So, you’ve got a problem in your house. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but something just doesn’t feel right. You turn a corner, and it feels like someone—or something—has been watching you. You tell yourself it’s just your imagination, but you can’t quite shake the feeling that sometimes, even when you’re all alone in the house, you’re not really by yourself.
There’s no easy fix when you think the problem in your home is otherworldly in nature. But it turns out that there are real-life Ghostbusters out there who can help, and they take their jobs very seriously.
To get a better understanding of what it’s like to square off against the supernatural as part of a 9-to-5, we spoke to two field experts: Anthony Duda, a paranormal investigator since 1992, and Ellen MacNeil, founder of SPIRITS of New England, a paranormal team that’s been investigating ghosts, hauntings, and other entities since 2009. Here’s what they had to say about exploring the things that go bump in the night.
1. Don’t call them “ghost hunters.”
Even though tracking down potential hauntings is a big part of the job, most folks who do it on the regular don’t refer to themselves as ghost hunters. They’d much rather be known as paranormal investigators.
“A paranormal investigator really takes in the whole spectrum of the paranormal; they don’t just concentrate on haunted locations and haunted houses and things like that. It’s the whole gamut of things,” Duda tells Mental Floss.
For MacNeil, a self-proclaimed “ghost hunter” is someone who is probably more of a hobbyist; they’re a person who might visit haunted cemeteries or public locations with friends as a way to socialize, but who doesn’t actually use tools or study spectral sightings in an in-depth way. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’re a ghost hunter.’ And I say, ‘Well yeah, but I’m really a paranormal investigator,’ [and that’s] because we get into much deeper stuff than a ghost hunter would,” she adds.
2. Most paranormal investigators don’t get paid.
As the old saying goes, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Yet most paranormal investigators take it one step further: Neither of the experts we spoke to accepts compensation for the work that they do.
“I’m retired now,” Duda, a former correctional officer, says. “And this is what I do, but I’ve never taken a cent for it.” Neither he nor his husband, whom he works with on investigations, believe it’s appropriate to charge a fee for their services, because the focus is on helping people. MacNeil and her team—which includes six investigators total—don’t get paid, either, and they all have full-time jobs to supplement their investigative work.
That said, there are a few exceptions to the no-money rule. If MacNeil’s group is invited to do a lecture, they’ll usually get paid. Some clients have also offered cooked meals as a form of gratitude, which her team is happy to accept. Duda has taken tips to help with travel expenses, as he and his husband have investigated hauntings around the U.S. and internationally, but that’s it. “[If] you run into a team that charges you, you need to run because they are not out to help you, they’re out to make a buck,” MacNeil adds.
3. Your “haunted house” is probably just old and full of squirrels (or raccoons).
From strange noises to bizarre electrical occurrences, mysterious things happening inside a home can turn even the biggest skeptic into a believer over time. But before you freak out about the ghost that might be lurking in your cellar, you may want to think about the last time you had your pipes checked and start planning for repairs—not exorcisms.
As part of their investigations, MacNeil and her team take time to inspect each home, looking at everything from vents to fuse boxes to determine if the supposed supernatural activity is more mundane in origin. On the SPIRITS of New England website, they further clarify that a lot of activity can be caused by plumbing and heating issues in older homes.
Another common culprit? Raccoons. “If you have a very quiet house and then all of a sudden, all hell’s breaking loose up in your attic, and you can’t see anything, [that’s because raccoons are] active at night,” MacNeil says. She adds that squirrels can be “absolute hellions” that will wreak havoc if they venture indoors, too.
4. And no, not everything is possessed by demons. (Sorry.)
Starting in the 1970s, popular horror movies like The Exorcist helped bring demons—and specifically, the theory of demonic possession—out from the dusty scrolls of archaic religious texts and into the mainstream in a big, flashy way. The Satanic Panic that gripped the U.S. in the 1980s only added more fuel to the proverbial fire.
But according to Duda, the belief that there’s a demon skulking behind every corner is one of the biggest misconceptions that crops up during a standard investigation. The likelihood that you’ve got the next Annabelle on your hands? Experts say chances are slim, at best.
Duda claims he has encountered “non-human spirits” before, but it’s rare. And when he does, he doesn’t even like to call them demons, because “that makes it seem like Hollywood.” According to him, some tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with a non-human, malevolent force might include physical injuries like scratching or biting, which seem to manifest out of nowhere. Growling sounds and mysterious injuries to children or animals are also indications that might, in Duda’s opinion, suggest a negative entity has taken up shop in your home.
5. Paranormal investigators have a busy season.
According to both MacNeil and Duda, October is the busiest time of year in their line of work, but it’s not because ghosts suddenly come back from a year-long siesta and decide now’s a good time to start causing a ruckus. “[I’ve] asked [ghosts] and they have told me that no, they don’t keep a calendar or have a little stopwatch [and say], ‘Oh it's September 30, time to get ready, let’s go,’” MacNeil joked.
Rather, both believe that business picks up in the fall because people want to notice things more. And that interest doesn’t subside once the Jack-o’-Lanterns have rotted and all the Spirit Halloween shops are shuttered for the season. In Duda’s experience, business stays booming throughout the winter months, too, and for one simple reason: “Because [people] are home much more.” The more time people spend indoors, the more likely they are to question every creak in the floorboards and strange shadow in the attic.
6. They can get pretty bored waiting for ghosts to show up.
“Most of the time, nothing happens ... [It’s] not like a circus, [these ghosts] don’t perform on command,” Duda says. “That’s why ghost-hunting groups that see a lot of this stuff on TV [have] such high turnover, because people get bored so quickly. They think it’s like what it’s like on TV, and [forget] that these shows are edited. And they sit around for hours on these investigations, and they get disillusioned, bored, and off they go, because it’s not like that.”
And while thorough investigations are incredibly time-intensive, they might only produce a blip of evidence. “If you’re a paranormal investigator, you’ve gotta go through all your tape recorders, all your cameras, and everything, and it takes hours to do that, and you may not find anything, and then you might find just half a second of something that you cannot explain,” MacNeil says.
7. Paranormal investigators use all kinds of tools.
Duda is a big fan of electromagnetic field (EMF) meters, which are devices commonly used by electricians to detect sources of electromagnetic radiation in homes and other locations. Folks who explore haunted houses use them, too, as ghosts are believed to disrupt magnetic fields in the spaces they inhabit. Specifically, Duda finds direct current (DC) meters like the Tri-Field Natural EM meter (which is discontinued) to be “very worthwhile,” as these tools measure static electricity and atmospheric disturbances in an environment: “You know what people say when they see a ghost, ‘The hair went up on the back of my neck’? Well, that can be measured, [and] it’s static electricity, and when spirits materialize it charges the atmosphere in a room.”
K-II meters, while popular with ghost-hunting groups, are less ideal for picking up ghosts or other spirits because they’re designed to detect alternating current (AC) electromagnetic frequencies, which come from wiring and appliances. “Put one within 3 or 4 feet of a microwave oven, turn on the oven, and the meter will go nuts,” Duda adds. In his opinion, these devices have “nothing to do with ghosts or the paranormal.”
8. Apartments are trickier for paranormal investigators to deal with than houses.
There’s a tremendous amount of research that goes into paranormal investigations, and it’s common for folks who do it to cull through public records and property deeds, as well as consult with local historians when they’re working on a case. But according to Duda, when it comes to checking on a potential haunting, apartments can be particularly challenging compared to other types of real estate.
“The landlord isn’t going to tell you what happened—they want to rent the place, and they don’t want to open themselves up to a lawsuit. And also, they may not even know, because there’s a parade of people renting the place, and you don’t know what someone did in that apartment or what took place. That’s the hardest,” he says.
9. They have had their own spooky experiences, too.
Both Duda and MacNeil have had close encounters of the spectral kind. In 1962, Duda—then 4 years old—had what he believes was his first paranormal experience when he was getting his picture taken. As the photographer was trying to get him to smile, Duda claims he heard the voice of a young man in his right ear saying, “Look at that idiot. He wouldn’t last a day on the boat.” He believes it was the voice of his uncle, who died on the World War II submarine the USS Escolar, which went missing in 1944. The experience was so seminal for Duda that he continues to search for the sub’s remains to this day.
MacNeil has also had brushes with unexplained phenomena. Back in 1971, after her brother died in Vietnam, she witnessed what she believes were a series of supernatural occurrences that, after 50 years, she still can’t explain. “It was like he went out of his way to let us know he was gone before the army showed up at our front door the next day.”
10. Paranormal investigators can tell when you don’t take them seriously.
“It's very hard to tell people that you think there’s something going on in your house, so we know what it’s like ... not to be believed and not to feel like you can talk to somebody without being joked at or laughed at,” MacNeil says. She and Duda both emphasize that caring for clients—listening to them, taking their fears to heart, and working with them to find solutions so they feel safer in their own homes—is a big part of what working in the paranormal field actually entails.
But they’ve also dealt with their fair share of skeptics and non-believers. One of the most frustrating things, according to experts, is handling folks who don’t take their work seriously. “A standard investigation can go several nights, but then again, it all depends,” Duda says. “If I get the feeling that ... [this is just] an entertainment-type thing for them, I’m not going to spend more than a couple nights there.”
11. Not all paranormal investigators are fans of Ghost Hunters.
The reality show Ghost Hunters gave television audiences around the world a greater glimpse into the realm of paranormal investigation. Led by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, the teams on the show toured supposedly haunted locations across the U.S., and later, in the UK and Canada.
MacNeil, who attended boot camps organized by Hawes and Wilson to train prospective investigators, credits them with helping jumpstart her career and giving her the support she needed to better cope with her grief over her brother who passed away. “I learned everything I possibly could from Jason and Grant. I will always love them, I will always respect them, and I will always be so thankful,” she says.
While some field experts have nothing but good things to say about Ghost Hunters and its effect on the public’s perception of the job, not all investigators echo those sentiments. While Duda concedes that the show did help make people more aware and accepting of the paranormal—a good thing—he feels that it also made it look like entertainment and questions who it ultimately benefits. “[The show] is big on going to all these [places like] bars and taverns and restaurants—all these shows are—that are supposedly haunted. Well, red flag. Who benefits, when the show is on TV? The owner. Because [then] people love to flock to these places.”
Places like this do exist, Duda contends, but there aren’t nearly as many as the show makes it seem.
This article was originally published in 2021 and has been updated.