How to approach an investigation

How to approach an investigation
Category: Investigating /

Over a quarter of a century of ghosts

ASSAP has been in existence for a quarter of a century and one of the subjects we have studied most in that period is ghosts or, to be more precise, hauntings. We still don't have any definitive answers which, given that the SPR had been studying ghosts for a century longer, is not perhaps altogether surprising. This does not mean that we haven't made progress.

The distinction between ghosts, or apparitions, and hauntings is crucial. A building can be considered haunted without any ghosts ever being seen! Indeed, ghosts are one of the rarest phenomena in hauntings and few of us have seen one.

Symptoms of a typical haunting

Here is a list of some of the phenomena reported by witnesses in ASSAP haunting cases. Though they are typical of haunting reports, it would be an unusual case that involved more than 3 or 4 of them together.

  • ghosts (generally looking like normal people but sometimes doing something impossible - like vanishing - or in period costume)
  • odd sounds: footsteps, bangs, scratching, moans, screams, music, whispering
  • odd sights: flashes of light, shadows, floating lights, things seen in the 'corner' of the eye
  • odd smells: often unpleasant, sometimes sweet
  • odd feelings: headaches, static build-up, cold areas, touches by unseen things
  • object movement: doors, taps and light switches found open/on, objects lost and sometimes recovered, objects falling (eg. pictures, ornaments)
  • pet reaction to 'unseen' things
  • people sometimes start to notice other things if the think their house is haunted; orbs in photos; unknown apparent voices recorded (EVP)*

For more information on what has been discovered about ghosts.


Many of the phenomena described above are typically found to have quite natural explanations. Many are misperceptions where one impression received by our senses is misinterpreted as another (an ambiguous stimulus).Thus, 'footsteps' can be caused by floorboards expanding or contracting as they get warmer or cooler. 'Moans' may be the wind. Object 'movement' may just be memory lapses. Things 'seen' in the corner of the eye or flashes could be photopsia, etc, etc.

Few of the phenomena reported directly support the idea of a 'spirit' or intelligent 'entity' being involved. Apparitions are typically reported to show no awareness of their witnesses while hauntings themselves appear purposeless and show no obvious intelligence behind them. Given the lack of any evidence of the involvement of such 'spirits', there seems no obvious reason to involve mediums in investigations (see left).

Not all hauntings have been satisfactorily explained by natural causes and there remains a central mystery to be solved.

* EVP and orbs may, in fact, be recorded anywhere (not just haunted places) but they are often associated with ghosts in popular culture and, as a result, some people may start to look for them.

What ARE hauntings?

The picture that has emerged about hauntings is complex. Essentially, a haunting is a group of phenomena at a fixed location that a witness has interpreted as paranormal. New, previously unknown, explanations have emerged for some instances of the more spectacular paranormal phenomena. These include the effect of low frequency, weak magnetic fields. However, there are some things that remain unexplained.

Once a location gains the reputation of being haunted, later witness who know about it, may report things purely through suggestion. It is therefore important to try to find independent witnesses who know nothing of the paranormal history of a place. When two or more independent witnesses report the same thing at the same place, it is a good indication of a genuine haunting (whatever that may be!).

New 'phenomena'

One important, and often unfortunate, trend we've noticed in our studies of the paranormal is the proliferation of 'new' phenomena. Even in the brief time since ASSAP has been around new phenomena have arrived, such as crop circles and orbs.

Since crop circles are not (as far as we know!) related to ghosts, let's consider orbs. The orb phenomenon is definitely related to haunted places.

When digital cameras appeared, people noticed translucent circles in some of their flash pictures. In most situations they were considered an annoyance. At haunted places they were interpreted as ghostly manifestations! The context, in the case of orbs, turned out to be crucial to their paranormal interpretation.

Though it has emerged that orbs are, in fact, circles of confusion and not remotely paranormal, many web sites still attribute anomalous properties to them. Even among the many serious researchers who accept that orbs are photographic artifacts, there is widespread confusion about their true nature. To this day, ASSAP receives many pictures asking about orbs.

New 'facts'

Another, similarly disturbing trend, is the way that paranormal phenomena can apparently multiply at a haunted location. This usually happens when vigils are held there.

ASSAP uses vigils to corroborate witness reports. Inevitably, 'other' phenomena are reported on vigils. Frequently, these 'new' paranormal phenomena (ie. never reported by the original witnesses) have natural explanations (see new house effect).

Unfortunately, once such phenomena are reported they often become part of the 'facts' of a case. Many vigils are documented on the web for anyone to read. Subsequent similar reports may be put down largely to suggestion. However, such repeated reports just tend to reinforce the existence of what may be entirely spurious 'phenomena'. All of this makes it difficult to analyse such hauntings properly.

If you organise a vigil it would be advisable to find out how much participants know about the site beforehand. Sadly, it is difficult to find people who know nothing about well-known vigil sites.

Spooky places

Some places gain a reputation for being haunted just because they look haunted! Anywhere dark, dank, dingy, gothic and with a colourful history is almost bound to be thought haunted even if there is no evidence from actual paranormal reports.

The neutral approach

ASSAP made the decision early on to approach paranormal phenomena from a neutral, scientific angle. There would be no assumptions made, before or during investigations, as to the nature of the phenomena being researched. Experience has shown this to be a sensible decision.

In the field of paranormal research there are generally few facts to be had, allowing assumptions and speculation to fill the gaps. We have discovered that there is a tendency to find what you're looking for in the paranormal since it is very difficult to prove anything definitively.

So, for instance, if you take a medium on a vigil, or hold a ouija session, don't be too surprised if you find 'spirits'! Or if, before you've even talked to the witnesses, you've already decided it sounds like a typical case of fraud or delusion, your 'interviews' could soon become more like interrogations in search of a 'prime suspect' which, more often than not, you will find!

Such assumptions probably come from media-led cultural stereotypes rather than the facts on the ground. If you persist with a neutral approach, however, you are more likely to be rewarded with a realistic picture of what hauntings really are.

Recently, there has been a new (media-led) trend towards using assumption-led vigils where mediums are standard and seances common. Often, such vigils are not even preceded by an investigation (involving interviewing original witnesses and examining the site for natural causes to reported phenomena). This has resulted in new 'facts' about certain haunted locations that may well be entirely spurious. Indeed, it seems highly likely that even a vigil held in a non-haunted location would probably find 'something' paranormal.

Why not use mediums?

ASSAP does NOT advocate the use of mediums or psychics on ghost investigations. Mediumship is not understood (indeed it is one of the subjects ASSAP studies). Therefore, to use mediumistic evidence in a haunting investigation would be to explain an unknown using an unknown. This is neither logical nor scientific. Furthermore, such information (of unknown origin) could bias the investigation.

Author :© Maurice Townsend 2007

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