I have a confession: I started investigating the paranormal because of a TV show.
This isn't really a secret. I wrote a book, Paranormal Obsession: America's Fascination with Ghosts & Hauntings, Spooks & Spirits, about how paranormal reality TV impacts American society through discussions around religion and science. I fully acknowledge that pop culture was my gateway drug to the bigger picture.
I used to be an armchair investigator. Now, I do it myself and I personally know most people on the TV shows. Yet, despite the glitz of reality TV, I acknowledge that there are those who paid their spirit dues long before ghost shows became solid cable programming.
There was a time before team culture dominated paranormal investigation, before every investigator in a black t-shirt desired to be in front of a camera, before, "Dude, run!" and, "What the hell was that?" entered paranormal lexicon. Researchers and authors such as Hans Holzer, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, Troy Taylor, and Loyd Auerbach (among others) were trailblazers. They utilized public interest in the subject matter yet quietly engaged research—an endeavor they dabbled in long before they landed a book deal or a TV appearance.
Before that time, many who embraced "The Work" arrived at that place through a spiritual lens. Or, alternatively, some sought to understand why people had exceptional experiences in the first place.
For Mediums and intuitives, the gift of discernment provided insight into a mysterious, intriguing realm. Pagans and Occultists played a larger role than what popular culture currently depicts. Parapsychologists strove to study mechanisms involved in ghostly phenomena. For amateur, technically motivated paranormal investigators, those of the past often mixed these two perspectives—the metaphysical and the scientific—to document strange occurrences.
Regardless of the worldview, the focus was on helping the living, and sometimes, spirits, find peace.
Investigators, parapsychologists, and energy workers still embrace multiple traditions in understanding paranormal events. But one variable now determines how many amateur investigators approach "the Work:" a great deal of it involves how one looks on camera.
The early reality TV paranormal investigators on Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State were real investigators who invested years in the field before TV found them. Parapsychologists also had one hand in pop culture, consulting for and sometimes appearing on episodes of One Step Beyond and other similar shows from the past (there is even a episode of The Waltons where John Boy discusses reading a book about ESP and mentions the Duke Parapsychology Lab, which is today the Rhine Research Center). Public culture has long had an appetite for the supernatural. There is no shame in the public end. But of course, there is a flip side.
Personal Growth and "Ghost Hunting"
I know investigators who became so well-versed in audio and video editing that they are now making award-winning independent short movies. The complex, voluntary nature of managing paranormal teams has helped many appreciate previously untapped organizational skills. And, perhaps most importantly, many people get firsthand experience making a difference in people's lives.
Paranormal investigation is also the only opportunity many have to systemically engage deep thinking. Most of us don't have day jobs where we are asked to intellectually and spiritually ponder our role in the world. Yet, while on investigation, one has to employee critical thinking in eliminating natural explanations, but also metaphysical thinking in considering the alternatives. During personal experiences, one sees firsthand the wonderment and mysterious nature of the universe. For many, these experiences allows an escape from our mundane daily lives and provides a silent, still moment where we can explore the larger questions about who we are.
There are many benefits to this work, indeed. And since I'm being honest, I've certainly benefited from the current pop culture attention, the conference circuit, and all of that.
But let me get personal.
I started "ghost hunting" because I was tired of being scared of stuff, in general. I can honestly say that the road into the ghost frontier is certainly the road less traveled. And that has made all the difference.
Facing the Fear
Twenty years later, ghost hunting became a way for me to confront an array of inner, personal demons. I just got tired of being afraid of all sorts of specters, real and otherwise. I suspect that many who engage this hobby also use this as a way to journey inward.
In taking that small, spirited step to spend time facing a seemingly silly spectral fear, something really cool occurred: I stopped being afraid of other things, especially all the roadblocks I had constructed within myself.
I found the confidence to start writing and, subsequently, published two books and other non-paranormal essays. Most importantly, I learned to trust my intuition and decided to leave my marriage despite my most profound fears of taking care of myself and facing the future without a partner.
Paranormal investigation involves seeing and experiencing things that are so phenomenal and out of the ordinary—so miraculous—that one becomes free to reconfigure a personal understanding of their place in the world. There is a blessing in this. One appreciates the power of consciousness, phenomenology, personal experience, and the awe of the created universe. At the same time, it is empowering knowing that one can stand just inches from a shadow person, a ghostly apparition, and remain calm and in full faculty.
All of this was an outgrowth of spending time in "the Work."
What Do You Believe?
I also ask readers to understand the various different legacies that make up what we know as paranormal investigation today. Too many start and finish with the paranormal reality TV version. There is Spiritualism, Paganism, mainstream religion, psychical research, and parapsychology that too few know enough about.
I also want investigators to be careful when we claim to do science. There are academic journals, such as the Journal of Parapsychology, that discuss hauntings as well as ESP and other such phenomena, in a highly academic and scientifically manner. Most ghost hunters aren't familiar with these publications. Rather than say that one is doing "scientific" work, it may be better suited to say that one takes a critical thinking approach to investigation and adheres to a responsibility to rule out any natural causes.
Finally, So You Want to Hunt Ghosts considers emerging ethics of paranormal investigation. There is no moment in history where so many teams are going into private homes and encountering a variety of situations: mental health and underlying medical issues, spiritual struggles, and in some cases, potential child abuse. Paranormal investigators are often "first responders" to undiagnosed and untreated issues (spiritual and sometimes, medical), but we have to be ethical and responsible in the way we handle such situations.
So many of us find deep, transformative meaning when delving into the ghost frontier. This journey allows us to overcome the fear of darkness, literally and metaphorically. Yet, this also calls for us not only to be responsible to our own fears, but to uphold ethics towards others. Our role, in my opinion, is to honor our own journey but also to empower others, be it clients, historic sites, and in some cases, ghosts themselves.
Blessed be to all engaged in "the Work," and may we never do any harm.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (Greensboro, NC) is a Muslim-American paranormal investigator with Haunted North Carolina (HNC). She lectures on many issues, from women in Islam to the paranormal, and has lived and conducted studies ...