Will the first investigator on site please turn on the lights

In her article “The effect of Hollywood’s tall tales on the perception of the paranormal” Louie Young describes how Hollywood’s portrayal of the paranormal has affected our perceptions. I’m taking this article a little further by looking at how TV paranormal groups could actually be influencing the majority of paranormal investigation groups so much that they cannot fulfil their own remit – to prove the existence of an afterlife by capturing evidence of ghosts among us. From my own point of view, I’d argue that this is impossible, and I hope the article ahead will spark a great deal of discussion across the board. Note though that this article is incredibly simplified: covering all aspects would result in a book, rather than a web article. Now there’s an idea…

A year of Covid Lockdowns has resulted in a little more spare time than usual for me to have a good trawl through the online presence of other investigation groups, and I’d argue that the majority of folk out there operate on what I’d call the ‘TV Model’ – essentially, their methods and viewpoints are firmly rooted in what they’ve seen on TV, whether it be Most Haunted, Ghost Adventures or the plethora of other shows that essentially operate on the same core principles. What seems to be missing in the majority of cases is a healthy dose of self scepticism: after all the greatest critic of any researcher should actually be themselves.

A simplistic view of the ‘TV Model’ is as follows:

  • Investigations to be done at night;
  • Nightvision cameras;
  • At least one person on the team who claims to be a medium or a sensitive;
  • Someone on the team to relay the background history of the venue;
  • At least one techie to explain that the group is scientific;
  • Usually a team uniform is in evidence;
  • Lots of talking to the camera and jumping at random noises.

The reason that this model is used on so many TV shows is that its entertaining. Its not about actually capturing any quantifiable data, its about TV ratings and keeping folk glued to their screen and coming back episode after episode. Real data collection takes time – lots and lots of time. Would this be entertaining on a TV show? No it wouldn’t, which is why its not done. But if you’re wanting to start collating data that can be analysed, well, guess what…?

So back to the issue at hand. The TV Model is designed for entertainment, which is also why a lot of groups become so popular online. The investigations, now often broadcast live or put together as an ‘episode’ on a platform such as Youtube appeal to the same side of us that enjoys watching horror shows and thrillers. In a recent discussion, I noted that one investigator’s reasons to use nightvision on an investigation was that it provided a better atmosphere. This highlights the biggest issue in the model: investigators are using the best methods that will look good or keep the fieldworkers entertained, as so few out there want to take the time and work to actually collate a body of data for analysis.

So, already we can see that the real focus isn’t on investigation and data collection. Its on looking good and entertainment which also explains the continuing obsession with light anomaly photography. The good old ‘Look, there’s an orb with a face in it!’ is the perfect way to hold folks’ attention. Most of the public won’t know how much research has gone into explaining light anomalies, and most don’t know about pareidolia. Those seeing these presentations, or even those on commercial ghost hunts have been pre-programmed by the TV Model to believe that orbs and mists are ghosts, but instead of many paranormal groups educating they simply use the fuzzy orbs as quick and easy ‘evidence’ of a paranormal presence. For those interested in the reality of orbs, an excellent article is ASSAP’s Exploring the Orb Zone which explains how digital photography can produce the effect and All About Orbs which looks into the specifics of form. Don’t get me wrong – looking back to when OWNE started in 2003/2004, we were fascinated by orbs as well. But the research was done and we simply moved on. So with all those groups still peddling orbs as paranormal when there’s so much evidence to the contrary, its not difficult to see why providing ‘proof’ of an afterlife actually moves further away rather than closer.

One of the huge elements in data collection is a clear picture of all factors than can influence a data set, and then again factors that can influence the interpretation of that data set. Taking the latter element first on interpretation, personal bias is a massive factor that most cannot rule out (equally in the cynic vs believer camps), which is why such things should be opened for peer review, and research should be done and understood as to what factors could result in the dataset that the original interpretation hadn’t taken into account. For example recently there was a rather heated discussion on a Facebook Group with a chap presenting years of ITC (Instrumental Trans-Communication) research as clearly showing human faces in water refractions and movement. When the opposing view of simple pareidolia was suggested he became abusive and stated that the process had been dismissed – then proceeded to make statements that appeared to suggest he didn’t have a clue what pareidolia was. Does that issue inherently dismiss his data set? No – but it potentially dismisses his interpretation of the dataset, with his own personal bias blocking access to actual interesting data.

Pareidolia within a cloud of breath mistTo discuss the element of factors influencing a data set, I’m going to present an example of a mist caught on digital photography that was not noticed visually at the time. This is not a specific photograph, merely an example. Two camps usually rear their heads…

  1. Its paranormal, and evidence of a ghost. It wasn’t seen at the time, so what else could it be.
  2. Its a simple environmental anomaly, caused by breath reacting with cold air or high humidity.

This is something most paranormal investigation groups out there see all of the time. Someone claims ‘ghost!’ and someone else says ‘its likely just your breath misting’… response being ‘I held my breath while I took the photograph’…. response ‘Prove it!’

Anyone recognise this? I imagine so. Issue is, unless the photograph is backed up with environmental data then how can we possibly say one way or another? It is true that in most cases locations that produce such anomalies tend to lend themselves to natural phenomena linked to air temperature, humidity and even ground temperature and natural misting, but without that data being recorded its just another theory. One of the datasets in our archive relates to a child’s crib that folk claimed moved by itself with sometimes the sounds of crying from it. During one investigation session the attending investigators heard on one occasion the crib rocking (while visually remaining still) and later visual anomalies within the crib. On its own, with no video/photography evidence to back it up its simply a statement. However, with data loggers within and without the crib monitoring temperature and humidity, it was noted that at the time the anomalies were noted (and only at that time) temperature flickered within the crib (only by half a degree Celsius) but the humidity didn’t change. The loggers outside the crib picked up no changes at all, suggesting that the anomalies could not have been caused by a breeze, which would have seen humidity and temperature both fluctuate outside the crib. Just a simple example of how simple monitoring of the environment is required.

Within the TV Model though, one of the biggest factors in misinterpretation and unawareness of surroundings lies in the very simple factor that most investigations appear to be undertaken in the dark. As previously mentioned, some prefer night-time/night vision investigation because its either what they’ve seen on TV, because it looks more atmospheric or because they believe that ghosts are more likely to present themselves in the dark. In some cases venues allowing the investigations to take place are only empty of a night-time to allow the fieldwork to take place. So, everyone troops to the location, turn all of the lights off and then fire up the night vision cameras or the torches, thereby for the most part completely closing themselves off to visual evidence of the environment around them that could provide perfectly adequate explanations of the ‘phenomena’ presenting itself.  As far as I can tell (and it would be interesting if anyone has actual research, not based upon Youtube, to the contrary) there is no evidence that ghost sightings occur more in the dark than the daytime (this is an overall statement, rather than on a location to location basis). None. Zilch. As far as I can see the idea first presented during the rise of Spiritualism, when alleged mediums required the dark to cover their more obvious fakery. The dark also affects our sense of Fight and Flight response, so automatically opens us up, some more than others, to such influences. So while a nightvision investigation may look nice and atmospheric, you’re simply bringing in psychological factors while cutting yourself off from actual potential environmental and spatial data.

Moving on to the tradition of having to have a ‘sensitive’ or ‘medium’ on board, this is something we have discussed publically online and within OWNE for at least the last decade. When we stopped utilising self proclaimed mediums on our fieldwork, the team dropped to a third of the numbers we had. That made me think. One of the arguments was that by removing a medium from the team we were ignoring a potential line of investigation. To me though using a medium does not constitute a line of investigation (instead a medium should be the focus of investigation). For example, a medium arrives on site and proclaims a name or names. Post-investigation, the team finds that the name exists in the historic record. This simply proves that the medium in question could have done research beforehand. Same investigation, same names, but a search of the historic record doesn’t reveal the name. As such the medium could have simply made it up with no proof of existence. “But I trust them not to have researched beforehand!” is often the response. Real research isn’t however about trust. Its about getting a dataset together that stands up to scrutiny. 

So if a medium or sensitive cannot provide evidence during fieldwork, why do so many groups use them? Then I realised that we’re going back to orbs, and ‘easy evidence’. A medium proclaiming a name provides a focus to many as psychologically its a nod that there’s something there to investigate. Its also about entertainment, not only for ‘viewers’ but also within the team. Which is why when OWNE moved to data collection only, we lost most of the team.

So with this article trying to push folk (unreservedly) toward the data recording method and away from the entertainment model, why did I include the statement “At least one techie to explain that the group is scientific” in the summary at the beginning? Its really simple really. Discussions with groups across the UK in the last year (and beyond) have shown that most teams like their gadgets, and a lot deflect with “Look, we’re using EMF meters, we’re scientific!” But when questioned they have no idea how the devices work, in some case what they’re recording and in most cases how to interpret the data. To demonstrate this I’ll use an example from several years ago of a geomagnetic survey that had been presented as resulting in no anomalies. The geophysicists had used standard methodology and data clipping to provide the report, but when the raw data was viewed major anomalies could be seen. When questioned, they simply said that they hadn’t even looked at the raw data, they’d simply used the standard clipping software.

There’s no point in collecting data if you don’t know what data you’re collecting, or how you’re collecting it. This takes us back to being aware of your environment and how it can effect the equipment. If you don’t know how the equipment does what it does, how can you know what could affect or change the results? So again this marks the difference between entertainment vs research. Research and understanding your equipment takes time and effort, but is unlikely to up your Youtube followers.

So to take us back to my original statement of the aim of most groups being “ to prove the existence of an afterlife by capturing evidence of ghosts among us. Unfortunately, from my own point of view, I’d argue that this is impossible“,  I’d argue that the actual remit of most groups out there who use this model is entertainment for themselves and their followers rather than actually trying to find evidence of paranormal activity. If they did really want to focus on trying to find data suggesting that the afterlife or even just the existence of the paranormal, the format of investigations on the whole within these groups would have to change dramatically. No more stalking through graveyards at night waving nightvision cameras around. No more cooing over mediums stating that there’s a dark spirit nearby that means the investigation team harm. Just a lot of hard work, research, understanding and experimentation. To me, the TV Model inherently inhibits the team utilising it to actually fulfil the remit they state. And that’s without even going into how one would define proof of an afterlife…

So please, next time you get out onto site don’t turn out the lights. Turn them all on and look around you!

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