Ghostbusters And Ghost Hunters

Personal reflections on the changing face of paranormal investigation

By , Columnist

In 1984 they came to save the world, and with a new comic book series from IDW Publishing due to hit the shops the Ghostbusters are back.

The moment I saw them in the cinema more than a quarter of a century ago, I was captivated. Barely into my teens, I was already hugely interested in ghosts and the research into them, but this was something new.

The guides to ghost hunting I’d grown up reading had recommended such quaint tactics as tying black thread across doorways to keep locations secure, and chalking outlines around objects to check later in case those objects had moved. A tape recorder and a camera were considered useful tools for attempting to record anything that might happen, but the general emphasis was very much on the human experience. Seeing the Ghostbusters with their PKE (psychokinetic energy) meters, Ecto-Containment units, and other assorted electronic wizardry made a deep impression on a young lad’s mind.

Perhaps I wasn’t alone. As the years passed, Ghostbusters-style technology began to creep into real-world ghost hunting. Were we aspiring to be like our on-screen heroes and, in a sense, “dressing up” to resemble them more closely?

Or had the film and its subsequent franchise simply reflected trends in technology that were now filtering through into the commercial market in the form of gadgets that researchers like me could make good use of?

Whatever, it was exciting! I was one of the first to get hold of a TriField EMF (electromagnetic field) meter as they became popular paranormal investigation tools in the 1990s and for a short while it seemed that, with equipment like this becoming widely available, it was only a matter of time before we started to pin down the factors involved in creating a “haunted” location.

Quickly, though, I discovered just how easy it was to get the meter to emit a dramatic squealing sound simply by moving either it or me.

This was unsurprising given what it was designed to detect, but I was surprised - not to say a little concerned - to see at first hand how some researchers were starting to use the same instrument during investigations. They would excitedly wave their EMF meters, and other increasingly hi-tech toys, around with no real understanding of how to use them, while reacting to every inevitable flash and bleep as it were confirmation of a ghostly presence in the vicinity. EMF meters had somehow morphed into ghost detectors.

Of course, this didn’t happen on every investigation I participated in (many were superbly run) but it did happen a lot and the problem has never gone away. In fact, as the variety of readily available hi-tech equipment has increased, spawning an industry marketed directly at ghost hunters, the problem has become more widespread.

Confusion frequently surrounds such crucial details as what the instruments actually do, and what the readings really mean, and it sometimes seems as if the main result of using all this amazing technology has been the creation of a new host of things to argue about - “orbs” beings one contentious case in point.

Attempting to keep up with heated discussions regarding, for example, the intricacies of how digital cameras record images, often leaves me feeling as if I’m heading further from, rather than closer to, the essence of what got me interested in this subject.

Don’t get me wrong - I understand why the arguments are necessary and remain optimistic that proper use of instrumentation will help to advance our understanding. Even so, if my younger self were somehow to travel into the future to meet me, I think he’d be surprised.

I’d have to admit that a part of me today actually yearns for a bygone age. An age when all that was really needed was an open mind and a willingness to sit quietly in the dark and wait to see what might happen.

That niggling part of me would quite happily leave all the hi-tech gadgetry to the proper Ghostbusters.

(With thanks to Nicholas and Maz Sands for useful discussion. Views expressed are my own.)

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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