Guidance Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases. Apparitions, Hauntings, Poltergeists and Similar Phenomena.
There have always been those with a desire to study spontaneous phenomena, for as long as mankind has been reporting ghostly encounters there have those who have sought to examine the subject for themselves. These days it seems that almost everybody wants to be a ghost hunter. A straw poll of the internet I carried out in 2017 using Google and searching only for UK based paranormal teams resulted in more than 900 active groups being identified. This was most certainly not a definitive survey and the actual number is likely to be higher. Ghost hunting is a cool way to spend a Saturday night with friends; battling against evil possessing demons, listening attentively to the disembodied voices of the dead and watching through bleary eyes for the flashes of multi-coloured lights as they react to the presence of a nearby spectre.
Of course, I am generalising. There are some investigators who have dedicated themselves to the serious study of the subject and who work to the highest standards, not only in the manner in which they collect and consider the information they obtain. Not every investigator is fortunate enough to spend their leisure time battling demons or lucky enough to hear the anguished pleas of the undead on that latest item of ghost tech as shown on the season finale of their favourite ghost hunting show. Many investigators have to make do with or even prefer using those good old fashioned methods that have always proved so unreliable in the past. In 2018, table tipping, dowsing and mediumship remain as popular as ever.
Paranormal investigators have always been a creative and inventive bunch of folk and many things have been pressed into service to aid their quest for proof of the existence of ghosts and related phenomena. Items including smartphone apps, broken radios, flickering torches and stuffed toys filled with flashing lights and parts taken from electromagnetic meters have all been pressed into service and subsequently offered up as absolute proof of the existence of ghosts and sometimes, increasingly frequently, demonic entities. Besides the equipment, there also exists a multiplicity of methods and techniques. These derive from a whole host of theories, ideas, notions and beliefs. Some may appear bizarre whilst others seem to be more credible, sometimes even plausible. All to often, the results obtained from the equipment and methods that are being employed are questionable at best and some undoubtedly also have serious ethical issues that can affect not only those who call upon the services of the investigators but in some instances, for the investigators themselves. Ethics, when it is even considered by the investigator, is often just paid lip service. More often it is overlooked entirely by investigators in their haste to confront tormented souls and increase the number of likes and shares on their social media pages.
One needs only to flick through the television channels, read almost any of the daily newspapers or scroll through the social media sites to realise that there is a strong and sustained general interest in the paranormal within society, particularly when it relates to ghosts, hauntings and other forms of spontaneous phenomena. Hardly a day goes by with a headline grabbing photograph, video clip or audio file being offered up as challenging proof for the existence of the otherworld. The internet has allowed everyone an unparalleled ease of access to a vast spectrum of unregulated information and since the millennium, the development of social media since has encouraged this newest generation of investigators to share and swap their discoveries and personal ideas as never before.
The often dramatic portrayal of paranormal investigating in television and film also plays a part in this modern trend, with techniques and equipment used on the television shows quickly become accepted by as the de-facto means of conducting investigations and experiments. Television and social media has also produced a number of paranormal celebrities whose views, opinions and methods are highly influential. It is not surprising to learn that in a recent online poll of the most influential ghost investigators; joint first was Ed and Lorraine Warren but they were closely followed by Zak Bagans (Ghost Adventures), John Zaffis (Haunted Collector), Ryan Buell (Paranormal State), Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson (Ghost Hunters) and Yvette Fielding (Most Haunted).
Many of the techniques portrayed in these media shows may be described as unproductive at best, often ethically questionable and generally worthless to psychical research. But in their favour, I suppose that they are sometimes entertaining to watch. However, there is no questioning the extent of the influence that these mainstream and social media portrayals have, or the fact that a genuine interest in studying spontaneous cases is being badly served by the current media led model which places audience viewing figures, sensational story telling and the desire for likes and shares above any real desire to inform or educate. Alongside the television shows, social media has now become a fertile ground for those seeking out new theories or confirmation of their existing ideas. It is a place where ideas are swapped and traded, theories argued and more than occasionally fought over and evidence compared.
It is easy to ridicule their ideas and methods but in reality it is those who claim to be the most interested in studying those experiences that are labelled as paranormal who are probably the most to blame. The parapsychologists, scientists and academics who have for the most part chosen to disassociate themselves from the ghost hunters instead of engaging with those who go out investigating. Whenever I talk with ghost hunting groups and individuals, it is immediately apparent that there are many within this community who are seeking greater knowledge of the subject and who wish to participate in some form of additional learning. But the lack of support in the form of good quality information and advice from the ivory towers of science and academia has opened the stable doors to a whole host of organisations offering their own courses and qualifications. Abandoned to their own devices, investigators have turned to the social media in order to seek out and to share information and guidance. There, they will find information a plenty; too much information and much of it conflicting information. The information fights for space with countless meme’s, animated gif’s and inspirational posts proclaiming how much fun or even how dangerous ghost hunting is. All of which means that any hope of finding good quality information becomes in reality a forlorn hope.
With only the most cursory of searches I managed to find quite a few options for those who might wish to develop their knowledge of spontaneous cases further or who seek qualifications in this area of study. As we might expect the content of these courses is extremely variable, in some instances, it is apparent that there are some courses which clearly seek only to cash in on the interest and the desire for information. In addition, a lot of the training on offer is not overly concerned with ethics and developing good methodology. But the courses and training that are being offered are just the inevitable response to the persisting lack of any meaningful assistance that has been forthcoming from those who are in a position to offer good quality information and content.
But there is another problem, a big problem, a great gaping chasm of a problem that confronts anyone who wants to provide some form of resource and training for investigators. Regardless of their content or worth, the courses that are offered are just not well received by those for whom they are intended. They are often perceived as being irrelevant and worthless by the majority of ghost investigating community. Individuals and groups are frequently reluctant to change preferring to stick with methods that they find work best for them. Often, methods they have developed in-house using poor quality information obtained from social media or from watching several series of their favourite ghost hunting TV show and picked-up whilst following leading names in the paranormal.
Over the years there has been numerous attempts to bring some semblance of organisation and standardisation to the chaotic situation that paranormal investigation has found itself in. Most notably by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) who almost since their founding in 1981 has provided both basic and advanced training courses for its members. The ASSAP courses may provide a wealth of useful and helpful information for participants. But by comparison to the total number of active investigators, the number of people taking advantage of the training on offer is insignificant. ASSAP despite it’s laudable aims is only gaining support from a small minority of the paranormal investigating community with attendance figures of its training days representing less than one percent of the total active paranormal investigating community.
Meanwhile, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) which was founded back in 1882 and has an enormous wealth of resources to draw upon has fared even worse. Almost 140 later they are still considered within the scientific and academic community to be the leading authority on the study of all types of paranormal experiences. Unfortunately, this consideration does not apply to the modern ghost hunting community who for the large part are not aware of the work that has been carried out by the SPR, or worse, they haven’t heard of them. It was clear that the SPR was finding itself increasingly out of touch with the majority of investigators, seen as being either irrelevant and in many instances the ghosts hunting community was barely aware that they even existed.
The SPR currently offer nothing in the way of training for those with an interest in ghosts and hauntings and apart from a page or two on their website promoting good practise and methodology when conducting an investigation, the SPR had for almost fifty years relied on a set of published guidance notes that were written back in 1968 (a revised edition was published in 1996 but only amounted to a few pages on report writing and a check list of questions to ask). The 1968 edition of their Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases which was until very recently still on sale, took no account of the great many changes relating to technology and the manner in which ethical considerations need to now be met within our modern society. For example, during the Enfield poltergeist case it was not considered at all unusual for the adult male investigators to spend time sitting alone in the bedroom of two young girls as they slept, a situation that would be viewed as shockingly irresponsible today. And it might be disturbing to discover that in 2017 the SPR were still selling a set of guidance notes that suggested “covering the suspect’s head in a light-tight black bag, gathered under the chin in such a way as to preclude vision without impeding breathing, then to tie his feet to his chair and his fingers fairly tightly together behind his back with cotton” in cases of suspected fraud or hoax as a reliable method for controlling the suspected perpetrator.
At the 2016 SPR conference I presented a talk entitled ‘What Have the Roman’s Ever Done for Us’. That presentation was intentionally provocative and sought to question the not only relevance of the SPR but also questioning the relevance of parapsychology to the modern generation of paranormal investigators. In April 2017, I expanded upon that original talk at the SPR’s Ghost Hunting Study Day. Of course, it was an easy matter for me to stand in front of the conference and to criticise; but criticism on its own serves little purpose and so in 2016 and 2017 I also proposed several solutions aimed at addressing some of the problems that I believe are adversely affecting the development of good standards by those who are actively engaged in the hunt for ghosts etc. I identified several key areas in which the relevance and value of training is questioned by the broader investigating community.
Firstly, those engaged in investigating generally do not consider that they have anything to learn from organisations such as the SPR or indeed from anyone. This may be likened to the attitude of many drivers who consider that their skills are above that of the average driver. This illusory superiority frequently results in the investigators rejecting assistance, often perceiving it as criticism of themselves. They become defensive of their position and may react strongly against it. The oft quoted “There are no experts in the paranormal” is their typical fall back position to any critical questioning of their methods and the rationale that they use to explain them. But of course there are experts in almost every area of paranormal investigation; History, Psychology, Physics, Architecture, Sociology, Environmental monitoring etc. All of which are key areas that relate to any ghost investigation and much more likely to be productive than any attempt to merely get the ghost to flash some lights.
Next; the cost of training is often prohibitive and is generally perceived as not worth spending money on, when compared to putting the money towards something that they consider to be more helpful such as a new app or new piece of equipment. The perception borne out of TV shows and social media events is that one only has to set foot in a haunted building in order to obtain stunning evidence of paranormal activity. So why pay?
My proposals sought to address some of those problems. There is a saying ‘you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink’ but the reality is that if the information is readily available, easy to access, affordable and of good quality then some people at least will access it. Change often comes from within and once a few in each team begin to question the tried, trusted and failing methods then I believe that little by little positive changes will begin to filter through into the mainstream.
The first of my proposals was to deal with the horribly outdated information that was being provided by the SPR in the form of their guidance notes. They needed to be completely rewritten and expanded to cover changes to equipment and methods which have taken place over the past fifty years. The new guidance notes also had to be in a format that would be easy to keep up to date in order to address future trends in paranormal investigation.
In July 2017 the SPR Council commissioned a fully revised and up to date set of Guidance Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases. The book will be fully supported by a series of dedicated webpages within the SPR’s main website, which will expand upon sections within the guide book and address the need to update information as and when required. However, the book can also act as a stand alone resource and the SPR have made arrangements whereby it will be printed in limited batches with rapid access to the master copy. This allows revisions and changes to be made to the book, reflecting any changes in methods or equipment and including new research as it becomes available. Updates will also be posted onto the supporting web pages in a format that allows them to be printed and pasted into existing copies.
The new edition of the Guidance Notes provides helpful advice, information and guidance in all of the key areas pertaining to the investigation of ghost, hauntings, poltergeists etc., from the first steps right through to the completion of the investigation.
Comprehensive sections include talking to witnesses and helpful methods for gaining the best information from the witness. Methods and equipment used during the investigation are also covered together with advice on how to ensure the best quality evidence can be obtained and how it can be presented following the investigation.
It is hoped that this new set of Guidance Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases will become a valuable resource for all those who are interested in the study of ghosts, hauntings, poltergeists and similar phenomena.
Published 1st September 2018 by the Society for Psychical Research, London.