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Notes for Investigators

Kinds of Spontaneous Cases

Researchers recognise a range of phenomena which are referred as being spontaneous: that is, phenomena which occur in any location or situation and often without any prior warning or means of control. Many spontaneous phenomena have ordinary explanations in terms of physical causes or the mental state of the witness. Some of the commoner examples of spontaneous phenomena include:

Precognition Cases

Cases of seeming 'precognition' of future events are fairly frequent, though difficult to interpret. Many of them occur in dreams, and only come to appear 'precognitive' in the light of their subsequent fulfilment. Ideally, there should be some record, or corroboration, of the dream's content, produced prior to the confirming event, as well as a careful investigation and record made of the confirming event. The basic and obvious step for anyone involved in possibly anomalous experiences (including dreams) is to keep a reasonably detailed diary!

Extrasensory Perception Cases

Cases in which a person seems to have become spontaneously aware of a scene outside the range of her/his ordinary senses, or to have 'picked up' the thoughts, emotions or predicament of a distant person (often someone close) are not uncommon. The percipient's experience may take various forms: a vague emotional disturbance or feeling of alarm, an impulse to act, hearing hallucinatory voices or seeing a 'vision' of the scene or event concerned. A fair proportion of cases of apparent spontaneous extra-sensory perception take place during dreams, and present problems of interpretation similar to those raised by 'precognitive' dreams.

'Out-of-the-body' Experience Cases

Many people have at some time or another had an experience as of quitting their physical bodies and experiencing surroundings that differ from the physical to a greater or lesser degree. The surroundings may be so similar to the physical as to be mistaken for them but seen from a position not coincident with the body in physical space. In such cases, attention should be given to any reported events noted by the experient that s/he could not have seen from the position of the physical body. Careful note should be taken of sensations reported by the experient during separation from and return to the physical body, and of conditions of viewing, state of mind and other features, notably how close or different the experience was from normal physical conditions. The physical and mental state of the experient before the experience should also be recorded.

Apparition Cases

These are cases in which a person, who is not dreaming, ill, mentally unwell or under the influence of drugs, describes seeing a figure or object which could not be that of a real person or object, or hears a voice when it is certain that no-one spoke. It is highly likely that most such experiences are hallucinatory. However, some of these hallucinations may be called 'veridical' in that they exhibit correspondences, not easy to explain, with external events, or with the experiences of other percipients.

Poltergeist Cases and other Paranormal Physical Events

It is doubtful whether the miscellaneous physical effects commonly lumped together as 'poltergeist phenomena' have any common denominator. The German word 'Poltergeist' means 'noisy spirit', and in a few cases the phenomena have, for whatever reason, seemed intelligent or mischievous. In the majority of instances, the phenomena are trivial and appear more or less aimless. Among the types of phenomena most commonly reported in this type of case are thumps, raps, scratchings and scuffling noises; footsteps; the displacement of, or propulsion through the air of various sorts of objects, usually small items like stones or crockery, but occasionally sizeable objects like articles of furniture; the opening and closing of doors; the disturbance of bedclothes; inexplicable outbreaks of fire; switching on or off of electric lights; whispers and voices; the appearance of mysterious luminous patches; cold breezes; inundations of water of which the source cannot be traced; and unexpected odours which may be sometimes be unpleasant.

Other paranormal physical events include reports of events coinciding with a traumatic event, for example, a clock stopping at the moment of someone's death.

Conducting Investigations

Study of the Relevant Literature

An essential preliminary to the investigation of any kind of spontaneous case is a careful study of the relevant literature. Guidance Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases is for sale on our website: https://www.spr.ac.uk/books-and-recordings-sale

Essential Procedures

Different types of cases will require different additional procedures. For instance, crisis apparitions might require confirmation of a reported death from newspaper notices or public records; significant dreams involve detailed investigation of the reliability of the dream report and the confirming event, while poltergeist or haunting cases may involve surveillance of the relevant areas. However, certain procedures must be carried out as a matter of routine in all cases where there is even a hint of paranormality.

(a) Interview witnesses

The most important aspect of any investigation is to obtain, as far as possible, a detailed and accurate account of the events. This usually means conducting in-depth interviews with the people directly involved and possibly with other relevant witnesses. The next section, Conducting Interviews, deals with this question in some detail.

(b) Keep detailed and continuous records

At the outset, you need to record the details of the witnesses: name, age, contact point. If the witness and the investigator agree that the case is worthwhile taking further, it is necessary to obtain a statement from all those involved. It is important to either record or to accurately note down what each interviewee says, composing a statement from the notes, or making a transcript of the audio recording. Following which, the interviewee should be asked to read the statement and to make whatever corrections and additions s/he desires before s/he signs it. Before every witness is invited to make a statement, they should be assured that their name will not be published without their consent, and that, in the event of publication, pseudonyms will be used.

The relevant information to be collected would include items such as:

  • time and date when the experience/s took place and the duration of the event/s concerned
  • what the witness was doing and their state of mind at that time
  • whether the witness has had a similar experience before
  • the environment at the time of the experience - how well the scene was lit (if the experience was visual) and what sounds were heard (if the experience was auditory), what else was happening at that time
  • if other people were in the household, where were they during the experience
  • an impression of the well-being, education, interests and reliability of witnesses (there are often clues in people's behaviour, interactions and the surroundings).

Where it is appropriate and with consent, the scene of the alleged paranormal events should be visited as soon as possible and a record made of any relevant information. (Using a camcorder with a wide angle is the obvious tool, but a pencil, squared paper and tape measure can also be very useful for drawing plans.)

(c) Make follow-up visits

Follow up visits are desirable for a number of reasons. In many instances, the events are infrequent and one would not expect to witness anything on just a single visit. Also, a report which seems promising after a single visit may appear much less so after one gets to know the locality and the people involved; and, conversely, a case that is at first not very impressive may later grow in significance.

(d) Equipment

The obvious necessities include a notebook, pen and pencil, wristwatch and easily obtainable recording equipment such as an audio recorder, a video/still camera or even a smartphone. There are of course many other instruments that are routinely used by researchers, such as electromagnetic field (EMF) meters, thermometers, motion detectors etc. A discussion regarding equipment, it’s deployment and the value of the information it can provide, may be found in the Equipment Use, Guidance Notes for Investigators which is available for sale on our website: https://www.spr.ac.uk/books-and-recordings-sale

Conducting Interviews

(a) Establishing a framework

Where the reported phenomena are extended over a period of time, it is important to organise a small number of capable and responsible investigators. It should be decided beforehand what course of action to follow should phenomena take place, and agreed who is to take charge in the event of unforeseen contingencies. The framework of the investigation should be established and agreed with the experients prior to commencement of the investigation.

(b) Keeping records - investigators

It is essential to ensure that during an investigation visit the times of all events and of the comings and goings of all those involved are accurately recorded. Investigators should synchronize watches and the time data of any items of equipment at the start of every investigation, and each should maintain a separate written log. It is helpful to have a video or audio-recorder continuously running to provide a general record of events. Should any phenomena take place, each witness should as soon as possible write independent accounts of them. Those who did not witness anything should also record this fact, together with any relevant circumstances - such as the positions of members of the investigation team or household - within their immediate knowledge.

(c) Keeping records - experiments

In addition to the records kept by the investigators, the occupants and anyone else who may be present should also be asked to keep a record in which any phenomena they witness are fully recorded as soon as they occur. This should contain details as to the time, lighting conditions, the position of persons in the vicinity, and so forth. The occupants should be encouraged to take pictures, video and audio-recordings of any phenomena they experience. However, the occupants and visitors should be discouraged from conducting their own experiments.

What to do and what not to do - the basics of an investigation

Observing the following points will help avoid potential pitfalls.

  • Don't go by yourself. Most cases are reported by genuine experients, but some people may have different motives for calling an investigator. Moreover, two heads are always better than one when it comes to making observations and asking questions.
  • Keep relations with the experients and witnesses as relaxed as possible. Consult them about your plans in terms they can understand and ensure you have their consent before proceeding. You may need to reassure them that you don't charge fees.
  • Keep an open mind and avoid any preconceptions. Your own expectations may adversely interfere with your observations and your perception of events.
  • You're likely to be regarded as an expert. Remain tactful, and be reticent, in expressing your opinion or offering a resolution. This is especially important if you suspect the situation may involve mental, social or emotional problems.
  • Don't get involved in family affairs. A good way to ease the situation is to encourage everyone to take a detached interest in the problems of the investigation, and reassure them that the only likely harm is from the state of their nerves.
  • Respect the confidentiality of all those involved and explain your procedures for protecting their privacy.
  • Take particular care where children or other vulnerable individuals are involved. Make sure that a parent or suitable responsible person is present during each interview or other interaction.
  • Avoid publicity. However, if reporters have already made contact with the people involved it may be helpful to establish a good relationship with them: their observations, equipment and judgements can be of value.
  • Remember that the range of skills essential to conducting a successful investigation can only be acquired through experience and by a willingness to learn. An investigator needs patience, humour, an open mind and a willingness to make repeated, often fruitless excursions.

Conducting Interviews

Establish good relations, just as you would do with any new acquaintance: the exchange of pleasantries and small talk help put people at their ease.

If possible, use an audio recorder, having asked for permission, but be prepared to make notes as well. It is normally better to interview witnesses separately, but often this may be impossible in practice, especially on the first visit. Be aware that sometimes people have later admitted to having 'gone along' with the testimony of others while holding a different opinion.

People are usually very willing to discuss their experience. However, at other times, they may be more reticent to do so. In these cases, do not rush the witness but allow them time to describe their experience in their own way without interference. Sometimes, it may be necessary to encourage them and gentle prompting but without putting ideas into the person’s head may reveal further information and extra details. Questions and clarifications can come later, when you should go over the story with the witness again (sometimes several times). This, important step enables you to make sure that the information you have is accurate, with minimal gaps, and may uncover further information, even if at this stage this might appear trivial. It is helpful to ask the witness to retell their account in different ways, in a different order or from a variety of perspectives. Make your questions as open as possible (e.g., 'How did you feel then?' offers more scope for replies than 'Were you frightened?'). Avoid asking questions that are leading or which introduce ideas which they may not have considered (e.g., ‘Which direction did the ghost go? or ‘Has anyone else also experienced the poltergeist?).

Bear in mind that some people have vivid imaginations and may unintentionally and helpfully provide you with details which never existed. Errors of memory, speculation and wishful thinking are often part of the scene, and it often requires a lot of repeated probing and patient sifting through the information to arrive at a reasonably accurate understanding of the events.