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When demons or ghosts take up residence, a house is said to be "possessed" or "haunted." It is not clear why demons or ghosts would confine themselves to quarters, since with all their alleged powers, they probably could be anywhere or everywhere at any time. If they really wanted to terrorize the neighborhood, they could take turns haunting different houses.
Ideas about haunted houses often originate in movies such as The Amityville Horror, a fictional movie based on a true fraud. While it is quite common for a Catholic priest to bless a house or perform what is called a "routine exorcism," it is not common to perform what is called a "real exorcism" on houses, despite what was depicted in the movie. In the case of Amityville, the real devils were George and Kathy Lutz, who concocted a preposterous story to help them out of a mortgage they couldn't afford and a marriage on the rocks (Schick & Vaughn 1998: 269-270). Their case was helped along by the media (New York television station Channel 5), self-proclaimed demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, and Gene Campbell, who produced an infra red time-lapse photograph of a boy (?) with no eyes at the foot of a staircase. The photo was first shown on the Merv Griffin show, few years after it was allegedly taken at the Amityville house, to promote the first film of the alleged horror.*
Not all hauntings are obvious frauds. Some are hoaxes instigated by disturbed teenagers trying to get attention by scaring the devil out of their parents and siblings (Radin 1997: 280; Randi 1986, 1995).
Some cases involve otherwise normal people hearing strange noises or having visions of dead people or of objects moving with no visible means of locomotion. Hearing strange noises in the night and letting the imagination run wild are quite natural human traits and not very indicative of diabolical or paranormal activity. Likewise, visions and hallucinations are quite natural, even if unusual and infrequent, in people with normal as well as with very active imaginations (Sagan 1995).
Nevertheless, the market for "ghostbusters" flourishes. They go to allegedly haunted houses for television programs such as Sightings. They walk around with an electronic device that picks up electromagnetic fields. If the needle moves, they claim they have evidence of poltergeist activity, even though just about anything gives off a measurable level of electromagnetic radiation.
Many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by a temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds. They are not imagining things. Most hauntings occur in old buildings, which tend to be drafty. Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans. Some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience.*
Finally, as I note in my poltergeist entry:
Even if I provided plausible physical explanations for a million poltergeists in a million different places at a million different times, there is always the possibility that the next one that pops up will be the real thing. So, those who believe in poltergeists, ghosts, and haunted houses can always take refuge in the fact that nobody ever has enough information to debunk every ghost story, and even if they did, the next one might prove the debunkers wrong!
As a skeptic, all I can say with confidence is that when one considers the requirements for a ghost story to be true, the most reasonable position is that there is a naturalistic explanation for all these stories, but we often do not or cannot have all the details necessary to provide that explanation. We must rely on anecdotal evidence, which is always incomplete and selective, and which is often passed on by interested, inexperienced, superstitious parties who are ignorant of basic physical laws. Thus, there will always be stories like the "Bell Witch" story that attract much attention, especially when made into movies, that will lead many people to think that maybe there is something to this one, even if all the other ghost stories are false. The "Bell Witch" is alleged to be "a sinister entity that tormented a family on Tennessee’s frontier between the years of 1817 and 1821."* The likelihood that we don't have all the evidence in this case is proportionate to the number of years that have passed since the events allegedly took place.
On the other hand, I have it on very good authority that there are very good reasons that ghosts only appear in the dark and in places where their true nature is obscured in some way so that they cannot be clearly seen or heard. Since ghosts themselves have no senses, it would not be fair for them to appear in broad daylight where everybody could see them as they really are. Ghosts are inveterate tricksters and it is much easier to trick human beings in situations where their senses can be easily manipulated. Ghosts also enjoy "seeing" people deceive themselves, especially people who use scientific equipment in ways that indicate that they have no idea what they are doing. Besides, ghosts have found that many people are afraid of the dark and that fear makes their work much easier.
Some ghosts have found extraordinary ways of tricking people. For example, paranormal investigator Ben Radford investigated the Santa Fe, New Mexico, Courthouse Ghost that showed itself on film from a surveillance camera as a glowing spot drifting in front of a patrol car parked beneath some trees.
Radford came armed only with his brain and knowledge. He had no lab coat and no scientific equipment. He came up with a hypothesis and tested it by putting a ladybug on the lens of the camera. Sure enough, he reproduced the ghost on the film. "In the end, it was in fact a bug or insect of some sort that was on the lens of the surveillance camera," said Radford, a known skeptic and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Little does he know that ghosts often appear as ladybugs. Nice try, Ben! He obviously hasn't read the Secret Writings of Descartes: Ghosts on the Machine. Coming soon to the History Channel.
books and articles
Brugger, Peter. "From Haunted Brain to Haunted Science: A Cognitive Neuroscience View of Paranormal and Pseudoscientific Thought," Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, edited by J. Houran and R. Lange (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2001).
Frazier, Kendrick. "Amityville Hokum: the Hoax and the Hype," Skeptical Inquirer, 4, no. 2 (1979-80): 2-4.
Harris, Melvin. (2003). Investigating the Unexplained. Prometheus Books. This book was originally called Sorry, You've Been Duped (1986), Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Randi James. "The Columbus Poltergeist Case: Part I," Skeptical Inquirer (Spring 1985). This article may be found in Science Confronts the Paranormal, edited by Kendrick Frazier. (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986).
Haunt - building an environment that feels "haunted"
The Amityville Horror - A Hoax according to Snopes.com
"The Haunted Tape Recorder" by Joe Nickell
Amityville: The Horror of It All by Joe Nickell
In search of magnetic anomalies associated with haunt-type experiences: pulses and patterns in dual time-synchronized measurements, Journal of Parapsychology, Fall, 2004 by Jason J. Braithwaite, Katty Perez-Aquino, Maurice Townsend
"Caveat Specter" by Tim Madigan
The Amityville Truth A Research Database developed by a Long Island, NY sub-Librarian and former Amityville resident
The Ghost Research Society - especially for the gullible
According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 37% believe in haunted houses, down from 42% five years ago but up from 29% in 1990. A Pew poll in 2009 found that more Americans believe in haunted houses than believe global warming is real.