Research and Investigate: Where to Begin

The start of the research process with most paranormal teams starts with the communication and report of an incident or history of occurrences at aplace that is involved with a place, person, or thing.

Think of the report as the beginning of a rigorous and meticulous investigation of a crime scene, and although we don’t have a body, we should follow the same rules for the collection of evidence and the deductive process as in crime investigations.

In most paranormal teams this may start with a phone call, an email, letter, or by word-of-mouth. However the report comes in is essential that as many details as possible be gathered. Many teams have a questionnaire and have developed an interview process conducted by an experienced team member. Find out as many specific details as possible and know who is involved and who is reporting it. Write it down or record it - documentation is essential.

Folklore & Stories

Often old houses and historic places have a constellation of stories and folklore about them. Spend time collecting all of the stories and folklore well as all reports of paranormal occurrences. When do these stories and reports start? (I once found a Time magazine article reporting ghost sightings for a place in Pasadena going back to 1937). While many stories may be unsupported in the historical record some may actually give you important leads to pursue. Researching and knowing this content is important because this is what you will largely be responding to as a result of your investigation.

Places

After a report comes in one of the first areas to research is the place or places where something happened or was experienced and reported. You start from the big Where to the smallest where– so it makes a difference if a paranormal event was experienced in the USA versus the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Did the event take place outdoors or in a structure? If in a building was it in the basement?, 1st floor?, attic?, and so on. And then in the specific room - if something was seen or encountered where was the observer and where was the anomaly? In front of a window?, doorway?, stairs? Again think of the Place as a crime scene and form an intense picture of the Place – Diagram it - because even small facts can be the key to seeing a pattern or being able to understand what happened, and this information can help us begin to sort out reasonable explanations from the unknown. Also it is very helpful to know something about architecture or have someone who is on the team who does. A trained eye can look at a building and see where additions or teardowns have happened. Often walls and doors and windows are altered in old houses and so that reported ghost who repeatedly walks through the wall may be using the old stairs that used to be there. In the field always take comprehensive photos of the exteriors and interiors of the building – and note the exterior walls and which wall is in view (North, South, East, West). Infrared imagers are used in many architectural applications – because the IR shows visual contrasts in thermal zones you will often find closed up doors windows and walls when using the device. Once these facts are ascertained then you will begin to investigate the history of the place. The primary source may be the occupant and/or owner. That information may be valuable in leading you to develop a house history. Who owned the house and who lived there? Census data, voting rolls, city directories, insurance records, newspapers, and deeds are all the best places to start. Many of these are well-archived and available online – and local historical societies and libraries are great places to start. I then run the address through a database / archive that contains census / tax/ voting records and city directories and I will often get names and details of who owned and lived in the house and when. More leads to follow. You can also run church and court records to glean more information on persons and events associated with the address. Maps can be great sources of information about a property – what was there before the current house was built – was it an orchard?, an old mill or shop?

Maps are actually very important resources as they give you local and regional contexts for the Place. Are there train tracks nearby? Is there heavy construction or industrial activity in proximity? You can also find good sources for the local geology through the maps available through then US Geological Survey (USGS). It is a great way of understanding what may lie underneath your place and how it may be a factor in what may be going on there. Native American graveyards are always brought up in relation to haunted places – please be critical – if the map says “Indian Graveyard” or there was archaeology that says so, then fine. Otherwise please stick to the evidence.

People

Once you develop a good set of facts about Place then it is time to turn your efforts to understanding the People associated with that place and the event. You will want to start from the moment of the incident (who was in the building or at the place?) to who owns or lives or works there? You naturally move back in time to answer the same questions. Develop a list of “suspects” you need to track down and assess.

I find newspaper archives to be a great resource for this. You start with the name of persons that you have developed through the report / interview / place and run those to see what may turn up. You can also run the address and that can be very productive. You will find leads that you can follow and refine and there may be many false leads to sort out. This takes time but I love going through old newspapers and finding those hidden jewels that allow you to have great information that can open up your understanding in a case. People can also be researched through genealogical databases and through court records, census and voting rolls, city directories, and church records. Again, make friends with your local historical society and reference librarians - they can often help you find the resources you need to get accurate information on the people involved in your case.

Sometimes there will be results that come in from EVP’s – a name or reference that can tie in to the research. So be prepared and ready to run those results down – often you find nothing but every now and then there is that magic moment when the field investigation and your research matches exactly. Please resist believing the names that people give their ghosts or giving them a name yourself, unless there is direct evidence that supports that. Try to stay away from those leaps in logic that may make us look less than professional. Stick to talking about what you really know and what you don’t know – you are always left with more questions than answers.

Objects

Often there are reports of paranormal occurrences and phenomenon with objects. This ranges from things that are physically moved or relocated by other than human or animal means to mirrors that display ghostly faces and objects that are creepy and seem to be haunted.

The first thing to do is to get as much information on the object as possible – how long has it been in the building? Where did the owner acquire it? Do they know the ownership history of the piece (provenance)? Who made it? If there are no direct answers to those questions then you need to use the techniques of the art historian and material culture researcher. What is it made from? Do the tool marks show hand or machine workmanship? What are the decorative elements and what period do they relate to? These are the kinds of things that are discussed on Antiques Roadshow. Yes, you really can learn from TV!

Objects that move or are relocated should be examined in several ways. What is their shape? How much do they weigh? Do they have a high or low center of balance? How easy is it to move them? What are they made of and is that material reactive to variations in temperature and relative humidity? Do they seem to move when in one specific place or do they move wherever they are placed? Again, common sense is the rule in assessing these occurrences. When it comes to old mirrors the reports of ghostly faces in them can usually be discounted due to their method of fabrication and condition. Old mirrors were called “Looking Glasses” and were composed of a thin wash of silvering applied to the back of the glass that was then mounted into a wood frame. Silver is especially susceptible to tarnishing and corrosion from atmospheric sulphur. This leads to a patchy surface with grey/black areas varying in depth and appearance. If there is a wood panel or plywood backing in contact with the mirror then the residual acids in the wood can etch dark patterns from the wood grain right into the silvering. Then there are the normal oils and smearing from hands and cleaning products on the front glass that can distort the surface.

Psychics

Just as some crime scene detectives bring in psychics as consultants on difficult and cold cases, some paranormal teams use their skills as well. This is a decision based on your philosophy, experience, and the specific needs of the investigation. It is best to know and establish a relationship with the psychics you use. Know them and their reputation – just having someone who says they are “sensitive” doesn’t really mean much. There are guidelines for employing psychics in your research that can make their information more useful. First, do not give them any specific information on the case, place, person, or event. Either bring them in to consult remotely (by telephone or internet) or bring them in to the site. Give them time and silence to get a feeling for the place and to explore. Be patient and let your psychic friend ask questions or talk first. Have a recorder running to document everything. Often psychics can pick up multiple impressions from different people and events in a locale and some of this will undoubtedly overlap in what they say. Again, think of these as good leads for you to track down through all the resources I have already mentioned. The best psychic evidence is reinforced with other evidence and research.

Some of the information may be impossible to verify while some will be spot on. As with all evidence – research and evaluate it with a critical mind.

General History and Social Psychology

You should always have a good knowledge of general history. If you are going to a battlefield you should understand the history of the time and events that took place there. You should seek to gain a specific knowledge of a historical period and also the social language and conventions of the time. If you are at a medieval site in England try to pose questions in a way and in language that will be most familiar to the place and period you think may be manifesting there. Saying “cool!” or “Dude! Wicked!” usually won’t be evocative when trying to communicate with a 500 year old spirit. Beyond that it can be very instructive to learn about the social psychology of a time period. If you are investigating a Civil War battlefield then learning about Victorian social customs and attitudes about life and death can really prepare you for communication or signs from whatever might be encountered during the investigation. I did preparatory research on a bridge in Pasadena that is infamous for the number of suicides that have happened there. One of the best sources I found was an article on the psychology of people who jump off bridges and the many specific modes of thinking and behavior of people who jump – this was a great resource for understanding any spirits that may be encountered there.

Applied Research

The other branch of research that crime scene investigators often do is applied research – in which they do experiments and demonstrations based on the evidence that they have collected. In this way they test their evidence and theories. In paranormal research we do the same thing whether it is calling out a name during an EVP session or debunking a door that slams on its own. Just as crime detectives do we are using the evidence collected from different sources to build an interpretation or narrative of what may be going on. Remember, the best applied research is done only after extensive preparation not before it.

Burden of Proof

Many people like to say that we conduct scientific investigations. I differ in this because I don’t think we meet the rigors of the scientific method in what we do. We are in the field rather than a lab with controlled conditions and little of what we do could be seen as real experiments meeting the rigors of scientific practice. Paranormal investigators, as with crime detectives, are more likely to be using science and the deductive process in the service of developing our understanding of a place, person, or event. Our evidence is much more related to the legal “Burden of proof”. We are given a report (complaint) and collect research and evidence to evaluate it. It is our job to form a conclusion based on the standard of reasonable doubt – after hearing our report would a reasonable person have any doubts about our conclusions?

The End?

Well, after all of this work, after all the preparation, the questions, the investigation, hours of reviewing evidence, and more spent on research…so much time… so much pizza…more coffee?… Herbal tea?

Where does this end?

Just as you expect a professional physician to give you a report, just as you expect the police to give you a report, it is incumbent on paranormal investigators to produce a report based on our investigation – even if all we say is, “We Don’t Know”. The report should clearly state what the team was asked to do, where and when the investigation was conducted, the results of all research, what the evidence showed and how it was collected and documented, and finally what conclusions were reached. We should also include any recommendations and resources for our clients to follow and always welcome them to contact you again if they feel they need more assistance.

The report also says more about the status of your team than any bunch of EVP’s or video clips ever do. The report is the prime document that can be compared, debated, admired, and used to bring progress and evolution to the field of paranormal research.

The Report. It’s a Good Thing!

Resources

The best resources to start with are the wonderful libraries and historical societies right where you live. There are innumerable online research resources

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