3/26/2012

Of Gods, Ghosts, and Gaps

Part of a ghost hunting kit.
I used to hunt ghosts. Something about the stories I grew up with in the south fascinated me to no end. I loved a good scary (or romantic) ghost story. Stories of phantom lights darting among Spanish moss draped oaks or ghost doctors whistling on the stairs of an old mansion south of Broad were my preferred way to spend a rainy afternoon. I idolized many of our southern folklorists who collected and passed along these stories. I was particularly fond of Mrs. Nancy Roberts who is the grande dame of traditional ghost stories.

Later in life I began to wonder if there was more to all this than just a good story. In junior high we did a section on folklore and history. As my project I tracked down information on a famous story from where I grew up: The Hound of Goshen. My mother drove me around with a little cassette recorder and notebook in hand while I talked to people in the area who had claimed to have seen the "Happy Dog" at one time or another. One thing I learned is that the folks I talked to were quite enamored with their ghost dog. That seemed strange because my icon, Nancy Roberts, told frightening tales of people being chased and scared witless by the hound. It was the first time I noticed that ghosts and stories could be changed in order to sell a product. I was all of twelve.

Fast forward thirty some odd years and I became interested in the "scientific" pursuit of ghosts. I joined a group of people who belonged to the esteemed TAPS family of ghost hunting groups and set to work trying to discover if ghosts existed and if so what exactly they might be. Honestly, I wasn't convinced of the whole "soul with unfinished business" stuff.


I quickly learned how easy it is to get caught up in the atmosphere and group emotion. One of my first "investigations" involved a former firehouse way out in the desert. We were told people had seen children there and when people would call the station (before it was decommissioned) a child would sometimes answer the phone although no children were there. Spooky as all get out, right?

It's somewhat ironic that the first investigation I did would ultimately turn me onto the ugly side of all this stuff. During that first investigation a member of our group was trying out a new type of EMF meter he had tweaked up with lights and what not. We sat in the dark and he sat at the far end of a hallway holding the device. We tried to make contact with the "ghost" of the child. Suddenly, the device began responding to our questions. Lights would flash and the meter would move in response to what we said. It was breathtaking and I'll admit I was completely drawn in. Had we actually made contact with a ghost? It seemed surreal.

Fast forward about a year and a half later. Grant from TAPS had been caught rigging his coat to be "pulled" during one of their "LIVE HALLOWEEN" investigations. My interest in the whole thing was flagging as I ran into wall after wall within the group I belonged to when I would suggest truly objective measures of supposed results. It all came to a head when our self-proclaimed "psychic" got peeved because I suggested if she wanted to be the "psychic" she needed to have her abilities objectively measured through rigorous testing. That went over like a lead balloon.

As I was beginning to attempt a friendly exit from the group I did one last "investigation" with some folks from our group based in another city. The investigation itself was lackluster but during a quiet time I learned some very interesting information from a guy who had worked on a special project. That gadget that was so responsive on my first trip out had a secret. See, if you moved your fingers just right on the bottom of it you could make the lights and meters flash and move. I was astounded and embarrassed. I had been duped!

It would later become clear why. It seems that just about everyone in that game has one goal in mind. That goal is to get on TV. These people love media attention. That's not to say that lots of them believe in what they are hunting. But the movers and shakers for the most part are just trying to launch a television career. The person manipulating those lights and meters? Yep, he ended up on TV.

But what about the rest of the folks? The more I was in the game the more I understood that this so-called hobby was actually a nascent religion. Most religions seek to answer the big questions like "What happens when we die?" "Why are we here?" It's a function of our unique brain structure which allows us to be self aware. Sometimes I'm not sure whether that bit of evolutionary leap is a blessing or a curse. The rank and file people hunting ghosts were looking for the same answers folks were who sat in the pews on Sunday. The "clients" whose homes and businesses they investigated were often doing the same. Some were desperately hoping to learn that a relative was still around and looking after them. Some were terrified that a demon or devil they'd heard about in their church had come to get them. Some were working out some psychological issue. A few were just curious and one or two truly nuts. 

What struck me most about all of it though was how ghosts filled gaps just as god does. Here's what I mean. Most religious people who are at least somewhat moderate believe in the sciences. However, anywhere science doesn't have a ready answer they immediately insert god and proclaim the matter settled. For example, science debates how the universe began. There are competing theories and each has some evidence to back it up. However, because no one theory has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt the religious folks insert god and say "He did it! Case closed!" The idea is called the God of the Gaps. Anywhere there is a gap in knowledge just insert god and all questions are neatly answered.

Ghosts function much the same way for the ghost hunters and their clients. Very, very few have any real scientific training. Even fewer care about things like statistics or psychology. The science they use is pseudo-science at best. EMF meters do nothing really since no one has proved a ghost actually even exists, much less can trigger a response on one. The same with thermometers and other gadgets.

Yet the ghost hunters are quite fond of leaping to conclusions. They love to state that when they have eliminated the impossible then the improbable no matter how ridiculous must be true. That's all fine and dandy but they never actually eliminate anything at all other than the most basic and minor possibilities. This is how their reasoning goes: A door swings shut. A person did not close it because we did not see one. The wind did not do it because we did not feel it. Therefore, a ghost shut the door! It's the Ghost of the Gaps. If they can't think of viable solution to their dilemma then they insert a ghost and voila! presto! dilemma solved.

Once again I seem to be drawn back to my belief that ghost hunting is just another type of religion. There are even those that want to form an orthodoxy. You'll hear those people talk about wanting for form a single community with standards and beliefs. The buzzword used to be "Community Unity" for those espousing orthodoxy. Ghost hunting has its own televangelists you can find on various basic cable networks and who even run their own revivals. These are often known as "Para-cons" and I admit the irony of the suffix does not escape me. When I was in the game I often walked into a home and had the homeowners hang on my every word as though I were speaking gospel. In fact, you'll hear fans and adherents of the televangelist ghost hunters quote them chapter and verse about EMF, EVP, Intelligent hauntings, Residual hauntings, etc. These folks will argue with you until they are blue in the face if you dare question the veracity of their dogma. While fundamental Muslims have the jihad, the favored tactic of the ghost hunter is the threat of a lawsuit. If any group or individual dares to question the veracity or morality of what another is doing their response is to threaten to sue for slander or libel. It really is that dogmatic to these folks.

I've left the ghost hunting game behind. I finally came to the conclusion that there isn't enough evidence to support the hypothesis. By the way, I mean actual evidence - not what the folks in the game call evidence. I'm always open to changing my mind, in fact if ghosts did exist it would be rather cool. But for me to make that leap I need real evidence which includes repeatable results. Until that time, I have to say that much like god, the evidence just isn't there and I don't need that hypothesis to explain how the universe works. But a good ghost story on a rainy day is always welcomed.

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