Dallas Ft. Worth - Washington D.C. - Seattle - New Orleans
The Great Gong of Lankhmar, sounding distantly through the walls, boomed out the twelve funereal strokes of noon, when burial parties plunge spade into earth.
"An after-omen," Fafhrd pronounced. "Now we know the source of the supernal force. The Shadowland, terminus of all funerals."
"Yes," the Mouser agreed. " Prince Death, that eager boy, has had another go at us..."
-The Bait by Fritz Leiber
Is ghost hunting dangerous? Absolutely. But so is driving a car and going to work. Virtually all activities in life carry some sort of risk; it is up to you to make informed choices about what you are willing to participate in. So what are the occupational hazards of paranormal investigation? It's more than you would think, I guarantee.
1) Physical Hazards - I have yet to hear of someone getting slimed or seriously hurt by a ghost. But investigations necessitate a lot of bumbling around in the dark, and it's easy to trip while wandering around in an unfamiliar space while looking through your Sony D-8. Fear can also be a big problem as it induces panic and poor decision making. Many get hurt by running when they get scared, and even without that, accidents do happen. So never hunt alone and keep a first aid kit and cell phone handy.
It is also a good idea to make an honest evaluation of your physical condition and take steps to prevent problems down the line. Is your blood pressure high or are you out of shape? Investigating can be more demanding than you think; climbing up several flights of stairs, carrying equipment, running like hell from an apparition, etc. Don't be a candidate for pulled muscles, hernias or even a heart attack if you actually do see something. Take medication if you need it, eat right and exercise.
Think of the safety of others besides you and your group. If you have equipment connected by cords, tape them down or mark off areas with safety tape to prevent trips, falls and broken equipment.
2) Negative Spiritual Influence - Some of the places and people that you meet have an unhealthy energy about them, and it can contaminate you. Be wary of these dark things and monitor yourself. It is not unusual for investigators to experience mysterious physical symptoms and mood swings. On one occasion while investigating a cemetery with an unusual energy signature, I got a really pounding headache which is not like me. I have heard of other hunters coming back from an investigation and feeling "beat up" and fatigued for days afterwards. Others get nausea, vertigo and a range of other difficulties.
Outright spiritual possession is incredibly rare, and from what I have gathered, it only occurs after a number of mental, emotional and spiritual barriers have been broken down. But as the chilling decades old recording of a voice during a psychiatric session in the movie Session 9 recounts:
"And where do you live, Simon?
I dwell in the weak, and in the wounded..."
Demonic obsession is a far more common, though subtle phenomena. Have you ever been around a person that you thought that you knew well and maybe they have been going through a tough time for a while and were already a bit ragged, but then one day they just acted extraordinarily hostile, aggressive or just plain weird? Uh-huh. I have a theory that sometimes unsavory beings can pull puppet strings in certain vulnerable areas. Watch out.
I discuss this in a little more detail under Spiritual Safety.
3) The BS Money Factor - A lot of places that are reputed to be haunted really aren't. Lots of people like to talk about their paranormal experiences, or better yet, relate "friend of a friend" stories. Stay polite but skeptical and keep in mind the old Latin question: "Who benefits?" When the group I was with at the time investigated Manresa Castle, we were all hoping for a good scare. We tromped up and down taking pictures, wowing people with our equipment, and looking forward to meeting a spirit. It was supposedly haunted by the ghost of a young Jesuit priest who hung himself.
Later, we were set up with the manager of the hotel and interviewing him on camera. We asked him about his experiences and what he thought was going on. He came flat out and told us that the Jesuit priest was concocted by a former employee (the bartender) in order to appease customers who wondered about the strange noises they heard at night (it was an old building with multiple floors, all creaky). And it just so happened that the "haunted" room was the most expensive one in the place. Hmmmm....
Everyone else was floored - I was mildly amused. Especially when I went to the attic and saw the noose left there by the History Channel team who put it in for a dramatic recreation. But it was featured on TV, how could the building not be haunted? Think about it. Does a camera crew want to go out and find nothing? Does a non-haunting sell a program? The media is just as guilty as anyone of playing up a spooky house in order to keep people glued to the tube.
4) Direct Assault
Normal Terrestrial - Many buildings that you investigate may be located in unsavory parts of town, and you may encounter everything from homeless panhandlers to violent murderers. Don't wind up becoming a victim or ghost yourself. Travel in groups, carry a cell phone and stay ALERT to your surroundings. Also, in rural (and not so rural areas) be wary for wild dogs and other denizens with tooth and claw.
Entity Assault - This is one of the most rare of hazards, but it has been reported by hunters in the field. The most you usually hear of is someone getting pushed. But there exists a video of a hunter sticking their head into and attic and nearly getting strangled by electrical wire. Never hunt alone and keep a good first aid kit and cell phone nearby.
5) Upsetting property owners and getting sued or arrested - This is a pretty obvious one. Remember that you are a guest on someone else's property - get permission and be nice. I have heard of members trying to pull down boards from walled off sections of a building and trespassing. Try to err in the opposite direction and have impeccable manners. Send a thank you card for letting you visit or even give a small gift certificate at a local coffee shop. Your reputation will go a long ways towards opening doors and you might be surprised at how small a world it really is.
6) Boredom -This can be the biggest killer of any group. If people get bored, they will find other things to do with their weekends. Boredom may also encourage people to be more reckless with the investigation, so watch out. True, on many investigations nothing will happen which is the law of averages, but try to screen your cases as best you can. Interview the witnesses carefully and evaluate if it is worth your trouble. Doing a quick preliminary with a limited number of members can save time down the road and prevent frustration.
But despite your best efforts, dull vigils do happen. Take the opportunity to learn something new while you are there, talk to the property owners and so forth, but do it without compromising your research. Try to have alternate plans to do something fun afterwards, and most important: Hunt with people you like. That way it is time well spent. :)
7) Not saying "No" when you should - It's tough when your best friend, neighbor, etc. wants to go on a real live ghost hunt with you. In some cases, you may be able to accommodate them. But in others, if you don't say "No" soon enough, you can end up with a nightmare. Once, at a paranormal convention that I attended, I had an employee come up to me and relate how the hotel (that the convention was being held in) was haunted. I was rather skeptical, but asked if he could show me the area.
It looked like an ordinary wing of a hotel, but the feelings I got were quite extraordinary. I literally felt my stomach getting pulled downward and there was an energy that was very odd. I went back and told the group that I was with that it seemed legit and we planned for a SPECTRE setup along with camera gear. This was in the early afternoon. By the time (10 PM) the investigation came up, a gang of approximately FIFTEEN people were wanting to tag along, including someone's pre-teen child.
I was not as amused in this case, though I understand how situations like this can happen. But all in all, a smaller group is easier to manage and less likely to trip over each other in the process of investigating.
There can also be problems with the property owners themselves. All too often, especially with residential investigations, you schedule a night to come by, and when you arrive you find that they invited the whole damn neighborhood over to meet the "Ghostbusters." It is their property and they can do as they wish, but it's YOUR time, so nicely ask them to refrain from having extras over unless they were witnesses to the phenomena.
Sometimes, they may know a friend who is also a medium/psychic/sensitive or whatever that wants to come over and have a sťance. Fine. But they can do it another time when your team isn't there. It can be difficult to run an investigation when there is a wild card in the mix. Furthermore, while I respect the "soft" side of the paranormal, I find that some who claim to have psychic powers can also have a real ego about it. Beware of the conflict this can engender, especially if there is more than one team member who claims to have special abilities.
The other factor to keep in mind is investigating public buildings or property during normal business hours. Naturally, this can arouse curiosity or even fear due to these uncertain political times, so it may be best to get as much privacy as you can or just be extremely low key about your ghost hunt.
I am offering these suggestions on the premise that you wish to have the best possible data and an efficient hunt. However, if socializing and meeting new people is more your thing, then by all means encourage everyone to join in. In actuality, a lot of valuable networking, investigation leads and friends come about in the course of this sort of contact, so you need to strike a balance between openness and getting your work done.
8) Lack of diplomacy about the investigation with the property owners - While it may seem that I've already covered or at least alluded to this in previous paragraphs, I feel this deserves special attention. Bottom line, you need to be damn careful what you say to the public, especially in someone's residence. A lot of times, people believe their place is haunted by their dear Uncle Sal and by golly, that's what they want to hear from you as well. But you find no evidence to support that, so what do you do? I would say, well, I'm not finding anything on my instruments but I can't refute that Sal is here in some way.
What if you suspect poltergeist activity, and you think it centers around the 13 year old daughter? Well, maybe you're right. But if you word things wrong, they may get the idea that she is "to blame" and that may make things much worse. Family systems can be very dysfunctional, to an extent that they may take your "diagnosis" and pervert or twist it way beyond anything you meant. Which leads me to another subject...
9) Uncovering things you didn't want to - What if on an investigation of a residence it becomes somewhat obvious that child abuse is going on? Or an affair? I can't make this call for you, though I think it is best to try and screen out these kinds of situations. (Hint: do a damn good phone or email interview first and use your gut instincts)
I will warn you that the signs can be very subtle. Just because someone thinks their house is haunted doesn't mean you are obligated to investigate. There are a number of reasons why someone might call you in on a case which has nothing to do with it being haunted.
The final item bears SPECIAL MENTION. There have been a number of reports in the field from investigators who were called out to a private residence to investigate a haunting only to discover there were far worse problems than ghosts. Some people cultivate such a nasty and degraded energy field that it permeates their surroundings. If you are contacted by someone and the communication has an incoherence or weirdness about it - BEWARE. If you drive by their home and see trash piled up, an overgrown lawn and other signs of significant neglect - double danger. If the home is strewn with garbage, smells bad or shows signs of illegal activity then you are long past the danger point.
GET OUT NOW!
10) Crimped or Ruined Investigations - Even the best laid plans can go awry. Both of the marine ship investigations I went on happened to be on weekend nights and in both instances we were right next to the "party vessel" where young yuppies got drunk and played loud music. Nothing really bad happened except the noise was an extra distraction. Outdoor vigils can be scrubbed due to weather conditions, or even if they are not completely ruined, they can certainly alter your style. Here are some examples:
Rain - Obviously, this can make you and your equipment wet, plus carrying an umbrella leaves only one hand free. Flash photography is almost a joke and the slippery footing can be dangerous. Mud can make walking unpleasant and give you no place to set equipment down. Watch out for flash flooding in certain areas.
Fog - Again, so much for ectoplasm photos, but in theory you might see something on video moving through the mist. Pretty rare to be investigating under these conditions, depending on where you are at, though the extra creepiness in atmosphere may be worth it. Just be real careful driving.
Humid - This can cause condensation on camera lenses and windows, so keep a cloth handy.
Heat - There are few things more miserable than poking around in an attic during the summer, where in Texas it can easily get to 140 degrees in enclosed spaces. Also, leaving equipment in the car can warp and destroy certain plastics like film and instruments. Get tinted windows, reflective sun shields and drink way more water than you think you need. Dehydration can cause errors in judgment and lead to heat stroke.
Cold - Can cause your breath to condense, producing false photographic anomalies. Certain equipment such as electronics may fail below a certain temperature. Also, freezing temperatures can present hazardous walking and driving conditions as well as danger from hypothermia.
Wind - Without a windscreen, microphones and recording equipment may have trouble operating in these conditions.
Storms - Obviously, thunder and lightning will make photography difficult and dangerous if you are outdoors. You can almost forget EVP indoors as well, but it might be worth trying. Watch out for high winds and tornadoes in areas prone to this activity.
Ambient Noise - For outdoors, proximity to busy streets is a big problem. You may be able to mitigate this by going out late at night, though your flashlights may alert passers by to your presence. Hope you talked to police dispatch beforehand. The other big problem is insects and other wild life. In swampy areas of Louisiana on a sultry summer night, the noise field can be quite considerable.
Ambient Light - Glaring security lights on certain properties can make it difficult to get good video and still pictures. So can the headlights from passing vehicles which can reflect and cause false images. (a big peeve of mine for urban investigations)
Wildlife - Bugs can cause false orb impressions on film and on video. And speaking of wildlife, once I was doing a recon of a cemetery and found a fairly good sized dog roaming around. Fortunately, he moved off without incident, but it makes a good case for pepper spray.
The other big problem is group members and property owners canceling out on you at the last minute, which personally annoys me a lot because it can send a message that "Your little ghost club just isn't that important." But things do come up and it is best to try and be understanding.
Just bear in mind things can and do happen, so try to keep Plan B waiting in the wings.
11) Property Owners telling you "No" - This is a big disappointment, but it happens plenty. You find a really cool place to hunt, get your hopes up and contact the people in charge. Unfortunately, they say they are not interested, no way, no how, go away. There are a myriad of reasons why this may be.
Maybe they wish to preserve privacy and anonymity. Perhaps they don't want attention drawn to the place so that every other local yokel comes tramping on their property. It could be a matter of not wanting to be held liable if someone gets injured or the place could be condemned. Certain industries & companies may even perceive a negative stigma with haunted locations or it may conflict with their religious beliefs. I have even known some people so uncomfortable with the idea of ghosts that they may not even want to know if it's haunted or not.
Even if they don't have any of the above problems, they may not want to fool with it because it will require them to stay after hours for free, or they are afraid of dealing with kooks. I once had a serendipitous moment in a possible haunting at a high school here in Dallas. I mean, all of these improbable events fell into place and seemed to tell me - "Go here, investigate." Finally I got ahold of the principal and told him that I heard the place was haunted, which he pooh poohed away. Then he asked me what I wanted - I asked if he was interested in having our group take a look.
Up till then, he was reasonably polite, but at that moment his attitude snapped 180. "No, no way, not interested" and I got the feeling that he stopped just short of hanging up on me. In his defense, the school in question has a bad reputation to begin with and a large Korean population. My understanding is that many Asian cultures can be quite superstitious and hauntings are not perceived of as cool by any stretch of the imagination; in fact they are often seen as very bad luck and quite undesirable.
Can you imagine the potential liability to a senior school staff member's career here in a Southern Bible Belt city? Principals are funny creatures and like to keep their jobs for some reason, though some of us would wish they would go somewhere else. At any rate, perhaps you can see their side of the story. The one thing about the whole affair which continues to annoy me is why in the holy hell I got led down the garden path on this one, only to find out that I wasted my time. I know The Force works in mysterious ways, but still...
Then there was the restaurant on First Avenue in Seattle which used to be the first city mortuary. At the time when they were first approached, I was the Tech Director for AGHOST, and while they would let us in only on the condition that we didn't give the exact address or name, which was still plenty good for us. However, the very night that we were supposed to go in, they cancelled on us, citing that whoever was in charge couldn't stay late that night. While disappointed, we kept trying to arrange a date.
Unfortunately, the place changed owners while we were in this process, and the new management wasn't nearly as hip as the original folks. When I approached them as SPI, they told us "Uh - uh. Hell no." At this point, the frustration level can be such that you can be tempted to do something like, oh, say, put the place on your website anyway and while you can't testify to any particular paranormal activity, point out certain historical facts such as they used to keep dead bodies in the same area where people now dine.
But I strongly advise against this sort of dirty tactic because is is thoroughly unprofessional and bad karma to try and harm those that irritate you, though I imagine there are a LOT of ghost research groups out there who can strongly empathize and are having a good chuckle over the thought. I bring this point up as well because some individuals in these groups are less than mature and may be inclined towards similar shenanigans. I ask for the sake of yourself and the rest of us out here trying to build up the reputation of the field to please restrain yourself and save the venting for private conversations with other hunters.
I have wondered recently why being told "No" makes me feel a little bit unaccountably hostile, as I tend to be pretty understanding of the two letter word. I believe the reason why is because the reason behind it is usually fear on their part, and I don't respect fearful people. Long ago, there were people in my family who used to always be scared, and they used their fear to control others. Manipulation by anyone in any form really irks me and my instinct is to call them on it.
The other reason why it is tough to deal with "No" is because it is a form of rejection. A lot of us may approach someone knowing our own good character, hard work, talent and experience, and it can be amazing that this individual does not recognize our greatness. I used to work on multi-million dollar switches for Nortel, and to have someone think that I cannot walk do an investigation in an off limits area to the public is a bit deflating to the ego.
I recall the story of a fatal accident at Six Flags some years ago in the Roaring Rapids Rafting Ride. One day it capsized and dumped people into the water, and an individual who was there just happened to be a professional Search & Rescue worker. The Six Flags personnel staff actually forbade her from assisting, but bless her heart, she didn't listen to those $10 an hour shmoes and dove in anyway. This is the same Six Flags who forbade off-duty police officers from carrying their guns inside the park because their own security staff could "take care of things". Many jurisdictions REQUIRE their officers to carry off duty.
Eventually, Six Flags relented with the police officers (as well they should have) but their misplaced estimation of how good their staff was still sticks in my mind. Don't be surprised by such parochial attitudes in the field and try not to react to it. Stay calm and try to address their concerns as best you can.
The soft "No" is harder to spot, but I believe the First Ave Seattle case mentioned above with the original owner is a good example of that. The part about not being able to stay late, I figured, was an excuse; they really didn't want us in there. To be blunt, Seattle is a city which EXCELS in passive aggressive behavior so I grew wearily accustomed to this sort of mode.
To head off this type of problem, try to anticipate where they're fear may be and be prepared to address it. Find selling points that will work in their favor. (more publicity = more business, a haunting will almost never drive people away, despite popular misconceptions) Even if they say "No" initially, your professionalism and patience may eventually pay off.
The following list of places will probably give you considerable resistance unless they approach you first:
Schools & Dorms, Government Buildings, Military Bases, Wealthy Residences, Churches, Very Large Cemeteries, Banks, Jewelry Shops
The following types of places may be easier to get into:
Small Graveyards, Historic Sites, Libraries, Hotels, Restaurants, Bars & Taverns, Marine Vessels, Private Residences, Bookstores, Battlefields, Parks & National Forests (generally have to get a permit beforehand - which can take weeks or months)
Oh, and one other thing. If you are traveling a considerable distance to a famous historic spot (like the Myrtles Plantation) try to ask for permission as far in advance as you can. At least three weeks, or better yet, as soon as you know your travel plans or even before. You never know if they are having a special event that weekend, (or having other ghost hunters) and it might behoove you to find out before you make arrangements. The people at the front desk rarely have the authority, so you usually need the contact information of the owner or manager. For larger four and five star hotels, there is normally a Director of Marketing. For historic properties, the Education and/or Public Relations Officer is probably who you are looking for. Email or fax your standard permission/release form and make it look professional.
12) No place to hunt - If you are unfortunate enough to live in a remote part of the country (like Montana) or in a city which sucks as far as paranormal activity... (Dallas) Well, pardner, that's a real tough one. Try to bone up as much as you can and save up to travel and vacation in haunted spots around the country. Perhaps you can find some webcams to stare at - that is how many people that have trouble getting out to ghost hunt get their fix.
13) Too much to see - A great example of this would be spending a week in New Orleans. Where the hell do you begin? Like any vacation, try not to bite off more than you can chew, and use the plethora of places as a source for backup plans in case your primary sites don't work out. Just don't be rude and schedule at sites that you probably won't make. You never know how much trouble people go to for you - don't take advantage of it.
I would try to set up some main attractions, and reserve other places for recon. Pace yourself, relax and enjoy just being there and connecting with people. Try to let serendipity take over.
14) Theft / Damage of Equipment - Oh and speaking of NOLA, be careful with this one. Use common sense and don't flash expensive gear, perhaps even keep the fact that you are a hunter a little low key in certain areas. Lock things in a safe, a car trunk or underneath junk inside the car so that it isn't a magnet for low lifes. Carry Renter's Insurance, though watch out for the deductible. ($500 can really suck) If during an investigation in a public or semi-public area, keep an eye on portable yummies like camcorders and laptops.
And as above, make sure that you don't hand your Sony D-8 to Mr. Butterfingers. Use camera straps and place tripods in areas where people won't trip. Consider using bright hazard or glow in the dark tape to cordon off areas so people can see them in the dark, and make sure everyone has at least one if not two good flashlights, even the property owners if they are with you.
If guests want to borrow equipment you may even want them to sign out for it, and mark your equipment as members can often have identical makes and models. Also, note serial and model numbers, as that can help in case of confusion or theft. Take inventory photos for insurance purposes.
15) Instrument Tunnel Vision - When wandering around in a dark area, you are completely focused on the viewfinder or EMF meter looking for activity while trying to navigate over what is often unfamiliar terrain. It is VERY easy to trip over something as the Sony D-8's have a really narrow field of view and it will miss things on the ground immediately in front of you. I hang a red night light from my neck which illuminates a circle at my feet and move very slowly. You might consider having a second team member "spot" you by shining light right in front and verbally alerting you of any danger. Or you may just have to go with dim light instead of absolute darkness.
16) Property Damage - It's fairly rare from what I have seen, but accidents do happen. Be careful of getting too many people in one area and be conscientious about fragile and valuable furnishings. In areas of historical significance, don't set drinks (or yourself down) without checking first. The Myrtles Plantation now requires proof of insurance (as in commercial insurance) in order for you to hunt after hours in the downstairs part of the house. After seeing the expensive antique furnishings they have in those rooms, I can see why. From estimates I'm getting, this insurance can run upwards of a $1000+ a year, though you might be able to combine it with your normal business insurance if you have some.
17) Driving/Transportation Hazards - This could take up a chapter in itself, but be extra careful with the condition of any vehicles you take and the driver as well. You will often be driving in the dark and sometimes in unfamiliar rural territory. As a former auto mechanic and experienced driver, I have a natural edge here, but everyone should be able to check basic fluid levels and tire pressure. Throw an emergency road kit in the trunk, make sure the spare is inflated (and you have a working jack and lug wrench) charge your cell phone up and get a AAA Plus or Premiere (American Automobile Association and the Plus / Premiere level is much better than the Standard Membership level for towing) membership for the unexpected.
At $80 a year, I consider this one of the best deals around as they can take care of a flat, lockouts, low on fluids/gas, or give you a tow to civilization.
Getting lost is quite easy, especially in less traveled outlying areas where you may have trouble getting help (poor cell phone reception) so be sure and carry plenty of maps (MAPSCOs, state and county maps are good to have) and check out with the client and online EXACTLY where you need to go, plus print off an larger area map which includes major roads or highways so that you can find your way back in case of detours, wrong turns, construction, etc. Above all, carpool and / or have a caravan out to the site.
18) Playing Psychologist - This is a common issue in dealing with residential clients. A lot of calls we get originate from people who have suffered a loss of some kind. The natural, caring thing to do is to console and give answers to those who are confused and in pain. But the line of appropriate response can be crossed and you can wind up doing more harm than good, not to mention expose yourself and your group to needless liability.
I have sat in on debriefings between homeowners and ghost hunters and been astonished at the lack of knowledge and sensitivity displayed by the team. To be blunt, the worst offenders tend to be the pseudo-psychics, or those who imagine themselves to be wiser and smarter than they really are. We are fortunate to have someone on our staff that has a background in psychology/HR - their presence on interviews is invaluable as they can supervise and educate the process.
Try to identify or find someone who is trustworthy and competent for this position and rotate in other members to assist and learn from them. It's generally a good idea to tag team as more than one person has a better chance at spotting emotions and other cues which may shed light on the case. Also, for legal reasons, it is our policy to have more than one person present when a minor is being interviewed (and preferably their parents are there or nearby) and not a bad idea for young, single women.
In general, be honest and kind, but also learn to spot when people need professional assistance and have some references on hand for them. It's not your job to save them, and for virtually any type of situation, there are specialists that are far more able and experienced than you in the arena of grief/bereavement counseling. The one caveat that you might want to keep in mind is to try and match the professional to the client. If you are approached by someone who believes in Wicca/New Age etc. then bear in mind some psychologists are not too open minded and may try to cure the client of their "delusions".
A good counselor can work within the framework of almost any belief system without trying to change the core of who the client is.
"A ship in port is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."
- Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Murray Hopper (Also one of the great pioneers of software development & programming)
Seems three years
"Everyone I Love is Dead"
-Type O Negative