Hunting For Ghosts With John Fraser

A chat with the author of Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide

By , Columnist

John Fraser knows a hell of a lot about looking for ghosts. He serves on the Council of the UK's renowned Society for Psychical Research (SPR), is a member of the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee, and has been the Vice Chair (Investigations) of the Ghost Club, the world’s oldest psychical research organisation.

He is also the author of Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide, a hugely enjoyable and informative book that I have previously reviewed for Amazon’s UK site.

I recently had the opportunity to ask John a few questions about his book and about his years of experience as a ghost hunter.

Hi John, could I begin by asking when and how you first became interested in ghosts?

I’ve had a fascination with ghosts since my mid-teens [in the mid-1970s], when I saw a TV programme which actually took the subject seriously. Such programmes were very rare in those days!

Up until then I had simply thought that ghosts were the stuff of folklore and fiction, very much like fairies and goblins. (I do apologise to any of your readers that happen to believe in such things.)

Various trips to my local library confirmed my interest and I joined a well-known paranormal investigations group (ASSAP) as soon as I could, at the age of 17.

Why do you think it’s important to investigate reports of ghosts?

We have explored every inch of the globe, and travelled in space. There are few “unknowns” left in life now. Unlike people of previous millennia we cannot just look and wonder at the mystery of it all as nearly everything seems to be explained.

The paranormal is one of the few things that does not fit into any neat explanation. It is not perhaps a question of importance, rather of an innate need to explore the unknown.

What are the strangest and/or most interesting things you have personally experienced?

I believe that if ghosts exist their aim is simply to tease me! I have never totally had that “wow” experience … no white/grey shimmering spectre jumping out at me with a bloodcurdling scream.

There’s been just enough to keep my interest, however: unexplained sounds, fire exits being found suddenly open in a haunted aircraft museum at Cosworth, UK (pictured below), psychics picking up information that they really seemed to have no obvious access to by natural means. Just enough to tantalize but not yet enough to fully convince me.

Have you ever had any amusing experiences while hunting ghosts?

I well remember being allowed to unlock a “secret” compartment in a haunted hotel - a compartment where strange noises came from within. People gathering round in excitement and awe, and then finding out that the secret of that compartment was that it contained a bathroom cistern, that would rattle every time the toilets were flushed in the hotel!

Being advised by another ghost hunter to avoid the stables of a “haunted” house where strange noises were emitted even though no animal ever dared to stay there. Then, when I ignored the advice, finding that the stables were filled with cows.

Seeing a ghost hunter late at night in a cold cellar picking up a digital thermometer in the warm palm of his hand and reporting with excitement that there was a sudden and unexplained temperature rise!

Ghost hunters are human and occasionally make mistakes, especially in the dead of night at a time when the body should be asleep. Thankfully, as good ghost hunters work in teams such mistakes are amusing rather than in any way a hindrance to an investigation.

In your book you point out how the description “ghost” is used to refer to a number of different possibilities. Have your investigations inclined you towards any particular theories as to what “ghosts” are, and do you think any ghosts represent evidence for life after death?

I tend to think that if “ghosts” exist as something science has not yet explained it is likely that “ghosts” will be more than one type of phenomenon. A poltergeist may turn out to be created by the hidden powers of adolescents while apparitions may turn out to be an imprint on the atmosphere. These phenomena may turn out not to be connected at all.

Most intelligent ghostly phenomena tend to come through psychically gifted people. I am as psychic as the average brick so sadly such phenomena are beyond my first-hand experience. This makes me “instinctively” sceptical of afterlife explanations, but objective ghost hunting should not be fuelled by instinct and rationally I keep a very open mind.

You suggest in your book that it is potentially useful for psychics/mediums to assist on investigations. Could you tell us a little more about this?

It is unscientific in my opinion to exclude the use of psychics as you are discarding one explanation for the phenomena.

If a psychic comes out with previously unknown information about a site, which subsequently is shown to be true this is at least to some extent evidential of something paranormal.

If a psychic comes out with facts that cannot be true this is evidence that partially weakens survivalist claims.

If a psychic is by chance caught cheating in some way that would weaken these claims even more.

An experiment is surely a set of conditions that can help to prove or disprove a theory. It would seem that the properly controlled use of mediums clearly comes under this criterion.

Somewhat controversially you refer to Ouija boards in your book, and I remember that my own first experience of participating in a Ouija board session was back in 2001 during an investigation with you and several others inside an abandoned and rather eerie cottage in Suffolk, England.

A lot of people feel that Ouija boards are somehow dangerous - what are your thoughts regarding this?

You say that a lot of people claim that a Ouija board is “somehow” dangerous. The problem with these claims is that they seem to be based on hearsay and not any objective scientific basis. It was perhaps the apparent hysteria that has existed about this smooth wooden piece of polished wood that made me take up a few pages of the book with it.

Hysteria aside though, Ouija boards are fairly ineffective as an investigation tool. They often come up with nonsense and on one occasion when a full name and address emerged the address was shown to almost certainly not exist.

The Ouija’s best reported success was in reporting the burning down of Borley Rectory -- England’s most haunted house in the 1930s and 40s -- but even then the prediction only came true one year late.

The Ouija is more than likely just an interesting experiment in collective psychology and a way of wakening an investigations team up a little at 2 a.m.

Hardly the most useful tool to be taken along but hardly one that should be banned either.

On a rather different note, do you have any opinions on what sort of scientific (or other) equipment is useful on investigations, or conversely what should be discarded from the ghost hunting tool bag? What items do you routinely take with you?

Like many ghost hunters I have had no formal scientific training, though my Philosophy studies at University have hopefully had some effect on my objective approach.

My equipment therefore extends to that which I feel comfortable and confident using. This would encompass the full audio-visual range of devices as well as those for temperature and electromagnetic measurements.

It would also include objects for experimentation that are not understood by science such as “trigger objects” [objects set up in the hope that they will be moved paranormally], or psychics, about which we have said plenty before.

It seems clear to me that if we are testing for “a whole new science of the supernatural” then only using techniques accepted by the old science will be illogical and restrictive. It is the experiment itself that must be well thought out and objective.

What is also key for a ghost hunter to realise is that even a large case full of equipment is highly unlikely to prove or disprove anything for sure to the outside world. All we can do is take note of a place as interesting (or not) for further research, and perhaps in some cases provide reassurance to those whose experiences remain “unexplained”.

Do you feel that “orbs” can now be satisfactorily explained as photographic artefacts, or might they yet represent evidence for the paranormal?

Yes. I am fairly clear that orbs were a product of a misunderstanding of the mechanisms that affect digital cameras, especially the lower resolution ones.

It has been shown in various tests that the same effect can be created by dust particles picked up close to the lens.

For more explanation I would recommend reading Orbs, or a load of balls? by Steve Parsons or watching The Riddle of the Orbs by the Ghost Club’s Phillip Carr.

You suggest in your book that ghost hunters can be thought of as “Cavaliers”, whose approach contains “a certain colour, style and sense of fun” and “Roundheads”, who take a more scientific approach. Which approach best describes your own philosophy towards ghost hunting?

Since when should colour, style, and a sense of fun preclude science?

The point I was making was that by simply looking at gadgets you miss the whole motivation for what brought you there in the first place. The history and folklore of the premises. There is nothing wrong with getting a sense of awe and thrill from being there.

Harry Price and Professor Joad once spent the night in an actively haunted bed. I suspect that some “Roundheads” would simply put monitors there instead - but I can see no bad science at all from being directly at “the scene of the crime”. If it’s a little challenging then all the better. The monitors, after all, can also be used later.

Finally, what advice would you give to anyone who wants to get involved in this fascinating subject?

There are thousands of paranormal groups, big, small, good, and bad. If joining a group, look at their website outlook. If they talk about spirits as if they were their best friends they are believers, not investigators. If they rubbish everything that is unexplained they are debunkers, not investigators. Choose a good group of investigators that do neither.

But before doing that of course you should read my book!

(Image credits: with the exception of the "orb", photographs are used courtesy of John Fraser.)

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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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