31 Oct 2014

The Science of Spooks

by L. E. Carmichael

Hubby and I were in San Antonio this summer, and we decided to take a ghost tour. For one thing, they are a fun way to learn a bit about local history. For another, they take place at night, and anyone who's been to Texas in August knows that going for a walk is a lot more comfortable after dark, when the heat (if not the humidity) dials down a notch or two.

San Antonio is considered one of the most haunted cities in the USA, which makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that the battle of the Alamo took place in what's now downtown.

Because if anywhere is going to be haunted, it's this place, right?

So it's not too surprising that there are several companies offering ghost tours of the city. We decided to go with Alamo City Paranormals, a company that's been doing full-time paranormal research for over 15 years, investigating claims of hauntings and appearing on numerous ghost-hunting TV shows. With that kind of resumé, we figured we'd at least get to hear some well-documented historical anecdotes.

We did not expect to get to play with ghost hunting equipment. 

No proton packs, I am very sorry to say. But our guide did offer us electromagnetic frequency detectors, for measuring spikes in electrical fields thought to signal the presence of a ghost. We also got to test non-contact temperature guns, used to detect the famous cold spots ghosts are said to produce.

To the credit of our guide, he spent a great deal of time explaining how other ghost tour operators use these tools to falsify sightings - for example, telling people to take temperature readings at the top of gallows trees, where (surprise!) ambient temperature is low enough relative to pavement-level to produce a differential. 

Junior ghost hunters on our tour using EMF readers to detect buried power lines

He also confirmed the opinion of my photography teacher, who told us that "ghost orbs" in images are one of two things: lens flare, or particles on the lens or inside the camera itself. He maintained, however, that when hunting ghosts, it's a good idea to shoot first and look later, because today's mexapixel cameras can capture images of ghosts that are far more detectable zoomed-in-upon than with the naked eye. I have my doubts about this, though, because this photograph I took of a courtyard where the ghost of Louis M. Rose (Coward of the Alamo) is thought to manifest, on closer examination mostly looks pixelated.

Next to the highly ironic sign?
By the end of the tour, I had no doubt that our guide was far more interested in providing ghost education than in fleecing the tourists, and beyond that, believed in the scientific rigour of modern paranormal investigations. But it is ghost hunting science? 

Here's the thing. While we heard a number of sad and/or creepy stories about the locations we visited and the ghosts people believe they've seen there, some key details were never explained to my satisfaction. Like, for example, why ghosts should produce electromagnetic signals or cold spots, and whether there's any replicable, verifiable evidence for those effects. In fact, it seemed to me that ghost hunting is based on the a priori assumption that ghosts exist, and that ghost hunters are seeking ad hoc empirical data in support of this pre-existing belief. And that's not really how science works.

So could ghosts actually exist?  e = mcc implies that nothing's ever lost in this world, it just changes form. To me at least, that presents an intriguing possibility for continued existence after death. But as far as the science goes? My jury is still out.

For more information about the ghosts of the Alamo, check out this great link. And Happy Halloween!


Ishta Mercurio said...

When Kidlet Number Two was a toddler, I was in a play that re-enacted a murder trial. The trial and resulting conviction were highly suspect - all the evidence was circumstantial, and the suspect was an immigrant with a pregnant wife. I played the wife in the play.

One day, about two weeks into rehearsals, Kidlet Number Two pointed to the kitchen window and said, "Look the lady." I looked, saw no-one, and asked him what lady, and he pointed again to the window. I asked him, "Is the lady outside? Looking in the window?" He said no. "Lady." I asked him if he could still see the lady, and he said yes. Then his eyes tracked through the kitchen, and along as if he were watching someone walk down the hall. He said, "Up bye lady." I asked him if the lady was in the house, and he said yes. A bunch of other questions (did the lady have pants, like Mommy? Or a dress? etc.) established that he had seen a woman, in a dress, in the kitchen, and that the lady had gone towards the front of the house.

Freaked me right out. Either ghosts are real, or my son hallucinates.

L E Carmichael said...

I wonder about kids' imaginary friends, too, Ishta. I don't remember it myself, but my parents tell me I had one named Devon. He just showed up one day and though no one else could see him, I talked about him like he was really there. Then I stopped talking about him, so either he left or we moved, I'm not sure which.

Too bad anecdotal evidence isn't usually recognized as science. :)