Ghostbuster girls

Ghostbusters gear: hunting the ghosts for real

Image credit: Landmark Media

Thanks to the Hollywood effect, ghost-hunting is now almost a mass-participation sport. With plenty of cool tech in the movies, we look at what equipment paranormal investigators are using in the real world and with what success. Or not.

Ghost-hunting has taken off in a big way, becoming a huge phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. This is fuelled by a veritable production line of Hollywood ghost films spanning decades, from 1963 release ‘The Haunting’ and seminal picture ‘The Exorcist’ in 1973, to Paul Feig’s recent reboot of the 1984 film ‘Ghostbusters’. There is also a whole raft of Japanese and Korean chill-fests, as well as recent releases of a more cerebral kind in the form of Brit-flick ‘Ghost Stories’ and haunt-horror ‘Hereditary’. What they all have in common is our preoccupation with the paranormal and a persistent quest for answers.

Psychical research was once the preserve of mysterious clubs that met purely to discuss the nature of ghosts and psychic phenomena. Now, every major town or city seems to support its own ghost-hunting club and there is no shortage of thrill-seeking punters and like-minded paranormal investigators ready to sign up for meetings and weekends away in haunted houses.

The silver screen is familiar with the representation of science and technology in its dealings with the paranormal. ‘The Haunting’ sees the arrival of professor of psychic phenomena Dr John Markway at eerie mansion Hill House to prove the existence of ghosts, while 2016’s ‘Ghostbusters’ features an assortment of novel ghost-busting tech.

In ‘Ghostbusters’, 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, but with a liquid helium cryogen reservoir added to keep the magnets cool. The film’s psycho-kinetic energy, or PKE, meter – along with its legendary antennas – comes with a proper screen in the reboot.

Yet 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?

A quick internet search reveals a range of equipment for the modern ghost hunter, with everything from deely boppers, flashing rubber jelly eyes and electro­magnetic-field-detecting teddy bears, to Ouija boards and crystal pendulums. It is fuelled by the Hollywood and TV portrayal of ghost hunting as a chief source of information for all things paranormal. 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 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 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 we can’t normally hear or perceive, but that can have quite dramatic effects on individuals,” he says.

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 Earth itself, but we’re not consciously aware of it most of the time. However, it can present a bizarre set of effects in some people, with individuals describing feelings of anxiety or dread, a sense of somebody in the room, nausea, vertigo, sickness and the sudden onset of headaches: effects like those reported in spontaneous paranormal cases.

Modern sound engineering tries its best to remove bass and rumble from audio recordings. If you look at specifications of almost every piece of sound equipment on the market, it specifically excludes low-frequency sound and that’s the bit with which Parsons works. Standard sound recorders and microphones are of no use to him. Parsons’ infrasound-detecting equipment essentially consists of 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 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 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 they report. Therefore, testing the environment for occurrence of infrasound is an essential component in understanding the context of a person’s paranormal experience.

Then there’s the EMF (electromagnetic field) meter, which no serious ghost hunter will be seen without. On the online Ghost Store of 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 K2 meter. These are variations on the trusted type of EMF detector 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 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 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 and so forth.”


Guidance notes for investigators

With so many people out there investigating, you might have thought a breakthrough should have occurred, but therein lies the problem. The sheer number of groups operating in the UK often results in a witness or location being inundated with offers of assistance to investigate. With no standards or regulation covering type or quality of investigation service provided, the outcome can be hit-and-miss, meaning any results or evidence presented cannot be accepted.

In response, the Society for Psychical Research has developed a series of Guidance Notes for investigators of ghosts, hauntings and related phenomena. ‘Guidance Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, Apparitions, Hauntings, Poltergeists and Similar Phenomena’ draws on more than 135 years of experience and covers every stage of the investigation process with the latest theories, techniques and technology.

However, we must be cautious. According to Para.Science, a science-focused paranormal investigation group co-founded by Parsons together with Ann Winsper “to facilitate the study of ghosts, hauntings and related experiences”, there are two types of radiating electromagnetic emissions of interest to paranormal investigators: non-ionising and ionising. The electromagnetic spectrum extends from the ultra-short wavelengths that are ionising radiation and X-rays into the non-ionising portion of the spectrum such as visible light, radio waves and, finally, into Earth’s geomagnetic field.

EMFs are present within most environments and locations, and present a huge variation in amplitude. Added to this are results of research suggesting exposure to some types of EMF can have a measurable effect on human physiology and behaviour. Some people report feelings of nausea and paranoia together with profound experiences – all states which can be interpreted as of paranormal origin.

Back in the 1980s, Professor Michael Persinger of Laurentian University in Canada created his famous God Helmet – headwear modified with electromagnetic emitting coils – to bombard the temporal lobes in the brains of his test subjects with EMFs. Reportedly, at least 80 per cent of his participants experienced a presence beside them in the room, from a simple ‘sensed presence’ to visions of the Lord himself.

Research suggested that EMFs might be responsible for 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. This notion chimes with a tag-line from last year’s Brit-flick ‘Ghost Stories’: “The brain sees what it wants to see.”

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 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.

Along with infrasound meters and EMF detectors, there is an array of other equipment with which the discerning ghost hunter can equip themselves. 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 that feed an environment with EMFs in order ‘to aid the ghosts or spirits in providing energy to communicate or manifest’.

However, one piece of equipment which appears to produce the most compelling evidence for anomalous occurrences is the humble thermometer. Putting aside the ‘Hollywood effect’ for one moment – “the room went icy cold and a ghost appeared” – Parsons maintains 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 results are commonly held to be reliable.

The explosion of smartphones is another area of growing excitement in the field, offering the opportunity to gather high-​quality data without needing to carry several devices while significantly reducing the cost of making industry-standard measurements. Parsons explains: “In my own area of expertise, relating to sound and its role in paranormal experiences, I am now able to undertake acoustic measurements for an outlay of only several hundred pounds, necessary for additional hardware that plugs into my smartphone, instead of having to spend several thousand for a dedicated sound meter. This means I am able to make more measurements that are reliable, and in more places than was previously possible.”

Ghost-hunting has become a crowded arena and much paranormal investigation is amateur, fuelled by an inventive entertainment industry. The multitude of imaginative (and expensive) equipment on offer 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 use of equipment. As Parsons adds: “There is absolutely no doubt the phenomenon exists 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 we don’t yet understand. We don’t know what constitutes a ghost, so that’s why we can’t measure them. Yet 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 what has happened to them really ought not to have happened.”

Standard-issue equipment

Smartphone super-sleuths

Smartphones are much maligned and scorned by serious ghost investigators, as modern software allows users to manipulate images and add layers of content easily: think Snapchat’s selfie flowers and cute dog ears.

So can this technology be taken seriously in the ghost-hunting arena? The short answer is yes. Paranormal investigator Steve Parsons talks us through everything that the iPhone 6s series (the most frequently used) has to offer the serious paranormal researcher.

The 12-megapixel main camera can record still pictures and full 1080HD video, even in low light. Plus, a 7MP user-facing camera takes stills or HD-quality video.

There are three built-in microphones for effective noise cancelling, with the capability to allow the user to add further mono or stereo microphones via the 3.5mm audio jack socket or Lightning port.

An extremely sensitive three-axis accelerometer detects acceleration or g-forces vertically, laterally or horizontally. There is also an electronic gyroscope allowing motion and orientation in any plane to be detected and measured.

A magnetometer detects and measures a static or moving magnetic field in any axis in conjunction with the gyroscope, sensitive enough to detect even subtle changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, as well as changes in the ambient electromagnetic fields.

An ambient light sensor measures subtle changes in lighting levels.

Air pressure is measured by a barometer, tracking changes down to fractions of a millibar.

Ability to connect to other more specialist sensors and hardware via the USB or Lightning port, e.g. to an external temperature measuring system, a thermal-imaging camera, or for undertaking extremely complex acoustic measurements that range from the ultrasonic to very low frequencies.

“Smartphones and tablets are equipped with accurate and reliable sensors, and are supported by powerful processors, capable of dealing with large amounts of data. The resulting information they provide can be a genuine asset to the investigator or researcher who needs to be able to make objective measurements of a location,” adds Parsons.

This is an updated version of an earlier E&T Ghostbusters article which was first published online in July 2016

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