Ghost hunting

October 27, 2014

Psychology students search for answers at historic haunted house

The once home of Strathcona mayor J.J. McKenzie today houses a local graphic design and advertising firm, but it’s rumoured to have two otherworldly residents as well—an old man in a hat who haunts a room on the second storey and the ghost of a young girl in the basement.

IMAGE_STORY_HouseThe mere thought of nighttime visit to the house, built in 1907, was enough to have some of Rodney Schmaltz’s psychology students shuddering—but for no particular evidence-based reason. Changing that reaction is exactly the purpose of the ghost-hunting trip and the course itself, which centres on critical thinking and pseudoscience—claims that appear to be scientific, but aren’t.

Keeping an open mind—within reason

“The course is essentially about scientific skepticism,” explains Rodney. “It’s about promoting critical thinking skills. I want students to approach things with an open mind, but to look for data and evidence when it comes to things like alternative medicine, cryptozoology—the search for Sasquatch—and ghostly phenomenon.”

Putting his students’ new critical thinking skills to the test in a real-life scenario is something that Rodney has been wanting to do for the last couple of years. “We’ve talked about it before, but this is the first time we’ve actually gone out hunting for ghosts. The idea is to have students formulate questions, decide what evidence they would need to believe something unusual is going on, gather evidence and then see if there is an earthly explanation for what’s happening.”

Consulting a ghost-hunting expert

To prepare, Rodney invited Ciarán O’Keeffe, the resident skeptic on Most Haunted, a series that looks at claims of paranormal activity across the UK, to talk to his students over Skype.

“We had some of the ideas down—using an EMF (electromagnetic field) reader, a video camera and digital audio recorder—but he did suggest looking for infrasounds, so we used a drum with rice spread on top to check for low rumbling sounds below 20Hz. These sounds can be caused by things like vibrations from old heating pipes in houses, or can result naturally from earthquakes, severe weather, or upper-atmospheric lightning. People can’t hear them and can’t really explain them, so they think they must be something spooky. It’s an example of the role a situation or expectation can play.”

Christa Engel says that while the experience of rotating through the rooms of the house in four small groups and trying to communicate with the ghosts looked a lot like what you would see on a TV haunting investigation show, it did change her perspective on ghost hunting.

“It’s easy to say you’re going to be skeptical, not cynical, but it’s harder to do in real life,” she says. “Instead of going into the ghost hunt with the attitude that there’s no such thing as ghosts, we went in acknowledging that there may be phenomena that we can’t explain and looking for proof one way or the other.”

There was no sign of the old man in the hat or the girl ghost in the basement the night of their visit, but Christa says the experience wasn’t disappointing.

“It was a good lesson in looking at things with an open mind, but also having a healthy dose of reality and knowing that there could be very real and grounded explanations for what’s happening—it’s a world view that should be enter into a lot more conversations.”

Mind over matter?

Rodney agrees that scientific skepticism could use more airplay and adds that believing in something which can’t be explained isn’t a reflection of intelligence, but rather a lack of training in the ability to think critically—training which very few people actually get.

“I’m always fascinated when people believe really unusual things—and we all fall prey to some of it,” says Rodney, who is doing more writing and research on the subject. It’s also why he feels so strongly that scientific skepticism is an important part of a university education—he published a blog post on the subject for HuffPost Science earlier this year.

Join Rodney for a ghostly talk on October 30 

Rodney gives a psychology talk every year around Halloween. This year, he’ll be talking about hauntings in Edmonton, sharing his class’s experience and providing some explanations for what’s likely happening and why. Join him in Room 9-323 at 3:30 p.m. on October 30.

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