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'Creating Hauntings': An Ethical Problem

PSI’s Dave Wood takes a look at the ethical problem of investigating properties with no ‘current hauntings’.    

Many paranormal investigation teams rely on approaching owners of public buildings to request permission to do research. Most paranormal researchers will have seen it happen: an investigation team goes into a building with no reputation for hauntings. Reasons can vary but often involve some personal fascination with the site or the site being, for some reason, perceived as impressive. Investigators have even been quoted as saying something like ‘you don’t know if it is haunted until you look – you might discover a brand new haunting!’    

My mind had not much explored this idea until a great venue was presented to the PSI team as part of the Haunted Swindon project. There was just one drawback, there was no talk of the building being haunted. There was a perception that it “must be”, because of the history of the building, but there were no witnesses or even any stories. The building was requested to keep its ear to the ground for almost a year about any possible tales. When nothing emerged it became clear, ethically, that it would be wrong to investigate the site.    

As the great Maurice Townsend once said, “there is a tendency to find what you’re looking for in the paranormal”. Most seasoned researchers will acknowledge that if you put people into a building where they expect to see a ghost they will experience a variety of phenomena – cold spots, knocking, light anomalies – that are easily explained naturally by misattribution and expectation.    

So what if you send an investigation team into a building with no haunting reports? It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest they will continue to have these ‘spooky’ experiences that are easily explained. In a normal investigation case this presents an ethical problem, but rigorous assessment of the ‘evidence’ and careful debrief with clients can overcome many such problems.    

But coming back to a ‘non-haunted’ building, is analysis and debriefing enough to overcome an even greater ethical barrier? Once a building gains a haunting reputation it is hard to shake off. An investigation team going into a site and experiencing ‘naturally explainable event’s can lead to the assumption from the outside world that the building is, in fact, haunted.    

Without naming names, many researchers are aware of certain ‘paranormal hotspots’ that only seem to become haunted after TV crews have had a look around. Investigation teams can ‘create’ the perception of hauntings in exactly the same way; the profound ethical problems created by such investigations are strikingly both obvious and unacceptable.