An important aspect of investigating ghost sightings involves interviewing eyewitnesses. The testimony of these witnesses can determine the direction of a ghost hunt. If the interview is handled correctly, the information gathered can be valuable. Before conducting an interview, the ghost hunter or interviewer must be prepared. The same rules apply whether the interview is conducted with a total stranger or a member of the interviewer’s own family.
Before the interview begins, there are ethical rules that must be followed:
- Never make value judgments on the eyewitness based solely on race, education, economic standing, age, sex or other external appearances.
- Go into every interview believing that the witness is there to tell the truth.
- Be open-minded and considerate of the feelings of the witness. An interviewer should never be confrontational or rude.
- Only make conclusions on the validity of the story after evaluating the evidence gathered from the completed investigation.
- Be prepared to keep the interview on track and explore every possibility, logical and illogical, natural and paranormal.
- Always act in a professional manner.
Preparing for the Interview
Before the interview begins, make the witness feel as comfortable as possible. The interviewer must gain the trust of the witness. The better the witness feels about the interview, the more likely they will be to cooperate without adding exaggerations.
It is important not to conduct interviews with a tired witness. Wait until there is a better opportunity and the witness is fully rested or the information given could be incomplete and inaccurate.
Start by getting the number of witnesses. If there is more than one witness, always do separate interviews. Each person experiences events from his or her own perspective and that is exactly what the interviewer wants to hear – the uncontaminated personal observation of each individual. In a group interview, there is always a risk that one person’s testimony will influence the next. Witnesses feel pressured to say that they experienced something that they did not experience simply because the person speaking before them said they had that experience.
The only time that interviewer should have a group of witnesses together is when all of the witnesses return to the scene of the event. Returning to the scene is not always a possibility. Sometimes the witness will refuse because of emotional reasons or other circumstances will prevent it. Returning to the scene can help witnesses relive their experience. It will also provide the ghost hunter with a better visual picture of the events that occurred.
Do not pressure the witness to do the interview or to return to the scene of an event. Interviewers will run into witnesses that seem willing to cooperate but then disappear or back out at the last moment. Some witnesses may even change their minds in the middle of an interview. If the witness wants to stop the interview and discontinue their arrangement for any reason, then the interview is over.
Assure witnesses that their names, addresses and other personal information will remain confidential and then hold to that agreement. Never give out personal information for any reason without the full permission of the witnesses. Interviews should be videotaped or tape-recorded unless the witness objects. The recording allows the interviewer to analyze the interview rather than trying to write everything down. Let the witness know that recorded interviews are only to ensure that the case files are accurate and that only the investigators directly involved will have access to the recordings. The idea of the interview is to get as much useful information as possible. Some witnesses will object to the videotaped interview but video is much better than audio. Video allows for an examination of the witnesses’ facial expressions and body language, which at times can be revealing.
Conduct the interview in a relaxed, confusion-free atmosphere. Sit comfortably in a well-lit room at a table with only a video camera or audio recorder and a notepad and pen. Remove other distractions and try to avoid interruptions. The interviewer should sit directly across from the witness. Before the interview begins, strike up a few minutes of causal conversation. Get to know the witness. Then, when the time feels right, begin the interview process.
The interview must begin with the witness retelling their story from start to finish with as little interruptions as possible. Questions should be held off until the witness has finished telling their story. During this initial retelling, it is the job of the interviewer to listen and take notes. Write down questions to ask the witness. The wording of follow-up questions is extremely important. Do not ask questions that lead the witness. Most interviewers lead witnesses without even knowing that they are doing something wrong. Questions in multiple-choice form or questions asking the witness to speculate are incorrect.
Here are example questions that could occur in a typical interview. Each question has two forms: a leading question and an open-ended question. The leading question is incorrect. The open question is a correct question.
Leading: Did you see an apparition, full body ghost or a gray mist?
Open: What did you see?
Leading: Were you frightened?
Open: How did you feel?
Leading: Was the sound a banging or scratching?
Open: What kind of ordinary sound did it remind you of?
There is a big difference between leading and open questions. The leading questions can make witnesses feel that the only correct answers are the ones offered in the question itself. The open questions leave witnesses free to give their exact observations without the pressure of giving an incorrect answer. Leading questions can corrupt the entire interview. Practice this technique – good interviewing takes practice and experience.
Questions that should be asked after the witness’s retelling:
- Where were you?
- What were you doing at the time?
- What first caught your attention?
- What did you think it was at first?
- Describe the figure and/or any sounds, odors?
- During the account, what were your actions or reactions?
- How did you feel?
- How did the account end?
- What were your actions directly after this account ended?
Questions Involving Witness Sensory Perceptions: It is the responsibility of the interviewer to question the witness reasonably on the working ability of his or her perceptions.
Sense of Sight
- Does the witness need eyeglasses or contact lenses?
If yes, were they worn at the time of the observation?
- What type of prescription? (Nearsighted/farsighted/bifocals/trifocals)
- Is the witness colorblind?
- Are there any other physical eye problems?
Sense of Hearing
Witnesses, that report hearing strange sounds must be questioned about possible hearing impairment and hearing aids.
- Does the witness have known hearing impairments?
- Does the witness use a hearing aid?
If yes, what kind of hearing aid? Was it worn at the time?
- Was the witness “actively” listening at the time of the event?
Keep in mind that there are numerous natural sources that create strange noises. Rustling trees, banging shutters, broken pipes, animals scurrying, buzzing electric lines and mechanical devices are possible sources for sound misinterpretations.
Sense of Smell
Strange odors are common in supernatural events. Odors need to be identified and cataloged along with the exact time and location.
- Does the witness have a good sense of smell?
- Can they identify the odor(s) to the best of their abilities?
Sense of Touch
Falling into this category are sensations of tingling, numbness, levitation and paralysis. Also included are unseen barriers as well as physical attacks.
- Did the apparition make physical contact with any witness?
If yes, what kind of contact?
- Could the sensation felt have been natural? (Hair standing up, goosebumps, etc.)
Final Notes on Interviewing
Let witnesses know ahead of time that they are not forced to answer questions that make them feel uncomfortable. Explain to the witnesses that the more information they provide the better the chances will be of finding out exactly what happened during the event. The interviewer should attempt to obtain additional details and relevant information when needed.
After the interviews are completed, find out if the witness took photos or filmed evidence of the event. If so, ask to get copies of the photographs and video. If no visual proof is available, give the witness a piece of drawing paper and ask them to sketch and label their experience.
If there are multiple-witness interviews of the same event, compare the interviews and look for similarities or discrepancies in the testimonies. Be careful not to confuse the witness during the interview with a bunch of “jargon” that they do not understand. The interviewer should be careful not to intimidate the witness or the witness may feel the need to compensate by exaggerating story elements.
The interviewer should not try to answer questions that they have no way of knowing regardless of current feelings or theories.
- Will this happen again?
- Will it come back?
- Am I safe?
- Why did this happen to me?
- What does this mean?
No matter how confident an interviewer feels with these questions, the correct thing to do is politely decline to answer and explain that any answers given would only be speculation.
Conduct an interview at least once at the beginning and once again at the end of the investigation. Look for inconsistencies that may pop up in the story. If there are story inconsistencies, it does not mean the witness is lying, but inconsistencies are important to note. Ghost hunters should also take note of anything else that happens to the witness during the course of the investigation.
Ghost hunters will run into people who will lie, want attention, publicity or have some other ulterior motive for telling a fabricated story. Some people may even be emotionally troubled to the point of mental illness. On the other hand, ghost hunters will meet many credible people with genuine paranormal experiences. It will be up to the ghost hunter to determine which stories are sincere and worthy of a ghost hunt.