Sunday, September 11, 2011

Closed Minds Need Not Apply

Sometimes, even with the best intentions, we can get so distracted on a journey that we don't even notice we've strayed off our original path, and find ourselves wandering down a different road. While this often can be a good thing, it is still important to check our compass and map once in a while so we know where we are.

I, as well as many others, are committed to raising the standards in paranormal research. We focus a lot of our energy educating others about things that are commonly mistaken for paranormal activity. We campaign for stricter protocols and procedures to prevent false positives. We support those who expose fraud. For me, this will not change anytime soon. However, once in a while something happens that reenergizes my passion I had for investigating in the first place.

I admit there was a time I took claims at face value. I wanted to believe in ghosts so badly to validate some of my personal experiences and beliefs. If someone said they sensed a presence of a little girl, I ate it up as fact. I didn't question orbs. "Experts" said they were spirt energy, so I happily accepted this. But there came a point where I wanted to do more than read books and watch investigators on TV. I wanted to DO it. However - I wanted to do it right. So I got to work researching all that I could about paranormal investigating. I went to TAPS Paralab events and various public ghost hunts. Might not have been perfect, but it certainly was a better starting point than just watching shows, ordering the same gear and then calling myself an investigator.

Eventually I searched for and found legitimate resources to learn from, started to get some field experience, joined a great group and my outlook began to change. Gradually I moved away from accepting most claims as valid paranormal experiences to where now I am questioning - even doubting - most claims being paranormal at all. I embrace science, all but disowning my former attraction to the metaphysical aspect of paranormal investigating. I happen to like finding solutions to puzzles.

Recently, I have found my enthusiasm for field investigating waning a little. For most of the things we experience, we soon find rational answers and most of the rest is subjective, so we can't present it for peer review. Somewhere along the way my focus shifted to pure debunking instead of looking for ALL possible explanations, including the paranormal. Consequently, some of the excitement has been taken out of it, like that first Christmas I knew Santa wasn't real.

Our last investigation started the same way. We were told the basic claims and looked into the history and geography of the location. When we arrived, we interviewed witnesses and did our EMF sweeps and control shots. We heard the usual stories: objects moving, shadows, doors opening and closing and footsteps. I was almost bored as I listened to a woman tell me how terrified she had been the night before when she saw, right in front of her, a man push a woman into a cooler and then they both vanished. I mechanically asked her to describe them, what she had been doing prior to the experience, blah, blah, blah. When the other investigators arrived, those of us on the walkthrough withheld details of the claims, something we commonly do to avoid influencing their impressions of the place.

So later, when we were doing an EVP session in the area where the witness had her experience, and one of the uninformed investigators said he heard a man and a woman talking in the same location the witness had been standing, it piqued my interest. But it wasn't until he suddenly turned to me and asked if a man had pushed a woman into the cooler that I got goosebumps. He claimed he had a "flash" where he just "saw" it. I asked if the man had pushed the woman against the door, or actually inside the cooler. Just like the witness, he answered that the woman didn't go inside the cooler. Since none of us heard this claim until that day, and he wasn't around the witness, how did he come by this information? Lucky guess? Maybe. But I can't help think, maybe not.

At one point, three of us were in one room and the other two were in another room, watching the monitor. Suddenly we heard the other two talking - so I thought. I called out to them (annoyed, since we were trying to do an EVP session) and asked if they were talking. They said they were not. I know what the cynics out there are thinking: How do you KNOW they weren't talking? Did you have a camera trained on them? I would honestly wonder the same thing. Only, when I listened to my Zoom H2 recorder, I clearly heard my teammates and me react, and me asking the team if they were talking. But I never heard the voices that prompted that reaction. I rewound and reviewed several times, but no voices. I used two recorders in that room at that time. The second was a Sony PCM recorder. When I reviewed the same section on the Sony I clearly heard the anomalous voices. Sooooooo, if it was the other two teammates talking (or another source) why didn't their voices get picked up on the first recorder? And if I only thought I heard them, then why did the voices end up on the second recorder?

We have been on several locations where noises in the building can sound like footsteps. Usually, I don't really get too excited about them because we can't pinpoint the exact location of the noise or find other explanations. I am familiar with formant noise, audio matrixing, how changes in temperature and humidity can cause wood or metal to "pop", how air in ducts or pipes can create "bangs", water in pipes can create odd sounds, how outside noises can carry, how traffic can shift foundations, and animal activity can create weird sounds. Usually I can chalk up anomalous sounds to one or more of the above. This night was an exception. Three of us heard, right on the other side of the door behind us, distinct footsteps. Footsteps with definite weight. With direction, moving past us. With the floorboards creaking under the sound of the footfalls. As soon as I opened the door, it stopped. This happened a few times throughout the night. Since there were only five of us and we could see where the other team was, I don't know what caused those sounds. I do know when teammates walked down that hallway, it replicated the sound.

Again, I understand cynics will be second guessing me. I get it, because I do the very same thing. It is quite easy to sit behind a keyboard, with references at our fingertips, to be an armchair investigator. A lot of us bristle at the defense, "Well, you weren't there." And for good reason. We have offered plausible explanations that were brushed aside. For example, I know of cases where people took pictures of "phantom mists" and they claimed no one was smoking. Yet, in other shots, you clearly see people sucking on cigarettes or that candles were lit. There are cases of people swearing the light streaks they caught can't be from slow shutter speeds because they were taken in well-lit conditions, but the EXIF data on their photos tell a different story. And the list goes on. But sometimes that phrase has some merit. As one friend often says: just because something can be faked doesn't mean it was faked. When reporting to clients, I transpose this idea to: just because something might have another explanation, doesn't mean that is the explanation.

Although we all think we are smarter than other investigators (be honest, you know you do!) we do have to accept there are indeed competent investigators out there. People who are analytical thinkers, who take environmental and physiological factors into consideration, who look for rational explanations first and foremost. And we need to keep an open mind that once in while, things do happen that we can't readily explain away. Does it mean ghosts are roaming about? Not necessarily. But it is a reminder that science has yet to find all the answers to the our world that we share with each other and perhaps, with something else.

While accepting claims at face value is a disservice to paranormal research, I believe automatically dismissing claims is just as detrimental. We can't honestly claim we are looking for the truth if we refuse to at least consider the possibility of the paranormal. And this year I'm going to set out a plate of milk and cookies December 24th - just in case. ;)