ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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This is not a practical guide to investigating the paranormal. Rather it is a theoretical guide concentrating mainly on using the latest methods. To get overall practical advice for real life investigating, try the ASSAP Investigators' Course.

Problems with existing investigating methods

When ASSAP was formed, way back in 1981, it adopted a traditional format of paranormal investigation going back a long way. The essence of the method was to investigate spontaneous reports from witnesses to apparent anomalous phenomena. The main stages of this method are:

  • interview witnesses - to get as full an account as possible
  • examine the site of the incident - to better understand witness accounts and look for natural explanations
  • background research - to look into the history of the site particularly previous odd reports
  • possibly hold a vigil - to see if anything paranormal happens

These methods produced useful results but clearly needed updating.

However, instead a new method of investigation became widely used by many paranormal research groups in the wake of the TV ghost hunting shows. In essence investigations (or 'invos') concentrate almost entirely on the vigil stage. Original witnesses are only interviewed briefly, if at all. Background research frequently consists of looking at reports from previous vigils by other groups or even watching relevant episodes of TV shows! In addition, assumption-led methods are widely used.

While there were problems with the traditional format of investigation, the new style 'invo' made matters considerably worse! By not interviewing witnesses in depth, or even at all, it is possible that some venues 'investigated' in this way are not even haunted. By using assumption-led techniques it is almost guaranteed that 'something' weird will be reported during an 'invo'. However, it is doubtful whether such reports have any scientific value.

Towards a new investigation model

Despite its widespread use, the 'invo' model of investigation does little more than shore up its own assumptions. However, the traditional model of investigation has also outlived its usefulness. There is now a need to take on board several decades of investigating and move towards a better, modern model based on experience.

For instance, we now know that the vast majority of paranormal reports have xenonormal explanations. It therefore makes sense to study the xenonormal and recognise its symptoms. There has also been a huge step forward in understanding the human brain, through neuroscience, which explains the vividness of many reported experiences despite their often mundane causes.

A basic new approach, based on these developments has already been outlined but now we need a model specifically for investigation methods. Though based on the traditional approach, it is more sharply focused towards getting rapid, scientifically useful information.

The new approach

The most important thing to remember is that investigation is about explaining people's weird experiences. It is not about 'hunting ghosts' or 'contacting aliens or even 'proving psi exists''. Such assumption-led approaches have been tried for decades without any compelling results. It is time to return to basics - examining the reports of strange phenomena that started the whole field of paranormal research in the first place.

There are three main phases to the new approach:

  • information gathering - interviews with witnesses, background research
  • replication - site examination and attempts to replicate the original circumstances and maybe even the phenomenon
  • vigil - identifying and characterising hot spots

Almost as important as what is INCLUDED in these phases is what methods are EXCLUDED - essentially all assumption-led techniques.

Phase One: Information gathering

Paranormal phenomena are regularly reported by witnesses. That is therefore the best place to start. Witnesses are often all we have to access a strange incident. Witnesses should be formally interviewed as quickly as possible after their experience. Many witnesses will discuss their experience with friends and, inevitably, this can subtly change their account. Interview techniques need to be based primarily around giving a simple account, followed by questions on details. This sort of approach is important to avoid confabulation.

It is important to ask about exactly where the witness was, what they were doing before the sighting and how they reacted afterwards. Was the witness anxious or unusually aware for any reason (not necessarily related to place but maybe a life event). The duration of the sighting, the lighting and how the anomaly was observed (eg, in the 'corner of the eye') is also extremely important. For instance, if the witness was in bed and, after the incident, went to sleep, it suggests a near sleep experience. A sighting of a few seconds in peripheral vision suggests misperception. Was anything else going on during the sighting (it could be that the witness was distracted so perhaps explaining any mysterious 'appearance' or 'disappearance').

It is also important to gather information about the witness, particularly any previous anomalous experiences. Questions about health rarely produce obvious reasons for strange experiences, like epilepsy, but sleep deprivation can lead to near sleep experiences.

A single account by one person is worth investigating but multiple reports by independent witnesses are far stronger evidence. If different people see the same thing it means the experiences probably have a common cause (which could be misperception).

It is useful to look for other background information, if possible. Accounts of anything relevant from books and newspapers is useful. If a site has a spooky reputation this could affect the number of paranormal reports it generates.

AVOID: Using legends, accounts from popular books or newspapers, TV ghost investigations etc as a basis for gathering information INSTEAD of primary witness testimony.

Phase Two: Replication

Most paranormal reports have xenonormal explanations. Many of those are caused by misperception. So it makes sense, unless there is another obvious explanation (on the basis of witness testimony) to look at replicating possible misperception first.

It is vital to always closely examine the site of the paranormal report. Conclusions made without such a visit are inevitably little more than speculation. There is a lot of detail about this here.

It helps to imagine every apparently paranormal incident has a natural explanation. This will produce more natural explanations to eliminate.

With anomalous sounds, the acoustics of a building and any noisy objects in it (such as electrical machinery) can produce sounds that resemble human voices. It is therefore important to identify where the witness was and what objects may have been making a noise at the time (some may be automatic).


Phase Three: Vigil

Contrary to the modern fashion to concentrate on this phase, in many cases it will not even be necessary or desirable. If you have already demonstrated that the phenomenon was most likely caused by misperception then a vigil is both unnecessary and pointless