So you are now a paranormal investigator!
You now get to spend endless hours in the dark, heat, and
cold waiting for something to happen, or not, and hours of
reviewing evidence (pizza helps!). But other than the
creepy and cool clips of unexplained phenomenon what else
Other than getting the gear how do you start?
What is this “research” and how to you do it?
I like to say we are the paranormal “CSI”. Not only are we
investigators –the true detectives of the paranormal – but
we also have a “scene” and ”suspects” and sometimes a
“crime” to solve.
The start of the research process with most paranormal
teams starts with the communication and report of an
incident or history of occurrences at a place that is
involved with a place, person, or thing.
This is where the paranormal “CSI” begins. Think of the
report as the beginning of a rigorous and meticulous
investigation of a crime scene – although we usually don’t
have a body (sometimes our “bodies” are long gone) we
should follow the same rules for the collection of evidence
and the deductive process as in crime investigations.
In most paranormal teams this may start with a phone call,
an email, letter, or by word-of-mouth. However the report
comes in It is essential that as many details as possible
be gathered. Many teams have a questionnaire and have
developed an interview process conducted by an experienced
team member. Find out as many specific details as possible
and know who is involved and who is reporting it. Write it
down or record it – documentation is essential.
Folklore & Stories
Often old houses and historic places have a constellation
of stories and folklore about them. Spend time collecting
all of the stories and folklore well as all reports of
paranormal occurrences. When do these stories and reports
start? (I once found a Time magazine article reporting
ghost sightings for a place in Pasadena going back to
1937). While many stories may be unsupported in the
historical record some may actually give you important
leads to pursue. Researching and knowing this content is
important because this is what you will largely be
responding to as a result of your investigation.
After a report comes in one of the first areas to research
is the place or places where something happened or was
experienced and reported. You start from the big Where to
the smallest where– so it makes a difference if a
paranormal event was experienced in the USA versus the
middle of the Pacific Ocean. Did the event take place
outdoors or in a structure? If in a building was it in the
basement?, 1st floor?, attic?, and so on. And then in the
specific room – if something was seen or encountered where
was the observer and where was the anomaly? In front of a
window?, doorway?, stairs? Again think of the Place as a
crime scene and form an intense picture of the Place –
Diagram it – because even small facts can be the key to
seeing a pattern or being able to understand what happened
– and this information can help us begin to sort out
reasonable explanations from the unknown.
Also it is very helpful to know something about
architecture or have someone who is on the team who does. A
trained eye can look at a building and see where additions
or teardowns have happened. Often walls and doors and
windows are altered in old houses and so that reported
ghost who repeatedly walks through the wall may be using
the old stairs that used to be there. In the field always
take comprehensive photos of the exteriors and interiors of
the building – and note the exterior walls and which wall
is in view (North, South, East, West). Infrared imagers are
used in many architectural applications – because the IR
shows visual contrasts in thermal zones you will often find
closed up doors windows and walls when using the device.
Once these facts are ascertained then you will begin to
investigate the history of the place. The primary source
may be the occupant and/or owner. That information may be
valuable in leading you to develop a house history. Who
owned the house and who lived there? Census data, voting
rolls, city directories, insurance records, newspapers, and
deeds are all the best places to start. Many of these are
well-archived and available online – and local historical
societies and libraries are great places to start. I always
start with simply typing in the address into an Internet
search engine such as Goggle or Yahoo. I go through many of
the hits and often the current and past history may come up
and give you more leads to follow. I then run the address
through a database / archive that contains census / tax/
voting records and city directories and I will often get
names and details of who owned and lived in the house and
when. More leads to follow. You can also run church and
court records to glean more information on persons and
events associated with the address. Maps can be great sources of information about a property – what was there before the current house was built – was it an orchard?, an old mill or shop? Maps are actually very important resources as they give you local and regional contexts for the Place. Are there train tracks nearby? Is there heavy construction or industrial activity in proximity? You can also find good sources for the local geology through the maps available through the US Geological Survey (USGS). It is a great way of understanding what may lie underneath your place and how it
may be a factor in what may be going on there.
Native American graveyards are always brought up in
relation to haunted places – please be critical – if the
map says “Indian Graveyard” or there was archaeology that
says so, then fine. Otherwise please stick to the evidence.
Once you develop a good set of facts about Place then it is
time to turn your efforts to understanding the People
associated with that place and the event. You will want to
start from the moment of the incident (who was in the
building or at the place?) to who owns or lives or works
there? You naturally move back in time to answer the same
questions. Develop a list of “suspects” you need to track
down and assess.
I find newspaper archives to be a great resource for this.
You start with the name of persons that you have developed
through the report / interview / place and run those to see
what may turn up. You can also run the address and that can
be very productive. You will find leads that you can follow
and refine and there may be many false leads to sort out.
This takes time but I love going through old newspapers and
finding those hidden jewels that allow you to have great
information that can open up your understanding in a case.
People can also be researched through genealogical
databases and through court records, census and voting
rolls, city directories, and church records. Again, make
friends with your local historical society and reference
librarians – they can often help you find the resources you
need to get accurate information on the people involved in
Sometimes there will be results that come in from EVP’s – a
name or reference that can tie in to the research. So be
prepared and ready to run those results down – often you
find nothing but every now and then there is that magic
moment when the field investigation and your research
matches exactly. Please resist believing the names that
people give their ghosts or giving them a name yourself,
unless there is direct evidence that supports that. Try to
stay away from those leaps in logic that may make us look
less than professional. Stick to talking about what you
really know and what you don’t know – you are always left
with more questions than answers.
Often there are reports of paranormal occurrences and
phenomenon with objects. This ranges from things that are
physically moved or relocated by other than human or animal
means to mirrors that display ghostly faces and objects
that are creepy and seem to be haunted.
The first thing to do is to get as much information on the
object as possible – how long has it been in the building?
Where did the owner acquire it? Do they know the ownership
history of the piece (provenance)? Who made it? If there
are no direct answers to those questions then you need to
use the techniques of the art historian and material
culture researcher. What is it made from? Do the tool marks
show hand or machine workmanship? What are the decorative
elements and what period do they relate to? These are the
kinds of things that are discussed on Antiques Roadshow.
Yes, you really can learn from TV!
Objects that move or are relocated should be examined in
several ways. What is their shape? How much do they weigh?
Do they have a high or low center of balance? How easy is
it to move them? What are they made of and is that material
reactive to variations in temperature and relative
humidity? Do they seem to move when in one specific place
or do they move wherever they are placed? Again, common
sense is the rule in assessing these occurrences.
When it comes to old mirrors the reports of ghostly faces
in them can usually be discounted due to their method of
fabrication and condition. Old mirrors were called “Looking
Glasses” and were composed of a thin wash of silvering
applied to the back of the glass that was then mounted into
a wood frame. Silver is especially susceptible to tarnishing and corrosion from atmospheric sulphur. This leads to a patchy surface with grey/black areas varying in depth and appearance. If there is a wood panel or plywood backing in contact with the mirror then the residual acids in the wood can etch dark patterns from the wood grain right into the silvering. Then there are the normal oils and smearing from hands and cleaning products on the front glass that can distort the surface.
Just as some crime scene detectives bring in psychics as
consultants on difficult and cold cases, some paranormal
teams use their skills as well. This is a decision based on
your philosophy, experience, and the specific needs of the
investigation. It is best to know and establish a
relationship with the psychics you use. Know them and their
reputation – just having someone who says they are
“sensitive” doesn’t really mean much. There are guidelines
for employing psychics in your research that can make their
information more useful. First, do not give them any
specific information on the case, place, person, or event.
Either bring them in to consult remotely (by telephone or
internet) or bring them in to the site. Give them time and
silence to get a feeling for the place and to explore. Be
patient and let your psychic friend ask questions or talk
first. Have a recorder running to document everything.
Often psychics can pick up multiple impressions from
different people and events in a locale and some of this
will undoubtedly overlap in what they say. Again, think of
these as good leads for you to track down through all the
resources I have already mentioned. The best psychic
evidence is reinforced with other evidence and research.
Some of the information may be impossible to verify while
some will be spot on. As with all evidence – research and
evaluate it with a critical mind.
General History and Social Psychology
You should always have a good knowledge of general history.
If you are going to a battlefield you should understand the
history of the time and events that took place there. You
should seek to gain a specific knowledge of a historical
period and also the social language and conventions of the
time. If you are at a medieval site in England try to pose
questions in a way and in language that will be most
familiar to the place and period you think may be
manifesting there. Saying “cool!” or “Dude! Wicked!”
usually won’t be evocative when trying to communicate with
a 500 year old spirit. Beyond that it can be very
instructive to learn about the social psychology of a time
period. If you are investigating a Civil War battlefield
then learning about Victorian social customs and attitudes
about life and death can really prepare you for
communication or signs from whatever might be encountered
during the investigation. I did preparatory research on a
bridge in Pasadena that is infamous for the number of
suicides that have happened there. One of the best sources
I found was an article on the psychology of people who jump
off bridges and the many specific modes of thinking and
behavior of people who jump – this was a great resource for
understanding any spirits that may be encountered there.
The other branch of research that crime scene investigators
often do is applied research – in which they do experiments
and demonstrations based on the evidence that they have
collected. In this way they test their evidence and
theories. In paranormal research we do the same thing
whether it is calling out a name during an EVP session or
debunking a door that slams on its own. Just as crime
detectives do we are using the evidence collected from
different sources to build an interpretation or narrative
of what may be going on. Remember, the best applied
research is done only after extensive preparation not
Burden of Proof
Many people like to say that we conduct scientific
investigations. I differ in this because I don’t think we
meet the rigors of the scientific method in what we do. We
are in the field rather than a lab with controlled
conditions and little of what we do could be seen as real
experiments meeting the rigors of scientific practice.
Paranormal investigators, as with crime detectives, are
more likely to be using science and the deductive process
in the service of developing our understanding of a place,
person, or event. Our evidence is much more related to the
legal “Burden of proof”. We are given a report (complaint)
and collect research and evidence to evaluate it. It is our
job to form a conclusion based on the standard of
reasonable doubt – after hearing our report would a
reasonable person have any doubts about our conclusions?
Well, after all of this work, after all the preparation,
the questions, the investigation, hours of reviewing
evidence, and more spent on research…so much time… so much
pizza…more coffee?… Herbal tea?
Where does this end?
Just as you expect a professional physician to give you a
report, just as you expect the police to give you a report,
it is incumbent on paranormal investigators to produce a
report based on our investigation – even if all we say is,
“We Don’t Know”. The report should clearly state what the
team was asked to do, where and when the investigation was
conducted, the results of all research, what the evidence
showed and how it was collected and documented, and finally
what conclusions were reached. We should also include any
recommendations and resources for our clients to follow and
always welcome them to contact you again if they feel they
need more assistance.
The report also says more about the status of your team
than any bunch of EVP’s or video clips ever do. The report
is the prime document that can be compared, debated,
admired, and used to bring progress and evolution to the
field of paranormal research.
The Report. It’s a Good Thing!
The best resources to start with are the wonderful
libraries and historical societies right where you live.
There are innumerable online research resources and a few
of the best are listed here:
The Library of Congress:
The LIC Research and Reference page:
The LIC Newspaper Archives/Indexes/Morgues:
The New York Public Library:
The NYPL Digital Collections Page;
Newspaper Archives Online:
Los Angeles Public Library:
Sanborn Fire Insurance Atlases
US Geological Service:
Association of American State Geologists:
Denver Public Library:
Western History and Genealogy
Researcher / Historian