How tech helps ghost hunters find what goes bump in the night

An ancient pursuit turns to 21st century technology

Ghost hunting is serious business.

Just ask any of the major cable networks that willingly dedicate hour-long time slots to black T-shirt wearing professionals every week. Once a hobby for curious teenagers and bored housewives, tracking down specters has become a spectator sport, spawning multiple TV shows, including Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters. Now, we're finally seeing what happens when ordinary folks get a chance to hunt in front of millions.

Part of the paranormal industry's success can be attributed to the public's belief in the otherworldly beings. A Harris Poll issued in 2013 found that42% of Americans believe in ghosts, but why are people putting faith in the existence of things they cannot see?

We may have technology to thank for that.

"Each day there are more and more advances in technology allowing us to answer questions that just a few years ago baffled us," says Michael Rohr, co-founder of Elgin Paranormal Investigators.

Since 2007, Rohr and his team have been investigating local accounts of hauntings in Illinois and Wisconsin.

"We utilize infrared cameras, digital voice recorders, and electro-magnetic field and temperature detectors as the 'go to' equipment on all investigations," Rohr continued.

But in order to understand why any of this technology needs to be used, we need to take a step back and examine the underlying art of ghost hunting.

Ghost hunters

Image credit: Credit Paranormal Investigators of Northern Kentucky

Believing in the unbelievable

In the paranormal world, most investigators believe that ghosts – humans who have passed away but whose spirits have hung around – can make a physical impact on our environment.

One common assumption is that ghosts can sap the energy out of a space and use it to manifest in different ways. Investigators believe this can result in a change in temperature and electromagnetic energy levels.

In other words, you might start to feel goosebumps or a cold breeze if a ghost has stepped into the room. Some investigators also believe that high electromagnetic levels can contribute to dizziness and anxiety. While electronics can also be affected by these waves of energy, the waves effect ranges from little to none to interfering with small devices such as pacemakers and quartz watches.

However, electromagnetic fields (EMF) are around us every day, stemming from devices such as microwaves, power lines and televisions. While monitoring tools haven't always been associated with detecting the paranormal, a number of these devices have quietly seeped into the field of ghost hunting.

Ghost hunters

Image credit: Paranormal Investigators of New England

"The EMF meter was originally made to diagnose problems with electrical wiring, power lines and to get readings on appliances," says Betty Dupont with Paranormal Investigators of New England. "The ghost hunting community quickly latched on to these as the go-to item as the theory [that] spirits could cause electrical disturbances in the environment evolved."

"During the investigation, it can also be used as a response tool for question and answer sessions," she added.

Talking to the dead might seem impossible, but detecting any electromagnetic changes in the atmosphere and temperature fluctuations could be inferred as a response from ghosts.

In some cases, investigators tweak existing technology to help them with their research.

"The SB-7 Spirit Box is just a radio scanner and speaker that generates white noise so the spirits can use it to speak," says Jeff Young, a member of Arkansas Paranormal Investigations. "We have talked to several different spirits this way."

Ghost hunters

Image credit: Arkansas Paranormal Investigators

Communication is a big part of paranormal investigations, and there are many basic pieces of technology that can capture the voices of lost souls. These days, digital recorders are the go-to for investigators, but in the past, it wasn't uncommon to pull out a tape recorder.

"You can purchase these recorders at any Wal-Mart, and they are very affordable," Young notes. "We just turn them on and carry them around or set them down on a table and just let them record. Later, when we are reviewing the evidence, we discover that we caught whispers or voices that didn't come from our teammates."

Sometimes, the simple approach is best, and investigators have the evidence to prove it.

"We have caught an out-of-breath soldier running up to our team, as well as names, phrases, and answers to questions we've asked," says Young. "These voices are classified as EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, meaning you can only hear them through the recording device. If you are able to audibly hear a voice, it falls under the classification of disembodied voices."

ghost hunting

Image credit: Paranormal Investigators of Northern Kentucky

Tools of the trade

When paranormal investigators aren't trying to listen for the exact causes of cold chills and creepy feelings, they tap into technology to capture visual evidence as well.

In order to photograph spirits, ghost hunters turn to infrared and ultraviolet light.

"'Ghosts' may only be visible in those wavelengths, which most humans cannot see but unfiltered digital sensors and some photographic films are able to record," explains New England Investigator Anthony Duda.

Duda, who has been investigating the paranormal for more than 25 years, is all about getting to the bottom of paranormal activity for his clients. In his line of work, he uses both still cameras and video camcorders.

Tune in to any of the ghost hunting programs on television and you'll see investigators using simple recording equipment, too. You may even be inspired to whip out your digital camera the next time you're walking through an old building. However, you might need to splurge a little if you're as serious as the professionals.

"The basic and affordable components of a ghost hunter's toolbox in order of use and importance are the digital camera, audio recorder, EMF detector, and remote temperature sensor," says Tom Elliott of Boston Paranormal Investigators.

"The total price tag for these would be less than $250. Beyond that, there are all sorts of sophisticated tools such as thermal cameras ($3,000 and up). Generally, new technologies are coming on the market yearly, but limited funding puts them beyond the reach of most groups."

Image Credit Elgin Paranormal Investigators

The evolution of the hunt

To give spooked homeowners some peace of mind, it takes a lot of technology to hone in on the cause of the paranormal activity, and most investigators can agree that it's come a long way. Furthermore, technology is still evolving.

"I have seen new gadgets, like the 'Paranormal Puck' and the 'Ghost Light,' come and go," says Mike Palmer, founder of the Paranormal Investigators of Northern Kentucky. "Each year there seems to be 'the next big thing.'"

In some cases, investigators are just as skeptical about new technology as they are about paranormal activity at a new location. Just ask Michael Cardinuto, the founder of Long Island Paranormal Investigators.

"I have seen more and more tech equipment emerge, but in my opinion, new technology isn't necessarily better for the field," says Cardinuto. "For instance, 35mm cameras are becoming obsolete and digital cameras seem to be taking over. With a digital camera photo anyone can take that photo and alter it using various different programs."

Perhaps that's what using technology for ghost hunting is all about: building credibility and proving that maybe there is more to than the living world. However, most investigators know they shouldn't rely on their gadgets to figure out what goes bump in the night.

"Some paranormal investigators rely too heavily on technology, often missing the physical, organic evidence," says Barbara Wright of Cranberry Coast Paranormal. "They are too busy staring at the numbers on their temperature guns and EMF meters to see the apparition that just floated by them."

As investigators work hard to figure out the paranormal, they have a mountain of technology to confront as well. Luckily, the five basic human senses are affordable resources they can use along the way.