Debunking the Myths: The Modern Day Ghost Hunter

12/18/03 - Brutarian

By Rachel Holland

Who are the modern day ghost hunters? Is there any such a thing as a professional ghost hunter, namely somebody whose nine to five consists of being a detector of all things specter? After all, bounty hunters are out there picking up regular wage checks, as the recent case involving fugitive Max Factor heir Andrew Luster has shown. Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman spectacularly nabbed Luster in Mexico after Luster performed a vanishing act from his LA trial for a series of date rapes. Do ghost hunters make a similar living?

The first myth regarding professional ghost hunters is that they actually get paid. The modern day ghost hunter works for love, not money. The people who are actively involved in hunting for ghosts today fall broadly into two categories: well known investigators (who also write about their work), such as Loyd Auerbach, Jim Graczyk, Patti Starr and Richard Southall, and the equally devoted investigators who make up the membership to some of the 300 ghost hunting organizations out there today. But neither group makes a living from their actual ghost hunting.

Widely regarded as a leading authority on ghost hunting, parapsychologist and author Loyd Auerbach, who's also a consulting editor/writer for Fate magazine, warned me outright that wage earning ghost hunters simply don't exist. "There are parapsychologists, like myself, who focus primarily on field investigations or 'ghost hunting' and there are some amateurs who have made full time status by running ghost tours or pre-paid membership organizations. But there is currently no funding for spending one's time doing such investigations and the cases pay relatively little (and
often nothing at all)", Loyd explains - a viewpoint echoed by most other ghost hunters. "We are all just everyday people with regular jobs", adds Karen Travis-Eaddy, a member of the South Jersey Ghost Research Organization, based in New York and Pennsylvania."Ghost hunting is something that we do because we have questions about the paranormal and have the drive to pursue a deeper understanding. We're a non-profit organization doing what we do because we love it".

But it's not only enthusiasm that drives them on; there's also a clear need for their services. Who are these clients? "Clients come from all walks of life. Anybody who believes they have a legitimate haunting could call. People who have made renovations on an older house or live near a location that has significance of some sort are the most frequent type of client", explains Richard Southall, author of ' How to Be a Ghost Hunter' (Llewellyn). "Hauntings are caused mostly by either a repetitious action (such as looking out of a window) or a very traumatic event (say, a Civil War battle or a
murder) being ingrained into an area. Renovating an area tends to 'recharge' the impression", Southall continues. Jim Graczyk, author of 'A Field Guide to Chicago Hauntings' (Whitechapel) says, "The majority of people who contact us are the general public. They may give us a lead on a business that may be haunted if they work at that location. Otherwise, it's your basic home or apartment that may have some activity going on and they call us to set up an investigation".

Todd Roll, lead investigator for the Wausau Paranormal Research Society adds that his clients include factory workers, college professors and small business owners, "anybody who believes they have experienced a ghost", he says. "Mostly our clients are just home owner's who have experienced something strange in their home and want to know what is going on. With business owners it's a crap shoot. Some of them don't want the public to know they have a ghost and others are looking for us to
certify that they have a 'haunted' business. Any publicity is good publicity, don't you know. But if we don't find any evidence of a haunting then that is what we’ll tell the owner: "Sorry, but we cannot confirm that your business is haunted", explains Todd.

Patti Starr, President of Ghost Chasers International, has a wide variety of clients that include businesses, hotels, restaurants, museums, historic landmarks, cemeteries, as well as private apartments and homes. "Most of the time, they just want to know if the disturbance they are experiencing really is paranormal - or whether we can find a logical explanation", she adds.

Chad Lewis, a Paranormal Investigator based in Wisconsin, also hosts the television show 'Unexplained'. He has been investigating the paranormal for nearly ten years. He describes his average client: "The majority of people I encounter with ghost cases are just normal, rational, intelligent people who want some answers to what is happening to them. They do not want to get rich off their stories and are not seeking attention or fame. Many don't want their names released for fear of ridicule. Many of them are skeptics who never believed in the paranormal until it happened to them. Some of the witnesses still don't believe in the paranormal even after they have experienced it first hand. Often they just want some reassurance that they are not going crazy and
that other people have experienced similar phenomena. Many people have an emotional investment in their belief system, which makes it extremely difficult to adapt to new experiences".

So how exactly do modern day ghost hunters actually help their clients? "The help is in the confirming or denying the existence of a ghost", says Brandy Stark, founder of the S.P.I.R.I.T.S. organization in Florida. "Most people just want to know if there is any validity to the experiences they are having", she adds. "One of the biggest concerns people have is whether or not the haunting can hurt them", says Richard Southall. "If it is a ghost recording, I will explain that in most cases this type of manifestation is harmless". Karen Travis-Eaddy says the South Jersey Ghost Research group aims to help people understand what they're experiencing and to not be afraid. "We try to
help people understand that this phenomena is natural and part of our existence", says Karen.

Loyd Auerbach mostly gets asked to help people actually DEAL with the phenomena. "This may involve some form of resolution; removing or stopping the phenomena", he says. "However, we always make it clear that no one can guarantee the removal of such things".

"Once people know what kind of a haunting it is, they become more comfortable with living with the energy", says Patti Starr. "If, however, they are not comfortable, then we do a cleansing and prayer to help send the ghost away from the earth's plane". Todd Roll tries to explain to clients that there is no way to 'get rid of' a ghost. "We tell them the best thing they can do is learn to live with it. If this fails, we'll direct the client to local clergy who will be willing to bless the home", he says.

The S.P.I.R.I.T.S organization, which does not perform exorcism, uses more hands on methods of removing unwanted visitors. "We try to empower the clients into setting 'house rules'. Basically, we recommend they talk out loud to the entity - ask it outright to leave. We also burn sage and 'smudge the area', Brandy Stark explains.

Patti Starr uses a combination of psychics and credible scientists on her investigations. Ron Kolek, founder of the New England Ghost Project, uses a Franciscan Monk in his investigations. "Religious exorcism and psychic cleansing are also options available to our clients", he says.

So what exactly does the actual 'hunting' involve? "A lot of sitting around watching a TV monitor of an empty room or hallway", says Todd Roll. "You spend countless hours reviewing the tapes you recorded or the pictures you took", Jim Graczyk adds. Chris Peterson, co-founder of the Utah Ghost Hunters Society describes ghost hunting as "long hours spent after dark in places most people wouldn't be caught dead in".

Richard Southall explains the process of ghost hunting. "It's really like working a puzzle where a few pieces are missing. Over time, with perseverance, the pieces tend to fall into place. Firstly, you interview the people who report the haunting in order to find consistencies and patterns. You have to determine if the person is performing a hoax or misinterpreting a natural phenomenon", Southall says. Loyd Auerbach adds that these interviews become an ongoing process throughout the investigation. "It is the experiences of the witnesses that drive our investigations and determine our goals", he says.

The next step is the research. Southall usually starts in a local courthouse or library that may have documentation related to the haunting (newspaper clippings, official documents etc). "Specifically, I look for obituaries, previous owners of the place, what may have been standing on the site before the current building, any news stories of foul play etc. After you've got the background info, it's time for the on-site investigation". This is where the equipment comes in.

Ghost hunting equipment generally falls into three categories, says Southall. Firstly, we use equipment to capture images such as 35mm cameras and video cameras. Secondly, we use various recording devices to capture sound. And lastly, we use equipment to capture changes in temperature and electromagnetic energy such as Geiger counters and infrared thermal probes.

Technology plays an ambiguous role in ghost hunting. The Tri-Field Natural Electro Magnetic detector, originally designed to detect environmental pollution, is proving useful at detecting unusual magnetic fluctuations. "Such equipment does not detect ghosts per se, but it is useful in looking for physical correlations", says Auerbach. "However, even with a Tri-Field Natural EM Meter, one cannot determine from a reading the source of the anomaly, one can only rule things out", he adds.

Patti Starr uses the Trifield to detect radio waves, static electricity and basically filter out man-made currents (interference from computers, fans, and air conditioning and electricity sources). "I also use five different cameras at a time", she says. "I use a digital Nikon 950 3.2 Pixel, a 3-D camera with double lenses, a Cannon 35 mm, a Bell Howell 35 mm, and a Polaroid instant shot. I get pretty excited when I get the same anomaly show up in the different cameras", adds Patti, who also penned 'Ghost Hunting in Kentucky' (McClanahan).

Polaroid and digital cameras are favored for their instant results ending the anxious wait to develop film as the images can be examined on the spot. "Most of the equipment can be found lying around a person's house. If a person decided to start from scratch, they could get a basic kit together for as little as $100", says Richard Southall. "In fact, one of the most impressive ghost photos I've ever seen was taken by a disposable camera".

Chris Peterson agrees, "There are a lot of people right now trying to sell all kinds of ghost hunting equipment. The truth is 99% of it is a waste of money. Most people spend a great deal of time and money on equipment they don't even know how to use. Here's over twenty years of experience talking. Get a camera and a tape recorder and call it good. Don't waste your money on sensors and gadgets. Infrared equipment? People tell me all the time  "Well, even if infrared doesn't find a ghost, it will still let you see in the dark". I tell them "Sure, you drop a thousand bucks in infrared to see in
the dark and I'll use a flashlight for a buck ninety-nine".

Technology has its downside, as well. Photographic software, such as Adobe Photoshop, has made hoaxes easier to perpetrate. Digital cameras have a knack for picking up orbs of light. Whilst some believe they are the manifestation of spirits, others put it down to serious lens refraction. "There are a lot of people out there skulking around in dark places taking pictures of little dots of light and calling themselves 'ghost hunters'", says Ron Kolek.

"Reliance on cameras and recorders to capture paranormal phenomena is a relatively new thing", says Loyd Auerbach. "More related to the growth of the amateur groups than to what parapsychological field researchers have been doing.  This is because of the enormous potential for false hits on tape, film and digital media, without the ability to rule out any of the causes of such false anomalies".

Chad Lewis elaborates: "I use a lot of equipment during a ghost investigation (4 track audio recorders, digital and High 8 video recorders, motion detectors etc). However, it is still speculative to say whether ANY of these devices actually help pick up ghosts. Coming from a science based research background, I am extremely skeptical of unsubstantiated claims. Basically, I just use it to try to rule out any conventional explanations for the phenomena".

Constantly having to deflect references to Ghostbusters, the real life ghost hunters have mixed feelings towards Hollywood's sensational approach to the paranormal. When movies like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist were becoming blockbusters in the late 70s and early 80s, it provoked dramatic media interest in hitherto unknown investigators. Auerbach remembers fending off journalists that begged him to show them haunted houses. "The first thing I'd ask is "Do you know how badly funded parapsychology is? Do you know how little respect we get from the other
sciences? If I could take you to a house where stuff is flying around all the time, do you think that would be happening?". But press interest has evolved since then, now the journalists are asking questions such as mine, "So what do you guys really do?".

Not all ghost hunters are as media friendly as Auerbach, who has gone on to become Director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations, former President of the California Society for Psychical Study, regularly appearing on TV and radio. Many ghost hunters are understandably wary of media probing and fear coming across as cranks or worse, money-making scammers. They are often at pains to point out that they investigate hauntings out of their own pockets. "Sometimes we have to travel far and pay the gas and hotel costs ourselves", says Jim Graczyk.

Although Auerbach doesn't make his living directly from ghost hunting, he will occasionally charge a nominal fee for investigations, usually no more than $150.  "This is partly because of the educational aspects of what we do", he says. "We provide what is almost a mini-course in parapsychology for clients".  Interestingly, the people most willing and eager to pay something are those with the least money. Rich folks bristle at having to pay anything to 'researchers' or 'scientists', even though they have no problem shelling out to psychics", Auerbach adds.

Chris Peterson believes that ghost hunters who ask for money should be avoided. "The problem is this", he explains, "If they don't turn up evidence of a ghost, they don't get paid. They're liable to accept anything as 'proof' and will try to convince you of it, too. Those of us who don't get paid to find a ghost have no problem telling anyone 'I've looked, I just don't find anything'".

Loyd Auerbach: "This is something I disagree with to a point.  Ghost hunters who ask for LOTS of money, usually justified by touting how much expensive equipment they bring to the case, should definitely be avoided.  However, sometimes NOT charging invalidates one's professional standing and even causes the people you're trying to help to ignore your findings and advice.  If the 'value' of an investigator and the investigation were dependent on finding evidence, then many of us wouldn't even try to help people.  The truth is that in many cases, it may turn out that the clients were mistaken (though still afraid), or that fraud was involved (one family member fooling the others). How much help we provide for people - and how effective we are as investigators of the paranormal
- is absolutely independent of whether one turns up 'evidence' of a ghost", Auerbach insists.

Regardless of the issue of charging for their services, ghost hunters are living proof of the rule 'don't give up the day job'. In his other life, Todd Roll works as a reference librarian at a college in Wisconsin. Jim Graczyk earns his daily bread as a bodyguard, whilst studying for a Masters degree in Education. Loyd Auerbach also performs as Professor Paranormal, dazzling his audiences with a variety of psychic entertainment and mind-reading effects. Chris Peterson works in the transportation industry - his fellow ghost hunters consist of blue collar workers, doctors, lawyers and police officers; Patti Starr teaches ghost hunting courses at a Community College in Kentucky.
Richard Southall works as a consultant for a vocational rehabilitation company; Brandy Stark is also a successful artist and college lecturer; Chad Lewis works as a grant writer/planner for a non-profit organization.

How did their interest in ghosts develop? "Ghost hunting actually chose me", says Richard Southall. "When I was a teenager, we would periodically hear the sound of heavy boots coming down the stairs. There were cold spots that would appear out of nowhere. On one occasion, an actual apparition was seen", Southall explains. "So, I did some investigating and found out that this was a 'recording' of a soldier who had passed through the area".

Brandy Stark also had a first hand experience of a ghost: "When I was in my early twenties, I was awakened by a wonderful aroma of flowers and an intense feeling of peace. Four hours later, I was told that my grandmother had died. She was letting me know it was OK, she was OK".

Brandy went on to study for a Religious Studies Masters Degree, writing about 'the evolving role of ghosts throughout Ancient History' for her MA thesis. "Ghosts can be found in the earliest epics (Gilgamesh), the Central High Middle Ages, and right through to the modern era. They're found in every culture", she says. "Ghosts play an important role in religion, offering proof of life after death and the existence of a soul".

Brandy's current home is also 'mildly haunted'. She describes the experience: "I kept feeling a sensation of being watched and disapproved of. It was a sensation of annoyance and included episodes where my dogs started to bark at nothing. The culmination of it was when I actually saw a single mist in my living room. It hovered in the middle of the room, but wasn't affected by the fan that was on.  That morning, my dogs had been whining, something they never usually do. I hadn't been cooking, the windows weren't open and yet there was this spiral of thick, pure white smoke or
mist in the room. I remember being cross because I had no witnesses and there was no equipment in the room with me. I went around checking nothing was on fire and when I came back it had gone".

Did she unravel the mystery? "Whenever I'd been working on my computer in the evenings, I'd get this image in my mind of an angry old woman. Usually around 10.30 pm. The image was quite specific: long, thin fingers; very pale hair; hunched back. I asked around the neighborhood and was told about the former owner of my house, who had lived here in the 70s. She was thin, pale and had a hump caused by osteoporosis. Apparently, she went to bed very early. The neighbors would hear her yelling at her housemate who liked to stay up late. The yelling started at.....you guessed it, around 10.30 pm".

What did Brandy do about it? "Simple. I put the computer in a different room and the phenomena stopped completely. Some S.P.I.R.I.T. group members who are sensitive tell me she is still here but is placated and pretty mild. I still get the occasional feeling of being watched, especially when I have a friend in", she says.

Chad Lewis's curiosity for the unknown developed out of his studies in psychology, bringing a Masters Degree in Applied Psychology to the table. "I first started researching the paranormal to investigate the duality of belief in the paranormal. If these things are real and happening, then we must try to answer the salient questions that Humankind has always asked itself - are we alone? What happens after death? If these things are NOT real, then we must investigate what it is about human belief systems and perception that causes people to believe whatever they felt they experienced".

How do the ghost hunters feel about the view that they are 'dabbling with the unknown' and the various religious attitudes that condemn such interest? Richard Southall, whilst respectful towards other peoples' religious views, has this to say: "Since I believe that most hauntings are simply recordings, I highly recommend that an investigator should try to help that spirit move on or become 'unstuck'. Spirits are usually encountered when one of four events have taken place: the person died so suddenly that they do not realize that they are dead; they have 'unfinished business' or an unkept promise, they want to protect or keep an eye on a loved one; or they are actually kept back by loved ones who are grieving".

He continues: "As for dabbling with the unknown, one practice I do not condone is the use of a ouija board. I believe that they are simply asking for trouble. I consider ouija boards to be a beacon for entities to come forward".

"I believe that all the talk about evil spirits is a load of bunk", says Todd Roll. "The paranormal is just that part of nature which we don't yet understand. It's not filled with demons and evil spirits, but rather with measurable natural phenomena. There is enough evil in the flesh and blood world already. We don't need to go conjuring up anymore", he adds.

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