Unhaunting a house

By Phil Plait | September 12, 2012 11:00 am

One of the major problems with skepticism is that many times it’s used as a blunt object. Smashing someone over their head with facts rarely if ever changes their mind, and can even make them dig in even more.

Sometimes, most times, a more subtle approach is warranted. That’s why I was so tickled to get an email from my sister (hi Marci!) about a page on an advice website called Manage My Life. The page in question is called Cures for a Haunted House, and starts off this way:

Fall is here, the leaves are changing, the nights are growing long, and something is happening inside your home. Your neck prickles in certain rooms. Doors open by themselves. Strange noises come from inside the walls. Visions of plummeting property values dance through your head as you wonder: is my house haunted?

Probably not.

It then lists several tongue-in-cheek signs of a "haunting", like creaky noises, cold spots, and so on… and tells you what the usual causes are (thermal compression and expansion of wood, drafts, critters in the walls, and so on). So they not only use an interest in paranormal to give you good advice, they sneak in some pretty solid skeptical thinking in there as well!

Pretty cool. I really wish more people selling advice did this, instead of exactly the reverse.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Debunking, Skepticism
MORE ABOUT: ghosts, haunted house

Comments (28)

  1. Cranberry Juice

    This is good to see. It doesn’t take much to not be an ass about stuff to help people learn, something that seems to get forgotten in modern times where I AM RIGHT YOU ARE WRONG I AM BETTER THAN YOU is the common attitude to have. People are people, they have feelings and often they want to learn so it really helps to approach things with the right kind of attitude: be neutral and do it to make the world a more intelligent place, not to make other people look bad. If you only want to make other people look bad then you really should take a good look at yourself because that is the attitude of a desperate failure.

  2. Pete Jackson

    I used to wonder why there are sometimes warm spots on the floor of our house as I would walk around in bare feet. One day, I figured it out: the dog had been lying there some time before!

  3. Jens

    I agree. But in practice I find it difficult to always, …every single time…, remain calm and pedagogical in the face of massive aggresive ignorance. Sometimes the ghost of Hitchens or the spirit of “take no prisoners” Dawkins manifests itself.

  4. Peptron

    I think I got immunised to “haunted house” feelings after I probably the strongest “this got to be a ghost” feeling of my life; which was then shown to be something actually quite mundane (but still CREEPY AS HELL!). Funny is that it easily beats anything I have ever seen on those ghost shows.

    I was sleeping and having a dream. Then, inside of my dream, an odd ghost chanting started, with a very definite “tooo… haannnhhh…” followed by an odd creaking sound like a dusty gramophone playing nothing. Then it would loop back after 5 seconds and restart the chanting.

    Eventually I woke up, and my heart almost stopped beating when I noticed that the chanting was STILL going on. I went to wake up my aunt, and then eventually everybody got up, everybody creeped out by the chanting ghosts. Then we eventually had to go back to bed and just ignore the chants.

    I turns out that the central heater was broken, and when turned on it made something that sounded EXACTLY like group of ghosts chanting “tooo… haannnhhh…” in a 5 seconds loop. My old apartment even had a door that, when opened slowly, would sound exactly like a cat mewing.

  5. Yasen

    Is the first sentence a Carl Sagan quote? Reminds me so much of him. :)

  6. mike burkhart

    “If theres something strange ,in your neighborhood who ya going to call?” . Some times its more then just noises that make people think a house is haunted ,it may be looks, a house that looks spokky may make people think it haunted (especally if its run down and has not been lived in for a while) or maybe something bad happened once at a house like somebody got killed may have people thinking its haunted its a phycologal thing that is left over form our ancesters who had to worry about wild animals that may attack them.Latter when Humans became the hunters we turned the tabels. But some of these fears are still with us handded down by the evolution of humans and maybe with us for a long time.

  7. Maria

    No no no. My house is haunted! I swear it is! It’s haunted by rats. One really industrious squirrel. Also a broken toilet. A pipe that bangs against the ceiling every time a neighbor turns on their hot water. A shifting foundation that causes the rafters to crack so loud you can hear it outside. Also bills. Lot’s of bills.

    Can I get my own show on the Syfy channel now?

    @4 Funny. The only time I’ve ever had that “this place is haunted” feeling was outside in a forest clearing. A bright, crisp, sunny fall day. Complete silence except for a slight leaf cracking in the distance. For some irrational (or likely very rational) reason i couldn’t get out of their fast enough. I literally ran back to the trail in a panic because I felt “Something Bad” was watching me. It likely was an animal of some sort and I probably freaked the poor thing out just as bad. 😛

  8. Wzrd1

    Years ago, I was working on a project in the basement. It was late at night and all were abed, so the house was totally quiet.
    I heard “spooky voices”, barely audible, but there in the room with me. I finished up soldering the connections I was working on and investigated.
    With great effort, I finally tracked the sound to our pantry shelves.
    The sound was a local talk radio station, which was now fairly intelligible once I put my ear to…
    An aluminum pie pan that a coil of iron tie wire had an end barely contact with the pan. The wire apparently matched the impedance to form a tuned circuit and the wire/pie pan junction acted as both tuning capacitor and diode.
    I could duplicate that with a LOT of work, but the circuit is similar to old crystal diodes.

    Years later, late at night again, I heard chanting. It was also barely audible, especially as I now have 45 db of hearing loss from an IED. A few times, I tried to investigate the source of the sound without success.
    One night, I heard it and was going out for a walk anyway. So, wondering how such an auditory phenomenon could be, I wandered our villa compound.
    I lived on a corner near one end of the compound. I walked to the end of the street at the other corner and heard the chanting quite well.
    On the far side of the villa compound wall was a religious school, where the chanting was coming from.

    I would occasionally see “shadow people” out of the edge of my vision and even, on occasion, just outside of my central vision. I had also noticed becoming far more farsighted than before and looking at a street light at night looked literally like I was looking through glass smeared with vaseline. So, I went to an opthamologist and found I have a moderate cataract in my left eye and a significant one in my right eye. Had the right lens replaced with an IOL (intraocular lens), the “shadow people” disappeared, though the posterior lens capsule needs to be lasered away, as it’s opacified a bit).

    This summer, I hear knocking in the walls somewhere in the region of our stairway ceiling and attic. Always around 1:00AM. The time of night that contraction from cooling would cool that area of the house.
    OBVIOUSLY it must be the shadow people chanting and talking their talk ghostio. 😉
    Couldn’t POSSIBLY be a 70 year old house creaking when the temperature changes. 😀

  9. Buzz

    All of those ‘normal’ explanations. Isn’t that how all the Scooby Doo episodes end? Scooby Doo–my first exposure to skepticism!

  10. Maria

    @7 Cute. You’re right. I’d never thought of that. I loved how it would always be something human though they also managed to leave a question open for the hell of it.

    We have a door to a staircase that routinely emits one single loud crack between 1 and 2am every night. After some drunken nights of keeping an eye on it and setting out thermometers all around we figured that the cracking was due to a temperature difference between the drafty area behind it and the warm house. Again, I demand a show on Syfy. It would be called “Do Drunken Science to it.”

    Seriously though, is there a “Skeptic Hauntings” type show that has investigators explaining the real physics behind this stuff instead of feeding into the whole “ooo spooky” mindset? (Like Mythbusters meets Goodeats for ghost/paranormal phenomena… I’d watch.)

  11. Frost Bite

    My relatives talk about ghosts all the time, though they do seem to leave out the fact they are all alcoholics.

  12. HvP

    In a lot of cases I’ve noticed that people often out-smart themselves when they try to think up an explanation for whatever has spooked them out. Often, the simpler explanation the better.

    I remember once when I was a kid and I was staying at my grandparents’ house. They had a long hallway that ran lengthwise beside their living room and then entered the den. There was a light switch at both ends of the hallway, either of which could turn on or off the hall light.

    I once switched off that hall light only to have it immediately come back on. Surprised, I peeked around the corner and could see the light switch at the other end of the hall. While I was watching it the light in the hall turned itself back off again. I had just been standing right next to the switch at my end, and no one could have flipped the other one down the hall while I was looking right at it.

    I turned to tell my dad, who had just walked up, about what just happened and he just laughed at me. I feel silly because it took me a couple days to figure out what really happened. When I turned off the switch on my end my dad was down the hall and flipped it back on, but I didn’t see that part. Only then did I look around the corner to stare at the switch on the other end, by which time my dad had already crossed into the living room out of my sight. It would have only taken him a couple of seconds to come into the den and flip off the light switch on my end – which I was no longer paying attention to because I was intently watching the switch down the hallway.

    No wonder he laughed at me, but at least I don’t believe ghost stories anymore.

  13. Frederick

    This reminds me of that manipulation tactic done in all those BS TV shows about paranormal activities. 80% of the time they try hard to debunk whatever is happening, making you think they are actual skeptics. However, as soon as something is not explained by their 20$ webcams, they directly jump at the “most probable” cause: GHOSTS!

  14. Robert Gibson

    It’s funny that my wife says she never hears strange noises in our house except when I’m out of town…

  15. Nick L

    The only reason why Phil doesn’t believe in ghosts is due to the fact that no one will allow him to investigate any haunted houses while he is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back. 😛

  16. BigBadSis
  17. Bob P

    I always blame odd noises at night on the cats. Even if they are both asleep on my feet.

  18. Gonzo

    @#8 – Wzrd1: Great stories there, goes to show the “supernatural” is always natural.

    @#11 – Frost Bite: Hilarious!

    I used to work in a creepy, old hotel and I know what it is like to let your imagination get the better of you. Some places just do that. Especially if you’re alone, in the middle of the night, like I was.

    Anyway, we had a “ghost hunting” conference there once, all these weirdos were hanging out and kept asking me about whether or not the hotel was haunted (as had always been the rumor). I thought it was quite funny, so I messed with them, I couldn’t help it.

    “Catch slimer yet?”


    “Let me know when you do.”


    “Do you think this place is haunted?”

    “No, I’m not four-years old.”

    “That’s not what I asked.”

    An askew glance from me, and a sudden realization they had just been terribly insulted. They sauntered off and didn’t bother me again the rest of the night.

    The hotel was a beautiful piece of late-1920s American architecture, btw. Great Classical Revival with an English Tudor interior. Loved it.

  19. Zoey

    It looks like they didn’t touch on inexplicable, localized feelings of fear, dread, despair, and/or being watched. Those can actually be caused by poorly shielded wiring! If you live in an older building and there’s one area that consistently creeps you out, you may want to contact an electrician.

  20. David H.

    Hah. The timing of this is perfect, since minutes before I came across a funny Mitch Hedberg quote:

    “One time I stayed at a haunted motel. When I checked into my room, there was a sheet on the floor, and I thought it was a ghost that had passed out, so I kicked it. “

  21. Techs

    A few years ago an American ghost hunting show went to England to check out its many reputed haunted places. Many TV technicians and other TV workers volunteered to work for free as they thought these guys were for real. They eventually caught them making things up and quit.

  22. Once while at a campfire hearing ghost stories, I took some photos of the flames. Sure enough, when I showed them to my friend the next day, there was an image of a face in the fire. GHOSTS! … Or just a random pareidolia that happened to occur in one photo out of the thirty or so that I took of that fire. Either one.

    (For the record: None of us believed it was ghosts, though it was fun to joke about it being from that.)

  23. Michael S

    Cracked.com has a few good articles like this. Most of their articles are dumb or even abusive in their interpretation of “A study shows…” logic, but there are also some good ones in there.

    The managemylife article follows the same style as most of those from Cracked. It’d be called “5 Ways You Haunt Your Own House” or something similar.

  24. Lorena

    I was looking for an explanation for some weird stuff going on at home but this is not applicable to houses in my country for example where we dont have wooden floors or stairs or even walls not made of bricks or central heating systems.

  25. Lou

    @10 I agree with you about wanting a “Skeptic Hauntings” kinda show. In my case, I’d want it to be a case where real skeptics go to a supposedly haunted location and do a proper debunking.

    @13 Oh yeah, I hear you there. I gotta give the ones that do some debunking credit for actually debunking some of the stuff, but I also agree that it’s ridiculous that they automatically jump to “OMG! Ghosts!” when they can’t figure something out. I’d prefer a show where legitimate skeptical investigators go into a location, use proper scientific techniques to investigate it, and if they find something that they can’t explain, just leave it as “unexplained” instead of automatically assuming the paranormal.

    Of course, there should be some magicians along side the scientists on these investigations, to serve roles similar to that of Houdini when he was debunking mediums back in the day.

  26. kat wagner

    A couple years ago we took a backcountry motorcycle ride through the mountains to a back-from-the-dead mining town: Silver City. Some of the houses have solar arrays on them and the owners bring in water. For backup, they use propane. The owners of the old hotel are refurbishing it room by room. We got to stay in the brand new room; the other rooms had peeling wallpaper – totally freaked out my husband.

    Dinner and breakfast were family affairs in a big dining room, cafeteria style. So, at breakfast, I asked a lady how her night was in a room down the hall from us. She told me she was leaving RIGHT NOW after being up all night, watching the gauzy lady which appeared at the foot of her bed. I asked questions. She said the lady was dressed in a white old-timey dress. Hmmm. I had no comebacks for that.

  27. SMB

    Why is the sun so round? Ghosts.

    Also, you know that face in the Licinia crater on Vesta? You got it…

  28. Leon

    Phil, you might find this worthwhile: Canadian One of the CBC did a show in 1997 called “Haunted House, Haunted Mind”. It was all about someone who lived for a while in an apparently haunted house, but did some heavy research into what might have caused the things he saw there. It explains a lot of the sources of supposed hauntings as natural phenomena.


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