Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Eliminating natural explanations - or not

It sounded like someone dropped some clothes. The problem was, I knew for certain that there were no such items there! I searched the area where the sound appeared to come from and, at first, found nothing out of the ordinary. Then I opened a cupboard. There was a large heavy plastic bag in a place where it would never normally be. It had clearly fallen from an adjacent pile. Tests, dropping the bag deliberately onto that specific spot, confirmed that it sounded uncannily like clothing tumbling to the floor.

This happened in a place I know well. Now suppose it happened somewhere I'd never visited before. How would I know the bag was out of place? And suppose the place was reputedly haunted. It would be easy to imagine the 'clothes' sound as a ghost passing by unseen.

I read lots of accounts of ghost vigils where it is stated that the people involved tried everything they could think of to reproduce a reported weird effect without success. But experiences like mine, with the plastic bag, make me wonder how likely this process is to be exhaustive. So many vigils take place in locations where few, if any, of the participants are thoroughly familiar with what can be expected as 'normal' there (the new house effect). And what about the normal but highly unusual stuff? I'd never come across the 'plastic bag as clothing' sound before and was able to work it out only by an intimate knowledge of the building.

Eliminating natural explanations is at the core of paranormal investigation. However, it depends on investigators actually considering ALL the likely natural causes for any particular effect, often within a tight time constraint. This is not likely to be successful on a ghost vigil since the people involved are highly unlikely to be intimately aware of every weird effect that might occur naturally there. Not to mention the rare ones!

Is there a solution to this problem? One possibility might be including a regular inhabitant of the building on the ghost vigil. Even then, that person would have to be familiar with all the things that might be misinterpreted as paranormal. While some people regularly pay attention to their surroundings, many don't! The same group doing multiple vigils to the same location would also help, as knowledge of the natural explanations would build up over time. I've seen examples of this and it works! It is telling how, when a location is visited multiple times by the same people, the first vigil always appears to be much more dramatic than subsequent ones. Most of the initial 'activity' ends up explained on subsequent, much quieter, vigils. Bringing in different people with a range of expertise in detecting natural explanations can help too.

I think that, currently, people accept the label 'unexplained' far too easily when it is often more a case of under-explained! I think the results of any one-off ghost vigil at a particular location should be treated with utmost caution.

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