If you’ve ever watched any television shows regarding paranormal investigations, ghost hunting, or (in turn-of-the-century speak) spectral fetching, you may have had some questions in regards to the instrumentation employed. If you have not, then you probably are not reading this anyway. These shows prey on those who devour the stage show fed to them without question and the majority of ‘fans’ who feverishly watch ‘Ghost Hunters’ and ‘Ghost Adventures’ are examples of this. They see the ‘investigators’ digging around crusty, cluttered, abandoned sanitariums, viewed through night vision. They see the expressions on the investigators’ faces and marvel at the orbs, EVPs, and flashing lights that come to fruition in places that have the creepiest background stories. P.T. Barnum was correct in saying a sucker is born every minute . . . and considering there is no evidence that he even made that statement, the quote is all the more fitting for this subject.
Enough with the silly banter, though, that’s not what led you to this article.
The only area that I have even the slightest experience is in regards to electromagnetic radiation. I can’t much explain to you thermal tendencies, air draft patterns, or the finer points of audio recording but I do have a relative understanding of electromagnetic waves and fields (EMF.) So when a ghost hunter explains that they are going to a site that has a history of first-hand, ghostly experiences, I can be amused. When they capture orbs on camera, I can ignore the fact that a metric ton’s worth of dust must be floating around in a decrepit state prison. But when they pull out an EMF meter, my attention is drawn in a way that extends to detailed criticism. Let’s walk through this one step by step.
A Short Background on Electromagnetic Fields
In short, paranormal investigators utilize EMF meters because, with no evidence and only theory, it is believed that a ghostly presence can be associated with a fluctuation in temperature and electromagnetic energy. Being that ghosts are unproven is bad enough. Given the benefit of the doubt in their existence, however, nobody can stake a claim to what actually makes the ghost continue on in its haunted state. How has anyone concluded that ghosts cause disturbances in an electromagnetic fashion? Some say it has to do with the law of thermodynamics, specifically that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only change in form. When people die, their energy has to go somewhere and necessarily, it goes into random electromagnetic storage. Because of this, their shadowy presence can be detected with an EMF meter.
A quick search on the internet can bring you up to my modest level of understanding of electromagnetic fundamentals. Electrical transmission takes place in the way of alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC.) Conveniently, regardless of whichever electrical current is implemented, electromagnetic fields are produced. Now, DC will create an electromagnetic field that is rather stable (and best measured in terms of magnetic field) whereas AC will create EM waves at a multitude of frequencies, at differing amplitudes. Not only that, but with the advent of integrated circuits, microprocessors, and the increased usage of this switching technology, EM waves are even more prolific, erratic, and likely to exist in every inch of your residence. Literally. Do you have the lights on? That’s an EM wave. Is your FM radio picking up any stations? There are EM waves bombarding your house from the outside. Do you have voltage at all of the sockets throughout your living quarters? Do you own a TV, microwave, wireless computer, cell phone, or anything else with buttons and lights on it? You have EM waves, and not just one but many, all at differing frequencies and strengths.
Some Background on VLF - ELF Signals
At which frequencies does deceased human energy reside? I looked over the FCC allocation chart and can’t find anything. All cynicism aside, most meters I have seen online range from 50Hz to 20kHz which is not only indicative of a low frequency but also an insanely large wavelength. Who chose this frequency range as the paranormal hotspot? You see the main problem is already evident – a common theory states that ghosts are detected in said frequency range and so paranormal investigators check this frequency range and conclude ghostly activities based on the meter response. It’s a catch-22 in a strange, inside-out kind of way that defies reason. In order to use this frequency range to detect ghosts, you need evidence that ghosts are detected in this range.
So what does the FCC say resides in this frequency band? Well, frequencies below 9 kHz are non-allocated, 9 to 14 kHz is allocated for Radio navigation, 14 to 19.95 kHz for maritime mobile, 19.95 to 20.05 kHz for standard frequency and time signal, 20.05 to 59 kHz also for maritime mobile. So, conveniently the majority of ghost frequencies are either non-allocated by the FCC or covered by maritime mobile. Considering most ghost hunts occur outside of the coastline (minus every haunted lighthouse,) most of the frequencies in the ghost spectrum should be static, absent of intentional signals. At first this would appear to help validate the EMF meter’s detection of specters but really it is a double-edged sword. From a non-technical and purely philosophical standpoint, it could be reasoned that a less-than-ethical person would select a relatively unutilized frequency band knowing that any other range would set off the meter constantly. This would prove the device worthless. Pick a range where the only things setting it off are spurious signals, illegal transmissions, and natural magnetic fluctuations and suddenly you have a ghost meter.
Then there are the frequencies below 9 kHz that are non-allocated . . . and for a reason. The FCC keeps tabs on the RF, radio frequency, portion of the EM spectrum, that is, frequencies that can be used in the transmission of audio. As stated earlier, the wavelengths at these low frequencies (VLF, very low frequencies, and ELF, extremely low frequencies) are incredibly large and mostly used for transmitting data at a low data rate. Even a lazy attempt at researching VLF will show that it can propagate across large distances, between the Earth’s surface and the Ionosphere, with very little attenuation. What does this mean? VLF waves will only be reduced 2 to 3 decibels over 1000 kilometers, which, in American English means the signal will have half the power after having traversed an equivalent distance between Washington D.C. and Atlanta. Under the right conditions, with a powerful enough transmission and equipment designed to pick up said frequencies, one could ideally pick up a transmission from over 600 miles away.
Even then, VLF frequencies are from 3 kHz to 30 kHz. For everything below 3kHz, the frequencies are considered extremely low (ELF) or ultra low (ULF.) Naturally, humans do not use these frequencies very much for communication because the wavelengths are even longer than VLF and the antennas/equipment required to utilize these frequencies would be economically horrifying. So how do EMF meters pull it off?
The Mechanics of A Paranormal EMF Meter
Let me open up and say that I have never used a ghost hunting EMF meter so I don’t know the finer details of the devices on an intimate level. Luckily, the internet exists and a few sources describe the meter as working off of an inductor which senses an alternating/changing magnetic field and thereby induces a small voltage. This voltage is then amplified and used to give an output measurement to the user. This is the same basic principle that electric guitar pick-ups, vending machines, and metal detectors use - a changing magnetic field, either the effect of an actual magnetic field or the influence of a metallic substance, will induce a voltage in a circuit by means of a coil or inductor. Each of these devices then utilize the 'sensed' signal in different ways but the physics of the initial detection are relevant.
Below is a lengthy and somewhat dry video that explains how a guitar pickup works. You'll find that the same principals are in place - an inductor is used as a detection device, or sensor, and a changing magnetic field, in the long run, induces a voltage into the output circuit.
As you can see, even a piece of metal, in conjunction with a magnetic field, can cause a change in the magnetic field, thereby inducing a voltage in the circuit.
Because of how the device is designed, it looks for a change in magnetic field, not necessarily an amplitude or reception of a signal (which is why we can ignore the need for an antenna.) What this means is the device will send out an indication based on even a fluctuation in magnetic strength . . . which based on the orientation of the meter, could be caused by any number of things. Some examples include, pointing the meter towards anything electrical (or away from it,) placing the meter in a building structurally ‘accommodating’ with lots of metal, any natural ‘earthly’ magnetic changes, operator intervention (that is, standing near it,) amongst any other number of possibilities. Having experience with higher frequencies, I can tell you that signals are imperfect, vary in intensity, carry harmonic components, and are generally erratic beyond the intended transmission.
In order to be frequency selective, however, the meter would either need an antenna that has a natural cutoff or some sort of band pass filtering. Considering these EMF meters use an inductor as the magnetic field ‘detector,’ they must have a filter in place to ignore the swath of frequencies that the inductor is seeing (inductors do have inherent limiting - these components increase in reactance as frequency increases and become more capacitive, as well. However, as frequencies increase and their wavelengths decrease, an inductor can also become a more efficient receptor at these higher frequencies which could well cause EMI-related issues, even if unlikely.) Otherwise RF signals would set off the device without issue, especially if the signal is strong enough, close enough, or has the adequate resources (read: anything metallic) in which to 'skip' over to the meter's vicinity. Do these EMF meters have something in place to neglect these higher frequencies? I do not know and if you have the answer, by all means, do not hesitate to educate me on the matter.
One way, additionally, that I have seen 'investigators' get around any 'false positives' created by RF signals is the claim that RF signals will be a flicker on the meter whereas an ghost-induced EMF will be a solid indication on the meter, albeit momentarily. This is a bold assumption to make and relies on the belief that RF signals only affect the device in a spurious manner and that intentional RF signals cannot create unintentional frequencies in a steady fashion, which most decidedly is untrue (whether or not that impacts this debate is . . . well, up for debate.)
Did I mention that in the ELF region, natural, Earthly, magnetic changes take place? Is this a coincidence? Lightning can cause ELF waves and, as mentioned, with enough energy these waves can travel quite some distance. Is it so out of the realm of possibility that a lightning strike a state away could set off a natural disturbance at an extremely low frequency which would only affect meters ‘designed’ to look for it?
In an honest effort to further understand these devices and the ways in which they are utilized, I searched YouTube and found some interesting results. I selected one video to show based on the fact that it uses an analog EMF meter which will essentially give the user a more honest interpretation of the true electromagnetic environment. Some will question my intent and say that this video is a bad example and I can appreciate that. You'll have to decide for yourself.
Note that in the video the EMF meter does a couple of things:
1) The meter is at a steady state which means there is a 'static' EMF at all times.
2) The meter is constantly fluctuating, a response that a digital meter (especially one poor in quality) will not detect. This is a natural response of the environment.
3) The spikes in EMF change are sporadic and do not coincide with anything the user is doing. Observe at the fifty-six second mark that the meter shows a strong change in the EMF but the user has not asked a question or demanded a response.
A Skeptical Conclusion
I don’t have pure evidence to suggest that ghosts do not exist, nor that they create fluctuations in electromagnetic fields. Then again, the burden of proof is not on me, the critic of something unproven. What I can point out is that there is no evidence to suggest that electromagnetic fields are disrupted by anything paranormal. I can show you that the suggested frequencies that ghosts inhabit are relatively untapped by humanity, sporadic when used, subject to natural disruptions, and directed by wavelengths so extremely large that great distances are relatively mundane. Metering equipment for this range of frequencies would appear to be totally imprecise, impractical without extravagant antennas or filtering, and susceptible to a wide range of anomalies, all of which cannot be heaped into the ‘must be a ghost’ category. Signals, in general, are imperfect, vary naturally in intensity, carry multiple frequencies which are totally unrelated to the intended signal, and can be influenced based on the conditions. When you drive under a bridge and your AM radio goes to static, there is a scientific reason for it that does not include paranormal activity. Likewise, placing a meter inside of a wired, steel building with furnace ducts, gas lines, conduit, and more, all while expecting to get some sort of solid evidence seems impractical. Even in the near field (magnetic only) natural fluctuations can, and do, occur.
Don’t be fooled when a green LED starts blinking on your EMF meter in the attic. If you stuck it in your car for a week, you’d probably find out you’ve been driving with phantoms in the backseat. I understand that these meters are used in ‘conjunction’ with other evidence such as sights, sounds, and thermal measurements and not relied upon as solid evidence (and for good reason.) My advice is that if you truly believe in ghosts and haunted apparitions, question the reasoning behind EMF measurements and investigate with your head and not your heart. All too often people want to believe something and will alter reality to fit that desire. A meter that will literally beep at any fluctuation in magnetic field strength, which is an occurrence derived from numerous catalysts, should not solidify an answer in your mind, one way or the other.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Jan on April 02, 2019:
Alternating fields are man made - except the the wideband radio waves caused by lightning. What is the point of just measuring man-made signals?
Pradeepbhai vishwnath on September 13, 2018:
Selena on November 29, 2017:
I think there is alot of ghost in my house
mmmm, yes... on February 11, 2017:
You have to check all "maybe factors".
Also emf. This is good Scientific working.
All environmental values, you can check with your possibilities.
Of course, activate the flight mode and do not usw CB, PMR etc walkie-talkies.
And yes, dustbags ans snow flakes in
flash or bricht Light Makel "orbs".
But there are also planen with "orbs" Seen by whitnesses eyes. For example google the wood way in Brieselang, Brandenburg near Berlin. White and changed to red.
Btw., what is the Frequency range of smartphone emf meters (the "compass")?
And would a TV-Stick with RTL2832u chip and propper antenna useable as a live wide field detector?
Jennifer on August 21, 2016:
I totally didn't get most of that, but I got the gist. Thank you :)