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The ‘Haunt’ Project

Earlier this week, Wired posted a Halloween story which showed how to “Make the Ultimate Haunted House“. Now for me, fake blood and smoke doesn’t really qualify for the ‘Ultimate’ banner. If you want to move beyond the kid’s stuff you have to try something a little crazier than that, and perhaps do something like what Professor Chris French and his team at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College in the UK did: they built a room and saturated various parts of it with electromagnetic fields and infrasound – which are both suspected by some researchers as being correlated with reports of hauntings and paranormal experiences.

French’s study was set up in order to test these suspicions scientifically. The results will soon be published in the journal Cortex, under the title “The ‘Haunt’ Project: An attempt to build a ‘haunted’ room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound“. From the abstract:

Recent research has suggested that a number of environmental factors may be associated with a tendency for susceptible individuals to report mildly anomalous sensations typically associated with ‘‘haunted’’ locations, including a sense of presence, feeling dizzy, inexplicable smells, and so on. Factors that may be associated with such sensations include fluctuations in the electromagnetic field (EMF) and the presence of infrasound. A review of such work is presented, followed by the results of the “Haunt” project in which an attempt was made to construct an artificial “haunted” room by systematically varying such environmental factors.

79 volunteer participants were recruited through websites and email lists, and each spent 50 minutes alone in the ‘haunted room’ wandering around. During this time they were asked to record any unusual sensations, as well as when and where they felt them. Conditions varied on a random basis – some were given nothing at all, some EMF, others infrasound, and the real guinea pigs got both. All participants were informed in advance of the possible EMF and infrasound exposure, and also told (as part of the ethical requirements) that as a result they might experience “mildly unusual sensations” .

Unfortunately, although most participants reported some unusual sensations, there seemed to be no correlation between feelings of being haunted and the presence of EMF/infrasound (or lack of, as the case may be). Despite such a kick-ass experimental setup, it would seem the unusual sensations were probably just a result of suggestion, with participants expecting to feel something after being told pre-experiment. The only significant predictor of unusual experiences in ‘the haunt’ was the temporal lobe lability of the participant. French and his team see this as simply being most likely due to the the psychological profile of these people (increased suggestibility, belief in paranormal events, seeing stimuli in noise). What would be nice to see considered is whether the causation runs the other way (yes, I am a trouble-maker)…

Overall, despite the results, Chris French and his team feel the experiment was worthwhile. Given that most participants did report unusual sensations they felt that “we can indeed claim some success in building a haunted room.” Just the haunting didn’t come from EMF or infrasound, but instead from suggestion and a quiet, round, dimly lit and featureless white room which “may have constituted a form of mild perceptual deprivation”). On the basis of their study (and of previous ones by others),they concluded that “the case for infrasound inducing haunt-type experiences now appears to be extremely weak”.

However, the paper does finish by saying that, despite the findings, the possibility of EMF-related effects is still worthy of further investigations. It is pointed out that previous work – most notably by Michael Persinger – has had positive results, and that the ‘Haunt’ project’s experimental setup may have not been suitable to replicating Persinger’s effect.

Previously on TDG:

(For those wishing to check out the entire paper, here’s the citation: French CC, et al., The “Haunt” project: An attempt to build a “haunted” room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound, Cortex (2008), doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2007.10.011. My sincere thanks to Professor Chris French for providing me with the full paper before publication.)

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