In this emerging field of the paranormal, there are accepted guidelines for investigating a haunting. Usually, the instructions include "research the background of the home." Now, I think this can be a very valuable thing -- why wouldn't you want to have as much information surrounding a haunting as you possibly can? However, we need to be cautious about WHY we do this -- or why we conduct any other kind of research in the name of paranormal investigation.

All too frequently, background information -- who has lived on the property, how they lived and died, what the building may have been used for -- is presumed to be of paramount importance in understanding the cause of haunting phenomenon. And this is dangerous, this assumption -- because we invariably are tempted to "find" a direct link between the phenomenon that has been witnessed and the history of a site.

When we find out, for instance, that a house was a stop on the underground railroad, we are then very tempted to try to explain the phenomenon (i.e. ghosts) in that context. Chains rattling? Must be the spectres of the escaping slaves. An apparition of a white woman? Must be the Abolitionist's wife. Unfortunately, when we do this, we are making huge assumptions about the nature of ghosts and hauntings.

We're assuming that ghosts -- whatever they are -- are the product of past lives. But what evidence do we have for that assumption? To a certain extent, there is some: there are a myriad of accounts of apparently recognizable people, appearing in the places they used to live. And there are still more accounts of crisis apparitions that appear to, for instance, a family member at the moment of the apparition's death. These examples seem so unquestionably explainable -- at least in terms of why a ghost appears -- that we accept the causative history, and leave it at that.

Regardless of how apparently obvious may seem the nature of some hauntings, we must nonetheless never assume that we understand the cause or the source. After all, we don't know what ghosts are -- so how can we presume to "know" that the appearance of an evil-looking man wielding a cutlass and wearing a parrot on his shoulder is the "spirit" of a pirate? We don't -- that's what we need to remind ourselves.

Humans are sense-seeking animals: we seem to automatically try to name, identify, place in context -- when we meet someone, we want to know what they do, where they're from. We are more comfortable when we make a judgment, when we place new experience in some kind of understandable context. And so with ghosts: if we see (or hear, or smell, or feel) a phenomenon, we so often want to find causation. Was this house on a first-nations burial ground? Did soldiers once walk this alleyway? Was this grampa's favourite chair?

But that presumes much, and we are well advised to remember that. It presumes that ghosts (in whatever manifestation) are correlating to something -- that a ghost wants or needs to revisit his favourite chair, or even that a ghost is something that relates at all to our physical world. It presumes that what we are seeing exists outside of us; it presumes we are seeing it at all.

It is just as likely, for instance, that ghosts are an external energy blip that our brains perceive -- and then instantly reinterpret in some recognizable fashion. Perhaps we are in Auntie Flo's livingroom, packing up her embroidery after her funeral -- and some kind of energy "happens." Perhaps it is external; perhaps it emanates from our own minds. Nonetheless , it is, let's suppose, simply an energy blip -- from what source, who knows.

What is our scrambled brain to do with this influx of unusual stimulant? Well, it does what it always does: interprets it, in a way we can understand. Therefore, perhaps the blip is "seen" by us as Auntie Flo, in all her glory, holding a candlestick and smiling as if to reassure us. This is, of course, only one possibility, offered only as yet another speculative theory for understanding ghosts.

We must be cautious not to place too much emphasis on the history of a haunted site, the past ownership of a cigar box, the murder that may or may not have taken place. I'm not suggesting that we don't investigate these things -- as I say, we don't know what ghosts are, and the traditional interpretation of "dead person visiting the living" may well be the case. Until we know, we can't discount any possible information.

So we should ask about the history of a site -- because it might, indeed, be relevant. We should also ask about the witness's state of mind, belief systems, cultural background -- all while being sensitive and polite, of course. We should ask every question we can possibly imagine, and then some. And we should ask ourselves, over and over: am I seeing things that aren't there? Am I not seeing things that are? And am I trying too hard to fit Ghost A into Slot B? If we ever do find the definitive answer to "what is a ghost," it will be by virtue of our patience and absolute objectivity, and through years and decades of accumulating a vast body of information.

Never discount the possibility that the history of a site, or the story behind an apparent apparition, has nothing whatsoever to do with the manifestation. As tempting as it may be, we must always assume nothing -- not even what may seem, by tradition and by outward appearance, to be obvious. If we allow ourselves to assume the "accepted" definition, origin, and purpose of a ghost, then we do so at the risk of missing potentially valuable avenues of thought, of research, and of course of imagination. Keep your minds open, fellow researchers -- even in the face of what seems so comfortingly obvious.

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