Is my house haunted? What do I do about it? These are not hypothetical questions when fear grips your throat in the middle of the night, your breathing becomes labored and perspiration covers your body - especially if there are children involved.
Zak Bagans' Paranormal Challenge returns with a new episode on Travel Channel tonight from Tennessee's Old South Pittsburg Hospital, a shuttered medical facility reputed to be rife with restless and damaged souls, with teams Tennessee Wraith Chasers and Office of Paranormal Studies vying for southern superiority in the sleuthing of spirits.
We took advantage of this gathering of paranormal superstars -- Bagans; Paranormal Challenge head judge Dave Schrader; guest judge Dr. Andrew Nichols, founder and director of the American Institute of Parapsychology; and the competing teams from TWC and OPS -- to gather advice on the pressing question of what to do about a house that may harbor unseen visitors.
I first spoke with Zak Bagans by phone from the set of Ghost Adventures, where he is taping shows for the fall season.
Zak Bagans - "Try to research what may have happened at your house. A lot of people say, 'There haven't been any deaths in my house, so there are no ghosts here.' Find out what that land used to be. Ghosts can travel. Ghosts can go from one room to another, from one buidling to another. Find out the personality and intentions of the entities.
"Have you been harmed? Do your children have unexplained bruises or scratches? Is there poltergeist activity? Then you may be dealing with something dark. If you think the spirit may be harmful, do not try to communicate with it. Either bring in a professional to investigate, or have your house cleansed by clergy or a demonologist. And you need to get out of that house until they can do their work.
"If you decide the spirit is friendly and you want to do the investigation yourself, get an EMF detector or a Mel-meter. We always begin by walking around the facility and doing a general sweep to get base readings and look for anomalies. Also, don't just use your equipment, use your body - that's the best tool you have. Are you getting chills? Are you getting goosebumps?
"If you're brushing your teeth and the hairs stand up on your arms for no apparent reason, it might be a spirit trying to communicate with you. If you do think there is a spirit present, you want to determine if it's residual or intelligent. It could be that the spirit is trying to tell you something. Like in the movie Ghost, Patrick Swayze is trying to tell Demi Moore who killed him.
"If you do have strange EMF readings and you do have those feelings, grab a digital recorder, but understand the risks if you decide to do EVP in your own house. I will not do EVP in my own house, because once you turn that light on, you might not be able to turn it off. As soon as a spirit knows you are trying to communicate with it, that spirit might not leave you alone.
"I say this because I have had demonic attachments, demonic attachments that I have provoked. Things followed me home from our investigation of Bobby Mackey's Music World and I'm still dealing with that. Most people don't have demonic attachments!
"But if you want to do it, then do it. Be very very still, make sure there are no ambient noises that can interfere with your session. Ask questions, nice questions: Why are you here? Is there something you want to tell me? And don't just do one session. Just because you don't get anything in one setting, it doesn't mean there's no ghost there.
"I see some paranormal groups, including on television, go into a place, investigate for an hour, and tell the owner the place isn't haunted. I don't believe spirits are always there. Those doors aren't always open. I always say, it's like two pieces of swiss cheese rubbing up gainst each other, and when those holes align you can communicate.
"So do those things over the course of a couple days and see if you got anything. You can also set up cameras, infrared - see if you capture any visual anomalies. You aren't always going to capture that full-bodied apparition of a guy sitting on your couch reading the paper.
"I do believe spirits can manifest themselves as balls of light. This is very controversial because many people confuse dust and bugs with spirit orbs. Get a night vision camcorder, pound your couch and you will see what dust looks like, like flurries of snow. Bugs will look like rods, and you'll see the wings. There are orbs of energy that hover, they will bump into you, disappear into your body, and then you'll all of a sudden have a headache.
"We've caught those so many times. We were able to capture an actual spirit orb and measure that this orb contained electromagnetic energy in Poveglia Island, Italy and we will take credit for that."
Next, I presented a series of haunting questions to the rest of our expert panel. Interestingly, some of their advice is contradictory, but most of it is not. Look for the clear consensus on many of the issues.
What are the first steps I take if I think my house may be haunted?
Dave Schrader - "First off, I would remain calm and assume it is something logical. I would examine the times it takes place, where in the house, what the weather is like and any other anomalies that may take place at the time of the events, how often and keep a journal.
I would also determine when the events began to occur and have I brought anything new into the house that may be used or old and may have some residual energy attached."
Dr. Andrew Nichols - "The most important initial step is to document the phenomena as thoroughly as possible. Keep a journal of the disturbances, including date, time, a description of the event, and the names of any other witnesses present."
Chris Smith, TWC - "When faced with a potentially haunted environment the first thing you must do is maintain rationality no matter how amazing the experiences and evidence may be that you encounter. Once you have rationally evaluated the stated experience you should attempt to establish a potential motive or experience that may have prompted the haunting of the person, place or item at the location."
Selina Sheffer, OPS - "Document, document, document! Make a log of any possible paranormal activity (the date of the event, the time of the event, what you were doing at the time, who was in the house at the time, a detailed account of the event, and how you felt when it happened)."
How do I determine if the paranormal is involved?
Dave Schrader - "If I can rule out all natural occurrences, houses settling, high levels or EMF from appliances or electrical sockets, breezy windows, animals in the attic or basement, then I would begin to pursue the chance it may be paranormal. With that said, if there are blatant examples, ie screams in the house, blood pouring out of the walls, crucifixes bursting into flames or full bodied apparitions I might involve a team or expert much faster."
Dr. Andrew Nichols - "To the best of your ability, try to rule out non-paranormal factors. Remember that most reported ghostly experiences are due to misperceptions or misinterpretations of something that is seen, heard, sensed or felt. Could the mysterious orbs of light be reflections of automobile headlights? Could the sound of footsteps upstairs be floorboards expanding due to central heating?
"If possible, try to get as many other witnesses as you can. Do they experience the same phenomena? Do they think it is a paranormal event, or can they suggest a normal explanation?"
Chris Smith - "Basically, the paranormal is simply the absence of explanation, or an occurrence beyond the scope of scientific understanding. So, how do I find out if that’s what I’m dealing with? INVESTIGATE.
"Anytime you are experiencing what you believe to be paranormal, just swallow that big lump in your throat and go check it out. Contrary to the outcome in every horror movie ever made, be brave. As an investigator I have seen so many hauntings turn out to be a natural occurrence in the environment like: a car driving by outside, thin walls, plumbing or electrical issues, or simply a loose board in the floor.
"By documenting these basic pieces of evidence you may be able to discover some correlation between what you are experiencing and a natural phenomena. If you still cannot explain rationally what is causing the event, it may be time to contact a professional. In this case, your documentation could be very helpful to the investigator and expedite an explanation or discovery."
Selina Sheffer - "Try to debunk it. Rule out all natural causes. Try to recreate the event. If it was a noise, try to recreate the noise. If a door slammed, see if there is a draft anywhere. Have an electrician come out and check the wiring. Check your EMF levels. If you simply cannot explain it, then it may be paranormal."
Do I need any equipment?
Dave Schrader - "I never suggest investigating your own house for paranormal activity, I am fine with checking for rational reasons first but I am a firm believer once you open that can of worms things can go bad, fast. So once I have eliminated any chance for rational explanation I would involve an outside investigation team. If you dont want a haunting and YOU personally begin investigating that may show the spirits or entities that you are seeking communication and that may start a ball rolling that can be hard to stop."
Dr. Andrew Nichols - "The most important equipment for investigating a possible haunting is your eyes, ears, and common sense. However, if you have a camera or audio recorder handy, try to capture the phenomenon on film or tape. If an apparition (ghost) or other phenomenon can be seen or heard, and can also be simultaneously photographed or recorded, this will provide good evidence for a genuine paranormal phenomenon (or a really good hoax!). A thermometer may be handy to determine if 'cold spots' are subjective, or are actually colder than the surrounding area.
"Photographs or recordings of unusual images or sounds which are captured when no one sees or experiences anything should be viewed with skepticism. There are many reasons why unusual images appear in photographs and unusual sounds are recorded. Most such photographs and recordings are probably not paranormal, but a small number may be genuine ghosts.
Chris Smith - "Everyone has this misconception that to perform a paranormal investigation you have to spend thousands of dollars. This is not true. Baby powder is a great tool (If you don’t mind the mess) For instance, phantom footsteps are a very common experience given to us by many clients. Sprinkle some baby powder on the floor where you are hearing the footsteps. You might be surprised at the outcome. People have been using this for years.
"Another useful trick is to get an ordinary home video camera, a piece of string and an object just heavy enough to tighten the string. This can be used to detect movement in a possible active room. Make sure all the windows are closed and turn off all fans and air conditioners. Hang the string from the ceiling with the object attached to the other end and position a video camera to capture the string and press record. If something dramatically moves that string, you might have yourself a genuine paranormal occurrence.
"You can also use a toy ball or toy car and a piece of tape or chalk to help document interactions. First make sure your floor is level by checking it with a level. Place the ball or car on the floor and place tape on the floor all the way around the ball or draw a chalk line around the object to provide reference points. This way if the object moves, you’ll know it. You could also use a stationary video camera to record the object to get very beneficial documentation.
"These are just a few ideas you could try before spending any money. However, if you would like to make an investment, the best piece of equipment in a ghost hunter’s arsenal is also the least expensive, a digital voice recorder. You can pick up a great one at any discount store for $40. Place it in a room in your house, press record and let it do the work. Make sure you don’t forget its there.
"Always remember to 'tag' your presence when you are walking by it, talking around it or making any noise. Later when you review you will not remember everything you said or did while the recorder was capturing audio. These recorders are very sensitive, even slight noises you make in another room that you think are insignificant may be captured and later mistaken for something paranormal.
"Plain old digital or 35 millimeter cameras are a great tool for capturing possible entities. Orbs don’t count. Think of all the dust in the air and bugs, microscopic and visible that could reflect light when you snap a picture. When in doubt, throw it out!"
Selina Sheffer - "You could get an EMF detector and check the EMF levels in your home. High EMF levels are unhealthy and can even make you hallucinate. I really do not recommend trying to investigate your own home. Do not try and capture EVPs in your own home. You can get a camera and snap pictures if you want but more than likely all you are going to get are orbs and to many investigators including myself, orbs aren't that impressive and do NOT mean that there is paranormal activity in your home."
How do I research the background of the property/house?
Dave Schrader - "Check out local libraries, Google searches for your property address and local town hall for any information your property."
Dr. Andrew Nichols - "The general history of a property can be researched in the local courthouse or hall of records. Historical societies and public libraries can also be good sources of information.
"Talk to the previous owners or tenants if possible. Ask if they experienced anything unusual while living there. Neighbors are also a good source of information, but they are also a good source of unsubstantiated gossip, so be selective about whom you take into your confidence."
Chris Smith - "Researching the history of your property will most likely be the hardest task. There are a few options depending on the area your property is located in. If you live in a historic area or an area that is rich in history you may sometimes be able to find out some info on Google.
"Unfortunately it’s usually not that easy. A good friend to have in this case is a good real estate agent. Realtors have access to property information that you wouldn’t believe. However, not everyone knows a realtor that can dedicate time to researching property ownership for you.
"Another way to research the property is to make a trip to your local archives or registrar of deeds. Most counties have a location where they keep things like deeds, previous owners and other pertinent property information. The problem is most of the time that’s about all you’ll get, but this information could be compared to the information available at the archives or the local newspaper. Most newspapers keep an archive of old papers, some longer than others.
"You could look at the dates when previous owners left the property, then check the obituaries from that date and see if they left due to death or identify some related traumatic event. Another possible tactic is to attempt to contact past owners of the home and see if they will share any experiences that they may have had or if they know anything interesting about the property."
Selina Sheffer - "There are so many ways to do this. One of the first things I do is go to the county property appraiser's website and see how many owners have owned the property, their names, and how long each person owned it. If it changed hands a lot, you have to ask why. Were they experiencing the same thing you are? You can also go the county property appraiser's office."
How do I determine the personality/intentions of the entity(ies)?
Dave Schrader - "Usually they let you know the intentions, if they are violent or malevolent you wont have to ask what the intentions are. I believe most are just here to observe or co-exist. I try to set ground rules, No bothering my kids, no bothering me in bathroom or bedroom, etc. May be heard by them or simply a mindset, either way, it appears to work, placebo effect or actual effect."
Dr. Andrew Nichols - "Many parapsychologists believe that the majority of genuine hauntings are a type of recording, or 'instant replay' of past events. Such ghosts are harmless (although sometimes frightening) and are non-interactive. Since they are simply 'psychic residue' there is no entity involved, and therefore no communication is possible with the ghost. Residual hauntings tend to fade away after a decade or so, although some have been known to last for centuries.
"A few haunting and poltergeist-type cases do appear to involve an intelligent entity of some kind. If there seems to be some attempt by the ghost to communicate, simply speak to it (even if you cannot see anything) and ask it what it wants. Sometimes ghosts are reported to communicate by rapping sounds or other methods.
"If you can locate a reputable psychic or medium, they can sometimes pick up useful information about the haunting. However, often the pertinent psychic information is mixed with unrelated material from the medium’s subconscious mind, so this method has limitations. If you do decide to employ a psychic, avoid giving him or her any prior information about the disturbances beyond what is absolutely necessary."
Chris Smith - "This is a touchy question. If you have exhausted all logical explanations and you believe you have an entity or entities in your home, you should tread very carefully. If you have something of a malevolent nature in your home most likely you will know it, however I would not suggest you try to communicate with 'it' no matter if it feels harmless, you could open up a door you can’t close.
"There is one type of haunting you could diagnose on your own without directly communicating with the entity, and that is a residual haunting. Residual hauntings are very common. Basically, think of a record skipping and playing the same verse over and over.
"In theory a residual haunting is a routine event of a person or place, like an echo or a replay of a videotape of past events. These entities are not entities at all but simply a residual energy on a loop from some other time. These can be attributed to sounds and visual apparitions alike. Go back and check your notebook. If these occurrences always happen at the same time, in the same location and pattern, most likely you have a residual haunting, which is not only harmless but also actually pretty interesting. Anything else, I would leave to someone with a bit more experience."
Selina Sheffer - "Simply by the entity(ies) actions. Did it try to hurt you? Is it a prankster that just hides things from you? If it spoke to you, what did it say? Was it naughty or nice? Beyond that I do not recommend engaging the entity to try to find out without calling in a reputable paranormal investigative team."
How do I decide if I should I bring in a professional?
Dave Schrader - "If all resources have been checked and verified as not being normal house behavior and you are feeling threatened or afraid that would be when I bring in a team. Otherwise I might just leave things alone and ignore them."
Dr. Andrew Nichols - "The vast majority of hauntings are harmless, and many people enjoy sharing their home with one or more ghosts (they make a great conversation piece!). The dangerous apparition seeking revenge on the living is much more the product of horror novels and Hollywood than fact.
"Residual hauntings cannot be eliminated by any known method, although as mentioned previously they do tend to spontaneously fade away eventually. Such hauntings are always associated with a particular location, so if you just cannot bear to live in a haunted house, you can move away without fear that the ghost will follow you.
"However, there are rare poltergeist cases in which movement of objects may result in property damage, and even rarer cases involving apparent attacks on the living inhabitants of the home. Such cases are usually associated with a particular person in the household, so moving away won’t stop the disturbances, although they too tend to stop on their own after a few weeks or months. Poltergeist cases involving physical assaults or injuries to an individual may require professional intervention, but can usually be resolved."
Selina Sheffer - "Talk it over with your family and see how everyone feels about it. If anyone at all feels uncomfortable with the entity then you should call someone in. Certainly bring in a professional if there are children involved, if anyone has been hurt, if you feel threatened, or if you simply just want it to go away. You can also call in a professional if you don't necessarily want it to go away but just want to know what or who it is or to get validation that you do have a haunting."
How do I find a reputable professional?
Dave Schrader - "That is the tricky question, there are a lot of really crap teams out there with very little knowledge or real understanding of the paranormal. I would interview them as I would a possible employee, I would also request the team provide background histories/checks for each person that plans to attend the investigation.
"They are relatively inexpensive and can provide peace of mind for teams and persons calling teams in. I would also ask for referrals from past sites they have investigated. That can say a lot. That's the best way to start and also check Google for local teams to your area, check out their websites and past evidence, if they seem like loons, they probably are."
Dr. Andrew Nichols - "Parapsychological research organizations such as the American Institute of Parapsychology may be able to refer you to a reputable investigator or parapsychologist in your area. A telephone call to a local college or university psychology department may lead you to a faculty member who is involved with psychic research. Psychics or mediums can often be located through local new age shops or spiritualist churches.
"Don’t hesitate to request references from previous clients, and pay attention to your instincts. If a psychic or investigator just doesn’t 'feel right,' keep looking. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of fanatics, publicity-seekers, and incompetent 'ghost busters' in the paranormal field.
Chris Smith - "Our mission statement: Respect Detect Collect
"Respect the environment you are investigating, the clients connected to the environment, and the possible entities inhabiting the environment.
"Detect all paranormal activity, all possible natural explanations and suggestive influences connected to the client.
"Collect evidence and Intel to ultimately validate or debunk supernatural claims and seek out the truth behind paranormal activity in its many forms.
"When you sit down at your computer and type in 'paranormal investigation' and your area into your search engine you will get many links to many teams. Make sure somewhere on their site they have some type of mission statement or a description of how they operate and the methodology used in their investigations.
"Most teams have a section displaying past evidence they have captured, check out what type of phenomenon they are labeling paranormal. One other thing to keep in mind is that a good paranormal investigative team will have past clients that will provide recommendations.
"Word of mouth is the most powerful way to find a good team. Ask around and see if anyone you know has had a team investigate their property and see if they would recommend them for your situation. I would suggest that you join the team at some point so you can point out the activity that you have been experiencing if it occurs during the investigation. This may also help to trigger the activity by the entity responding to your presence. If the team concludes that your property as haunted, further steps could be taken depending on how comfortable you are with your ghosts.
"Most teams don’t rid you of your ghosts; they just help you to determine whether or not you have them. It’s like going to the doctor and being diagnosed with a special condition. Your doctor will refer you to a specialist depending on your personal situation and preference. It’s the same way with a haunting. Once diagnosed, the team should give you a few options depending on your creed or ideology. From my experience, in most cases, it never gets to that point.
"Just always remember it’s your property, you are the one living with the activity and you are in charge."
Selina Sheffer - "I recommend doing this one of three ways. Visit the TAPS Family Members directory. These groups have to meet certain criteria to be considered TAPS Family Members. You can also visit The Shadowlands, The Light directory. The Light directory teams are teams that The Shadowlands feels are following good procedures, seem sincere and genuine, have some experience with indoor investigations, and are over all a good, positive research group."
Paranormal Challenge airs Fridays nights at 9 on Travel Channel.