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Monday, July 14, 2014

Musings of a Paranormal Investigator

The author on an investigation. Notice the mist in the right side of photo. It wasn't present in the picture before, nor in the picture after.
by Robin M. Strom-Mackey

"What is it like to be a paranormal investigator? Well, honestly, it's a lot like fishing."

A few years ago I took up a new hobby. As a middle aged woman with a career and a child at home you might expect me to take up golf, as my husband did. After all, it’s easy on the joints and it would allow me to enjoy well-manicured nature while sporting cute outfits and coordinating clubs. But I went a different route, I became a paranormal investigator
 
Say you’re a ghost hunter to the uninitiated and images of proton packs and near fatal slimmings come to mind. You probably envision Dan Akroyd and Bill Murray playing high-tech ghost busting conquistadors. That unfortunately is not the reality of paranormal investigating. I’ve not been issued a proton pack to date, and no ghost, according to my research, has ever slimed anyone.
 
So what is ghost hunting like, you ask? I have to admit, I’ve found ghost hunting to be more like…fishing. Just like fishing, when you’ve got a ghost “on the line,” it is an adrenaline rush like little I’ve ever experienced before. But most of the time, and I mean most of the time, you’re merely casting into the dark. Back home we used to fish for muskies, (short for Muskellunge) an elusive fish that fights like the dickens when hooked. The fisherman’s motto is that a fisherman has to cast 100,000 times before catching one of these beasties. It’s no wonder that one lucky enough to catch a Muskie usually has it stuffed and mounted versus eating it for dinner.
 
So how often do ghost hunters experience something honestly paranormal? Opinions vary, but somewhere between 1 in 5 investigations to 1 in 20 investigations. In other words you’ll spend somewhere between five or twenty sleepless nights wandering around in spider-ridden old basements and sneezing in dusty, hot attics before you actually capture anything even considered as sound evidence. Granted, what is considered verifiable evidence depends enormously on the investigation group and how rigorous they are with what they collect.
 
When I say rigorous I’m talking about the degree to which a group or individual is willing to examine the evidence for verification, discarding any occurrences that can be reasonably explained by natural occurrences. Obviously there is a desire to advance the field of study by those in the paranormal field.  The study of the paranormal has always been resoundingly snubbed by the scientific community. Paranormal activity is, after all, unverifiable using scientific methods of study. You can’t, for example, grow a spirit in a test tube and then grow another 1000 just like it. That is not to say that organizations such as the Society for Psychical Research, which was founded by in Great Britain in 1882 by some of the greatest scientific minds of its day, haven’t made advances in paranormal studies. However, the scientific community remains a conservative and skeptical group. Hence, much in the paranormal world has fallen to normal people to investigate, and regular folks aren’t trained in scientific study methods by and large; so evidential review can be somewhat ragged.

 The Careful Skeptics

Some few groups are extremely careful in their data collection, throwing out the vast majority of the evidence they collect in the name of scientific rigor. Technology advancements are helping to make evidence collection extremely precise, at least for groups that have deep pockets and tech know-how. Some savvy teams have constructed systems that record environmental samples of many different data types simultaneously (in some cases several times a second). Such systems can sample temperature, electromagnetic field fluctuations, ion levels, radiation levels etc. streaming all the information real-time to a computer which records it.  Then, when something potentially paranormal occurs, these different types of data can be compared, giving a synchronized second by second picture of what actually changed in the environment during the episode.  The data can then be compared with any audio or video evidence, giving an investigator a much broader picture and hopefully a better idea of how to detect future potential phenomenon.
 
The Believers

Then are the groups of ambitious amateurs, who blithely call every photo of a flying bug or dust mote an orb, and post everything they catch proudly on the web.  I recently took the brunt of an argument with a woman who was convinced that every photographic anomaly was the face of a spirit.  She proudly pointed out faces and beards and hair in every dust moat captured. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that our brains automatically attempt to find patterns in illogical situations.  It has been dubbed (incorrectly) by many in the paranormal community as matrixing, actually the correct terms are apophenia or pareidolia.

 There is undeniably a certain segment of the population that is psychologically invested in finding confirmation of the paranormal. In other words they desperately want to believe in ghosts, and fully expect to find one.  I wince at these people, because I fear they make all of us look like a gaggle of superstitious charlatans.   

 The Thrill Seekers

 There is also a segment of the population whose motivation is simply to seek out novel experiences.  They want to kick around old buildings for the sheer fun of doing something different. These individuals are not terribly careful with their evidentiary findings, because all they really want is to have some fun. I’ve found the thrill-seeker portion of the population usually loses interest very quickly.  One or two sleepless nights of kicking around in the dark, and hours of evidence review usually convinces them to find another hobby. 

The Fame Seekers

 Over the last few years I’ve been saddened by the increasing number of yet another type of investigator – the fame seekers. With television shows on the paranormal becoming both popular and plentiful, the number of groups whose sole motivation seems to be gaining money or fame has risen exponentially.  Even in the tiny state of Delaware I’ve managed to stumble upon these folk.  Convinced they’re destined to be stars on the next television show, they pretend to expertise they hardly deserve while creating turf wars with other groups.

 These guys are pretty easy to spot.  They’ve got the splashy websites selling t-shirts and over-priced EMF detectors.  They’re either vehemently not accepting applications from new investigators – so please don’t inquire – or they have an initiation process that makes it harder to join the group then it is get a job with the FBI. They’re extremely proprietary about any evidence collected either on their devices or someone else’s equipment.  Whether or not this type of group will do a decent investigation depends on their actual experience (and don’t be fooled, many so called experts have very little experience). In the paranormal community, however, they sew a lot of dissension ruining any type of collegial cooperation that might actually advance the field.

 Personal Journey

 When I first started in the field I applied for entry into a local group.  A year later, bloody and ragged from in-fighting and ego wars I left to start my own organization.  I don’t know whether all groups are as tempestuous as the one I joined, but reading articles by other investigators would indicate that such power struggles are not uncommon. Over time I reconsidered what I wanted, and decided to become one of the increasing number of lone wolf investigators, those who want to investigate without the drama.     
 
I interviewed a seasoned investigator once who told me that she felt that those who stayed in the field found it necessary to periodically examine and develop their individual goals.  Those that didn’t develop over time, she said, ended up leaving the field quickly. Personally I have found her observation enlightened.  My own journey has involved a lot of soul searching and many changed paths.  Over time I’ve decided my priority is research and writing, exploring all the topics about which I want to know more and then sharing my findings with the community.

 I got into the field because I wanted to explore the possibility of life after death, and that still remains my greatest driving force.  I started in the field as an undecided vote, and I’ve yet to find that one piece of unambiguous evidence that has convinced me to climb off the fence of skepticism yet. That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced some undeniably strange things.  But that truly profound, absolutely unambiguous piece of evidence…still fishing for that.
 
Paranormal Tourism – The Thrill Seeker’s Vacation

The gross majority of people that approach me about becoming an investigator are of the thrill-seeker type.  They drop me a cryptic email about doing some investigating but can’t ever seem to find the time to meet, or are far too busy to actually show up for an investigation. That’s just fine. If you really want to try your hand but don’t have the time for a commitment there is now a whole genre of tourism pandering to the paranormal enthusiast.  Haunted hotels, haunted cruise ships, haunted houses, haunted forts and battlefields, séances, EVP sessions, lecture series….  It’s all out there and you can experience it all for the price of admission.  If after an event or two you find you have an insatiable need for more there are organizations out there that have a constant need for new blood.

 Becoming an Investigator?

 For those truly serious about becoming an investigator, I’d say that knowledge is power. To prepare to be an investigator I began by reading, listening and watching anything I could find in the field. “How To” books certainly began to fill my shelves.  However, it soon became apparent that to understand the paranormal also required a sound knowledge in the sciences.  To date, I’ve studied such diverse topics as the makeup of the atom, how electricity works, electromagnetic energy, radiation, ionization, history, PSI, the science of sound, the light spectrum, psychology and spiritualism. I’ve read literature written for grief counselors dealing with separation, and literature put out by the medical profession about Near Death Experiences. I even read one rather confounding book on Quantum Physics. I’m still confused as to what an “event horizon” is, but I do now know the “event horizon” doubles at the entrance of a black hole. Aha! I never in my wildest dreams imagined that a desire to “hunt ghosts” would be such hard work.  But how many golfers can claim the same rigor of study? Granted   they do get the cute outfits and matching hats.

 I think perhaps it would have been easier to take up golf, as my husband had suggested.  Being a paranormal investigator is not conducive to becoming a socialite. Indeed lone wolf is far closer to the mark.  Being an investigator involves a lot of hours in dark rooms speaking to the walls. (I believe there are asylum residents that present with much the same behaviors.)  You learn quickly to share your experiences carefully.  Indeed there’s nothing like that look of horror or scorn that passes some people’s faces when you tell them what you do for a hobby.  I doubt golfers face the same scorn when they speak about their latest game. And they undoubtedly never hear the phrase, “there’s no such thing as golf!” Aside from abject rejection is the subtler form of reproof I often feel from friends and loved ones who quietly put up with my “strange obsessions” because they care for me. Big sigh.

And so I approach my anniversary of fives.  Five years of investigating, 50 online articles published and approaching 50,000 views on the blog. I still have no proton pack, I have no personal television show, and I have no unequivocal evidence proving the existence of life after death. But I do have a sense of accomplishment...almost as good as the perfect round of golf.

Definitions
 
Apophenia is when our brain perceives connections or patterns where there are none.
 
Pareidolia is when we assign significance to otherwise random patterns, like seeing the Virgin Mary’s face on the side of a potato.