Modern Paranormal Investigation and Ghost Hunting: The stuff you may not know about ghosts and hauntings

Information on the phenomenology of apparitional experiences comes from several collections of spontaneous case studies.  Many cases have been presented to societies for psychical research and were investigated carefully to determine the reliability of the data that was collected. Ignoring the fictional accounts, several case study collections provide some rather compelling testimony to the phenomenology of ghostly activity and apparitional experiences. A brief list of many of these systematic studies is below. Items listed in parenthesis were published as books.

1894 – “Census of Hallucinations”

1885 – Phantasms of the Dead

1886 – Phantasms of the Living (Podmore, Myers, and Gurney)

1894 – Census of Hallucinations

1948 – D.J West’s Mass Observation Survey

1942 to 1963 – Tyrrell (“Apparitions”)

1974 – McCreeley & Green (“Ghosts”)

1990’s – D.J. West’s Pilot Survey

2002 – Dr. Hilary Evans (“Seeing Ghosts”)

2008 – Wiseman and Watt Online study

2008 – Dave Wood (ASSAP Chair)

2009 – Romer & Smith: The Accidental Census

2010 -2012 – Strange Survey, Rebecca Smith’s Ph.D. study

Robert Dale Owen’s “Footfalls on the Boundary of Another World”  (1860) was among the first surveys to classify and analyze hauntings and apparitions in an organized way. In some ways, this mirrored a change in the public’s attitude towards a more scientific approach. Twenty years later, a scientific and unprejudiced examination of the subject was begun by the newly founded Society for Psychical Research (SPR).

Henry Sidgwick was an English philosopher and economist; he held the Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy from the year 1883 until his death in 1900. Public Domain

The first major study conducted by SPR was the 1894 “Census of Hallucinations.”  Overseen by a Cambridge philosopher named

Henry Sidgwick, SPR mobilized 410 interviewers to investigate 17,000 individuals with claims of ghostly experiences in the United Kingdom. Reports of dreams and other non-hallucinatory phenomena were excluded from the investigation, and Sidgwick’s committee also weeded out all dubious cases. The results of this cross-sectional survey suggested that 9.9% of the non-institutionalized population in the United Kingdom could remember having had one or more hallucinations. As the committee was particularly interested in signs of life from beyond, Sidgwick also focused on reports involving individuals who had died within a time frame of 12 hours before or after appearing in one of the participants’ hallucinations. After rejecting all accounts in which foreknowledge of the illness or impending death of the person in question could have played a role, the committee was left with 350 first-hand reports of death-related visions. According to the committee, this number was 440 times higher than one would expect from chance alone. As a consequence, the general conclusion of the committee was that “between deaths and apparitions of the dying person a connection exists which is not due to chance alone.”

The consensus of 18th and 19th-century scholars was that ghosts are just imagination, mental aberrations, or simply misperceptions of ordinary (or unusual) events. All of this is perfectly reasonable and naturally accounts for a considerable number of “ghost” experiences. However, the hallucination idea did solve several of the problems concerning ghostly phenomenon. Consider the following questions.

 Why do ghosts wear clothes?

 If ghosts are human souls, why do they appear clothed with inanimate objects like hats, canes, swords or other types of objects? Shouldn’t they just appear nude?

What about ghost trains, cars, and ships? These things do not have souls, so how can they exist?

How can a ghost, without organs and vocal chords,  produce speech or screams?

If a place is really haunted, why haven’t scientists been able to set up shop there and finally capture genuine paranormal phenomena?

The concept of the phenomenon manifesting in the brain of the witness as a hallucination provides the only reasonable explanation. Soon psychical researchers started calling this type of phenomenon “veridical hallucinations.”  Veridical hallucinations are an alleged fantasy or impossible occurrence, like the sighting of a ghost, which is regardless, still seen by more than one individual. Since it contains a perception instead of a stimulant, the encounter is categorized as a hallucination; that being said since it is a mutual experience. It is considered to be veridical instead of illusory.   To differentiate between veridical and other types of hallucinatory experiences, the other types were merely called “Falsidical hallucinations.” We all can hallucinate, even if our only experience of hallucination is a dream. However such “ghosts” will share certain properties, being the product of a “disordered” brain. If ghosts were nothing more than Falsidical hallucinations then the theoretical properties of these hallucinations  in relation to ghosts are;

1.) They will only appear to one witness at a time.

2.) They will convey no information to the percipient not known to them at the time.

3.) They will not objectively cause physical ‘real world’ effects.

4.) They will not reappear in the same place over time to different witnesses.

However, many of the researchers who worked on the theories of apparitions were strongly opposed to the “spiritualist” explanations of the phenomena.  Myers and Gurney, in particular, believed that they had found evidence of telepathy.  As a result, their opinion was that apparitions were all hallucinations that were “seeded” by an ESP message and their findings seemed to support this hypothesis. The first results are embodied in the volumes of Phantasms of the Living (Frank Podmore, Myers and Gurney), and in Gurney’s essay, “Hallucinations.” Evidence for telepathy was supposed to be established by the experiments chronicled in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, although the results are debatable. It was also argued that similar experiences occurred spontaneously which creates a problem in replicating the phenomenon. However, the SPR theorists did not ask about objects moving, or ghosts physically affecting objects because they had decided they were telepathically induced hallucinations. As such, these associated phenomena were incompatible with their hypothesis.

Tyrrell’s book “Apparitions” was based on a smaller number of cases that were intensively investigated by the SPR and is considered to be a classic in its field. However, the difficulty with these corroborated cases is that the SPR researchers required that there be evidence that the experience was more than a mere hallucination. Again a simple report of an apparitional figure was insufficient. It had to be demonstrated that the ghost had to communicate information of which the witness could be shown to have been unaware of, or the experience had to coincide with an unexpected significant event that involved a ghost.

Another one of the interesting studies is Green and McCreery’s (1975) “Apparitions” which surveyed even more uninvestigated experiences. More recently, Haraldsson (1994) conducted extensive research on apparitions of the dead among Icelanders. Apart from these, there have been only a few surveys of parapsychological experiences that have included items on ghostly encounters (e.g., Haraldsson et al., 1977; Palmer, 1979).

The parapsychologist G. N. M. Tyrrell, Public Domain

The significant phenomenological findings of these systematic studies outline everything that is known about ghosts from the viewpoint of parapsychology. These elements will now be summarized as each of these categories was used to compose a standard that ghost hunters can use to validate the claims made by witnesses of paranormal phenomenon concerning ghosts and hauntings. Since these findings come from the systematic studies performed by the scholars in parapsychology, they are considered to be more reliable than the “no rules” approach of the Spiritualists.


The duration of an apparitional encounter is variable. In Green and McCreery’s (1975, p.143) survey about half of the respondents considered their experience to have lasted less than one minute, although 20 percent estimated its duration to exceed five minutes. However, the shortest length that was reported was seven seconds, so this becomes the standard. The experience must have lasted longer than seven seconds.

Sensory Modality

Apparitional experiences only involve one or two of the senses. Green and McCreery (1975)  report that of their cases 61 percent were perceived with one sense only, with an additional 25 percent limited to two senses. The majority of apparitional experiences are visual, 84 percent according to Green and McCreery. Haraldsson and Sidgwick are within two percent of this figure (see Haraldsson, 1994; Sidgwick et al., 1894). Roughly one-third of the cases have an auditory component, with 14 percent being a solely an acoustic experience. Consequently, visual apparitional experiences are not always dominant in every survey (cf. Palmer, 1979, p. 228).

Another exciting discovery was that the apparitional imagery may be in a sensory system that is impaired. For example, one “totally deaf” man described hearing the rustle of an apparition’s dress (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 169). It is also important to note that a small number of cases are sensory, comprising the feeling of a “presence” nearby. These instances of a sense of a presence represented only 8 percent of Green and McCreery’s (1975, p. 118) cases, although there was a slightly higher incidence in Haraldsson’s (1985, p. 152) Icelandic sample.

During the interview with a witness of a paranormal event, the ghost hunter should include sensory related questions in the interview to discover which and how many senses were involved in the experience. If more than two senses are reported, the phenomena may have an alternative explanation. It is also important to note that the feelings of a sensed presence in the systematic studies are very low (7%) as compared to the Spiritualist approach where such feelings are immediately considered as evidence for a ghostly encounter.

Characteristics of Apparitions

The systematic studies of apparitions have also identified several distinct features that can aid a ghost hunter in determining the validity of the experience. These characteristics are as follows;

Number of Witnesses, the nature of experience

In many cases, apparitions have been witnessed by several people at the same time. Green and McCreery (1975, p. 41) report up to eight people simultaneously experiencing an apparition. About a quarter of witnesses present their case as having been a collective experience (Haraldsson, 1994; Palmer, 1979, p. 228). However, not all members of the group will necessarily perceive the apparition. This is believed to be an effect of the veridical hallucination as those people who do not see the apparition are typically farther away from the phenomenon than those who do perceive it. On the other hand, in the cases where more than one person was present, only one-third of the apparitions seem to have been collectively experienced (Sidgwick et al., 1894; Tyrrell, 1942/1963).  Because of this ghost hunters are typically very interested when apparitions are not perceived by a member of the group of witnesses.

Characteristics of apparition’s appearance

Typically the distance from the apparition is within 10 feet (3 meters) from the witness (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 123).  The extreme range that was reported in the studies is 30 feet.

Apparitions appear real and solid and are often mistaken for living people. Their appearance changes as the witness move around them. They occlude objects they move in front of and are occluded by objects they move behind. They may cast a shadow, and the witness may also perceive their reflection in a mirror. This is in stark contrast to the transparent misty forms popularized in fiction.

If the witness is close to the apparition, a sensation of coldness may be felt. However, it is essential to recognize that the sensation of cold is a trait of an apparitional experience, not the “sign” of a ghost manifesting as suggested by Spiritualists.

In the majority of cases, the apparition is not recognized by the witness (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 178). About 70 percent of recognized apparitions are of people whom the witness knew to be dead (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 188; Haraldsson, 1985). Green and McCreery’s (1975) analysis of apparitional cases has also revealed several other important characteristics. The apparition’s background may remain the same, or it may change in its appearance as part of the experience. For example, the witness may perceive that the environment has changed and looks like it did at an earlier time.

Apparition’s appearance and disappearance

The systematic studies show that apparitions typically manifest as a complete figure rather than building up or solidifying before the witness’s eyes. At the end of the apparitional experience, the figure usually vanishes instantly, however in a smaller number of cases it fades gradually, either as a whole or part by part, or it may just leave the area (e.g., by walking out of the room). Many of these phenomenological trends are confirmed in Persinger’s (1974, pp. 159–161) Canadian survey.

The apparition may also carry accessories, like a walking stick or an umbrella. It cannot be seen by the percipient with eyes shut, which is a further indication that it is not a purely falsidical hallucinatory event.

The majority of apparitions appear unexpectedly (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 135) Typically apparitions are seen in familiar everyday surroundings, most often in the witness’s home or in its immediate vicinity (Persinger, 1974, p. 157). By contrast, only 12 percent of Green and McCreery’s (1975, p. 123) cases occurred in a place that the subject had never visited before.

The behavior of the apparition

The majority of apparitions appear to have an awareness of their surroundings although this is less characteristic of haunting type ghosts. They seem to leave a room by the door rather than walk through a wall like the fictional stereotype. Noises made by apparitions tend to be appropriate, like the footsteps or the rustling of clothes rather than clanking chains and soulful moans. In some apparitional accounts, the apparition is claimed to have spoken, although any spoken communication usually is limited to only a few words.

Most attempts to touch an apparition are unsuccessful, however people who did so generally report that their hand went through the apparition itself. An example in which the apparition eludes the witness’ hand can be found in the Morton Ghost case, in which Rosina Despard describes her attempts to touch the apparition of a deceased widow. She stated that “It was not that there was nothing there to touch, but that she always seemed to be beyond me, and if followed into a corner, simply disappeared.” This statement is important because it suggests that the non-physical features of an apparition may relate to distortions in perception on the part of the witness. Again this also reinforces the concept of a perceived phenomenon such as a hallucination. It is being observed in the mind of the witness and is not a physical object that exists in the space independently.

The apparition may appear to pick up an object or to open doors when physically these have not moved at all. Apparitions usually leave no physical traces such as footprints, nor can they be photographed or recorded on an audio device, according to Tyrrell.

Finally, Haraldsson (1994) notes that only 30 percent of the recognized apparitional figures in his Icelandic case studies were reported to have died by violent means. Consequently, Italian investigator Ernest Bozzano reported that more than 80% were found to be linked to a death in the premises in an analysis of 374 cases.

Wood and Sewell’s survey (2008) discovered most visual apparitions occurred in the afternoon. In their sample, 37% of sightings occurred during the day, but after removing cases associated with sleep paralysis and edge of sleep phenomena, they were left with roughly 50% of cases occurring in daylight, and 50% in darkness. The sample was too small to be sure if this is significant, and there was no strong seasonal association, beyond a slight prevalence of cases in the summer months.

Taxonomy of Apparitions

The distinction between apparitions of the living and apparitions of the dead have been refined into a more detailed taxonomy. Tyrrell (1942/1963, p. 35ff) proposed four classes of apparitional experiences: experimental cases, crisis cases, postmortem cases, and ghosts or haunting cases. However, parapsychologists have redefined these categories over the years to include some of the additional findings from studies performed after Tyrrell’s work. Each of these is described below along with the relevance to ghost hunting.

 Experimental apparitional experiences

In these cases living people have deliberately tried, allegedly with success, to make an apparition of themselves appear before a chosen percipient. Some of the most famous cases are attributed to S. H. Beard (Gurney et al., 1886, Vol. 1, pp. 93–94). These experimental cases are rare and typically do not involve ghost hunters.

Crisis Apparitions

In crisis cases, a recognized apparition is experienced at a time when the person represented by the apparition is undergoing some kind of crisis.  According to Gauld (1977, p. 602) crisis cases are the most frequently reported type of apparitional experience under the SPR criteria for selection. However, Green & McCreery, (1975, p. 179) report that crisis cases are in the minority.  While this is fascinating for parapsychologists,  ghost hunters are not typically interested in these types of cases as the “event” has already occurred. There is nothing for the amateur to investigate.

Death Bed Apparitions

This is an apparition seen by a dying person that is unknown to them to be dead, and likewise unknown to the family to be dead. (Such as a relative who unexpectedly died hours or days before, but the news of the death had not yet reached the family, so they assumed them to be alive. The dying person sees the deceased family member, which is later confirmed. In some cases, the family may be aware of the death but have decided not to tell the witness about in fear that it would make the situation worse, and just before they die, they see the familiar figure. Again, ghost hunters are not involved with these types of cases. The event has already occurred.

Recurrent apparitional experiences

Recurrent apparitional experiences are unique in that they tend to have a deceased friend or relative as the referent person (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 65). Recurrent apparitions of animals, particularly cats, also are not uncommon (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 63). The farther one gets from a person’s time of death, the less frequently that person’s apparition appears. The data from the various studies show that these type of phenomenon generally vanish entirely after seven years. Many ghost hunters have issues with investigating these types of cases. This is predominately due to warnings by parapsychologists that the phenomenon the witness is experiencing can have rational explanations due to mental instability and medical issues. As such, sensible ghost hunters believe that investigating these types of cases is unethical because they do not have the proper expertise to diagnose problems in those areas.

Postmortem apparitional experiences

As implied by its name, a post-mortem apparition appears after a person’s death, anywhere from several hours to several years after. About two-thirds of recognized apparitions are of the dead (Green & McCreery, 1975, p. 188; Haraldsson, 1985, 1994; Persinger, 1974, p. 150). The standard feature of postmortem cases is that the apparition seemingly tries to convey specific information that is unknown to the witness. One of the most frequently cited instances of this type is the so-called “Chaffin will” case where the apparition of a deceased father told his son the location of the family’s will. (“Case…,” 1927).

Again these types of cases are often over before ghost hunters even discover it, so they are typically not involved in the immediate process.  However, some ghost hunters may be interested in analyzing the facts of the case for veridical information.

Residual Apparitions (Hauntings)

Apparitions of the dead (ghosts) are usually associated with a particular building (haunting). The same figure(s) have been witnessed in the same locality on many occasions, often by many different witnesses. The ghosts in these experiences reportedly show less awareness of the witnesses and their surroundings than do other types of apparitional figures. Additionally, ghosts seem more automated in their movements. Some ghosts reportedly perform the same actions in the same location on each occasion they are experienced. The witness is seeing something that exists independently of, and generally out of awareness of, the mind of the witness.

Hauntings are the forte of ghost hunters. As such, it is essential to understand the observed characteristics of hauntings as defined in the systematic studies. Five criteria must be met to consider a location to be haunted.

  1. Repeating Behavior

The primary trait of a haunting is repeating behavior. Without this trait, you do not have a haunting.

  1. Longevity

The haunting must have longevity. If the haunting is tied into a tragic event or the death of a particular person, the accounts of paranormal activity must be proven to extend back to that time. For example, if the haunting involves a person that died on the property in 1932, then there should be accounts of those hauntings in the 30’s, 40’s, etc. all the way up to the current year.

  1. Multiple Witnesses

Another one of the significant traits of a haunting is having numerous witnesses. These are required to perform the next step of the criteria.

  1. Witness testimony contains veridical information

The testimony of the witnesses should correlate with each other. The big question is “are the witnesses seeing and experiencing the same things?” In the case of a haunting they should. One of the most common techniques, when an apparition is involved, is to interview the witnesses at length regarding the apparition’s appearance. For example, let’s take the typical “woman in white” ghost. Several descriptors could prove more detail of what the witness saw. How long is the dress? Did the dress have short sleeves or long sleeves? Could you see any patterns in the material? What did the neckline of the dress look like? How long was the apparition’s hair? Can you identify the color and/or the style of the hair?

If the answers regarding these 7 questions from three witnesses match then the conditional probability of this occurring by chance is just under a half of a percent. Therefore it can be argued that the witnesses have all seen the same figure but only if it is certain that those details were not available and that the witnesses have not revealed any of the information to each other. The accuracy of the veridical information is often one of the most debated issues in ghost investigations.


  1. The claims of paranormal activity are consistent

The accounts of the paranormal activity should not dramatically change over time. These changes often include the addition of more ghosts or dramatic changes to the back story of the haunting to make the incident more spooky. Usually, this is also done by adding historical elements that are not accurate or simply invented.

The reason I added the taxidermy of apparitions is to show that out of the full range of paranormal experiences, ghost hunters actually only deal with a few of them. Therefore, if the ghost hunters say a location is not haunted, they are not saying that nothing paranormal occurred. They are merely saying that the criteria for a haunting are not present in the case.

PSI Events (formerly called Poltergeist cases)

For many decades the phenomena that were covered by the term “poltergeist” has been revised by extensive work in the field of parapsychology. It is now believed to be a living agent, who is under emotional and other stresses, whose unconscious mind essentially acts out with psychokinetic ability. There has been extensive parapsychological research and investigations behind this type of case. According to parapsychologists, resolving the cause of the situation brings an end to the phenomena.

Ghost hunters mostly treat this phenomenon separately from ghosts and apparitions and leave these types of cases to the parapsychologists. However, it is essential to have a basic understanding of them as PSI events can resemble the haunting type of cases. Two primary differences can be identified between the two. In haunting type cases, there is repeating behavior and apparitions are often apart of the witnesses experience. On the other hand, PSI events are entirely random in nature and do have apparitional phenomena associated with them.

The use of instrumentation

If you have watched any of the television shows on ghost hunting, you probably have noticed the ghost hunters using various types of instruments to look for the ghosts. There is a wide range of gadgets that are used for the Spiritualist type of investigations. These include EMF detectors, the Spirit box, infrared cameras and thermal scanners just to name a few. The question is, do these items really detect paranormal activity?

Anthony Donald Cornell was a British parapsychologist and prominent figure in the investigations of ghosts and other paranormal activity across the United Kingdom during the later part of the twentieth century. Creative Commons

In 1997, at a Society for Psychical Research talk, council member Tony Cornell mentioned that their infra-red triggered monitoring system (called ‘SPIDER’) had been used for 10 years and had not produced one single, verifiable paranormal event on tape. It has only apparently triggered once in hundreds of deployments, and this was only after 53 days “in the field!” It is also believed that the one trigger was due to a glitch in the system as the unit was being taken down to be moved. I need to mention here that Tony was not just your average amateur ghost hunter. He was a member of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research and was appointed Research Officer in 1958 and President in 1968.  He was also the author of numerous papers on ghosts and poltergeists and expressed some cautious opinions on the Scole, SORRAT Min-lab (USA) and Enfield cases.

He co-authored the book Poltergeists with Alan Gauld in 1979, and his last major work was a book titled “Investigating the Paranormal” (Helix Press, New York, 2002).

In 1992, ASSAP’s Tony Wells constructed EMU1 (Environmental Monitoring Unit). This, too, took the output from several different sensors but only after it was triggered by some event (a change in readings from a sensor). However, it too recorded very few “events” despite being deployed for long periods of time.  While there have been several others that have attempted to use various forms of instrumentation to search for ghosts, the truth is it is not that simple. If it were, it would have been done decades ago.

The phenomena of ghosts are actually quite rare

Despite the belief systems of the Spiritualists, ghosts and haunting phenomenon are actually quite rare.

Tony Cornell spent over 50 years investigating the paranormal and came to the conclusion that most paranormal cases turn out to have natural explanations such as the result of fraud, pranks, and misidentification. Cornell estimated that of the 800 cases that he investigated, only twenty percent were difficult to explain and only a handful was paranormal.

Up to this point, I have focused on providing information about the phenomenon known as ghosts and hauntings.  Hopefully, it has demonstrated that there are two distinct types of ghost hunters. Spiritualist ghost hunting has its basis in superstition, folklore, deception, and fantasy. Because of its perceived entertainment value, it has greatly influenced the general perception about what ghosts and hauntings are.  On the other hand, parapsychology is based on systematic studies and observations based on witness accounts.  If you were going to use one of these two approaches to investigating paranormal phenomenon, which would you choose?

From my book “New Mexico’s Most Haunted: Exposed

copyright 2018


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