When I began my paranormal career, I wanted anything but a career. I was a storyteller looking to document what I thought was the most interesting topic I could find. I knew it was engaging because I was fully engaged in it, and for many people who start to look into the paranormal, the idea of ghosts and spirits and all that come with them can be something of an obsession. In those early stages, many of us consume anything we can find, and when we can't find the best stuff, it hardly matters to us. It's all good because it's about ghosts. But not all that glitters is gold.
Case in point: A few years ago, after becoming somewhat of an authority on an especially haunted area of my state, I was contacted by a newspaper that was doing their traditional Halloween stories. After the interview, they published an article that included many of the locations I talked about. There was even a map included. There was no follow-up with any of the places or checking of my facts or even permission from some very public areas to use what I had said. My words were truth, and as Web sites and other media outlets got the story, my naming of names spread throughout the area and investigators and researchers hit the field looking to touch the things I had talked about. It was not that I had told any lies; it was a storyteller retelling the most engaging things he had heard.
Innocent, right? One of the subjects I talked about was a local college known for some amazing hauntings, although like most colleges, the back story and the folklore were the real star and the details of the ghosts were secondary. As the head of the library and the college archivist both sat down to breakfast that morning, they saw their college in bold letters (and a special generic clip art picture on the map) and knew they were in for a tough time. There were no ghosts on campus and the stories had been the subject of folklore for years, which they explained to dozens of people who called over the next few days to request permission to investigate. They were just good ghost stories. A letter they wrote to the paper explaining just that never made it to the editorial section.
A few years later I met them both as I was doing research for my book on that area. Both eyed me suspiciously and knew me by name. They gave me a detailed account of what they had gone through and continued to go through because of my article. Of course, as a folklorist, I was bringing the information to the masses, something the newspaper felt was more of a detail than a direction. The women both eventually understood my focus and helped me with the book, as well as helping me a few times since, gather information or to check a detail of a case.
I'm not sure if the line between folklore and fact is any more blurred than it was years ago. We have a tool that can help verify the stories we are told, but so often we can't trust the second source or don't bother to look. A phone might help, but there are deadlines and the stories are not meant to be more than casual reading. Why check facts when you are talking about something as silly as ghosts anyway? The odd thing is that these stories become the foundation of something almost uncontrollable. An article becomes a posting which becomes a blog entry which is used as the background of a book, and before anyone has time to check the batteries in their EMF meters, legend becomes modern haunting.
Don't get me wrong. The folklorist side of me loves seeing this. I am as intrigued by the way information is spread as the information itself. I was thrilled last year when someone cited a personal experience of mine as something that had happened to a friend of theirs, and it wasn't until I pressed that they confessed they heard the story during a ghost tour and wanted to spice it up. The bigger point for those looking for truth is to understand the bringers of that truth. Newspapers don't ask for a list of works cited by those they interview, and when speaking on the record (and all investigators should always assume everything they say to a reporter is on the record) those words become part of the paranormal landscape that over time may harden like cement.
I have already seen these articles appearing in the papers, and for the most part I don't print them because it is hard to say which ones are more newsworthy than the others. I'm not asking people to stop reading them, and I am definitely not asking people to not share what they hear with their friends and other lovers of all things unexplained. Maybe when you do, however, you should include a special disclaimer that might be more accurate than the one you might be tempted to use. Instead of claiming a place might be haunted, we should all start out by saying, "Once upon a time, there was a tale of a haunting."