Students track elusive ghosts in U of O summer courses

Release Date: 5/24/2010

Clarksville, Ark. --- "From ghoulies and ghosties / And long-legged beasties / And things that go bump in the night, / Good Lord, deliver us!" Thus goes the old Scottish children's prayer.

On a recent Sunday night, U of O students had the opportunity to put this theory to the test as part of summer coursework. Students of both Dr. Brian McFarland’s Science and Pseudoscience course and Dr. Jesse Weiss’s Sociology of Paranormal Belief course met as night fell to conduct a ghost tour of the U of O campus.

It was not the first time. “We have had professional ghost hunters on campus before,” said Dr. McFarland, “and so we modeled this excursion on those.” He made available to the large and excited group of students – members of both classes and another dozen who’d shown up just out of curiosity – the usual ghost hunter gear, including flashlights, electro-magnetic field (EMF) detectors – “ghost meters” which measure fluctuations in energy fields – and a digital audio recorder for recording sounds too faint for the human ear.

Ghost hunting has been a popular activity for decades, though in recent years television shows like “Most Haunted,” “Ghost Hunters,” and “Ghost Adventures” have led to a surge in interest in the activity. In Arkansas, Eureka Springs is particularly well known for its ghostly tourism industry, centering around the Crescent Hotel.

While many groups claim to utilize scientific methods, no scientifically testable and verifiable evidence supports the existence of ghosts. According to skeptical investigator Joe Nickell, the typical ghost hunter is practicing pseudoscience – the subject of Dr. McFarland’s course. "The least likely explanation for any given reading is it is a ghost," maintains Nickell. Orbs of light that show up on photos, he says, are often particles of dust or moisture. "Voices" picked up by tape recorders can be radio signals or noise from the recorder, and EMF detectors can be set off by faulty wiring or microwave towers.

Based on the number of wide eyes among the students, they might be inclined to disagree.

The ghost hunt encompassed four campus buildings, beginning in the Smith-Broyles science building, moving on then to the Walton Fine Arts building, Munger Chapel, Walker Hall, and ending up back again at the end at Smith-Broyles.

The ghostly routine was the same in each building. The students broke into teams and moved quickly and nervously through the darkened buildings, giggling and shrieking when an unexpected turn led into a darkened closet or a fellow student.

Intriguing results obtained everywhere. In the basement of Walton, the magnetic meter pulsed each time in response to a series of questions asked by teacher and students, the results hopefully recorded on the digital recorder that was running through the entire interview.

In the basement of Munger Chapel, an apparent ghost made the meter flash four times upon request of the astonished students. In the main part of the chapel, 29 flashes came in response to a question of the age of the “spirit.”

The ghostly sighting of a young girl with a blanket was reported in years past at Walker Hall, site of the former Hurie Hall, but lack of air conditioning limited the amount of time ghost hunters could endure searching the building, and no apparitions were in evidence.

According to a survey conducted in October 2008 by the Associated Press and Ipsos, 34 percent of Americans say they believe in the existence of ghosts. Moreover, a Gallup poll conducted on June 6 - 8, 2005, showed that one-third (32%) of Americans believe that ghosts exist.

Dr. McFarland’s popular class next takes up the subject of UFOs, followed by cryptozoology (the science of “hidden animals”) and alternative medicine.

Ozarks' Ghost Hunters

Ghost hunters Jessie Raglin and Kiplyn Phillips watch their EMF meters in anticipation of haunting activity alongside fellow enthusiasts in Munger Chapel during a recent late-night ghost hunting expedition. Members of the group were students in U of O summer courses.