Much as I’d like the title here to refer to dancing at our last Drinking Skeptically event, we’re talking about ghosts, the people who experience them, and those who hunt them for a living. My own experience with ghost hunting on a personal level was rather unremarkable, or at least, the explanation proved to be. I was away at college, which was my first time living away from home. I thought it might be a fun idea to do some exploring at night around the campus area, and get the ‘lay of the land’ so to speak.
I decided on a likely site a short walk away from campus proper. The President’s house was being remodeled, and had basically been gutted for the purpose. Being either courageous or stupid, I wandered over to the construction site. The first thing I noticed was that I felt a little cold and unnerved, but I figured, “Hey, it’s a spooky looking place. Just got to shake off the nerves.” I walked up to where the front door was supposed to be, and, placing a hand on either side of the frame, leaned inside to begin surveying the room. (This will be important in a minute.)
What happened next is a bit blurry, of course, but as best as I can remember, I had the sensation of a hand, grabbing me by the chest, and shoving me backwards with an almost audible “Oooooouuuuuut!” The command seemed to come from inside my head, rather than to my ears. I didn’t pause to ask why, but had run halfway across campus before remembering to breathe. I spent almost the entire night, wide awake, both afraid to sleep and trying to figure out what happened.
It wasn’t until years later, all the while believing that I could communicate with spirits, that I started finding more mundane explanations for the things that happened that night. I found through various medical misadventures that the cartilage in my chest is very loose around my sternum. I can, to this day, ‘crack’ my chest if I do it the right way, such as… placing my hands in a door frame and leaning through, stretching my chest out. I thought, “…if there’s an explanation for that, then maybe I could make sense of the other things.” There was some large, industrial equipment on site at the time, perhaps the voice could have come from one of them? Not too long after I had that thought, I was in the presence of an air mover, and it did indeed make a similar sound to that low, drawn out, “Oooooouuuut!” Not sure if that was actually it, but if one machine can make that kind of sound, I would think others can as well. Perhaps it was a compressor?
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I found out where that strange feeling of coldness and anxiety could have come from. I read an article on infra-sound, and it seemed to me to be a much more likely explanation than anything supernatural. Indeed, if something can be proven to occur naturally, then it’s much more likely a source than a supernatural one, isn’t it?
Well, not everyone would agree with that statement, and there is a whole industry around it. “Ghost Hunting”, or as most prefer it to be called, “Paranormal Investigation” is the art of seeking out and gathering evidence for supposed paranormal phenomena. In previous ages, a psychic or mystic, and a good holy book were standard equipment. These days, you can find modern paranormal investigators using everything from basic EMF meters to modified radios, radiation detectors and more.
One local group that has been getting some attention lately is ORBS, the Ohio Researchers of Banded Spirits. ORBS performs investigations all over the state of Ohio using it’s widely dispersed team of 18 investigators. The teams comprise both people who make use of the technical equipment, as well as ‘sensitives’ or mediums who supposedly communicate with spirits on an intuitive level. ORBS was recently featured in an article in the Brunswick Sun-Times for an investigation that they performed at Heritage Farm in Brunswick, OH. According to the article, they had confirmed, though the evidence that they had gathered, that there was definitely paranormal activity on the farm. I reviewed the article, and the small tidbits of actual information presented therein, I remained skeptical. The ‘evidence’ of the psychics or sensitives cannot be confirmed or not, because it is anecdotal in nature, even if there is blinding going on. With that, I ignored it. There’s no scientific test that can be done to prove or disprove what any of them say.
That left me with the technical information gathered, specifically the Ghost Radio and the Radiation Meter. Now, I’m fairly certain that I understand what is going on with the technical information gathered, but I wanted to know how it was understood by ORBS, and so I contacted Chris Page, one of the founders of ORBS, and spoke with him at length about his organization, and about Heritage Farm. While we obviously did not agree completely on everything, Chris was very forthcoming about ORBS and paranormal investigation in general, as well as what was experienced at Heritage Farm.
Chris, a 34 year old government employee has had multiple paranormal experiences throughout his life, having experienced multiple visits from his grandmother, who passed away in 1980. Chris founded ORBS with co-worker Amy Cobb in the year 2000 after she experienced some strange things in a house she was staying in at that time. In the last few years, the now 18-member organization has grown to doing around 2 to 3 investigations or more per month, with increasing frequency in central and Southern Ohio. Even with the rising time requirements, including spending up to 30 hours on each client, Chris refuses to charge for ORBS’ services. “We are a non-profit, and everything is out of pocket.”, Chris states. “Your typical paranormal investigator has the belief that you don’t charge. Because, how do you put a price on something like this?”
Another service that ORBS offers is a blessing or ‘cleansing’ of the location where the haunting has allegedly occurred. Although Chris claims a 100% success rate on their cleansings, he also states that any mention or thought of the previous situation by the site’s residents can bring the spirits back. To avoid this, ORBS tries to educate the client on how not to cause that to happen. As a psychology student, he has had some investigations that he classified as more environmental or mental in nature, rather than paranormal. One particular case in a small town involved 5 college age girls sharing a house. “It turned out to be mass paranoia.”, said Chris. “One person thought that they had seen something, and that freaked out the other person, and then that got the other ones scared. Then every little creak or bump they heard was something ‘paranormal’.” Indeed, on an average of 1/5 cases, ORBS receives a call for a suspected haunting, but finds no evidence of any paranormal activity.
Speaking about the equipment used, Chris stated that the equipment isn’t specific to paranormal investigation, but is usually intended for use in other professions. As far as the success rate of the equipment, Chris says it’s, “…kind of a hit and miss.” The bulk of the evidence that they tend to gather is in the form of either visual, meaning photographic or video, and audible, usually making use of the Ghost Radio, or “Frank’s Box” as it is sometimes called. A Ghost Radio is a standard AM/FM tuner which has had it’s ‘scan’ function modified. When in scan mode, a Ghost Radio does not stop on the next strongest signal, but scans the entire band, back and forth, without stopping. To use the Ghost Radio, an investigator or two will begin scanning the airwaves, and then ask questions aloud. The audio received on the radio is assumed to be manipulated by ghosts into answers that the investigators can understand. For example, when asking the question, ‘Who would you like to talk to?’, the radio may respond with the name of one of the investigators. “What is the mathematical probability that a radio station, in the town that you’re in, at that exact same moment, would broadcast your name? It’s almost impossible. It never happens.”
I asked Chris if he was familiar with audio pareidolia. He was not, so I roughly explained that pareidolia is the ability of someone to see a pattern where none actually exists. Humans being pattern seeking creatures, we tend to see things like faces or other recognizable shapes where they really aren’t. Examples would be the Face on Mars, or the Virgin Mary in the grilled cheese sandwich. We can also hear things that aren’t there, as demonstrated by a study reviewed in the journal Science in 1981. Subjects listened to a series of generated sine waves meant to mimic speech, and were able to pick out complete sentences from the seemingly random noises. When told what the sentences were supposed to be, there was no mistaking them, even though the actual sounds were still randomly generated.
I put the proposition to Chris that maybe pareidolia was what made the audio evidence seem so convincing. “Well, anything’s possible.”, said Chris. “You’re going to believe it or not. That’s really what it comes down to.” From the skeptic viewpoint, however, it’s not about belief. It’s about how reliable and plausible the evidence is. Given the two explanations, it would certainly seem that if I want to hear something specific, and I concentrate on hearing something specific, then if anything remotely resembling what I want to hear comes out of a radio, my mind is going to say, ‘Yep, that was it.’
On the subject of orb photographs, which also figure significantly on the ORBS website, Chris said, “In my personal opinion… at least 90% of all orbs are just dust.” In fact, Chris has even duplicated orb photographs by beating a pillow, or going outside and throwing pepper into the air. “If you can recreate it, it’s not paranormal.”, states Chris. Chris also opined that ball lightning may account for some orb photographs as well. On this topic, we appeared to be in close, if not exact, agreement.
However, I do want to focus on what I think is the most important thing that Chris said in the preceding paragraph, which is: If you can recreate it, it’s not paranormal. I think this is the fundamental thing to remember when discussing paranormal phenomena. Every piece of evidence that I have seen on the ORBS website, be it audio, video, or photographic, can be easily recreated by natural means. Given, that, I don’t think there’s really any reason to take any of the evidence that has been gathered by ORBS so far as evidence of paranormal activity. Again, Chris said it best when he said that it really comes down to what you believe.
In closing, Chris said that in order for the true skeptic to become a believer, all it takes is to experience the paranormal once. My question would be to the reader, is how would you know if what you were experiencing was genuinely paranormal or not? Given the experience that I related at the beginning of this post, I could easily see having written that off as unexplainable, or even paranormal. In fact, I did so for a number of years. However, it turned out in the end that all of the things I thought were paranormal were, in fact, normal. In skepticism we often say that unexplained does not mean unexplainable. Something like paranormal investigation is a perfect place to remember that mantra, and use it wisely.
Chris stated that currently, ORBS is not working with any outside scientific or skeptical organizations on their investigations. However, they would be open to having some members of CORI accompany them on investigations in the future. Any takers?