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Ideas

The haunting that wasn’t

When it comes to ghost sightings, truth can be stranger than fiction.

By Glenn McDonald

Parapsychologist Loyd Auerbach has looked into hundreds of alleged hauntings and ghost sightings since he first got into the paranormal investigation business 40 years ago. He has a lot of ghost stories. But one of his best stories has no ghost at all.

In 1988, Auerbach was working as an independent investigator in California when he was asked to check out a possible haunting in the town of Martinez, outside of San Francisco. A young family had just moved into a new house and reported a series of disturbing occurrences.

“It was a family of four, and after they moved in they started seeing these shadows out of the corner of their eyes,” Auerbach says. “They would get terrible headaches and feel dizzy in this one particular room. They smelled a noxious odor, and occasionally they’d see bursts of flame that actually left marks on the walls.”

The family was sufficiently freaked to call the authorities. “They assumed the house was haunted,” Auerbach says. “They thought they had a ghost.”

Local police referred the family to Auerbach, who had earned a modest reputation for using solid scientific methods to investigate such reports. Auerbach holds degrees in cultural anthropology and parapsychology —  the study of paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance and apparitions. Parapsychology is unfashionable in scientific circles these days, but there are still plenty of investigators and educators who practice it.

Some ghost sightings are simply hallucinations, brought on by preexisting psychological conditions, or stress, or grief. ‘Or drugs,’ Auerbach says.

So Auerbach and a small group of like-minded researchers deployed out to the supposedly-haunted house, which the family had since fled. The investigative team experienced some of the issues themselves — the dizziness and anxiety, the flitting shadows, the terrible smell. Over the course of a couple of days, they found a remarkable series of causes for the disturbances.

First off, Auerbach noticed that the house was directly under a set of high-tension power lines. Using audio analysis equipment, he discovered that the power lines were emitting infrasound — low-frequency sound waves that vibrate below the threshold of human hearing.

“Low frequency sound, at around 18 to 19 Hertz, it does a couple things,” Auerbach says. “It can cause us to feel anxious. These sounds vibrate the water in our bodies, which produces a kind of queasy feeling. It also vibrates the fluid in your eyeballs, which can cause you to see shadows or movement out of the corner of your eyes.”

The team also discovered that the house had severe structural issues. It wasn’t built on an ancient burial site, as in countless horror movies, but it was built on a crumbling foundation. In the room where the family felt the strongest feelings of unease, all of the angles were slightly out-of-true: The floor was tilted, and the walls and ceiling were not quite at 90 degrees.

“We used a protractor for that,” Auerbach remembers, laughing. “But the weird angles really threw off your perception and balance.”

The noxious odor, meanwhile, was launching its own assault on the senses. The investigators checked the gas lines. There was no leak, but they found little scorch marks in several places.

The house was built next to a tall hill, so Auerbach sent his people out to see what was on the other side.

“Turned out it was the Martinez landfill,” he says. “This was methane gas seeping up and into the house.”

Auerbach ran some more tests and found that the power lines, along with cheap insulation in the walls, were producing high levels of static electricity throughout the house.

“The methane gas was catching on fire because of the high static electricity in the air,” Auerbach says.

In the end, all the strange phenomena at the Martinez house — the darting shadows, the queasy feelings, the fire-and-brimstone – were caused by a perfect storm of random but natural processes. “It was completely environmental,” Auerbach says.

By his own count, Auerbach has investigated thousands of reported ghost sightings over the years, and he’s personally visited hundreds of alleged hauntings. The vast majority of these cases, he says, can be explained away with basic science. Some ghost sightings are simply hallucinations, brought on by preexisting psychological conditions, or stress, or grief.  “Or drugs,” Auerbach says.

Most don’t even qualify as straight-up hallucinations. They’re more like optical illusions brought on by the power of suggestion, or the psychological phenomenon of pareidolia, in which the brain gives significance to random images or patterns — seeing faces in clouds, say, or the ghost of your grandpa in a closet full of coats.

And then, of course, there are the hoaxes and the pranks, which Auerbach says have been taking up a lot of his time in recent years. Digital image manipulation has made pretty much all photos and videos suspect. “You can get ghost apps on your phone now,” he says.

Still, there is a small percentage of reported ghost sightings that cannot be explained — at least, not to Auerbach’s satisfaction. And that’s what keeps him coming back. He’s got his own pile of X-files, inexplicable cases that continue to…well, haunt him. “Those are the cases that are still worthy of research,” he says.

As to the Martinez “haunting,” that case is closed. Auerbach didn’t find any ghosts, but he nevertheless considers the investigation a success.

“The outcome was we got them out of their lease,” he says with a laugh. “They got their money back, which is good. That house was a horror show.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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