Haunting a house in southeast Michigan: I think this reporter missed a possible explanation

For skeptics, TV news in my hometown sucks.

Actually, it sucks for just about anyone with two brain cells to rub together, but it’s especially painful for skeptics and scientists to watch. On one station last year, there was the most credulous report I’ve ever seen about–of all things–orbs! It was presented as though these “orbs” in photos were actually ghosts or spirit presences, rather than the reflections from bits of dust in the air or on the camera lens that we know them to be. As I pointed out at the time, not even die-hard ghostbusters take orbs seriously anymore. They’re so…1970s. Yet there was Ama Daetz gamely slogging through the story, interviewing credulous believers along with the token “skeptic” who wasn’t even a skeptic, and breathlessly asking if these “orbs” could be evidence of life after death. One of TV news’ prouder moments, it definitely was not. Then there’s Steve Wilson, investigative reporter extraordinaire, who has completely fallen for virtually every antivaccine myth there is. Worse, he’s way behind the times, still flogging the mercury myth. Apparently the new Generation Rescue line of “too many too soon” and “toxins‘ hasn’t permeated his skull.

This week I became aware of another one. In this one, our intrepid newscaster has gone beyond mere orbs. She’s found what she thinks is an honest-to-God haunted house, and has the video to show it.

Well, not really.

The story starts with our intrepid reporter, Silva Harapetian, breathlessly talking about strange goings-ons in a Detroit area house into which a local couple had moved two months ago. Soon after they moved in, they claim they heard banging in the walls, strange noises, and voices. Most curious of all, they relate the story of seeing letters mysteriously appear on a certain window. In typical fashion, Harapetian shows not one whit of skepticism. Like most of the credulous, she takes the stories at face value. Apparently Harapetian and her producers are unaware that virtually every haunted house thus far that has been seriously investigated by someone like Joe Nickells and not “ghostbusters” has been found to have perfectly reasonable explanations behind the strange happenings there.

The easiest things to explain are the noises and creaking of the floors. Old houses like the one in the story frequently have creaks and other strange noises. Add to that people who are clearly superstitious and believe in ghosts, and it is not unusual for such noises to become in their mind slam dunk evidence of a haunting. Their imaginations run away with them. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for people to “hear things” in the middle of the night. Similarly, the story of a religious photo having fallen face-down is not particularly compelling evidence. A random draft could have done it. She could have done it and forgotten about it. In any case, I always wonder, if ghosts are so powerful, why do they restrict themselves to manifesting themselves to humans in such limited ways? Come one, surely there must be ghosts out there with enough imagination to come up with more devilishly clever ways to make themselves known than knocking over a picture and making the floor creak. As Bob Carroll writes:

Many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by a temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds. They are not imagining things. Most hauntings occur in old buildings, which tend to be drafty. Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans. Some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience.*

The only aspect of this story that’s quite as straightforward to explain is the appearance of the mysterious writing on the mirror, a manifestation of which much is made. Apparently, when the wife took a shower one night, she went downstairs afterward, only to come back upstairs and find writing on the bathroom mirror. They didn’t show the writing very long, but it didn’t look like anything I recognize. What it rather looked like is what happens when someone writes in the mist on a mirror with his finger. Then, supposedly, another message appeared on another mirror. It is not mentioned whether these mirrors were brought to the house by the couple or had been there before. I rather suspect the mirors were probably there, leftover from the prior owners. In that case, it’s certainly possible that there was some sort of writing there before that only became apparent upon application of a high humidity mist. In any case, any approach to investigating such a house is not to assume immediately that the cause is supernatural. Rather, the correct approach is to rule out all the possible naturalistic causes, particularly the obvious ones, before contemplating the possibility of the supernatural.

The only naturalistic explanation Harapetian seems to consider is that someone might be playing a joke on the family, not an unreasonable possibility to consider, albeit far from the only one. Unfortunately, Harapetian blithely dismisses this possibility by simply noting that the doors and windows are locked, making it very hard for a stranger to enter. Apparently it never entered her mind that another, equally likely, naturalistic explanation is that this is some sort of hoax. Indeed, I lean in that direction myself, given that the woman’s husband didn’t believe her at first but apparently did after the lettering appeared Multiple other possibilities suggest themselves. Unfortunately, Harapetian was too credulous even to consider these possibilities and too lazy to do even the most minimal additional investigation that might have revealed likely naturalistic explanations for what was observed. She could have tried to have the mirror analyzed. She could have stayed overnight and tried to document the strange anomalies claimed. She could have stayed overnight and focused video cameras on all the mirrors in an effort to catch any culprit. My guess is that all these mysterious happenings would have ceased if a couple of skeptics were directly observing what was going on and started up again as soon as they left. Ditto if they had planted cameras in areas of the house where these mysterious events were occurring. Either they would have stopped, or they would have started happening somewhere where the cameras weren’t monitoring. (Isn’t that what always happens with those clever ghosts?) But that’s just a guess on my part, playing the odds. Harapetian’s crack team did to one bit of investigation, though. Can you guess what it is?

They did some digging to see if a violent crime or death had ever occurred in their “haunted house.” That’s it.

So, let’s see. Do we have everything needed for a crappy, credulous news story about a “haunted house”? Breathless reporter? Check. Couple who recently moved into a house hearing mysterious noises and seeing mysterious sights? Check? Credulous reporter and producers not doing even the most basic things that might reveal a naturalistic explanation. Double check. So what are we missing? That’s right! I know.

We need to bring in the exorcists! Well, not exactly exorcists, as they are Eastern Orthodox and not Roman Catholic Priests. The Catholic Church loves it its exorcists, but I hadn’t been aware of a tradition of ghostbusting and exorcism in the Eastern Orthodox church, but they do it pretty well. We see them walking through the house saying prayers and waving around incense, interspersed with interviews in which one of the priests pontificates on the existence of evil and the power of God. Lovely.

I don’t know why I still get worked up over credulous excuses for news reports like this. I really don’t. TV news, particularly in local markets, is more akin to “bread and circuses” in hard times than it is in actually reporting news. It also never ceases to amaze me how TV reporters can be so skeptical and hard-nosed when it comes to the claims of politicians, but throw them in a “haunted house,” and they willingly become part of the woo. In doing so, they take their place at the vanguard of the forces destroying critical thinking skills and skepticism.