Why Americans Love Ghost Hunting
Almost every weekend in the United States, carloads of people around the country pack up suites of sophisticated electronic equipment and head out into the evening in an attempt to document evidence of the existence of ghosts. They head out to reportedly haunted locations, whether they be public places like restaurants or hotels, private homes, or even infamous locations such as abandoned prisons or insane asylums. They will spend the night trying to capture apparitions on various types of camera, capture anomalous energy fluctuations on various detection devices, and capture mysterious spirit voices on various audio recording devices.
They will also document their more subjective experiences. Did a certain room give the investigators chills or cause dizziness? Did someone feel a mysterious hand brush their hair or hear their name whispered by an unseen entity?
It is hard to document exactly how many ghost hunters there are in the United States. The website paranormalsocieties.com listed 4,892 paranormal investigation groups in the United States as of this writing. Most of those groups focus on ghost hunting. Some of the groups listed are no longer active, but new groups are being added all the time and some active groups are not listed on the site. Readers may also be familiar with the many ghost hunting reality television shows that have proven so popular that an entire cable channel (the Travel Channel) is devoted to paranormal programming. Indeed, there seems to have been a boom in ghost hunting interest in America after the reality show Ghost Hunters premiered in October of 2004. Judging from the number of shows still on the air, the thousands who turn out to ghost hunting conventions every year, and the many ghost hunting websites one finds with a quick internet search, ghost hunting is still booming in 2020.
What exactly is driving this American obsession with ghost hunting?
This question becomes even more pressing when we consider that religious affiliation is declining in the United States. The General Social Survey, a nationally representative sample of American adults, has been asking the public about their religious affiliation for decades. In 1990, 8% of respondents chose “no religion” as their religious preference. By 2018, that number had risen to 23%. The Pew Religious Landscape study, with survey waves in 2007 and 2014, established the religiously unaffiliated as the fastest growing religious group in the United States. Shouldn’t this all mean that belief in spirits and ghosts is declining in America? Not exactly. The 2014 wave of the Pew Religious Landscape study found that, while 22.8% of respondents were religiously unaffiliated, only slightly more than 7% identified as atheist or agnostic. This seems to indicate that most of the religiously unaffiliated are not willing to rule out the supernatural altogether.
Ultimately, ghost hunting seems to be popular because it appeals to the spiritual sensibilities of this new American religious landscape. First, it is highly empirical, meaning that ghost hunting is based on direct observation of the paranormal or supernatural. Ghost hunters do not have to trust the supernatural claims of traditional religious authorities or scriptures. They instead seek out evidence of the supernatural for themselves. Contemporary American spirituality generally has become more and more focused on experience. People seek enlightenment and spiritual breakthrough through transcendent experiences. In a similar vein, ghost hunters seek powerful and life-changing brushes with the spirit world.
Ghost hunters also claim to hold a high regard for science. Though ghost hunters often report on their subjective experiences of the paranormal and sometimes rely on the psychic impressions of spirit mediums, they more often focus on what their electronic equipment tells them. Most ghost hunters believe that spirits are either made of energy or that they manipulate energy, and this energy is measurable with scientific equipment. One will often find ghost hunters employing electromagnetic field meters, for example, to measure energy fluctuations in the environment.
Ghost hunters also prize the objective evidence they believe can be provided through electronic equipment. On their websites, ghost hunters often share video and photos of apparitions, such as mysterious lights, mists, or shadows, and they also share audio recordings of mysterious spirit voices not captured by the naked ear (these are often called electronic voice phenomena). Many ghost hunters claim to adhere to the scientific method when investigating and most would claim to be skeptical and hard-nosed investigators. Most ghost hunters express a desire to rule out natural causes of potential paranormal phenomena in order to get to the root of what is truly supernatural.
Ghost hunters’ relationship with media places them squarely within the late-modern spiritual landscape of the twenty-first century. Electronic mass media increasingly shapes spirituality in the contemporary American religious landscape. This is also true of the world of ghost hunters. First, there is a thriving online community of ghost hunters. They communicate, share evidence, and arrange events through Facebook and other social media platforms. Youtube has proven popular for sharing video of investigations.
Television has also proven tremendously influential among ghost hunters. Though most ghost hunters report taking the paranormal reality television shows with a grain of salt and being aware that they are focused on entertainment over accuracy, the television shows still shape the ghost hunting subculture to a significant degree. Many ghost hunters first discovered the activity through television and even some of the investigators who are most skeptical of the shows still watch them.
Finally, ghost hunting leaves room for religious eclecticism. There is no authority structure in the ghost hunting community that can enforce belief or practice. Investigators are free to draw on whatever spiritual resources they choose to interpret their evidence and understand the spirit world. Many ghost hunters draw on Christian ideas about the afterlife to understand spirits while also drawing on metaphysical or New Age spirituality. The same ghost hunter who carries a crucifix for protection may also burn sage or carry a crystal charged by the full moon. Traditional religious structures do not confine ghost hunting, leaving investigators to freely choose from the marketplace of religious ideas.
Ghost hunting provides a way to engage with and explore the paranormal or supernatural in ways that are compatible with Americans’ contemporary spiritual sensibilities. While traditional religious affiliation is on the decline in the United States, other, less conventional practices associated with the supernatural are on the rise.