Sitting here in the dark, watching the moon shine over the autumn landscape (my favorite time of year) I find myself reflecting on the question that is most frequently asked of me: "How do I know if my house is haunted?" The question seems so simple, so endearing and direct, but it is as complex as the human mind or the spiritual realm and it remains an unanswered question to many. As a forensic psychologist and parapsychology researcher, I would stress the importance of perception and the power of the human mind but at the same time I don't want to downplay the spiritual ingredient. I am a skeptical believer. I find that each individual case must remain subjective, unique and scrupulously held in its own paranormal light but to be done so with a phenomenological approach.
When someone asks me, the girl who grew up in a haunted house, how to "know" if a house is haunted, I usually outline a sense of direction toward self-guidance through the paranormal labyrinth that is the human experience. In my book, Haunted by the Abyss, I talk about my other worldly experiences, presenting them in a way that others can identify with subjectively and are open-ended in conclusion; it could be demonic or alien, a dark shadow or a product of the mind's chasm of fears. The language, the experience, the perceptions are all so important they cannot be denied but they also cannot be guaranteed, diagnosed, or easily explained. For that reason, my Halloween treat to you is a step by step guide that I often use as a road map to exploring each paranormal circumstance. The following check-list helps me to determine, through rigorous assessment and observation, if the occurrences and phenomena in question are indeed paranormal and other worldly or if it might be a conjuring of the inner energies we all possess.
- Is the Phenomena Caused by Mental Health?
So much of the paranormal is, well, normal. Sleep disorders, addictions, attention-seeking behaviors, and even adverse side effects of a medication or drug can rationally and logically explain most paranormal phenomena. For example, the folklore behind "Old Hag Syndrome" (wherein an individual wakes up to a heavy chest, difficulty breathing, and even the inability to move their limbs) can be explained by sleep apnea or waking during certain points of the sleep cycle. While this does not make your experience of waking up numb in the night any less scary, it does give you an option for a more regular, less "paranormal" cause (one in five people struggle with sleep disorders!). Also, many chemicals (such as drugs or even caffeinated drinks) that we put into our bodies on a regular basis can contribute to some very scary and perceived paranormal phenomena. Caffeine can cause insomnia, nervousness and restlessness, upset stomach, nausea and vomiting, increased heart rate and respiration, and many other scary side effects. In a potential paranormal situation, many investigators will wave their EMF (electromagnetic frequency) detectors around to dismiss the possibility of electrical illnesses, but still take into consideration the coffee, soda, and energy drinks that a person might be consuming.
These are just a few of the mental health correlations that easily insert their way into the paranormal realm. Mental illnesses like schizophrenia, psychosis, or even external traumas causing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are just a handful of other common explanations for symptoms like delusion, panic, anxiety, insomnia, and other fearful experiences. It is always important to include a mental health assessment into your check-list of what might be occurring when you feel something "off" is haunting you or a client. Remember, these explanations, though not paranormal in nature, do not make the experiences any less scary or valid.
- Is the Phenomena Caused by a Fear Response?
When something scary happens around us, our human body reacts by way of the central nervous system, what is known as our "fight or flight" response. This self-defense mechanism is natural and healthy,but it also changes our perception of reality. This hyperarousal state stimulated by stress is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. While the perceived "threat" might not be real, the body's physiological response is very real. This acute stress response starts by release of adrenaline and norepinephrine from the the adrenal glands—and that's just the start of the body's reaction. Our metabolism slows down, our respiratory response speeds up, our pupils dialate, and our judgement falls secondary to our behavioral responses. I can recall experiences, being completely level-headed (or so I thought), as I was walking the long, broken corridors of a scary mental health asylum a few years ago. I was calm and collected until I heard something call out my name, and immediately my heart seemed to burst out of my chest. My feet began running before I even realized I was on the move down the hallway! I tried to recall the details of the event later that night but everything seemed hazy (as we frequently see in eye witness testimony of stressful situations). Our observations almost become secondary to our biological response to the stress or fear. Sometimes the terrifying experience in question is not paranormal in nature but instead simply terrifying, and our mind is filling in the gaps via social suggestion or false hope. I wish I could say I hear spirits screaming quite frequently on my paranormal investigations, but usually it is a crispy branch against the window, a stray animal darting behind a trash can, or an outside shadow casted by nearby traffic that just stimulates my body into "scare mode."
- Is the Phenomena Caused by Perception?
I keep hitting on perception, but it really is key to understanding what may or may not be a paranormal phenomenon. Once you grasp the ability to include this into your logical assessment it can actually help to alleviate stress as well as validate truly paranormal occurrences in your life. Gestalt psychology is one of my favorite topics when lecturing about the paranormal field, and it helps me explain many of the scary experiences that go bump in the night. Gestalt psychology illustrates the brain's way of organizing information as it is perceived by our body, and categorizes some of the auto-pilot responses our brain uses to jump to conclusions. Paradolia is the explanation for making "something out of nothing" when gazing into a hallway too long or listening to white noise in your ghost box. Continuation helps to describe the movement we see on the battlefields of Gettysburg when staring down long winding roads decorated with directional fence lines. (Your mind "continues" the movement of the incomplete image to a perceived satisfactory conclusion; sometimes creating a ghost out of thin air!) Staring into the flashlight on a paranormal investigation and suddenly seeing it pulse can also be described by Gestalt psychology or even the organization of coincidental factors into false belief…all psychology of the healthy mind! Again, this doesn't mean that the apparition at the end of the hall is not valid, but knowing how the mind works allows you to contest what skeptical believers will clearly ask you later when recounting your paranormal tale.
- Is the Phenomena Caused by Biology?
The psychology of the mind plays a huge role in the "paranormal encounter," but so does the rest of the body. Have you ever seen floaters in your vision or stared up at the spackle before going to bed and then as you close your eyes you begin to see movement? Your mind wanders into the "what if" as you clearly and definitively see something in your mind's eye and even again as you blink in disbelief. It's this background activity that is responsible for your unusual visual experience in the absence of light. The technical term for this phenomena is a "Phosphene," and it is very healthy and natural.
- Is the Phenomena Caused by the Unknown?
When people that are having scary paranormal occurrences in their home and after investigation there is still no feasible explanations of the experience, I sometimes conclude with the "unknown." This does not mean you do or do not have a spirit haunting you, a demon stealing your jewelry, or an alien abducting you in the night, but what it does mean is that there is much to learn about the human experience. Telekinesis, projection (poltergeist theories), the unconscious power of the mind, and even the power of suggestion are difficult to systematically fit into a scientific method, and most parapsychological research (though built on centuries of documented occurrences) is still in a scientific infancy. The unknown is scary because, for most of us in the present world, things are explainable. Not having explanation, not being able to control the environment, and being unsure of the mystery behind the paranormal world can be for some curious while for others it is terrifying. Just because you are perceiving something to be scary, the unknown source does not have to be scary or negative in nature. Sometimes it is simply unknown.
Studying the mind in a forensic setting, my professional day job, helps to fuel my exploration of the unknown at night on paranormal investigations for clients. I never proclaim to be an expert, but instead hope to empower those clients who are responding with fear to their stress and strange phenomenon. Having an assessment guide like this on hand during an investigation can not only deter hateful criticisms of a personal and sometimes spiritual experience, but can also alleviate stress at the time of the scary occurrence. In my experience, I have counted down a check-list similar to this while a dark figure moves towards me just feet away. Questioning my eyes, my mind, my surroundings, my stress response, my fear response, and even what I had eaten earlier helps distract me while deducing what explanations could be used to decrease my fear. Perhaps, during this Halloween season, you find yourself reading my book Haunted by the Abyss, and looking up to see a dark figure, you'll use your own check list to help minimize the fear and explain your own paranormal experience.