I am the science editor for Paranormal Daily News, and I am also a licensed California General Building Contractor and I’ve done a lot of handyman type work over the years. What I want to address today are some of the normal things that occur with buildings that have to be taken into consideration when examining a potential haunting or ghost.
I’ve run into a quite a few stories of people claiming that something paranormal was happening in their home that were head scratchers for me. “No,” I’d think to myself, “I’ve run into that kind of problem before and I know what causes it and how to fix it.” So I’ve made a little list of stuff that I’m familiar with. There are other things that paranormal investigators should be aware of, of course, but I’m only addressing things that might be related to a haunting that are within my area of expertise.
This is in no way a debunking of paranormal investigations or their findings. However, in any quality paranormal investigation, ordinary causes have to be either completely ruled out or accounted for, otherwise an investigation will leave questions on the table, ripe for criticism. Here, I am going to address the things that someone in construction will run into from time to time.
Haunted Houses Have Personality
Houses are systems and they have their own personalities. They have water, electrical, sewer, heating and often gas and air conditioning. They have a variety of passive mechanical systems, such as door knobs and locks, hinges and drawers, electronic and electromechanical systems, such as ovens, dishwashers, garbage disposals, washers, dryers etc. At any given moment, these parts of the house are in various states of repair and are subject to the vagaries of their initial installation and general wear over time.
In addition to this, houses have consumable items, such as light bulbs and air filters that wear out.
The building may have been remodeled at some point or have various other idiosyncrasies. Every building is different and some of the things that go on in houses can seem paranormal to people who don’t see this stuff happen on a regular basis.
In addition to this, I don’t think it’s enough just to provide a list, but also how to check for these things. Many of these strange things can be tested for relatively easily.
Lights that go on and off or flicker for seemingly no reason:
There are lots of things that can cause this. While it is possible for the house wiring to be the problem, it’s far more likely to be coming from a switch, the light or the light fixture. This kind of thing is on my client’s fix it list often enough that I would be very reluctant to ever ascribe it to anything paranormal.
Electrical Paranormal Quirks
If the light is fluorescent, this can be caused by a failing transformer or light. They tend to flicker when they’re failing. Fluorescent lights often have a dark spot near the base when they start to go bad, and they tend to make a buzzing sound and don’t put out much light. It’s all fairly obvious if you take off the light cover and look at them directly.
Some light fixtures (very common for recessed lighting) have thermal sensors that shut the light off if the internal temperature is too high. (More common in summer on hot days when the attic temperature is quite high) This occurs where the socket is, high up in the fixture. The most common cause of this problem is recessed lights covered in insulation in the attic. You can test for this problem, but it takes awhile. Leave the lights off for an hour so that they have a chance to cool down, then turn them on. All the lights should come on, and then once they heat up, they will randomly turn off for a while and then come back on again after they have cooled down.
It can be loose wiring, which randomly makes contact due to environmental changes. You can’t tell without exposing electrical boxes. Leave that to the electricians. This is pretty rare in comparison to other problems.
It can be a failing switch as well. You can test switches by very slowly turning them on and off. They should be either on or off. If you can find a spot where the light flickers, the switch is failing.
Any light with electronics (usually LED) is vulnerable to weird failures. Speaking of LED’s, they draw very little power, so it’s possible for them to be on when there is effectively no power in the house. They’re running off a trickle of electricity that’s still running through the line.
Mind and Matter
Having said that, scientific studies into mind/matter interactions, (aka telekinesis, aka psychokinesis), which is what this is, requires lability (unstable or easily changeable). So it is possible that an ordinary failing electrical connection could provide an environment suitable for the paranormal. Context is important.
Weird Knocks, Creaks, Groans:
These do exist as paranormal things and unlike weird lighting issues, I don’t see a lot of these things, except for water hammering. It’s pretty easy to figure out.
This can be nail pops. A nail somewhere nearby is pulled by bending wood, usually warping slightly due to temperature changes until it pops up a little bit. They can be quite loud and are a distinct, short, sharp sound that comes from inside the walls and echos around, making it impossible to determine where they can come from. They can occur at all hours, but more typically, they come during temperature changes outside.
Water hammering, which is more of a thump sound. It’s caused by a sudden change in water pressure in a pipe that’s not securely fastened. The most probable cause is water shutting off abruptly somewhere in the house. Usually this is faucets, but can also be washing machines. The cause and effect are fairly obvious, and it’s fairly easy to test for this and rule it out. Usually the occupant will know what this is.
Plastic drain pipes can also rub against wood, making noise as they expand or contract, if they’re wedged in a particular way. I’ve seen this happen exactly once in 20+ years, so it’s not likely at all.
Floor squeaks: While this is usually screamingly obvious, step here and get a squeak, step there and nothing happens, house settling or temperature changes can cause squeaks as well. We’re all familiar with that sound.
Creaking and groaning: This is usually caused by the building settling. This is dependent on the soil that the building sits on. Wood buildings on mostly clay soil will experience soil expansion during wet weather as the ground expands due to moisture, and shrink during summer due to drying out. Changing seasons is what’s relevant here. A building sitting on concrete posts deep in the ground probably won’t have this problem.
Scratching Sounds, Movement in attic: You probably guessed this just from the description and I debated with the editor whether to add this at all because it’s fairly obvious what’s happening. It’s rats. Except for the occasional squirrel, and bats, it’s always rats. They need an opening the size of a quarter to get in and if an opening is not big enough, they can chew the rest of the way, even through concrete in some cases. It’s not entirely impossible for a raccoon to get into some attics. Sometimes the roof framing is sloppy and leaves larger gaps where rooflines meet. Rats, squirrels and raccoons commute, meaning that they have certain hours of activity in a home, and they’re away the rest of the time.
Cold air, weird smells
Houses are rarely airtight, so random air from outside can drift through from outside even with windows shut and doors closed. I’m trained by my job to notice this stuff and I can often identify what type of smell I’m picking up, or that cold air is blowing around.
Air can drift through leaky air ducting.
it can drift through chimneys.
and poorly sealed doors and windows with air gaps.
It’s the kind of thing that people don’t normally pay attention to, but people who are actively ghost hunting would be far more aware of these changes and looking for that sort of thing, so they would be more likely to notice.
Things to check for are: Does the house have ducting running through a crawl space or basement? Can you feel cold air blowing through the vent? Are the doors and windows airtight? (This can be really hard to check for.) What time of year is it? How cold is the weather outside? Is a whole area cold? Or is it near the ground? Cold air traveling nearer to the ground is almost definitely an ordinary cause, but a whole cold spot area is less likely to be ordinary.
If a house has a basement or crawlspace then in some situations air can come up from gaps in vent pipes, lending a musty smell to the air. This would be more common in areas where dry rot can occur, such as near exterior doors, bathrooms or near an interior crawlspace access. It tends to be stronger in wet weather.
Doors randomly opening
I say opening and not closing, because most people can think of the ordinary causes for a door closing on its own and it’s not worth discussing. But a door randomly opening is harder to explain. However, it is possible under a very specific condition, so that’s what I’m going to address. This is quite rare.
If the gap between the door and the frame is wide, so that the door barely latches, then temperature and/or humidity changes can affect the door enough to spring the latch. It’s fairly easy to check this and it’s something that should be ruled out as an ordinary cause. So check to see whether the door is barely latching and then see if it naturally swings open when it’s unlatched. If both are true, then there’s your most likely cause.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
You may have read about this already, as this makes it through the news sometimes. Carbon monoxide is caused by fuel burning appliances in your home. This could be an oven, dryer or forced air heater or some other gas burning fixture. At some level in between getting a headache and killing you, it can cause hallucinations. This is quite rare. About 1.4 people in every 10,000 get sick enough from carbon monoxide to go to the hospital in the U.S.
You can test for this with an inexpensive carbon monoxide detector for as little as $20.
Just to sum this up, I do think that hauntings and ghosts exist and that they are explainable. But I’m also so familiar with houses that my go-to explanation for most of the things that go bump in the night is that something probably needs to be fixed.