The first thing you need to know about real-life ghost busters is that they don't like the term "ghost buster." To actually bust a ghost, you'd need two things:
- An actual, verifiable ghost
- A tested, proven method of getting rid of that ghost
The problem a real ghost buster runs into is simply this: Neither of those things has ever been conclusively proven to exist.
What does exist are unexplained events that seem to have a paranormal origin. These events can be investigated, and many times the causes can be determined. Often, the ghosts are "busted" when the investigator discovers that it was really a poorly sealed window causing the cold draft or reflected car headlights causing the strange lights moving around a darkened room. So instead of ghost busters, they tend to prefer "paranormal investigators" or even "ghost hunters."
You won't find most paranormal investigators listed in the phone book. So how do they find their cases? Randy Liebeck has cases referred to him from various paranormal research institutions. Joe Nickell selects which hauntings he will investigate based on the infamy of the case or whether it has any unusual or interesting characteristics. Many investigators, including both Liebeck and Nickell, conduct some investigations at the invitation of TV crews or newspaper reporters.
Once they have a reported haunting, a paranormal investigator begins by researching the site ahead of time. This often takes the form of a list of the phenomena reported to occur at the haunting, but it can also lead to historical research into the back story behind a haunting. Knowing what phenomena are being reported is important, because it helps determine what equipment to bring. "If the reports involve only auditory or subjective sensations, there is no point in wiring up the house with 15 video cameras," said Liebeck. Historical research is vital, because the word-of-mouth legends that usually surround ghostly sites can be red herrings that lead investigators to dead ends.
The first step upon reaching the investigation site is to speak with all the witnesses to the phenomena and find out exactly what they've experienced. Often, the exact details reported by eyewitnesses are quite different from the legendary tales that surround a haunting.
Joe Nickell has developed a ghost questionnaire that he gives to witnesses at the start of an investigation in an attempt to quantify their experiences. The questionnaire addresses details such as the number of times they've experienced a haunting and at what time of day the hauntings have occurred. It also uses psychological survey questions that help Nickell give the witness a "fantasy-prone quotient."