Or: the pragmatic approach to paranormal verification
What may appear to be a puzzling supernatural experience / manifestation to one witness may have an entirely rational & scientific explanation to a better informed researcher. It is imperative that we rule-out any obvious explanation for unexplained phenomena before drawing conclusions.
Most of us know that bumps, creaks and all kinds of strange noises and sensations (the so-called bumps-in-the-night) can be readily attributed to drying building beams, expanding floorboards, bats in the attic, mice behind the plaster, breezes through vents, etc. Anyone who has encountered the hiss of a barn owl when agitated (they like to hang out in old lofts, church-yards and ruins) will attest to this. It’s the most chilling and macabre sound you can possibly imagine (check the video at the foot of the page.) We might place these explanations under one broad heading: “environmental and biological.”
But less is known about the following rational explanations for “paranormal” encounters — and these should also be taken into account when we review and examine someone’s testimony:
The Frequency of Fear
Below the range of human hearing, infrasound will cause strange sensations in some people. Humans will not naturally hear sound below 20 Hertz, but some people unconsciously respond to these lower frequencies. It has been scientifically proven that feelings of fear or dread can accompany low frequency vibrations
Remedy: Eliminate any sound waves below or around 19 Hertz (fans, heaters, pumps, etc.)
Unusual Electromagnetic Fields
In many ghost hunting activities electromagnetic field (EMF) meters are played with, but without proper explanation. It ought to be remembered that these gauges are typically used to diagnose electrical problems with domestic wiring etc. According to a reliable neuroscientific study, magnetic stimulation (even weak fields) can produce what some witnesses describe as “an inexplicable presence” in a room. If the Earth’s geomagnetic field needs to be checked, a gauss meter (magnetometer) will be required.
Remedy: rule out all electromagnetic fields, use an EMF meter to check that none are present
If it can be convincingly proven that drugs, narcotics, intoxicants, or any other substance had not influenced the witness prior to their encounter, it is still possible that carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and / or pesticides were present. Carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, and also some pesticides, cause symptoms of panic, paranoia and loss of consciousness (also, hallucination)
Remedy: Check the area with a multi-gas meter for flammable gases, CH4 / CO / O2 and H2S, and also use a formaldehyde detector, to establish an absence of toxic gases
It is well known that sleep paralysis causes subjects to hallucinate (they hear, feel or see things that are not there) — so it must be clearly established that the witness did not fall asleep during their encounter. It is known that previous poor sleep patterns can trigger this condition, and also psychological stress, or abnormal sleep cycles, so we should rule these conditions out before further investigation. The use of commonly obtained antidepressants is also the cause of sleep paralysis.
Remedy: rule out all triggers and ensure the witness uses a device to monitor blood oxygen levels, heart rate, body position, body movements, intensity of snoring (a diagnostic PSG device) in future tests. This will help to detect and track sleep
The Ghost Train Principle
Studies show that participants who “expected” to be thrilled at some kind of event (because they visited a supposedly “haunted” place, for example, or they voluntarily took part in a game where certain results were expected —a séance or a ghost hunt, perhaps) will experience the same sense of excitement and gratification as all the other participants, even though nothing tangible actually “scared” them or even made them nervous.
We see this disposition in common-or-garden fairground attractions: even taking a mediocre and unsatisfying ride on a “Ghost Train” ride will provoke shrieks and squeals in us as well as our friends, even though we are not scared at all! Humans like to be scared, and it’s more more fun to be scared when we’re with other thrill seekers; we enjoy sharing the tingle & excitement of spooky times. This way, people will be exposed to social influence (friends in a group will be delighted with the possibility of something supernatural happening, while the more pragmatic tend to go along with things, maybe because they don’t want to let folks down… in fact they want to please them) — this is when a witness may become susceptible to deception (of self and others). This phenomena is known as: suggestion through positive social influence. After all, what’s worse than a naysayer or spoilsport at a Halloween party? Nobody wants to be dubbed a party pooper or a buzzkiller… right? Even the most ambivalent and sober person will want to “go along” for the ride.
Remedy: rule out positive social influence by limiting the number of witnesses. If there’s a requirement to have more than one witness at an event, each witness must be unknown to any other (all must be strangers) and this fact must be established beforehand, and be beyond any doubt. Witnesses must not come to an event with any pre-conceived notions. For example, they must not think it’s a séance.
Tips, ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach
Neil Mach is author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast.