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ISSUE 121 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/26/2007

A Skeptic's Guide to Halloween

By Adam Ludvigson
Staff Photographer


Friday, October 26, 2007

"I don't believe in Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Superman. All I wanna do is: Bicycle bicycle bicycle . I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle." – Queen.

As a scholar, sometimes I am obliged to reach deep into the past to find valuable nuggets of wisdom lost to the winds of time and use them to make my point. Here, the band Queen expresses skepticism and doubt about certain pop culture icons, as well as, later on, admiration for "fat-bottomed girls who make the rockin' world go round." You can ignore that last part, though, because I'm not talking about "fat-bottomed girls" in this story (that would be offensive) or even bicycle bicycle bicycles. No, I'm talking about skepticism.

Now, I know that an article on skepticism the week before Halloween is a pretty big buzzkill, so let me just explain that Halloween is one of my favorite holidays ever (except for the candy corn…please come by our room and eat some of our candy corn). I love fall, I love pumpkins, I love costumes and I love ghost stories. However, if pressed, I'd have to say that I put myself pretty firmly in the skeptic camp on the whole ghost thing. I'm taking a risk here, because in every movie ever made it's always the skeptic that gets his head ripped off by some kind of ghost while he's in the middle of a speech about how impossible ghosts are.

I thought what I'd do is write about the ghostly phenomena I find to be the most dubious, and you, dear readers, are free to write angry (or praising) mail vehemently disagreeing (or agreeing) agree with me.

Ghost Hunting

Lots of technology is available these days at low, low prices, which encourages the now-popular practice of going a-huntin' for ghosts. A typical battery of tools used by the professional ghost hunter includes night vision cameras, infrared sensors, Geiger counters, thermometers, motion sensors, electromagnetic field sensors and anything else that makes cool beeping noises. It's like the equipment used in "Ghostbusters," without the danger of crossing the streams (which would cause total protonic reversal, which could either be bad or summon Zuul).

The functionality of these tools depends on the assumption that ghosts have tangible effects on their surroundings. The problem here is that these effects are usually chosen totally at random, so as to be able to interpret any number of events as paranormal. For example, even if ghost hunters can't find anything, because of natural variations, there will always be one corner of the room that's more magnetic or radioactive or colder or something. Sometimes they work on the assumption that the effects of ghosts are very small — one test is to set up random number generators in different rooms to see if there are any anomalies in the readings.

If ghosts could be photographed or recorded, or if consistent, tangible evidence could be demonstrated, then the matter would be settled. But no one ever seems to uncover this type of evidence. Anyone creeping around a darkened house at night with a camcorder is probably going to catch a flash of movement from a tree branch or shadow. Ghost hunting just finds things that were already there and presents them in a creepy way. And, it leads to one of my least favorite things – people using science to dress up bogus conclusions.

Haunted Houses

The haunted house has become a pretty big cliché as of late: any house over 50 years old has some kind of legend associated with it. My problem is more with modern stories than stories about decrepit old mansions — those are just plain creepy, so of course stuff is going to get made up about them. Over fall break, I got sucked into a TV program called "A Haunting." For two hour-long episodes I watched families in Pennsylvania (sounds like…Transylvania!) and Ireland deal with their experiences with ghosts. Mostly these ghostly experiences were kind of stupid — a figurine fell off the table once and sometimes a door got stuck. Obviously, neither of these phenomena could be natural.

This program pretty much hits all the main problems with modern-day haunted houses. First of all, they're frequently a series of totally innocuous events until someone decides the house is haunted, and then suddenly every time the dryer goes off five minutes early, it's evidence of paranormal activity. If every one of us sat around our houses and waited intently for things out of the ordinary, pretty soon the house would settle or a broom would fall over in the cupboard or something, and we'd conclude it's haunted. If there was truly "A Haunting," I'd expect people to be floating above the covers or the walls bleeding, but it's inevitably normal stuff that people see connections in, even where none exist.

There are even more boring explanations for this kind of thing, like carbon monoxide. It turns out if you have a small, undetected carbon monoxide leak in your house, you can start to see and hear things at random times and have a general feeling of uneasiness the whole time, which is a recipe for "A Haunting" if I've ever heard one. Another is to turn all the lights off and wait in the basement.

Also, if you read books on ghost stories (I've read more than my share), there's always a tendency to identify bumps in the night as "evil spirits." I don't know about you, but if I were an evil spirit, I would do really evil stuff, rather than angering the current occupants of the house by breaking picture frames. It would be pretty annoying to be the essence of evil and be limited to knocking books off shelves.

On TV, these situations are often resolved by bringing in a psychic or other person in ridiculous clothes, who very seriously tells the family exactly what they want to hear – a spirit from another plane of existence has exerted all its influence in an unholy plan to get doors stuck. Then the person lights up a big roll of sage (not a drug reference) and chants loudly, before relaxing and proclaiming that the "evil" has been "vanquished." Of course, this is the afflicted family's cue to finally relax and stop making connections be-tween all the ridiculously trivial stuff happening in their house, letting them go back to their normal lives, minus the several thousand dollars the psychic probably charged.

Anyway, my point is that everyone knows how carried away people can get making connections and finding patterns where there are none – as soon as people believe the problem is gone, it usually is. Perhaps the ultimate example of this, and the phenomenon I consider to have the least merit, is:

Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)

EVP is the belief that spirit "voices" can be recorded in the background of audio recordings or videotapes and played back to extract messages from it. This is a great setup for a movie because the concept is scary as hell. If my TV was playing static and I suddenly heard a voice coming from it I would probably move to a boat in international waters for the rest of my life and never watch TV again. I would say that was one of my top fears growing up, which meant, had I listened to static more carefully, I was very likely to hear something that would freak me out.

The way this usually works is a ghost hunter will set up a bunch of recording equipment (usually old-fashioned), leave it on for a while, then play it back and listen very carefully until they hear something talking. It's like the scene in "The Sixth Sense" when Bruce Willis realizes there are faint voices in the backgrounds of all his taped interviews with patients. Except in real life the researchers usually aren't dead, like Bruce Willis' character. (Oops, spoiler alert.)

The problem with this particular phenomenon is that pretty much anyone who sits there for hours listening to static and straining to hear something is bound to think they have at some point. Human brains are built to find patterns at any cost – when you look at two dots and a curved line, you don't see two dots and a curved line, you see a smiling face. It's no different from noticing shapes in the clouds, seeing a face in the moon or paying thousands of dollars on eBay for a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like the Virgin Mary.

You'll also notice this only works when listening to recordings which are generally low-quality. The more glitches and "bumps" in the static, the more our brains are likely to try to interpret it as something. Even listening to a radio in person, sooner or later a random spike or slight interference from another station is bound to create just enough interference to sound like a human voice, or even more terrifying, a country music station.

My exhaustive research has turned up some big Greek words that psychologists use to refer to this tendency of the human brain to get overeager in its constant search for pattern and meaning, but I won't bore you all.

My basic point through all of this is that the single greatest factor in these "paranormal" phenomena isn't carbon monoxide or low sound frequencies shaking your eyeballs around (oh yes, that's a theory) – they're caused when people really believe something's going on, and are set about proving it to themselves, oftentimes completely unconsciously. That shouldn't stop me or anyone else from loving scary movies and ghost stories, because what I'm after is the enjoyment and thrills, not some kind of scientific confirmation that it is all real.

You see, even skeptics can have fun, so I'll probably remain one until I happen to run into someone more transparent than I am, which is unlikely given the state of my tan. Happy Halloween, everyone, and be sure to tip your psychic well - they can put that evil spirit right back where they found it.





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