Investigation of spontaneous paranormal phenomena including ghosts, apparitions and poltergeists (paranormal investigating), has been undertaken since the late 19 th century by private individuals and organisations. At various times throughout the past 120 years, the general public’s interest in the paranormal has waxed and waned. During the 1920’s and 30’s, Harry Price became a nationally recognised figure within the media as a “ghost hunter”. Later, in the 1960’s and 70’s, Peter Underwood and others continued to maintain and cultivate this public demand for ghost investigations.
In the 1990’s there was a large resurgence of interest in many aspects of paranormal and supernatural experiences, fuelled by media programs such as Strange But True. A defining factor in these programmes was the seriousness with which the subject was treated, and most programming at this time was fronted by respectable presenters (e.g., Michael Aspel). This coincided with the formation of a small but significant number of amateur paranormal investigation groups throughout the UK whose members wanted to experience for themselves a ghostly encounter.
In 2002 Living TV aired the first series of Most Haunted, which stated it was the first serious televised investigation of spontaneous cases. It has grown through 10 series to become a cult TV show with a large mass following and various spin-off or copycat paranormal shows. A quick scan of the internet reveals more than 500 websites and interactive forums dedicated to discussing the show and its claimed results. The influence of these types of shows on spontaneous case research is frightening.
In recent years, there has been an explosion in the number of ordinary members of the public participating in vigils and other ghost hunting activities. For example, in 1995 there were less than 100 amateur paranormal investigation groups - in 2006 a count using the internet revealed this number to now be in excess of 1200 such groups in the UK alone. Additionally, a number of organisations have been established selling ghost hunting experiences to members of the public. The internet itself must share some of the blame in this explosion - where once one had to study and undertake many years of field investigation to become an “expert” in the field, nowadays with the advent of forums, chatrooms and Wikipedia, everyone has become an instant “expert”. At the same time, modern technology has permitted amateur ghost hunters to avail themselves of high tech video recording equipment capable of use in the dark and also more esoteric equipment such as EMF meters and digital thermometers are now readily and cheaply available. For these reasons, ghost hunting has now become, for the first time in over 100 years, a “mass participation hobby”. Within Para.Science (formed in 1995), the first two authors have noticed that within the last 4-5 years there has been an unprecedented reduction in the number of spontaneous cases that are reported to us, and furthermore there has been a significant loss of suitable locations in which to conduct spontaneous case investigations. From 1995-2001 we received around 2-3 requests per week for assistance from home owners and factory owners reporting paranormal activity. From 2002 onwards this number has fallen month on month until the present at which time we receive around 1-2 such requests per year. Locations reputed to be haunted which previously could be visited for perhaps a few pounds, are now routinely charging several hundred pounds for a single night visit and annually many more locations are trading on the flimsiest of claimed paranormal associations in order to cash in on this mass frenzy for ghost hunting.
In the current climate, what therefore is the future for serious spontaneous case investigation to continue? We have observed that the expectations of both client and investigator have changed dramatically in recent years. Clients now expect and are indeed disappointed, if an investigation does not immediately include the use of a medium or sensitive. Investigators, armed with the latest gadgets, now fully expect to capture “scientific evidence” of paranormal encounters. The use of equipment has become perhaps one of the most contentious issues within contemporary paranormal investigation, one example being the use of a basic EMF meter as a “ghost detector” and also, the advent of new paranormal phenomena such as the “orb”, which has only come about following the widespread introduction of digital still photography. Whilst both of the previous assumptions have been demonstrated on a number of occasions to be misguided (Persinger 2000, Para.Science 2004), the widespread dissemination of these ideas throughout both the amateur investigation groups and more generally, the public, continue unabated.
It would now appear that spontaneous case investigation undertaken in a scientific manner and with serious aims of trying to understand more about the mechanisms and processes by which such encounters may be generated, are at serious risk of being permanently and irrevocably undermined by this new wave of pseudoscientific, amateur thrill seekers whose primary intention might be more accurately described as wanting to spend a scary night in a spooky building. This trend, which shows no sign of abating, must be a serious concern to established organisations such as the SPR and serious researchers, who increasingly are finding that they are unable to find suitable cases for their research and study. Moreover, the ethical considerations and implications of this large number of amateur groups must be of great concern to those of us who are committed to undertaking genuine research. We have encountered several cases in recent years where the home owners claiming originally quite minor paranormal disturbances have, following a visit from the local ghostbusters, become greatly disturbed by the applied quasi-scientific and sometimes near occult practices employed by some. In one case in which all authors were directly involved, this ultimately led to both experiencees requiring external professional counselling and a move of house following the many lurid and disturbing phantoms that they were told were infesting their property. Perhaps the time has come for those of us both in academic fields such as parapsychology and groups aimed at conducting serious spontaneous case investigation to unite and call for some form of regulation and the implementation of ethical and scientific considerations to this area of study. Despite all of the problems that currently exist, the field remains a worthy and worthwhile area of research that perhaps, if appropriate steps can be taken, could answer the many interesting questions relating to the productions of ghosts, apparitions, poltergeists and even survival of bodily death.