Ghost Hunting: A Survivor's Guide, by John Fraser
John Fraser became interested in the paranormal as a teenager and has been actively investigating the subject for well over twenty years. He has distilled this experience into a chatty and non-technical guide that will be useful reading for all those new to the subject and keen to try hands-on research. He has strong credentials for such a book: he is a Council member of the SPR and is on its Spontaneous Cases Committee. He has also been heavily involved with the Ghost Club (both during Peter Underwood‘s time and since the split which saw Underwood go off to form the splinter Ghost Club Society). Naturally both organisations feature strongly, forming two of the “Big Three” as Fraser terms them, the third being the relative newcomer ASSAP, the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena.
Fraser analyses the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major organisations for the person whose primary interest is in the practical side of the paranormal, and also delves into the state of university laboratory-based parapsychology. This recognition of the university scene (albeit only in the UK) is very welcome in this type of book, and Fraser indicates ways in which the two strands of research might collaborate to the advantage of the subject generally. A brief history of ghost hunting starts with Athenodorus, but mostly focuses on the way the methodology has evolved since Harry Price’s day. Local groups of varying levels of ability have proliferated in recent years, facilitated by television programmes and the internet, hence the need for books such as this to provide guidance.
An all-too brief chapter outlining the various theories of what ghosts are is followed by the heart of the book, the nuts and bolts of mounting an investigation. The first of these chapters is about equipment, and Fraser is very clear that there can be an inverse ratio between quantity of kit and the quality of the results obtained with it. In particular the EMF meter, considered de rigueur by many groups, is critically discussed, and Fraser considers that this gadget, along with some other components of the average paranormal investigator’s toolbox, is there more for show and to add a spurious air of professionalism than for any meaningful results. As he points out, too much technology to monitor can induce fatigue and be counter-productive, even obstructing engagement with the premises altogether if one is stuck in the hub, and the list of low-tech equipment he adds shows that perfectly good vigils can be run with fairly modest assistance.
A more contentious chapter discusses the utilisation of what Fraser calls “non-scientific equipment”, by which he means such disputed information-gathering devices as the Ouija board, planchette, the use of table turning, and also mediums. While he stresses that all of these should be used with care, and expectations for success may not be high, Fraser is relaxed about their use, both in case something useful comes out of it – because given our state of knowledge we need to be flexible about what might work – and on the pragmatic grounds that in the watches of the night, when energy levels are low, a change of pace can help to restore concentration. Dowsing, undergoing something of a fad at present, he dismisses with the quip that he would rather use a wire coat hanger to hang his coat on than as a dowsing tool.
Fraser then gets on to the different kinds of investigation and their mechanics. He does not see ghost tourism as a problem for the field, but does warn of the difficulties that can be encountered by investigators in a family home. His main interest is the set-piece vigil (a term he does not use) in larger premises with a well-defined team. This is now the most common form of investigation and Fraser goes into some detail advising how it can be run for maximum effect. However, some idea of the types of records to be kept during the various stages of an investigation (and something on interviewing techniques) would have strengthened the discussion.
In what is perhaps a surprising running order, a chapter emphasising the necessity for thorough research follows, and Fraser gives some excellent examples of how long-standing stories can be exploded by basic research, indicating how lazy many writers are in regurgitating old stories without scrutiny. An example Fraser gives is that of Ightham Mote, where Dorothy Selby was supposed to have been walled up as punishment for betraying the1605 Gunpowder Plot. Numerous authors have repeated this tale, yet Fraser found her monument in the local church bearing the date of death as 1641, the cause being an infected needle (this example from the book was used by Alan Murdie as the subject of his ‘Ghostwatch’ column in Fortean Times in June 2010).
A significant but often-overlooked question to which Fraser devotes a chapter is whether ghost hunting should be fun, or whether it is too serious for that. He distinguishes between ‘cavaliers’ and ‘roundheads’ approaches and see merit in both. This is not to say that an investigation is a frivolous business, but rather it should be done with humour and style, while still maintaining a rigorous approach. Participants need some motivation for giving up their time, he feels, and having an interesting experience need not preclude obtaining scientifically valid results, as long as the limitations of any particular method are recognised and taken into account. A section discusses publicising results through the media, and the chapter concludes with a few possible locations where investigations might be fruitfully undertaken.
The conclusions mull over what the point of investigations is, whether they are worth doing when evidence is likely to be either unforthcoming, or at best ambiguous. Fraser draws out the emotional aspects of research, which is more than the sum of temperature readings and electromagnetic fields. His upbeat verdict is that the effort is still worth making because it keeps the topic under discussion, and even if it provides no firm answers that would satisfy the most ardent critic, it can still help the investigator to assess the likelihood or otherwise of survival on a personal level.
This is an entertaining and informative book, but there are several points at which I take issue with the author. In his discussion of handling “cry-for-help” situations, Fraser suggests that in certain cases discussing, though not recommending, an exorcism might be beneficial. I would NOT favour discussing an exorcism with members of a household, though raising the possibility of a blessing by a clergyperson can itself have a soothing effect on a tense situation, even if it is not actually performed.
The discussion of the Scole phenomena gives the impression that this was an SPR investigation mounted by Montague Keen, David Fontana and Arthur Ellison. The three were in fact acting in a private capacity and not as representatives of the SPR, and as Robin Foy’s Witnessing the Impossible shows, séances at Scole were attended by a large number of people, including other members of the SPR. Not all who examined the evidence were as convinced as those three, as the Scole Report itself shows (Fraser highlights Tony Cornell’s critical examination of the supposedly apported 1 April 1944 issue of the Daily Mail). Fraser acknowledges the unsatisfactory nature of the controls employed at Scole, but feels that, as long as limitations are borne in mind, it still has value as evidence. Yet Scole is a classic instance where the poor controls have dogged it ever since, miring it in controversy and preventing any kind of satisfactory verdict. I agree with Fraser that this case, like so many others, has to be assigned to the, as he puts it, “interesting but inconclusive” category, which still allows for a wide latitude of opinions on the probability of whether or not phenomena were genuine.
One unfortunate error is the statement that while the bulk of the SPR’s library is based at Cambridge, items can be called back to the London office by members on demand. This is not so; the archives and rare books were sent to Cambridge University Library on loan, but they cannot be removed from CUL, though SPR members have free access to the SPR holdings at Cambridge on production of a letter from the Society’s Secretary.
The book was generally up to date regarding the British paranormal scene when written, but this will make those sections of the book date quickly. For example, Deborah Delanoy (not Delaney, as she is called twice) is no longer the SPR president. Paul Stevens has not been on the SPR’s Council for some years (though at the time of this writing his Bournemouth University profile says that he is). I was pleased to see an index, which this type of book often lacks, but on the debit side History Press has displayed an insouciant disregard for copy-editing which would have tidied up the text considerably.
Fraser’s book sits comfortably among the increasing number of such guides which differ greatly in orientation to the subject and degree of detail supplied. The more useful ones that I know of include Mark Rosney et al’s A Beginner’s Guide to Paranormal Investigation (probably the best), Joshua P Warren’s How to Hunt Ghosts: A Practical Guide, Richard Southall’s How to be a Ghost Hunter, Michelle Belanger’s The Ghost Hunter's Survival Guide: Protection Techniques for Encounters With the Paranormal (somewhat New Age in style), and Beth Brown’sConducting a Paranormal Investigation: A Training Guide. For the more advanced is David Rountree’s Paranormal Technology: Understanding the Science of Ghost Hunting, subject of a forthcoming review in JSPR by C J Romer. One might also add Robert Baker and Joe Nickell’sMissing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, & Other Mysteries. Fraser has supplied an enjoyable page-turner, and one which carefully evaluates what is of use to the researcher, bearing in mind the current state of our knowledge. The results will help novices to get more out of their investigations, both to their benefit and that of the subject.
Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide was also reviewed by Gordon Rutter in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 75, Issue 1, January 2011.