The talk I gave at the 2010 NZ Skeptics Conference is still online, archived on the Science Media Centre site. Thought it'd disappeared.
We introduced this afternoon talk by having three of us enter the darkened conference room and 'investigate' it with EMF meters, laser thermometers, and wearing head torches. (Denise and Mark helped me with this bit.)
"Are you picking up anything on that side of the room, Mark?"
"Well, I don't know about ghosts but there are an awful lots of skeptics around here."
It got a good laugh, which made going into the talk a bit easier.
It's not very interesting to listen to without the illustrations and slides, but some of it is at least a bit humorous. Many of the photos discussed are in our book 'Spooked...'
I found it somewhat intimidatiing to talk to an audience consisting largely of scientists and others with an average level of education similar to university lecturers. Humour had to be the way forward.
The talk, if you want to listen.
With the greatest respect to the late and much loved Lou Gentile, who has contributed more to the field of the paranormal than I probably ever will, the Derren Brown Investigates documentary - Pt III, The Ghost Hunter - while being in some ways a memoriam to the life and work of Mr Gentile, highlights the dangers of (i) approaching paranormal investigation from a position of belief, and (ii) making claims that the evidence you have collected is definite proof of paranormal phenomena. The reason for writing this post about a three-year-old TV documentary is that I feel we, as paranormal investigators, can take some valuable lessons from what was presented in it.
Derren Brown, being a famed arch-skeptic of the paranormal, went pretty easy on Lou Gentile. I wonder if this was out of respect and politeness (he seemed to quite like Lou); or was it more just showing Lou as he found him, using the technique of 'give em' enough rope'. Also, it is most probable Brown knew at the time of shooting the TV doco that his subject was terminally ill. (Tragically, Lou Gentile passed away due to cancer a few months after the documentary was filmed.)
I thought it was sad that Lou held up photos and EVPs as his life's work in the paranormal field that were, at best, highly questionable as to their paranormal content. As photos were projected, Lou showed us the faces in them, claiming the images as indisputable proof that ghosts and demons exist. The same claim was made in regard to some fairly iffy EVP recordings; they could maybe have been paranormal, but once the supposed content of the paranormal message in the EVP was suggested (in this case, also subtitled onscreen) the chance for viewers to regard it objectively was lost. (I would also question the documentary's producers for this fault. The recordings could perhaps have been presented neutrally, at least before screening Lou's opinion.)
Lou Gentile approached the paranormal from the perspective of a believer, and when it comes to presenting evidence, this approach is fundamentally flawed. It inevitably polarises viewers into one of two positions: 'I believe it', or 'It is total nonsense'. There is little room left for middle ground analysis, as a Yes or No response is effectively demanded. Any strongly subjective viewpoint (like Gentile's) polarises opinion, and that is ultimately counterproductive.
Also, and perhaps more crucially, the process of investigating and gathering the evidence from the paranormal believers' subjective viewpoint raises even more difficult questions regarding the validity of that evidence. What we are being presented with may not be the entire document; we will tend to think it has been edited to strengthen it, to make a case, ignoring other parts that lessen its value. What are we not being shown? Most paranormal TV shows that are designed to be entertainment also work in this way and suffer from the same fault. Brown's documentary is more objective, but we are still not allowed to consider any evidence or claim very thoroughly. In the TV-world interests of story telling and brevity, there is little depth to it.
I would suggest that as paranormal investigators, we should avoid these traps and do our best to be objective. We should concentrate on trying to establish what is occurring without jumping to the conclusion that it is paranormal - it probably is not - and we should present all of the relevant evidence without making inevitably unsustainable claims as to its meaning and interpretation.
Taking this path will help immensely on the credibility front.
There is nothing wrong with a bit of speculation in summarising the evidence found in an investigation, as long as it is presented as speculation; but making strong claims that photographs, sound recordings and other documents represent proof of the paranormal does no good. Rather, it invites ridicule and casts the paranormal investigator/s concerned, and the whole field, to a degree, in a poor light.
I don't know enough about Lou Gentile's work as a Demonologist to discuss it here (and it is not the subject of this essay), but it has to be said that, in general, the practice of exorcising supposed demons is highly dangerous. It may be that if the 'victim' of the possession is suffering some kind of delusion and/or hysteria, a successful exorcism will relieve them of the belief that they are possessed and thereby cure them. But how can someone who is not a qualified medical practitioner be sure that they are not dealing with an epileptic seizure or some other kind of mental illness manifesting itself? Early in the documentary, the man on the bed is clearly having a seizure of some kind - be it self induced though hysteria, or otherwise - and I sincerely doubt there's a demon at the bottom of it.
I thought it sad, watching Brown's Lou Gentile documentary for the second time, that this man's life's work, his dedication to the field of the paranormal, and his unswerving need to help others was reduced to a few pretty iffy claims of proof of the paranormal. The documentary was, while at some level respectful and a just memoriam, at the last rather belittling.
Note: another lengthy treatment of the life and work of Lou Gentile can be found in the book Will Storr vs the Supernatural. It is an excellent read. Will Storr's approach is akin to Derren Brown's - he presents people and situations as he finds them, steering clear of cynicism. There is underlying humour, but reader or viewer is invited to draw their own conclusions.
14th Oct. 2016: Author comment: this is not a debate about homosexuality or Christianity.
Comments relating to these topics will be deleted. Thank you.
Do ghosts exist? What I personally believe (so far)
The conversation often goes like this: “As a paranormal investigator, you must believe in ghosts.”
“Hmm, not necessarily. You don’t have to believe in something to be interested in it.”
This is not usually what people want to hear. A more expected answer might be; “Yes, I know ghosts exist. I just need to gather enough hard evidence to prove it.” This would be the position of many ‘ghost hunters’ and also many (but not all) paranormal investigators.
But when giving the first answer, I always feel like I’m wheedling out of the issue, avoiding being pinned down by using a pat answer. This is because, as you will see, a proper answer requires quite a bit of thought and far too many words for casual conversation.
In the book, Spooked – Exploring the Paranormal in New Zealand (Random House NZ Ltd, Auckland, 2011) my co-author Jo Davy and I state our position at some length; we are agnostic about the existence of ghosts. That is to say, we are looking for evidence either way, both through Strange Occurrences and externally, but the jury is still out. We are optimistic that one day there may be scientific explanations for the various phenomena people experience and refer to as ghosts.
That’s the official version, but what do I personally believe when it comes to ghosts?
Well, I’m not at all convinced about the survival of the human personality after bodily death. Until it is shown otherwise, I agree with the scientists that say the human mind is nothing more than the product of brain activity, and has no distinct existence. (This position is called Materialism.) I don’t think, then, that Cartesian Dualism is correct; that there is such a thing as a human spirit or soul that is separate or distinct in some way from the physical body. So I don’t believe that any aspect of the human personality survives death.
The Society for Psychical Research, established in 1882 and comprising many great minds and prominent thinkers of the time, studied Spiritualism thoroughly for decades and could not reach a conclusion in favour of it. During their studies they exposed many mediums as frauds, and if they had the technology we have today they undoubtedly would have exposed an even higher percentage. They failed to come up with any strong evidence that communication from beyond the grave is possible, although some cases they recorded were enticing in that regard, and a few mediums were not caught out cheating despite sustained testing. The SPR's methods, by many standards, were not considered rigorous, partly because they actually wanted to find that Spiritualism was valid, and partly because of a certain arrogance in their belief that they, as scientists and generally highbrow, well-educated types, could not be ‘had’ by the great unwashed. (It is supposed that Edmund Gurney, a prominent SPR member, committed suicide when he finally realised he’d been fooled for years by a fake psychic and his mates.)
What the SPR did achieve was a massive survey of accounts of Crisis Apparitions (published in a tome called Phantasms of the Living, also in Edmund Gurney’s Hallucinations and in the ongoing records of the Society). There have since been many well-documented and verified accounts of people who have experienced fatal or serious accidents or other crises appearing elsewhere to family members, loved ones or other close friends, at or around the time of their crises. In these cases, we are asked to accept that the percipient(s) had no other way of knowing that the crisis had occurred, and also that their recollection of events (and those of the verifiers) was accurate.
In all cases recorded, it is valid to argue that either the percipient (the person who saw the apparition and thereby gained some information about the crisis) could have either (i) acquired the information through another means, or (ii) the incident was dreamed or imagined, and/or was but a coincidence. Neither of these arguments can be ruled out absolutely in any of the reported cases.
However, you only need one of these Crisis Apparition events to be proven as genuine in order to necessitate a change in thinking in the scientific and skeptical community.
Personally, I hold that Crisis Apparitions are a form of telepathic communication (rather than ghosts), and further, that human telepathy is possible in extremis. Unfortunately, there is no way that this type of condition (a genuine crisis such as a serious or fatal injury occurring to a human) can be replicated repeatedly for testing under laboratory conditions, so all we are ever going to have is a collection of anecdotes. (If we cannot even describe an experiment that could lead to a theory about Crisis Apparitions, is there any point in waiting for science to prove or disprove the phenomenon?)
I believe that a good proportion of the published anecdotal evidence for Crisis Apparitions is well-enough corroborated and the witnesses sufficiently reliable to show that the phenomenon does exist. I believe that Crisis Apparitions, and therefore ESP, do in fact exist and occur.
Having said that, I feel that the laboratory methods so far employed in testing for ESP are fundamentally flawed and invalid. If someone has genuine powers of ESP that they can use at will, surely would not their run through a pack of Zener cards most often yield 25 out of 25 correct readings, rather than some statistical figure allegedly X amount greater than random chance? ESP, then, if it exists, is not something any living person can use at will; it is by nature sporadic and unpredictable, even in the most talented individuals. It will probably never succumb to testing by scientific method (at least with our current approach) so anecdotal evidence may be all that we ever have to go on. Perhaps we need to accept this and work on developing more rigorous methods of collecting and validating personal accounts.
So what about actual ghosts?
Well, I’m not as sure about ghosts as I am about Crisis Apparitions and ESP. I pretty-much reject the Spiritualist explanation of ghosts – discarnate human (or animal) souls. I do think that ESP could explain some of the cases of (reportedly) genuine information being obtained from ‘beyond the grave’, the reason being that the information had in fact come from a living human agency, (not that you necessarily need extra-sensory powers to obtain that information; just being extra-observant and canny usually suffices).
I do believe that people experience ghosts, and this comes from reading a large number of published accounts and also having a few unexplained, possibly paranormal experiences of my own. I am more inclined to think that our perception of ghosts has to do with the way time works. The linear concept most of us have of time is fine for day-to-day plans and observations, but science has shown that nothing in nature is really quite that simple. (Relativistic and (especially) quantum physics will make your head spin.) If time is really non-linear and/or multi-dimensional, there might be room in there for some perceptive-enough people to catch glimpses (or hear sounds, etc) of events that have happened in the past, under certain conditions as yet unknown. Those events might be day-to-day things, but seem by accounts to more often be associated with situations of high emotion. So maybe ESP is also a factor here, and it need not be an instantaneous, present communication but one that can cross our perceived boundary of linear time. The widely-published UK case of Johnnie Minnie is but one example of this.
This belief of mine accounts more for the type of ghost that is non-interactive – a replaying of past events, if you like. It doesn’t allow for so-called ‘intelligent haunting’, where the ghost supposedly has direct, two-way communication with witnesses, or is able to physically affect the environment. Although I have experienced a few situations where this may have occurred, I don’t believe that natural causes can be entirely ruled out. Wishful thinking may enter the equation, too, leading to the ignoring of some evidence that doesn’t fit with the haunting scenario. In short, I am so-far unconvinced that intelligent, interactive ghosts exist, but I’m well up for being proved wrong!
Demonic Possession: I think no – it doesn’t happen. Demons are psychological, cultural constructions grown from religious beliefs and exacerbated by too much non-critical viewing of television and films. Supposed demonic possessions are either the result of hysteria (in the ‘possessed’ and perhaps also in the witnesses) or mental illness, or a combination of the two. This is something I feel surer about stating than anything else above; but also it is a useful self-test of whether I’m truly open minded about paranormal phenomena (which is why it is mentioned here; and my result is usually a fail in this test).
I am prepared to change my mind in the face of strong and significant evidence that contradicts my current thinking on any of these issues, or about other paranormal phenomena not mentioned here. In other words, none of the views expressed above is fixed. Where I say I believe something, this is meant to include a certain amount of guessing and wishful thinking and even just a little faith. I may hold these same views in a year’s time, or I may not. Whatever, finding out more promises to be at least as intriguing a journey as it has been so far.
Review: Dead Haunted – Paranormal Encounters and Investigations
Author: Phil Whyman
Publisher: New Holland, London, 2007
Dead Haunted is an attractive book. At first glance, anyway. Then you begin reading it. Immediately, Whyman’s chatty, meandering tone irritates. Here’s a sample:
2. Partial Manifestations
These are similar to full bodied manifestations, though I tend to think this type has a rather more frightening appearance. Why? Well imagine the following scenes…
You walk into a room and as you do you are met with the floating torso of a man! Or, you walk into a room and you meet a pair of legs slowly walking towards you, with no torso in sight!
Get the idea? Well, I’ll tell you one thing – I’d probably be out of that room quicker than a rat wearing running shoes. Don’t you think it would be scarier seeing part of a person than the whole thin? I thought so!
If the lame attempt at humour and the liberal scattering of exclamation marks do not irritate you intensely, you may be able to enjoy this book.
That is if you can get over the design. Pages 22-23 are probably the worst. We’re talking light, sans-serif over a bluey-green, blown up, grainy photograph. Even with my new reading glasses and a good supply of light, this spread on poltergeists is almost impossible to read, and this is not an isolated case. Later on, there are many pages of cursive text reversed out on black.
The photographs and their treatment by the designer are appealing, but as soon as you study the content of the photos you will notice that a high proportion of them are gratuitous – merely there to decorate and add flavour. Plus, they all have irritating artificial, fuzzy borders, as do the pages. The book is totally over-designed.
However, from Chapter 5 (Investigation Equipment) onwards, the content picks up. Chapter 7, on how to conduct a paranormal investigation, is pretty useful. The chapter profiling the medium Dave Wharmby is also a good read. Much of the rest of the book comprises reports of investigations the author has taken part in (Whyman is part of the Most Haunted team) and these are all somewhat interesting, but perhaps too numerous. There are also some personal accounts of ghostly encounters, by various people, and a list of Whyman’s top ten most haunted locations. This is excellent if you happen to live in the UK, but if you reside in other parts of the world (except perhaps the East Coast and the South of the US) you may find yourself feeling extremely jealous.
From the pitch of the text and the design of the book, it is clearly aimed at younger readers. For us adults, it’s too damned hard to read, and the content is too lightweight to be of much use. I would suggest this book would make an ideal gift for a teenager who’s interested in the paranormal (ghosts, primarily) and in learning how to conduct investigations. A less graphically beautiful but far more practical volume (and one that will encourage a higher level of critical thinking in your teenage ghost hunter) is ‘The Paranormal Investigator’s Handbook’, edited by Valerie Hope & Maurice Townsend (Collins & Brown, 1999).
Review: Ghosts Caught on Film – Photographs of the Paranormal
Author: Dr Melvyn Willin
Publisher: David & Charles Ltd, Cincinnati, 2007
Hardback, 156 pages, colour illustrations, 21×17.5cm
It’s still much more fun to curl up comfy with a book than to gaze at a computer screen or play with a small handheld device, and this experience is enhanced if the book has a pleasant weight, size and feel to it, as Ghosts Caught on Film does. It just sits nicely. It’s been lurking on the coffee table a couple of months, and I’ve been reading and studying it bit by bit. It seems more suited to that than a cover-to-cover read.
The book is well structured, with the mysterious photographs catergorised in chapters, each chapter having an introduction. The chapter titles are: The earliest Images; Photographs of the Invisible; Lookalikes – Beyond Coincidence?; Everyday Anomalies; Most Famous Mysteries. The photos date from the nineteenth century to this century (just), and were mainly shot on film, (as the title suggests) not digital cameras. I haven’t seen the later books in this series (see below) but it would be good to have a companion volume of digital photographs.
The first book I stumbled on – by accident, actually, in 2005 – that set me off buying books on the paranormal was Photographs of the Unknown by Richard Kelly (New English Library Ltd, 1980), a medium sized volume packed to the gunwales with every photo of the paranormal you ever saw, including Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster and a bunch of UFOs, and some photos you hadn’t seen. The text accompanying each photo is secondary, yet informative and well researched. I would still recommend this book, which you should be able to find in a used book shop or on TradeMe.
I would like Ghosts Caught on Film to be as good as Kelly’s book, and it almost is. You would expect, given advances in digital publishing and printing technology, that the photos would be clearer than the 1980 book, which was produced entirely using analogue technology, but they are generally not. Also, because of the format of the book, the photos are sometimes too small. The designer has eschewed full bleed for the photos, preferring to place them (smaller) on textured backgrounds. In some cases this is annoying, as you really want a decent look at the photo in order to make up your own mind about it.
Making up your own mind is very much how the text is pitched. Dr Willin provides some useful historical and contextual background on each photograph, as well as an opinion on its likelihood of portraying the paranormal. We are then left to draw our own conclusions. I guess that’s fine, especially in the case of the historical examples, most of which will probably remain as mysteries for eternity.
But the main beef I have with this book is the (deliberate?) lameness of the analyses of the photographs. A Baffling presence on Calvary Hill (pgs 80-81), for example, is obviously a case of a person walking through the photograph during the long exposure. (I say this as a person who has taken and seen a lot of similar photographs: the effect is totally recognisable.) The Spirit of Old Nanna (pgs 120-121) is (sorry, but) a camera strap catching the flash. The Haunted Doorway (pgs 146-147) is obviously a hoax photograph. I could go on.
But half the fun of this book is in trying to work out what actually has gone on in the photographs, and the author has deliberately avoided debunking the photos for this reason. I imagine the publisher would’ve also had a hand in this. They want to sell the book, after all, and a cut and dried explanation for each and every photo would work against that, for most people anyway. Perhaps some middle ground could be found; that is, somewhat more credible analyses of the photos by named experts, but still leaving room for the interaction of reader opinion.
My personal favourite candidate for a photograph that genuinely captures a ghost on film would be the image shown as The Girl who Returned (pgs 134-135). It shows the burning of the Wem Town Hall in Shropshire, England, in 1995. The figure of a girl amid the flames can be clearly seen, and it is thought this is the girl who allegedly burned down the old Town Hall on the same site in 1677. The photo has been published elsewhere, and I have not yet researched it, but if it’s not an outright fake then the situation would seem to have all the right sort of psychological ingredients for a manifestation to appear on film.
There are other titles in this series of books: Ghosts Caught on Film 2; GCOF 3; The Paranormal Caught on Film (2008) and Monsters Caught on Film (2010). All up, they would make a valuable collection and provide a useful reference source of paranormal photographs.
A few little cautionary tales here – from overseas, yes; but we don’t want to be adding any NZ cases to the list. http://whatstheharm.net/ghosts.html
The site Paranexus.org promotes the axiom, “Do no harm.” All paranormal investigators need to have this tattooed on their minds.
We are dealing sometimes with vulnerable people (some of whom may be suffering from depression, bipolar, or be potenially suicidal), situtations of recent death where the grieving process is still being gone through, situations in which people may have to leave their home or workplace because they believe something malevolent is occurring.
We have to think carefully before we wade into these situations. We are not trained health professionals or full-time social workers, and the paranormal investigation thing, at the end of the day, is a hobby interest. We must always maintain that perspective.
We can act professionally, but we are not trained professionals in this field, and we are altogether unqualified to deal with some of the human situations and conditions we may encounter.
There are plenty of active paranormal groups in NZ these days, any or all of all which would really like to hear from you if you have a current worry or concern in the field of the paranormal. This may be an active haunting in your home or workplace, or perhaps a photo or video that shows something you can’t explain. Also, if the site is available to access, the groups listed here are always on the lookout for places with interesting historic events that may give rise to paranormal events or contact. Each group is slightly different but we’re all actively talking to each other these days, and we all have our own specialties and slightly different approaches to things.
Some groups are a little more skeptical and scientific (but – importantly – open minded!) while others have a more spiritual focus and stronger beliefs in that area. And within each group are individuals with different views, to provide a balance. The most important thing is that each and every team listed here is dedicated and ready to listen to what you have to say. If you’ve been hesitant to talk to anyone outside your family and closest friends about something that’s been bugging you, perhaps now is a good time to contact one of these groups and start a dialogue.
The list linked below has all of the websites, and also Facebook links for the groups that don’t currently operate websites. We are all happy to refer you, if necessary, to other teams better placed location-wise or with more of a speciality in your field of concern. And there’s no need to worry about your details ending up all over the internet and other media. We all conduct fully private investigations where no details are disclosed except to you, as the client. Where you see TV and video documentaries, etc, those are all done with full permission, making sure that no one is hurt by the information going out publicly. All your information is treated as 100% private.
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.