blurA reader recently sent me an article (that I sadly can't link to) about some Missouri ghost hunting groups. Oh, I'm sorry... they don't hunt ghosts, they "investigate paranormal activity." The two groups in question are Mid Missouri Paranormal Investigators and Jefferson City Paranormal Investigations. Like every single other ghost hunting group I've encountered, these folks are dedicated, "skeptical," and "use science" to investigate. And they freely admit that most of what they encounter is easily explainable, but it's that 1% that isn't that interests them.

Let's talk about that 1% for a moment. 100 birds fly past your window, and your job is to identify them. So you record... "robin, robin, sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, sparrow, blue jay, crow, house finch, tpnom, robin, swallow, sparrow...and so on." You pack up, go home and review your data.

Lots of sparrows and robins. Boring. Yawn. But wait... tpnom? What's that? You search and search, but you can find nothing that matches that particular entry. What could it be?

The truth is you may never know. It's an anomalous entry, and you can infer no meaning from it. The problem with ghost hunters is that they're all too willing to ascribe such noise to the paranormal. And the reason they do that, is that they believe in the paranormal, which compromises their conclusions.

After all, as I've often said... if you hear a noise in the basement, why assume it's a ghost rather than an alien or bigfoot? Often it will depend on the last horror movie you watched.

These groups are popping up all over the country, and they're pretty similar in makeup. They're fans of the plethora of TV shows on ghost hunting, but they think they can do better, or at least as well as the folks they see on TV. And let me tell you... they can. That bar is particularly low.

So rather than rehash all that's wrong with the phenomenon of amateur paranormal investigators, I'll tell you a true story of the most interesting thing that ever happened on a ghost hunt that I was involved with.

I was staying in the King Ranch Suite of the Hotel Menger, right across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio. Dick King, owner of the largest ranch in the US, favored this room eventually died there in the late 1800's. The room has period furniture and even the bed Dick died in, though we were assured that the mattress had been changed.

To make a long story short, I was taking readings with a tri-field meter which was set to detect disturbances of electromagnetism. These devices are notorious for spurious readings, especially as personal electronics become more commonplace. But in this case, the device was pretty quiet... until I got near the bed. Indeed, every time I approached the bed the needle would get higher and higher until right near the pillow, it pegged. The phenomenon was repeatable. I removed the pillow and sheet, but there was nothing there.

And if I were filming a ghost hunting show, I would have ended it right there. "Here we have direct evidence of the paranormal! It must be King's ghost causing these signals." I might throw in something about eerie feelings in the room, and I definitely would have filmed in it infrared because... well, I like green. I can't think of another reason.

What I would not include is a wide shot of the bed that showed the bedside table. Because on the bedside table, right near the pillow... was an electronic alarm clock. One with a huge transformer in it that, sure enough, caused the tri-field meter to peg. You see, I actually did more investigation than just removing the pillow or sheet... and indeed, found a very plausible explanation.

If I were producing a show or simply wanted to believe, I would have stopped investigating and had a very credible story. Others could even reproduce it. But alas, as a lover of the truth, I was compelled to search deeper. And as a skeptic, if I hadn't found anything, I would have been content with "I don't know what caused that" rather than "the only thing that explains it is paranormal activity."

These groups claim to be helping their community by putting residents at ease. In some cases this may be true... they may discover that a door opens by itself at 4:00 every day because that's when the sun has heated the exterior wall of the house enough to cause the door opening to expand a fraction of inch and release the catch. But all in all, their effect is to promote a belief in the paranormal, and that's a belief that the evidence doesn't support.

By the way, the astute among you might notice that in my bird analogy, there is a solution, and it's readily available to any of you who care to figure it out. The anomalous reading "tpnom" has a very logical explanation, should you care to search for it.

And yay! I got to use the word "anomalous" and tell a "true ghost story." I even found a photo of something strange. I guess I'm cool now too. But only if I ignore the evidence.