Thanks to the Hollywood effect, ghost-hunting is now almost a mass-participation sport. With plenty of cool tech on show in the latest Ghostbusters’ reboot, we look at what equipment paranormal investigators are using in the real world and with what success.
Ghostbusters is back. Over three decades since the paranormal investigators' last outing (Ghostbusters 2), with plenty of slime and packing a plasma blaster a-piece, Paul Feig’s rebooted CGI-fest of Ivan Reitman’s much-loved 1980s’ hit, returns with a re-invented, all-female cast.
With plenty of nods to the original in the form of cameo appearances from some of the original’s stars, together with an almost-parallel storyline, the reinvention has, nonetheless, faced much scrutiny and more than its fair share of backlash. However, fanboy sexism aside, there’s plenty to satisfy a nostalgic audience, from the iconic grey boiler-suits (left pleasingly untailored to the female form) to the look of the car, Ecto-1, and, of course, the classic Ghostbusters’ logo.
Aside from the timeliness of Feig’s penchant for casting women in leading roles to carry a movie, there are other ways that his Ghostbusters’ reinvention is capturing the current zeitgeist. In recent times, ghost-hunting has taken off in a big way and has become a huge phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic.
Psychical research was once the preserve of mysterious clubs that met to sedately discuss the nature of ghosts and psychic phenomena. Now every major town or city across the country seems to support its own ghost-hunting club, with weekends away in haunted houses, networks of like-minded paranormal investigators across the Internet and no shortage of thrill-seeking punters ready to sign-up.
Busting ghosts with science
The new Ghostbusters film boasts plenty of novel tech for the ghost-busting team and with resident cryogenic and polarised target physicist Dr James Maxwell on set, the film writers’ wildest imaginings are grounded in real science.
There’s the miniaturised superconducting proton synchrotron at the heart of the iconic proton pack, basically a portable particle accelerator for busting ghosts, now with a liquid helium cryogen reservoir to keep the magnets cool. The famous ghost traps get a design overhaul and are now more cylindrical. The new psycho-kinetic energy, or PKE, meter, which - along with its legendary antennas - now comes with a proper screen and then there’s Ecto-1 itself, this time a slightly newer hearse-style 1980s’ Cadillac Fleetwood Station Wagon.
So, the silver screen Ghostbusters are packing some cool, updated tech, but what of our real-life ghost-hunters? What sets them apart from their fictional counterparts? What equipment do paranormal investigators use in the real world, what does it do and is it any good?
Tools of the trade
A quick internet search reveals a whole raft of equipment for the employ of today’s ghost hunter, with everything from deely boppers, flashing rubber jelly eyes and electromagnetic field-detecting (EMF) teddy bears, to Ouija boards and crystal pendulums. Fuelled by the Hollywood and TV portrayal of ghost hunting as a chief source of information for all things paranormal - no disrespect to Ghostbusters intended - together with the advent of social media, a whole ghost-busting industry has sprung up.
However, before the last shreds of credibility are blown away on an eerie wind, there are some committed investigators out there who, along with their academic counterparts in psychology and parapsychology, are applying technology to test the claims of people experiencing paranormal events. This is where it gets interesting.
These investigators operate in the subtle region between belief and scepticism. They don’t hunt ghosts, but seek answers in trying to gain an objective understanding of a subjective paranormal account. Steve Parsons has been a full-time investigator in the UK for more than 20 years and while studying for a parapsychology-focused PhD on infrasound as a possible cause for various haunting experiences, he designed and built his own specialist equipment to precisely measure and record location-based infrasound. His work explores the physics and the psychology of sound and its association with the paranormal.
“My aim is not to seek ghosts with technology, but apply technology to test people’s claims, where that relates to physical variables within the environment. My specialist area is sound, specifically infrasound, a very low-frequency sound that we can’t normally hear or perceive, but that can have quite dramatic effects on individuals,” he said.
Low-frequency infrasound is all around us. It is generally considered to be an audio-frequency energy that lies below the range of normal human hearing, typically around 20Hz and below. It can come from the weather, from man-made sources like road, traffic or industrial noise, or from within the Earth itself, but we’re not consciously aware of it on a day-to-day basis. It can, however, present a bizarre set of effects in some people, with individuals describing feelings of anxiety or dread, a sense of somebody being in the room, nausea, vertigo, sickness and the sudden onset of headaches, effects that are similar to those reported in spontaneous paranormal cases.
Parsons’ air pressure transducer
Modern sound engineering tries its best to remove the bass, the rumble, from audio recordings. If you look at the specifications of almost every piece of sound equipment on the market, it specifically works to exclude low-frequency sound; and that’s the bit with which Steve Parsons works. Standard sound recorders and microphones are of no use to him.
Parsons’ infrasound-detecting equipment essentially comprises two highly sensitive micro-barometers, or air pressure transducers, which pick up small changes in air pressure. “A sound wave is, in effect, an air pressure wave and, once picked up by the transducers, the signal is fed through custom-written spectrum analysis software in order to produce a frequency read-out of the pressure wave. I can then focus in on those very low-frequency pressure waves which are the infrasound waves,” he explains.
Parsons’ research, cited in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, strongly suggests that infrasound is a component in the production or enhancing of reported paranormal experiences. There is a clear link between people who are exposed to low-frequency sound and an increase in the number of paranormal experiences that they report. Testing the environment for the occurrence of infrasound is therefore an essential component in understanding the context of a person’s paranormal experience.
Then there’s the EMF meter, which no serious ghost hunter will be seen without. On the online Ghost Store of the UK-based Paranormal Intelligence Gathering Service (otherwise known as the PIGS) you’ll find the MEL meter, the Dr Gauss meter, the Cell Sensor and the K2 meter. These are all variations on the trusted type of EMF detector that electricians use in locating electric cables in walls, adapted here for the sole purpose of detecting ghosts.
The founding members of the PIGS have over 30 years’ combined service in the police force, as you might have deduced from their apt moniker, and "carry out investigations into the paranormal in both public and private dwellings". Drawing on their extensive backgrounds they are "not just content to sit around in the dark and ‘call-up spooks’, we have the full range of equipment to try and find actual evidence of paranormal activity". Rest easy, everyone.
As ex-police officer and full-time PIGS paranormal intelligence officer Tim Brown explains: “Modern equipment gives the investigator a much better overview of the environment, so in terms of success it’s all vital. Now what we need to determine is trying to capture anything which is outside of the normal, so if there is anything in the ghost report about the haunting that can’t be explained then it’s about trying to capture some form of evidence of it, such as video, photographs, audio etc.”
Brown’s personal favourite is a gadget called the GhostArk. Developed by veteran Italian paranormal investigator Massimo Rossi last year, the GhostArk will set you back around £200 and is billed as the world's first all-in-one piece of ghost-hunting kit. As Brown describes, “It records environmental readings such as EMF, temperature and environmental pressure and logs its readings in a file which can be examined later with graphs.”
Persinger’s God Helmet
We must be cautious, however. According to Para.Science, a science-focused paranormal investigation group co-founded by Steve Parsons together with Ann Winsper, "to facilitate the study of ghosts, hauntings and related experiences", there are two types of radiating electromagnetic emissions that are of interest to paranormal investigators: non-ionising and ionising. The electromagnetic spectrum extends from the ultra-short wave lengths that comprise ionising radiation and x-rays, down into the non-ionising portion of the spectrum such as visible light, radio waves and finally into the Earth's own geo-magnetic field.
EMFs are present within most environments and locations and present a huge variation in amplitude. Added to this are the results of research suggesting that exposure to some types of EMF can have a measurable effect on human physiology and behaviour with some people undergoing feelings of nausea and paranoia together with profound experiences; all states which can be interpreted as being of a paranormal origin.
Back in the 1980s, Professor Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada created his famous God Helmet – a helmet modified with electromagnetic emitting coils – in order to bombard the temporal lobes in the brains of his test subjects with EMFs. Reportedly, at least 80 percent of his participants experienced a presence beside them in the room, ranging from a simple "sensed presence" to visions of the Lord himself.
The research suggested that EMFs might be responsible for the production of a range of anomalous experiences from the sighting of apparitions to poltergeist phenomena and even UFO encounters. A team from Uppsala University in Sweden later challenged this notion, concluding that the original experimental protocol had provoked great suggestion and expectation among participants which was much more likely to be the cause of their bizarre experiences than the EMFs themselves.
Whatever the outcome, such experiments established a link between EMF and paranormal experiences and generated much excitement. As Parsons explains, “Ghost hunters ran over the hills and far away with it and even now claim that it’s the ghosts themselves that generate EMFs.”
Add to this excitable mix the all-pervasive nature of EMFs coupled with the variety of equipment and meters being used by a diversity of ghost-hunting groups and clubs, plus the extreme desire for "evidence", then it’s easy to see how perfectly normal EMF levels can easily be brandished as proof of paranormal activity.
'The room went icy cold'
Along with infrasound meters and EMF detectors there is an array of other equipment with which the discerning ghost hunter can equip himself/herself. These include an assortment of cameras including thermal imaging, CCTV and infrared night-vision video; illumination and lasers; a range of instrumental trans-communication devices or ‘spirit boxes’ encompassing digital voice recorders and electronic voice listeners; and generators or pumps which feed an environment with EMFs in order ‘to aid the ghosts or spirits in providing energy to communicate or manifest’.
What’s the one piece of equipment that appears to produce the most compelling evidence for anomalous occurrences so far? According to Steve Parsons, it’s the humble thermometer. Putting the ‘Hollywood effect’ aside for one moment - you know the scenario, ‘The room went icy cold and a ghost appeared’ – Parsons maintains that there are “a small, but significant number of properly measured temperature observations carried out with calibrated equipment where the temperature has done something anomalous and unusual that is concurrent with somebody having a paranormal experience.”
A thermometer, whether using a basic liquid-in-glass type or a high-spec digital model with a milli-degree accuracy and computer interface, is not subject to suggestion and expectation, excitement or hyperbole. Any number can be used together, side by side, and their results are commonly held to be reliable. As Parsons adds, “If we’re going to be looking at anything we should be looking at temperature because there’s a body of evidence that seems to be suggesting there’s something odd taking place.”
We measure what we can
Ghost-hunting has become a crowded arena and the vast majority of paranormal investigation is amateur, fuelled by an inventive entertainment industry, and the myriad of imaginative (and expensive) equipment available to the eager ghostbuster reflects this.
However, despite the theatre and excitement surrounding the paranormal, people continue to see and experience things we cannot begin to explain. The serious business of parapsychology seeks to undertake objective research, to be ethical and measured in its approach and its use of equipment. As Parsons adds, “There is absolutely no doubt that the phenomena exist as a human experience, but what we simply do not know is whether it is an internal experience, a creation of the brain, the mind, or whether it is an external phenomenon that we don’t yet understand. We don’t know what constitutes a ghost so that’s why we can’t measure them; but we measure what we can.
“Now that may lead us to being able to offer an explanation, but, intriguingly, in some instances it also leads us to a dead-end where our equipment shows that what has happened to them really ought not to have happened.”