Whether your involvement in the paranormal research field involves intense, hands-on field research, armchair detective work, or anything in between, one thing’s for sure: You’ve seen someone claiming something is paranormal when it obviously isn’t. Paranormal fraud affects all areas of the paranormal field, from cryptozoology to ufology, to parapsychology. No one studying the unknown is immune to the occasional too-good-to-be-true photo, recording, or story. And although the ease of sharing information over the internet has definitely made paranormal fraud all the more prevalent, the concept is certainly not new—a point clearly illustrated by the fraudulent mediums/psychics during the heyday of the Spiritualist Movement. But why are people so apt at trying to pass off fraudulent claims as the real deal? Let’s take a look at three fairly broad explanations:
*Ignorance: It’s my opinion that the majority of false paranormal claims, especially photographic evidence, are not shared maliciously. Rather, people simply don’t know that what they’re claiming to be paranormal is, in fact, NOT paranormal. Over the years, you’ve probably seen hundreds of ‘ghost’ photos submitted online, featuring a strange vortex (camera straps/hair/cobwebs), glowing orbs (airborne particles, sunspots, bugs, dust, digital artifacts, etc.), and even full-bodied apparitions! It doesn’t take a professional photographer to immediately spot most of the natural phenomenon that get misidentified as ghostly manifestations, and it’s easy to see where someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience in the paranormal could make a simple mistake. But what about these weird full-bodied apparitions, or spooky faces in the trees?
Again, we first need to look for simple natural phenomenon that can mimic perceived paranormal images. Maybe that full-bodied apparition is a real person that simply wasn’t noticed when the photo was taken. Perhaps they appear translucent because of low light and show shutter speeds. Those creepy faces? Probably nothing more than pareidolia—our brain’s natural tendency to take random patterns and make sense of them. However, once in awhile you’ll come across a photo that is obviously manipulated in some way. Taking a look at the EXIF data, or even recognizing the ghostly image from either a popular movie or a database of ghost hoax apps can easily prove that the photo isn’t what it appears to be, but that still doesn’t mean the person sharing it is maliciously or purposefully trying to be deceptive. In some cases, someone might be trying to fool them! When asked for details about the photo, they often state that they either found it online and thought it was a great capture, or that their son/nephew/brother/sister/niece/daughter/friend/friend of a friend/etc. took it in a place known to be haunted or where a tragedy occurred. Often, the person who shares the photo with them or who notices it the first time is someone they claim can be trusted or who would never do such a thing…until they do.
Dealing with someone who truly believes their experience or piece of evidence is proof-positive can be a little frustrating. When presented with evidence contradicting their claims, some are open-minded and grateful for the education. The overwhelming majority I’ve found, however, are quite stubborn, no matter how much proof to the contrary is shown. Some of it has to do with confirmation bias. People who feel like their home may be haunted want the validation that they’re not crazy. If they truly believe that they’re haunted or perhaps have a psychic ability, any spooky experience or strange photo can be proof. Trying to tell them they may be mistaken can be interpreted as a personal attack. They may feel like you’re downplaying their beliefs, their knowledge, and their very character, and as a result, can lash out. In rare cases, these people may actually be mentally ill and experiencing hallucinations and other disruptions of normal thought. What they’re telling you is very real to them, and being told its not would be very confusing.
*Fame, Money, Prestige and Attention: Although I really believe that most fraudulent claims are innocent, there are plenty of people willingly trying to deceive the paranormal community, and the public as a whole, in order to get what they want. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this time and time again in the paranormal field. Harry Houdini devoted his life to uncovering fraudulent spiritualist mediums, and there are dedicated groups and individuals even today that are dedicated to exposing paranormal trickery of all sorts.
There are a variety of reasons that tend to fall under this category. Everyone wants to be the first to discover that Holy Grail of paranormal evidence, whether it be an actual Bigfoot body, proof of UFO’s, or the perfect photograph of life after death. Some are willing to lie about it. There are still plenty of news outlets willing to buy stories and ‘evidence,’ and money CAN be made through video streaming, donations, podcasts, media appearances, and working the convention circuit. These are certainly ways to get attention and fame as well…if you don’t get caught.
Another aspect of fraud we as investigators and researchers have to deal with is locations actually ‘creating’ stories and experiences. When you pay a great deal of money to attend an investigation or similar event at a popular haunted place, there’s an expectation for that location to perform. As we all know, the paranormal field is an unpredictable one, and even the most haunted of locations may go through periods of complete inactivity. In order to keep the patrons happy and to keep the narrative alive, there have been locations that have fabricated stories, shared misinformation regarding historical research, and even have rigged up electronic devices to simulate a haunting!
Similarly, I think a lot of psychics, including our psychic mediums from the Spiritualism Movement, have fallen into a related trap. Perhaps they do have some inkling of ability that can be classified as ESP, but they aren’t always correct in their information, or can’t always perform to standards when asked. As a result, they turn to trickery to keep up their reputation. This extends beyond the world of commercial psychics, however. I won’t mention names, but there once was a very popular ghost hunting television show that started off quite respectably, showing the truth behind paranormal investigations. But, in order to keep ratings up and keep the audience coming back for more, I think things evolved from just slight production tricks to outright falsified evidence.
There’s a fairly rare sub-category to this, and that’s a phenomenon you see a lot in poltergeist cases. Often, a poltergeist case will begin with legitimate activity. However, this activity tends to disappear as quickly as it started, often with no warning. More than one young person, acting as an agent of a poltergeist haunting, has found that the attention given to them by the media and by researchers is something they like, and that they don’t want to disappoint. So, when the activity ceases, they might resort to faking.
*Trolling: Finally, there are a handful of people out there who do this for fun, or to make fun of someone, rather. Once again, those apps where you can insert a phony ghost image into your photos are a favorite way for some to scare the crap out of their friends and family. Usually, these pranks are fairly innocent, but sometimes they go a little too far. Then you have the hardcore non-believers who manufacture evidence in an attempt to fool paranormal researchers. If the researcher doesn’t immediately spot it as a fake, then the hoaxer can claim just how uneducated or underqualified those in this field are, and how the paranormal is not a legitimate field of research. As malicious as these attacks can be, luckily I’ve found them to be few and far between. As an added note, I think this category sometimes overlaps with the previous one—I think some people may start out as faking evidence in order to gain money or fame, but when they get caught, they use the excuse that they were ‘testing’ the ‘experts.’
So how should you respond if you think you’re being presented with falsified evidence or an outlandish story that’s just too good to be true? My best advice is to remain objective, calm, and tactful. Listen to the claims and thoroughly analyze the evidence. Ask plenty of questions so that you’re getting the whole story. In the case of alleged evidence, request original copies. Do your own research to see if you can locate any sort of proof or documentation that either backs up, or debunks the claims. Seek out other opinions, both from those in the field of paranormal research and those who have a specialty (such as photography/audio/zoology) outside of paranormal research that may be applicable.
If you’re convinced that you’re being presented with an outright fake, again, just approach with tact. Don’t just tell someone their evidence or story is fake. Rather, provide them with documentation and concrete examples as to why this is the most likely scenario. Don’t be afraid to let them know your qualifications and any educational background that helped lead you to your conclusions. Don’t assume they are necessarily trying to deceive you. As stated before, someone might have been trying to fool THEM, or they might just be making a simple misidentification. And don’t get into a huge throw down! There are plenty of people out there who can be presented with all the factual information in the world and still desperately hold onto their own personal truths. If you’ve presented your argument, backed it up, and done so in a tactful and professional manner, there’s not much more you can do. Nothing is going to change that person’s mind. But, that does lead to a controversial next step…
Who should you share your findings with?
As to who you should share your conclusions with and where to ‘call out’ the deception really depends on the situation. You don’t want to embarrass someone who made an honest mistake, but at the same time, you want to educate them and hopefully educate others at the same time. And, if someone is being maliciously deceptive, you probably want EVERYONE to know, so that it doesn’t happen again. Therefore, my advice is to just use your best judgement. Obviously, if someone is posting their ‘evidence’ or experience on social media, as long as you remember to be tactful and professional, I see no problem in commenting your opinion, especially if its a public forum; that’s the point of social media. As a caveat, however, there are some instances that I tend to walk away from. If someone is obviously grieving the loss of a loved one and thinks their orb photo or butterfly sighting is proof that they’ve come to visit and everything is okay, I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to take that away from them when for all I know, maybe that IS a sign from their loved one. If it brings them peace and its not necessarily hurting the field, I’m okay with keeping my mouth shut.
I’m not okay with keeping my mouth shut, however, when someone keeps knowingly spreading misinformation, doubly so if they are billing themselves as a professional paranormal investigator or expert. If commenting on social media doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, I’ll sometimes hop on over to my blog and do a more in-depth explanation of my analysis, especially with photos. I hate drama, so I tend to not mention groups or individual researchers by name, but instead provide an educational look at the situation and hopefully, someone will learn something new. Obviously, if a person comes to me or my group privately with falsified evidence, I won’t share my findings publicly. Once in awhile, a situation will arise when I’m contacted by another group who has investigated the same location as me, or who has spoken with the same client about the same issue, and wants my opinion. This is why we have clients sign paperwork! We have a clause in our evidence release allowing the client to grant or deny us permission to share certain information with other investigators. I will not share personal details or things said in confidence, but I’ll let others know whether I feel that certain claims need to be further researched or not.
Paranormal fraud isn’t going away. No matter what we do, there is always going to be someone out there trying to trick someone, or someone who is simply grossly misinformed about a topic. I think the best thing we can do as paranormal enthusiasts is to keep educating ourselves, keep an open mind, and approach incidents of fraud with a professional manner. Stay smart, and stay spooky!
*Want to know more about paranormal fraud? Check out the blog post, Desperately Deceptive, by Living Life in Full Spectrum (LLIFS)!*
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