Debunking the Ghost Busters Actually Even Easier Said than Done


Cartoon drawing of Scooby Doo characters
Audrey Jang • The Student Life

As a continuation from my last article about the science of creepiness, I’d like to turn to a discussion about ghost busting. I’m not going to be busting actual ghosts, though that would be pretty cool. Instead, I’m going to bust the techniques people use to prove the existence of ghosts. Everyone seems to have had their own chilling run-in with the supernatural. According to a 2009 Harris study, out of the 2303 American adults surveyed, 42 percent believed in ghosts. That seems incredibly high, given the fact that science hasn’t actually proved the existence of ghosts.

“But wait!” you might exclaim as you wave your EMFs and Vortex Domes in the air. “What about all these? These use science!” Yes, what about the gadgets that “Ghost Hunters,” “Paranormal Witness” and “Ghost Adventures” use to show ‘definitive’ proof of ghosts? On televised ghost hunting, people clad in black creep around old houses using all sorts of wacky-looking tech, their faces dimly lit in the green halo of night-vision filming. While that all looks pretty effective, I’m here to tell you that it’s not. 

One of the most popular gadgets is the Electromagnetic Field Meter (EMF meters). Electromagnetic fields are the medium through which charged objects interact with each other. On a day-to-day basis, EMF meters are used to diagnose issues with power lines or electrical wiring. However, in the hands of a ghost hunter, the EMF meter becomes a staple tool for proving the existence of ghosts. As the ghost hunter wanders around the haunted location with the EMF meter, he or she will start to see unexplained spikes in the readings. These spikes suggest a change in an electrical current, supposedly caused by a ghost’s presence. 

In high school, I received a bit of advice from my biology teacher: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” Dr. Theodore Woodward coined this phrase to remind young doctors to search for commonplace explanations before jumping to exotic conclusions. That saying bears some importance to the interpretations of EMF anomalies. Many things can cause spikes in EMF meters, including faults with the device itself. Ghost hunters often misread the device to find spikes when none existed. And though it is more interesting and exciting—and in the case of televised ghost hunter teams, more lucrative—to think ghostly zebras when they hear hoofbeats, those anomalies are probably just horses.

Another technique frequently used by ghost hunters is flashlight sessions. Ghost hunters will set up a flashlight and ask the ghost questions. In an eerie reveal, the flashlights will seem to flicker on and off in response to the questions. “Are you here?” The flashlight flickers yes. “Are you dangerous?” And as the background music swells and our hearts try to climb into our throats, the flashlight will flicker yes again. 

A German man named Burkhard Reike debunked the phenomenon of the flashlight sessions. He noticed that ghost hunters all used the same kind of flashlights: mini-Maglite, two-cell AA, with incandescent light bulbs. To turn these flashlights on or off, all you have to do is screw or unscrew the top of the flashlight. This affects two tiny bits of metal underneath the top. When the two pieces are touching, the circuit is completed and the light is on. According to the ghost hunters, this allows the spirit to reply simply by putting pressure on the tops, which, I guess, is easier for a spirit to do than flick a switch. 

Burkhard discovered that when the flashlights are on, the bulbs generate heat that causes the reflector (that dome-like mirror surrounding the bulb) to get really hot and expand. When the top of the flashlight is unscrewed just enough so the light goes off, the reflector starts to cool down and shrink again. The shrinking causes it to push one of the tiny metal pieces into contact with the other, connecting the circuit and causing the light to come back on. The pattern repeats, creating the illusion of systematic responses.

And, as a last example, I want to look at the classic ghost-hunting tool—the Ouija board. I had one as a kid and was horrified even thinking about how it could raise spirits from the dead. Ouija boards, for anyone who isn’t familiar with them, are game boards with the alphabet, the numbers 0 to 9, and the words “yes,” “no,” and “goodbye” printed on them. To use an Ouija board, you and your friends sit around the board, resting your fingers on a pointer. As you ask questions, the pointer slides across the board, seeming to spell out the answer. Mediums frequently use it, saying that the spirit is controlling the pointer. The Ouija board relies on the ideomotor effect, which suggests that subconscious thoughts effect muscle movement. The idea is that your thoughts can cause your muscles to move, even when you think you are staying still. No spirit is controlling the pointer, unless you consider your unconscious thoughts spirits. 

Though it is exciting to believe that there’s something out there that we can’t comprehend, the quest for proof is riddled with pseudoscience and human bias. There is nothing, other than anecdotal experience, that suggests ghosts exist. So when your lights begin to flicker and you are overcome by a sudden chill, who you gonna call? Probably not the ghost busters.

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