Debunking "Ghost Hunters": Their Equipment, Tactics & "Haunted Houses"

 

Thumbnail photos: Quest TV/YouTube; SYFY/YouTube; shrikeshmaster/Pixabay

 

Turn on your television or open up YouTube, and you'll find that there is no shortage of people who claim to be "ghost hunters." These people visit abandoned buildings or houses they claim to be haunted to capture a bunch of spooky footage and detect the presence of ghosts. As I argue here, there's no good reason to believe that anything supernatural is encountered or measured during these excursions.

[Plot twist: It turns out that I'm actually a ghost, and the only reason I'm making this video is to throw you off our trail.

What if I was actually a ghost? The more I think about it, the more it makes sense: I'm extremely pale; I scare people; I often feel invisible to the women around me; and I'm dead inside. I'm joking... only like three of those things are true.]

The EMF meters used by ghost-hunters can be triggered by any number of different things including power lines, cell phones, or handheld cameras. A large number of manmade sources can also produce the audio recordings that are pointed to as proof of the spirit world. The ghostly speech that they claim to hear is oftentimes heavily distorted nonsense that they morph into intelligent language through a combination of creativity, bias, and suggestion.

Claiming that one can feel a spooky presence in a room proves nothing to the observer at home, and bringing in alleged mediums to communicate with these spirits is just inviting yourself to be lied to. Given that the goal of these shows is to provide entertainment and generate revenue, there's an obvious incentive to exaggerate or even engage in outright fraud—something that former employees or clients of these shows can attest to.

Many characteristics of these so-called "haunted houses" in fact have very straightforward, natural explanations—and whenever we're told that something is supernatural, we should always ask ourselves: What else could be going on here?

Believers in ghosts, and those who claim to hunt them, use many different lines of evidence to back up their beliefs. The core question that we need to ask ourselves is: Does the evidence they provide convincingly demonstrate that ghosts do, indeed, exist?

One category of evidence falls into what I call the "unfalsifiable" category: ghost hunters will walk around a spooky building and claim that they felt something touch them—or that they feel an amorphous, spooky presence in the room with them.

We see an example of this in the show Paranormal Lockdown:

 

"Oh man, something's messing with my head... I'm gonna come into the room! Something's happening in this room. Doesn't feel right. I feel pressure on my back. I just felt a hand push me! There's another hand that pushed me! There is a presence here. Something's happening in this room!"

 

He's like: "Bro, I should not have taken all that LSD before I came here! I am tripping balls right now!"

No, perhaps this guy genuinely did have the experience he claims he did, but for the person watching at home trying to determine for themselves whether ghosts exist, this proves absolutely nothing. Any one of us could make outrageous claims like this, and at the end of the day, all we have to go off of is that person's say-so. I mean it'd be one thing if we had video of a ghostly hand appearing and slapping this guy across the face, but it's literally just footage of a guy squirming around in a kitchen. Not exactly rock-solid proof of the paranormal.

That's not to say that taking people at their word is always unjustified; sometimes there's nothing wrong with it, like when you ask somebody what they do for a living, or when they tell you that they drive a Toyota Corolla. People don't typically lie about such mundane subjects—and even if a person did lie about the car they drive, this isn't going to fundamentally alter the way we look at the world. Claiming that you were assaulted by disembodied creatures from the spirit world is a very different category of belief—and one that requires some very convincing evidence. As Carl Sagan put it, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

So if it wasn't an encounter with ghosts, what could explain this guy's experience? Maybe he's lying because it's funny to him or because he needs to make his show more interesting. Maybe he's mentally ill. Maybe he's on drugs. Maybe he's severely sleep deprived.

Here's how David Hume thought about eyewitness testimony as it relates to miraculous events:

 

"If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion."

From David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, L. A. Selby Bigge, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp. 114-16.

 

Which would strike you as more miraculous: to learn that there are ghosts who can harass people, or to learn that certain people can lie or be deceived? I think we all know the answer to that question.

Given the complete lack of physical evidence to corroborate these claims—as well as the many alternative explanations—I submit that there is no good reason to believe them.

"Oh, so you want physical evidence, huh?" In come the various gadgets that ghost-hunters use to prove that they're in touch with the spirit world. While this is definitely a step up from making bald assertions about a spooky vibe that you're feeling, flashing lights and beeping speakers are only as good as the tools producing them. Here's what YouTuber RalphTheMovieMaker said in his video titled "Ghost Shows Suck":

 

*ghost hunter's equipment starts beeping*

"Is that hard evidence? You know what hard evidence means? Hard evidence is if you killed somebody and they came to your house and you were covered in the person's blood and you had the same exact gun used to kill the person. That's hard evidence. That's like indisputable evidence that you did it. What's their hard evidence? A thing beeps. A thing beeps fast."

 
The beeping thing

The beeping thing

It's not enough to just hear something beep and then conclude that ghosts are real. We need to ask ourselves: How does this equipment work, and what evidence is there that ghosts are being detected?

Let's start out with EMF detectors, which are a must-have in the ghost-hunter's toolkit.

"EMF detector? Check. Thermal imaging camera? Check. Fleshlight? Check."

"No, you idiot! I told you to bring the flashlight—not the fleshlight. How is this gonna help us find a ghost?"

"I don't know, I figured we'd set it up and maybe he'd try to fuck it?"

…We see an example of an EMF detector being used in an episode of the show "Ghost Hunters":

 

". . . And I'm gonna put this EMF detector next to the oil can . . . Mr. Gallagher! We have a couple of devices, maybe you'd be interested in trying to interact with us. . . . Alright, so EMF is going off there now. . . . Can you change the pitch of that device? *pitch changes* That's unreal!"

 

While you can certainly record this device going off and have it seem to coincide with your dialogue, all this thing does is measure electromagnetic fields—which the technological world we live in today is absolutely drowning in.

As we read on the website EMF Explained,

 

"Human-made sources of electromagnetic fields include: vacuum cleaners, hair-dryers, refrigerators, AM / FM radio and television, emergency service radio (police, fire, ambulance), air traffic control, remote controls, mobile phones, and Wi-Fi modems."

 

Even a website dedicated to selling these tools—GhostHuntersEquipment.com—tells us the following:

 

"Electromagnetic fields are present in power lines, computer monitors, televisions, appliances and home wiring . . . Always keep in mind that meters read the environment so there could always be a natural explanation to a reading."

 

What steps do these ghost-hunters take to rule out every other possible source of EMFs in their environment? Just because the lights are turned off in the room doesn't mean power isn't flowing through the building. They're using flashlights to see where they're going. They carry walkie-talkies around with them. They're using television-quality cameras to record everything. They're probably using their phones to take selfies with captions like "OMG! SHITTING MY PANTS IN THIS HAUNTED HOUSE RIGHT NOW!"

There's probably powerlines outside nearby. I'm sure there are plenty of radio stations whose transmissions are passing through that building. And on top of that, some of the other tools that they use to detect ghosts themselves are a source of electromagnetic radiation! Maybe the ghost of Mr. Gallagher truly is fascinated by this oil can, or maybe some fat guy next door is microwaving a burrito?

Since there are so many possible sources of EMFs around these people, the idea that detecting them proves the existence of ghosts is downright laughable. Ghost-hunters simply haven't ruled out alternative explanations—yet they're incredibly fast to not just jump to a conclusion, but jump to a completely outlandish conclusion.

"But Anton, it's not just electromagnetic fields that they're detecting; sometimes they'll capture audio recordings of them communicating with a ghost!" Such recordings are known as Electronic Voice Phenomena—or EVPs, for short.

The first thing I want to point out about these is that oftentimes, the recordings don't sound anything like what the ghost-hunters interpret them as. A great example of this comes from that same episode of Paranormal Lockdown:

 

"*ambiguous audio chirp*

*astonished ghost hunter*: "[The audio said] I'll get you!"

 

I'm sorry, but that sounded nothing like that. It was literally just an ambiguous chirp of audio, and somehow what this guy hears is "I'll get you." Listen to it again, in isolation, and tell me what you hear. This just doesn't sound like a meaningful piece of human or ghostly speech to me; this guy is just hearing what he wants to hear. Putting subtitles on the screen and playing it back several times is supposed to prime your brain in such a way that you agree with him, but isolating the audio and honestly listening to it makes clear that this guy is making a mountain out of a molehill.

These people remind of that SNL skit where one of the ghost-hunters farts, and they play back the audio, treating it as a serious encounter with the paranormal:

 

*fart sound*

Ghost Hunter 1: "Listen, it sounded like he said a name. Julian! Did you hear it? Julie. Julie. Who is Julian and are you Julian?"

 

On another YouTube channel called "'Believe" A Paranormal Experience", they make it seem like they're having an actual back-and-forth conversation with the spirits:

 

"What was this place called, guys? What are we standing in?

*ambiguous audio*

Did it say prison?

My name is John. Tell me your name!

*audio sounds like it says "Pat"*

Pam? It was a woman.

. . . Did you meet God when you died?

*ambiguous audio*

*subtitles*: sorta

Is there a heaven?

*ambiguous audio*

They said yeah?"

 

This is pretty much exactly how these conversations with the spirit world always go: They ask a question, pick up a severely distorted chunk of audio, and they read into this ambiguous audio some kind of meaningful answer to their question.

The problem with this approach is that there are so many different ways you could interpret these snippets of audio. Let's look at another example from this video and I'll show you what I mean:

 

"Are you a guard or are you an inmate?”

*ambiguous audio*

“Inmate!"

 

If they had asked a different question here, the audio is vague enough that they could morph it into a meaningful answer to that question as well. Here's what I mean by this:

"How many children did you have?"

*same ambiguous audio, this time the subtitles say 'Eight'*

. . . "What's your name?"

*same ambiguous audio, this time the subtitles say 'Nate'*

. . . "What is your favorite animal?"

*same ambiguous audio, this time the subtitles say 'Snake'*

The point is, it really doesn't matter what they pick up on the audio, because it tends to be so distorted and unclear that you could conveniently hear a meaningful answer to virtually any question that you ask. If you think about it, what they're doing is distorting already-distorted audio.

"What year was I born?"

*completely garbled, strange, hilarious-sounds, like a fat alien choking on its tongue*

"Oh my God! He said 1994! Clear as day."

Notice also the many jump-cuts that they do. There's no telling from this footage what percent of questions yielded nothing of substance worth showing. For all we know, they could've been there for two hours to only get two minutes of usable footage. This is clearly a case of counting the hits and ignoring the misses; they're obviously not going to show us the many examples where the questions weren't answered, or where the alleged "answer" was unintelligible nonsense or completely unrelated to the question at hand.

I also wanna know why the ghosts are only seemingly capable of providing such pitifully brief, barely audible answers to their questions? Doesn't that strike you as a little suspicious? Why can't the ghost have a full-on conversation with them, like: "Heyyy, what's up? My name's Chris. I'm the ghost that hangs out here. Whatchya guys up to? How can I help?"

Their audio recorders also suffer from the same flaw that EMF detectors do, and that's that a wide variety of manmade sources are producing the very thing that they're trying to detect! These devices basically work by scanning a bunch of different radio frequencies:

 

"The PSB11 . . . sweeps Radio Frequencies much faster than other Ghost Boxes."

"The P-SB7 works by scanning the FM band and AM band along with . . . white noise . . . where spirit voices seemingly are able to form words."

 

Wow, spirit voices are detected on FM and AM radio frequencies?—those same frequencies that you can hear human transmissions on? What an incredible coincidence that is! I always hate when I'm trying to listen to the game and a bunch of ghostly moanings keep interrupting!

Here's what James Randi writes on the subject:

 

"These poor EVP-ers fiddle with recorders of various kinds until they find an audio signal of any sort – in an environment saturated with cell phones, radio and TV transmissions, various intercom and monitoring devices, walkie-talkie conversations, and 'ham' transmissions, over the entire range of FM and AM frequencies from 10 kilocycles to 10,500 megacycles."

 

The sound engineer David Federlein further elaborates on how these ghost hunters are getting it wrong:

 

". . . one website says to set the 'sensitivity level' of the microphone to the highest possible setting as ghosts are apparently afflicted with laryngitis. Doing this raises what's called the 'noise floor' - the electrical noise created by all electrical devices - creating white noise. If I were to filter white noise (the audible equivalent of watching the snow on a detuned TV) I could make it say just about anything. . . . When you factor in other aspects of physics, such as cross modulation of radio stations or faulty ground loops in equipment, you have a lot of people thinking they are listening to ghosts when in fact it is nothing more than a controlled misuse of electronics."

 

Here's my question for the believer in ghosts: How can you reliably distinguish radio transmissions or microphone noise from the spooky chatter of ghosts? Given that we have such straightforward explanations for the sounds they record, I think invoking the supernatural here is just silly and desperate.

If you're hoping to find detailed explanations of how these various tools can isolate and detect ghosts, you're gonna be sorely disappointed—and you're gonna have to settle for wild assertions being made with no supporting evidence.

On GhostHuntersEquipment.com, for example, they claim that:

 

"The spirits communicate by using the available radio frequencies (RF) to speak."

 

Not surprisingly, no source is provided for this claim. They just take it for granted and move on. We see the same thing with EMF meters:

 

"When spirits are present, theories suggest that electromagnetic energy is present in the environment."

 

"Theories suggest"? What theories? Theories presented by who, and on what grounds?

"Well, I figured it out the other night when I was using my Ouija Board!"

Ohh, ok. Now we're talking!

 

"The white noise and the fast scanning of radio frequencies is believed to provide the energy and transmission that spirits need to get their voices through to us."

 

Really? It is "believed"? Believed by who, exactly? Ask my opinion on the subject and I can assure you it is not believed! And who cares who believes it; where is the actual experimental proof that these instruments do detect what you claim they detect? I've never seen it. All I see are naked claims about how these gadgets work supported by vague, passive statements of anonymous belief. I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough.

I would also invite you to ask, how is it that these non-physical ghosts can manifest in so many different physical ways? We're told that they can alter your mood, touch your back, knock things over, change the room temperature, and even use radio frequencies to have a nice chat. I thought one of the selling points of being a ghost is that you shed your physical body and only your spirit remains? How can this wispy, immaterial spirit knock over cans of paint or give you a back massage? It seems to me like if ghosts truly were non-physical beings, there wouldn't be any way to detect them because they simply wouldn't be able to interact with the world around us.

You'll often hear it said that ghosts are "energy"—and after the body dies, the energy of your consciousness continues on. This makes no sense to me. How could you have a collection of energy that retains a very specific configuration, thus allowing consciousness to carry on, if it's just sort of floating around in the world? Imagine, by analogy, if you released a ball of hot gas into the atmosphere. It would very quickly dissipate—and without some sort of physical container or scaffolding to provide organization, I don't see how any source of energy wouldn't just immediately turn into a disorganized soup of randomness.

The whole notion of a "haunted house" has always struck me as a bit weird, as well. Why would a ghost just hang out in some old building for years on end? Why not travel the world and go haunt some tropical beaches or beautiful mountaintops? Wouldn't it get boring just sitting in some empty mansion month after month waiting for people to show up, like "Aaaany minute now." Is there some kind of forcefield that keeps them in the place that they died at?

"Oh, maybe they're trying to get people to solve their murders in the place that they died at!"

Ok, if that's the case, why not go haunt a police station or something? Why not tune into a detective's radio and demand justice? "Nah, I'm good, I'll just stay here in this abandoned hospital for 90 years and hope somebody shows up."

Probably the spookiest thing I saw while researching this video was the price tag on many of these instruments.

The ParaForce Paranormal Music Box costs $349. Who knew that deluding yourself could be so expensive?

For $500, you can also get your hands on The Paranologies Poltercom Intelligent Instrument Transcommunication Spirit Box. That is a catchy name right there! Rolls right off the tongue.

The Original Portal -- $799! Buy a few things from here, and the only thing that's gonna be haunting you is a debt collector! Browsing this website makes clear that you can either be a ghost hunter or a bargain hunter—but you can't be both.

Also keep in mind that these self-described "ghost-hunters" aren't exactly the most impartial observers out there; they go into their excursions strongly believing that ghosts exist and fully expecting to encounter them. So any strange sound that they hear, any beeping of their equipment, any weird vibes that they feel, will all be attributed to the paranormal—whereas a more objective person might stop to consider the many alternative explanations.

They also go romping around in the dark, where people are much more on edge and easily frightened. If you're just sitting in your brightly lit home in the middle of the day and you hear some brief, weird sound in the attic, you probably won't even think twice about it. But if you're creeping around an abandoned building late at night, that same sound might terrify you.

Not only that, but they also play scary, suspenseful music during these shows to make things seem much more spooky and mysterious than they actually are. Take away the music and you're basically left with 15 minutes of people walking around with flashlights.

And given that the whole purpose of the show is to entertain people and ultimately generate revenue, there's going to be a bias in favor of sensationalism, exaggeration, and perhaps even outright fraud to keep people watching. If every episode showed people walking around a building finding absolutely nothing, that wouldn't make for very compelling television—and it certainly wouldn't keep people watching for very long.

Given that the incentives are there to engage in hyperbole and fakery, it's no surprise to learn that people who have worked on these shows have since come forward to expose their deception. On EmpireNews.net, we read that:

 

"Aaron Goodwin was fired from the series [Ghost Adventures] following a rant while being interviewed . . . about how the Travel Channel took everything that was authentic and truly paranormal about the show and made a mockery of it by making the crew record its own voices in place of actual EVPs . . . when filming did not reveal enough evidence to satisfy producers.

. . . he says they actually made them go back and film reactions of the crew so that they would act surprised when hearing things that did not actually occur." . . . [He said] 'they basically have turned us into liars. We have been committing a fraud in my eyes and I've just about had enough.'"

 

We read on GhostTheory.com that similar accusations have been leveled against another ghost-hunting show:

 

"Below is a long testimony from a former client of the [Paranormal State] team. . . . 'The shot of Kelli observing a figure dashing past the window was staged. The person doing the dashing is a crewmember.

. . . Chip and Ryan go down the hall and go into the guest bedroom. Ryan picks up a cold spot 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the area. . . . The cold spot, which is alleged to be a ghost? Or a demon? Or maybe a vortex to the other side? No, none of those things. It's a cold can of beer placed there by [Paranormal State]'."

 

Whenever you see or hear about some spooky event that you're told must have been caused by a ghost, stop to ask yourself how easily that thing can be explained without resorting to the paranormal.

This is something I learned the importance of the time that I went ghost-hunting:

"Oh my God! Did you see that ghostly apparition?"

That... was actually just my shadow. Sorry, I was playing around with my flashlight.

"What about that smell in the room? I'm clearly sensing a presence here."

I actually just farted. I'm really sorry about that.

*spooky voice*: "OoooooOOooOOoohhhhhh, I'm going to murder you!"

"Ok, come on, that one had to be a ghost!"

What, that? No, that's just my ringtone. Looks like my wife is calling.

On an episode of Ghost Hunters, they capture very clear thermal footage of what they claim is a ghost.

I'm sorry, but that is obviously just a guy walking across the hallway. Or let me put it a bit more generously: That footage is indistinguishable from what it would look like if it was just a guy walking across the hallway.

Do ghosts exist? At the end of the day, we don't know for certain. But here's one thing that we do know exists: Guys that can walk across a hallway.

One of the comments on this video says:

 

"hey kid i'll give you 5$ to walk across the hall"

 

They go on, in that episode, to claim that it couldn't have been a person—because when they went to inspect the area, the doors on both sides of the hallway were locked! They also say they didn't hear the sound of any doors opening, so they conclude that it was a ghost who must have passed directly through them. This I find strange considering that when I play it back, I can clearly hear the sound of a door opening.

Which strikes you as the more reasonable explanation: What we see is a ghost, or what we see is simply thermal footage of exactly what it looks like: a dude walking across a hallway? Is the only possible explanation that what we see here is a ghost? Absolutely not.

Another commenter points out a second problem with this example:

 

"People always talk about ghosts feeling cold. Why would a thermal image of one look like that of a normal body temperature person?"

 

In another episode of Ghost Hunters, they claim that a ghost is responsible for the most devious of actions: fiddling with a doorknob:

 

*doorknob makes sound*

Ghost Hunter 1: "That doorknob just opened! . . . It sounded like something turned the door and opened it."

 

Wow, you mean that doorknob which is right where your conveniently-obscured hand was? Yeah dude, I'm sure it was a ghost. You've officially convinced me to believe. Even if that guy didn't touch the doorknob, couldn't the explanation simply be that it's another one of their crew members on the other side of the door?

Does anyone actually fall for this shit? "Well, you know I used to be a skeptic until I heard a doorknob get jiggled for a second. That's when everything changed for me."

I'm reminded of a Ghost Adventures clip where some dude literally just throws his EMF meter down a hallway and blames it on a ghost.

He’s like “What has my own hand done?!”

One of the comments on that video is hilarious:

 

"The other night I was in a mixed sauna and I felt a ghost pulling my cock but the cheeky spectre was using my hand, it was most unfair I got thrown out, I didn't know the ghost would use my hand. That's ghosts for you!"

 

Probably the silliest part of all these ghost shows is when they bring in some bogus medium who walks around and pretends to be in touch with the spirit world.

Here's another clip from that video "Ghost Shows Suck":

 

Narrator: "As Nadine heads downstairs, she begins to feel the presence of a second spirit: another female."

Nadine: "It's starting to really shake down here. The daughter speaks to me, but not the other one. They are communicating. They are talking to each other. . . . *while sobbing* Don't go there! Don't go there! Oh my God! So much pain. She's telling me, 'you can do it, you can do it. Stay.' I don't wanna stay! Oh, get me out of here! *leaves house*"

Ralph: "She's a lying nutjob, and these poor people are actually believing her bullshit because they're so hurt by the loss of their daughter!"

 

This kid's a savage! I like it.

Psychic mediums allegedly talking to the dead are another one of things that any one of us could fake and replicate. It takes no effort at all to walk into a room making weird hand gestures and be like: "Wow, I'm feeling a very strong presence right now! The spirits are definitely trying to reach out to me. I'm getting a Steve, or Steven. Does the name Steve mean anything to you?"

He's like: "Uh, I mean my name is Steve. I just told you that like five minutes ago!"

And it's all fun and games until you realize that con artists like this are ultimately taking advantage of desperate, grieving people, using their pain as an excuse to come into their home and lie about being in touch with their dead friends or family members.

On this same show called Paranormal Home Inspectors, to their credit—instead of just crapping their pants and screaming "ghost!"—they also have a home inspector come in and provide perfectly reasonable explanations for a wide variety of spooky events:

 

Home Inspector: "They're having problems with a door opening on its own. I can see right away that it's not really installed properly, is it? . . . Back door closing by itself? It is not installed properly."

. . . Home Owner: "Fireplace going on and off on its own."

Home Inspector: "Apparently it's been coming on and off by itself. So the problem seems to have occurred down here with the electronics. Now look at this. We can see right here, the wires are loose! This is an easy fix!"

 

This is the kind of skepticism that we should operate with whenever people start talking about the supernatural. If there's one question I would invite you to ask yourself whenever you're confronted with conspiracy theories or supernatural claims, it is this: Could there be some alternative explanations for what's going on here?

So to recap the key points made here, there's no reason to believe that the equipment used by ghost hunters is actually detecting any ghosts. The readings and recordings that they gape at can actually be produced by very mundane sources such as cell phones, home appliances, or radio towers. And many of their recordings sound nothing like what they claim to be hearing.

We can't expect an objective analysis if a person goes into their investigation strongly believing in ghosts, and this bias is further compounded by the fact that television shows have strong incentives to entertain their audiences.

Claims of feeling a presence in the room or being in communication with the spirit world can't be confirmed by the person at home, and many events pointed to as proof of the supernatural actually have perfectly reasonable explanations.