How Ghost Busters Work

A young lady playing the violin, with a ghost playing the harp behind her.
Who you gonna call? Ralf Nau / Getty Images




­From the moment you read the title of this article, ­you prob­ably had the song going through your head: "There's something weird, and it don't look good. Who you gonna call?..." Many of us are familiar with the Hollywood version of ghost busting, made famous in the 1984 hit movie "Ghostbusters." But there are people for whom hunting ghosts is no laughing matter.

What are real-life ghost busters like? Do they hunt down ghosts and vanquish them? Do they shoot proton beams, drive a customized ambulance or come home after a hard day's work coated in green goo?

In this article, we'll meet some actual ghost hunters, find out what they do and see what tools they use in the course of their work.

Ghost Stories

Photo courtesy Southern Wisconsin Paranormal Research Group

­Ghost stor­ies have probably been around as long as humans have had language. The Epic of Gilgamesh, thought by many scholars to be the oldest written story, contains many references to the spirits of the dead. That is the most basic definition of a ghost -- a person's spirit that continues to exist in some form after the physical body has died. Most religions describe an afterlife where these spirits are sent to be either rewarded or punished for their deeds in this life. A lot of ghost stories focus on spirits that return from this afterlife or never get there in the first place -- instead, they interact with people in the physical world.

Why do these spirits have such a hard time getting to, or staying in, the afterlife? Ghost believers often cite "unfinished business" in the dead person's life. Sudden violent or traumatic death is another reason given for hauntings. In some cases, people seem to have formed such a strong bond to a specific place in life that his or her spirit returns there after death.


Some hauntings don't seem to involve a specific spirit moving about in a conscious manner. These hauntings seem more like an old film replaying an event from the past, like a battle or a murder. There are reports of spectral Roman armies marching off to some long-forgotten war or soldiers still fighting the Battle of Gettysburg in ghostly form.

One of the most famous kinds of ghosts isn't believed to involve the spirits of the dead at all. Some have theorized that poltergeists (German for "knocking spirit") result from telekinetic energy given off by angry or frustrated people. Often, adolescents going through puberty are reported to be the focus of the bangings and moving objects that are the hallmarks of poltergeist activity.

The final type of ghosts can be classified as evil entities. Those who subscribe to Judeo-Christian religion and mythology believe that some hauntings are caused by demons or even Satan himself. Sometimes these demons even "possess" a living person. Believers feel that the best way to get rid of these ghosts is with an exorcism, a special religious ritual that is intended to cast the demons out.

Of course, this discussion of ghosts assumes that they're real, and assumptions have no place in worthwhile investigations. Ghostbusting investigations are no exception.

Ghost Hunters

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."

Real Ghost Pictures?


In 1972, Joe Nickell conducted his first investigation of a haunted house. The caretak­er of an old inn called Mackenzie House in Toronto, Ontario, reported heavy footsteps on a stairway late at night, mysterious piano music and an apparition that had appeared to his wife while lying in bed one night. Finally, a photograph of a piano had an unexplained white blur in the foreground.


After interviewing all the employees, Nickell found one tour guide who reported hearing the footsteps during the day, as well. Examining the staircase, Nickell found that it ran along an outside wall. Heading outside, he found another old building sharing that wall. A quick interview with the caretaker of that building revealed a stairway running parallel to the one in Mackenzie House, but on the other side of the wall. A late-night cleaning crew explained the footsteps at night. The wife of the other house's caretaker playing the piano explained the "mysterious" piano music. But what about the photo? And the apparition?

Analysis of the photo by a professional photographer revealed that a bright flash had been used. White sheet music on the piano threw a reflection of the flash into the foreground, creating the strange blur.

Experiencing an apparition while in bed is actually a common experience. Known as a waking dream, or a hypnogogic trance, the witness may awake to find his or her body utterly paralyzed. People in a waking dream also frequently perceive one or more figures moving around them. The underlying psychological and physiological causes of these trances are not well-understood, but they have been documented by many subjects. In the end, Nickell concluded that the house was not, in fact, haunted.

Ghost-detecting Equipment

Seismograph in action
Photo courtesy USGS Photo by R. P. Hoblitt

­Ghost ­hunters take a variety of tools with them on an investigation. Randy Liebeck's kit includes: "analog and digital video cameras with infrared night-vision capabilities; hand-held camcorders and stationary units that feed to a central command center; 35-mm film still cameras and digital cameras; analog and digital audio recorders; amplified or parabolic surveillance microphones; atmospheric environment monitors; motion detectors; Geiger counters; a seismograph and a thermal-imaging camera."

One of the most frequently used devices in a ghost hunt is an EMF detector, sometimes known as a TriField® meter. These devices detect fluctuations in magnetic, electric and radio/microwave energy levels. Some investigators have speculated that anomalous readings in those energy fields are a sign of a ghost.


TriField Meter
Photo courtesy TriField Natural EM Meter

According to Joe Nickell, however, the use of such equipment is unnecessary and unscientific. "Why would we even be taking EMF detectors when we have no scientific evidence that they detect ghosts?"

As a result, Nickell doesn't spend too much time trying to get photos of ghosts or audio recordings of ghostly voices. Instead, he brings a camera to photograph evidence, his questionnaires, a notebook and a tape recorder for interviews. He also keeps a forensic-evidence collection kit handy, just in case some physical traces of a ghost do show up. He once investigated a Kentucky farmhouse with a door that supposedly dripped blood when it rained. He collected some of the substance on the door, and analysis showed it to be rust and other materials from the roof washing down with the rainwater.

This magnifying lens has been used to examine hundreds of supposed holy relics, monster footprints and physical traces left by ghosts. In the background are several of the modules Nickell uses to put together an investigator's tool kit appropriate to each case.
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski

If the evidence needs further clarification, Nickell sometimes calls in scientists or specialized equipment to conduct further analysis. Nickel was not present at Atlanta's "House of Blood," where a witness stated that blood had "oozed" up out of the floor, but he obtained crime scene photos showing blood on the floor and walls. Nickell consulted a forensic expert in blood-splatter patterns, who looked at the photos and determined that the blood had been squirted at the walls, probably out of a syringe.

If Randy Liebeck and Joe Nickell are indicative of the field, real-life ghost busters aren't running around blasting ghosts or sucking them into special traps like in the movies. There's no containment unit housing thousands of captured spirits. And there isn't any way to guarantee the removal of a ghost.

Most ghost hunters are mostly trying to document paranormal phenomena and possibly find explanations for them. Randy Liebeck explains that in some cases, certain rituals designed to remove ghosts seem to work, such as telling the spirit to leave or having a psychic guide the spirit "toward the light." He says the success of these rituals may have as much to do with the psychological effect on the witness as anything else. It depends "on the dynamics of the case and/or the individual's belief system."


The Scientific Method

Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell examines a rare 18th-century "spirit photograph" under a stereo microscope.
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski

­Ghost-hunter clubs and societies have popped up all over the world. There is no g­overnment regulation of ghost hunters, nor is there an industry group that oversees their activities. These groups are almost all amateurs, and very few of them practice the scientific method. "Many of these groups are earnest and are making an honest effort to contribute to the field," said Liebeck. However, too many of them "are not in the business of conducting actual research or impartially evaluating evidence, but have apparently already decided what the 'truth' is and are just promoting their belief system. Waving a magnetometer in front of a TV set and announcing, 'They're here!' or photographing a bunch of flash-illuminated dust particles and proclaiming that 'The orbs are upset over our negative vibrations,' does not constitute an investigation."

Sometimes, the microscope can help reveal hard edges where a figure has been cut out and placed onto a negative.
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski
The off-center position of this portrait is not typical of most 18th century portrait photos, but it is typical of the faked spirit photographs of the era.
Photo courtesy Ed Grabianowski

Liebeck points out that many ghost hunters are going about it backward. They go into an investigation with an unchanging, dogmatic idea -- that ghosts exist. During the course of an investigation, they will interpret almost anything they find as evidence of an actual ghost. EVP recordings, cold spots or photographic anomalies all become additional ghostly phenomena, but the ghost hunters never seriously consider other, more earthly solutions. They start with the answer they want to reach before they begin investigating.


The scientific method, on the other hand, does not have a pre-ordained solution to paranormal problems. Ghost hunters like Joe Nickell are aiming neither to legitimate nor to debunk every ghost case they find. Instead, a paranormal investigator examines the evidence itself and then tries to find out where that evidence leads. In Joe Nickell's case, it has never led to an actual ghost.

For more information on ghost hunting, ghosts and other paranormal phenomena, check out the links on the next page.