An Introduction to Ghosthunting

Michael O. Varhola

Several years ago, in my role as a semi-professional adventurer, I was getting ready to climb the highest mountain in the “Lower 48” United States and went to an REI store in Northern Virginia to buy some of the gear I would need. When I got there, the doughy sack of turds who waited on me immediately began throwing around all sorts of technical terms I couldn’t understand. When he saw that I didn’t know what he was talking about, he apparently decided I wasn’t worth dealing with as a customer and assumed a very unhelpful demeanor. Mind you, this clown had probably never climbed anything higher than a stepstool to get a bag of chips off the top of the fridge, but because I couldn’t understand his mountain fairy dialect, he assumed a moral high ground and treated me like I was the poser. 

This episode went a long way toward helping me to understand some of the attitudes I ended up dealing with when in late 2007 I began writing travel guides to haunted places for the America’s Haunted Road Trip series, first Ghosthunting Virginia and then Ghosthunting Maryland and Ghosthunting San Antonio, Austin, and Texas Hill Country. This allowed me to pursue professionally something I had already been doing to one extent or another for about three decades. 

What I found when I undertook ghosthunting as public rather than a private activity was that far more people than I ever imagined had become involved in the pursuit, inspired for the most part by the wave of television shows dedicated to it. What was even more surprising to me, however, was the uniformity of their attitudes, motivations, methodologies, and vocabularies — which, generally, slavishly followed those of the “professional” ghosthunters they were watching on television shows. “Back in the day,” what is now called ghosthunting had been undertaken only by a tiny minority who had to figure out just about everything on their own, relying on things like the limited number of relevant texts that were available and comparing notes with fellow investigators. Today, the number of people involved in ghosthunting is phenomenally larger, but most of them are simply uncritically mimicking the actions they have seen others perform and do not feel the need to actually think for themselves.

So to say that I have mixed feelings about the current state of “ghosthunting” in particular and paranormal investigation in general would certainly be an understatement, and I think a great deal that is both positive and negative can be found in them today.

Pros of the phenomena include that it has allowed people to feel more comfortable discussing their own paranormal experiences than they might have in previous years; that the pursuit has been democratized and vitalized by the inclusion of so many people; and that more tools and practical information now exist and are more readily available than ever before. 

Cons include that the relatively new phenomena of ghosthunting has become overly standardized; that it has in many people’s minds been dissociated from the broader field of the supernatural, which has certain dangers associated with it; and that too many people pursue ghosthunting as if it were comparable to a mundane activity like paintball, geocaching, or golf. 

Television shows and other media devoted to ghosthunting and paranormal investigation have, of course, contributed to both the upsides and downsides of the pursuit. 

It may well be that you have considered attempting ghosthunting or some other sort of paranormal investigation. If so, here are a few pieces of advice based on my own experience that might make such an endeavor more productive and enjoyable for you: 

* Don’t fixate on equipment (which I once inadvertently offended one ghosthunting chick by referring to as “toys”). One reason the Germans and other technologically-oriented nations almost always lose at war is that they are fixated on paraphernalia and other bullshit and do not understand that flesh always trumps steel. If you want to use equipment, that’s fine, but remember two things: that equipment alone will not make you a paranormal investigator and that lack it of will not keep you from being one. Speaking personally, I generally use a flashlight, a digital camera, and a digital recorder in the course of my investigations, and depending on your needs you could certainly use less or more (e.g., EMF meters, thermometers). In any event, your mind is your most important tool and the only one for which there is no electronic or mechanical substitute. 

* Don’t make “proving” anything your biggest priority. Skeptics and even other investigators will sometimes challenge others’ experiences by claiming that they don’t prove anything. Well, they don’t need to. Your ghosthunting and paranormal investigations should be about personal growth and improvement. If it is all about proving things to other people then it probably isn’t going to work anyway. What you experience should be meaningful primarily to yourself; secondarily to your friends and loved ones, who presumably trust you to at least some extent; and least of all — or not at all — to the world at large. 

* Don’t be a dick. It is amazing the lack of respect many paranormal investigators show everyone around them, to include both property owners and the spirits of the dead. Approach this pursuit with the good manners that it warrants and avoid “ghost-baiting,” wrecking other peoples’ stuff, or making light of the people — living or dead — who you may be interacting with. I can’t promise that anything bad will happen to you if you don’t follow this last bit of advice, but I certainly hope it does. 

That’s it for now! Hopefully, this will all help you find your own way into, through, and back out of the unseen world.