IMPROBABLE TRUTHS: NOTES ON THE SCIENCE OF GHOST HUNTING


I’m pleased to post this guest blog from my friend Micah Hanks. I know you will enjoy reading it.


What are ghosts? How can they be studied, or is there even merit to the study of paranormal occurrences that remain on the “fringe” in terms of their ability to be proven scientifically?

To say, precisely, what a ghost is would be about as simple as weighing the soul, something else that has been attempted in the past. The problem here, of course, is that in general terms, the idea of a “soul” is more like a concept—similar to human perception of time—and while we can seemingly perceive its effects, putting our finger on any physical, measurable quantity is more difficult to do. For now, I’ll leave you to think about that, as we’ll be coming back to the problems with saying, with certainty, what a ghost is in just a moment. 

It was my own interest in this subject, as well as some of the logical issues that arise from pondering what, exactly, a ghost may be, that led me to begin visiting The Reynolds Mansion, an antebellum bed and breakfast located in Asheville, North Carolina.

It remains one of the oldest buildings in the area and is a virtual treasure trove for the history buff or antique enthusiast. It is also a bit unusual, in that its present owners, Billy Sanders and Michael Griffith, have a particular penchant for the classic films of yesteryear, especially old horror films. Therefore, visitors to the Reynolds Mansion will find the building both tastefully and expertly decorated with the colors and styles ranging from the antebellum period to the present day, and yet interspersed within the mansion’s rooms and corridors, there are also quaint reminders of the owners’ interest in the macabre. Classic movie posters, statuettes and figurines, and in one instance, a pair of portraits hanging on the wall in the library on adjacent walls display the eerie visage of Barnabas Collins, the cryptic familial keeper of Collinwood on the popular 1960s soap opera “Dark Shadows,” along with his long-lost bride, Josette DuPress. 

And yet, rather strangely, while their interest in the unusual is obvious to any visitor, Sanders and Griffith are practical when it comes to their interpretation of ghostly phenomenon. During a recent visit, I recall asking Billy, who works as the innkeeper, whether he thought any ghosts actually resided there at all. “I prefer to think of them as being something energetic,” he told me. “For some reason, I have a hard time thinking there are just spirits of the dead wandering around Reynolds Mansion for all eternity.” 

The idea of what, precisely, a ghost is—or is not—is part of what initially attracted me to Reynolds Mansion. Granted, the home is very beautiful, and it boasts of southern splendor from every darkened corner and each of its cozy rooms. But there have been enough stories about the place, shared mostly by the guests who have visited there, which remind us of its alleged “haunting.” The Reynolds Mansion has no history of death, nor was it ever raided, ransacked, or razed during the Civil War. There was a significant renovation carried out around the turn of the last century by Nathaniel Augustus Reynolds, during which the mansion had an additional floor added, elevating the already very large Federal Style home to a three floor brick mansion.
Strangely, it is from this third floor where the majority of the ghostly activity seems to emanate. Psychics, paranormal investigators, and general curiosity seekers have come and gone, at the kind, though occasional allowance of Sanders and Griffith, reporting to have seen, felt, or otherwise determined the presence of a little girl who seems to reside there around the vicinity of what, today, is called Maggie’s Room. According to descriptions of the girl, based on what those who have seen her have related of her–manner of dress, how she wears her hair, and other attributes–some have suggested that she may be the spirit of Annie Lee Reynolds, one of the home’s former residents. 

During my research for what would become the book Reynolds Mansion: An Invitation to the Past, I uncovered

Annie Lee Reynolds

some rather interesting things about Miss Reynolds. For one, she had indeed made the Reynolds Mansion her home for most of her life, and curiously (especially for the period), she had never married. However, there were no horrible deaths, illness, or other reasons for an untimely demise; Annie Lee simply died of old age, and was later buried in the Reynolds family plot at Riverside Cemetery, just across town. 

While there is some history that has become interspersed into the legend of the Reynolds ghost, handed down from owner to owner over the years, it seems that the legend is perhaps just that: a legend, which borrowed here and there from convenient historical truths about the place in order to put together a story of mystery and intrigue. And of course, going into my research of the history—as well as the alleged haunting—at Reynolds Mansion, I had already armed myself with a few questions that I felt the mansion, if anything, might help me come to terms with. Seldom, for instance, does an investigator of the unexplained have what would amount to being a laboratory at their disposal for studying the location of an alleged haunting. And yet, with Reynolds Mansion, I knew that, if the stories were true, this might be, in essence, such a location where repeatability might come into question. In other words, if ghosts appeared here with any degree of frequency, then perhaps if the conditions were right I would be able to see one. 

Again, we come back to the question of what a ghost may actually be, and if people are actually seeing them at various old homes and other historic buildings around the world, what allows them to be seen? Is there energy behind their presence, and if so, why do images that seem to be in keeping with events of the past seem to “repeat” in such an environment? Another question would be whether a ghost is always just a replaying of past events, or if it is sentient and capable of interacting with its environment, or even with people in the present day. 

Most of the encounters people had described at Reynolds Mansion occurred in one of two ways: people either claimed to see what looked like a spirit that was oblivious to anyone nearby (i.e. the witnesses), or people had described having impressions during dreams that seemed to indicate that a presence had tried to communicate with them. For instance, one woman had described that she dreamed, while sleeping in the former master bedroom of Daniel Reynolds, who built the mansion in 1847 as a family home, that a man had been standing by the bed, and arguing that the door between this room and the library adjacent to it must remain open. The door in question remains closed at all times now, since the master bedroom, now called Guest Room Lila, is a room which visitors can rent and stay in. According to Sanders, the door was traditionally always kept open, since Daniel Reynolds had liked to have direct access to his library in the next room. Even today, this room remains a library, although the door between the two areas has been bolted shut, to keep the door from mysteriously opening itself. 

It would be difficult to confirm whether anything could be verified based on what people claim to dream about while staying at Reynolds Mansion.

But with regard to ghosts that people actually see in the physical sense, it has long been understood that these “ghosts” are the spirits of dead people; in other words, their souls somehow manage to live on after the time of death. Furthermore, after they die, these individual souls, obviously represented by some kind of energy that allows them to manifest on occasion, remain in the “haunted” environment, and are capable of being studied by paranormal investigators armed with fancy gadgets like electromagnetic field detectors, laser temperature gauges, and other equipment.

For all you or I know, this may indeed be the case. But after spending a lot of time poring over the manner in which ghosts and hauntings are studied by modern paranormal investigators, I feel that it has become a matter of necessity that we reconsider a few things. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, the soul is something that many of us feels is a tangible thing, although it is obviously intangible enough that we can’t account for it beyond being, in essence, a philosophical concept that is somewhat attached to the notion of consciousness—something else we can’t fully explain. Ghost hunters will often state that the disembodied soul is what a ghost is… but if we understand so little of the soul, how can we label or explain what a ghost is by evoking another uncertainty? 

A similar logical problem occurs when we begin to describe how EMF meters and similar devices are used to study ghosts. For instance, one popular model, the TriField EMF Meter, can detect the bio-field produced by a living organism, and will react to it with an audible signal. In the past, I’ve observed ghost hunters in a haunted environment place one of these devices on a flat surface, adjust it so that it will detect the electrical field produced by an organic living body, and then move away from it, waiting for some invisible energy to interact with it, and thus proving that a ghost is nearby. In these instances, it should be fairly clear that the energy field a living body produces requires a physical presence in order for the meter to respond; in the absence of a physical body to produce such a field, what kind of energy would be capable of interacting with the device?

It must also be noted that there are indeed “invisible” energies that can interact with an EMF detector. These range from geomagnetic fluctuations, to simple electrical current emanating from electrical wiring and power outlets. In some instances, based on the source of the electrical field, these energies can appear to move about, and can and will often interact with the different settings on a device like a TriField EMF meter in what appears to be an anomalous way. But fundamentally, if we can’t put our finger on what a soul actually is (let alone prove its existence), it becomes difficult to use this as a justification for what a ghost is, and for what produces the varieties of energy detectable with a device like an EMF meter. 

At Reynolds Mansion, bearing all this in mind, I chose instead to look solely at the evidence that could be afforded me from the historical record, as well as what family members, visitors, and employees at the mansion could tell me about the nature of the alleged haunting. Using flashy meters and advanced-looking gadgets may give the practice of “ghost hunting” a more aesthetic appeal. At times they may even be useful for determining various things about the environment that are naturally occurring, which could contribute to the appearance of a haunting. But in my experience, using such devices does very little in terms of helping us to actually understand, scientifically, what is underlying the apparent presence of what, culturally, we have come to call “ghosts.” 

Despite the progress we seem to have made over the last few decades in the study of spirituality and the unexplained, it seems that the more we learn, the less we know. I feel, very strongly, that not every person who claims to see a ghost is simply a liar or publicity seeker. If there is indeed some validity behind people’s stories of encounters with strange apparitions that appear to be from the past, this is obviously an area of the natural world that begs further inquiry… but we can’t rely on the unprovable in order to find answers to other mysteries that continue to “haunt” us, pun intended. However, as Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes had once argued, once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Within the science of ghost hunting, we are still looking for that improbable truth, and with any luck, we’ll continue to whittle away at the impossibilities that surround it, with intent on cracking this nut in the years to come. 
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Micah Hanks is a writer, researcher, lecturer, and radio personality whose work addresses a variety of scientific concepts and unexplained phenomena. Over the last decade, his research has examined a variety of approaches to studying the unexplained, cultural phenomena, human history, and the prospects of our technological future as a species as influenced by science.

He is author of several books, including Magic, Mysticism and the Molecule, Reynolds Mansion: An Invitation to the Past, and his 2012 New Page Books release, The UFO Singularity.

Hanks is an executive editor of “Intrepid Magazine,” and consulting editor/contributor for “FATE Magazine” and “The Journal of Anomalous Sciences.” He also writes for a variety of other publications including “UFO Magazine,” “Mysterious Universe,” and “New Dawn.” Hanks has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs, including “Coast to Coast AM with George Noory,” “Whitley Strieber’s Dreamland,” National Geographic’s “Paranatural,” the History Channel’s “Guts and Bolts,” CNN Radio, “The Jeff Rense Program,” and many others. A weekly podcast that follows his research is available at his popular Website, www.gralienreport.com. Hanks lives in the heart of Appalachia near Asheville, North Carolina.

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