January 29, 2004
Investigating a Haunted House – Amherst, New York
Photos and article by Benjamin Radford
Note: Respecting a request for anonymity, names have been changed. Except for the cat.
As a longtime paranormal investigator, I try to apply critical thinking, logic, and the scientific process to evaluating strange claims. I enjoy a (real or fictional) ghost story as much as the next person, but often they do not really help to explain what actually happened. I am less interested in mysteries than explanations; mysteries are a dime a dozen, and it is explanations that are valuable. I am skeptical in my approach to ghosts, but I do not dismiss them out of hand; it is essential to examine the facts carefully and objectively. I hope this piece will be interesting to the lay reader as well as instructive to other investigators. This is a report of a haunting in Buffalo, New York around Halloween, 2003.
|On Tuesday, November 11, 2003, our CSICOP office received a call from a woman who believed her house to be haunted and asked us to investigate. Initially there was little interest in the case, but I returned her call. The family had fled the house two weeks earlier and had not been back since. They were staying with her mother, and were desperate for help and answers. I agreed to look into it, and asked her to write down a clear and detailed account of what exactly they experienced and when.
I then visited the house, a somewhat rundown but respectable two-story pale blue building. The houses were close together, separated by little more than a short concrete driveway leading to a tiny back yard. As I gathered my tape recorder, camera, and notebook, a woman in her late twenties poked her head out the door hesitantly.
I walked up the steps, where she greeted me and introduced
herself as Monica. Her husband Tom, a stocky Hispanic man of
about 40, shook my hand and led me through a dimly-lit living
room. We walked into the kitchen, where I took a seat at a
small dinette table.
The haunted house.
With a pocket tape recorder running, I interviewed them as I scribbled notes. The background facts were thus: Monica and Tom, with their two-year-old daughter, had lived in the house for about three years. The couple sleep in separate bedrooms, both upstairs. Tom suffers from apnea, a sleep disorder, and uses a machine (CPAP) that forces air into his nose while he sleeps. Monica sleeps in an adjacent room with their daughter. Most of the events happened just as Tom was drifting off to sleep or while he was asleep. Tom is almost always the main person affected, and the first to hear the sounds. Sometimes when they were both downstairs, they would hear steps on the house’s creaky staircase, and hear what sounded like furniture being moved upstairs. When they went to look, nothing had been displaced.
The disturbances were sporadic but had recently increased. The wife said, “It got more active when he said to me [on October 27], ‘You know, Monica, I hear this, it is pulling my machine,’ and I said I hear it too, or I feel it too.’ When we admitted it to each other, it got tremendously worse. It started the Monday before Halloween, and then it got really bad.” Tom, raised Roman Catholic, called a local priest to come and bless the house. He did so on October 30 at 8:30 P.M., though Tom felt that the procedure was done just to humor him. The disturbances got worse; later that night they fled the house and were afraid to return. The couple had tried to contact a local radio talk-show psychic but said she was of little help.
It is unclear what the history of the house is; there are no known reports of any previous problems or strange phenomena there. Both were convinced that some sort of spirit was residing in their house. Monica said, “If somebody had came to me and said that there was a ghost in the house, I would have never believed them until I lived though what I lived through here… We just want to move back into our home.”
The family cited about a dozen unexplained phenomena that led them to believe they were being haunted:
1) Tom feels a hard tapping on his feet, near his ankle. This almost always happens at night when he is in bed and going to sleep (or is asleep). “I get a tapping on my feet, not a repetitive tap, a trying-to-wake-you-up tap… After the tapping, if I don’t pay attention to it, then I feel a kick, and I rip my mask off and get up and turn the light on, and come back in the room and see an indentation [on the bed].” Tom interpreted the indentation (round and “as big as a butt”) as being from an unseen presence. This happened three or four times. Since then, Tom says, “I won’t sleep in this room.” Monica claims she felt the tapping once.
2) On at least one occasion, Tom’s bed shook as if from a kick or jostle. “If I don’t pay attention to it [the tapping], it will kick the bed— it will hit the side of the bed. I feel my whole body move.… Then if I go back to sleep, I start to get a sound sleep, that’s when it kicks again.” Tom also once felt his CPAP air tubes pulled to one side, off his face while he slept.
3) The couple sometimes hears footsteps in the vacant hallway and stairs. The stairs are incredibly creaky and the sound is distinctive. At night, Tom will get up to see if it’s his wife, but she is asleep in her room. “After a little while, you’ll hear walking up and down the stairs. So I think it’s my wife, getting up to go to the bathroom or something, and I don’t see any lights on, so I get up to look, and I turn the lights on, and nothing.” Monica, who says she doesn’t get up much at night, described “constant walking, up and down the stairs all through the night, from midnight until six in the morning. Also, we constantly hear the sounds of furniture moving, or what sounds like furniture moving. But when you go up there, nothing is moved.” The upstairs is carpeted, and the sounds muffled. These events are mostly confined to the second floor.
4) At one point someone suggested to Tom that he take photos of the darkened house’s hallways, rooms, and corners. “Somebody told me that if you take pictures in the dark, you should be able to see things,” he said. While most of the photographs were very ordinary, Monica and Tom pointed out three or four that seemed to show strange white orbs, pinpoints of light, and an eerie, inhuman face reflected in a tabletop. Tom showed the photos to a local radio psychic, who, he said, told him that his “house was full of ghosts.”
5) They reported hearing faint voices and odd clicking on their cordless phone.
6) Not recently but during the summer, they sometimes heard faint music, either a piano or heavy metal music (such as Metallica). They say they don’t leave any radios on, none of their neighbors have pianos, and that heavy metal music is “not likely heard” around the neighborhood because of the elderly neighbors. On October 30, the pair put a tape recorder at the top of the stairs to record any ghostly sounds. They waited downstairs and did not hear anything at the time but upon listening to the tape, heard one or more distinct voices (what might be, “Ethan, I’ll tell him”), sounds, and what could be a dog barking. I asked if it could be their dog, but Tom pointed out that theirs is a small breed (Pomeranian) that sounds different. He also dismissed the idea of passersby, saying that people don’t walk their dogs in his neighborhood at night. “What I heard on the [audio] tape scared the shit out of me,” Tom said, and was the conclusive evidence that convinced Monica’s parents that the house was indeed haunted. That night they left the house and would not return.
7) Tom claimed that the family pets were afraid to enter his room and sometimes acted strangely. The behaviors were not extreme (such as barking or panic), but the dog or cat would briefly stare at various empty areas of the room as if looking at an unseen presence. The only place where the behavior was marked was Tom’s bedroom. “The cat won’t come in my bedroom… He will stay right here [at the doorway], look, and walk right back out.”
8) The couple’s young daughter is scared to be in the house and told her parents she saw “monsters.” Tom says that, “my daughter is petrified… you can’t get her to do anything but sit in this chair, and she won’t move… And they say children and animals are more vulnerable to seeing spirits…” Monica agreed: “My daughter wouldn’t get off the couch…she’d say ‘No, Mommy, I’m scared, I see monsters, or I see dogs, or I see frogs.’” Another time, she said, “In the middle of the night she wakes up out of a sound sleep and says ‘Mommy, I see monsters.’”
9) The couple complained of strange “cold spots” in the house (in particular the bedrooms), and claimed that the upstairs would often be cold. “If you go upstairs, it’s cold,” Monica said. “My room is like the master bedroom of the house, and it’s always like there’s no heat up there. We always thought heat rises and the upstairs is always warmer than the downstairs.” When I suggested that poor insulation might be a cause, Tom was skeptical: “No, because this house has—they blew in insulation. And all my upstairs windows are covered in plastic.”
Investigating the House
Tom led me on a tour of their house. My first impression of the house was that, ghost or no, it was a strange and dark place. The house is not in great shape and had been extensively remodeled; some places have peeling paint, baseboards that are not flush, and minor cracks in the walls and ceilings. The upstairs in particular has unusual features, such as half-doorways leading to irregularly shaped storage spaces. The stairway was remarkably squeaky, straight out of a haunted house film. And many of the rooms, especially downstairs, seemed dark even with several lamps on.
We entered Monica’s bedroom, and I asked for quiet so I could get a feeling for the house’s ambient sounds. There was a mild wind outside, and a few normal snaps and creaks could be heard. As I listened, I heard two muffled scraping sounds coming from just below us, or just outside the window. I looked through the window, but it was covered with poorly transparent plastic sheeting: I didn’t see any figures moving. I stepped away from the window, and Tom went to look. “There’s nobody there,” he said soberly. I quickly walked out of the room, down the squeaky stairs, through the living room, down the porch, and into the front yard. Monica and Tom followed behind me. I asked them what side of the house we had just been on. Tom pointed to the left side of the house, and I peered back between the houses.
A maroon truck and a black car were parked in the driveway, with a low picket fence just beyond. I didn’t see anything move, no tree branches against the roof, nothing that might have made the scraping sound. As I watched, suddenly an old woman’s head and shoulders popped into view from behind the car. I then saw a rake in her hand, and heard the scraping again: she was raking leaves. When our ghost noticed me I took a photo and gave a polite wave.
We went back inside and I told them I’d like to try and experience the haunting, and asked when they would be available to be there after dark. They said I could come over later that night. I headed back to my apartment. In the twilight of the unfamiliar neighborhood I missed my turn and went about a block farther than I should have. There were a few people on the sidewalks and streets, including a young man walking a Dalmatian.
I returned later that night; the weather was unusually nasty and windy, definitely appropriate for a haunted house stakeout. (In fact the windstorms that night knocked out power to many areas of Buffalo and the eastern seaboard.)
Monica and her daughter refused to return, but Tom was there to greet me. I told Tom to do all the things he usually does; turn on or off any lights that are usually on or off, close whatever doors are normally closed, etc. While we waited to hear any noises, I asked him more about his job. He’d been at the same factory job for thirteen years, a forklift driver at a nearby Ford plant. He often works from 3 PM until 11 PM, though that changed around June or July. At that time, he had adopted a new work schedule, 7 AM to 3 PM. He had occasionally felt tapping on his feet at night but ignored it. “I let it go for so long, and finally I told my wife. I sat in the kitchen, talking to her in the morning. And that’s when she said, ‘You know, I felt it too, I felt the tapping too.’” Tom claims that he doesn’t have any problem shifting work and sleep schedules but admitted that “It got a lot worse when I got the seven to three shift. … I thought hallucinations, because of me changing my shift… If I knew it was only me seeing these things, feeling these things, I’d say ‘oh, it’s my problem.’”
Tom looked over at me between draws on his cigarette. “Can they follow you?” he asked. I told him that if there was something there, I didn’t think that it would pursue him anywhere else; most likely it would remain confined to the house. If worse comes to worst, his family could just move out. I asked Tom what he thought was going on. “I think there’s something going on, a spirit or something—a pissed-off spirit.”
I asked him to show me and turn on his CPAP machine, and I was surprised at how noisy it was. Though it was not loud, it emitted a continuous hum or whine. Because the machine is kept near the head while the wearer sleeps, at night it would definitely be another factor in his hearing. I suggested we head upstairs to sit quietly and let the sounds come if they’re going to come. “Oh, they will. They usually do,” he said. We watched and waited, but nothing happened: no voices, no empty creaking stairs, no unusual sounds. Tom seemed puzzled by the silence but offered no explanation. Finally, at just past one, I left.
In the following days, I struggled with what to tell the couple. I had not seen any evidence of any paranormal activity so far, but I knew they were genuinely scared. I had an idea for an experiment, but it would have to be done on a calm day, devoid of the howling winds which had recently battered Buffalo.
More Experiments and Investigation
I returned to the house on Saturday, arriving early in the afternoon. Earlier that day I had called the couple and asked that one of the witnesses, Michelle, be available, as well as at least one of the family pets. I arrived in the area half an hour early and drove around the neighborhood to get a better idea of its layout and community. It was mostly residential, with occasional stores and churches dotting the corners.
This time I had an audience; in addition to the family, Monica’s mother was there, as were two of her friends. As I went to get my notebook, I noticed something curious about the walls. After a few seconds I realized why the downstairs interior was often dim and poorly lit: the walls were painted light brown. Even with two lamps on, the place was quite dark because the walls were absorbing much of the ambient light. Monica said that the walls had originally been white, but they showed dirt and imperfections, so Tom had repainted with tan-colored paint he had found in the basement.
While the family sat around the living room, sometimes watching me curiously, I took measurements of the stairs and unpacked my camera gear. It was time for an experiment. I asked everyone to leave the house except for Monica, who sat in the living room. I instructed Tom to put the small tape recorder in exactly the same position he did the evening of October 30. I turned it on and we walked down the stairs and out into the driveway below the windows that faced the staircase. We talked about the weather, and he commented that the conditions were exactly as they had been the night he recorded the audiotape: no wind, very calm. We spoke for about five minutes, then went back up to get the tape. I wanted to see if voices could be recorded from across the staircase, through the plastic-coated windows, and out toward the sidewalk.
LEFT: Tape recorder at the top of the haunted staircase. RIGHT: Exterior of the house, facing the street; the staircase is behind the
windows at the top right hand corner.
I rewound it and played it in front of Tom and Monica. Indeed, our conversation was muffled but clearly audible. Though I hadn’t analyzed the audiotape yet, the sounds and voices they recorded upstairs were almost certainly from beyond the house instead of beyond the grave. The couple agreed that the outside was a likely explanation, but Tom reminded me that I hadn’t explained the tapping he felt on his foot at night. “And she felt it too. I want to see if you can explain that.” I nodded as I scribbled notes. “I’m working on it,” I said. “One thing at a time.”
TOP: "Mysterious" light seen on stairway (actually a camera flash reflected in the mirror at the left).
BOTTOM: Investigator testing pet's reaction to the haunted room.
For my next
experiment I scooped up Scrappy, the pliant orange calico cat,
and took him with me upstairs to Tom’s room. Tom had said
that the animals would refuse to go in the room, or act
strangely if they did. With a camcorder running, I placed the
cat in the middle of the room to see if he would hiss, scamper
out, or react in any unusual way. Instead, the cat sat there
looking at me, and soon came over to be petted. If he sensed
any supernatural spirits, Scrappy didn’t show it as he
purred and enjoyed a scratch behind the ears. Another mystery
I had been there for about two hours by that time, and had
solved several questions but others remained. I wanted to
speak to the neighbor on the side by the stairs to see if she
knew anyone named Ethan. I had gotten the impression from Tom
that the resident next door lived alone, but I noticed that a
table near one of the windows had children’s toys on it,
including a Mr. Potato Head. When I asked Tom and Monica about
it, they said that the woman did have three or four younger
kids visit frequently throughout the year (perhaps nephews and
nieces). They didn’t know their names, and I wondered if
perhaps one of them was named Ethan or something that sounds
like it. I went next door to interview their neighbor, but she
refused to come to the door.
As I packed up, I told Tom and Monica that I would be willing to come back that night for one more ghost stakeout. Since I had been told that the steps and squeaking happen constantly throughout the night, it seemed that surely a second night in the haunted house should provide some evidence. Both said they’d like that, so about seven hours later I returned to the house. I arrived just before eleven, and Tom met me at the door and led me into the living room where their daughter was asleep on a sofa and Monica sat near her. Tom had slept there the night before without incident. This was the first time Monica had been in the house at night in the last two weeks. Both felt comfortable enough downstairs (on the sofa and floor) while I was there, but neither would sleep upstairs. Tom showed me a new light fixture he was installing at the base of the stairs, shining a bright light not only up the stairs but also into the hallway. I told him I thought that was a very good idea, as was contacting a carpenter or contractor to get rid of the stairway’s noisy creaks and squeaks.
TOP: Demonic "face" (bottom left hand corner) in lampshade reflection.
BOTTOM: The haunted staircase.
I sat on the couch, my camera and tape recorder at the ready. We all listened intently to the house sounds: the clock in the kitchen, the songbird clock chime, the fish tank bubbles and chirps. We sat in silence for an hour, until just past midnight. We made small talk and the pair chain-smoked as the minutes ticked by. Tom asked me if I had looked more closely at the photos. I explained that if a person takes enough photographs, eventually he or she will find a few that apparently have odd lights or reflections. “That could make sense,” he admitted. “But I want you to make sense of what those voices are, and the tapping I felt… Everything else you can find an explanation for, but you’re not going to find out about the tapping. You’re not gonna find out the kick in my bed.” Monica pulled a blanket over herself sleepily.
I told them that I wasn’t done yet, but that as far as I was concerned, they should not be worried about staying in the house. Though the incidents had been alarming and scary, no one had been harmed and they apparently did not feel threatened.
I walked to the top of the stairs and sat at the top landing, waiting for something unusual or paranormal to happen. After about fifteen minutes, the only thing I was feeling was chilly. I realized that there was indeed a cold spot near the top of the stairs, and I could feel cold air drifting past my waist. I announced I was coming down (so as not to startle them with the stairway sounds) and asked if they had any incense. Tom got up off the floor and brought me a lit vanilla stick from the kitchen. I took it upstairs and held the incense at the bottom of the doorways. I shined my flashlight on the smoke stream, and it was clear that the cold was not a “cold spot” at all but instead simply a cold draft coming from the poorly-insulated bedrooms. I then asked Tom to join me, and showed him my findings. I stayed at the top of the stairs while Tom lay quietly on his bed.
At one point, I left my chair at the top of the steps to retrieve a camera tripod. When I returned, Tom said he heard tapping right after I left. “A tap [on the wall] like letting you know, ‘Yeah, I’m here.’” I had purposely left my tape recorder on while I was gone, but when I listened to it, I didn’t hear anything strange or unusual. Yet even if it had, this tap could be anything…I’m not sure what would distinguish a “regular” tapping sound from one that seemed to be a message indicating, “Yeah, I’m here.” Tom’s mind was clearly interpreting ordinary taps and sounds in extraordinary ways.
I waited another hour or so, finally leaving after one in the morning. I had been ready and willing to experience and record what they had heard, but for the second time, the ghost activity had failed to show up for me or my recorders. Perhaps the spirits were just shy with a skeptic around, but without any evidence there was little I could do. With mother and daughter asleep in the house for the first time in weeks, I packed up my gear and headed out. I told Tom I’d meet with them the next week, but for the time being I thought everything would be fine. As I left, Tom suggested to me that maybe the spirits had gone, that it was over. I agreed, and suggested that if they did hear anything they should just try to ignore it. If something was there at one point, it certainly didn’t seem to be around anymore.
I called Monica the following Monday to see how the weekend had gone. She said that they had been able to spend the night in the house, though not sleep upstairs. No further activity had occurred, and they felt the haunting might be over.
On Thursday, November 20, I went to the house one last time. I arrived at 6 PM and discussed the results of my investigation point by point. Tom said that the haunting had stopped, but that Monica was still sleeping downstairs. He also said that Monica’s grandfather’s personal effects had been removed from the house, and suggested that may have helped cease the disturbances. (This was the first time he had mentioned such a link, perhaps hinting that the dead grandfather—gone for several years—might have been the spirit.)
1) The tapping on Tom’s feet was most likely his imagination, a medical condition, or both. The fact that it invariably happens when he is going to sleep —or, by Tom’s own account, actually asleep—is significant. This might be considered a hypnagogic hallucination (a sensory illusion that occurs in the transition to sleep), a fairly common phenomenon that can easily lead to misperceptions. Monica did report feeling the same thing once, but that can be explained by suggestion and what psychologists term folie a deux, when one person (often a spouse) takes on the symptoms of another. The person hears about a certain sensation—such as an itch, or ache, or tapping—their partner is experiencing and begins to share the symptoms.
Tom has trouble sleeping due to an acknowledged sleep disorder, and that, combined with a dramatic shift in work schedules, might induce occasional waking dreams or misperceptions. It’s not that the creaks and taps are not occurring, just that they are normal and made all the more significant and noticeable at night when trying to sleep.
2) One thing that particularly disturbed Tom was when his bed shook or was “kicked.” I examined the bed, which was a single-person, metal-framed twin. It is actually fairly lightweight (Tom had carried it into his wife’s room by himself). It is significant that the bed only jerks at night when Tom is in the bed and going to sleep or sleeping.
Several days into my investigation, I discussed the case with a police officer, who said that often when he is drifting off to sleep, his arm or leg will twitch or jerk. In fact his wife told me that just the previous evening, her husband’s leg had twitched as he was going to sleep and had not only shaken the bed but woken her up. It is not unusual for people to do that in bed; I have done it myself. It seems likely that Tom, as he was going to sleep, had simply twitched or jerked, causing the bed he was on to jostle or shake. Tom, at over 250 pounds, is a big man and a leg twitch or spasm could easily shake the lightweight bed. The fact that Tom has sleep apnea is even further evidence for this explanation; restless legs (Restless Leg Syndrome) is actually one of the most common symptoms of apnea. As for the round spot he saw on the bed, it may simply have been his imagination or a normal indentation in the covering.
3) The creaking stairway and footsteps could just be the house settling, normal noises, imagination, or sleep-induced hallucinations. There is no evidence of anything else. I do not doubt that Tom and Monica heard what they claimed (actual footsteps and not just creaks), but I was unable to verify that the stairway creaked even when vacant. I went to the house twice in the hours before and after midnight (when it “constantly” occurs), and nothing happened while I was there.
4) The photographs taken in the house do not show anything unusual or paranormal. There were a few anomalies, such as a few white specks and dots, but they are clearly common artifacts of the photography (such as flash reflections) and processing (such as specks of dirt). It is important to note that the camera was not of good quality, the photographer was amateur, and the developing adequate but unprofessional. Some self-styled ghost hunters try to claim that the “orbs” are images of ghosts, but this is due to photographic inexperience and ignorance. In one case, a demonic face seen in a reflection was clearly a simulacra. People see such faces and images in everything from stains to dirty windows to clouds. (The face looks vaguely like a famous one taken of the smoke pouring from the Twin Towers, allegedly of Satan.)
5) The faint voices and clicking on a cordless phone are simply common, ordinary events. I have a cordless telephone, and occasionally I can hear faint conversations or clicks myself. As with the sounds in the night, if we pay a lot of attention to them and give them significance, they will seem strange. But these are the sorts of events that happen every day outside the context of a haunting. It may also just be that the phone needs to be replaced.
6) Because of the importance placed on the audiotape as evidence of spirits (it was what ultimately drove the family from their house, “scared the shit” out of Tom, and allegedly convinced Monica’s parents of a haunting), I spent considerable effort analyzing and duplicating the tape. I concluded that the tape recording of the faint music, dog barking, and conversation seems likely to have come from outside the house. Tom and Monica said that none of their neighbors owned or played pianos, but I pointed out to them that the music was probably recorded. The couple seemed overconfident in their knowledge of their neighbor’s musical tastes. As for the mysterious dog bark, I suggest it probably was a dog, just as the recorded conversation was probably neighbors or visitors. Tom was sure that it could not have been a person walking a dog, but I observed a dog walker just two blocks away on the first night I was there. It seems likely that the couple is mistaken about the amount of pedestrian traffic around their house.
The tape was subjected to professional analysis to see if there were any unexplainable sounds. Tom Flynn, an audio expert at the Center for Inquiry, examined the recordings and concluded that “there’s nothing of obviously paranormal origin” (such as recognized voices of the dead). The 30-minute audiotape contains mostly silence but some noises; much of it is hard to distinguish over the sounds of the tape recorder itself. Flynn used equalization to make some of the noises clearer, but could not entirely eliminate the sound of the tape recorder's own transport mechanism because that noise was apparent at every frequency range. Among the sounds were five coughs, four bumps, a dozen or so dog barks, what sounds like some faint music and a conversation, and a train whistle. Most of these are clearly ambient noises from both inside and outside the house. Though I listened carefully, I did not hear the phrase “Ethan, I’ll tell him.”
I tried to speak to the woman who lived in the house next door, partly to ask if she had any friends or relatives named Ethan (the name Tom and Monica said they heard on the tape). If she did (if for example, Ethan was a nephew), it would solve the mystery. Unfortunately the woman would not answer the door and was apparently unwilling to speak to me. Even without her information, it seems clear that the conversation was that of passersby. The couple were disturbed by the fact that they didn’t hear the sounds at the time, though that is not surprising given the fact that they were downstairs, through a short hallway, and essentially on the other side of the house.
Aside from that, if it was a ghost or spirit, why would it create such mundane sounds as a barking dog or faint conversation? The most likely explanation is that these are normal sounds that are seen as strange in the context of other odd noises, feelings, and fear. The two videotapes given to me showed no unusual activity, simply a doorway at the top of the stairs.
7) Tom had claimed that the animals were afraid to enter his room, a phenomenon sometimes said to occur in hauntings. When I tested the claim, the cat showed no hesitation or fear at all about entering or remaining in the room. Tom was mistaken about the behavior of his pets, apparently influenced by popular ghost lore. It may also be that the pets were responding to their owners’ apprehension.
8) Despite reports by Tom and Monica, their daughter was not terrified at all, and seemed to behave like a normal, happy two year old. I don’t doubt that the child was scared when her parents were in a panic about the haunting, but her fears seem to reflect those of her parents, and not necessarily her own experiential terrors. The child had been displaced, moved out of her home, and was clearly aware that her parents were terrified of the house. There had been considerable screaming, yelling, and crying in the family in the previous two weeks, and the child was keenly aware of it.
Both parents told me that one of their concerns was her talking of monsters, and that they had not watched any scary films or anything with monsters in them. The fact that the child mentioned “monsters” is almost meaningless (she also mentioned dogs and frogs, neither of which was presumably haunting their home). I explained that a child of her age could mean many things by “monsters,” and that she might be saying the word from something as innocent and the children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, or the films Toy Story or even Monsters, Inc.
I asked the child about the monsters, careful to avoid leading questions. I asked if there were monsters around now (during the daytime), and she said no. I then asked if there were monsters in the house at night. Instead of crying or looking scared, she just she shook her head and said no. This happened with her parents present, and they seemed reassured that their daughter was not seeing spirits or monsters after all. I suspect that the parents had asked their daughter leading questions like, “You saw a monster, didn’t you?” to which the girl probably nodded.
9) The “cold areas” of the house were simply the rooms that had poor insulation. Though one might expect the upstairs to be warmer than below because heat rises, it’s also the upstairs that will lose the most heat for the same reason. When I examined the attic (where neither of them had looked before), I saw that it was poorly insulated. Especially in a house that looks somewhat haphazardly built or remodeled, it would not be surprising at all to find uneven heating and insulation.
10) The activity did not coincide with any family deaths or trauma, but instead with a change in Tom’s work (and therefore sleep) schedule. The strange events were infrequent and minor until Tom told his wife about what he had been experiencing. “When we admitted it to each other, it got tremendously worse,” Monica said. With my background in psychology, this struck me as very strong evidence for a psychological explanation. It seems a near-classic case of each person reinforcing the other’s expectations and interpretations of strange events. The fact that all this occurred right before Halloween might also be significant. Though the family says that they had not seen any scary films recently, it is the season when ghosts, spooks, witches, and spirits are in the public’s consciousness.
People misunderstand and misperceive things all the time; it doesn’t mean that they are stupid or crazy, just that they do not necessarily know what to look for. Much of this case was simply a collection of unrelated and mundane phenomena that, taken together and in the context of a possible haunting, seemed to be evidence for supernatural activity. The couple genuinely was disturbed by the events, and Monica and Tom tried their best to understand and explain them. When that failed, they tried to record the events—but misinterpreted their findings. Normal ambient noise became mysterious ghostly voices; normal photographic glitches and artifacts became unexplained lights and faces. It doesn’t take a genius to solve cases like this, but it does take an open mind, a willingness to investigate, compassion for others, and an experienced skeptical investigator.
I fear what would have happened had the family turned to a ghost enthusiast group. Would they have fanned the family’s fears and suggested that the answer was some restless spirit seeking vengeance? (The local radio psychic told them their house was in fact haunted.) I like to think that they would have been just as skeptical, and done appropriate investigations and experiments and come to the same conclusions I did.
Admittedly, there are a few minor claims I was unable to fully explain. Given that all the other phenomena have been explained, the claims are probably simple misunderstandings, imagination, or misperceptions. Making a strange claim about something is easy to do, and an investigator is under no obligation to explain phenomena for which little or insufficient evidence is offered. I believe I have explained virtually all the mysterious phenomena, and certainly have done so to the satisfaction of the family.
Recommendations for the Family
In addition to explaining the things they had experienced, I felt it was important to give them suggestions on how to prevent future problems. Among them:
1) Install more lighting around the house, and particularly near the stairs
2) Paint the interior walls white instead of tan to increase the brightness
3) Have a carpenter or contractor fix the creaking staircase
4) Ignore any minor sounds in the house
5) Buy a new cordless phone, or place the current one in a different part of the house
6) Hide any fear or unease from their daughter; instead reassure her
7) If the bed continues to be kicked, set up a camcorder and train it on the bed at night; see if it is the result of spirits or simply a leg twitch.
Recommendations for Investigators
1) When framing answers and solutions to haunting phenomena, make sure to take the family’s religious worldviews into account; I would have been less successful as an investigator had I been arrogant, dismissive, and laughed at the idea of ghosts.
2) Do not assume that even basic factual information provided by the witnesses is correct; what may seem like a factual statement may instead be unwarranted assumption. A few examples: Tom confidently told me that no one walks their dogs in his neighborhood at night; a few hours later I saw first-hand evidence to the contrary. Tom told me that he knew his house “like the back of his hand,” yet he had never looked around the attic crawlspace, believed his upstairs was well insulated, and while I was there discovered a four-square-foot crawlspace in the back of Monica’s closet. Tom said his animals were afraid to enter his room, which was not true.
3) Verify information before pursuing leads about that information. I failed to do this when I went to speak to Tom’s neighbor about the mysterious “Ethan” before I had verified for myself that the name was even spoken on the audiotape. As it turned out, the neighbor’s answer would have been nearly irrelevant, since I couldn’t hear the name on the tape in the first place, and even if I had, it could easily have been an anonymous passerby. Until the validity of the “Ethan” name is established, any information about that is useless.
4) It seems obvious, but make sure that for any experiments the conditions are as close to the original event as possible. For example, when I duplicated the ghostly audiotape, I used the original tape recorder in the exact same spot and under the same wind conditions. Had the experiment failed due to some unforeseen problem (such as on a windy day when sounds might be carried away), that part of the mystery might have remained unexplained.
5) Have the witnesses sign a statement acknowledging that you have not been hired, and that the investigation is being conducted on a strictly volunteer basis. Have them describe in detail the claimed phenomena, and testify that their account is truthful. This way you have written documentation in their own words, and you avoid misunderstandings. Also, have them sign a release agreement allowing you to use any and all photos, images, and other material in case the investigation is published. These investigations can take considerable time, effort, and cost; if they are not willing to do that, then don’t waste your time on the case.
6) Be respectful, courteous, sympathetic, and prompt.
Benjamin Radford is managing editor of
Skeptical Inquirer magazine, an investigator, and author of over a hundred articles on various topics
including urban legends, mass hysteria, and mysterious creatures. He is
author of two books, Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical
Thinking; and Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers
Mislead Us; the book's Web site is www.radfordreviews.com/mediamythmakers.html. Radford has appeared on
numerous programs including The Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel.
He has never seen a ghost but is willing to keep looking.
All material is copyright Benjamin Radford. No pictures or text may be reproduced without
his expressed, written permission.