Saturday, 18 February 2017

History and Ghost Hunting

It has become relatively common for ghost-hunting teams to have a someone described as a 'historian' in their ranks, although I have yet to come across a case where that person is a qualified, professional (i.e. 'real') historian. While part of their task might be to get a timeline of 'paranormal' incidents at a supposedly haunted place, invariably they also research any historical deaths associated with the site. In truth, these are perfunctory tasks that could be undertaken by anybody. They certainly don't make you a historian, just as looking at the moon doesn't make you an astrophysicist.

In fact, I would argue that having a 'historian' in the investigation team is often pointless. This is mainly because the usual purpose of their work is to find a dead human to identify as the 'ghost'. That task relies on a speculative process I call the 'False Identity Assumption' - the two-step assumption that unusual phenomena can be associated with the surviving consciousness of a dead person, and that the dead person can be positively identified. It is, in effect, speculation built on a foundation of more speculation, and distracts from what should be the primary aim of observing and recording 'paranormal activity'.

The presence of a 'historian' on the ghost-hunting team is a warning sign of an inherently unskeptical and unscientific approach, that they will readily attribute any unusual phenomena they observe to the 'ghosts of dead people' and then attempt to identify those people. It is the classic 2+2=5 scenario.

This need to link ghosts to specific humans seems to be a holdover from traditional ghost stories, whose subjects (apart from the mischievous 'imps' types) had a human background, almost always with a particularly tragic death incident that lent the story a real sense of pathos. Such an approach is the stock-in-trade of 'ghost tours', where the backstory of the human behind the ghost takes centre stage. This allows the tour guide to flesh out the story (and tour minutes) with some drama. Take away the human story, there is often very little left to talk about. I am not aware of any ghost tour story without a human 'character' involved, although there could be one or two out there. Again, this whole approach is based on the ''False Identity Assumption'.

Now, having said all that, a decent bit of history research can be useful in debunking the stories associated with some hauntings. There are numerous cases in which the murders, accidents and other tragedies claimed to be behind certain ghost stories turn out to be completely imaginary. Unfortunately, cases of genuinely interesting activity can be undermined by attaching fake backstories to them. Sometimes an alleged instance of paranormal activity can become so dependant on the backstory that when that story is exposed as false, it even kills the ghost off (for example, see the case of the  South Brisbane Cemetery 'Lady in Black').

I would suggest that paranormal investigators drop the whole 'backstory' thing - unless they intend to debunk backstories - and focus on testing for unusual phenomena.

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