Ghost Hunting / Skepticism · April 23, 2008

The Pseudoscience of Ghost Hunting, Mickey Burrow’s “Pacific Haunting Investigations”

Pacific Haunting Investigations founder Mickey Burrow has been pretty popular in the Fresno Bee lately. I think it’s time to expose his supposedly “scientific” methods for what they really are. So let’s do some ghost hunting!

Because of the amount of material that I’ll be presenting, I’m making this a multiple part series to cover everything. This first entry will be a bit long, but I’ll try to keep future entries under 800 words.

First, I’d like my readers to know something about me, and my colleague Richard from CVAAS. About myself – as a younger man I used to hunt ghosts, made audio recordings, checked out supposedly haunted houses and I ran into things that were difficult to explain. Richard has taken the further step of receiving training in basic ghost hunting from a locally recognized and very popular ghost hunter. We have both, to the best of our abilities, investigated the methods that ghost hunters use, and we are both of the opinion that ghost hunters do not use or apply the methods of science. I’ll also show that ghost hunters, and Mickey Burrow in particular, are not open to criticism of any sort.

Let’s start with some background.

I read in passing back in April of 2007 in the Fresno Bee of the supposedly haunted Cal Fire station in Raymond California. The ghost, named “Homer” by the firefighters, was supposed to have thumped and bumped his way around the fire station, turning the lights on and off, and was a shadowy presence in the corner of people’s eyes. It got so bad that the firefighters ignored or encouraged Homer’s supposed shenanigans, and finally begged the ghost to follow when Cal Fire built a newer state of the art station half a mile away.

The story of Homer’s activities barely registered with me, and I mentally filed the story with other local ghost stories, giving it as much credibility as the historically inaccurate stories about the Andleberry Estates.

But all that changed when one Mickey Burrow, founder of Pacific Haunting Investigations decided to investigate Homer.

There are many other ghost hunters in Fresno and the Central Valley. These are the same people who would do sleepovers at the Andleberry Estates, who would get a quick sound byte on television during Halloween, and who would then disappear back into obscurity, ignored by everyone except for other ghost hunters. The difference between these ghost hunters and Mr. Burrow, is that Burrow is a “Crime Scene Investigator!”

(cue dramatic music)

Mr. Burrow asked for, and received permission from Madera County to investigate the now abandoned Raymond fire station for evidence of Homer. His past experience as a CSI put a whole new spin to the idea of ghost hunting, and the result was that Fresno Bee reporter Charles McCarthy wrote a 650 word story about him in the Local section of the paper. Here is a quote from this story:

According to Raymond folklore, Homer is the last name of a young couple who lived on the site in the 1930s. In a jealous rage after learning that his 17-year-old wife had a gentleman visitor, the husband stabbed her to death with a Bowie knife. He then hanged himself, with barbed wire, from a large oak tree that still stands near the old station’s front gate.

Cal Fire crews moved last spring to a new station, and Madera County in June paid the private property owner $91,000 for the 1950 barracks, kitchen and garage on 1.69 acres along Road 600. The county plans to locate a community senior center there while keeping a volunteer fire engine in the garage.

All but inviting Homer to join them in their move to a new station a half-mile down the road, the firefighters pried a granite cemetery grave marker from the old station’s concrete floor and took it with them to the new station. The marker reads: “‘RIP Homer.”

Apparently Homer didn’t follow. Madera County Fire Department Division Chief Roscoe Rowney said there have been no reports of Homer’s presence in the new station.

At the old station, however, alleged Homer activity continues.

Burrow and two associates last month paid a preliminary visit to the site. He turned on an “electronic voice phenomenon” recorder in front of the office area but heard nothing unusual.
When he returned to Fresno and turned on the recorder, there was a faint voice advising him to “turn around.”

What is Electronic Voice Phenomena?

As a younger man, I used to place a tape recorder on gravestones in the local cemetery, and then my friends and I would drive home and listen to the tapes in the safety of bright lights. We would hear spooky sounding heartbeats, voices, or other unexplained noises.

It was a lot of fun.

But random noise on a tape, called “Electronic Voice Phenomenon” by ghost hunters, is merely our pattern-seeking brains finding supposed meaning in randomness – in the very same way that we can see bunnies and sailing ships in the clouds that float overhead, we can hear voices buried in the random hiss of a recorder.

Ghost hunters of the 1980’s had the theory that a ghost was able to impose his or her attempts to communicate directly upon the magnetic media of the tape recorder using electromagnetic means. This seems to make some sense, but then why would a recorder be necessary at all? Just lay a blank tape on a gravestone, and then play it back later.

Jackie Meador of the Central California Paranormal Investigators is also quoted in this Fresno Bee article. Ms. Meador teaches “Paranormal Studies” classes at the Cesar Chavez Community Education Center in Fresno. (Click here and search for “ghost” for upcoming classes.) According to Ms. Meador, EVP can be recorded on audio tape, or with one of the more modern and inexpensive digital audio recorders. These recorders are usually under $40, and can easily record 60 hours of audio – perfect for leaving the recorder in a haunted house or near a gravestone for a weekend. It can then be picked up and examined for ghostly voices later.

The use of a digital recorder to capture ghost voices knocked out the theory of direct ghostly electromagnetic manipulation of media. To directly manipulate the storage of a digital recorder would require advanced knowledge of WAV or MP3 compression methods, and a working understanding of the mathematical algorithm behind them. I doubt that the 1930’s version of Homer understands the necessary math and electronics needed to directly imprint an MP3 or WAV file onto a digital recorder, and if he did have that ability wouldn’t he have a lot more to say than, “turn around”?

The newest ghost hunting theory of EVP says that ghosts actually manipulate the “white noise” of the environment or the electronics to produce noises that are then recorded. The poor ghosts aren’t strong enough to invest much energy into this sort of effort, so their words are buried in the surrounding background noise. It takes a sharp ear to pick those words out of the random noise.

This leads to a problem with very quiet environments, where there is no background noise. In these cases a ghost supposedly has nothing to work with, and therefore can’t speak. But the Ghosthunting Store can help a person out here by selling you a CD of professionally recorded White Noise, which you would play in the ghostly environment while recording.

Another theory is that a digital recorder’s analog to digital conversion process actually generates a layer of white noise that is, “conducive to EVP formation.” Hm. As an electrical engineer, perhaps I should be designing inherently noisy digital recorders and selling them to ghost hunters? There would seem to be a market here – but I’m just too honest to exploit it.

This also leads to the question of just how the ghost is able to discern and locate the Analog to Digital conversion chip from the rest of the electronic parts on the recorder circuit board. Do ghosts become electrical engineers after death, or does the afterlife offer classes on hobby electronics?

Instant EVP, just add random noise! In what way is this any different from spending a lazy afternoon gazing at the clouds and discussing the shapes that you see? The scientific term for this is called, “Auditory pareidolia”, and is no different from seeing Trolls in your Laundry. A better explanation is that the context in which we perceive influences how our brains fill in the blanks. But you don’t have to believe me on this, go check out the research for yourself.

This is the quality of investigation that we can expect from Mickey Burrow. I’ll continue with more on this tomorrow. Don’t be spooked! Stay Tuned!