Credit: Stuff.co.nz (altered)
This article published in stuff.co.nz on 6th April 2013 - "Ghostbusting group gets fright" prompted this blog post.
There has also been a lot of discussion on the Facebook pages of Haunted Auckland, CPINZ and the Strange Occurrences Facebook group
Now that you're up to speed, let's look at some of the implications of this.
Ok, first let me come clean. I have occasionally entered abandoned buildings in the past, but only to take photographs. I've been a photographer since the mid 1980s and old buildings seemed like fair game. I have never broken in or damaged anything. However, I do not condone this activity: it is dangerous; it is trespassing; it is illegal. Since becoming involved in paranormal investigation, and being the leader of a prominent team and one of several somewhat-public figures representing the field of paranormal investigation in New Zealand, it would be unwise of me to continue this activity. So I do not.
The reason being (aside from breaking the law) that if I were caught trespassing, I would immediately be identified as a paranormal investigator - or a "Ghostbuster", as the media cannot resist of referring to us as - and that identification would be damaging to the combined cause of other paranormal investigation groups, as well as pretty much destroying the reputation of my own team - something we have all worked for some years to build.
This damage would occur for several reasons:
It is worth noting also that getting caught trespassing is not the only hazard in abandoned buildings. What happens if they're not all that abandoned? If people are squatting there they might not take kindly to invaders. Also, the buildings can be full of hazards such as exposed electrical wiring (you can't easily tell if the site has been isolated from the mains. It should have been, but there's no guarantee). There can be rotting floors, unstable stair wells, broken glass, holes in the floor, rusty nails sticking up and other protrusions you can easily run into in the dark. Also, if you do get spooked at night (easily done) and flee in panic, the dangers presented by physical hazards are increased manyfold. (Paranormal groups always carefully check for and identify site hazards in daylight before investigating at night.)
So, why did the people concerned trespass upon the old hospital site? Mostly, it comes down to the proliferation of TV and internet programmes depicting "ghost hunting". The reality of paranormal investigation can be, frankly, pretty boring at times, at least after the novelty of it wears off. On TV it's all thrills, scares, unexplained events, and the possibility of uncovering the truth about ghosts and the paranormal. The full picture is never presented. It's glamorous, exciting and fascinating, and who would not want a bit of that in their lives? This is the main reason why people form paranormal investigation groups.
In the Facebook discussion around the Stuff article, it was mentioned (by me and others) that the group of people concerned was not a "legitimate" group of paranormal investigators. Well, I may have been mistaken there. What defines a legitimate group?
Fact is, anyone can start a paranormal investigation group. There is no national body or organisation that determines who is legitimate and who is not. (I am a professional photographer, but not a member of either professional body in NZ; that does not prevent me from practicing. It would be different if I were, say, a surgeon.)
All you need to do to become a legitimate paranormal investigation group is put up a website, something that can be done for free in about an hour on Weebly or elsewhere. Hell, some groups don't even maintain websites, only Facebook pages.
On their websites and pages, most investigation groups provide only an email address or a contact form as means of initial communication, both of which are fairly anonymous. Most don't provide phone numbers or physical addresses for initial contact, and this is really to avoid the complete nut jobs, who can often be identified by their use of all-caps in their emails :-). The more conscientous groups include full names and photographs of team members, and they also work to build up a public profile via newspapers, television and the internet (including Facebook and Youtube). It also helps to get a few investigations under the belt, and publicise some details and photos so that it looks like the group is actually doing something other than just wandering round in cemeteries with EMF meters and cameras - not that there's anything wrong with that, but don't get arrested. Because of nasty things like neo-nazis vandalising Jewish graves, the public and the police tend to keep an eye out for suspicious people in cemeteries under cover of darkness.
It would seem as if anyone could declare themselves a paranormal investigator, and pass themselves off as legitimate by doing the things above (not the getting arrested bits, obviously). Well, yes, and no. There is a paranormal community in New Zealand, and it is fairly small, with fewer than ten paranormal groups covering the entire country (see our Links page). Most of the leaders of the groups, and a good proportion of the established members, are known to each other (if not in person, at least online) and there is an increasing trend for members of different groups to collaborate on investigations. This is a good thing. It works a little bit like TradeMe, where buyers are protected from rogue sellers (and vice versa) by feedback. While things aren't stuctured and centrally monitored like Trademe (which operates extremely well) there is a informal type of decentralised monitoring, whereby those who don't play the game by the (largely unwritten) rules end up not being involved in it. Of course a few things have to go wrong before this happens, like in any other scenario.
I do not wish to advocate any form of centralised monitoring (the idea has been floated in the past and rejected by the paranormal community) but I think the extant form of community monitoring could be improved to the point of being an effective safety mechanism for members of the public wishing to contact a paranormal group for assistance. Online communication and general openness is good for this, but group leaders and members meeting in person, cooperating on investigations and research, and generally sharing ideas and methods is definitely the way forward to a stronger paranormal community in New Zealand, one which would inspire more public confidence and not be so often ridiculed or sent up by the media.
The problem all paranormal groups constantly face is getting a good enough supply of investigations, either self-generated (which involves getting proper authorisation to investigate sites) or public-generated (people contacting the group for help in solving paranormal-related issues). The groups that are not able to generate enough investigations will inevitably disappear due to their members getting bored and wandering off. Getting investigations is the strongest barrier to establishing a new paranormal group, now that the field is well established in this country. (In the UK and US there are tens of thousands of groups, and most historic sites charge a significant fee to would-be investigators. Think how that would be.)
There is also, inevitably, a certain amount of competition between all of the groups, for prominence, media attention and investigations. It is like any other field; for example, real estate (where if you can't get enough houses to sell, you give up and try something else). This is harsh, and can generate ill feeling between groups and individuals. It is something we all have to work to minimise the effect of. (Not necessarily to eliminate, just to take the nastiness out of it, because a certain amount of competition is necessary to keep things healthy, like in any system.)
The main centres are already covered by existing teams, but there are openings. For example, there is no established paranormal group in the Nelson area (the named individuals having pretty much shot themselves in the collective foot, making it a (not insurmountable) challenge for them to become the credible team there), nor in Northland, Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, Bay of Plenty, Southland, or on the historic West Coast of South Island.
I seem to be running off topic here. Let's reel it back in.
So, what could the five people named in the Stuff article have done better?
If you're going to start a paranormal investigation group, get very good people around you; people you trust implicitly (avoid practical jokers of any description) and who have the ability to grow into their role; people who are potential leaders, or who are very good doers; people who have a range of skills, ages, life experience, backgrounds and beliefs - not necessarily carbon copies of yourself.
Finally, to quote the character Nucky Thompson in the TV series Boardwalk Empire (when confronted with anyone frustratingly short of nous), "Oh, go read a f%#@ing book!" In other words, don't watch too many paranormal investigation programmes on the net or TV (a few doesn't hurt, just keep your brain engaged), but rather do some proper research. Read books. A lot of books. For a start, see this NZ paranormal books page.) But not just on the paranormal; try psychology, popular science, scepticism and critical thinking, and local history. Always be critical about what you read. Do not take anything as gospel just because it's in a book or on TV (especially on TV, but I've come across much utter twaddle in books, especially self-published ones). Question everything!
This is a bit of a wandering article, sorry, but I hope it produces some discussion and feedback about how the field of paranormal investigation in New Zealand can become a better place to visit and to be a part of.
Addenda, 21st April 2013: this article appeared on the Stuff website on 15th April, via the Timaru Herald: http://www.stuff.co.nz/timaru-herald/news/8551742/Castle-owner-fed-up-with-ghost-hunters.
Although it covers similar territory to the article discussed above, the circumstances are somewhat different, in that (from a comment by CPINZ on the Haunted Auckland Facebook page) the previous owner went to some effort to attract attention to the house because of its supposed paranormal history, and the current owner is currently suffering from that action.
It is interesting that the news media has jumped on another story of this nature, although the actions described are somewhat trivial and not very newsworthy (or perhaps they are in Timaru). The portrayal of people 'ghost hunting' as hoons is, again, damaging to the causes of more serious groups of paranormal enthusiasts. Let's hope this trend does not continue.
is a blog by James Gilberd - leader and co-founder of Strange Occurrences. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Strange Occurrences team.
James Gilberd is an amateur paranormalist, writer and musician, and a professional photographer, living in Wellington, New Zealand.