What exactly IS a haunting?

What exactly IS a haunting?
Category: Hauntings /

The big question

What exactly IS a haunting? It may seem an obvious question to paranormal researchers but ASSAP's long experience in investigation suggests that it is not!

Why is it important?

It is a very important question! A lot of recent ghost research is based around comparing 'haunted' and 'non-haunted' locations. By looking for differences between the places, it it is hoped that vital clues will be found to the true nature of hauntings. For such research to be of value, it is vital that a way be found to define a haunting. On a slightly lower level, many people nowadays visit haunted places in the hope of experiencing the paranormal. These people may be going to the wrong places wasting their time!

Traditional definitions

One thing on which everyone can agree is that hauntings are tied to a particular location (though it could be mobile in the case of a haunted car or plane, for instance). Beyond that, opinions start to differ widely. Exactly what IT is, that is tied to a location, is a matter of debate. Looking at common dictionary definitions we get:
These definitions reflect cultural traditions. We are all immersed in our culture and naturally pick up these ideas whether we are aware of it or not. This is discussed elsewhere. The important point is that dictionaries, in common with most people, see a haunting as the presence of a 'spirit' at a particular location. The media, both in fictional accounts and in (supposedly) factual output tend to reinforce this impression. But is it right?

  • a haunted place is somewhere inhabited by apparitions or ghosts
  • a ghost (or apparition) is a 'spirit'

Do real hauntings need ghosts?

When someone reports their house, or another building, is haunted, they may assume that there is a ghost involved. However, in most cases that are investigated diligently, no actual apparitions are reported. Since, from the cultural point of view, ghosts or apparitions are central to the idea of a haunting, where does this leave us?

Most reports of hauntings include some of the following:
In addition:
Since hauntings have many common features you could argue that, even if no apparition is seen, its presence is implied. However, that is only if you are starting from the dictionary viewpoint that a haunting MUST imply the presence of an apparition. It is far better to rely on the evidence on the ground, rather than rely on mere cultural tradition. From a scientific point view, evidence is paramount.

  • 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
  • an apparition may, or may not, be seen

So, a haunting, therefore, does NOT require the presence of an apparition! Real hauntings rarely have them! What is more, though apparitions are occasionally seen, there is no direct evidence from serious investigations that they are 'spirits'. All that you can usually say for sure is that human figures are sometimes seen.

A better definition

So how would we define a haunting, using the evidence on the ground, rather than cultural tradition? Replacements for the two definitions above would be:
You could argue with the ghost definition by saying that it could be applied to a picture or projection. It isn't easy to define a ghost without making it sound like a hallucination! See later for a discussion of what a ghost might be.

  • a ghost (or apparition) is a human figure witnessed which is not apparently physically present
  • a haunting is a collection of odd, apparently paranormal, events reported at a particular location

Note the word 'witnessed' in the ghost definition and 'reported' in the haunting definition. These are important because it is possible that the experiences are subjective and would not occur without witnesses present. Indeed, some reported haunting phenomena do turn out to be subjective when they are carefully investigated.

So how do you know if you've seen a ghost? It is a surprisingly difficult question, discussed here.

Verifying a haunting

If you investigated a haunting report and explained all its components using natural causes, would it cease to be a haunting? Most people would probably say yes! They would say that you had 'explained' the haunting. Note, however, that a haunting is usually composed of several components or different phenomena. Each component may turn out to have a different, unrelated mundane cause. You could, therefore, conclude that such a haunting, as a whole, was only a single concept in the mind of its witnesses.

What if you can explain most of the phenomena in a haunting but not all of them? Is it still a haunting? It could be that the only thing preventing you for explaining the entire haunting is a lack of crucial evidence. Nevertheless, it still contains some vital 'unexplained' components.

So now we have a new definition for a haunting:
I think most people would agree that this latest definition is hardly satisfactory. A particular haunting, that some people may be using for statistical research, could vanish at any moment, simply when more evidence becomes available. It also implies that, if someone reports a haunting that is never properly investigated, it remains a haunting for all time. Unfortunately, this happens in real life. Many cases are never properly investigated. Locations can get a reputation for being haunted on the basis of one or two unverified reports.

  • a collection of odd, apparently paranormal, events reported at a particular location, at least some of which have not been explained by natural causes

So, for the sake of paranormal research, we probably need to include the idea of verified hauntings. Hauntings need to be properly investigated (to eliminate natural causes) to be taken seriously. A new definition would be:
It isn't as neat as 'a place inhabited by a ghost' but at least it reflects real life!

  • a collection of odd, apparently paranormal, events reported at a particular location, at least some of which have not, on proper investigation, been explained by natural causes

Proper investigation

Our new definition of a haunting now relies on 'proper investigation'. People will argue about what proper investigation is but, if you are comparing haunted and non-haunted locations, the standards should be as scientific as possible. It might be a good idea to include as many samples in comparison research as possible, just in case a few 'haunted' places become 'non-haunted'.


In an ideal investigation, there will be numerous independent witnesses reporting the same things at the same place at different times. The witnesses will have no previous knowledge of the haunting.

By contrast, single reports by individuals could be subjective while prior knowledge can produce suggestion. Such evidence should, in most cases, be filed for the future (in case more instances arise) but not used to draw conclusions.

Most cases are not ideal, of course. It is important, however, to concentrate on the most 'ideal' evidence available. Consistent reports by independent witnesses add weight to the idea that 'something' is really happening at a supposedly haunted location. A new definition of 'haunted' would therefore be:
Some people may say this is going too far but, if you want credible scientific evidence, this is the sort of standard we should be using.

  • a collection of odd, apparently paranormal, events consistently reported at a particular location by multiple independent witnesses, at least some of which have not, on proper investigation, been explained by natural causes


You may ask, what about evidence obtained instrumentally? Instruments are dumb things that do what they are specified to do and no more. It is up to investigators, here acting as witnesses, to interpret their readings correctly. So you can include instruments with witnesses here.

Practical points

To many people this article will seem like a game of semantics or playing around with logic to no practical purpose. So are there any practical lessons to be drawn? The answer is yes!

So here is some advice for paranormal researchers:
You can apply this sort of analysis to most paranormal phenomena. It is unfortunate that the media consistently show the paranormal in an unrealistic way. If you take nothing else from this article just remember one thing - just about everything to see in the media about the paranormal is wrong!

  • forget whatever you've heard in the media about hauntings and ghosts!
  • when investigating hauntings, concentrate on eliminating natural causes
  • look for consistent reports from independent witnesses
  • use a definition of 'haunted' like the last one above for statistical research


What exactly is a ghost?

This is one of the big questions of the paranormal though you'd hardly realise it by reading most books or websites on the subject. To most paranormal enthusiasts, a ghost is a 'spirit' - end of story!

The reasons for this belief are many but most are rooted in culture. Unfortunately, it means that many people investigating hauntings already assume ghosts are 'spirits'. This affects the whole investigation, often making any results more or less worthless. If you take a scientific approach to investigation, making any prior assumptions about the nature of ghosts is unwarranted.

When hauntings have been investigated in a neutral, scientific way, the results that have emerged do not point towards a 'spirit' explanation. For a start, apparitions are rare in hauntings. When they are seen, they generally show no 'awareness' of their surroundings. This has led some researchers to consider that ghosts might be 'recordings' of previous events, somehow etched onto the surrounding objects and replayed when certain people walk past. There are, however, many problems with this so-called 'stone tape' theory.

So, what are we left with? The truth is that, at present, we just don't know what ghosts are! There are a number of interesting possibilities but, sadly, few people are researching them. Unfortunately, most people are fixated on the 'spirit' idea for which there is very little evidence. It is a situation brought about largely by the media and there is little we can do about it. If you are seriously interested in knowing what ghosts are, please do the research (you will some ideas about how to proceed here), but only without prior assumptions.

Author :© Maurice Townsend 2007

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