Friday, July 22, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name...

About a week ago, author Deonna Sayed brought up an interesting and very valid question:
What makes someone a paranormal investigator? Is it active field work (with or without a team)? Watching "the shows"? Going to a few conferences? Just knowing people in "the field"? At what point does someone earn the right to claim the title?

These days, there are people out there who watch a few episodes of Ghost Hunters and BAM! They're "paranormal investigators". It's a word thrown out to describe the thrill-seeker who pays fifty bucks to tramp around a haunted prison with a hundred other people in a black logoed t-shirt as well as the die-hard individuals who've spent decades tirelessly perfecting their methods just the same. And honestly, it's a self-denoted title; there's no college accredited degree for investigating ghosts, no ectoplasmic trophy differentiating the "amateur" from the "expert" in the field (although many people use the word expert to describe themselves).

But we can't just blame it on the explosion of paranormal television. In the past decade--yes, even before cable ghost busters--I have watched people join a group, go on one investigation, quit within a week, start their own "group" a day later, and suddenly say they're "experienced professional paranormal investigators". There might be something psychological at play here: the human need for superiority, recognition, praise, and/or approval. No one likes being low man on the totem pole. We live in a world of instant gratification. Why work toward something when you can jump right to the end goal?

So, let's take a closer look at Deonna's question and break it down. Does active field work make you an investigator? Yes and no. Just like you can't learn proper brain surgery from reading a book and watching a documentary, the best real way to earn the title of investigator is to, well, investigate. A lot of important things can be learned from reading books or observing others do some form or work, but real know-how is a hands-on experience. Not everything works as well as it seems on television, and some methods used by others may be completely unreliable. Trial and error rules out the bogus from the plausible. That's something you can't simply sit back and take notes to learn. Repeated effort (and failure) is a wonderful way to learn and one way true progress is actually made.

Does watching a show make you an investigator? That's a big fat "NO". I've watched building and construction documentaries and shows, but I'm not an architect not do I pretend to be. You can learn some things for television, but it's no substitute for real life. The same applies to online websites. And for the record, no; playing Farmville doesn't make you a farmer. So how about going to a conference? Again, it's the same thing. Does going to a book conference make you a writer? Maybe if you're a hipster...

So what about knowing people in "the field"? Again, that doesn't necessarily make you an investigator. It can, however, better educate you and help you learn skills, bounce ideas off someone more knowledgeable than yourself, or even give you role models who point you in the right direction. Of course, some people like to "collect" popular people as friends as if associating yourself with a para-celebrity will suddenly give you credibility. If you want to befriend someone in the field, ask yourself why you want to know them. If it's for sharing limelight or to show off that you know the "in crowd", it's for the wrong reasons. On the other hand, if it's someone you admire or find fascinating/interesting/good-natured on a human level and wouldn't care if they were a nobody, then I say go for it.

The reality is that there are several true categories of "paranormal investigators" all lumped under the same umbrella term: the beginner curious to find explanations for the unknown, the history buff tickled at the idea of discovering 'living history', the entertainment junkie looking for a good scare or creepy old building to wander around in, the scientific-minded seeker who wants to validate or disprove the phenomena, the writer looking for an interesting story, the social person looking for a different sort of group activity, and the seasoned "professional" archiving and collecting data to try to arrive at a hypothesis. Some people are a combination of these. Others fall somewhere between. We don't have specific terms for each type of ghost hunter; to many, they're all "investigators".

Over the years, I've referred to myself as an "investigator" less and less. It's not due to early retirement or somehow being a sudden complete skeptic. (I've always held a certain level of skepticism; I find it invaluable when dealing with strange occurrences and eye-witness testimonies.) The main reason is that in recent years, I've spent more time writing about locations and researching the historical background of legends and places that I haven't spent enough time actually investigating allegedly haunted places. Do I miss it? Of course I do. And my days of looking for the unexplained are far from over. But it's the history that drives me forward. Having a psychic tell me that a 12-year-old girl died in a hotel room is all fine and dandy, but finding a documented account of that event correlating to a legend of a ghostly girl brings me a level of excitement I can't even describe. More often than not, the real history is much more interesting than the rumor.

Some of us live to find that piece of concrete evidence to prove ghosts aren't all in the mind. Others just live to be scared out of their wits. Is everyone with a flashlight, camera, and EMF meter a "paranormal investigator"? Hardly. There are the inexperienced and experienced, the green and the seasoned, the serious and the carefree. Only you know where you fall on the spectrum; whether you choose to state the truth or bend it is your own choice. But if you're true to yourself, positive things can happen. Only by knowing where you stand can you find the path to where you want to be.


Cullan Hudson said...

Fantastic and spot on. I've never called myself an investigator. I'm a writer, but I do investigate from time to time. I think those barking the loudest are the least likely to have reason to be barking. I've always admired those teams that don't assign titles (lead this or lead that), don't spend more time designing matching t-shirts with cutesy acronyms than they do embracing the often necessarily tedious work of investigation, and don't make promo videos (heavily inspired by GH visuals) that they market to production companies and sell at conventions, especially when their title cards read "Starring..." To me, this telegraphs that your interest lies in the trappings of paracelebrity and not in doing the work. I've investigated alongside others when I've been invited, but otherwise I've always gone to places by myself or with one other person. I don't claim to be an expert, but I'll say this: I've learned WAY more not watching TV.

Jeanne said...

Hey, Ken, Now Ghost Adventures has a new gig: they have competing "teams" of three go into a site already "investigated" by GA and see which teams do the best "investigating".
Thought of you because one of the latest epidsodes took place in Ohio.

Along the lines of investigating: it really bugs me that folks come with so much pre-knowledge of a site. IE where paranormal activity has been experienced and what type and who died. I'd rather they go in with a clear mind and after see what if any experiences coincide with others' experience or if some of the history of the place is corroborated by experiences they've witnessed.
IOW, if you go in with a load of "crap", it's likely you'll experience a load of "crap".