April 25, 2012
Living Legend Series: Troy Taylor
By Deonna Kelli Sayed
Troy Taylor is an American paranormal investigator, author, event organizer, tour guide owner and journalist. Many contemporary "ghost hunters" are unaware of Taylor's influence on the field; his work is replicated on "the shows" and among off-camera investigators all over the world. Taylor also organized the first U.S.-based ghost hunting conference in the 1990s predating the paratainment boom. Ghostvillage.com is proud to feature Mr. Taylor, interviewed by Deonna Kelli Sayed, in this installment of the Living Legends Series.
You are considered by many to be a true "godfather" of the paranormal. How did you come into all of this? Did you ever envision that you would have such an impact?
I really just started writing about things that interested me. I had been fascinated with ghosts and hauntings since childhood, developed a genuine interest in high school and was investigating alleged haunted spots in the mid-1980s. I had always wanted to be a writer and in the early 1990s began publishing my first articles and finally a book in 1994. It was really a simple book about haunted places in the Illinois town where I lived and never expected it to sell as many copies as it did. I found a niche and was lucky enough to have something I loved to do and for people to pay me for it. I never realized I'd have such an impact.
My search for ghost stories, combined with my earlier interest in ghost research, led to me reaching out to some of the people that I knew about in the field at the time, like Hans Holzer and William Roll, among others. Most of them never replied, so I just sort of started out on my own. At the time, I was very excited about the developing use of technology that could be adapted for research. Since then, I've become pretty disenchanted with all of the equipment and turned to other methods of gathering research - like history.
I started out combining history and the paranormal early on and have really delved into the idea of "residual hauntings" [Editor's Note: Taylor coined the phrase in the mid-1990s]. These are events of the past imprinted in the atmosphere of a location. The idea was not a new one and I certainly didn't come up with it, but I think I have probably done more to pursue it than anyone else has. It really works well with my theory that history is the only authentic one to 'prove" a location is haunted. If there is anything that I have really contributed to the field, it would probably be this.
I think that it was history, my love of mystery and my need to write that led me to pursue a career as an author. Not all of my books have been about ghosts, but most of them have and I never tire of tracking down good stories.
When you first wrote The Ghost Hunter's Guidebook, who were you writing it for?
The idea came up in 1996 because there was this huge surge in interest in the paranormal, thanks to the Internet and frankly, because of shows like The X-Files. There were very few books available about ghosts at that time and definitely no "how-to" books when it came to ghost research. A lot of people were asking for that sort of thing. I had written a few books by that time and decided to give this a try. The first edition was a pretty primitive effort but it did offer step-by-step methods to conduct investigations, which couldn't be found anywhere else at that time. The book became a big hit and I did several more editions in the following years, ending it with a final edition in 2010. I've started to steer clear of a lot of the "how-to" stuff these days, especially when dealing with equipment and gadgets. I feel like I've really said about all that I have to say about that avenue of investigation.
You founded the American Ghost Society in 1996. What encouraged you to do this? Was in partially in response to an emerging Internet culture?
The Internet really led to the growth of the society, but that's not what started it. In 1994, I began my first ghost tour company in Decatur, Illinois and with the books and the tours, we had a pretty big following. People wanted to know more about ghosts and to get involved in ghost hunting, so we started a local research group in Central Illinois. Soon after, we started the website and it just took off after that. People come and go, but we maintain about 600 active members each year.
What was the community like before "the shows" and what has profoundly changed over the past ten years?
I'm not one to say that the "good old days" were always good, because there was plenty of bickering and in-fighting back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, just like there is today. However, what we didn't have back then was this desperate need to be on TV. People weren't "shooting a pilot" or filming at a location that they "couldn't talk about." Back then, it seemed people were more worried about their "territory" and someone encroaching on it. Everyone was "working on a book" back then and just like now, about as many of them actually got published as make it onto television today.
We take for granted how difficult it was to get information about paranormal investigation before the shows and before the Internet. How did you learn?
Oh, it really wasn't difficult. People are just lazy in general and find it a lot easier to swipe information from the Internet than doing actual research. Back in the "old days" (or 15 years ago), you actually had to read a book, visit the library, go through old records and newspapers - all stuff that I still enjoy doing today. It's sad to see people learning about ghost research from television shows, which really bear no resemblance to reality. Doing good research takes a lot of work, but a lot of people don't feel the need to do it. I've met dozens of "paranormal experts" who learned everything there was to know from websites and TV shows -- and have never really done any research at all.
I guess that's why I looked to the past to find my idols. I researched and studied people like Houdini, Andrew Green, Peter Underwood and especially Harry Price. Price definitely has his share of detractors but he was really one of the first to take paranormal research from the study of psychic mediums to investigations of haunted houses. He was also the first to really make ghost research appealing to the general public. Before Price, it had been the realm of Spiritualists and scientists but he managed to interest in the public in ghost hunts and haunted houses. More ghost hunters today have no idea how important he was to the field, but they should.
Many do not know that you were an early event organizer (perhaps one of the earliest) with your Haunted America Conference. In many ways, you were an early pioneer mixing the paranormal with general public interest, particularly with your Weird Chicago Tours. How did these things develop?
The first Haunted America Conference in 1997 was the first ghost conference ever held, as far as we know. I spent days before the event doing television, radio and newspaper interviews after a note about the conference was placed on the AP wire. People had just never heard of such a thing! It was a lot of fun and we've been running ever since. As far as the tours go, there were others before me. People like Richard Crowe and Dale Kaczmarek were doing ghost tours in Chicago as far back as the 1970s, but when I started my tours in 1994, we were still among the early ones. I've got several of them running today, but there are great tours all over the country (good and bad), offering ghostly entertainment.
I really took my cue from Harry Price when I started out. As mentioned, he was the first to really involve the general public in ghost research - doing live radio broadcasts from haunted houses, doing frequent news stories and even offering a year-round public ghost hunt at Borley Rectory. He knew how to get publicity and he knew how to make what had previously been a dry subject into something exciting.
Entertainment culture has certainly altered everything. In your opinion, what are some positive and negative developments?
I don't think there is anything wrong with the television shows as long as they are accepted for what they are - entertainment. They are not "how to" documentaries and can't be taken seriously. A serious investigation can't be started and wrapped up in an hour, with time out for commercials! The biggest issue that I see with the shows is that viewers don't separate entertainment from reality. They take them absolutely seriously and treat the "stars" of the shows as authorities on the paranormal - a designation that few of them deserve. There is a reason that most people have never heard of the thes stars before they premiere - because serious paranormal researchers would never allow themselves to be portrayed the way that most of the shows portray the mostly fictional ghost hunters that appear in them. It's just for fun and as long as people understand that, the shows are great.
The best thing about them is the interest that they generate in the field. People who might not have otherwise give ghost research a second thought become interested in it, thanks to an entertaining show they saw. However, they soon find that genuine paranormal research is not like what they see on TV and many of them soon lose interest. The worthwhile researchers change their expectations, though, and stick around. That's probably the biggest benefit that I've seen from the shows.
What are some of the newer ideas and hypotheses regarding ghosts and hauntings that you feel may have some real value if any?
For me, personally, I have changed my ideas about ghost hunting quite a lot over the last 15 years. In the early days, I was very interested in equipment and its uses but have gotten away from that. After years of working with all sorts of gadgets, I couldn't really pin down anything new that I'd learned from using it. All kinds of things had happened with it, but what did it really prove? I have really embraced historical research as a method of "proving" a haunting. It's a lot of work and doesn't involve wandering around in the dark waving a meter, but I have a real passion for it.
Thanks to a close friend, I have also developed an interest in ITC, electronic methods of communicating with the dead. Even though I don't really see this (yet anyway) as a way to "prove" that life continues after death, I've been intrigued by what I have seen so far. I guess time will tell about this as well. If I end up getting more involved in it, it might become yet another philosophical shift in my opinions about the paranormal.
What do you feel has been your most significant impact on paranormal investigative culture?
I know I have talked about this a little already but if it was anything at all, it's been my use of historical research. I think that history is the key to ghost research. Hauntings cannot exist without history and the impact of history is what (I believe) causes most places to become haunted. There are those intelligent spirits left behind, but more common are places where energy - not ghosts - have been left behind. Residual hauntings, as I started calling them years ago, are nothing more than repetitive images (as well as sounds, smells, etc.) that occur over and over again and eventually wear themselves out. I developed a theory about this in regards to water a few years ago and I've never seen anything exactly like it.
I'd be proud if the biggest effect I could have on the field is for more people to embrace history as the true source for the hauntings that we are so fascinated with.
What was one defining moment for you during this journey?
I've had a lot of great experiences over the years. I've had a lot of stuff happen to me that I can't explain. I've seen a couple of ghosts. I've experienced residual hauntings. But perhaps the most exciting to me was a case when I realized that all of my theories about history and hauntings were plausible.
A family moved into a house and, shortly afterwards, they begin to experience strange happenings. Doors opened and closed by themselves, lights turned on and off and objects vanished, only to turn up again in odd places a few days later. The family was also startled to find that the apparition of a man started seen in an upstairs bedroom. He was very visible and apparently, very real. After getting involved in the case, I researched the history of the house and contacted the previous owners of the property. I learned that they had also experienced the odd happenings and saw the ghostly man. Checking back even further, I discovered that other prior owners had shared these same experiences. Before this, none of them were aware that others had experienced the same things and they had not discussed them with anyone outside of their family. Taking one more step, I tracked down the records of the house and learned of the suicide of the original owner -- a photograph of whom was independently identified by the current and past owners of the house. The house was haunted and history had provided the evidence of it.
There was no way that I could prove this house was haunted through science, but I could do it through history. In this case, the witnesses to the haunting had never compared notes about the situation and all the various families combined had lived in the house for a total of more than fifty years. During each occupancy, the homeowners independently saw and experienced the ghostly activity without ever realizing that someone else had experienced it, too.
Scientists and debunkers, who insist that ghosts are not real, convince themselves that anyone who experiences one is either drunk, mentally ill or lying about what they claim occurred. In a situation like the one just described, every single witness would have had to have been mentally ill and, to make it worse, would have had to have experienced some sort of shared hallucination that spanned five decades! Obviously, I don't believe this was the case and neither would anyone who is thinking logically.
So were they making the haunting up? They could not have been lying because they would have no idea what to lie about. They were unaware that others had shared their experience and yet it had been repeating itself for many years. Was it merely a coincidence? I don't believe so and, in fact, I believe that history in this case proved that the house was haunted.
What are your future plans?
I don't have any plans to make any extreme changes in what I do. I'm continuing with the Haunted America Conference in June (for the 16th year), continuing with the tours and will, of course, continue to write books. I'm sure that I have surprises ahead of me in the months and years to come but I plan on continuing to do what I love. It's been said that you will never work a day in your life if you can find someone to pay you to do what you love. I never forget this and count myself as very lucky every day of my life.