Fun

A Guide to Ghost Hunting

It’s almost Halloween. Go freak yourself out.

Illustration by Caitlin

October is the best month to get really and truly scared. Sure, you could go on some lame hayride and get chased by “ghosts” in period clothing and white makeup—or you could look for a real ghost. ’Tis the season for ghost hunting, because even your skeptical friends can be convinced to indulge on the grounds that it makes for some harmless Halloween fun.

I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts and creepy phenomena. As a child, I firmly believed that there was more to the world than what was immediately visible—and I desperately wanted to be able to truthfully say, “I see dead people.” Many years later, I can say…I’ve seen weird shit. I can’t say for sure whether I believe in ghosts, but I’ve experienced some things I can’t explain.

I love a mystery, and I’m fascinated by dark and morbid stories—the tragic deaths, the haunted houses, the legends that survive for generations. And most of all, I relish the opportunity: ghosts can be anywhere. Everyone has a chance to find one.

I don’t do a ton of ghost hunting myself. I don’t have to—most of the crazy things I’ve seen were in my own house. But after years of meticulous internet research and ghost-hunting reality shows, I know a thing or two about how to go about it. Here’s a primer to help you get started:

Find a good location.

You want to pick a place that’s known for weird happenings, whether it’s a house, a cemetery, or a historic location. Even if you live in the country and don’t have a handy brochure of haunted locations, you’re still certain to have a few local legends. In my rural county alone, we have a haunted bridge, a haunted opera house, and a haunted intersection. If you’re in a city, your local haunted places are probably well known, and perhaps they are featured in year-round ghost tours.

The tours can be cheesy, but you never know what you’ll see. My first and best tour was in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a town where the walls still have holes from Civil War cannons. We visited an old church whose history I no longer remember, but I’ll never forget how, when the guide spoke, the closed doors on the old-fashioned box pew quietly swung open behind us. And every picture I took of that church was full of orbs, each one with a pinkish light cutting off a corner (see below). (And yes, I know there are a ton of scientific explanations for photographic anomalies. More on that later.)

A ghost by the church. Or dust particles.

Was there an unsolved crime or tragic disaster in your area? Those ghosts might have the incentive to communicate. Now, if this is a recent tragedy, or if it happened on private property, be respectful of the living—if someone who knew the deceased could conceivably walk into your ghost hunt, don’t do it. But the sites of unfortunate events are a reasonably good place to begin your search. It seems to be understood, from horror movies and folklore, that souls tend to hang around if they have suffered sudden, violent deaths, or if they have unfinished business (like identifying their murderer).

Sometimes ghosts can be found even closer to home—alarmingly close. When I was seven years old, we moved into a new house with a tragic backstory: the first woman to live there had died in the basement, fighting an electrical fire. I just knew she had to be haunting the place, and it was confirmed at a sleepover for my birthday in first grade. A gaggle of girls were sleeping in my living room, which has several large windows overlooking the gardens. I was one of the first to fall asleep, but some time in the middle of the night, my friends woke me up in a panic, saying that there was someone in the window. They pointed at a round shape looking in, a small head with its chin resting on the windowsill. “It’s just a shadow,” I grumbled. Then it waved at us in a creepy, disjointed motion, like its arm was passing behind its head. There was screaming and running, but the shadow-person seemed content to stare and wave, and eventually we were able to close the curtains and go back to sleep.

Of course, we didn’t get a good look. All I know is that the shape and movement of that shadow could not have been from a living person, and there was nothing in front of the window that could have accounted for it. But ever since that day, I’ve always kept my eyes—and my mind—open.

Learn more about the ghost or haunting, and come up with a game plan.

Are there any specific legends attached to this place? Does the ghost show up at a certain time, or under some strangely specific condition? At the opera house that I mentioned above, the story in my hometown was that the ghost would show herself only to people with the same last name as the original owners: Kline. But the staff soon discovered that patrons with the last name Small were seeing the ghost too! (The German word klein means small.)

Is the location on private property? Keep in mind that a lot of cemeteries are closed at night. Don’t let your adventure end with you getting arrested (unless that’s a risk you are willing to take in pursuit of THE TRUTH). You can still encounter ghostly activity during normal business hours. Case in point: there’s a Toys “R” Us in Sunnyvale, California, that’s famously haunted by a ghost named Johnson, who used to be a ranch hand on the property. If you can find a ghost in a Toys “R” Us, you can find one anywhere.

Gather your supplies.

If you bring only one thing, let it be a camera. You’ll want your highest-resolution one one (i.e., not your cell phone), so you won’t have to try to pick ghosts out of pixels later. If you want to go a step further, bring something else to record video or sound. A tape recorder is great if you suspect your house is haunted—leave it on overnight in an empty room, and see if it picks up any voices or other sounds that shouldn’t be there. And if you want to get really fancy, grab some sort of room thermometer to test for cold spots. Professionals have ridiculously expensive equipment for this. Until you commit to ghost hunting full time, I think a simple thermometer is worth a shot. I’ve never tried anything other than a camera, partly because recording technology wasn’t as user-friendly back in the early naughts, when I lived in that haunted house, but mostly because I didn’t think I’d ever sleep again if I actually heard a ghost’s voice IN MY HOUSE.

If you do bring a tape recorder, keep it on the whole time—you never know when a ghost might decide to join in on the conversation! Ghostly sound recordings are called “electronic voice phenomena,” or EVP. Most of the ones I’ve heard online sound like someone’s reading too much into static, but sometimes you get some spooky voices. Try asking your ghost some friendly questions, like their name or how they died, and then play back the sound later to see if you hear any answers. If you’re going to try capturing EVPs, this page has some good tips.

Take lots of pictures.

Not every ghost photograph is going to be of a transparent person casually hanging out in your vacation photo. But you might find orbs, lights, shadows, or other strange anomalies.

A lot of “ghost photos” have very reasonable explanations: reflections, the camera’s flash, someone’s thumb in front of the lens. The right-hand column on this site has a good list of explanations for photo anomalies. The orbs in the photos I took at that church were probably floating dust particles, which is disappointing. You know you’ve got a good photo when no one can tell you why it’s not real.

Be observant.

There is no one formula for ghost hunting. Mostly, you just have to be observant. Everyone wants to see floating furniture and old-fashioned ladies in flowing dresses, but most hauntings are less dramatic. Which is a good thing, because moving furniture tends to mean you’ve got a poltergeist, and we all know how that goes.

Listen for weird sounds. I don’t put much stock in footsteps or creaking—all buildings make those noises. But some sounds are harder to explain. At my house, we would sometimes hear a crashing noise from our kitchen, but when we investigated, nothing would be out of place. Once, one of my family members heard voices coming from the living room in the middle of the night, while everyone was fast asleep.

In my experience, weird things happen in reflective surfaces, so keep an eye on mirrors, shiny screens, and windows. When you take pictures of these things, keep your flash off. I’ve never seen anything in a mirror (knock on wood—I hate scary mirror stories). The freakiest thing I’ve seen was a reflection in my sliding glass door. When I was a teenager, I walked out of a hallway entrance facing the door that opened to our patio. While I was standing RIGHT BY THE DOOR, I saw a reflection that I thought was my mother, standing in the kitchen. I turned around to say hi, and no one was there. I quickly turned back, and there was a clear reflection of a brunette woman wearing white. I looked back and forth several times, but no matter how often I checked, the only people in the room were me (in blue) and the reflection. Then I ran out of there to find my mother, who turned out to be in a completely different part of the house, wearing bright pink. Despite how much I love ghosts in theory, I was TERRIFIED. It’s one thing to go out looking for ghosts, prepared with friends and tools, but when something seemingly impossible happens in your own home, with no one else around? I eventually recovered and started basking in the knowledge that I finally had a true ghost story, but to this day, when I’m visiting my parents and have to walk past that door alone, I avert my eyes.

Last words of warning.

It may be tempting to bring the ghost to you rather than going to find it. Do so at your own risk. Many ghost hunters will tell you not to use a Ouija board to make contact, because you’re opening a door to a psychic plane, and you don’t know what’s going to come through. Look what happened here. In my opinion, participants are probably subconsciously moving the planchette anyway, so it’s a suspect tool.

I recommend that you always go ghost hunting with friends. This way, if you find a ghost, you’ll have someone to back up your story. And having other people around will help you feel safe. That said, good luck, have fun, and remember to watch out for what might be behind you. Right. This. Very. Minute. ♦

45 Comments

  • HollieLillian October 22nd, 2012 3:15 PM

    Ahhh this is so awesome and relevant. I said to my friend just today if she wanted to come with me to investigate this abandoned house near where we live (with halloween and all) after school tomorrow so now we are and I’m sorta scared and apprehensive but It’ll be cool nevertheless. Also we discussed ghosts and stuff like, every lesson for a month in art last year and some peoples’ stories were so spoooooky.

    http://forthequainthearted.blogspot.co.uk/

  • imcomfortablesodealwithit October 22nd, 2012 3:18 PM

    Its effing scary, but look at the story section of scaryforkids.com

  • abbie_ October 22nd, 2012 3:42 PM

    I live in an old victorian house and once when I was in bed I felt somebody sit down on the end. When I looked there was nobody there but there was imprints in my duvet of somebody’s bum. Also my neighbour who also lives in a victorian house, saw the reflection of an old woman in the window, but there was nobody outside. She also hears sweeping sounds and footsteps on all the wooden floors in the house, like a woman with a long dress is walking about. Creepy stuff.
    ablogbyabbie.blogspot.co.uk X

    • abbie_ October 22nd, 2012 3:45 PM

      And did you know apparently cats can see ghosts. So if you ever see your cat standing still and staring intently at seemingly thin air (as mine often does), then you might just have a ghost hanging around!

      • deuxiemesexe October 22nd, 2012 4:48 PM

        Cats and other animals! When I was at the beach house which is really old, my aunt’s dog used to stay in the garden staring to the nothing most of the nights we spend there. I am pretty sure that it was a ghost. It seems to be a very peaceful ghost :)

  • Yip October 22nd, 2012 4:03 PM

    Bad thing to read when it’s bedtime. Really, I mean it. I’m too scared right now.

  • carogenous October 22nd, 2012 4:06 PM

    I lived in a dorm so haunted my freshman year of college, that there’s a book in the library about all the freaky shit that’s happened in there. I was way too scared to check out the book while I was living there!

    • carogenous October 22nd, 2012 4:10 PM

      “my freshman year of college” makes me sound like an old fart but this happened last year, i swear

  • manicpixieriotgrrl October 22nd, 2012 4:23 PM

    I love ghost hunting. When I was a little girl, I had acting work as a scare on a ghost walk (I would wait for the tour to come by and scare the shit out of them) so spooky nights in spooky places are really fun for me.

    Great article. Can I make a tiny suggestion? The Daily Mail is a STRINGENTLY anti-feminist British publication, and it always really irks me when I’m linked to it without warning because their content is appalling.

    Spooky love from Glasgow.

  • Abby October 22nd, 2012 4:28 PM

    I’m pretty sure that I believe in ghosts and psychics (I truly got read by a psychic once… It was scary as SHIT… I’ll tell the story if anyone asks), but people always tell me I can’t because I’m an atheist. Just curious… is anyone else here like me?

    • MikaylaT October 22nd, 2012 5:14 PM

      I want to hear the story! (:

    • courtneyloveskurt October 22nd, 2012 8:46 PM

      I also consider myself to be an atheist, because I don’t strictly believe in a god, but I believe there is some chance of an afterlife. I’m also super into the paranormal and occult (ouija, tarot cards, ghost hunting) and I people tell me I’m not allowed to believe both but I’m just like shut the hell up and do what I like.

    • raggedyanarchy October 22nd, 2012 8:54 PM

      Me too! Well, I haven’t ever been read by a psychic, but I want to. I’m not sure if I believe in it or not…which is why I want to try. Carpe Diem and all.
      I’m an atheist, and when I asked my friends if they “wanna find a ouija board at the toys r us and try it out or something” some of my friends were literally like “I thought you were atheist.” It’s irritating.
      Oh, and please do tell us your story!

    • Abby October 23rd, 2012 10:48 AM

      Okay, story time… so I had just gotten to college and there was this psychic show… I thought it was going to be lame and whatever, but I went anyway. Well there was this part where after having someone duct tape all these blindfolds over his eyes and check his ears for earpieces, he asked us to write down on a piece of paper a few things… The two that are important to this story were the funniest moment of our lives and a nickname. Then they collected them, and put them all in a basket that he had next to him, and he said he was going to read what some of them said. I thought it was going to be bullshit, because there were at least a hundred or more people there, so he was bound to get SOMETHING right, because the other questions were names, numbers that meant something to you, etc. Well, he started doing it, and I started to get kind of freaked out because he had people stand up when he got something of theirs… but he didn’t just get one thing… he got multiple things of each person’s. And then he said, “Titanic… does Titanic mean anything to anyone? Maybe.. Titanic 3D?” And I, shaking, stood up. Everyone gasped. That was what I had written on my card: my funniest moment. And then he said, “Does…’crabby’ mean anything to you? Crabby Abby?” That’s the name my sister’s used to call me as a kid. I was seriously shaking and about to cry. And then he said that in 7.5 years, I would be married, and I was going to have twins. Seriously, guys, I’ve thought about this for hours on end. And I can’t figure out how he could have possibly cheated it. Scariest moment. Ever.

      • Abby October 23rd, 2012 10:48 AM

        And also… twinning is genetic… and I have two sets of aunts and uncles that are twins. Scary shit, guys.

  • MikaylaT October 22nd, 2012 5:14 PM

    When I was younger, we had to clean out my grandmother’s house. Her landlord had recently passed away. My mother and I were the only ones in the house at the time, and we were upstairs. The piano downstairs began to play. Also, chair were turned toward the window, and no one had touched them. Spooooky.

  • anisarose October 22nd, 2012 6:04 PM

    I guess I’m in the commenter minority… I don’t “believe” in ghosts or the ability to hunt for them. I’m still a super big fan of Halloween and all things related but I tend to stick to costumes and candy around this time of year.

    http://anisarose.blogspot.com/

    http://anisarosenails.tumblr.com/

    • creaturefeature October 22nd, 2012 7:46 PM

      I don’t either, you’re not alone! I wish I could get into pretending I’m scared of stuff like this, just for October, but I can’t, so I go the blood&gore route for scary things.

  • mdoodle13 October 22nd, 2012 6:18 PM

    I live in Fredericksburg! There are so many great ghost stories and such associated with my hometown
    Also, the ghost tours in Williamsburg are pretty great too!

  • TheScreenKiller October 22nd, 2012 6:41 PM

    The Vaccines-Ghost Town
    That song is literally perfect for this article.

  • Aurora October 22nd, 2012 6:41 PM

    Oh gosh I love ghost stories… one time I was in the bathroom at school with my friend and we were doing Bloody Mary, and my neck started bleeding. Spooky!

  • JillianYvette October 22nd, 2012 7:09 PM

    I was freaked out just by this article! I know I would need to be surrounded by at least five other people before I went out ghost hunting.

  • Alexx October 22nd, 2012 7:38 PM

    This sounds so awesome!! I’d probably have no one to go with, but where I live there’s a hotel that’s supposedly haunted so it’d be perfect to go ghost hunting in !

    Can you guys please make a post on more halloween related things to do this week?? (just please don’t say go to a scary movie, cuz that’s all anyone around here can think of doing..)

  • kirsten October 22nd, 2012 9:40 PM

    I can’t wait to be dead so I can be a ghost and freak the shit out of people.

    That sounds super morbid, but I think it would be hilarious!

  • jill October 23rd, 2012 12:05 AM

    ahh this is so scary!! I had to close my blinds because I was afraid someone would be looking at me through my window or something.

    • Kathryn October 23rd, 2012 12:53 AM

      I did too. Haha. I’m going to have to read or something for awhile because I now won’t be able to sleep after reading this. Thanks.

  • Nahs October 23rd, 2012 2:21 AM

    Well my house is very old! I do think I had some friendly or pasive ghost though.
    There was this time when I was six or seven years old, I accidentally spilled a whole glass of milk on a wooden chair in my room. I freaked out and went quickly to fetch a towel to clean the mess before I got in trouble. I SWEAR it took me no more than 5 seconds or so to get the towell from my cupboard …when i turned to clean the mess….VOILAH! NO MILK…not a single puddle of milk, nor in the chair, nor in the floor….DRY….the floor wasnt even wet, it was impossible for it to dry so quickly……aaaaand my glass of milk was still missing the milk I had spilled ….I just stood there like “wtf…”

    • Nahs October 23rd, 2012 2:24 AM

      I got a scaryer story though, if you want me to tell xD

    • Abby October 23rd, 2012 3:46 PM

      Story time??? YESSS TELL ME

      • Nahs October 25th, 2012 7:25 PM

        Well, I was like 11 or twelve years old when this happened. In the house across the street lived our neighbours, a cute old couple. They used to play a lot with me when I was a baby when my granny took me for walks around the neighborhood.
        Anyway, one night I had THE SCARYEST NIGHTMARE EVER… I dreamed some disturbing scary shit. I woke up scared as hell. I started to get REALLY SCARED. I felt like I was being looked at. I started hearing crazy noises, I would turn on the lights several times at night…something just felt really WRONG. I swear I almost pissed myself until I couldn’t take it anymore and went to my mom’s room. This happened for 3 nights. I would have horrible crazy nightmares and couldn’t stand staying alone in my room and even had to ask mom or granny to let me sleep with them. I didn’t sleep well for three nights and the last night was the worst, with even feeling like something walked around my room. Anyway…after three nights one day I came home from school and my mom told me the news: one of our neighbours (the old couple) had just died of falling down the stairs. I was shocked. The nightmares stoped that same night and I went back to sleep as usual.

        A year after, when I was 12, the same thing happened all over again. After three nights of disturbing nightmares and no sleeping, the old lady (our neighbor’s widow) died of a fever. After that, again I went back to sleep normally.

        o____o

  • missmadness October 23rd, 2012 10:18 AM

    A few years ago my friends and I went to an old folks home that was abandoned because of abuse by caretakers. We were all jokingly scared until we went into a communal shower area where there was real blood on all the walls (dried, flaky and discolored, not halloween red) and the floors. On the opposite wall someone had gratified all this craziness about the date the home had closed, the number of occupants, number of workers, etc. It all added up in various ways to 23 (yes, like the movie.) Then we got real-life scared and left pretty quickly. Of course, we got lost on the way back to the cars and ended up having to run through the storage building, complete with old beds (with restraints!) old wheelchairs and what looked like surgical kits. Freaky shit.

  • Isabelle97 October 23rd, 2012 10:21 AM

    love to hear it! :)

  • mayaautumn October 23rd, 2012 11:07 AM

    when my friend and i were little, we were convinced that there was a ghost in her house..in her sisters bedroom..
    we got changed into ‘ghost hunting’ outfits and got our weapons (a frog umbrella and a ladybird umbrella) and then charged into the room. only to discover that it was just an open window! the wind was what we thought was howling and the weird banging was the bags on the door. we were so disappointed…we desperately wanted to have a ghost friend. i kind of still do :’(

    http://mayathapapaya.tumblr.com

  • all-art-is-quite-useless October 23rd, 2012 1:45 PM

    I don’t believe in ghosts, but my favourite ghost story from my town is the Lady in Grey, about a girl whose parents were victims of the plague (I googled this, and apparently around half of the population of my city died of the plague), so their house was boarded up with bodies still inside. However, no one realised that the (living) daughter was still inside. Later, the house was opened up – I can’t remember why, there was a reason – and inside it they found the body of the girl, and in her mouth was human flesh – out of starvation, she had eaten her dead parents’ flesh! Ever since, she has (supposedly) haunted her house, there’s an antique shop on top of it now.

  • starpower October 23rd, 2012 7:08 PM

    I should not have read this article.

  • mickeyf19 October 23rd, 2012 8:10 PM

    I LOVE THE ENDING OF THIS ARTICLE! :D

    i’ve managed to resist the urge to turn around.

    >.>

  • Sasha Frolova October 23rd, 2012 11:58 PM

    Last year during a review, my teacher criticized me for staging paranormal photographs and proposed I go out and look for real ghosts. If only this had existed!

    I also recommend the Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits to aspiring ghost hunters and enthusiasts!

  • sidneytiansay October 24th, 2012 1:28 AM

    I’m hungry but after reading this at 10:28 pm I think I’ll just starve myself to sleep

    http://lilaclust.blogspot.com/

  • Adnovitam October 24th, 2012 2:19 AM

    This is the only book I know that has real ghost stories in it – real ones: http://www.amazon.com/Natural-History-Ghosts-Roger-Clarke/dp/1846143330

    I read an advanced copy and got the total creeps…

    I’ve seen a ghost in a doublewide in Florida where I was having a reading done. I said to the reader, “Your husband is walking up and down the hallway. Is he okay?” She said, “Darling, my husband went to bed a long time ago. That’s the spirit I’m channeling.” My friend saw the same image – a soldier or captain-like person, blue trousers with a stripe down the leg, brass buttons on an open jacket, white undershirt. Couldn’t see that clearly but we both saw that.

  • dollhaus October 24th, 2012 12:02 PM

    Nothing is scarier than a haunted Catholic school, let me tell you.

  • DickVantom October 25th, 2012 1:17 AM

    For some reason I’m freaked out (just a little). Which takes a lot for me to get freaked out.

  • nadhiya October 26th, 2012 6:34 AM

    It’s really fun to read this because I see dead people everyday (yes I can ‘see’) and it doesn’t bother me at all. At times spirits ask me for helps to find their stuffs or annoyingly projected their past lives (or even how they died). My favourite is when my friends are watching horror films, some spirits or ghosts come watching too (it’s the chilly feels you get when yo watch horrors), and I will stare at them blankly. Ouija boards don’t make any differences too. The spirit comes to me first and then it moves the board. Because of my vision, people think that my imaginary friend was not imaginary, like it was a spirit of a dead boy or something.

    It is fun meeting ghosts.

    Twitter: @Nadhiyer / http://flavors.me/lunacre

  • kimothy October 26th, 2012 12:40 PM

    When I was little my family used to live in a house where a blind man died. He still liked to do housework and was in the garage repairing something on the ceiling when he fell and died. His wife was devastated so she sold the house and we bought it. At night we used to hear what sounded like a stick tapping against the walls and even banging on the windows. We didn’t even know about the blind man until we told our neighbors what was happening and they told us.