper into madness. I do not believe that Ed or Lorraine would ever intentionally hurt a child, or anyone for that matter. Yet, their organization and activities lend a false legitimacy to the field of ghost hunting. Their claims reinforce delusions, have served as decisive court testimony, and confuse the public about the methods of legitimate science. To me, this case is what should stop one from smiling pleasantly at the funny ghost busting couple, and pause to take them very seriously indeed.

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. The Warrens and their colleagues pay lip service to scientific principles, but when confronted with the lack of scientific quality to their methods and evidence they typically retreat, as Ed Warren did, to the position that “you can’t have scientific evidence for a spiritual phenomenon.” They want the respectability of science without the tedious work, careful thought, and high standards of evidence that it demands.

The Warrens and their society refused to allow us to observe their investigatory techniques and refused to allow their “best” evidence to be examined. They are concerned about protecting their organization and the beliefs they represent, rather than the scientific search for truth, wherever it may lead – and that is what constitutes the gulf between skeptics and believers.