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Ghostology: The Art of the Ghost Hunter, by Steven T. Parsons

Publication Details: 
White Crow Books. ISBN 978-1-910121-72-6
Publish date: 
November, 2015

Ghostology is a neologism meaning the study of ghosts, a discipline about which Steve Parsons is well qualified to speak.  A member of both Para.Science and the Society for Psychical Research’s Spontaneous Cases Committee, he has a great deal of practical experience in conducting investigations and has lectured and broadcast extensively.  He editedParacoustics: Sound and the Paranormal with Callum E Cooper, also available from White Crow Books.  Crucially – and this sets him apart from many of those who populate local paranormal groups and Most Haunted-style television programmes – he has a deep familiarity with technology  and a realistic grasp of how it is used, and too often misused, in the attempt to find and record ghostly activity.  It is this combination of theoretical and practical knowledge which makesGhostology such a valuable book.

Chapters cover the history of ghost research, the basics of critical thinking, the scientific method and the nature of evidence, conducting an investigation, and the principles of measurement.  The heart of the book is a detailed analysis of the arsenal of equipment which tends to be brought in to monitor environmental factors.  Chapters examine sound recording, video and still photography and the increasing presence of smartphones and tablet computers.  A chapter is devoted to Parsons’ work on photographic orbs in which a stereographic camera elegantly demonstrated that orbs are composed of dust and other particles close to the camera reflecting light back to the camera’s sensor, and thus explainable in terms that do not require the inclusion of conscious spirits which happen to look and behave like dust particles.

Judging by ghost groups’ websites and paranormal television programmes there is an enormous amount of pseudoscience involved in the way technology is utilised, such as assumptions about the way that ghosts might interact with their environment (for example manipulating magnetic fields) which have no empirical support.  Parsons looks at what precisely items of apparatus are designed to do, what generally happens in practice, and assesses researchers’ claims, finding them to be frequently invalid.  Unsurprisingly, the assertions of vendors catering to this market are often inflated, along with their prices.  The discussion is a significant contribution to a sober assessment of the extent to which inferences based on these gadgets can be trusted.  The key point is that anything used needs to be employed with a full understanding of what its capabilities are, and declarations should not be made which go beyond what it is able to measure.  As in all spheres of life, hype should be treated with caution.  Interpretation has to be grounded in reality, yet much of what groups affirm about the nature of ghosts, and their ability to detect those ghosts, is simply wishful thinking.

I have one or two criticisms, but these are minor and do not detract from the value of the book.   One is a bugbear of mine: the reference to the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall photograph which repeats the error that the photographers were on a commission from Country Life and goes on to say it has ‘never been fully explained despite several attempts to cast doubt upon its authenticity.  Unsuccessful ‘attempts to cast doubt’ sounds as it has held firm against all efforts to debunk it.  Short of a signed confession by Provand and Shira turning up, it is true the photograph is unlikely to be definitively explained, but the circumstantial evidence against it is strong enough to make it an unconvincing example of a ghost photograph.  The chapter on orbs is excellent, but leaving aside the obvious frauds such as those tedious smartphone apps, which are covered, more on the photographic anomalies which make up so much of the material that members of the public present in good faith as evidence of ghosts would have been valuable.

A couple of references to the SPR need to be clarified.  Parsons states that the first intensive investigation of haunted premises conducted by the SPR was at Ballechin House in 1897.  The first was actually at Brighton, lasting over a year from August 1888, when George Albert Smith and his wife Laura occupied a house on the Society’s behalf.  It may have been in connection with this case that Edmund Gurney was in Brighton when he died on the night of 22/23 June 1888.  Also, referring to the 1956 report on Harry Price and Borley by Eric Dingwall, Molly Goldney and Trevor Hall published as part of the SPR’s Proceedings (and as a book by Gerald Duckworth & Co.), Parsons writes that the SPR had offered a ‘posthumous apology’ to Price in recent years.  He does not say what form he thinks this apology took, but the SPR does not hold corporate views so as an entity it cannot offer apologies – only individuals can do that.

It is a pity that Ghostology’s title refers to ghost hunters because it is a phrase with unfortunate connotations.  Many spiritualistically-inclined people find it offensive that the departed should be ‘hunted’, whatever the hunters’ motivations, and feel that it denotes a lack of respect and empathy (‘hunter’ presupposes ‘prey’); while in terms of science, it conveys a macho approach to ghosts which is not necessarily conducive to a dispassionate examination.  The text would have benefited from a final editorial sweep, and it should have had an index, but these are minor points.

Parsons claims his book is not a guide to hunting ghosts, but it should be essential reading for anyone who wants to study them in the field.  Its strength is in analysing the instrumentation, but Ghostology could be expanded into the definitive guide, from choosing kit to the best way to conduct an investigation.  There are numerous ghost hunting guidebooks on the market, but none with this degree of sophistication in approaching the technical aspects of the task, delivered in a clear and concise manner.  To sum up, strictly speaking it may not be a ‘how to guide’, as the back cover blurb too modestly indicates, but it is full of sound information and good advice for all those who consider themselves spontaneous case researchers or, dare I say it, ghost hunters.