Leaps of Faith: Ghost Hunting and Objectivity, by John M. Black
Reviewed by Ashley Knibb
John Black’s Leaps of Faith is aimed at those who wish to actively seek out proof of hauntings. He suggests that it may also have you questioning some of your ‘basic beliefs’ too. In addition, Black remarks on the need to evaluate what we believe or indeed disbelieve objectively, and he asks us to do so throughout the book.
He takes us through the process of a modern ghost hunt in the first part of the book, outlining the approaches utilised these days, but also providing some interesting commentary on what he believes works well and that which it less science and more ‘spirituality.’ As ghost hunting is now constantly growing in popularity as a hobby and past-time activity; in many cases objective investigation is being replaced by experience seeking reactive methods that align more with urban exploring (cf. legend tripping) than they do with scientific method. Add into that a bag full of modern equipment, both liberated from other walks of science and purpose-built gadgets for ghost hunting; and objectivity becomes as difficult to find as the ghosts being hunted.
However, Black attempts to approach this subject head on, asking you to ‘challenge your beliefs’ and ‘re-examine the evidence’ that lays behind modern ghost hunting.
I was not able to find a great deal on the author, John M. Black, apart from the brief section on the back of the book and a similar on his team’s website (wtfinvestigations.com). This pretty much outlines that Black was born in London, but now lives in Iowa with his wife and two dogs. Black’s day job is that of an Information Technology Consultant.
Regarding the paranormal, Black is said to be an enthusiastic and passionate investigator. His team’s website identifies him as being a ‘natural sceptic,’ but acknowledge that some of the events during their investigations have now left him relatively open minded to various aspects of the paranormal. Like many, Black is looking for answers to those events that seem to be fundamentally lacking when it comes to normal explanations.
As you can imagine, whilst reading a book such as Leaps of Faith, page by page you begin to build a picture of the author in your head. This was something that I felt was particularly interesting in this book, as the character you would expect; given that the book highlights objectivity, is not always as you would expect. Whilst I do not disbelieve that Black is very much attempting to approach his investigations objectively, there are certainly times within the book that identify more so with a leap of faith. An example that presents itself on a regular basis, being that of Black’s fascination with the Spirit Box during investigations. The Spirit Box is a device many modern Ghost Hunters utilise. It scans up and down through the radio waves and randomly provides snippets of audio from various channels. Modern Ghost Hunters will often interpret those audio snippets (allegedly manipulated by spirits) as answers to their questions.
Whilst I can comprehend the authors ability to be open minded regarding the Spirit Box, this is a highly subjective approach. Often the responses that are believed to be heard through this device are associated to the questions asked in order to make sense of random information. Acquiring meaning from noise. However, the author does attempt to offer some different approaches to working with the Spirit Box, so perhaps Black is not entirely sold on it.
Black has divided the book into two main parts: The Method and Case Studies. I believe this is an attempt to firstly explain the various approaches utilised by modern Ghost Hunters at public locations and the theories that they base those approaches on. After all it is these approaches or methods that help to define how Ghost Hunters may collect their information during an investigation. Black explains that by looking at those methods, we can begin to understand what we wish to achieve and how we might accomplish those goals.
The Method section takes the reader on a brief journey; with Black sharing why we may investigate, a brief look at what ghosts are, touching on psychical research history, equipment, how to investigate, evidence, conclusions and closing with leaps of faith. In fact, Black covers a lot of ground quickly and somewhat briefly in my opinion. However, it could be argued that perhaps he has tailored his content for a specific audience.
The second part of the book looks at several cases that he has investigated as a part of the WTF Investigations team. It briefly outlines the methods used and any conclusions that they may have reached from their limited information. One thing I did like here, was the inclusion of the revisits they had made. These revisits provide for an extra dimension often missed, as they show how opinions could change on the second visit. The second visit importantly highlighted that Black and the team would use it to focus their investigation based on information from the first visit. An approach often missed by modern Ghost Hunters, as their investigations are more like a search for an experience.
Sections and Chapters
Black opens in Chapter One with the aim to discuss; ‘The Big Question,’ but in this case that question is simply, ‘Are Ghosts Real?’ I must admit I was somewhat disappointed by this, as I felt it to be a weak question to be asked in a book that was to discuss objectivity. However, Black does expand on this throughout the first chapter providing a little more support for his approach on this. Still it would have been more interesting to see a question more fitting of the books title, rather than one which is flawed in respect that it asks something that requires an answer that is bound by faith alone, in my opinion. Of course, one could argue simply that Black is attempting to determine whether ghosts are figments of our imagination or something that could one day find scientific fact to support its existence.
Chapter one also establishes what Black calls the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps, which may be better understood as believers and non-believers in ghosts and spirits. To many of us that have been out there involved with the Ghost Hunters, visiting many locations in search of ghosts, we have encountered both camps on a regular basis. Often it used to be the case that one team would seem to be made up only of individuals from either the ‘Yes’ or the ‘No’ camps. As this would very much determine their approach to the investigation, which could be determined as either a ‘debunking’ or a spiritual approach. Debunking referring to the technique used by the cast of the popular TV show Ghost Hunters, who would first seek out apparent logical explanations prior to determining things as paranormal. This approach was repeated by many teams during its popular years. The more spiritual approach involving mediums, spirit boards, pendulums, etc. was a less effective approach to gather good evidence. However, that said over the years this has changed and many teams now use both methods.
Personally, I have always been a little against these established camps, as they seem to pre-define our belief in the paranormal before we have even started investigating. Telling us that we either believe or we do not believe, is completely against what investigation is at its core. We should have investigation techniques and processes, that I agree with, but we should not be established in these camps if we are to be truly objective. In fairness to Black, I believe that is what he is trying to establish here; explaining that we must approach with an open mind and allow the data we gather to lead our investigations.
In Chapter Two, Black moves on to talk about the physiology of ghosts, using concepts of physics and even quantum physics. However, Black also drops into the age-old types of ghosts too, checking the Ghost Hunter boxes in my opinion. Many ghost hunters utilise them to define the hauntings, but, in practice, many of these types - Residual, Poltergeist, Intelligent type hauntings overlap.
Black appears to look for the possibility that ghosts are a manifesting form within a location and does not explore the possibility that they could be hallucinations, either of imagination or comprehended information received telepathically, either locally or non-locally. Which in my opinion suggests that Black regards a ghost as likely to be a consciousness free of the physical body post-mortem. The classical assumption. If our aim is objectivity, should we not be aiming for a more balanced representation?
As we reach the fourth chapter, Black briefly discusses the history of psychical research. The coverage here felt a little rushed and vague in my opinion, skipping over some important periods in the history. That said, the author’s passion for the subject is evident and for those new to the subject, this provides a good starting. Black even makes some valid points regarding how many investigators that present themselves as being objective can be far from it and approach their investigations from more of a belief system point of view.
Equipment is the next area for Black to discuss in chapter five, and this certainly seems to be a subject that he is also passionate about, and some good points are presented. Black notes how some items in many investigations become more like props, with their alarms and flashing lights. Whilst many of these gadgets can be fun to use during the odd ghost hunt, providing some interesting reactions in certain circumstances; they are often not really used objectively. Once we understand more detail regarding how they work, their validity begins to break down.
Moving on to looking at experiments, Black advises on a few that he has attempted and on how to create your own. Personally, for a book such as this and as someone who enjoys conducting experiments during investigations; I would have liked a little more content in this chapter. I felt that Black’s explanations were more like brief outlines of the ideas, rather than detailed explanations of the actual experiments. That said, there are some good ideas here that are worth further exploration and development too. Perhaps with more detail, Black could have engaged the reader more so to try them for themselves and share their results with him.
Chapter seven discusses investigating and provides a decent overview of ghost hunting approaches utilised today by many groups the world over. There are also some good tips amongst the text that those relatively new to ghost hunting may find useful. I found it interesting that although Black appears to present some bias against using ‘psychic mediums’ during investigations, he still suggests how they contribute to investigations. Black also provides many uses of the term ‘objective,’ but I am not entirely convinced all are correctly placed. For example, the chapter suggests that he takes baseline readings as a single walk through at the beginning of their investigation. Claiming that this provides a reference point post investigation, which is completely correct. A singular reading taken once at the beginning of the investigation will provide such a reference point, but it fails to provide comparative data to help establish when something can be considered an anomalistic reading. A true baseline reading should be taken at regular intervals at the same points throughout the investigation and possibly beyond if possible. Using data loggers which could be placed throughout the location would help with this. Still the chapter does present many of the methods of investigating utilised by many ghost hunting teams out there today.
Moving on Black discusses ‘The Evidence,’ which in recent years for me has become much more of a talking point that often leaves me rolling my eyes. Given the subject of the chapter and the book’s focus, I was hoping for a little more on the evidence if I am honest. I was also anticipating that we should gain more insight into the objective and subjective nature of the evidence that was to be discussed. However, it felt as if there were mixed messages here, especially around EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) and Spirit boxes. The conditions investigated in are far from ideal for legitimate EVP research, but Black outlines subjective situations, where all classes of EVP remain subjective. Whilst he does present an interesting anecdote regarding his own experiences with the Spirit box, it remains one that is very subjective. We also have the SLS Camera device thrown into the mix, which is in my opinion is a highly subjective device and provides more of a reactive environmental experience for the ghost hunter. That is, it generates anomalies that have logical explanation, but within the context of a ghost hunt they are regarded as evidence of paranormal activity. Given the focus of this book, this was a particularly disappointing chapter for me. It should have been much more and unfortunately leaned more towards the kind of ghost hunting presented by popular TV shows rather than that of serious investigators. I am sure the author did not intend this.
Formulating conclusions from ghost hunting can be tricky, but many ghost hunters do. I myself have been guilty of this too in the past. However, Black does approach this reasonably sensibly. He makes a more favourable suggestion to base conclusions on corroborating data rather than a singular piece or even an individual’s experience. Showing that he believes in a reasonable analysis of all the events of an investigation. He also suggests that a team should return to a location to build on what was previously learnt, using past data and experiences to focus future investigations. Something, which is often missed by many ghost hunting teams out there as each time they return to a location they simply repeat what they did during the previous visit. Black suggests more in-line with a solid method, where they would say focus their attention on one room, if that was the only place that they experienced paranormal activity in the previous investigation. Presenting this methodology in a kind of flow chart, Black attempts to help visualise this approach. However, I think the chart itself requires a little work as it poorly communicates the point, he is trying to make, which is a real shame on this occasion. At its most basic form the method that Black is trying to communicate in my opinion; is little different from a variation of the scientific method. Black also mentions trimming the kit down to fit the investigation too, so that on your second visit you're really only focusing on kit that potentially will help you gather data related to the experiences and data captured previously. Something that I actually thought was a great idea, as often you will see ghost hunters sporting many different variations of kit, but in reality they are hoping they will be useful as they have no idea what they will need. Black’s method means that him and his team are focused on those oddities from the previous visit alone. Obviously, anything could happen on the ghost hunt, but it should mean they are looking for specifics on their second visit. This should give them the ability to provide better scope for each item they are investigating.
While noting some of the ‘common pitfalls’ of ghost hunting Black delivers some good valid points. Looking at elements that can both influence and hinder investigations when looking for objective evidence. He also makes some good points regarding some of the common place problems we often face these days; social media, belief systems, popularity, replication, claiming to be an expert and science. Personally, I think this begins to highlight that modern ghost hunting is more related to spiritualism than science. However, it was also good to see Black highlighting and promoting the use of peer review. Something I believe often is forgotten, especially when ghost hunters post small fragments of their investigations on social media. During this process we see less peer review and more disheartening narratives based more on belief than on an objective review of the facts. This was a good chapter with some excellent points made that more ghost hunters should surely consider during their own investigations.
Finally, before delving into a few of his case studies, Black provides a chapter to wrap up the concept ‘Leaps of Faith.’ While the chapter help us understand how he sees leaps of faith influencing ghost hunters, he also pushes the gathering of good data in order to remain objective. Highlighting simply that the very nature of a ghost hunting itself requires a leap of faith, Black even admits that his work with the Spirit box similarly requires such a leap. However, this work is due to the strange experiences he has personally had with the Spirit box, along with related data and experiments his team have conducted. Black indicates that this is potentially the way of the ghost hunter — even when something could be said to be subjective, they approach it objectively to gather data on it to make ready for peer review. A leap of faith is almost a pre-requisite of a ghost hunter in order to question the paranormal according to Black.
In the second part of the book, Black covers several case studies or what appears to be an overview of his team’s investigations of seven different locations. Whilst I enjoyed these ‘case studies’ as good anecdotal evidence of his experiences, I feel they lacked depth. I was left feeling that little had been shared regarding the investigation method, setup, equipment, and probable results. Granted as someone that has investigated numerous locations myself, I was not expecting amazing results as often when activity does occur it is in extremely small amounts. However, given the subject of the book I suppose I was hoping for a more structured outline of his investigations that would provide more detailed case studies.
That said, the case studies part does have a few positives too. The first being that Black includes an investigation described as a ‘dud,’ highlighting the simple fact that not every ghost hunt provides an abundance of paranormal activity. However, although the location provided little regarding the paranormal, he spends a little time to outline the strange concept of value. Showing rent comparatives with other locations; explaining that the location in question was the smallest, least active, but costing far more than others he has investigated. Black concludes on the location by explaining although during his first visit things were quiet, he still felt that a return visit would be warranted to increase the data set and not draw conclusions on that visit alone. A thought process, which I tend to agree with.
The other thing that Black includes within the book are three return visits to locations he has previously reported on within the book. Personally, I would have included the return visits within those chapters, but his approach works too. Often return visits are not included when reporting on several investigations like Black has, but by doing so he has highlighted how to make the best use of a return visit. Often, they will focus on areas that have provided more results in previous visits to see if they can expand on those results.
I can completely see where Black is coming from with the more objective approach he attempts to outline in this book and is right regarding modern ghost hunters being over invested in their beliefs. There certainly needs to be more openness to peer review and not the YouTube review that has become the norm here. Although, that said, perhaps, we should not rule out social media and YouTube, as we could possibly make those platforms work for us too. Researchers are already utilising them to reach more participants for their studies and to conduct research online.
I did like the way this book makes clear suggestions to ghost hunters about their approaches. It is evident as the book is aimed at the ghost hunting community; and as such lacks the detail and process found in more academic books, but that is okay. Black does suggest some good ghost hunter experiment ideas that could be tried throughout the book, but these were a little light on the detail for my liking. It might have been better to elaborate a little within the book and fully explain and document the method, making it clear and easy for others to repeat those experiments. That way perhaps Black could receive some data from others to compare to his own on the matter.
Whilst I like the inclusion of a few case studies and more so that he presented some return visits too, these again lacked detail and structure that I would like to see regarding an investigation report. The lack of detail presented them a little more like anecdotal experience accounts rather than investigation reports in my opinion.
Throughout the book Black does refer to certain aspects within the paranormal and science fields but fails to reference these properly. I see this a lot and have probably been guilty of it too in the past, but I feel if you are presenting a piece of work in which you wish to make a point; then it is imperative to include those references properly. Even if it is a simple bibliography at the end of the book. This represents your own research ability to look for material to support your argument, but equally provides a respectful ‘nod’ to that source. It also acts as an excellent source of material for those reading your work to pursue next. Something which would have added value to this book I feel.
However, all in all if you like books about modern ghost hunting then this is a nice little read that will keep you occupied between vigils. If you are just getting into ghost hunting then it will, amongst many other books, provide a reasonable overview of how many teams investigate currently and introduce you to a few of the pieces of technology modern ghost hunters utilise. I personally think it will help you to question how you approach things too. However, the one thing it lacks is outlining (although it could be argued it ss there in the sub-text) is that fact that if you keep an open mind, and investigate objectively, then until the evidence — not experience — presents itself, you may actually find yourself firmly on the fence between both the Yes and the No camps. In my opinion this is a good place to find yourself, but often other ghost hunters will advise you that you may only believe or disbelieve. Of course, such a decision creates immediate conformational bias that would surely impact the results of your investigation. I feel that subjectivity, belief, bias and chasing the experience have overshadowed true objective investigation for most ghost hunters. However, Black appears to argue that objectivity can be found within ghost hunting and I do not disagree.