Many spontaneous cases have ordinary explanations in terms of physical causes or the mental states of the witnesses. Some commoner cases which might not have such explanations are:
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 percipience'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 expedient that s/he could not have seen from the position of the physical body. Careful note should be taken of sensations reported by the expedient 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 experiment before the experience should also be recorded.
These are cases in which a person, not dreaming, ill, insane or under the influence of drugs, sees a figure which could not be that of a real person 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 even mischievous. In the majority of instances, however, the phenomena are trivial and appear more or less aimless. Among the phenomena most commonly reported in poltergeist cases are thumps, raps, scratching and scuffling noises; footsteps; the displacement or propulsion through the air of various sorts of objects, usually small ones like stones or crockery, but sometimes sizeable ones like articles of furniture; the opening 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 smells suggestive of putrescence or burning.
Other paranormal physical events include reports of events coinciding with a traumatic event, e.g. a clock stopping at the moment of someone's death.
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.
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 would 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 picture of the events. This usually means conducting in-depth interviews with the people directly involved and possibly with other relevant witnesses. For this reason, the next section, Conducting Intervieews, 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 case appears promising, it is important to obtain signed statements from witnesses and experients. It may be necessary to note down what the interviewee says, and compose a statement from the notes, or make a transcript of a tape-recording. In such a case, 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 witnesses are invited to make statements they should be assured that their names will not be published without their consent, and that, in the event of publication, pseudonyms will be used if so desired.
The relevant information to be collected would include items such as:
- time and date at which the experience took place and the duration of the events concerned
- what the witness(es) were doing and their state of mind at that time
- whether the witness has had a similar experience before
- the circumstances - (where appropriate) 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 health, education, interests and reliability of witnesses (there are usually plenty of clues in people's behaviour, relationships and surroundings).
Where this is appropriate, the scene of the alleged paranormal events should be visited as soon as possible and a record made of the relevant information. (A camcorder with a wide angle is the obvious tool, but a pencil, squared paper and tape measure can be very useful for plans.)
(c) Make follow-up visits.
Follow up visits are advisable for a number of reasons. In many cases, the phenomena are not so frequent that one would expect to witness anything on just a single visit. Also, a case 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 stature.
The obvious necessities include a notebook and pen/pencil, and other easily obtainable recording equipment such as a tape recorder and a still/video camera. There are of course many other instruments being used by researchers, such as electromagnetic field (EMF) meters, infrared meters, motion detectors etc. A discussion of their uses, as well as guidance on conducting vigils, can be found on the website of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP),www.assap.org.
(a) Establishing a framework.
Where the phenomena are extended over a period of time, it is important to organise a party of several capable and responsible investigators. It should be decided beforehand what plan of action to follow should phenomena take place, and agreed who is to assume command in the event of unforeseen contingencies. The framework of the investigation should be established and agreed with the experients during the initial interview.
(b) Keeping records - investigators.
It is essential to ensure that during a 'ghost-hunt' the times of all events and of the comings and goings of persons in the vicinity are accurately recorded. Investigators should synchronize watches at the start of an investigation, and each should maintain a separate log-book. In addition a tape-recorder with an extended play tape should be kept continuously running to provide a general record of events; comments may be dictated into it as required. Should phenomena take place, the witnesses should as soon as possible write independent accounts of them, and investigators who did not witness them should take care to record any relevant circumstances - such as the positions of members of the household - within their immediate knowledge.
(c) Keeping records - experiments.
In addition to the records kept by the investigators, the occupants of the building or locality concerned should be asked to keep a journal in which phenomena are fully recorded as soon as they occur, with crucial details as to time, light, the position of persons in the vicinity, and so forth. The occupants should also be encouraged to take films and tape-recordings and to attempt whatever experiments and methods of control seem appropriate.
What to do and what not to do - the basics of an investigation
- When you become involved in an investigation, remember that you go as an individual, representing only yourself. Observing the following points will help avoid potential pitfalls.
- Don't go by yourself. Most cases are reported by genuine experients, but some people have strange motives for calling an investigator. Moreover, two heads are better than one when it comes to making observation and asking questions.
- Keep relations with the experients and witnesses as relaxed as possible. Consult them about your plans in terms they can understand. You may need to reassure them that investigators don't charge fees.
- Keep an open mind and avoid preconceptions. Your expectations may interfere with your observations.
- You're likely to be regarded as an expert. But be tactful, and even reticent, in expressing your views, especially if the situation may involve mental or emotional problems.
- Don't play amateur psychiatrist or 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. If attitudes permit, a visit from a clergyman or medium may help.
- Respect confidentiality and explain your procedure for protecting it.
- Take particular care where children are involved. Make sure that a parent or guardian is present during an interview.
- Avoid publicity. However, if reporters have already made contact with the people involved it may be helpful to establish good relations: their observations, equipment and judgements can be of value.
- Remember that the practical skills essential to successful investigation can only be acquired by experience and by a willingness to learn from mistakes. An investigator needs patience, humour, an open mind and a willingness to make repeated fruitless excursions.
Establish good relations, just as you would do with any new acquaintance: exchange of pleasantries and small talk help put people at their ease.
If possible, use a tape recorder, having asked for permission, but be prepared to make notes as well. It is best to interview witnesses separately, but often impossible in practice, especially on first visit. However, people sometimes have admitted in private to having 'gone along' with the testimony of others while holding different opinions, so take the opportunity if one arises.
Do not rush the witness, and allow him/her to tell the story in their own way without interference on the first telling. Encouraging comments and promptings will hopefully produce extra details without putting ideas into the person's head. Questions and clarifications can come later, when you go over the story with the witness again (and often again). Usually people are very willing to discuss their experience once they feel at ease, and this second, essential, stage, enables you to make sure that your record is accurate, to fill in the gaps, and to obtain extra details, even if at this stage they might appear trivial. Involve the witness in retelling the story in different ways, in different order and 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?').
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 takes a lot of repeated probing and patient sifting to arrive at a reasonably accurate picture.