Real-life 'Paranormal Activity': Are Ghosts Real?

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A still from "Paranormal Activity 3." (Credit: Paramount Picutures).

The new horror film "Paranormal Activity 3" features another set of amateur ghost hunters trying to document evidence of paranormal activity through the use of home video cameras.

The twitchy, grainy video images of demons and ghosts have scared up hundreds of millions of dollars in box office gold in two previous installments of the low-budget franchise.

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It's all good fun for spooky cinematic scares. But what about in the real world?

Between one-third and one-half of Americans believe in ghosts, and that belief motivates many to look for evidence of the paranormal. Researcher Sharon Hill of the Doubtful Newsblog counted about 2,000 active amateur ghost hunting groups in the United States. Almost all of them are patterned directly after the hit SyFy TV show "Ghost Hunters," which is now in its eighth season of failing to find good evidence of ghosts.

Despite the efforts of thousands of real-life ghost hunters over the past decade, the evidence for ghosts has not improved. Typically, the types of evidence offered for the paranormal fall into a few categories:

1) Personal Experiences

Ghost hunters often report personal feelings and experiences like, "I felt we were being watched," or "I felt like something didn't want us there." They also describe, for example, getting goose bumps upon entering a room or panicking at some unseen presence. There's nothing wrong with personal experiences, but they are not evidence of anything other than that people scare themselves in dark, spooky places.

2) Orbs

Many ghost hunters and books on hauntings claim that ghosts can be photographed, appearing as round or oval white shapes called orbs in the images. Many things can create orbs, including insects, dust and flash reflections. Orbs may seem otherworldly because they appear only in photographs and are usually invisible to the naked eye. To those unaware of the real explanations, they can be spooky, but there is nothing paranormal about them.

3) Ghost Equipment Results

Ghost investigators often use unscientific and unproven equipment and techniques in their search for spirits. Some use psychics to try and communicate with ghosts. Others use dowsing rods, which have never been scientifically proven to find anything (including water and restless spirits). Still others, striving for some semblance of science, use high-tech devices such as electromagnetic field detectors and infrared cameras.

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These devices are commonly sold as ghost hunting gear, but there is no logical or scientific reason to use this equipment when looking for the paranormal. EMF detectors measure electromagnetic fields, not ghosts; infrared cameras reveal the infrared spectrum, not ghosts. There is no evidence that ghosts have anything to do with electromagnetic fields, infrared images, ions, temperature drops, etc.

4) Electronic Voice Phenomena

Most ghost hunters, including the "Ghost Hunters" team, use handheld voice recorders in an attempt to capture a supposed ghost voice, or EVP. Often an investigator will hold the recorder while standing in the middle of a room and addressing the supposed spirit, or while walking around. He will later go back and review the recordings at high volume, listening for any faint murmurs, sounds or noises, which may be interpreted as ghost voices. For example, a ghost hunter may ask out-loud, "If there's a spirit here, what's your name?"

Often the investigator will get no answer at all; other times, if the ghost hunters wait long enough they'll hear some random sound that could be interpreted as a faint, mumbled name: "Mary." (Or maybe Terry, Kerry, Larry or Barry — never mind the fact that, as disembodied spirits, ghosts presumably do not have vocal cords, a tongue or a mouth that would allow them to speak.)

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The problem is that microphones are very sensitive and may record anything from someone whispering in the next room, to wind blowing, to ordinary random sounds from the environment, or even sounds from the ghost hunters themselves. There's no mystery about what causes EVPs, and it has nothing to do with ghosts. EVPs are created by a well-understood psychological process called apophenia, which causes people to "hear" distinct sounds in random white noise patterns such as the background static in an audio recording (like hearing the doorbell or the telephone while one is in the shower).

In the same way that the human brain allows us to "recognize" random patterns, like faces in clouds, our brains allow us to hear words and phrases in random sounds that aren't really there. In fact, EVPs can be easily heard and induced in laboratory experiments; no ghosts required.

So why is the evidence for ghosts so unimpressive? One possibility is that ghosts do exist, but that ghost hunters are simply not investigating the right way, using pseudoscience instead of real science and critical thinking. Another possibility is that ghosts and the paranormal do not exist, and that the evidence collected for them is simply the result of hoaxes, honest mistakes, misperceptions and misunderstandings.

In case you're wondering what my expertise is, I have personally investigated — and solved — several hauntings and videos where ghosts were supposedly seen on film. One of my most famous cases involved a mysterious ghostly image captured on a courthouse surveillance camera in Santa Fe, N.M, that made national news in 2007. I've also written a book on scientific paranormal investigation.

Of course, the fact that ghost hunters have a spotless track record of complete failure does not mean that ghosts don't exist, or that evidence for paranormal activity might not be found tomorrow, on Halloween, or next year. You don't know if you don't look. Science is open to the possibility of ghosts, the paranormal or anything else — but good evidence is needed. Until then, the only place ghost hunters are guaranteed to find the paranormal is in movie theaters.