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Don’t Cross The Streams: The Tech Of Modern “Ghost Hunting”

Self-proclaimed “Paranormal Investigators” use industrial tech and hobbyist equipment to hunt for evidence of life after death.

Don’t Cross The Streams: The Tech Of Modern “Ghost Hunting”
[Photo: Andreas Rentsch, Getty Images]

Paranormal investigators, or “ghost hunters” as most of us refer to them, are private investigators who visit homes and businesses subject to perceived hauntings. And, like most other industries these day, they rely on specialized technology to do their jobs.

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Brian Patrick of the Los Angeles Paranormal Association, a group of paranormal enthusiasts that investigate what he calls “perceived paranormal phenomena,” tells Fast Company that he typically brings a specific “toolkit” with him on investigations. According to Patrick, a typical kit includes temperature gauge meters, electromagnetic field meters, a variety of recording devices, infrared or night vision cameras, flashlights, and thermal energy detectors.

Paranormal investigators, for the most part, believe that evidence of ghostly activity can be found through scientific means such as recording audio, unusual temperature fluctuations, or capturing photographs. Their jobs have been made a lot more public in the past decade thanks to the television show Ghost Hunters, which has aired on the Syfy channel since 2004. The program has marked what it means to be a paranormal investigator in the public eye, and has become somewhat iconic in its own right.

These investigations are often videotaped and have found eager audiences on YouTube. One group of ghost hunters, the Virginia-based Richmond Investigators of the Paranormal (RIP), filmed the footage below at Thomas Jefferson’s childhood home, the Tuckahoe Plantation.

Electromagnetic Field Detectors

The core item in most ghost hunters’ toolkits is an electromagnetic field (EMF) detector. These are normally used for home improvement–they’re great at finding problems with wiring behind walls–but paranormal investigators have retrofitted them into gadgets that they claim can detect spirits. They measure fields created by alternating currents, and many ghost hunters believe that ghosts have some sort of electromagnetic residue. What those residues or traces are, exactly, depends on who you ask (or what movies you watch)–but there is a bit of a consensus that those indeed exist.

An electromagnetic field detector generally costs between $50 and $200 on Amazon or through a home-improvement store; the truly thrifty can even find several mobile apps that claim to work as EMF detectors.

Thermal And Full-Spectrum Cameras

It’s an article of faith for many paranormal investigators that, along with EMF detectors, special cameras with full-spectrum sensors or heat-finding capabilities can find possible evidence of spirits. These cameras, which typically run in the hundreds of dollars, detect visible, near-infrared, and near-ultraviolet light.

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There’s also a very practical reason many ghost hunters prefer heat-seeking and full-spectrum cameras: Most ghost hunting is conducted, naturally, in the dark. Full-spectrum cameras use sensors that operate well in the dark, which both increases the chances of gathering evidence and avoids the obvious pitfalls of using an ordinary flash camera in the dark.

However, at least one observer is skeptical. Brian Dunning of the Skeptoid podcast tells Fast Company that “Running around with a thermal camera looks exciting, it looks like a knowledgeable person is exercising some advanced methodology. In fact, all it is is someone who probably misinterpreted some experience he once had, and has made all the wrong choices in trying to explain that experience.”

Photo: Flickr user Steve Snodgrass

Infrared Thermometers

Paranormal investigators also use infrared thermometers to find the “cold spots” that are typically associated with ghosts. The most commonly used tool of the trade is an infrared thermometer gun, which typically costs between $30 and $50.

Ray Rucker of RIP added “We’ve actually been in places where, using both thermometers with laser pointers and ambient air monitoring, we had encounters where you move thermometers two to three feet and the temperature drops.We’re not saying a ghost is there, but it’s weird. You can encounter 15-20 degree drops in a two-foot area and it’s not even at the floor–it’s in the middle of the air. There’s something there, but I don’t know what it is.”

Capitalism being capitalism, a company called Nicety even offers a special thermometer gun for ghost hunting that sells on Amazon for $22.99.

Electronic Voice Recorders

Another item frequently used by paranormal investigators is either a dedicated electronic voice recorder or a smartphone app that replicates its function. These are used to find something called electronic voice phenomena–unexplained artifacts in audio recordings which, when filtered, sound like human voices. Some paranormal investigators believe these are evidence of communications from beyond the grave.

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Skeptics, of course, credit EVPs as being caused by radio interference or leakage from nearby broadcasting sources.

In the end, however, the goal is to find proof of the strange. As Patrick puts it, “The concept of ‘ghosts’ is relative.” Dunning, the skeptic, added that “The most important thing to understand on this subject is that science has never characterized exactly what a ghost is. If they exist at all, they do not have any proven, verifiable properties.”

Nonetheless, there is an undeniable thrill in finding proof of what some believe to be paranormal phenomena…or even stumbling on something, anything, that’s unexplainable. And if that means picking up some specialized photography equipment or industrial thermometers on Amazon, then all the better. Especially this time of year…