When I first started investigating, I was dead set (no pun intended) on gathering “scientific evidence” that ghosts exist. I had gadgets and I had a tool belt to carry my gadgets in. All those gadgets do is make you appear to be technologically hip – until your EMF meter goes off and the homeowner asks you why and you say, “Um… I’m not sure.” Cover blown – your hip status just went down the toilet, folks.
There are simply too many factors that come into play when you get gadgets involved. Unless you are a photographer by trade, you likely don’t know all the intricacies of your camera and all the ins and outs of photography. You can’t truly 100% say that weird blob is anomalous. You can say you “think” it’s anomalous, but really, in the grand scheme of things, do you honestly “think” anyone gives a rat’s ass what you “think”? Not really. They have you there because they want to know what you know, not what you “think.”
Now that I’ve been doing this for a few years, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve changed my focus quite a bit. I have changed my focus to the history behind the hauntings rather than the science of the hauntings. Why is history so important to an investigation? Because no matter what kind of temperature readings, EMF spikes, or moon phases you have in your favor, you ain’t got jack without the history. The history is the basis of anything and everything going on, if in fact, there really is something going on. If you have exhausted every scientific experiment you can think of and checked all the plumbing and there simply is nothing coming up but these people are still giving you accounts of things that have happened to them, then you owe it to them to find out why. That’s why they called you.
If you can find out the history of a location, you will likely find out why it’s haunted. If you can’t find out exactly why, you may at least be able to verify that it is.
My mother lived in a house in Enid, Oklahoma when I was a baby and things happened to her all the time. She would come home and the recliner would be turned facing the wall. Knick-knacks would be moved from where she put them, the lights would come on, the cabinet doors would open – you know, classic haunted house stuff. One night she was awakened to find herself half way off of her bed, as if she had been dragged off of it. All the lights in the house were on and all the cabinet doors and drawers were open. Buffy, our fearless St. Bernard, was cowering under the dining room table whimpering like a baby. She took me from my crib and got the heck outta Dodge and moved out the next day.
About 20 years later, she was working at the employment office when a gentleman came to her desk with his paperwork. As she was going through his papers, she saw the address. It was the same address as the house I was just telling you about. She says, “Oh, I used to live in that house about 20 years ago,” and the guy says, “Really… anything weird ever happen to you there?” So they exchange stories and it turns out this guy is having things happen, too.
Well, I always thought this was a great creepy story so one night I’m relaying it to a few friends. I say the address and one of my friends starts completely freaking out. After he settles down he proceeds to tell me, “We always deliver medicine to the old lady that lives there and she is always going on about how the devil lives in her house and we always just thought she was crazy!”
So, you see, there are three stories from three totally unrelated people over the span of several years, of things happening to them in this same house. Do we know why the house is haunted? No. But with three stories like that, I think we can safely say that it is haunted.
This example is why it is so very important to know the history of the location you are investigating. Corroborating stories are more validation to me than an orb in a picture or a crazy EMF reading any day.
So this brings us to “How do I find out the history?” Well, that’s not nearly as easy as waltzing through a place with a bunch of gear that squawks and beeps and flashes, but in the end will be much more impressive, not to mention fulfilling for you as an investigator. People are impressed with intelligence and if you can show that you have done your homework, you will likely gain more credibility for that than for having more crap on your tool belt than someone else.
If you are a credible investigator at all, you will have a very lengthy and in depth questionnaire you’ll use to interview your clients with. Once you have talked with them ad nauseam and you have determined that their troubles are not the cat knocking things over, the pipes rumbling, or the medication they’re taking, then you can begin your quest.
Remember when you were a kid and you thought it would be cool to be like Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys or even Sherlock Holmes? Well, here’s your chance because being a Paranormal Investigator is much like being a private investigator. You have to be very observant of everything in the location and even the actions of the owners. You will have to be able to purvey the scene, interview witnesses, dig for clues, and follow those clues until you find the answer, just like a detective. I would say luckily, you don’t have to have a PI license to do this, but you know, sometimes I think you should because that would cut down on a lot of idiots out there yelling “Ghost” every time they get an orb, but I digress…
The first thing you need to do on your hunt to uncover the past is take good notes. Look for anything that denotes a particular era – pictures, certificates, scrapbooks, photo albums, etc. See if they have any pictures of the location as it looked originally. Sometimes buildings and homes change considerably over the years and these changes might prove to be pertinent to your investigation on down the road. Ask the owner what history they know, if any. Ask them if they have the abstract of the location. The abstract will have all the deeds and mortgages and documents pertaining to the property in it and you can find out a lot from an abstract, such as any changes or additions to the property over the years and people involved in buying or selling it.
Ask the occupants what they know about their neighbors. Find out if any of them have been there for a while. They may not know much about the neighbors and the neighbors might not seem to know a lot either, but Mrs. Cravitz across the street might be able to recall some minute thing that may not seem to matter, but might be a big clue later on. Take good notes! Note anything you find out from the neighbors!
Now, being in the legal field for the last several years, I have learned how to find a lot of things out that people don’t really know about or think about. There are several online search engines that you can subscribe to and would probably be a wise investment if you plan to do a lot of research. There’s also a social security death index online that can be helpful. But for the real nitty gritty research, you’re going to have to get off your butt and actually do some legwork.
Your local courthouse can be a plethora of information. If you can’t get your hands on the abstract, go to the deeds office and look up the address and you can find every deed that has ever been done on that property. Deeds reflect who owns the land and you should be able to tell from the different deeds whether improvements such as houses, etc. have been made on the land. Also note that the deed will just tell you who owned or owns a piece of property – it won’t tell you if someone else rented it. But you can find that out, too. You can also find out who pays the taxes on the property by contacting the Assessor’s office. This information should all be public record. You can find out a lot about a piece of property from the Assessor’s office and I have never had an experience where they weren’t happy to answer any of my questions. All of this is free – the only thing that will cost you is copies. Everything that is in the abstract should be available at the deeds office; it just won’t be all in one handy book like an abstract.
Another thing you might ask for while at the deeds office is to look at the plat of the location. A plat is a plan, map or chart of a city, town or section, usually on land that has been subdivided, indicating boundaries and borders of individual properties. Each lot is identified by number and letter. Lot dimensions are noted. It may also include features such as building locations, water pipes, sewer lines, vegetation, topography, etc. This can show you what was originally in that location and the layout of the property surrounding it. You might also be able to check with the local code or zoning office and see if they have any permits for building improvements or renovations on the property you are investigating – these might have names on them you need or even might tell you about a stairwell or attic that’s been walled up.
To find out who has actually lived in the house you can access the city’s City Directory. Most cities have these and they are normally available at the library or the city offices. Some people call them a Criss-Cross directory also because you can look things up by address, name, or phone number and they’re all cross-referenced. These are great tools in locating people, past or present. They come out once a year and you should be able to get a hold of them fairly easily.
The city utility office is another place you can check for past residents. They are usually very accommodating if you tell them you are doing historical research on the house. I don’t think I’ve ever been told they couldn’t give me that information.
Once you have a good list of names of previous residents, then you can start trying to contact them. I have found that a letter is much less scary for someone to receive than a phone call out of the blue, by a complete stranger, asking them about ghosts. A letter will give them time to process what you are actually saying to them and to do some research on you to determine whether you’re sincere and credible, or a total loon. If they decide you’re a loon, you’re pretty much out of luck and they will probably throw away your letter or save it and show it to their friends saying, “Look what I got in the mail from this loon!” and you’ll never hear a word from them. Or they might be afraid of appearing like the loon and not say anything at all. Or you could get really lucky and they will call you with their stories.
If you don’t hear anything from the previous residents, don’t get discouraged. Go to the graveyard. Not literally, but start digging through the obituaries. Most libraries have a database of some kind of all the obituaries. You can probably access them on microfilm. Genealogy groups are also a good resource and most communities have them and they are always willing to help people, given you don’t blurt out what you’re doing, or they may think you’re loony. Cemetery associations also should have records of every person buried in the cemeteries and they may be another place to check with.
If someone died of unnatural causes, there will likely be a newspaper article on it and if you search the dates surrounding the death, you might come up with a story or two about the occurrence.
If the person died from a crime, there will be a police report, which you should be able to obtain relatively easily from your local police department. Now with everything being available online, many court districts have court documents available online. You would need to find out their location on the net and then you can search by name to see if anyone has any documents filed in the court system. If you have the name of a murderer, you can probably get copies of things like a probable cause affidavit, which basically outlines the crime committed and you will get a lot of details from that. We were working on a home where a heinous murder took place and we were able to obtain a copy of the probable cause affidavit and the information sheet the state filed and we culled several details from those basic documents. We found out where the bodies were discovered, who all the witnesses were, all kinds of things that related directly to the haunting. We were also able to go online to the Department of Corrections and look up the killer – which doesn’t necessarily pertain to the haunting directly, but it was interesting and a name might be relevant to the haunting in the long run.
It would also probably behoove you to become chummy with the local police department. With this particular house I mentioned, we were able to get a walk through with the detective that worked the scene when it happened. He was able to give us a lot of background and the facts of the case, which was pretty exciting because we had all grown up hearing about this murder and over the years the stories grow and change and you never know the truth, so it was cool that he was able to give us the true story and details that we wouldn’t have otherwise known. Of course, if the crime was a long time ago, this might not be something that’s possible, but if it is, take advantage of it.
Some counties and towns have their own history books. My county has a huge two volume set that was put together by the local historical society in the 80’s and it was done by gathering stories and histories from families throughout the county. I use these in my research of local ghost towns and they are one of my most prized and priceless resources, so check with your local historical society or museum and see if they have such a creature, because if they do, you will feel like you have totally hit the jackpot once you start going through it and realizing how much information is in those kinds of books.
If, after you have exhausted all these ideas, you just can’t get one thing to make sense, then I would say to go ahead and document everything the client is telling you, conduct your technical investigation, and provide them with a copy of the report. Have them keep a journal of any further occurrences. Perhaps by documenting everything well, your information may be able to help the next person that lives there. Someone may remember something later on that will make sense to someone and they may call you back. Check back with them periodically to keep track of whatever’s happening there.
As I mentioned earlier, being armed with knowledge is much more impressive than being armed with a bunch of gadgets and you should be well armed now that you know how to conduct a proper historical investigation. It may sound like a lot of work, but you’ll be glad in the long run that you did it and your clients will have a lot more respect for you knowing you worked hard to truly research their problem. I’ve met people that have written books and books on the history of haunted places and have made a great living based on their knowledge of history of haunted places, but I have yet to meet one successful author or investigator that’s successful because he had the biggest tool belt and the most expensive meters.