As a professional investigator for the last 35 years, I have come to realise that there are a number of investigative models used all over the world which provide structure to investigators and assist in the prioritisation of certain decisions and actions after careful consideration of the facts. This structure ensures that evidence is gathered effectively and that consideration is given to risk and human rights. As investigators of anomalous phenomena, this should be at the heart of any investigation involving a member of the public.
The UK Police have the five ‘Building Blocks of Investigation’ to help them during crime investigation. These are Preserving Life, Preserving the Scene of the crime, Securing Evidence, Identifying Victims and Identifying Suspects. They are completed in this order so that victims can be safeguarded and evidence is not lost through attrition of material. Out of each building block will come a number of decisions or actions to progress the investigation.
Translating this to ‘paranormal investigation’ as a concept, could provide a structure to assist anyone seeking to help a member of the public who has experienced something that they cannot explain, they sometimes fear and often they just want to establish what has happened. The foundation for any investigation is knowledge of ethical practice, adopting an ethical approach and having an in depth knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, through training and study. The investigation structure could be achieved in the following manner:
1. Identify Harm and Risk and Produce a Strategy to Manage it.
Very often, initial contact does not allow for an assessment of vulnerability, harm or risk. A message left by voicemail, email or some other contact is usually brief, requiring further contact to ascertain the nature of the referral. Careful questioning will draw out the facts being reported but this needs to be done in a manner which establishes information about the caller so that an assessment can be made about the ages of those involved, the health physically or mentally of the client, the vulnerabilities of those involved and the social and political risks of taking the investigation on. The ASSAP Code of Ethics is at the heart of this and provides guidance about the types of cases which really should not be engaged in without specialist training and careful consideration of the consequences. When a clear risk is identified, investigators have three options. Firstly, they can politely decline to investigate where the risk to individuals outweighs the need to investigate, for example if somebody has been recently bereaved. Secondly, where a need to safeguard individuals is apparent, then referral should be made to the relevant safeguarding agency. For example, where mental health issues are apparent, referral to local social services mental health team, or where coercive and controlling behaviour is apparent, to the police and social services. I have had to adopt both safeguarding options during anomalous phenomena investigations and investigation of the reported phenomena has been abandoned once this has been identified. The third option available, when risks are acceptable with proper management, is to continue to investigate and have a working strategy to reduce the risk. For example, removing the vulnerable person from the central position of the investigation and ensuring that they are not present during it. Where a parent is reporting that a child has experienced phenomena, you might wish to use the parents account to establish the facts and remove the child from the process completely.
2. Secure Evidence
With most anomalous phenomena investigations this usually means interviewing witnesses. A good interview will illicit much information pertaining to the Who, What, Where and When, of the circumstances leading to the witnessing of the event or activity. The How and Why may not be answered during the interview but can be examined during hypothesis development. Once a witness has been spoken to, there may be corroborative evidence available such as other witnesses, CCTV, other forms of video including dashcam footage and photographs taken on mobile phones. It is important to gather these as soon as possible ensuring that they are captured in their raw state, uncontaminated and unedited. This ensures that the integrity is maintained for peer analysis. A working copy of any video, audio or photograph can be produced from the master copy to enable enhancement. Once evidence is secured it can be examined to provide further lines of investigation.
3. Eliminate Normal Factors
This will require a survey of the location to ascertain extraneous factors which may be the cause of the reported phenomena. A sound knowledge of commonly occurring natural phenomena will assist the investigator in excluding factors that can be explained with or without further investigation or replication of the conditions. In some reputedly haunted locations it may take some time to establish naturally occurring phenomena including sounds, vibrations, low light shadows, reflections and the examination of the operation of any equipment, including equipment used by the client to record activity. This will also include an examination of the structure of properties, plumbing, electrical appliances and animals, rodents and birds living within a property, together with the impact of weather conditions and external factors such as vehicles and other properties and houses nearby.
It may be at this time that an assessment of the client/ witness gives rise to a suspicion that some influence on their cognitive ability may have taken place. This could occur in conditions of tiredness, hallucinatory moments, the influence of alcohol or drugs and misperception of shapes, noises, smells and objects moving. The relationship between attention and perception of the witness at the time of the event should be explored in as much detail as possible. Often returning to the scene with the witness will help develop context of what occurred. Where possible, examination should take place in as close to the conditions that were present when the phenomena occurred. The more time that elapses between the event being witnessed and the examination of the location or of the witness, the more chance there is of condition changes and contamination of scenes and memories. Environmental factors will vary greatly at external locations, but time of visit should be as close as possible to that of the reported phenomena. If visited at night, a re-visit during daylight might reveal important detail not observed before. An example would be examining a location where a witness saw lights in the sky. It may not be apparent at the time but a check of Google satellite images and a return later might reveal that the lights are that of a vehicle or farm machinery and where there was thought to be sky, there is in fact land consisting of hills some distance away.
4. Build Hypothesis and Investigate
When enough information is compiled, it may be possible to develop hypothesis as to what may have occurred or be occurring. The investigation plan should be developed to test the hypothesis. There may be more than one hypothesis to test however, and prioritisation can be made using the principle of ‘Occams Razor’. William of Occam was a 14th century monk who developed a principle that “the hypothesis based on the least number of assumptions is likely to be the best hypothesis”. So base your hypothesis on what is known before speculating what might be going on. An example of this principle would be as follows;
A client reports that they are being visited at night by a ghostly entity that stands at the bottom of their bed and speaks to them. They also hear strange noises which sound like someone walking about. They live alone and have no pets. Interviewing the client reveals that they only moved to the property four weeks ago, they haven’t been able to sleep much and they live in a mid-terrace property. An understanding of a number of potential contributory factors for these phenomena might help develop a plan to investigate. Likely hypothesis would be that the client is experiencing, near sleep experiences together with the effects of ‘new house effect’, as their brains are still unfamiliar with the natural sounds and movements of the property. This could be tested by vigils backed up with some form of camera recording at night (operated by the client) to record what happens when they are asleep. It may be that the sounds of footfall and talking can be explained as noise travelling from adjacent properties not noticed by the client. Of course the regularity of the phenomena occurring will dictate the type of investigative response. If investigation does not confirm any of the hypothesis then we must evaluate what we have learned and develop new hypothesis.
5. Evaluate, Conclude and Report
As we have shown from the above example, at the conclusion of the initial investigation we should evaluate how effective our investigation has been to understand the phenomena reported. During any investigative evaluation we should ask five key questions:
1. What do we (now) know?
2. What does that tell us?
3. What do we need to know?
4. How are we going to get that information?
5. What resources do we need?
The answer to these questions will drive our investigative lines of enquiry. If we have not finished our investigation following evaluation, we should return to step 4. When we are happy that our hypothesis is confirmed by the investigation results, we have concluded our investigation. If we cannot disprove our hypothesis, it holds weight. The nature of anomalous phenomena investigation, however, does not always lend itself to nice clear answers. Often there is still ambiguity and results are open to interpretation. The very concept of replication of circumstances surrounding the phenomena is not always possible, so we have to understand the impact of variables, such as weather, light, temperature, vibration and external interaction to the possible outcome. At some stage we must conclude our findings and report what we have learnt, identifying what may still be left to establish. Keeping comprehensive records of methodology and results will provide an audit trail of the investigation process, allowing others to replicate the process to provide peer review. This is how we provide integrity to our investigation and findings.
It is fair to say that contemporary investigation of anomalous phenomena has a number of varied investigation techniques, in terms of understanding the various unexplained events and occurrences that are reported on a regular basis. Only with structure can we fully identify what has taken place and what still needs to be determined. This will enable us to understand the world around us better and provide credibility for the client.