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Helen Popkin
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msnbc.com
updated 10/31/2008 9:24:44 AM ET 2008-10-31T13:24:44

If there’s one thing for which Steve Gonsalves has irrefutable proof, it’s that people want to believe. As technology manager for The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) on the SciFi Channel documentary-style series, “Ghost Hunters,” he’s regularly approached by fans bearing that universally understood object of paranormal evidence — The Wonky Photograph.

You know what I’m talking about. Back in the dark ages before digital cameras, every family had a drawer full of “paranormal evidence”: The baby with flash-induced “halo,” little Timmy with his chronic case demonic red-eye, bright orbs floating across the family Christmas portrait, that blurry thumb-like apparition you certainly didn’t see in the room when you took the picture — and the most frightening of all — the freaky double exposure wherein you and your evil twin or maybe your very soul exist within the same frame.

Still, some people are so anxious to believe, they don’t much appreciate it when Gonsalves points out the flaws in their substantiation. “I tell them, you can think it’s a vortex, but I can clearly see the strands of fiber from your camera strap,” Gonsalves said in a telephone interview.  “They get mad — sometimes even angry. They definitely want to have a paranormal picture.”

And hey, who can blame them? On the surface, it seems somewhat plausible that the miracle of technology, which provides so much for the living, might also offer some kind of connection to the dead. Heck, even crusty ol’ inventor Thomas Edison wanted to build a telephone to the afterlife.  (Imagine the roaming charges!)

It’s no wonder people consult Gonsalves. He did, after all, leave a profession in law enforcement for a successful TV career ghost hunting with cameras, tape recorders, thermometers and even more complicated gizmo thingies.

If Edison thought about it, and a regular guy like Gonsalves, who by his own admission, has no exceptional technical prowess, it’s only natural loads of folks would follow suit.

While a 2005 Gallup Poll revealed that a third of Americans (admitted that they) believe in an afterlife, there are no official numbers to gauge how well the ghost-busting equipment biz fares in revenue. However, a Google search for “ghost hunting gear” reveals plenty of merchants looking to make a dime on wannabe spirit searchers.

You’ll find dedicated e-tailers such as GHOST MART (best e-tailer name EVER), as well as plenty of  piecemeal offerings on Amazon. Such supernatural sellers hawk anything from basic gewgaws, your run-of-the-mill voice-activated microcassette recorders for instance, to pricey DVR surveillance set-ups for the most serious (or perhaps gullible) ghost hunters.

Meanwhile, Gonsalves’ “Ghost Hunters” Gear Guide videos on SciFi.com grab more viewers than even free show excerpts and behind-the-scenes footage. In these brief Webisodes, Gonsalves runs through the basic arsenal of paranormal detection. Here’s an abbreviated list with approximate prices (and a few skeptical comments) added:

EMF detector ($25-$400) Detects electro-magnet field fluctuations, which theoretically occur when energy-based spirits are hanging around. Of course, there are lots of other reasons for EMF fluctuations — from exposed wires to the Northern Lights.

Digital video camera (with infrared illuminator) ($35-$3,000) Captures images in dark rooms not visible to the human eye, such as moving objects, forming mists and floating orbs.

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Digital thermometer ($70-$200) Reads ambient and surface temperatures, which helps detect free floating cold and hot spots/fluctuations which, as everybody knows, could be caused by a ghostly presence.

Portable tape recorder ($12-$700) Captures EVPs (electronic voice phenomena), such as spirits speaking from the other side which weren’t audible during the recording.

White noise generator ($50-$1,400) Creates pure static which is believed to work as a catalyst for EVP recordings by providing noise through which spirits can verbalize. It also filters out background noise for clearer recordings.

Ion generator (TAPS had its custom made.) Allegedly charges the atmosphere, theoretically providing spirits with bonus energy through which they can manifest.

Image: Steve Gonsalves,
Ghost Hunters  /  Sci Fi Channel
Steve Gonsalves, technology manager for The Atlantic Paranormal Society on the SciFi Channel documentary-style series, “Ghost Hunters,” sets up some ghost-busting equipment.

Wireless audio kit with software (Around $800)Transmits audio into a computer where it can be amplified to detect EVP recordings. Baby monitors work, too.

DVR system (with infrared camera, DVR and monitor) ($6,000-$7,000) Digital, time-stamped real-time paranormal surveillance with a whole lot of storage. Runs all night without the need to change tapes.

Thermal imaging camera ($6,000 to $50,000) You know, like “Predator” uses. Reveals and records cold and hot spot fluctuations — and you know what that means. Gho-izzy in the hizzy!

Polygraph machine ($1,000 to $10,000) B.S. detectors that signal when the person reporting the haunting is lying. Oh, wait! Ghost hunters never use those.

Isn't this what ya call pseudo science?
Explaining these items on the Gear Guide, Gonsavles, who says he has worked with Ph.D.-toting scientists to understand the equipment, certainly sounds like he knows what he’s talking about — at least to me (who can’t do math in my head) and probably to that one third of believing Americans and their silent compatriots unwilling to admit that they also suspect unseen forces — at least to Mr. Gallup.

But not so much to skeptics such as Alison Smith, founder of SAPS (Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society — get it, it’s a play on TAPS of “Ghost Hunters” fame), and a research assistant for the James Randi Educational Foundation. She politely pointed out during an extended e-mail interview that all the gadgetry in the world isn’t so great at providing proof beyond this one.

“If you think about the application of ghost gear for a long enough period of time (as, I am sad to say, I have) you will eventually come to completely logical reasons why a ghost hunter may use the tools that they do,” Smith said.

“Unfortunately, this doesn't mean that the ghost hunters who use them came to the same conclusion for the same reasons — in fact, from the times I've spoken with them, it appears they haven't thought it out very far at all.” Smith added, “That could be a misconception on my part, of course.”

When presented with the skeptic’s side of the argument, Gonsalves … well … he agreed. “There is no direct link between science and paranormal investigation,” he said. “There is no direct link between the paranormal and anything. Science is the only way right now to try and give any validity to paranormal investigators.”

Using gadgetry provides better evidence than something along the lines of, “I saw this thing, I have no way to prove it, but that’s my story,” Gonsalves said.

Makes sense to me — the woman who prefers Macs to PCs because I don't read instructions.

Image: SAPS founder Alison Smith
Alison Smith  /  SAPS
SAPS founder Alison Smith thinks about the science of ghost-hunting gear almost more than she cares to admit.
Alas, it does not make sense to Smith, who also pointed out that misreading fallible gadgets is as much a blow to the so-called scientific process of ghost hunting as the gadgets themselves. “An odd EMF reading is never the *same* odd EMF reading,” she wrote. “And it's not backed up by anything but a group of (normally) grown men with goatees claiming loudly that they feel a spooky sensation.”

Oh you think that’s snotty? I dug up this article by Benjamin Radford of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and he sure ain’t looking to fuel anyone’s flight of fancy. In “Reality Check: Ghost Hunters and Ghost Detectors,” Radford writes:

“The uncomfortable reality that ghost hunters carefully avoid, 'the elephant in the tiny, haunted room,' is of course that no one has ever shown that any of this equipment actually detects ghosts. The supposed links between ghosts and electromagnetic fields, low temperatures, radiation, odd photographic images, and so on are based on nothing more than guesses, unproven theories, and wild conjecture.”

Dang, buzz kill.

Not that we should, or at least will, pay any attention to what Radford writes. As history reveals, no amount of naysayers can come between Americans and seemingly cool gadgets. Skeptics didn’t stop people from buying salad shooters or the first version of the Apple iPhone.

As for Smith, she doesn’t have so much of a problem with paranormal documentary-style shows such as “Ghost Hunters,” and understands the need for drama and spookiness. “I see nothing wrong with investigating the concept of ghosts either,” she wrote, adding that she too goes on ghost investigations and tests out the same equipment used on shows for her own organization, SAPS.

“The only issue I have with any of it is the presentation of the evidence, and that's why having these things on television is a bit of a problem,” Smith said. “If the point is spookiness and drama and entertainment, just say so. If it's about real research, perhaps television isn't the best place for it.”

Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?

Ghost hunt without leaving the comfort of home — “Ghost Hunters Live” premieres at  7 p.m. ET Halloween night on the SciFi Channel. During this 7-hour marathon investigation of a former Civil War prison camp, viewers have the opportunity to help out by signaling the TAPS team to any ghostly happenings and participate in a live Q&A. And get more ghost-hunting tips from the "Ghost Hunters" community forum Join the Hunt.

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