I adore history. I am addicted to it. In the UK we have an embarrassment of history all around us. In every city, town or village. In the town where I live I can visit a Tudor mansion house built in 1460, visited by Richard III and Henry VIII and supposedly the place where he first caught sight of one of his future queens, Catherine Howard. In the next village, I can inspect runes, once carved by Vikings on the brickwork of a 9th Century church. Two miles from my parents home is the village of Fotheringhay, birthplace of King Richard III and where, in 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was tried and beheaded. The history of our country is all around us and for me, it is endlessly fascinating.
Understanding and respecting historical buildings also plays a huge part in my attitude towards supposedly haunted locations. As with a good many other paranormal investigators, I enjoy researching the history of a location. This happens before and after I investigate a location. It's not just that. There is nothing more enjoyable than soaking up the very atmosphere of a location; walking its corridors, peering through doorways and rooms long forgotten. I've never, as an investigator, intruded on a location without permission and I've never met a paranormal investigator yet, who doesn't also hold a similar interest in history. So what is this leading to?
I recently came across an article on the following Skeptical website http://www.csicop.org/si/show/ghost-hunting_mistakes_science_and_pseudoscience_in_ghost_investigations which included a section on why investigators shouldn't bother researching historical details about a given location. The article stated that:
Although a supposedly haunted location might have a fascinating history, this almost always has little or nothing to do with the current haunting claims or phenomena. If a ghostly figure is reported in a stairwell, a spooky face is photographed in a bedroom, or a mysterious noise is reported coming from the attic, knowing who built the place in 1928 (or the name of the little girl who died in a fire there fifty years ago) is completely irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the face or noises, which must be investigated completely independently of this information.
In terms of investigating paranormal phenomena, I agree entirely with this statement. Of course one must investigate any phenomena that might occur, independent of any historical backstory. You are not for example, going to apportion the blame for a creaking set of stairs to a 16th Century apparition when the expansion and contraction of the wooden boards is the most likely cause of the noise. However, the assertion that investigators should purely focus on the phenomena, whilst completely ignoring the history of the building, is narrow-minded and rather misses the point.
Reported paranormal phenomena and the possible causes thereof, should quite rightly be the primary concern for any investigator. But to ignore the historical context of the location you are working in would be to ignore crucial details which could impact massively on your ability to identify natural causes. For instance, let's say you were called to investigate a mansion house due to reports of strange noises occurring. There is a possibility that perfectly natural noises might be regarded by witnesses as 'evidence' of the paranormal. However, if in your research, you were able to identify locations of secret doorways, servants corridors and such like, then your ability to debunk phenomena is enhanced.
I understand however, that the level of historical research undertaken by investigators varies greatly with some individuals preferring to know absolutely nothing about a location, or the phenomena reported there, beforehand. This is in order that they can investigate relatively objectively, uninfluenced by personal emotions, historical stories, or expectations. As commendable as this might seem, without any idea of what or, more importantly, where phenomena has been reported, there is a strong possibility that an investigator would find the task of identifying the nature and cause of the phenomena very difficult indeed.
So how much historical information should we have prior to investigating? Are we in danger for example, of interpreting noises during EVP recording sessions as names of former owners simply because, due to our research, they are the names we expect to hear?
I personally believe that investigators should keep historical research to a minimum before entering a location, instead focussing on the reported phenomena. As I mentioned earlier, this is not to say that key information such as the layout of the building cannot be researched beforehand (details that would benefit rather than hinder the investigation) but we need to be mindful that having too much prior knowledge could impact on our objectivity. Research should be saved as much as possible, until after the investigation has been completed. This is in order to aide in verifying or disproving accounts of paranormal phenomena.
In this respect, investigators (including myself) should try to curb their enthusiasm when investigating and researching historical locations and focus on whether that research is pertinent to the phenomena that is being reported.