How Ghost Busters Work

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 below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
Partner Links
More Great Links


  • Interview 1: Joe Nickell, Dec. 1, 2004.
  • Interview 2: Randy Liebeck, Dec. 2, 2004 (e-mail interview).