Spooks, Spirits and Ghosts; the Paranormal: Part One

Is it a ghost, or some normal sound from the building itself?
Is it a ghost, or some normal sound from the building itself? | Source

Things That Go Bump In the Night

How do you know whether you have a spook spirit or ghost? Let's examine the evidence:

You are relaxing at home and hear a sudden thump, creak, groan, crack or bang from somewhere in your house. You jump; a natural reaction to a startling unexpected sound or sight. If this is the first time this has happened, and/or if you are new to the particular house, you may well write it off as something from outside or, if you have children, something they were doing.

If this becomes a frequent occurrence, you may start to question whether your house is haunted, or your own sanity. Most likely, you have not gone insane. Neither have your children become conniving sneaky noise-makers.

Do you have a ghost? Maybe, and maybe not. There are a lot of things that can cause such sounds, even regularly repeating ones. If you watch any of the popular TV shows that deal with the paranormal, you'll see that the investigators spend as much or more time de-bunking as they spend trying to prove a spirit presence.

Part One, then, deals with the first step: debunking. At the end of the article, I've included several links to various "how to" sites for information on fixing any problems you may uncover.


What is paranormal activity, anyway? Well, according to a strict dictionary definition, it is anything out of the normal. It has become widely accepted in the culture however, to restrict the meaning to anything of a ghostly or other-worldy nature.

In fact, "paranormal" is a joining of the prefix "para" from the Latin meaning, "around, with, in support of" and our word "normal" meaning accepted range of behavior or status of operation. You are already familiar with this "para" prefix in its two other most frequently-used connotations: paralegal and paramedic.

However, before you jump to the conclusion that your house is haunted, let's go over a few things to check first.


1) If it is summer, take a dry 2" x 4" piece of lumber, about 2 feet long, and leave it out in the hot sun all day. As twilight approaches, bring the lumber indoors, and set it in a very cool spot, such as right under the air-conditioning register. Sit nearby, and listen. You will hear faint cracking, creaking or popping sounds. This is the wood reacting and adjusting to the temperature change.

2) If you have been out driving, particularly on a cool day, stop and listen at the front of your car (or at the back of your car if it is a rear-engine model) after you have arrived home and shut off the engine. It will not be long at all--a matter of a few seconds--before you start to hear ticking and tapping sounds. This is the metal in the engine cooling down and contracting from its hot and running state to its cooling down to cold state.

The House Itself May Be Responsible

We tend to think of our homes as static, inanimate objects, serving only as shelter from the elements. We do not talk to them, call them on the phone, or tuck them into bed at night. (Well, in a sense, we do 'tuck in' the house at night--closing windows, locking doors, turning down the thermostat...)

However, in a very real sense, a house is a living entity. The lumber in its framing was once a live tree, and it maintains its characteristics even though the tree is no longer living. In other words, it remains subject to the changes in weather from damp and cold to dry and hot. It is equally responsive to the artificial weather of our heating and air-conditioning systems.

Likewise the other elements that make up a house are alive in their own way. The water piped in is a form of living entity, subject, just as we are, to cold and hot. Unlike us, however it is also able to change its form from solid to vapor according to temperature variations.

Electricity is a big one. It is pure energy, and capable of every variation and nuance ranging from the tiny battery powering your grandpa's hearing aid to the millions of volts in a lightning strike.

The steel and iron rebar reinforcing the concrete flooring and the bolts connecting your home to its foundation came from Mother Earth, and connect the home back to the earth from whence they were mined.

It Might Be Just the House...

If you are hearing bangs, pops, creaks and groans, it may well be the house settling, as the framing expands and contracts with the temperature changes throughout the day. This is particularly true of both brand new houses and very old houses.

Remember your grade-school science lessons: heat expands things; cold contracts them. In metals, woods, water, this phenomenon is easily heard and observed. It is also visible at the level requiring expensive equipment such as scannng electron microscopes.

A Little Detective Work--Wiring and EMF's

Checking to determine the cause and reason for noises and shadows is a lot like playing detective. This search alone can take away a lot of fear, especially if you regard it in that light.

If you have lights that flicker, it could be a matter of a loose wire somewhere along the line, or even something as simple as a light bulb that has become a bit loose in its socket from vibration, or in the case of flourescent lights, is on the way to being burned-out.

If there are areas where you are feeling "creeped out," such as a feeling of being watched, the next thing to check is your electrical wiring. Many paranormal investigators believe that a high level of electro-magnetic field (EMF) in a house can itself cause feelings of unease, up to and including paranoia and hallucinations if the levels are high enough and a person is very sensitive to this.

(I personally feel, and have suggested, that such high EMF's can actually provide the energy for a spirit to use in manifesting itself. So, it can cut both ways. The jury is still out on this.)

If you do not have the proper equipment, by all means call in an electrician to check your wiring. It could be something as simple as the main ground wire that has become disconnected or corroded.


Radiators provide room-by-room heating
Radiators provide room-by-room heating | Source

Gas-Fired Furnace

A gas furnace is a central-heating apppliance, using a blower to circulate the heated air throughout the home
A gas furnace is a central-heating apppliance, using a blower to circulate the heated air throughout the home | Source

A Little More Detective Work--Heat and Air

Next, pay attention to what else is going on when you hear these creaks and pops. Did you just turn on the furnace or A/C a little while ago? Aha! If the noises occur in conjunction with that action, there's your answer.

What kind of heat do you have? Is it different than you had where you lived before? Hisses and bangs are a famous by-product of steam heat--the old fashioned iron radiators you see in older housing in New England and in old movies. Hisses occur when bits of steam escape from safety release valves, and noises that sound like someone hammering on the metal usually indicate the system needs to be bled as there is air in the pipes.

If you have ever had to shut off the water to work on plumbing, and when you turned it back on, have seen how the faucet spits, sputters, sometimes hisses and even shakes visibly, you are witnessing the same thing that can happen with steam heat.

The difference is, the steam heat is a closed system, and the air cannot escape as it does out the faucet, so it bangs its way through the piping. This sound can also 'telegraph,' sounding as if it is coming from right next to you, when the trapped air that caused the noise is actually at the other end of the house, or vice versa.

A gas-fired forced-air furnace system can under certain conditions, cause a massive "whoosh" sound when it ignites. If this is the case, call in a furnace cleaning service, as the most likely cause is a buildup of dust in and around the main burners. What you have heard was a small dust explosion. Yes, dust can explode. I witnessed this first-hand as a child. A friend and I were playing in the basement, near the furnace. It cycled on, and just such a "whoosh!" occurred with enough force to blow open the burner access door, which then loudly clanged shut. We both went shrieking up the stairs: it was very startling.

I have never lived where either oil or coal was used for heating, so I am not qualified to address any odd noises those systems may produce. All I can offer is this: if you have such a system, listen to it, and learn its normal operating sounds so you will be able to tell if the system needs a repair or if something else is causing the sounds you hear. (I suspect, however--and this is but guesswork--that either of these fuels merely provide the heat for the boiler in a hot water or steam heat radiator system, as discussed above.)

Replacing Toilet Flapper Valve--It's Easy!

Yes, More Detective Work--Plumbing

Check your plumbing for leaks, drips and runs. Faulty faucet washers are a common source of dripping water which, when heard from a distance, can sound like a ticking or tapping noise, depending upon what type of surface is under the leak.

Does the toilet seem to flush on its own? Check the seal at the bottom of the flapper valve. If the seal is bad, little bits of water can be leaking into the bowl, noiselessy, until the tank level is low enough to trigger the, "Hey--I need a refill!" action. You can test this by adding some food color to the water in the tank. Wait a while, and check to see if the color is coming into the bowl. If so, you have a bad flapper valve: fix this, and your ghostly flusher is banished.

Detective Work--Appliances

Most of the time, our appliances serve us well and go unnoticed. However, many of today's common appliances do have their own distinctive sounds. Learn what goes on, and listen to your various appliances to become familiar with the sounds they make.

  1. Crashing noises that may sound like a distant crash outside, or like a child dumping a load of plastic building blocks onto a bare floor. Most likely culprit: the ice maker in the freezer dumping a fresh load of cubes into the bin.
  2. Clanking sounds that are fairly regular. Probable culprit: the clothes dryer if a load is running with jeans, jackets, overalls, or anything else with exposed metal fasteners .
  3. Swishing, airy, gurgling sounds. Usual culprit: the dishwasher.
  4. Faint 'tick-tick-tick' sounds. Two most likely culprits: (1) do you have a gas stove with an electronic igniter system? It is possible that the burner control knob has been turned just enough to activate the igniter, but the burner is not lighting, because the knob has not been turned far enough to open the gas valve. (2) check all your clocks--you may have one that ticks that you did not notice before.
  5. Humming sounds are most likely caused by the refrigerator motor cycling on and off. It is the alternating electrical current that is responsible for this hum. I won't go into the techincal 'why this is' here--that's a whole other article!
  6. Rushing/running water sounds. Prime suspect: the washing machine during spin/drain cycle. Also the dishwasher, as in point 3.
  7. Loud thumping, bumping, banging noises, possibly with a whining accompaniment: A single suspect: the load in the washing machine is badly out of balance during the spin cycle.


One More Bit of Detecting--Doors That Open Unassisted

Again, there are many normal explanations for doors that seem to open and close or slam shut when no one is near them.

First thing to check is whether or not any windows or other doors to the outside are open at the time. This can create either a draft or negative pressure (suction) that could be responsible. One way to check for drafts is to light a candle, and place it near the suspect door. If the flame wavers as if in a breeze, you have a draft. Tracking down where it seems to be coming from is your next task. (Hint: the source of the draft will be from the side away from the direction the candle flame is leaning.)

Drafts can be responsible for many seemingly paranormal events, such as curtains moving, feeling cool or cold spots, etc.

As with noises, a forced-air central heating system can also create a draft, and a cold or cool spot, even if it is heating season. Typically, when the blower first comes on, the initial output will be the cooler air that was sitting unheated in the duct work.

The next thing to check is the operation of the door itself. In old houses especially, it is fairly common for the house to have settled out of square. To test for this, release the latch or turn the knob until the latching mechanism is just barely moved away from the door jamb. Let go, and observe whether the door swings on its own. Next, open the door all the way, and let go, making the same observation.

If the door swings open or closed, it is an issue with the house having settled. How fast or slow this occurs depends on the degree of settling. A small carpenter's level is handy for this. Place it on the floor in the middle of the doorway, and watch the bubble. The further to one side it moves, the worse the settling problem. If you don't have a level, a small ball or marble can be placed on the floor, and observe whether it begins to roll on its own.

Sometimes, this occurrence could be a matter of a loosened hinge  instead of the floor having a pitch. Fix the hinge, and the problem is solved. (Although usually a loose hinge will cause binding instead of voluntary opening.)

Lastly, check the latch itself.  If the door is out of alignment for any reason, the latch pin on the door may not line up properly with the receptacle in the jamb.  To test for this, close the door firmly, and attempt to push it open without using the doorknob.  If it opens, your problem is the latch.

Final Detective Investigation: Shadows

Shadows take many forms, and are at the simplest level a matter of light reflection or refraction from a light source onto various surfaces.

By paying close attention to the normal play of light within your home, such as the progression of the "sun puddles" throughout the day from the walls, to the floor, and pieces of furniture, you will know what is normal in this respect.

Similarly, at night, pay attention to what light and shadow play is normal for the lights on in the room, or car headlights going past the windows.

Before you freak out and decide you have another--unseen--person living in your home, be sure your kids are not playing games with light switches or flashlights. I recall as a child finding the 3-way switch in the hallway fascinating--being able to turn the same light on and off from two different locations is amazing to a kid.

If you have pets, notice the shadows they cast as they move about. And again, if children are in the home--are they goofing off by creeping about in the darkness with blankets over their heads? A glimpse of such activity out of the corner of your eye can be unsettling, but it bears investigating.

Mirrors and other glass surfaces not only reflect light, but can bend it. This is refraction. A prism is a classic example of how to bend a beam of light. A beveled edge on a mirror or old-fashioned window glass acts as a prism. Such bending and reflecting of light beams can cause shadows to appear in areas you might not suspect at first glance.

Mirrors are made by coating one side of a piece of glass with a silver coating. This blocks the light from traveling through the glass, thus providing you with the ability to see what you are doing in shaving or putting on make-up. However, as mirrors age, this coating deteriorates, and cracks and splotches can be seen.

This deterioration is largely responsible for people's claims of, "OMG! A ghost showed up standing beside me in this photo!" In truth, the silvered backing has gotten "all messed up" on an old mirror, and our brains try to make sense of what that splotch is. This is a phenomenon known as pattern matrixing. The human brain is hard-wired to recognize faces, so our brain inserts a face into the irregular shape. Presto! A ghost legend is born!

Next Time--Same Place, Same Station

If you will pay attention and learn the sounds your home and its appliances normally make, you will be in a far better position to determine whether or not you have any genunine paranormal activity.

Stay tuned for Part Two--catching glimpses of the world beyond.

Have You Seen a Spirit?

Have you ever seen or heard a ghost or spirit?

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© 2010 DzyMsLizzy

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Cobra 5 years ago

Good job, so maany these days freak out first, then seek answers.

Christine B. profile image

Christine B. 5 years ago from Medina, Ohio

This is a great article, Liz... I couldn't have done it better, myself. I'd like to use it to pass on to my investigators and to clients. Please let me know if that would be all right with you.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 5 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, Christine!

Thank you so much! I am speechless! Coming from someone with your experience, that means a lot!

Minnetonka Twin profile image

Minnetonka Twin 5 years ago from Minnesota

Great information DzyMsLizzy-You were so thorough with your practical reasons for why one might think there is something paranormal going on. I look forward to part two.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 5 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Thanks, Minnetonka Twin...glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, do come back. Part two will deal with capturing and investigating the real thing. ;-)

kookoo88 profile image

kookoo88 5 years ago from Cripple Creek

This is very true. I live in a hundred year old house and it's always making noise.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 5 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Thanks for your input, kookoo88.

It is good to be aware of the differences in sounds. A friend of my mother's at one time lived in a very old house, and yes, the usual creaks and groans were there.

What could not be explained away were the footsteps going up and down the attic stairs.... ;-)

Stephanie Henkel profile image

Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

Having lived in several old houses, I can vouch for the mysterious noises, creaks and groans that frequently occur. The one I could never explain was hearing the sound of footsteps in an upstairs bedroom. Maybe it was the house, maybe not...

You gave some really good and useful explanations here for ruling out those ordinary and natural sounds created by wood, metal, heat and cold, etc. It's definitely a good idea to rule these out before jumping to the conclusion that there are spirits haunting our house.

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello, Stephanie--

Not having been in the house in question, I cannot say for certain, but my guess would be--not the house--creaks, groans and pops are one thing, but none of those truly sound like footsteps.... ;-)

Thanks much for your comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

tammyswallow profile image

tammyswallow 4 years ago from North Carolina

Great hub Ms. Lizzy,

It is always great to approach these things skeptically. I lived in a house that I WISH I could have debunked these things but couldn't. It is very scary. These are great tips, especially the suggestion of the wood. Very well done!

DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, tammyswallow--

Thanks so much, I'm pleased you found something useful here. No need to be scared, however. Spirits are just people--or were just people--and they are the same as they were in life. Some nice, some not so nice, but all the "creepy, scary, horrifying" aspect of hauntings is pure Hollywood nonsense. So, rest easy. ;-)

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