Where have all the ghosts gone?

by Dr Paul Lee

Ghost vigils can be the most boring activity ever. But there is something rather appealing - not to say addictive - about stopping up for hours on a Saturday night waiting for a spook to shake its chains and wail at us. However, the number of new ghost cases are become fewer and further apart.

So what happened?

Simple. "Most Haunted" happened: Living TV's top-rated programme. When it started, a pretend parapsychologist (in reality, an actor), a presenter who would scream at anything, and various "psychics" toured some of the many reputedly spook-infested locations in the UK, gathering "evidence" for the paranormal.

The results invariably included shaky night-vision camera shots, people unable to handle EMF meters and interpret their results correctly , and various facts spouted by the psychics (some of which turned out to be wrong) as they get possessed by an army of weird phantoms , all the time while dodging those pesky orbs. Little has changed in the last few years. Recently, a possessed "psychic" was asked a question which the spirit should have been able to answer, but wouldn't. And then he got possessed two demonstrably fictional characters!
And if you want further proof that these TV shows are merely vehicles for the ego of the presenters, and not to gather evidence in favour of the paranormal, look to the way that cameras are often not focussed where they should be - pointing outwards to record any paranormal evidence, but inwards - at the faces of the participants, obviously to gather "reaction" shots when purportedly spooky phenomena occur (the best example being the New Zealand "Ghost Hunt" series, now thankfully terminated)! How many times have hitherto bizarre, perhaps even unexplained/unexplainable shenanigans been missed because the cameras were not looking where they should be? This is just common sense.

This method of "research" places far too much emphasis on one person (the medium) whose skills are, in a scientific sense, unproven psi-kookiness. It gives ghost researchers a bad name.

But there has been an annoying side effect: the show has led to a proliferation of groups: these are people who watch it and think, "that looks like fun" and set up their own groups, many of whom have a lack of professionalism and view the whole venture as a lark, with many people seeing it as a way of getting a short-term thrill, like adrenalin junkies on a roller-coaster.

The number of "Most Haunted" wannabees, such as the UK Ghost Investigators, means that the already sparse number of ghost reports are becoming heavily diluted and true, professional groups (SPR, ASSAP, Parasearch etc.) who genuinely seek an understanding of ghosts hear little of new cases. The self-styled description of these wannabee groups activities as "research" is somewhat baffling too: "research"? What exactly are they researching?

Most groups have decided that ghosts exist anyway. "Investigations"? What are they investigating? A medium's ramblings? As stated, most groups are thrill seekers who have absolutely no plans to further this field of study.

These are the groups who squabble over venues and locations, poaching places and members from each other. Some of the groups have so much in-fighting and bitching that people leave to form their own splinter groups.

Some of the ghost investigations I have been on border on farcical; some of the others teeter over the edge into pure lunacy, an insult to the intelligence. There is something disturbing about groups who are so anti-equipment that they will only consider mercury thermometers during these investigations. I suspect that the reason for this is it removes any opportunity these people may have of giving them something to do during a particularly boring vigil. One vigil I attended was so beset by people taking flash pictures of orbs that my night vision was severely disrupted.

Then there are psychics who are so egocentric that they throw tantrums if they don't get their own way. Then there are the credulous buffoons who accept anything unexpected as definitely paranormal. These people whisper reverentially "thank you" to non-existent spooks whose communication attempts during s´┐Żnces amount to very faint clicks that are probably timbers and pipes settling.

And, despite many people (such as the world's finest photographic experts) proving repeatedly that orbs are nothing supernatural, clueless paranormal investigators still offer their photos as "proof". When such "proof" can easily be discredited by experts, it makes the whole community a subject of ridicule. Where the idea that orbs are the first stage of a spirit manifestation is beyond me. Has anyone actually watched this happen?

Personally, I have absolutely no time or respect for groups who obsess over orbs, or are medium led. Given the "me me me me me me me" attitude of most mediums, I believe that mental illness plays a greater part in these spook hunts than any perceived psychic abilities.

I cannot help but concur with a recent statement by Derren Brown, who said that New-Agers are renowned for accepting beliefs but not questioning them. In short there is no scepticism or rational thought. Much of what they know, they have been told, or have read. They have done little research and simply repeat various "facts" mantra-like. Orbs, for instance. Most Haunted has suggested that orbs have no scientific explanation; an obvious lie.

This "Most Haunted" effect also has another associated artefact: avarice. The show has resulted in haunted venues realising that they can make money from the gullible, some even going so far as to embellish ghost stories to lure the unwary in.

Before MH, many groups were happy to pay 5-10 to cover staff overtime and insurance costs. But now, it is so very different. One venue in London used to charge a minimal fee, but now charges 1400-2000 because they were seen on MH. And one ghost group even charges venues for their services! One group was allowed free access to a venue, but the group charged its members 80 to attend the investigation. When the proprietors of the venue found out, they cancelled their access agreement.

And then there are those teams that advertise events on E-bay for extortionate sums of money.

Another member of LivingTV's paranormal entourage is "I'm Famous and Frightened", another atrocious attempt at "investigating" the paranormal, but with worse "psychics" than Most Haunted. This was so bad that, in the first series, the on-site paranormal researchers (from the respected group Ghosts-UK) almost walked off the set. Still, at least this show is for charity but is still leaves an awful taste in the mouth.

The field of spontaneous phenomena research was in disarray before Most Haunted anyway. The Living TV show has only served to emphasize the shoddy state of research anyway. One famous, but disreputable author regurgitates the same old ghost stories without checking original base records. As a result, many long discredited stories are still accepted as fact... and this is a habit that many groups employ.

This may be an occasion where I become sceptical over a research topic, not necessarily because it has proved to have no worth, but because of the antics of the deluded. All I can hope is that, like the X-Files, most people will lost interest in the subject when Most Haunted descends into its own graveyard - the television archive.

Other resources:

Bad Ghosts

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From Amazon.co.uk
(Ghosthunters is a DVD series)