Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, once claimed that spiritual beliefs and paranormal experiences were mere illusions. By lacking any sort of scientific explanation, Freud believed that messages from the dead, or the apparitions themselves, were nothing more than a hiccup of the brain.
On the other hand, William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, believed that spirituality should be included as a “healthy component of psychological functioning.” I.e., believing in mysterious occurrences led to a more fulfilling and well-rounded life.
For many people around the world, their spirituality and faith directly coincide with their belief in the paranormal. Mediums deliver messages from the dead to the living; tarot readers connect with their innate spirituality to conduct readings for those who seek them; and others who practice Voodoo or Hoodoo wrangle the spirits and own them in order to work in a perfect balance.
For them, and hoards of other people who classify themselves as being “spiritual,” there remains the deep, ingrained perspective that the dead walk among us and are able to communicate just as effectively as the living do.
What, exactly, does it mean to have a spiritual outlook on the paranormal world?
What does it mean to be spiritual? And does it have anything to do with religion?
In a way: yes. In a way: not at all.
Angels & Demons, an online company that might as well be an encyclopedia on all things spiritual and paranormal, argues that “spirituality is a much confused, misaligned word for those who try to make it synonymous with being religious.” Although God can play a factor into one’s thinking, spirituality is being aware of Spirit or a higher energy that not only exists within the parameters of the world but also within you. From Spirit, you can then seek health, happiness, and love.
“True spirituality,” the author claims, “is knowing the truth of who we are and our connectedness with everyone and everything.” You are not just one person, but a soul and burst of energy connected to the Universe at large.
So what exactly does this mean?
Perhaps the easiest way to put it is that while a person who is religious may define themselves as also being spiritual, someone who is spiritual does not have to be religious.
Gretchen Upshaw, the General Manager of Ghost City Tours, provided a more personal touch on this outlook. She’d been raised Christian, baptized Baptist, but found herself dipping her toes into a variety of different religions over the course of her life. She visited Temples with her Jewish friends and even taught Vacation Bible School at a Lutheran church with her friends. To make things even more interesting, Upshaw also completed a Masters of Arts in Religious Studies.
But if you ask her whether she finds herself religious? The truth is that she doesn’t, not any longer. “It was in those years and through my studies in my 40s that I realized it was OK that I didn’t consider myself a Christian,” she explained to me. “Ironic that I would have that revelation while attending a Catholic university, but I felt supported in my doubts and was told by one of my professors that those that doubt their faith are sometimes the ones that discover much more.”
For Upshaw, her spirituality is more about aligning herself with her instincts, and about going back to the stamp of the Divine. Nevertheless, Upshaw fully believes in the paranormal.
Spirituality, at its core foundation, is about looking into oneself for strength and courage. For some, it is about opening themselves up to the Universe and receiving the message of Spirit (or high energy). For others, spirituality is nothing more than reconnecting with their own self and allowing that beauty to manifest into reality.
When he was a young boy growing up in Alabama, Michael Bill, a tour guide for Ghost City in New Orleans, was baptized Catholic. He was an altar boy and attended Church regularly. But at the age of fourteen-or-so, he found himself on the receiving end of mean-spirited bullying. Seeking some sort of higher power—a way to protect himself against those who would do him ham—he turned to Voodoo. Or, rather, Hoodoo.
He found a pharmacy nearby when he was about sixteen, which happened to sell Southern Hoodoo items in the back of the shop. “I probably spent a fortune,” he said with a burst of laughter. “I pretty much bought my way in.” He’d bought things for protection, for reversal, and even when he didn’t need a particular item, he bought it anyway just to learn the spell attached to the object. Over time, Michael Bill was inducted into the Fellowship of Isis (not, of course, the terrorist group) and his understanding of Hoodoo and, later, Voodoo grew from then on. Today, Michael Bill is a Prince within the Voodoo religion and is still an active Catholic.
In explaining the Voodoo religion to me, Michael Bill was quick to point out that communication with spirits is everything. A practitioner can pray to the Loas (the spirits of Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo), but also to your ancestors who have since moved on. There is no disconnect from the living and the dead, but they are, in fact, all one and the same. To open up the portal into the spirit world, one must pray to or ask Legba, the Loa of the Gates.
Voodoo practitioners can catch lost spirits, wrangle them in and bring them to another location so as to protect them or help them to later cross over. On the other hand, if another practitioner knows that a spirit that is attached to you, they can then use the spirit against you. And even when discussing the Dead—literally the cemeteries—Michael Bill informed me that in the Voodoo religion, the practitioner owns the spirits of the graveyard.
In countless of religions around the world, the fine line between the living and the dead is very fine, indeed. In parts of Asia, for example, the spiritual belief exists that ghosts are people who have passed away, and yet have refused to be reincarnated because of unfinished business on the earthly plane. It is thought that those ghosts who refuse to cross over can reap their revenge on the people who wronged them during life. In the Hindu religion, scriptures speak of ghosts being sinners in life, and who are subsequently trapped on Earth to wander around in the darkness for all of eternity.
In the Christian denomination, however, the story changes ever so slightly. C Michael Patton, the founder, and president of House Ministries and a creator of a Theology program, has discussed the actuality of ghosts haunting the earthly plane. Although the Christian worldview allows for the idea of disembodied spirits, Patton argues that this does not mean that those same spirits actually “haunt” or communicate with the living.
While a person’s spirit enters an intermediate state after death, it’s possible for demons to roam the Earth, impersonating those who have died, even including pets. But near-death experiences may prove otherwise. Out-of-body experiences happen too frequently to ignore, Patton has said. Instead, it must be considered that some “paranormal activity can be legitimately attributed to disembodied human spirits (ghosts).”
And then, celebrations such as Day of the Dead bridge spirits and the living once again.
Almost every single culture includes something about ghosts within their beliefs. While some might argue that ghosts are just a figment of the imagination, others truly feel as though spirits are the souls of their deceased loves ones who have chosen to visit the living.
It seems that quite frequently, those who keep to a more skeptical lens of the paranormal refer to the undead (not vampires, y’all) as ghosts, spirits, specters, or poltergeists. The terms are grouped together in an almost synonymous verbiage mashup that does little to distinguish the various entities. (I know that I’m at fault for this, too, and often exchange ‘ghosts’ and ‘spirits’ on an every-other sentence basis).
But for believers in the paranormal who classify themselves as spiritualists, many choose to distinguish between the terms. Michael Bill, for one, has chosen to use the term “spirit” because it indicates that it is the living essence of a person.
Paranormal investigators might call them an “intelligent ghost,” as they react and continue to live on the earthly plane even though they have not retained their physical body. Spirits or “intelligent ghosts” are generally those caught on EVP sessions or other voice recorders.
The spiritual belief, regardless of faith, denomination, or religion, reinforces the idea that death is nothing but a curtain drawn back, or a stepping stone into the next experience. And it is perhaps this take on the paranormal world that makes the most difference: that spiritualists tend to believe that the life of the body is the end of the road for the soul, but only one rung in the very tall ladder.
For those energies that remain unresponsive on the earthly plane, they are sometimes called “unintelligent ghosts.” These residual energies continue to repeat the same motions day after day, but lack the ability to communicate or react to the physical world around them.
Turn on your TV and you’re bound to run into a ghost-hunting TV show. Shows like Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters have been put aside for a new group of paranormal shows: psychic or medium programs.
In Psychic Detectives, once a police case runs cold, the “psychic detectives” are brought in to try and solve the crime. The Dead Files is another big hit, in which a retired Homicide Detective and a psychic band together to rid haunted homes of the ghosts which haunt them.
But perhaps no other show can come close to the overall success of Long Island Medium. (I’ll admit, I watched the first season like an addict). Although her abilities have since been called into question, Theresa Caputo was already largely successful as a medium before the show even aired in 2011. According to her website, her booking list was already at two years in advance before even the first episode went up on TV.
In the show, Caputo goes about her daily life, receiving messages from the dead for their loved ones. Some of the people Caputo gives readings to are her clients while yet others are people she stops on the streets because “Spirit” won’t leave her alone.
In fact, that is probably her most frequently used phrase on the show: “Spirit does what it wants.”
How does Spirit do what it wants, though, and what does that even mean? For Theresa Caputo, her messages from Spirit are given in code, a mixture of symbols and sights that she has practiced for over thirty years on how to best decode and translate them.
For Caputo, it’s not a matter of if spirits exist, it’s a matter of how to interpret their messages.
Doreen Virtue, a self-proclaimed “folk psychology motivational speaker,” is the founder of Angel Therapy. Angel Therapy is a “non-denominational spiritual healing method that involves working with a person’s guardian angels and archangels, to heal and harmonize every aspect of life.” Virtue (which is her real surname by the way) has grown so popular that she doesn’t even have time to take private clients anymore, and directs all of her focus on writing books and creating oracle cards. After receiving three different university degrees in Counseling Therapy, she worked as a psychotherapist for years before shifting her focus to her business.
For Theresa Caputo and Doreen Virtue, they might refer use the term “Spirit” or “Angels,” but the concept is relatively the same: the paranormal world is active and ingrained within our popular culture for those who believe.
Gretchen Upshaw was around four or five-years-old when her imaginary friend first appeared. To Upshaw, however, he was real. They played all day, and talked just as often. On one occurrence, she recalled clambering into her family’s station wagon when her father slammed the door shut—right on her friend’s hands. “I screamed and cried,” Upshaw reflected, “as if I was the one feeling the pain.”
Upshaw was so inclined to treat her friend like he was the same as everyone else, that when she and her family went out to dinner, she demanded that her parents order her friend some food too.
Then, when she was about six-years-old, he simply disappeared. Upshaw suspected that she’d never see him again, but one afternoon when she was in her late twenties, she glanced up and saw him. He stood next to her bed, glancing down at her—a full body apparition. Much later, she would describe the man standing at her bed to her mother. But when she sketched the details of his face, her mother’s face turned pale, and she launched herself up from her chair. When Upshaw’s mother returned to the room, she thrust a photograph at Upshaw.
In the photograph, Upshaw’s mother sat on the knee of her legendary “imaginary friend.” But the man in the photo?
He was Upshaw’s great-grandfather who had passed away a year before she was born.
Since then, Upshaw’s great-grandfather has come and gone from her life, but always seem to appear when she needs his support the most.
Michael Bill was giving our Killers and Thrillers Tour a few months back when it happened.
He was on the north side of the French Quarter, bringing his group toward the haunted Jimani Bar, when he felt a dark force. Vividly he recalled seeing a spirit standing by the garbage cans along Iberville Street.
As a Voodoo practitioner and a medium himself, Michael Bill was accustomed to seeing spirits, even while giving tours. Normally he’d simply glance at the spirit, roll his shoulders and look away. After all, it was nothing he hadn’t seen before. But not this time.
“I shouldn’t have looked back,” he murmured quietly. “I looked back and I shouldn’t have. It had bulging eyes and this thin, drawn face.” The spirit was not one of the men who died in the mass fire above the Jimani at the Upstairs Lounge in 1972. Instead, Michael Bill felt as though it was much older. “I felt it might have been some sort of Wendigo. I felt like it was as old as the Native Americans who were once here . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if even the Native Americans were scared of him.”
Based on the legend of the Algonquian peoples along the Atlantic Coast of the United States, a Wendigo was a human who succumbed to the desire to eat human flesh. Only, after doing so it became this sort of half-beast that could transform into either human or monster at will.
Could the spirit Michael Bill witnessed have been something as dark as that?
After Michael Bill saw the apparition, a dark weight settled over him and he was unable to shake the sensation off. Tears whispered down his cheeks, and later, Michael Bill couldn’t help but wonder if the guests on his tour thought his reaction had been to the story of the Jimani and the fire that had consumed the building and thirty-two lives.
“I looked back, later, to see if the spirit had followed me, but I didn’t see it. Who knew where it had gone, but later that night I got physically ill.” Michael Bill paused in the retelling of his story. “I should have turned around and called it out, but I had sixteen people on the tour and didn’t want them to think I was a nut-ball.”
(I imagine that most people would have thought it was just part of the tour and gone along).
When asked if he thought the spirit had been out to hurt him, Michael Bill only shook his head. “No, I don’t think that was part of his agenda. I think he was there to watch.”
Who the spirit was, we will never know, but it’s safe to say that it’s appearance left a mark on Michael Bill, and whenever he wanders down in the direction of the north side of the French Quarter, he still recalls that dark force.
It’s enough to make anyone glance over their shoulder in fright.
Although “spirituality” can often be a term confused or misinterpreted, it’s fair to say that spirituality, Spirit or religion are all just another way to look and believe in the paranormal. There is no wrong or right way to look at “faith” in the ghost world, and perhaps the main point of it all is the unquestioning faith that something exists after death.
Is it Heaven? A sort of reincarnation? Do our energies combine with the Universe itself and simply continue into another dimension?
Although it’s difficult to argue one way or another without dipping into specific cultural or spiritual beliefs, what can be theorized is this: for those who choose to believe in the paranormal, it is often because they have accepted that we aren’t alone.
We may not understand why spirits remain on the earthly plane, but we accept, simply, that they do. And until a time comes when the spirit or energy transcends to a different plane or space, it is not the world of just the living, but also the world of the essences of people whose physical bodies have already left.
"A person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions."
This is the definition of a "skeptic," graciously provided by Mirriam-Webster. More importantly, this is how many people classify themselves when they're asked the question: "Do you believe in ghosts?"
As a tour guide that gives New Orleans Ghost Tours, I've asked this question many-a-time to my guests. The consensus from the group is almost always a resounding, "Oh yeah, you won't believe what I've seen." Then, my gaze flicks to the sole person staring blankly back at me—he or she is usually huddled next to a group of friends who are nothing less than enthusiastic—and I reiterate my question, as I'm genuinely interested in learning his or her beliefs.
Generally speaking, the answer is unanimous across the board: "I'm a skeptic."
After giving more ghost tours than I could even attempt to count (I won't, just so you know), I've found that "I'm a skeptic" generally translates to "I'm a non-believer."
(Disclaimer: This is not always case, but I would put it at about 80-85% from my experiences).
If we are to compare "skepticism" to "non-believing" I do think we would come up on the wrong side of the equation. By definition alone, the two are not the same. Doubt is not synonymous with disbelief, as the former implies that there is a shred of question and the latter is full rejection.
Ancient Greek philosophers once labeled themselves as "skeptikoi," as they were followers of the philosopher Pyrrho. A skepticos (the singular form) believed in inquiry or reflection. Thousands of years later, Miguel de Unamuno would write in his 1924 article, "Essays and Soliloquies," that a "Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found."
According to Tim Nealon, the founder of Ghost City Tours and a paranormal investigator for over a decade, "skepticism, when it comes to ghosts and hauntings (and everything else in life), should be a large part of your thinking. In today's paranormal ‘field' too many people are willing to accept that anything and everything is a ghost."
But does there exist a fine line between skepticism (in terms of investigation) and the all-out acceptance of hauntings and spirits?
For many, the desire to prove that ghosts and hauntings exist have led to them relying on "science" for answers. Does science have the answers?
No doubt, TV has had a hand in inciting the paranormal "craze" in the last twenty years or so. One of the earliest ghost-hunting shows was Most Haunted, a UK program that aired on the Travel Channel here in the States. Yvette Fielding was both host and one of the show's creators, and though there was a bit of a rotating cast—for both the living and the dead—the premise always remained the same: to bring in a team of paranormal investigators and visit locations all over the world in hope of documenting ghostly activity.
By the time that Most Haunted aired its final episode in 2010, there were a slew of other ghost-hunting shows that had taken over TV. Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, the founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (T.A.P.S.), starred in probably the most famous series, Ghost Hunters. They'd come together, apparently, because they were frustrated with the way that other investigative groups conducted ghost-hunting.
For Hawes and Wilson, they believed that "[they] approach ghost hunting from a scientific point of view" (Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from The Atlantic Paranormal Society, 270). As Benjamin Redford has pointed out, however, Hawes and Wilson spent a grand total of four paragraphs (of 273 pages) discussing their scientific methods in a chapter called "The Scientific Approach." Four paragraphs, from the most (allegedly) credible ghost-hunting show on TV? Does this seemingly lack of scientific methodology mean that science in its basest form cannot coincide with paranormal activity?
Elaine, one of Ghost City Tours' leading guides on our ghost tours and ghost hunts in New Orleans, put it this way: "The paranormal is, by its nature, almost impossible scientifically [to] prove. For something to be scientifically provable, it must be capable of being disproved with experiments that can be repeated. You never know if a ghost is going to show up, if it is going to be able to give you evidence, or if it will be the same evidence as last week."
The fact that ghost are "impossible" to prove has been a sticking point for scientists, though that hasn't stopped them from trying. Over the years, scientists have attempted various experiments to discover whether or not ghosts exist. They've tested infrared signals; the mental state of the person who "experienced" the haunting; electromagnetic fields (EMFs); cognitive personality traits; and have even conducted base-controlled tests on psychics and mediums.
Their verdict? Ghosts and spirits do not exist.
In its basic form, science requires that the investigator do just that: investigate. In one study from 2007, a group of researchers decided to test the infrared levels at Mary King's Close in Edinburgh, Scotland. Originally exposed to the sky and city, the bottom levels of these thirteen-story structures were closed off in the 1600s so that the Royal Exchange building could be extended overhead. This left many narrow alleys and corridors completely disconnected from the bustling city above—and also spawned a great many ghost stories.
Rumors of murders and of plague victims being placed in the walls have circled Mary King's Close ever since, and are discussed even further on ghost tours which take guests and descend to the closes. Guests have reported feeling nauseous, lightheaded and, at times, even nervous or panicked. (I myself have taken a tour and can admit to feeling much the same).
Inquiring scientists then began to wonder if infrared levels were the reasoning behind guests feeling strange or hearing noises usually attributed to hauntings. Subsequently, the scientists raised the infrared levels during a 2007 ghost festival. Later, they asked people how they felt during that tour. Those subjected to the infrared had experienced temperature raises, and also reported that they'd had an incredibly spooky experience. (This test was run in conjunction with a group who proceeded through the tunnels and underground space without any alteration to the infrared).
In a different study from 2000, a cognitive neuroscientist from Laurentian University in Canada used electromagnetic fields to "stimulate the brain of a 45 year old man who'd reported previous ghostly experiences." With the magnetic fields, the researchers were able to "conjure" a similar apparition that the man had seen man years before.
Understandably, the man panicked and experienced a huge rush of fear envelop over his body. The researchers documented this all.
For scientists, it is less that ghosts and hauntings do not exist and more about the fact that they can't prove it. So, what does this mean for the paranormal world?
As paranormal TV shows grew with exceeding popularity, so did the need for ghost tours. For many people, visiting a haunted city like New Orleans or Savannah isn't complete without a ghost tour. There's nothing like unveiling the often-dark and secretive side of a city to make your trip a success. (Or maybe that's just me). It isn't much of a shock to walk down the street at night, only to see a group of people standing on the sidewalk with their cameras and cellphones all aimed at the building in question.
What are they doing?
Trying to capture ghosts, of course. Or, at least, the residual imprint of spirits.
(Disclaimer: It has since become widely understood in the paranormal world that 99% of 'orbs' are not the energy or manifestation of a spirit).
It's part of the fun of a ghost tour, but with more and more people taking ghost tours, so does the desire to capture that residual imprint of spirits. (What's the point of taking a ghost tour if you can't see a ghost, am I right?)
To fulfill this desire, many Ghost Tour companies in the last few years have taken to promising guests the opportunity to catch "real" ghosts by using ghost-hunting equipment on their walking tours. These companies legitimize their product (the tours) by arguing that the equipment itself will prove any paranormal activity experienced by guests through "science." Through this avenue, they hope to gain credibility among the masses.
That credibility is an illusion.
Paranormal investigators, most of whom are skeptics in the truest definition of the word, understand that the likelihood of capturing any ghostly evidence while on a ghost tour is slim to none. Crowded streets, busy bodies standing just beside you, the weather, even, are all elements that tip the scale to tampered evidence.
So why use the ghost-hunting equipment on a tour, anyhow? In all likelihood, Ghost Tour companies probably use the supposedly "credible" ghost-hunting equipment because there is a recent, pressing desire to learn about ghosts and to understand what "science" tells us does not exist.
(In truth, the equipment can be credible and reliable, but only in pre-approved, quarantined locations. The middle of the street with cars racing past and horses clip-clopping down the street and the drunk dude standing next to you really doesn't count).
It's all too easy to jump at the creak of a staircase or the whisper of a girl's voice on an EVP recording.
In talking to Elaine, who leads ghost hunts for Ghost City Tours, she explained that she does her best to discount a lot of things that many guests would immediately declare as paranormal evidence. "Say I hear a sound," she said, "I will announce that I heard something, see if anyone confirms that they heard it too. If no one heard it, I assume it's my ears playing tracks on me. If someone else heard something, I will ask they heard."
In effect, Elaine uses scientific methods to uncover what exactly is going on during her ghost hunts. Easy as it might be to claim that anything is an apparition or a ghost, it's much better to sit back and think about your surroundings while eliminating anything that might have posed a threat to the investigation.
In doing so, there's a good chance that the true hauntings of a location might reveal themselves to you.
1022 Royal Street, which is situated in the French Quarter, is the location where Ghost City Tours holds overnight ghost hunts five night per week. For three of those nights, Elaine is usually in charge of those investigations. When growing up, Elaine often felt that her rather liberal episcopalian background influenced her ideas on the paranormal. Unlike other denominations, she didn't feel as though her church told her that studying the paranormal was bad and her interest in ghosts and hauntings grew from there. In fact, she often went to the library to read up even more. On one particular occurrence, she was reading up on Duke University's 1970s parapsychology experiments when complete strangers walked up to her to inform her she'd be going to hell for read the material.
Over time, Elaine developed a wider understanding of the paranormal. As she told me, "I think the concept of ghosts and spirits is just part of our cultural miasma. Which can actually be really harmful to investigating scientifically, because there are so many things we just take for granted. Like ‘ghost' automatically equals dead human spirits." Scientifically, Elaine was quick to point out, we have no idea what "ghost" translates to on the supposed Other Side.
In conducting ghost hunts at 1022 Royal, Elaine has maintained that same approach, even when most people's instincts would have pointed to "ghost!" and stayed there.
On a particular night a month or so ago, she and her guests (broken into two groups) gathered at the end of the night. Despite the fact that it was unscientifically proven, they all—Elaine included—felt as though they were being watched. Without warning, all of the K-2 meters began to go off. Elaine and the group began to ask the spirit questions, and the K-2 meter responded would go off in direct response to the questions.
It was enough to make goosebumps appear ripple on the skin of even the firmest of nonbelievers. Then, one of the women told Elaine of the spirit that she and her group had been talking to earlier. The spirit's name was Samuel and that time, chills really did run down Elaine's spine. She hadn't told a single person that night of any spirit named Samuel, as they had no evidence of a spirit named Samuel at the location. Only, a few weeks earlier a different guest at 1022 Royal had reported to Elaine of a spirit named Samuel that she and her group conversed with on an EVP session.
Turns out, the information given to Elaine from both women was exactly the same. Even more, the information she'd gathered from the women reflected and matched a couple of experiences that she'd had that she not shared with anyone. Not a single soul.
For Elaine, "the most important scientific markers for paranormal activity is repetition." The event hadn't been a shot in the dark, it had been the same experience twice. "If it happens again, I'll be really happy," she explained.
Fact is: ghosts can't be proved. Not in the classic "let's hold various experiments" way, at any rate. Even ghost hunts or "lockdowns" require the investigators to eliminate as many outside, interfering sources as they can in order to achieve less contaminated evidence.
Does this mean that we should not believe in ghosts at all? No, this is not the case at all. Nealon has argued that it's imperative that people seeking the paranormal question everything. In taking a scientific approach (i.e. questioning and reflecting), he has only made himself more open to new concepts and ideas within the paranormal sphere.
"When doing an investigation, you have to question everything. And actually do it, not just say you do so that you can feel good about what you're doing, all the while thinking everything is a Ghost," says Nealon emphatically. Being a skeptic within the paranormal world is perhaps the best device or strategy that a person has at his or her disposal.
And even for those like Elaine and Nealon who both believe in ghosts, being a skeptic does not mean that they disbelieve. Sometimes, understanding the paranormal simply means that we don't understand it at all, which is where science—and more specially, technology—seeks to close the gap and provide us that ever-elusive knowledge.
And as Tim Nealon has so eloquently put it, "the fact that people can think that they can control ghosts—or even understand them—shows the depth of human arrogance."
So, the why? The how?
Maybe ghosts and hauntings just are.
“All you need is one experience and you’ll be a believer.”
Can you think of how many times you’ve been told this?
The belief that you only need one paranormal experience to finally believe in ghosts is a bit of a misnomer. I’m guilty of this, and I suspect that’s because I came face-to-face with one (anyone hearing the Ghost Adventures theme intro after that?) when I was only seven-or-so years old.
In truth, I can paint the portrait of the figure I saw then for you even now, almost twenty years later. I can’t remember the first time he appeared, but his hollowed face remains etched in my mind still. He was tall, dressed in an early twentieth-century suit the color of puce, or to clarify, vomit green. Brass buttons lined down the front of his jacket, and all were buttoned but the top two near the collar of his crisp white shirt. On his head he wore a top that reminded me of Abe Lincoln’s even then. But his face . . . his features were what instilled the fear in me.
A sharp, bladed nose, and thin, thin lips. His cheekbones were stark points in his face, as if he were grossly underweight. I can remember nothing of his eyes but that they were black–soulless, some might say–and always trained on me.
This spirit, whoever he was, always stood on the threshold of my childhood bedroom. He never stepped closer, never moved back. But he appeared every night, and I grew so accustomed to sleeping on my left side so that I did not have to seem him, that I continue to sleep exactly the same way today.
He stopped showing up sometime when I was around the age of eleven or twelve, and he has never appeared in my life again (thank God). But my fate was sealed: I was a believer in ghosts, and I soaked up every bit of the paranormal that I could find: psychic Sylvia Browne every Wednesday on the Montel Williams Show. Ghost-hunting TV shows every Friday night on the Travel Channel. Ghost tours when traveling.
Some might say I was obsessed. I’d prefer to think I was merely intrigued. For me that “one” ghostly experience was all I’d needed, and it’s what led me all the way to working for Ghost City Tours.
But the question remains: what does it mean to be a believer in the paranormal?
Over the last few weeks we’ve delved into what it means to be a believer in the paranormal. We’ve covered skepticism and using “science” as a gauge as to whether spirits exist, and, on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve also looked at what it means to have “faith” in the paranormal.
Unsurprisingly, there is no right or wrong way to think about or explore paranormal phenomena. (Did you think I’d pick sides?) The truth of the matter is that there should be a blend, a balance among the various ideologies. Or there should be, at least, within the professional paranormal world. Although there have been paranormal investigators exploring the darker side of America’s cities for decades, it was not until TV snatched up on the idea of “ghost-hunting” that the paranormal became less of a taboo among the general public.
For example, if you’ve ever watched a ghost-hunting TV show like Ghost Hunters, you’ll have seen that there has been a recent effort to debunk all recorded “activity” before ultimately deciding on whether the captured evidence was the consequence of ghostly energy. In TV’s earlier broadcasted programs, there was less of an effort to disprove any supernatural phenomena. A creak in the stairs and the slightest dip in temperature were all ruled “paranormal.” (The Most Haunted team led their investigations this way, and I always worried that poor Yvette Fielding’s wide-eyed glance might become a permanent fixture on her face if she heard one more unexplainable sound).
In the last ten years or so, though, many ghost-hunting TV shows have veered away from the belief that everything is paranormal. In fact, the mid-2000s saw a switch in which nothing was deemed paranormal. Now, there seems to be a blend of the two.
But through it all, there has always been a large-scale attempt to merge skepticism and spirituality. Most Haunted, for example, had two different psychics that were main cast members on the show. Sure, the first tended to become more possessed by the spirits than not–and I have a feeling this is why he was replaced–but there was a genuine attempt to show that investigating ghosts was not just a matter of spirit box or EVPs.
Although Most Haunted might be the earliest example of this blended cocktail, the best example of bridging skepticism and spirituality has probably been the Travel Channel’s The Dead Files. The show consists of a two-person team investigative group: a retired NYPD homicide detective and a medium. The premise, admittedly, is relatively the same as other shows: a house is haunted and the owners have contacted the show’s producers for help. But unlike other paranormal shows, the detective and the medium go their separate ways for the entirety of the investigation and do not meet up again until the very end. The detective hits the archives, talking with the owners of the property, neighbors and local historians. Meanwhile, the medium conducts an overnight walk-through of the haunted location in order to connect with the spirits on the property.
As with all TV ghost-hunting shows, there is always uncertainty if what the viewer is being shown is wholly accurate. But, if we were to say that it is was, then The Dead Files could be viewed as a show that is centered around the debate between skepticism vs. spirituality that we have been looking at closely over the last few weeks. One method might require research through the physical (records, ghost-hunting equipment), but the other still requires research, only it is through a higher energy (spirits, God). Both, however, will deliver you to the same destination.
Finding out if a location is haunted or not.
Though ghost-hunting TV shows are perhaps the most visible source for the general public to see the difference between skepticism, science and the spiritual when it comes to connecting with the dead, ghost tours also are a great way to do.
Ever wondered what your ghost tour guide thinks of ghost tours in general?
Having been a full-time tour guide in the past, it wasn’t out of the norm that I’d sometimes overhear a guide discuss how they didn’t believe in ghosts. Not that they were a skeptic, and therefore sought out more information, but that they did not believe in the paranormal at all.
While I’m sure these folks give some awesome tours, it strikes me as a little deceiving to regale guests with a story that you yourself think is complete nonsense. Case in point: there’s a reason why Ghost City Tours does not offer vampire tours in any of its operating cities. When the company launched in 2012, there was a decision made to stay historically accurate. Are we anti-Count Dracula over here? Not at all, but a mission was put in place to discover America through its viable ghost stories and hauntings. Made up tales (about vampires or even legends) have no place on our particular tours, unless there has been an attempt to debunk the well-established urban legend.
For the employees of Ghost City Tours, all are believers in the paranormal:
To avoid spirits following her home, our Customer Service Supervisor, Tonja, burns incense in her house.
Michael Bill, one of our leaders on our ghost tours and ghost hunts, is a Voodoo practitioner who connects with and sees the dead on a daily basis.
Another of our tour guides, Elaine, believes in the paranormal but always strives to eliminate any external plausibilities before concluding evidence as paranormal.
Tim Nealon, Ghost City Tours’ owner, has simply said: “I believe. There is no way that I couldn’t. I’ve had too many experiences for [the paranormal] to all be nothing.”
But perhaps our General Manager, Gretchen Upshaw, put it best: “I believe that everyone deserves the right to form their own thoughts, opinions and beliefs according to their own experiences and perceptions. I don’t think that any way of thinking is the right way, pertaining to the paranormal.”
To put it another–albeit somewhat cheesy–way: we at Ghost City Tours are all various coloring crayons that form a single set with a single purpose.
What can you expect, then, upon taking a ghost tour or ghost hunt with us?
Though all of our guides strive to be neutral, inevitably traces of their personal beliefs show through. For example, when Michael Bill conducts our New Orleans Ghost Hunt at 1022 Royal, he often asks Legba (the Voodoo “Saint” of the Spirits) to open the gates to the spirits themselves before the hunt begins. And if one guest really wants an experience, he sometimes asks the ghosts of the property to amp up their game. Don’t worry, though, as both Michael Bill and Elaine reward their ghostly co-workers for their hard work: candy for the young spirit Chloe, and lighters for the male spirit Johnny who died on the front steps of the building over a century ago.
The employees of Ghost City Tours come with various backgrounds: religious or non-religious, skeptics or those who actually have the ability to speak to the dead. In that way, the company is simply a reflection of the general public’s own perception of the paranormal, composed of people with different beliefs that all ultimately believe that ghosts do exist. Moreover, they (and by that, I mean we) are all firm believers that is no right way to explore the paranormal.
(If there was a concrete understanding of ghosts, then paranormal investigators wouldn’t even exist, and ghost tours would serve no purpose.)
As a tour company, Ghost City offers a bridge between the skeptics and the faithful, both among our own staff and for our guests.
After all, it’s the sense of mystery and the unknown that sets off the intrigue, only further heightened after experiencing that very first paranormal phenomenon. After that? Well, you’re as hooked as the rest of us.
Will you allow Ghost City Tours to be your guide in discovering the restless spirits of America’s Most Haunted cities?
Happy Haunting, y’all, and remember: there is no right way to believe in the ghostly world, only whichever way or belief works for you.