Casper and friends: What exactly are ghosts?
So…what exactly are ghosts? We’ve all probably cut eyeholes out of sheet and worn it around on Halloween or another occasion to spook someone. We’ve seen movies that deal with hauntings and ghosts and spirits—too many to even name. We’ve all been to a seasonal haunted house or a carnival fun house aimed at scaring us. We may even remember the old cartoon Casper the Friendly Ghost with his kind heart and willingness to help others. But there’s so much more to what we perceive to be an actual ghost.
The word ghost comes from the Middle English word gost and the Old English word gast, meaning “breath/spirit,” and has many other related forms in other Germanic languages. Dictionary.com defines ghost like so: ghost (noun) 1. The spirit of a dead person, especially one believed to appear in bodily likeness to living persons or to haunt former habitats. 2. The center of spiritual life; the soul. 3. A demon or spirit. 4. A returning or haunting memory or image.
It’s easy to come up with a verbal definition of what a ghost is . . . it’s just words. But to pinpoint and define the reality of a ghost is a whole other ball of wax. How do you know what exactly is or isn’t a ghost, spirit, or entity? Can you truly trust your eyes if you see an apparition? Are your glasses dirty, or is your imagination running wild? Are you experiencing a cold spot in a room? Is it a poorly aimed air-conditioner vent, or is it exactly the location where Uncle Fred used to sit and watch NFL on Sundays? What if you see an odd flicker of light? Did your parents not pay the power bill? Is something running out of batteries? Or is it some sort of atmospheric or environmental situation that you’re witnessing? As a paranormal investigator, you have to constantly question things, events, and conditions around you, as well as what you’re seeing, feeling, and hearing.
People have been reporting ghostly encounters as far back as anyone can remember—literally since the dawn of time. Every major world religion is based in some sort of spiritualism and belief in an afterlife. The Bible is chock-full of references to spirits and ghosts. However, there remains no definitive, indisputable, scientific evidence of ghosts and spirits. That is where teams of paranormal investigators come in handy. Through a dedication to discovery and a focus on the science end of things, teams throughout the world strive to investigate locations and capture the best evidence they possibly can in order to justify the existence of an afterlife.
In the next chapter, we’ll discuss more in detail what we believe a ghost is and even go into the different types of ghosts! Bet you didn’t know there was more than one, did you?
History of the Spiritualist movement We can’t exactly determine the absolute first time people began attempting to seek out and communicate with spirits. However, many people trace the beginning of modern-day ghost hunting back to the socalled Spiritualist movement, which started around 1849 with the Fox sisters. There are many books that cover the entire topic of this, so we’ll keep it simple just to fill you in.
Adolescents Margaret and Kate Fox claimed to have mediumlike powers that enabled them to speak to the dead. With their oldest sister, Leah, as their manager, they toured all over the country to many cities, hosting séances that featured moving objects, knocking noises, and levitating tables. The public was enthralled with them and the apparent door they’d opened to another world. Many people accused them of being fakes and frauds, but it didn’t keep the crowds away. Their popularity lasted until around 1885, when the interest in Spiritualism declined and the rise of skepticism increased. The whole Spiritualist movement pretty much came to an end in the 1920s.
Tomfoolery with photography From the onset of photography in the mid-1800s, a handful of photographers figured out that they could create what is known as a double exposure by taking the film plate and exposing it twice. At the time, very few photographers, let alone common people off the street, fully understood how images were recorded onto film. A few less-than-honest photographers realized that through use of the double exposure technique, they could create photographs that appeared to contain ghostly apparitions.
William H. Mumler was one of the most successful at this. He would prey on grieving family members who had recently lost a loved one by charging them to come in for a sitting and with the promise of making contact with the departed, provide photographic “proof” that their deceased was still with them.
Mumler’s technique was simple. With his camera set on a tripod, he would have the primary subject, who had paid for the session, sit in a chair in the studio and would proceed to expose several photographic plates of the subject. After the subject had left, with the chair still in place, Mumler would have a second subject (often a local actor or actress with whom he was friends) stand behind the chair, usually looking in the direction in which the first subject was sitting, sometimes seeming to embrace him or her. When the photographic plates were later processed, the grieving family members were elated and relieved to find “evidence” that their loved one was still present. Of Mumler’s self-portrait, apparently featuring the ghost of his cousin, which began his career. Of course, the second ghostly subject in the images seldom resembled the person who had passed on. Mumler explained that we didn’t always look the same in the afterlife as we had in life. As he was the “expert” on these techniques, few questioned his authority or explanations. Eventually an undercover reporter from the New York newspaper the World revealed the secret double-exposure technique and figured out that Mumler was up to no good. After that, Mumler’s career had many ups and downs until he died in poverty in 1884.
While most people recognize Harry Houdini as possibly the greatest escape artist and stage magician of all time, he was also known the world over as a skeptic and investigator of spiritualists and mediums. He went to great lengths to expose frauds that had managed to fool scientists and academicians alike. He would even go so far as attending séances in disguise, having a police officer and reporter with him ready to help him reveal the situation. He debunked many a spiritualist who preyed upon people’s sadness, loss, and weakness.
All the fraud and deception linked to the Spiritualist movement has given the investigation of the paranormal a black eye that we’re still feeling today. But through the work and dedication of the thousands of paranormal groups working out there now, we’re doing our best to make up for the misdeeds of the past.
Look at all the TV shows! You can’t scroll through the television guide without running up against a paranormal television show, special, feature, or documentary. They’re everywhere: shows that feature haunted locations, teams of investigators, psychics and mediums, scary situations, people in need of help, etc. All of these shows demonstrate many ways of approaching a paranormal investigation. Many attempt to educate people as to the tools and science available. Most important, these shows are a unique opportunity to reach out to the next generation of ghost hunters.
However, you must keep in mind that so much of our work in this field is distorted by the very eyes and ears we experience it through. What we see and what we are told is often skewed by the mass media that delivers it to us. While we are all entertained watching ghost-hunting programs and paranormal investigations on television, it’s important to remember that it’s just that: entertainment. We urge the new generation of would-be ghost hunters to take media accounts of paranormal activity with a grain of salt. No investigation takes place in thirty minutes. What you see on television is almost always altered in the editing room. Editing allows for compression of time and for tossing out the lion’s share of moments on investigations when nothing happens. No, you’re not going to experience a paranormal event on every investigation. The harsh reality is that 99 percent of the time on an investigation is spent waiting for something to occur, if it occurs at all.
Nor should it be construed that what is presented on television is the final, irrefutable word. We are all still learning in a field that is almost entirely hypothetical in nature. Investigators on television can (and do) make mistakes in assessing the evidence they collect. As such, paranormal evidence is always inconclusive. Reread that last statement a few times until it soaks in, because we feel it’s very important to keep that mindset if you want to be a good ghost hunter. At present, there is no “smoking gun” pointing the way toward the existence of paranormal phenomena. Data collected currently cannot withstand the scrutiny of science. So we are left to speculate and hypothesize on the phenomena we observe and document. While it’s fun to entertain the notion of the existence of ghosts, it’s still questionable at the end of every investigation. So you’re investigating phenomena that may or may not be caused by ghosts. In fact, most of the time these phenomena have lame, mundane, normal explanations. That creaking door that opens on its own needs some oil and a handyman to adjust the jamb. That mysterious knocking behind the wall is a loose hot-water pipe that needs to be tied down. And that horrid, demonic screeching in the middle of the night is really the neighbor’s cat getting into a fight with her “boyfriend.”
It’s prudent to point out that just because a person or group appears on television does not automatically make them the best investigators out there. Among the best known perhaps, but not necessarily the best. Investigators make their names in the field based on their merits and contributions—not the number of autographs signed or minutes of airtime. So treat television programs for what they are intended to be—entertainment, and not a 100 percent accurate portrayal of paranormal investigation.