Paranormal Investigations and Technology: Where Ghosts and Gadgets Meet

Meet one type of specialist whom you may never have hired or outsourced—ghost hunters. Whether you've got a ghost in the machine or in the house, these paranormal investigators can bring a technology tool chest with everything from thermometers to blimp cams.

You've probably never used a blimp cam, but when you're a ghost hunter like Vince Wilson, you need to improvise with technology tools.

Wilson, a well-known paranormal investigator, built the blimp cam in 2005 using a digital video camera, four large Mylar balloons and a number of propellers for an investigation at a well-known ghost hunting site: the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, Md. This former school is long rumored to be haunted by a young girl who reportedly died from pneumonia during her first year there, after having been forced to attend. Many of the alleged ghost sightings involved a small girl sitting in a second-floor window, Wilson says. One problem: The building had been gutted and there was little or no structure inside, let alone a second floor. So he built the blimp cam and floated it up to the window.

"We never got anything really cool [at Patapsco] as far as ghosts and haunting is concerned," Wilson says. "But I still think the blimp cam is a very valuable device for us to have for future investigations."

That's just another day at work for Wilson, who has authored two books, Ghost Science: The Essential Guide to the Scientific Study of Ghosts and Hauntings and Ghost Tech: The Essential Guide to Paranormal Investigation Equipment. Along with Loyd Auerbach, Wilson is considered one of the world's best-known paranormal investigators. In layman's terms, they're ghost hunters. Spook spotters. They evaluate people who claim to have extra sensory perception (ESP), who think they can propel objects, or heal illnesses via "mind/matter interactions," among other tasks.

This time of year, it's hard to resist peeking into their technology toolboxes. But get one thing straight: They're not ghostbusters. The term "ghostbuster" implies both tracking and containing apparitions like Bill Murray or Dan Aykroyd did in Rob Reiner's 1984 smash hit Ghostbusters. Both men make no such claims. In fact, in the decades Auerbach and Wilson have been investigating the supernatural, neither one has ever contained a real specter—though Wilson claims to have seen one on a moonlit night in Louisville, Ky. (And, yes, he says he was scared.)

What's the first item in a spook spotter's arsenal? It may sound familiar to many IT veterans: Wilson calls his portable coffee pot his most valuable ghost-hunting tool.

"Seriously," he says. "You stay up all night, and sometimes very little happens." Caffeine is of the essence, before you can start work with thermometers, cameras and electromagnetic field meters.

Fighting for Respect

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of paranormal investigators—at least the ones experienced enough to realize that most alleged supernatural events can be attributed to environmental conditions—do not simply hunt down disembodied spirits, Auerbach says. Rather, they use technology to measure as many environmental factors as possible at a given site and look for clues that suggest the perception of a ghost or haunting is a result of some naturally occurring factor. Only after ruling out those natural factors will an investigator consider the possibility that a case may be supernatural, Auerbach says.

Not unlike natural scientists, paranormal investigators study "psi", or psychic phenomenons, in two different capacities: field work and laboratory work, according to Auerbach, who is the founder and director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations in California and an adjunct professor at John F. Kennedy University. (Orinda, Calif.-based JFK was the only university in the world with an accredited parapsychology degree program, until doing away with it in the 1980's, according to Auerbach.)

Auerbach and Wilson both have investigated all three main areas of parapsychology: extrasensory perception (ESP), telekinesis and the survival of human consciousness after bodily death, though they currently focus mostly on ghost hunting and related activities.

Performing a paranormal investigation is a bit different than, say, studying a natural phenomenon like earthquakes or weather patterns. There's no concrete proof that ESP is real. There's no evidence of legitimate telekinesis, also called "mind matter interaction," where someone's mind produces a physical action (much as you may wonder if someone from your past is making your BlackBerry do all that buzzing). And there's nothing to demonstrate that human consciousness can survive after the physical body dies. So Auerbach, Wilson and others who study the paranormal face a basic battle: Getting the scientific community to take them seriously.

Fueling the lack of respect and hindering progress, there are few established "professional" organizations focused on paranormal studies and no trusted central database with which to share and compare findings, Wilson says.

"[Medical] research doesn't progress unless doctors share their findings with other doctors. You need more than one mind," Wilson says.

Wilson is working on establishing an international database. But even that's no easy job. As Auerback points out, there needs to be some way to ensure that those contributing information are qualified investigators and not amateurs who might provide inaccurate data and render the entire database worthless, as has happened to similar initiatives in the past. Today, since there's no accredited academic certification available, any average Joe who happens to flip through one of Wilson's books can call himself a ghost hunter.

On the Haunted Trail

Another hurdle: PC Connection doesnt exactly carry technologies specifically designed to detect ghosts, or confirm or debunk reported cases of ESP or telekinesis.

So, Wilson and his peers employ tools and gadgets ranging from the simple—thermometers and carpenter's levels—to the complex and expensive—infrared thermal cameras and ultrasonic listening devices.

The tools Auerbach, Wilson and other paranormal investigators use in the field largely depend on what type of cases they're investigating. The top two are apparitions (where a spirit is thought to be occupying a home or area) and place hauntings (where a location is thought to be haunted by something that happened there, leaving a "place memory"). Almost all investigations begin with interviews with the people who claim to have witnessed some supernatural occurrence. Video and audio recorders document their stories, and Auerbach and Wilson look for clues to determine where to focus the investigation.

The urgency of a case also helps determine how an investigation begins and what tools to use, says Auerbach. If a woman contacts the Office of Paranormal Investigations in distress because she believes a murdered man has returned to her living room for some post-death antics, he spends less time recording and analyzing data and more time investigating the room.

People, Auerbach says, represent the most powerful tools in detecting paranormal activity—after all, there's no reason to investigate an event or location until someone reports it. But he calls his electromagnetic field (EMF) meters the most valuable gadgets in his arsenal, and he takes a few of them to nearly all investigations. EMF meters measure electromagnetic radiation, which originates from various sources including the earth, people and electronics. More specifically, the meters can measure noticeable changes in electromagnetic radiation or detect radiation from unidentified sources. Sources that emit such radiation do so at different frequencies, necessitating multiple meters for ghost hunting.

In one case, Auerbach says his EMF meter paid off while he investigated a private residence where a couple claimed to have sensed a ghost moving around. They called in Auerbach and identified the areas where they felt the ghost's presence most strongly. Auerbach and his team began measuring EMF readings and found the spots that the couple had identified did indeed possessed high levels of radiation, while the rest of the home was normal. The radiation also appeared to move around the room, as the couple had suggested. This convinced the investigators to document and investigate further, Auerbach says.

As for Wilson, his choice of the most valuable gadget other than the coffee pot may surprise you. Wilson says his digital SLR camera proves key: He believes images are the best proof of the existence of ghosts or other supernatural beings.

Auerbach, on the other hand, strongly feels that ghosts and specters cannot be photographed. "If they could be, people would've already," Auerbach says.

Wilson stands firm, even suggesting that there are a number of famous photos of ghosts, though he admits they are rare. He cites an investigation that took place in California in the 1970s, in which a woman claimed she was beaten and raped by a ghost. According to Wilson, two investigators visited the woman and saw "orbs" floating around a room in her home, which they were then able to photograph. The incident is said to have spawned the film The Entity.

Regardless of whether or not ghosts are truly camera shy, Wilson doesn't just use any old Polaroid in his investigations. He prefers an 8-megapixel Canon digital SLR. Digital SLR cameras with flash bulbs that aren't too close to the lenses serve his purposes best, Wilson says, because of the high quality photos they can produce. He needs a flash since much of his work is performed in the dark, but the bulb must be a few inches away from the lens because the bright light can leave noticeable marks that could be mistaken for orbs or traces of the supernatural, he says.

Wilson also uses various video cameras and DVRs to document happenings at sites that are reportedly haunted, using mechanisms like the blimp cam to get those cameras into dangerous or hard to reach places.

Wilson says his camera work paid off roughly seven years ago at an investigation at a private residence in Western Maryland. Wilson got called in after a strange mist appeared in the home on various occasions. After setting up various recording equipment, Wilson's team captured images of a reverse shadow that looked like a moving cloud of mist, Wilson says. He's still unsure of what he shot on film, but Wilson says it was vaguely human in size and shape and it actually passed through furniture. That is the most substantial piece of evidence that he's ever collected, Wilson says.

Wilson thinks some combination of video and audio recordings of paranormal events will eventually convince the public of the concrete existence of ghosts.

Not a believer? Remember, most IT people have used the phrase "ghost in the machine" once or twice, and more than a few help desk calls involve the word "gremlin." And should blade servers suddenly begin slamming in and out of your racks or voices start drifting from that pile of old CRT monitors in the corner, Wilson may end up becoming your next external consultant.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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