In my book, The Haunted Heart of America, I detail the accounts of my most active and exciting paranormal investigations to date. However, in the past almost two decades, I have been successful in experiencing and documenting such events not only by being there and having the right equipment, but also following a specific set of guidelines and rules that I feel are essential to paranormal investigation. By adhering to these basic steps, one can assure to have a great experience in the field of the unknown.
First and foremost, safety is the most important aspect of any investigation. Above all, do not ever go to any location alone. This is not only to avoid a confrontation or ambush from unknown assailants, but also if you happen to fall or injure yourself, you are not alone to fend for yourself. Also, always let someone know where you are going to be and when you are likely to return; this will give someone a timeline of when you should be back. In addition to having people with you, always have a cell phone and other items available in case of an emergency. Be aware of the location you are going to. Check the area of any dangers or risks before you travel, including any forecasted bad weather or dangerous areas in which you might be. If possible, always scout your location during the day to check for obstacles and dangers around that could cause falling or injury. Another very important rule: do not trespass! (This includes breaking into a location forcibly.) You are risking harm—and possibly incarceration or citation—in doing so. I know for some it is tempting to get into a place you can't normally get into, but if a sign is posted, do not enter. If you find a place that is abandoned you want to investigate, see if you can locate the property owner and get permission to be there.
Make sure you are familiar with your equipment you are using. It is not necessary to know every theory about the paranormal and spirits, but make sure you know about the devices themselves, how they are used, and some of the results that have been obtained by using them from other investigators. It's always beneficial to be aware of the functionality of the device so when it does activate, one does not always assume it's a spirit that is doing it. If using an energy device such as an EMF meter, use the device in a normal everyday setting to see how it reacts to a natural energy source. This will help identify false positive readings and also give you experience in using the equipment. Have a test run with each device before each investigation to ensure they are working properly, have good battery power, and have proper storage capacity if using any audio/video devices. The minimum equipment every group should have is a camera, audio recorder and EMF device. EVERYONE should have a flashlight. Dress or prepare appropriately for the season, which means heavy coats and clothes in winter. I know very well how miserable an investigation can be in the extreme heat/cold in a building with no power. Please keep this in mind when scheduling an investigation.
Regardless if you are having one extra person or five, make sure to sit down with everyone beforehand and go over the investigation procedures. Even if you are working with experienced investigators, it's good for everyone to know what their role is in the field, what equipment they will be using to investigate, and what everyone's expectations are. This will help prevent confusion on the investigation and help the investigation flow more easily. Also make sure everyone arrives and leaves together as a group, not only to ensure the safety for everyone, but to also help with accountability (it you are working with a business owner or property owner at a particular site it makes it easier for them to know that everyone is present and accounted for). One thing you don't want is people showing up late or at different times throughout the night. Also tell everyone to turn off silence their phones during the investigation. This is not only as a courtesy, but also to ensure they don't accidently activate one of your devices. Make sure everyone has a code or word to identify themselves in the event of them making a loud noise during quiet investigation time. (A simple, "that was me," would suffice.) Also enforce the "no whispering" rule during investigations. This is one of the most annoying things you can encounter when doing audio review to find a great EVP only to discover it was your friend thinking out loud or asking the time to another investigator.
When starting the investigation, have a plan of methodology for where you will be throughout the night. If possible, know the locations of the building where activity has been experienced or reported and make plans to visit those areas at some point during the investigation. At the start, make sure you do an entire walkthrough of the whole building/location while taking readings/recordings with your various devices. I have learned that it's easier to go through the building all at once the first time than breaking it up throughout the night. This will also guarantee that you made it too all of the areas instead of potentially forgetting later or running out of time at the end of the night. Once you have walked through the entire area, make note of where you will stay stationary for a while to monitor the area. (We called these "sit-downs," as we would all get chairs, set up our devices throughout an area, and monitor those areas for activity or interaction.) These areas should be the ones with previous activity or those that you had experiences with (device activation, voices/noises heard, shadows seen, etc.) during your walkthrough. When doing a sit-down session, make sure to position your equipment as far away from yourselves as possible to prevent them from picking up anything from the group (some devices pick up motion/vibration and can register anything a simple as a chair moving across the floor or footsteps from the group).
If something happens during the sit-down or investigation, make note of it immediately. Some people are worried about saying anything to anyone because they feel no one would believe them. However, some others may also experience or hear/see the same thing when brought to their attention. Should anyone in the group see/feel/hear anything, stop everything else immediately. If they are feeling a cold spot, take temperature readings around them. If possible, have someone else photograph them and the area around them or the area where the activity is being seen/heard/felt. Should you or someone in your group hear something in the distance, such as a voice, try to ensure everyone is silent for a moment after. (I know it's difficult to be quiet as many will be excited, but it's best to be quiet for the chance of capturing it on your audio recorders.) If you are conducting a sit-down session and a device goes off, start asking questions; this could potentially be a spirit trying to communicate with you. You would be surprised what activity can happen when asking questions after a meter activates. Should you or anyone in your group start to feel ill, nervous/anxious, or scared, have them leave the area immediately. Make sure someone goes with them and stays with them until their feeling subsides. This also applies to someone who gets scratched or harmed in any way. I know that some feel confident and they can endure being harmed for the validity of a haunting, but no one should be put in harm's way during an investigation due to the unpredictability of what could happen in doing so. Remember, being a good paranormal investigator is not about being brave, it's about being smart.
Lastly, make sure the conclusion of investigation is just as thorough as the beginning. Make sure any trash is picked up and disposed of. Have everyone do an inventory of the equipment to ensure you have everything and nothing is forgotten. If working with a business/property owner, tell him/her you are all leaving the location and lock the property up if instructed to do so. When you finish, make sure everyone that has equipment goes over what was captured to look/listen for anomalies or EVP. It doesn't do much good to go out if you are not willing to take the time to go over the evidence you have collected. I know firsthand that it is a very tedious task to sit down and listen to hours and hours of audio collected, but it is a necessity if you are to gather evidence from locations. Also, set a time to get back together with everyone that was present so everyone can bring their evidence and go over it as a group. Discuss what was found, and don't be afraid to debate a piece of evidence if you feel it is not valid. Someone could mistake someone's voice as EVP and you might be the only one point it out. As investigators we are not perfect, and sometimes it is good to have the opinions and views of others. Take the time to send your evidence to business/property owners if requested. It always makes a difference if people know you went through the effort to collect data and evidence rather than just coming out to experience a haunting. It will also build a good reputation with them in the event you and your group would like to re-investigate a location.
As I said before, these are just the basic principles of conducting an investigation. I know every person/team has their own guidelines or rules to follow. These are not only for experienced investigators but new ones as well. If these rules are followed, most should have a productive and exciting investigation experience. I know that above all investigating should be fun and interesting, and I personally hope and wish you all the greatest and most haunted experiences! Happy Hunting!