Believe it or not: Ghost hunters go high-tech

The pursuit of paranormal activity combines age-old beliefs with 21st century technologies.Photos: Tech for hunting spooks
Written by Elsa Wenzel, Contributor
When Sharon Leong conducts field work, she packs a digital camera, a thermometer and an electromagnetic field meter. She isn't a private detective or an electrician. Leong, a legal secretary by day, is an avid ghost hunter by night.

With those gizmos and many others in tow, Leong treks to reputedly haunted homes, battlefields, bars and hotels, gathering what she thinks may be evidence of a world beyond this earthly one.

The pursuit of ghostly evidence has been a popular pastime for centuries. Now, instead of Ouija boards, ghost hunters are increasingly turning to high tech gear to assist in their search.

Ghost-hunting tech

Such ghost hunters rely upon digital equipment to document potential signs of hauntings. Cameras and voice recorders pick up eerie sights and sounds, while handheld gadgets measure electromagnetic radiation and odd drops in temperature. Jumpsuits like those from the movie Ghostbusters are unnecessary, but pocket-laden cargo pants and fishing jackets are handy for stashing all of the gear.

Hobbyists like Leong find equipment either in pedestrian electronics shops or at custom online emporiums, such as Ghost Mart, which specializes in "discount paranormal research equipment." Although most of the equipment is built for more ordinary purposes, others, like a $30 electromagnetic field (EMF) "ghost meter," are clearly targeted at amateur ghost seekers. Complete kits can be ordered at a wide range of prices, between $250 and $2,000.

"We'll probably seem medieval to people in the future, running around with our cameras, but you've got to start somewhere," Leong said. "Something is causing these instruments to go cuckoo, but we're not sure what or why."

Leong has traveled to famed spooky sites, like the Alcatraz prison, with fellow members of the San Francisco Ghost Society. It is one of hundreds of ad hoc paranormal groups that together comprise many tens of thousands of members in North America. The International Ghost Hunters Society has members in more than 90 countries.

The Internet allows enthusiasts to share footage they've captured instantly and anonymously, finding like-minded souls while escaping public ridicule. Ghost Village is a top hub for this community. It receives 80,000 unique visitors each month, twice that around Halloween.

We'll probably seem medieval to people in the future, running around with our cameras, but you've got to start somewhere.
--Sharon Leong, San Francisco Ghost Society member

Web 2.0-era social-networking tools enable ghost hunters to hook up via large Web communities, such as MySpace, and on niche sites including I Am Haunted. Live chatting, blogs and user videos on that site attract 30,000 monthly visitors and several dozen new members each day. Some ghost-club Web sites offer real-time "haunted cams" of notorious locales. YouTube has become a warehouse for tens of thousands of videos claiming to show lonely ghouls and other apparitions.

The craze has even reached the iPod; Apple iTunes lists more than 1,000 paranormal podcasts. Among them is the talk show of the San Francisco Ghost Society, led by group founder Tommy Netzband. He and his associates make free house calls to investigate what they believe to be three types of hauntings: "residual," "intelligent" and "inhuman."

"Ninety percent of these things have a reasonable explanation," Netzband said. "When people call me and say, 'Shadows are chasing me,' I automatically think they're crazy. We're not here putting ideas in people's heads to make them think this is a glamorous job. I've experienced shadow people, residual hauntings, and I've been tricked by ghosts, but it took me years and years."

Netzband finds that most hauntings fall into the "residual" category, understood as impressions of past events that remain ingrained within a place, replaying in the present time like a stuck record. These could be sensory traces of acutely emotional moments in someone's life, such as anguished last breaths, a song, or the scent of perfume. For instance, Netzband leads ghost tours of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood past a sidewalk said to be haunted by the sound of running boots worn by a teenager shot to death in the 1970s.

Netzband and others find that paranormal pastimes have grown in popularity in the last decade along with sitcoms like NBC's Medium and reality shows like Ghost Hunters on the Sci Fi channel, which attract millions of viewers. MTV produces the Celebrity Paranormal Project, while the Discovery channel airs A Haunting episodes. A Web promotion for the Travel Channel's Most Haunted program offers an application that turns a mobile phone into an EMF reader.

Ghost hunters both on television and on the street tend to favor digital cameras, which capture light in infrared and ultraviolet spectrums that regular film cannot pick up. Yet, some haunting hobbyists prefer film cameras--especially Polaroids--because printed images are harder to doctor than pixels. Leong, for one, carries a Canon PowerShot 5.1 megapixel digital camera in addition to a disposable, film point-and-shoot. She recommends using a wide angle lens and a tripod, especially when leaving video cameras to record for hours on end.

However, in the field, ghost hunters rarely come up with pictures of stereotypical shadowy figures or white-gowned women. Instead, they consider photographs that show floating balls of light to be the most common sign of a spirit's presence. The orbs are normally caused by a flare of the flash or a trace of dust on a lens. But Netzband thinks that some light blobs represent genuine "ghost poo." This type of discharge, otherwise known as ectoplasm, may appear as a glowing light or mist once, say, Elvis has left the building.

Many ghost hunters believe that hauntings are tied to changes in electromagnetic frequencies, and that uncanny activity spikes during a solar flare or a full moon. Netzband, Leong and their cohorts therefore sport handheld EMF detectors and Geiger counters for radiation readouts when exploring a haunted locale. Hand-cranked or Faraday flashlights are handy, should a spirit drain the batteries. Old-fashioned compasses and newfangled infrared thermometers also come into play.

Ghost hunters say residual hauntings are a holographic glimpse into another dimension or time. But they believe that the "intelligent" class of hauntings, more than echoes of the past, actually respond to people and events in the present time and thus require different equipment.

However, the deceased apparently need technical help to talk. The $70 Belfry Bat Detector picks up ultrasonic sounds. More common, though, are cassette or digital voice recorders used as ghost-whispering gadgets. Some ghost hunters prefer devices with poor recording quality, believing that entities use white noise to form a voice.

The conversation may sound one-sided while investigators ask questions of ghosts, but ghost hunters swear they hear words and phrases, known as electronic voice phenomena (EVP), once they play back a recording, crank up the volume, and clean it up with software. Experimenters have edited with software such as Adobe Audition or Audacity, and uploaded hundreds of EVP sessions to various Web sites.

Lisa and Tom Butler say they have been talking to dead people through voice recordings for 16 years. The husband-and-wife team runs the American Association for Electronic Voice Phenomena, a nonprofit group whose Web site receives some 2,000 visitors daily. The Butlers say they achieve audible results for nearly one-third of their recording sessions, enough to be statistically meaningful.

"This is a lot bigger than ghost hunting," said Lisa Butler, a retired psychologist. "We have people reaching their loved ones, both through audio and visual formats. There are people who are skeptical about it, but it's something you can do for yourself."

More than a handful of people claim to have invented a "telephone to the dead," first imagined by none other than Thomas Edison. Leong saw such a ghost-gabbing device demonstrated this spring at the Colorado's Stanley Hotel (it inspired Stephen King's novel The Shining). But she's not interested in dialing the dead.

Here's an important news break for everyone: we're all going to die and what comes next is one of the biggest mysteries in universe
--Jeff Belanger, GhostVillage.com

"Like Ouija Boards, there are inherent dangers in using this device at the present stage of its development," Leong said. "I mean, how can one be sure that one is hearing the voice of the person who has passed away, and not a demonic entity disguising or mimicking the dead relative's voice?"

Skeptics argue that there is nothing to fear from a perceived haunting other than wasting time and energy. Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, has seen phasmophobia, or fear of ghosts, drive families from their creaky old homes. And if ghosts seek to right wrongful deaths, he wonders why we don't see more hauntings.

"This whole country is an Indian burial ground," he said. "People have been on this planet (hundreds) of thousands of years and probably wherever you are at some point, someone dropped dead nearby." Supposed evidence that ghost hunters provide, such as EVP recordings, only mislead impressionable people, Radford said.

"All of these are ambiguous stimuli, the audio equivalent of faces in clouds. I've been there where people have cranked up this poor little tape recorder saying, "I hear someone saying 'Set me free!' Or maybe it's saying, 'A wallaby!' This is not a message from the other side."

So, what about the orbs of light? They're all camera glitches, Radford said. And as for EMF readings, there's no evidence that ghost meters pick up anything but electromagnetic field readings, which scientific studies have correlated with psychological hallucinations, but not with ghosts.

Throughout history, people have deployed the seemingly magical, new technologies for mystical pursuits. During the Spiritualism movement of the 19th century, tricksters took phony double-exposure portraits of semitransparent "ghosts." During seances, mediums rigged parlor contraptions to tap out crude Morse code messages under tables. In the 1930s, people recorded such sessions with the phonograph.

"In recent years, it has to do with the sense that ghosts communicate at different wavelengths, so (people think) if we could tap into the infrasound, or infrared, with the right gadget, then we can hear them," said Mary Roach, who wrote the book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

Her research found no mainstream scientific studies to back up the claims of ghost hunters. Still, one-third of Americans believe in ghosts, according to a poll in 2005 by the Gallup Organization, which found a notable increase in paranormal beliefs since the 1980s. Whether the popularity of ghost-hunting feeds, or is fed, by television, Roach finds the trend both amusing and disturbing.

"These shows tend to be on channels like Discovery, which were originally associated with science," she said. "The people they're putting on are billed as researchers, but they're amateurs. I don't like to see it presented as a legitimate, acceptable and truthful undertaking."

Jeff Belanger, who runs GhostVillage.com and has written seven books on the paranormal, agrees that the ghost-hunting equipment lends a sense of credibility to something that cannot be measured. "As much as some organizations and individuals try to strip out the esoteric and spiritual and bring it down to pure science, it's not always possible because you're looking for something beyond our understanding of the universe," he said.

But Belanger finds ghost stories valuable for teaching people about history. He thinks that interest in the extraordinary spikes after catastrophic events. For instance, the Spiritualism movement coincided with the Civil War. More recently, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and wars in the Middle East may have spurred more Americans to imagine the afterlife.

"Here's an important news break for everyone: we're all going to die and what comes next is one of the biggest mysteries in universe," Belanger said.

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