Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting, by Leo Ruickbie

In an age when ghost hunting groups proliferate but their standards are often woefully inadequate, solid and reliable information on how to carry out an investigation properly is essential.  In response to that need, Leo Ruickbie has written a useful guide which will assist investigators to conduct meaningful research.  Subtitled ‘How to Identify and Investigate Spirits, Poltergeists, Hauntings and Other Paranormal Activity’, its progression is logical, taking the reader through the process of evaluation, equipment, investigation methods, analysis, and interpretation of results.  In addition he discusses more general issues of psychical research, drawing heavily on the files of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and the Ghost Club.  Supplementing such historical material he conducted two surveys, the ‘Ghost Hunting Survey’, interviewing investigators, and a ‘Preliminary Survey of Hauntings’, the latter examining nearly a thousand reports from across the UK.

Sections look at ghosts in detail, categorising them in terms of factors such as degree of visibility, whether or not they communicate or appear to have purpose, and the sorts of places where they are said to be found, including a roundup of the most famous locations (the SPR is often asked for its ‘Top 10”, but such lists are more about marketing than psychical research).  Methods used to obtain information are covered, such as the Ouija board, mediums, dowsing, Electronic Voice Phenomena, even necromancy (though you will need a bit more information than is provided here if you fancy a go at that).  Then Ruickbie considers what might be going on, looking of course at the spirit hypothesis, but covering other possibilities of varying degrees of plausibility.  These include the environment, such as faulty plumbing, underground water, carbon monoxide poisoning, infrasound, geo- and electromagnetism, the ‘stone tape’ theory and more.  Psychological factors are dealt with: misperception, hallucination, the fantasy-prone personality etc.  Possible causes of poltergeists are covered: spirits, recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, a desire to be rehoused, even stories put about as a cover for criminal activity.

After this wide-ranging tour, the final chapter looks at the perils that can befall the unwary investigator, from hit-and-runs, falling under trains, to being shot (the last one more an American than a British problem these days, but presumably a real danger for those groups foolhardy enough to commit trespass in search of ghosts).  Ruickbie found in his Ghost Hunting Survey that over half of his respondents had been frightened at least once during an investigation.  As he concludes, “ghost hunting is not for the faint-hearted.”  At the very least it requires good social skills, confidence when alone in the dark, and the ability to balance open-mindedness with scepticism.  Completing the package, unlike many publications dealing with spontaneous cases it has an excellent index and detailed endnotes which amply demonstrate the extensive reading that informs the volume.

Unsurprisingly, while it covers the full range of the aspects of investigation, the broad coverage means that the book isn’t comprehensive, and readers wanting a practical nuts-and-bolts technical guide taking them through the stages in further detail should supplement it with information from other sources (my preference is still Rosney et al’s A Beginner’s Guide to Paranormal Investigation, published by Amberley)Ghost Hunting is strong on the environmental factors that need to be taken into account, and forceful on the distinction between assumption-led research, for example that there is a haunting by a discarnate entity which only has to be documented, as opposed to evidence-led research which tries to avoid prior assumptions.  Equipment is dealt with lightly, and Ruickbie questions the appropriateness of much of the ghost hunters’ typical gear as it is frequently misused and cannot provide the evidence for paranormal activity that its users assume.

The book certainly manages to cover a lot of ground and as Ruickbie acknowledges the “Brief guide” in the title is something of a misnomer given that it is over 360 pages. Even so, the very breadth of coverage suggests that depth has had to be sacrificed.  That breadth though means that there is something here for everybody who has an interest in spontaneous case investigation, both the historical context and current best practice.  One can quibble with the book’s title as many researchers do not like the term ‘ghost hunting’, because it can be seen as self-aggrandising, has aggressive connotations, and if consciousness does continue is insulting to the dead.  Unfortunately publishers’ wishes often prevail over authors’ preferences in such matters.

Ruickbie notes (and is not alone in so doing) the widespread influence that television shows have had in shaping perceptions of ghost hunting and encouraging substandard methodologies, making books such as this valuable as an antidote.  Good information has to fight hard to hold its own amongst the dross, a situation made difficult by its relative scarcity, and he has helped to rectify that deficiency most ably.  No doubt there will still be groups who think that they know best with their gadgets, their obsession with orbs and even demons, and their readiness to attribute every unusual occurrence they experience to ghosts.  But with such level-headed books as this readily available, they will have even less excuse for their antics.