A Skeptic Goes Ghost Hunting

An exercise in paradoxical meditation and sociology

There were four of us, myself, the most skeptical, and my friends R, K and M. My friends all have some interest in the supernatural, and K and M had even taken ghost hunting classes and were looking to put their skills to use.

Wanting to be sensitive to their beliefs, I decided in the days before the trip that my goal was not to prove or disprove anything or anyone, but rather to observe things as nonjudgmentally as possible, and put the mindfulness techniques that I had been practicing over the past few months into good use. Hopefully that would lead me to the right questions to ask.

I know that it is human nature to observe patterns and correlations where they may not exist, and people use this to support their existing beliefs. I suspected that I would see this in action amongst the other attendees, and reminded myself that supernatural nonbelievers are just as susceptible to this as are believers. My hope was to prevent my lifelong skepticism of the supernatural from obfuscating what I was going to observe.

Before the trip, I refrained completely from researching the venue or any aspect of ghost hunting, so as not to create the seeds of mass hysteria and allow myself to be a more neutral observer. My prediction was that would explain most, but perhaps not all of what many of the attendees would consider evidence of ghost activity.

I was not very interested in proving or disproving the existence of the supernatural, but rather wanted to observe how other people justified their beliefs to themselves and the culture of ghost hunting itself.

In particular I was interested in the pseudoscientific claims that are used as evidence to support the existence of supernatural phenomena, as well as the pre-existing beliefs that other attendees brought to the event, and how this shaped their perceptions.

Although the United States is still more religious than other Western countries, it is still seeing the decline of organized religion and religiosity in general, albeit later and more slowly than other countries. Surprisingly, as society becomes more secular, studies show that beliefs in the supernatural, whether this be ghosts, or UFOs or something else, ends up filling the void.

Science will never fully explain the human experience, and even where it can, many people will still reject scientific explanations in favor of supernatural explanations. This is partially due to the reflex to minimize cognitive dissonance, and the fact that the scientific method is very hard to mentally internalize (our natural inclination causes us to find patterns and connections everywhere, real or not). I also suspect that this is due to many people still wanting magic to exist, and finding a purely logic-based, non-anthropocentric existence too reductive and depressing.

Despite organized Christanity’s decline over the last few decades in America, Christian culture still heavily informs secular culture, including the culture of ghost-hunting. Would someone who is raised in the absence of Christianity and American Christian culture still characterize ghosts the same way?

I suspect not, since virtually all of the attendees, except perhaps my roommate M, who is Latino, appeared to be caucasian, and most likely raised in a Christian household. As M mused, in his family’s traditional Mexican culture, ghosts of ancestors are accepted as a common occurrence and a regular presence, and thus the supernatural instead feels natural. Beyond the obvious limiting factors of having the means to pay ~$100 to attend such a gathering and being able to get time off of work or invest in ghost-hunting gear, it seems as if most amateur ghost hunters, if not practicing Christians, are heavily influenced by Christian paradigms of the afterlife and this is what draws them.

Mainstream Christianity has clearly left a void for some people, which they attempt to fill with their own pilgrimages to ghost and spirit-infested locations to experience the supernatural. The pseudoscience of ghost detection (especially eletromagnetic frequency detection) gives their faith the veneer of a source of empirical legitimacy, something that Christianity lacks. The most fascinating things I observed amongst the attendees were related to this quasi-religiousness in action.

It would have been inappropriate to ask, but many of the most devoted ghost hunting enthusiasts I met were most likely wholly unaware of their participation in this new post-modern religion.

Other than driving right by our destination and getting lost for a few minutes, the trip to get there was mostly uneventful. To set the mood, we ranked and compared different kinds of horror movies. I had forgotten up until then how much I had been obsessed with horror movies when I was younger, and also realized that it’s still one of my favorite movie genres, albeit my tastes have evolved from slasher films to psychological horror.

The first thing we all noticed when setting foot on the property of the aslyum was how cold it was. Outside, it was barely above freezing with bone-chilling gusts of wind, and inside the property, according to one thermostat, the temperature hovered around 40-45 degrees. Even with a winter coat all the layers I was wearing, I found myself shivering for a good portion of the tour, and eventually put on a second pair of socks and further swaddled myself in a thick blanket. For safety reasons, the building still had electricty and outside of the main areas that were well-lit, the main sources of light in the building were the exit saftey signs, which filled the halls with an ominous but calming red glow.

On arrival, we were to choose one of the former patient rooms on the first floor as our sleeping quarters. We found a larger room with a kitchen table, a decaying dresser and vanity mirror, with paint peeling off the walls (the peeling paint was a common sight throughout the building and added to the sense of unease). At this point I noticed that my phone had shut off its display and wouldn’t wake up sometime in between exiting the car and entering our room. Many believers in this instance would readily attribute that to supernatural activity, but because I tinker with my phone and because this had happened before in the weeks prior, I knew that this was only a coincidence.

In the main hall near the entrance, there was a small room with a space heater where we would gather after each tour to regain feeling in our extremities, known as the Warm Room. In the asylum lobby, there was another adjacent room with complementary snacks and coffee, which I looked forward to frequenting since shivering and walking around gave me cravings for Cheetos and Oreos.

The former lobby was used as the registration area, and in front I noticed a very conspicuous sign that forbade any practice of Satanism or Ouija boards. I’m very amused by how much Satanism and Paganism still frighten some modern-day Christians, even though Christianity descended from Pagan religions (and also blatantly rebranded its rituals) and Satanism (at least in the LaVeyan sense) is also derived from Christianity, by highlighting its hypocrisy and reappropriating its rituals and imagery. To me, this was an indication of how the venue specifically catered to the post-modern ghost hunting religion (itself a derivation of Christianity). I was offended by the blatant religious discrimination and catering to Christian superstitions, but at the same time I know that this was done out of respect for what would almost certainly trigger many of the other attendees.

Before our first tour, K and R led us in a grounding ritual in our room. I learned that a grounding ritual is much like a prayer that seeks to make peace with whatever entities we might encounter, in which we implore spirits that we mean them no harm and wished to summon only good spirits.

It reminded me of the way grace is said before meals, and was a nice mental primer for trying to remain open-minded and trying to make a connection with the space we were in while we explored the asyulm. There was no doubt that this was informed by K’s Christian beliefs, and much like when I find myself in a religious service for the benefit of others, I was interested to observe the ritual and hopefully broaden my cultural horizons. Unlike most other prayers I had seen as part of my Catholic upbringing, I found this very relaxing and appreciated the mindnfulness aspect to it.

Prior to the first tour of the building, all 50 or so guests assembled in a large room on the first floor while our main guide for the tour and ghost hunt organizer for the asylum, Bob, started orientation. Surprisingly, he emphasized the need for us to claim body noises (stomach gurgling, burps, farts, whispering) as they happened to more easily identify false positives for ghost detection. Despite the fact that there were still many areas that were sorely lacking of skepticism, it was refreshing to see a self-awareness in trying to be honest about our observations and being mindful of how our senses can sometimes lie to us.

He then showed a device he had created, a wooden pyramid with lights on the sides and top, which was his 360° EMF (electromagnetic frequency) detector. On the underside, I could see a PCB board on each face of the pyramid with interconnecting wires. The computer geek in me wanted to ask him about his build, hoping to strike up a conversation about circuits and electronics, since I had been recently playing with my Arduino and instantly felt a sense of geek kinship.

In the end I never asked because I was afraid I would accidentally reveal my skepticism and ruin the mood. His contraption looked pretty solidly built, but he was quick to temper expectations that he was unsure of its accuracy, and had us all set our phones on airplane mode to prevent false detections. I wondered to myself if the omnipresent radio waves from cell towers had any impact on being able to detect ghosts, and perhaps crowded them out? If so, then despite all the high-tech gear that is used for ghost detection, is it possible that there’s too much noise from our modern radio/internet infrastructure to be able to detect the EMF signals of ghosts?

Our first tour was lead by Bill in the basement of the asylum. The basement was by far the most ominous part of the building, and ended up being my favorite experience.

Bill gave us a visceral lesson in the history of two different vulnerable groups, the paupers working on the poor farm that existed during the 19th century, up until 1911, and the mental hostpital that existed from then until 2010. As Bill told us, when the hospital was decomissioned, the heat, but not the water was shut off, so the basement was flooded in about 4 feet of water, which was visibly demarcated on the wall. The ceiling fans were completely warped because of this but still functioned, as Bill gleefully demonstrated.

The rest of the basement was essentially a snapshot in time when the asylum was closed, minus the post-flood cleanup. There was an industrial kitchen, freezers, and storage closets, in addition to the main dining area where we would conduct our séance. There was almost no light downstairs, and in addition to the leftover mold and water damage, this lent to the baseline feeling of dread I began to feel. It felt like the best haunted house ever, but I felt a sense of reverence because I knew that some of the horrors were real.

We began to summon spirits based on stories of people who had been treated horribly there, such as the Down Syndrome patient who had hung himself on a doorknob after continuously boasting “I’ll get out of here”, a nurse who had been assaulted by a patient, and a notoriously violent patient known as the Joker. These incidents were light on details, but based on the abusive, neglectful, and downright dehumanizing conditions that still exist today in modern mental institutions (which increasingly ends up being law enforcement rather than medical settings due to budget cuts), these stories were very plausible. However, they were light on specifics, and due to patient and employee confidentiality, verifying the details would be impossible and unethical. We also attempted to summon spirits of unnamed poor farm inmates. Unlike the spirits from the psychiatric hospital, their stories seemed to have been completely lost to time and we didn’t attempt to summon anyone in particular.

M volunteered to experience the proceedings from what we were told was the former padded room, which at the time of closure appeared to have been repurposed as a supply closet, with its walls stripped of padding. There was another room adjacent where another attendee stayed during the séance, which seemed to be another storage closet. Putting people by themselves would help to highten their emotions and thus help create a sense of authenticity, I thought to myself. M would later tell us that he didn’t really experience much while he was in the padded room. As I thought about it later, I realized that it would be extremely cruel, counterproductive, and unsafe to put such a place just a few feet from the kitchen and the dining area, even for a pre-modern psychiatric hospital. I wondered if Bill purposefully deceived us about the history of that room.

Meanwhile, I was the half of the group chosen to wear a blindfold for the majority of the séance. For many people, it’s likely that the mild sensory deprivation would increase the chance of hearing a sound or a tactile feeling that would be interpreted as a ghost. I kept my mind open but I did not experience either. While I sat in the near-freezing basement with my eyes closed and covered, I attempted to feel the weight of the trauma that had been collectively experienced there at that location, at various points in time. I realized that rather than feeling frightented I in fact felt relaxed, and realized that paradoxically, I had been meditating. This reminded me that I could not judge others for what they perceived nor dictate the meaning of their experiences, but could only attempt to see the situation as accurately as possible, by hopefully keeping my mind even more open than everyone else’s.

This ended up being my favorite experience of the entire trip, but I felt guilty talking about it because I was afraid it would sound like a boast. As this played out I began to get acquainted with the other people in our group. One, I nicknamed EMF Bro, brought a sophisticated EMF device with a digital display, but had no idea how to use it and almost expected our tour guide to help him figure it out. This took what seemed like about 10 minutes to get it to stop going off constantly, which I think they attributed to not properly setting a baseline reading. The non-blindfolded half of the group was given more rudimentary, analog EMF detectors, in addition to Bob’s homemade EMF detecting pyramid sitting on a table in the center of the room.

There was also a woman, for whom I could not come up with a nickname, who would always talk to the ghosts as if they were children, and attempted to encourage them to show their presence this way. At first I thought it was creepy, but later realized that if I were a ghost, most of whom would have died as adults (and thus their ghost age is apparently stuck there?), I would find that extremely patronizing and insulting. As the stories were told of the horrors that had taken place there, she would immediately become sympathetic and seem extremely sad at the vague stories told by Bob. I wanted to look down on her for being naïve, but instead realized that I too felt sad for the horrible things that had almost certainly happened there, but didn’t have a face, real or not, on which to project my sympathy.

We spent about 45 minutes in the basement without seeing any major ghost activity (aside from a few brief and errant hits on the EMF pyramid), and I began to wonder if I was killing the vibe.

Our tour of the ground floor was much less satisfying than the experience I had in the basement. The tour guide this time was a much younger man, whose name I don’t remember (Bill seemed like he was in is mid to late 30s and his age helped him seem more experienced and wiser, while this guide said he was 24 years old when asked by another attendee). After about 10 minutes into our tour of the first floor, our guide claimed that he had an ability to see and hear spirits.

This in itself didn’t necessarily trip my bullshit detector, but the specificity with which he did this certainly did; he could see a ghost in some corner of almost every former patient room we were in, and claimed to know their names and their occupations as he saw them moving around. Some of the other people in our group nodded with rapt attention, while I resisted the urge to roll my eyes but perhaps revealed my skepticism with a suspicious eye squint while I tried to process this.

The first floor mostly consisted of patient rooms and employees’ offices, some of which were more preserved than others, in addition to a few sparse common rooms.

Our first séance/experiment consisted measuring EMF activity while trying to coax ghosts into moving a balloon with a glow stick in it in one of the patient rooms.

While our guide was quick to point out potential false positives from air drafts to the Lady That Talked to Ghosts Like Children™ during our experiment, I still felt like I was only seeing his vision (actually seen or totally invented) rather than being able to form my own. Much like how the Lady That Talked to Ghosts Like Children™ would be very loud and reactive to anything that she wanted to see as paranormal activity, our guide prevented me from finding an experience that was uniquely mine. He said he saw a person with a stutter, and another with Down Syndrome, who were both mistreated, and the Lady That Talked to Ghosts Like Children™ was very sympathetic to their suffering. I again felt sorry for her gullibility but couldn’t discount her sympathy.

We explored a number of rooms while our guide told us the various ghosts he saw. Our only light other than the illuminated balloon and the the glow of our EMF detectors was the red glow of the exit signs. This reddish glow was portentious, but again had a calming effect on me. When we found ourselves a main hallway listening in silence, I again found myself meditating, to try to feel a connection with the space we found ourselves in and ampilfy my other senses.

It was at this moment that I heard perhaps the only unexplainable, potentially paranormal activity of the entire evening: our guide knocked on a door frame three times, and about 15 seconds later, we heard the same three knocks with the exact same rhythm. Because we were in an old, creaky building, I began to think of what else may have caused that noise. The repeated rhythm was very striking, but I had no way of knowing if our guide had timed this with someone else in the building to knock at the right moment, or if there was a plant in our group. I couldn’t fault someone for believing that this was proof of ghost activity, but given everything else I’d seen so far I wasn’t totally convinced.

Eventually M was asked to race the ghosts several times in the hallway along a path lined by EMF detectors (but not too fast, nor to slow, according to our guide). This began to feel silly.

Although there was occasionally a bit of very brief EMF activity, from what I could see the man in our group with a thermal camera wasn’t detecting anything. I was annoyed that there would surely be some kind of correlation between moving objects, EMF activity and a thermal camera, but everyone seemed to take one piece of evidence as being good enough, rather than weighing them altogether and using some kind of empiricism to try and sort it out.

After our first floor tour, M seemed to be losing patience, and we were all freezing from the cold. R and I were both swaddled in winter coats, but had to further shroud ourselves in blankets just to stop shivering. I drank a coffee just for the heat while we huddled in the Warm Room.

Above all else, I didn’t like that the situation felt very forced, compared with the tour of the basement.

The second floor contained many more patient rooms and common areas. The common rooms seemed to be either perfectly preserved or reconstructed for maximum crepiness, with dolls sitting on couches and half-completed puzzles on tables, in addition to an old CRT TV and VHS movie, the title of which I can’t remember. I wish I knew which of these scenes were staged, and which were actually leftover from the hospital.

As we ventured upstairs, our tour guide (Bill’s wife), seemed exasperated that the group was extremely large. “It is what it is”, she said resignedly. To compensate for the size of the group, she has us each stand in a patient room while facing towards the hallway, while she roamed the halls to encourage the ghosts to show themselves. For the entire time we were up there, we didn’t really move from where we were standing in the door frames, and I became annoyed at how noisy and unfocused it ended up being. The lack of direction for our group meant that almost everyone in our section of the hallway was talking, and this made it impossible to have my own observations.

Our guide seemed almost antagonistic towards the ghosts, in comparison with Bill’s more mindful and reverent approach to summoning them. She tried to goad the ghosts into a turf war against us, almost trying to convince them that we were invading their space. I’m sure that this created an element of fear that would lend itself to authenticity and increase suggestibility, but I instead found it extremely flippant and disrespectful to the real suffering that happened there.

A few doors down from us, I could see someone with a fancy-looking recorder for detecting EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena), connected to an app on their phone. The person using it and a couple other people observing them looked completely oblivious to everything else going on, and I wondered if it was even possible to record anything useful with the noise levels. I felt sorry for them in that the harder they were trying to find possible evidence of ghosts, the less they would probably end up seeing; the more they wanted to see something, the less open their minds would be to observing the space for what it was. I was also annoyed that I wasn’t able to meditate like during our previous tours, because of the noise and lack of anything to focus on.

After no obvious sightings (at least on our part of the floor) during our 45 minutes up there, we then had our free roam period, which was a bit more enjoyable. At this point, I found myself observing what other people were doing as I wandered the floor. In a corner of a hallway, there was a small viewing room with a casket in it for patients that had passed away (and certainly the sight of the coffin would trigger certain people and increase their suggestibility). It was here that I overheard a man and woman in a conversation about how at different points of the evening they had both farted into empty rooms that others had then walked into right afterward, and were worried about causing a false positive for ghost detection. Part of me hoped that they would end up in a relationship, just so they could have the story of how they met talking about ghost farts.

As we wandered through the rest of the halls, I saw several other people attempting to capture EVP with various equipment and phone apps, oblivious to everything else going on. Eventually, K, M, R, and I headed back downstairs into the Warm Room. It was at that point that we decided against staying for the night simply because of the cold. There’s a good chance that we would have observed something supernatural had we ended up staying the night (perhaps because of a lack of stimulation and tiredness lending to suggestibility), but it wasn’t worth risking frostbite to find out. Bill then came into the room claiming that he had a scratch on his neck from antagonizing the Joker in the basement, which he enthusiastically showed us. M, K, R, and I all looked at his neck, and then at each other in disbelief, because there was no visible mark whatsoever.

Before we left, we decided on doing a few last tours on our own while trying readings with dowsing rods. Dowsing rods are the analog, mechanical equivalent of an EMF detector: the user holds handles, which are metal cylinders that hold a fully articulating, free-floating L-shaped rod. The user holds the rods still, and then after asking questions the rods will point in various directors for the ghosts to answer. We mainly focused on the basement, since we all seemed to be in agreement that this was the most interesting and likely supernatural part of the building. We did a dowsing rod reading in a few different parts of the basement, including the kitchen, without any solid results.

We went back to our room to collect our belongings, and did one last cleansing ritual to ensure that no malevolent spirits followed us home. This brought me back into a more mindful state, and these two rituals we did at the beginning and end were a really nice way to frame everything that happened in-between.

On the way home, we again went through our favorite subgenres of horror movies, and before we went our separate ways, we had a pre-dawn breakfast at Denny’s. I arrived home around 5:00 in the morning, exhausted, slightly disappointed, but still very happy with the experience.

First, to answer the most important question, did this change my mind about ghosts or the supernatural? Despite the unexplained instance of knocking, no, I wasn’t convinced. As a skeptic, it’s very tempting to categorically dismiss the entire experience as complete bullshit. Even though I can’t fully dismiss nor explain that particular event, it wasn’t enough on its own to convince me to believe in the supernatural, especially when weighed against all the other potential evidence. M said he became a bit more skeptical from the experience, while K and R said the experience was in line with their expectations.

I was still left with a few unanswered questions, which the logical part of my brain couldn’t reconcile:

Why does EMF indicate the presence of a ghost? Has anyone investigated a causal link? If a ghost was really composed of EMF energy, it would probably be enough to be felt and measured more consistently. The computing power of the human brain takes a fair amount of energy, so how could a ghost make use of that energy to do things like speak and move objects and do the other things that human brains do, with such inconsistent EMF readings? A brain uses a fixed amount of energy to create computing power (though in a much more efficient way than mechanical computers), so surely there would be some kind of correlation between a ghost and the amount of EMF detected and distance from an EMF meter, rather than just any level of EMF activity being accepted as a presence.

Also, shouldn’t there be some correlation between EMF readings, temperature and thermal readings, EVP and other methods used to detect ghosts? I found it frustrating that any one of these were considered sufficient, when if these were all valid ways of detecting ghosts, there would again be some correlation between different signals of detection. Real science demands this kind of empiricism, and the detection methods I saw don’t appear to stand up to any kind of empirical scrutiny. Part of me wishes that there was a show where real scientists would take these ghost hunting premises at face value and design careful, empirically-validated experiments, but I know that there would never be an audience for it, since it would probably manage to alienate both science geeks and ghost hunting enthusiasts.

Even though I didn’t buy into most of what I saw, I still enjoyed myself by experiencing something new, mainly some local history (which importantly, might not otherwise be told, since the history of mental health treatment isn’t something that most people would know about or seek out). Seeing other people push their boundaries and trying use their best detective skills inspired me to do the same, even though I probably had very different experiences and conclusions than they did. A place like this allows people to see something if they really want to, whether it’s real or not.

While researching the place afterward, I learned that Bill got some of the details wrong (specifically the dates that both the poor farm and hospital existed), but in general he did give good insight into the general conditions of a mental hosptial, even if the specifics can never be verified.

I learned a lot about the people that seriously devote themselves to ghost hunting, and the quasi-religion and culture that has developed around it. Probably the most important thing I observed was that when people look too hard, they sometimes don’t see anything at all. This can be due to tunnel vision, where a mind’s fixation on something prevents it from being open and honest, and where it is unable see what actually is because of what it wants to see. Everyone is guilty of this at some point.

I was also surprised at the amount of healthy skepticism, and the teamwork and cooperation that I ended up engaging in with total strangers, to test our assumptions and try to experience something new. Regardless of what we all ended up observing or believing, that is something that we all share.

The thing that satisfied me the most was that I did my best to experience the proceedings as open-mindedly as possible, without bringing any negativity towards anyone else into the experience. The mindfulness techniques I had been practicing in the months prior were validated, if only because I found a way to use them in the strangest of places.

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