Forty-two percent of all Americans believe in ghosts, according to a 2013 Harris Poll. With such a significant portion of the population having a vested interest in paranormal phenomena, there are plenty of opportunities for someone interested in pursuing a career in the world of the undead. (Just ask Google.) But aside from the obvious requirement of chasing demonic spirits around New York City in a cool car with Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, what exactly does a job as a ghostbuster entail, and how does one go about getting one?
(Photo: poppet | Flickr)
The Nuts and Bolts of Ghost Hunting
Ghost hunters or paranormal investigators (PIs) are essentially self-employed individuals or private firms called upon to investigate claims pertaining to the existence of unexplainable presences or events, such as ghosts, demons, spirits, lake monsters, aliens and UFOs, and/or the chupacabra.
According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, a website run by Robert Todd Carroll, a Ph.D. from the University of California at San Diego, who has been investigating controversial beliefs for 50 years, there are over 50 topics that fall within the scope of paranormal inquiry that range from pseudo-scientific to mind-boggling.
While a parapsychologist typically focuses on the study of paranormal activity in the context of research and lab work, a paranormal investigator actually goes out into the field to investigate ghost-related claims, which could range from strange noises like slamming doors and footsteps, to bizarre visual apparitions, such as floating objects or a late-night cameo from your recently deceased Aunt Betty.
Tools of the Trade
(Photo: allenthepostman | Flickr)
A ghostbuster/paranormal investigator often relies on some combination of electronic, not necessarily scientific ghost-hunting tools. These might include night-vision goggles, digital cameras, EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) equipment, electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, infrared thermometers, and/or thermal/full-spectrum cameras.
Such tools are used to monitor or document supposed supernatural activity through photographs, temperature changes, audio recording, and/or electromagnetic activity.
Paranormal Approaches and Philosophies
There are thousands of companies and self-employed paranormal investigators around the world who make a living by investigating things that can’t be explained by science.
According to Robert Carroll, the ultimate goal of a reputable “scientific” paranormal investigator should be “to discover the cause or causes of the apparently paranormal experiences” rather than to “prove or disprove the existence of anything in particular.”
To do this, according to Carroll, a scientific PI, like a detective or a scientist, must keep an open but skeptical mind, develop evidence-based hypotheses, and then attempt to disprove them.
Joe Nickell is another paranormal expert who emphasizes the importance of critical thinking.
“In contrast to many paranormal proponents who are little more than mystery mongerers, or to some skeptics who call themselves ‘debunkers,’ I hold that mysteries should neither be fostered nor dismissed,” writes Nickell on his website.
“Instead,” he continues, “they should be carefully investigated with a view toward solving them. I have spent my life trying to do just that — whether the mysteries were paranormal or historical or forensic or literary or whatever their nature.”
(Photo: mikecogh | Flickr)
From the Syfy network’s Ghost Hunters, to regional ghost-busting groups like the Canada-based Paranormal Explorers, to pro-science experts with academic backgrounds like Carroll, the roles, scope, quality, and philosophies of paranormal investigators and experts can vary greatly, and not all subscribe to Carroll and Nickell’s logic-based approach.
The private Virginia-based ghost hunting firm Richmond Investigators of the Paranormal (RIP), for example, come to investigations armed with an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector and a temperature gun. As RIP’s tech director Chris Williams told NPR, the EMF detector can be used not only to detect “faulty wires and radio waves,” but also spirits. The temperature gun is used to find cold areas that allegedly indicate a haunted location.
(Photo: doegox | Flickr)
While RIP might use the EMF monitor to show a client how electromagnetic activity is evidence of paranormal activity, Joe Nickell counters that natural (not supernatural) sources easily debunk such claims, arguing that anything from microwave towers to the PIs’ own walkie-talkies and cameras could explain electromagnetic activity.
As Nickells told NPR: “They’re [RIP] surprised that they’re getting results in an old house, when in fact there are all sorts of non-ghost sources…”
Education and Training
While plenty of both are available, the absence of any accredited academic degrees or universally recognized licensing in the field makes the concept of a “certified” PI a nonstarter.
Aspiring paranormal investigators should thus be cautious of forking over cash for a ghost-busting 101 course promising any sort of formally recognized degree in paranormal investigation. (Likewise, anyone soliciting the services of a paranormal investigator should be similarly wary of giving their money to a “certified” ghost-buster).
Courses range from the seemingly pragmatic “Paranormal Investigation: Managing a Team,” to more existential and/or psychological offerings such as “The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: Are We Alone?” and “Confessions of a Cemetery Photographer: Grave Obsession.”
While such classes may be informative and interesting, they shouldn’t be mistaken as any kind of official PI certification or licensing.
Career Path Case Studies
(Photo: Brickset | Flickr)
Since the existence of ghosts is far from universally recognized, it is unsurprising that the business of investigating them is not a universally recognized academic or career path, particularly since the skills and tools of the trade aren’t always objective or scientific.
That being said, the more reputable breed of PIs typically have substantial backgrounds in science, academia, or psychology, decades of hands on-experience, or both.
Thus, along with fundamental skills in writing, electronics, photography and/or videography, an associate’s degree or higher focusing on science, parapsychology, and research would boost an investigator’s credibility, as would participation in the international paranormal community and some modicum of media savvy.
Loyd Auerbach: Parapsychology Professor, Author, Mentalist, and Ghost-Themed Chocolatier
For example, Atlantic University professor Loyd Auerbach is a paranormal expert and author who earned a BA in Cultural Anthropology from Northwestern and a master’s degree in parapsychology from John F. Kennedy University. In addition to teaching online parapsychology courses for Atlantic since 2011, Auerbach has authored seven books about the paranormal and serves Director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations.
He also works as a mentalist and psychic entertainer under the stage name “Professor Paranormal,” has appeared on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, the Syfy network, Oprah, Larry King Live, Late Night with David Letterman, and Unsolved Mysteries, and conducts “guided chocolate tastings,” which he has, interestingly, linked to the paranormal by selling something called “ghost drops” and “Cocoa Oracle chocolate fortune pieces” on a website called “www.hauntedbychocolate.com.”
Joe Nickell: “The World’s Only Full-Time, Salaried Professional Paranormal Investigator”
PI Joe Nickell took a different but equally unique path to the paranormal. As well as being “the world’s only full-time, salaried professional paranormal investigator,” Nickell is a senior research fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a non-profit organization whose founders include Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov.
Nickell has worked in the paranormal field since 1969, when he participated in a seance held to “contact the spirit of Houdini.” Since then, he has also worked as a magician, mentalist, traditional private investigator, and columnist. His work as a paranormal investigator has included investigating the 1972 Mackenzie house haunting in Toronto and the Shroud of Turin.
If you’re more inclined towards a self-taught or hobbyist-level paranormal education, recommended resources include viewing Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989), attending one of the many paranormal conventions offered nationwide, checking out Skeptoid, a weekly podcast that covers pseudoscientific topics including the paranormal, or using the month of October to conduct hands-on research in the form of local haunted houses.
(Original GhostBusters Theme Song | Video: Max3506 | YouTube)
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