It seems the peak of the paranormal investigation craze has passed. In New Zealand in the 2012-2013 period, there were around a dozen operational paranormal investigation groups. Now there are about half that number (or less) of active groups and a few that appear to be inactive. In countries such as the US and UK where paranormal investigation is still a hugely popular hobby, there are tens of thousands of groups. As you can imagine, this creates a number of problems, one being the commercialisation of the hobby; you often have to pay to get access to investigation sites. So, in order to function economically, groups are marketing investigations as events and charging guests to take part. This has been happening a little in NZ too, and I hope it's not an increasing trend because that will make if harder for groups (like Strange Occurrences) that don't wish to set up and operate as businesses in order to conduct their core activities.
One common problem with running your own paranormal group is that it's getting increasingly difficult to gain access to sites to investigate. Inspired by TV ghost hunters, paranormal groups form, do a few 'investigations" in cemeteries and other publicly accessible locations, and then find they are unable to land investigations in more desirable locations such as theatres, old prisons and hospitals - buildings with history and reports of paranormal events - because they are unable to obtain permission to do so. When this happens, members get bored and leave the group and it ceases to function.
Let's face it, while do get some callouts to investigate, the line is not exactly running hot. In fact, the firemen's pole we installed a few years ago is getting a little rusty. So it's necessary to initiate our own investigations, particularly if we want sites large enough for the whole team to investigate (private houses - our usual callouts - usually involve two-four out of the ten of us). One of the reasons it is getting more difficult to obtain access to good investigation sites these days, even for more established groups, is because owners and managers have become more risk-averse (and there are a number of reasons for this but it would be digressive to list them). Another reason is more obvious; why should they bother to grant access when there's nothing in it for them? The promise of a generous donation sometimes opens doors of theatres and other historic buildings, but this unfortunately means that there has to be a cash charge for those involved in the investigation, and numbers can swell with guests in order to raise enough cash, which dilutes or sometimes entirely ruins the paranormal investigation experience for everyone. Also, there is a sense that some form of 'experience' needs to be provided for those paying money to attend, and this goes against the true nature of paranormal investigation (during which, normally, nothing much happens and you really can't force it to, or - God forbid - fake it!).
If you reach the point of not being able to land legitimate investigations, the thing to absolutely not do is conduct unauthorised investigations. You will get caught! And when that happens, journalists and editors love this kind of stuff so it will get in the news - like with these guys. Then it creates a bad look for all of the legitimate paranormal groups, and we will curse you to hell. Your card will be forever marked. So let's just leave trespassing and breaking into places to the urban explorers, shall we.
So, before taking the risky step of starting your own group, it would seem to be a better idea to try to join an existing group that is organising investigations on a regular basis. It's the best way to get experience in the field and some training.
It's not easy to find a group that's active and also prepared to just let you join, or take you along as a guest investigator. But it doesn't hurt to ask, and ask more than once, to show you're keen and not too easily dissuaded (but don't become a pest). There are links to most known NZ groups on the Strange Occs. site, here. Some are more active than others, and there is a healthy variety of style and approach.
I can't speak for other groups, but each time we've added a team member to Strange Occurrences (after the four founder-members, we have added seven members over about six years and only one has so far left the group) there has been an informal meeting with me - a chat over coffee, basically - and then either a meeting with the rest of the team or participation in an investigation before the person is asked if they would like to join. Some teams run police checks and request all sorts of what most would consider private information from prospective members. Personally, I wouldn't want to join a team that did that, but some have evidently found it necessary.
The thing is, each person we've added has brought new skills and perspectives to the team. There's little point having more people with the same skill sets as those we already have. For instance, the last two people to join our group have been a medical doctor and a psychology graduate. If we were to add any more members, we'd be looking for someone who could offer a different cultural perspective (we're all conspicuously of European origin and culture - middle-class white folk, if you want to put it that way - as can be told from our team photo), and/or someone with the skills, equipment, enthusiasm and time to shoot and edit high quality video documents of our work.
The point being, "I've always been passionately interested in the paranormal. Can I join your team?" is not really going to cut it. More realistically: what can you bring to the table that is at present lacking in the team you want to join?
And it might not be just paranormal investigation skills (whatever those are) that are needed. Are you a keen researcher? A writer? A sleuth? Do you have public relations skills, or the gift of the gab? Are you good with computers, IT, websites, techie stuff? Do you have well-developed critical thinking skills, or other skills from your profession or education that may be of use? Have you mastered the uses of the apostrophe?
Back to paranormal investigation skills for a moment. What are they, and how do you acquire them? Is there any formal training available?
Two other members of Strange Occurrences and I completed a "Certificate of Paranormal Investigation" course offered (at the time) by Paranexus.org. The online course, devised and run by Dr Doug Kelley, covered most aspects of paranormal investigation, including personal and people-related skills, in a comprehensive set of notes. The multi-choice examination required a very high score to pass (90%, from memory) and there was the added requirement of submitting a written investigation report. (The Paranexus site now points you here for training/certification programmes, and I have to say the appearance of this other site raises my skeptical hackles more than just a little bit, but I haven't yet looked into it.)
We, all three, found the CPI course useful, informative and of practical value, but we haven't bothered to obtain the laminated cards or wave our certifications in anyone's face while claiming them as legitimate qualifications. It was an interesting exercise, and Doug Kelley is an excellent, genuine and intelligent fellow, but that's as far as it goes.
There must be other similar programmes on offer via the net, and if anyone knows of an especially good one I'd be interested in hearing about it. However, there is certainly the perception that any qualification in paranormal investigation probably came in a Weetbix packet (or its US equivalent), so it's likely to be of limited value.
Paranormal investigation is probably best learned by doing. For this purpose, we (and most other groups) conduct training investigations; that is, investigations we've initiated (rather than those where a client has called us in to investigate and is present during the process) where we can do pretty much what we like (within reason and safety boundaries) and we're not being observed by a client or the media. This is when we work out our procedures and we all learn to operate the tools of the trade. For instance, setting up the DVR system and deploying the cameras and IR floods effectively and safely requires practice, and it's important that a number of people in the team know how to do it. We will also use the opportunity to test out new ways of working with the equipment we already have. When we're in front of a client, we don't experiment much. It needs to appear that we know exactly what we're doing, even though we're often trying to document things that are inherently undocumentable.
Besides this field work, how else do we learn about paranormal investigation?
(1) We all like to watch those paranormal shows on TV and the net, and I freely admit that seeing an early episode of TAPS (when they were still plumbers) was partly what inspired me to start into this field. But - and with due credit to those guys - don't take too much notice of how it's done on TV. Those shows are not the gospel: they're for entertainment. Episodes are heavily edited, so you never get the full picture. And sometimes things are contrived so as to make the programme more watchable and saleable. (Will Storr's chapter on 'Most Haunted' is priceless - see book link, below.)
While none of those programmes purports to represent true scientific investigation, sometimes there are claims that the investigators are using scientific method. Most of them wouldn't know scientific method if it jumped up out of a dark cellar and bit them on the bum. Waving various measurement tools and specialised camera equipment about, regardless of how much it all cost, is not doing science. It's mainly theatre, usually with a vague hope of recording something genuinely paranormal, which almost never happens (or, more probably, absolutely never happens). If you want to find out about scientific method, Wikipedia is good for a start, but there are many fine books on it.
(2) Read books. Boardwalk Empire's lead character Nucky Thompson expresses it perfectly. (Warning: language may offend.)
Not everything is on the internet. Vast amounts of information can only be found in books and other print publications and will probably never be available online. If you never read books, you're missing 90% or more of the most valuable information about the paranormal. If you're interested in paranormal investigation in New Zealand, you should read all of these books, and preferably acquire your own copies for future reference. At this point, it seems appropriate to insert a plug for my book (co-authored with Strange Occurences's own Jo Davy) - Spooked - Exploring the Paranormal in New Zealand.
Include in your reading some books written by skeptics of the paranormal. Many paranormal investigators (but not me) regard skeptics as the enemy. Maybe this is so for you. In that case, it is wise to know your enemy. Know how he thinks, so you are prepared and able to counter his arguments. Forewarned is forearmed. One of the best skeptical books published recently is Paranormality, by Prof. Richard Wiseman . It is very readable, and it will help you sharpen your critical thinking skills (it did this for me) which are invaluable in the field of paranormal investigation. Even if (or especially if) you are a firm believer in ghosts, (or whatever your thing is), it's extremely useful to be able to think as a skeptic in order to gain a different perspective on a matter at hand.
I could go on about what I think are the best books on the paranormal, and the worst, but maybe that's something for a future blog. Personal favourites are the two volumes by Grant Shanks and Tahu Potiki (listed on the NZ book page linked above, and out of print but readily available on TradeMe). Also, "Will Storr vs the Supernatural" by British journo Will Storr (in print, but often $5 or less on TradeMe) and "Ghost Hunters - William James and the search for scientific proof of life after death" by Deborah Blum.
Books, I believe, can influence thinking more than anything read online or viewed in films or on television. When reading a printed book (OK, or a Kindle book) you have plenty of time to absorb the information at your own speed and think around it; and (I have found) one's attention span seems to be much longer, and concentration deeper, when reading a physical book compared to reading from a computer screen. Plus, books are just nice! I have read all of the above at least twice and expect to revisit them in future.
No, three things...
(3) Respect others and don't behave like a dick. There's plenty of room in this beautiful country for all of us.
James Gilberd, 22nd October 2014
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.