Updated: Feb 6
The best tools for tracking down spirits have always been the ones fallible enough to find something - Colin Dickey, The Atlantic
For as long as I can remember I’ve always been fascinated by mysteries. I’ve never experienced anything ‘paranormal’, but I have friends and close relatives who say they have. I only wish I was there with them to see if I perceived what they perceived…
While on a recent OTPG investigation, I had the idea of writing up some brief notes considering the various bits of technical equipment used in our field. I'm a bit sceptical about most 'ghost-hunting' devices, if for no other reason than no one has yet captured and examined a ghost's properties to determine what ‘emanations’ might be detected and therefore what would be the most appropriate equipment to use! Nevertheless, I still think there might be merit in using some equipment. After all, if it can be used to gather proof of the existence of ghosts or other paranormal phenomena, would this discovery not completely upend our current understanding of physics?
There are many items of equipment which are claimed to be suitable for ghost hunting, and maybe I’ll examine other items another time. But here I'm going to concentrate on EMF meters because they are relatively cheap and widely used by many paranormal groups.
Q) What do EMF meters detect?
A) EMF meters detect non-ionising, oscillating, electromagnetic fields (not to be confused with the same abbreviation for electromotive force, i.e. voltage). Electromagnetic fields are predominantly generated by our technology, but they are also weakly generated by lighting discharges, the Earth’s Schumann resonance and cosmic sources.
There are two other types of relevant fields:
Magnetic – for example the earth's magnetic field, or that of a magnet.
Electrostatic – for example the small shock you feel when touching a metal object after walking across a carpet, or sticking a rubbed balloon to the ceiling.
Natural magnetic and electric fields (which are not normally detected by EMF meters) do not generally change in polarity, or if they do it's very gradual. By contrast, most electromagnetic fields oscillate very rapidly in polarity, for example 50 times per second (50Hz) from the mains electricity supply, and thousands or millions of times per second from all types of mains and battery operated equipment. It’s only these oscillating fields that EMF meters are designed to respond to, and I suspect they have only become popular on TV ghost-hunting shows because their flashing lights and beeps are very telegenic. (The maximum claimed frequency response of EMF meters popular in paranormal investigations is about 5Hz to 2GHz, but sensitivity is likely to vary significantly within that range. The popular K2 meter covers 30Hz to 20kHz.)
Q) Do the investigators need to understand what the EMF meter is responding to?
A) Yes. The investigators need to be mindful of the many items that may trigger it, and I think most investigators are. Cameras, phones, recorders – even some battery LED torches - can all trigger EMF meters if close enough. If undertaking an investigation in a building with electricity, or outdoors with electricity cables nearby, this must also be taken into account. A nearby thunderstorm might also trigger an EMF meter.
Q) If EMF meters only respond to oscillating man-made electromagnetic fields, is there any point taking one on an investigation?
A) I think there is. There are anecdotal reports that strong EMFs affect some people, although very strong fields are unlikely to be encountered in publicly assessable areas. But it is just possible that such fields might have an effect on the brain and perception, thus generating a ‘haunted reputation’ at a particular location. This could also be caused by infrasound (sound below the lowest audible frequency), but that wouldn’t be detected by any EMF meter.
Q) What if the EMF meter gives an indication and there is no other equipment within say 100 metres, and no mains electricity for miles?
A) Interesting question which could have a number of answers:
i) Perhaps spirits really are generating a rapidly oscillating electromagnetic field. However, since such fields are vanishingly rare in the natural realm, I think that’s unlikely, but it can’t be dismissed.
ii) In our crowded British Isles, even when out in the open countryside, it's not always possible to know where the nearest mains cables might be; many are underground and may generate a field just strong enough to give an erratic indication.
iii) The typical EMF meters used in paranormal investigations are not very sophisticated and can trigger randomly – although two identical devices co-located would identify this.
iv) Spirits could perhaps magnify nearby man-made fields sufficiently to become detectable on an EMF meter.
v) It is conceivable that the actual detecting sensors in the equipment are not detecting anything, but spirit is somehow directly influencing the display LEDs/dials/buzzers. This could be tested by having two identical meters; one operating normally and the other with the connection broken between the EMF detecting components and the display/buzzer to determine if they still both react simultaneously.
vi) Perhaps a group member is able to influence the meter psychokinetically.
vii) Regardless of what is being detected or how it is being detected, if the device consistently gives an indication after a sensitive group member ‘senses something' or following someone doing or saying something – especially if it’s caught on camera – this is obviously very significant.
Q) What alternative detection equipment might be appropriate during an investigation?
A) I think equipment that detects small changes in non-alternating magnetic and electric fields could play a significant part. I suspect (but have no proof) that spirits are more likely to generate or influence these types of naturally-occurring fields. Many of the following devices can be bought or built for under £5, so a number can be spread across an investigation site.
i) An ordinary magnetic compass will detect strong changes in local magnetic fields, although it has to be continuously watched. Slightly more sensitive devices (for example “UFO detectors” sold on Amazon, but for more than £5!) might be useful as they give a visual and audible alarm if a gradually changing magnetic field is detected.
ii) Static electricity detectors are simple to make and although some are quite crude, these might be worthwhile gadgets.
iii) The Theremin is a device that was originally designed many decades ago as musical instrument. In its basic form it can be made to act as a proximity detector - sometimes they form the heart of Rem Pods sold to ghost hunters. Like PIR detectors, they might be useful in detecting pranksters.
iv) Other equipment used in pursuit of hauntings are infrasound detectors, infrared cameras, VLF radio equipment, Geiger counters, laser grids, motion and vibration detectors, walkie-talkies, etc. (Electronic Projects from the Next Dimension has a number of designs aimed at ghost hunters.) Even some smart phones have apps and built-in sensors that might be useful. Then there is the additional area of various random word generators like the Ghost Box and Ovilus. All these devices might have a place in an investigation, but will they get us any nearer to unravelling the ‘mechanics’ of a haunting?
I hope I have clarified a few points. In summary, I suspect it’s unlikely that spirits generate the sort of oscillating fields that man-made equipment generates, i.e. the type that is detected by EMF meters. If they do, there’s a research opportunity to determine this frequency and develop sensitive equipment tuned to that frequency. Nevertheless, whether EMF meters really detect anything paranormal or not during investigations, they have secured a position in the technical paraphernalia of ghost hunting.
My background is in electronics (mostly analogue radio transmission and reception) and I’ve always been fascinated by the prospects of combining this knowledge with the paranormal, particularly EVP and Transcommunication. The possibility of electronic detection of unexplained phenomena appeals to my nuts-and-bolts attitude to the world. But to be honest, this approach has not yet provided me with firm evidence of the paranormal, but it has not prevented me from continuing to seek it…