Spooky Side of Research

October 29, 2010

Graveyards. Abandoned iron mines. The site of a campus murder.

Lately, these are the haunts for two Franklin & Marshall College researchers exploring the strange world of paranormal investigators.

Misty Bastian, an anthropology professor, and Jessica Garber, her student assistant, began their work this summer by interviewing a host of area ghost hunters and psychics. What they’ve found is a subculture primarily of white, working-class men who are asking that eternally spooky question: Are the undead, or other paranormal phenomena, lurking in our midst?

While it might be easy to write off ghost hunters and psychics as delusional at best or charlatans at worst, Bastian sees a community worthy of further study. Indeed, the themes she’s watched playing out on the popular television show “Ghost Hunters” aren’t too far afield from those that have engaged anthropologists for a long time.

“These are classical questions in anthropology,” she says. “I’m talking about work; I’m talking about religion; I’m talking about the concept of power.”

Photo: Franklin & Marshall College

Misty Bastian, a professor of anthropology at Franklin & Marshall College, and Jessica Garber, her student research assistant, conduct an Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) session in the Harold T. Miller Lecture and Recital Hall on campus. Bastian and Garber are studying the paranormal research community.

In service to those questions, Bastian and Garber have spent hours talking and working with individuals and teams seeking out spirits. While the paranormal research community is somewhat disparate – its members have divergent beliefs about what, if anything, is out there – they often share common language, equipment and techniques. Bastian and Garber hope to learn more about what draws people to this kind of work, where they come from and what they hope to find.

In many instances, ghost hunters are seeking legitimacy, the researchers have observed. That's evidenced in part by the fact that they prefer to be called "paranormal researchers," hoping to create some distance between themselves and the sometimes-sensationalized television show. They are techies of a sort, often refashioning everyday cameras into infrared devices. Recording equipment of all kinds is also used to pick up on “Electronic Voice Phenomena” or EVP, which some believe to be the sounds of ghosts only discernible upon replaying.

“The theory is that ghosts are made up of energy, and through that energy they can imprint on electronic devices,” Garber says. “I’m not really sure on the specifics of how they can do that.”

The paranormal researchers aren’t so sure on those specifics, either.

“I think a misconception about the paranormal research community is that they are all sold on the fact that there are ghosts, that it’s almost like a fundamentalist cult – and it isn’t,” Bastian says. “There are some very skeptical people.”

Another misconception is that searching for specters is a nonstop thrill ride. Contrary to their television and movie portrayals, paranormal researchers spend a lot of time staying quiet and standing still.

“You always get that sense of ghost hunters are running around scared, and everything is loud and jumpy. And an actual investigation is very different from that,” Garber says.

Garber joined Bastian in her research through a program called the Hackman Scholars, which provides funding to pair up Franklin & Marshall students and faculty for projects. Bastian sees the possibility of a book coming out of this research, and she will be delivering a paper on the subject at the University of Chicago in February.

Among the early themes Bastian has uncovered is the tension between paranormal researchers and the burgeoning ghost tourism industry. Paranormal researchers, who typically don’t take money for their services, often express concerns about disturbing spirits; such trepidation doesn’t seem to exist, however, for the companies now hawking ghost tours across the country, Bastian says.

Photo: Franklin & Marshall College

Jessica Garber, a student at Franklin & Marshall College, listens to Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) at the International Museum of Spiritual Investigations in Gettysburg, Penn.

“They don’t really care whether there are ghosts or whether they are being ethical towards the ghosts. They are there to make some money,” she says. “For some of these investigators, that’s a problem.”

The province of ghosts and ghouls isn’t completely new territory for Bastian. She’s conducted previous research on spiritual forces in western Africa, making her something more of an expert on witchcraft than, say, Delaware Senate hopeful Christine O’Donnell.

“For some, I’m called the Stephen King of Africanist anthropology,” she says.

So how does Bastian feel about the possibility of ghosts? Like her student counterpart, Bastian projects a sort of agnosticism on the matter. But as she studies those who believe – or want to believe, to quote a phrase – Bastian says it’s important not to close herself off to the possibility that there’s something out there.

“To truly participate, you have to say I might have an experience,” she says.

And on one occasion, Bastian says, she did. She ventured into an old iron mine in York County, Penn. with a group of paranormal researchers. Geared up with infrared cameras and other tools of the trade, the researchers and a psychic medium turned their attention toward Bastian, who says she felt tingles all over her body. Soon, she reported feeling two cold balls of air whirling around her hands, and readings showed the air temperature was two degrees cooler around Bastian’s hands than elsewhere in the cavernous depths.

“I thought, I could pretend this isn’t happening, but as an anthropologist if I’m going to understand anything about the world in which I’m working I have to report this and I have to go with it,” she says.

The psychic had a theory: A small child had been holding Bastian’s hand. The professor isn’t so sure.

“It’s not like I don’t still have skepticism,” she says. “I’m not a total convert, but that was interesting.”

Interesting or not, Bastian knows this kind of work isn’t likely to garner funding from major granting agencies likes the National Science Foundation. She’s also had to fend off some barbs from her more scientific-minded colleagues, but Bastian is decidedly unfazed.

“I’ve had a little pushback of, 'Shouldn’t you be studying something serious?,' ” she says. “My response is, ‘Hey baby, check it out, I got tenure.' ”

To see a video of Misty Bastian and Jessica Garber discussing their work, and doing some of their own ghost hunting in a campus building with a macabre history, click here.

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