We talked to a paranormal investigator about ghost-hunting fakery, airport-security woes, and his most chilling experience.
In our new series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with an avalanche forecaster, undercover hotel inspector, and a social media influencer. Up next: a paranormal investigator.
Ross Allison has traveled to every state in America in search of ghosts, as well as France, Spain, Romania, Mexico, and Japan. He is the founder of the Advanced Ghost Hunters of Seattle-Tacoma (A.G.H.O.S.T.) and the only full-time paranormal investigator in the Pacific Northwest. But Allison will be the first to tell you that there’s more to being a ghost hunter than skulking around dark basements with an electromagnetic field (EMF) reader. In addition to investigating cases, Allison teaches “Ghostology 101” at the University of Washington and Tacoma Community College. He leads haunted walking tours and pub crawls for Spooked in Seattle. He hosts annual Ghost Hunters Getaways for the specter-curious (coming up in November: a haunted castle romp through the United Kingdom). And he has written numerous books about supernatural phenomena, including Tacoma’s Haunted History. Point being: It takes a lot of slash-jobs to make ends meet. We caught up with Allison on his tour in Philadelphia to see what it’s really like to be a ghost hunter.
When did you decide to get into ghost hunting?
“[Laughs] Well, you have to understand, if you told people you were into ghosts 20 years ago, they would laugh in your face. Ed and Lorraine Warren were being shunned—people thought they were crazy. It wasn’t until Ghost Hunters aired on the SYFY channel that ghost hunting became the ‘cool’ thing to do and all us ghost hunters could come out of the closet. For me, I grew up loving ghost stories and my mom loved telling them. I lived in California for a bit and had an opportunity to meet and work with some of the biggest names in ghost hunting—people like Lloyd Auerbach. When I moved back to Washington around 2000, I had the bug but there weren’t any outlets for ghost hunting back then. When I called up my friends and said, ‘Hey guys, let’s check out this really cool cemetery down the street,’ they would say, ‘Sure, sounds great, but let’s hit the bars first.’
And that was annoying because you wanted to take it seriously?
“Yeah! I wanted something serious. A friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you start your own group?’ So I did. I started A.G.H.O.S.T. and it took off from there. We were the largest ghost-hunting group in the northwest, with well over 100 members.”
Tell me about your first ghost encounter.
“I was doing a ghost tour in Salem, Massachusetts, taking pictures of a cemetery. This was when digital cameras first came out and I noticed right away that there was this strange light formation in one of my photos. I took more and more pictures, but the light was gone. I was like, ‘What the hell caused that?!’ When I showed the tour guide my photo, she’s said, ‘Oh my god, that’s the ghost!’”
And you just believed her?
“I was a little skeptical. But I was also taking hundreds of pictures, trying to see if I could recreate that light formation and I couldn’t. It was just that one photo. After that, I was hooked.”
On ghost-hunting TV shows, 10-hour investigations are condensed into 24 heart-pounding minutes. Does that mean you get a lot of millennial ghost hunters coming into the field, unwilling to put in the time it takes to actually capture a ghost?
“Yes. And that’s the biggest problem we have—there are too many groups out there without any training. It’s a monkey-see, monkey-do situation where they imitate what they see on TV. But what you see on TV is all shortcuts—the most entertaining bits. For every hour you spend investigating a place, that’s an hour or more you have to spend reviewing everything you recorded. That’s where ghost hunting is like watching paint dry. People don’t want to put forth the effort.”
Right. And it’s not like you have an editing room to do it for you.
“Exactly. Also: You can’t make a career on ghost hunting alone. I make money by doing tours, writing books, and lecturing. In fact, I make no money doing investigations because I don’t charge for those services. When you charge for an investigation, your client expects something in return—and it affects your credibility. I will never put myself in that situation.”
Say you get a call from someone who says something weird is happening in their home. Walk me through the investigation process.
“They call my direct number and I’ll briefly interview them. From there, they’ll talk to my VP, who does a full interview and outlines their story. After that, we’ll do a walk-through with a small team—usually three people. We’ll scout the property, taking control readings and control photos. Then, if we feel the person is legit and their case is worth pursuing, we’ll conduct a full investigation with a bigger team and more equipment.”
What questions do you ask during the interview to determine if someone has legitimate cause for concern?
“Let’s say we get eight calls in one week; probably two of those will lead to an actual investigation. Sometimes people chicken out. They have this false idea that if they invite investigators out, it’s going to cause trouble with the spirits in their home. But mostly, we’re looking for credible encounters. We’ve had people call us and completely re-enact situations you see in movies. Like, one woman called and she said that her daughter has been talking to an imaginary friend she named Jodie. She said she walked into her room one day, and all of a sudden the rocking chair started rocking by itself. Her daughter says, ‘Oh, it’s just Jodie,’ and of course it stops. Then she points to the window and says, ‘Jodie flew out because you scared her.’ This woman looks out the window and sees a pair of red glowing eyes. And I said to her, ‘You realize you just described exactly what happens in Amityville Horror, right?’ [Laughs]”
Are most legit people who contact you in a state of great distress?
“No. They’re mostly curious. They’ve been experiencing some unusual phenomena—like, ‘I saw somebody in my room and then it was gone’ or ‘Things are moving around.’ They want to know who it is and why they are there. Sometimes people are scared and you have to explain that ghosts are not always out to harm you. They might just want attention or maybe they have a message to pass along.”
On one of your websites, you recommend using mediums and psychics with caution. Is that because you believe it’s impossible to communicate with the dead?
“I have worked with psychics that have blown my mind. But I’ve also worked with people who believe they are psychic and they’re about as psychic as a rock. It’s easy to let your imagination take over. I’ve been in situations where psychics will terrify families because they immediately say, ‘Oh, this is demons, you need to get out of your house!’ It’s not true in a lot of cases.”
How do you define “demon”? Is that just a ghost that wants to cause harm to the living?
“My team doesn’t get into demonology. I try to stay religion-free. My main focus is documenting paranormal phenomena. Now, I do believe you’ve got assholes in the world and when those people pass away, they’ll be assholes in death as well. [Laughs]”
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That should be the name of your podcast: “Asshole Ghosts—and How to Avoid Them.”
“[Laughs] You know, when people have a negative experience with the paranormal, they automatically label it a demon. But just like you have bad people in the world, you can have bad ghosts. It still doesn’t mean they’re out to harm you.”
What do they want then?
“Well, think about it. If I’m a ghost, haunting this house, I’d probably have a little fun, too. I’d get a kick out of scaring people. Consider Zak Bagans from Ghost Adventures. He likes to taunt the spirits. Like, ‘If you’re here, prove it!’ He’ll call the spirits names and stuff; it’s really disrespectful. If that guy came into my home and started acting that way, I’d get him, too. [Laughs] To be on the safe side, I always try to be respectful.”
You’ve traveled a ton for work. Which haunt was the most overrated?
“I walked through the Amityville House [in Long Island] and...nothing. It’s overrated because it’s got a great backstory. Yes, a young man murdered his family there. And yes, a family moved into the house and moved out right away, claiming ghosts. It’s pretty terrifying. But the fact is: No one has experienced anything paranormal since they left.”
What’s the most underrated place you’ve investigated?
“There are too many amazing ones to list, but Alcatraz is where I had my first physical experience. My team spent the night there and visited some areas that were otherwise off-limits. I was the first to enter the morgue, which is nothing but a dirt floor, brick walls, and a ceiling. I wanted to take a picture of the entrance, so I slowly start backing up. As I do this, someone puts their hand on my shoulder and stops me. I turn to apologize to the team member I had backed into the corner and there’s nobody there.”
Uggggh. I’d be outta there! Done.
“It was pretty interesting! I felt the weight of a man’s hand and the pressure of his fingers; it physically stopped me. I was totally expecting to see a living person behind me. I was not expecting to see nobody.”
Did you tell anyone you were with, ‘Oh my god, this just happened’?
“Yeah! And right after I told the other members, it turned into a little disco because everybody’s flash starting going off every second.”
Did anyone capture anything?
You’re so nonchalant about everything. Have you ever been truly scared?
“Well, I’ve been startled, I will admit that. You’ll be sitting in a room, waiting for something to happen, and all of a sudden a door will swing open. But have I gone running and screaming out of a room? No. There have been situations where I’m grateful I wasn’t alone.”
Give me an example.
“For my lecture tour, I was invited to St. Louis University. That’s where the true Exorcist case took place; it was based on the exorcism of a little boy, not a little girl played by Linda Blair. After I finish my lecture, I take my students on a ghost hunt around the campus. They took me to a building next to the church. We go upstairs and I’m surprised that when we get to the fourth floor, it’s completely abandoned. Rundown, graffiti everywhere, holes punched in the walls. The students tell me that when the church owned this building, this is where the nuns lived and they used to teach Sunday School up here. You can still see crosses and chalkboards on the walls. They even showed me a room where a nun committed suicide. Interesting, I think. But then I enter this one little room and I hear a crunch underneath my feet. I look down and realize I’ve stepped on a dead bird. I’ve investigated a lot of abandoned places; sometimes animals get trapped and they die. It’s not unusual. But then I shine my light through the rest of the room and I see dozens and dozens of dead birds scattered about. I had been through most of the fourth floor and had not come across any dead animals until I got to this one room. What made this especially odd is that there were no doors to any of the rooms on the fourth floor. Security had removed them to make it easier to conduct their rounds. So why did these birds all choose to die here? Come to find out, this is the room the boy had stayed in during his exorcism.”
OK, that’s disturbing.
“So I’m now standing in this room, filled with all these dead birds, and I’m realizing that an exorcism had been performed here. Creep factor has gone up. Less than five minutes after we start monitoring the room, all of our equipment goes off at the exact same time. The temperature drops rapidly, to the point where I’m expecting to see my own breath. The EMF detector is going off like crazy. And the compass, it’s spinning around and around and around and it won’t stop. My camera shoots in video, so I switch it to the infrared setting and start filming everything that is going on the in the dark. Then I start asking questions, hoping for EVP: electronic voice phenomena. This is where we ask questions into the air, give it 12 seconds of silence, and hopefully when you play back the recording, you hear an answer to your question. One of the questions I ask is: ‘Can you tell me who's room this is?’ Twelve seconds of silence and then all of a sudden I hear crying to the left of me. It’s a couple of the students; they’re terrified and uncomfortable and I’m uncomfortable, too. For safety reasons, I decide to pull our team out. Later, when I review the evidence I collected and I get to the part in the recording where I ask who’s room this is, this is the response I get: ‘Fuck you. It’s mine.’”
Nooooo. That’s crazy.
You were invited to lecture at St. Louis University, but not all “haunted” locations take kindly to people conducting paranormal investigations on their property. Have you had any run-ins with hotel management or security guards while ghost hunting?
“Oh, yeah. I’ve been working on a book about haunted historic hotels, and there are a few that don’t want to be in it. They’re afraid it’ll discourage people from staying there—or the owner simply doesn’t believe in ghosts. What I tell them is: Whether or not you believe, the hearsay is out there and your most haunted room is always going to be booked. People crave these experiences.”
You’ve expressed interest in filming a TV show about haunted hotels. What’s the concept?
“I’d love to produce a TV series that makes hotels the star. You’d talk about each place’s haunted history, conduct an investigation, and discuss other local lore and legends. I love to travel and my goal is to see as much of the world as possible. Being in this field, you realize just how short life can be.”
Let’s talk about your equipment. What do you actually bring when you travel and have you ever had trouble with airport security?
“[Laughs] So I was filming America’s Ghost Hunters for the Discovery Channel...They flew me out to Philadelphia, because we were spending the night at Eastern State Penitentiary. At the time, we’re lugging around $40,000 worth of equipment: sensors, cameras, recorders. My tech director made a lot of the ghost-hunting equipment himself, including a static meter. This was essentially a little black box with an antenna and a window with digital numbers. I have this fear that the airlines are going to lose my bags, so I brought some of the more expensive equipment in my carry-on. It’s going through the scanner and immediately the security is like, ‘Oh wow, we need to check this out.’ As the guard opens my bag, he accidentally hits the toggle switch for the static meter. Red numbers appear on the screen and start counting down. He jumped 10 feet back and, I swear, just about pissed his pants. He was freaking out. I was, ‘No! No! No! It’s just a static scanner!’ I turned it off right away, but they still called in a bunch of other security and pulled me off to this little room for questioning.”
So what happened? Did they believe you?
“They finally believed me and I made it to my flight, but the questioning was intense.”
You’ve traveled to so many foreign countries. It must be difficult to communicate what this equipment is and how you use it in another language.
“It’s challenging but also fascinating. Some cultures are big believers in spirits and you don’t need to convince them there are ghosts; they already know! And then there are some cultures, like in Asia, where they believe in ghosts—but man, you don’t mess with them! You leave ’em alone.”
There’s a lot of expensive ghost-hunting equipment out there. How do you separate the toys from the actual useful gadgets?
“Trial and error. There is no set experiment or piece of equipment that will tell you if there is a ghost in your home. We have meters to read temperature, barometric pressure, motion, static, everything. The more data you collect during your investigation, the more credible your experiences become. Many people just go in with their camera and a recorder, capture something odd, and that’s enough for them to say it’s a ghost. OK, but did you capture any EMF readings? Any temperature readings? How else can you prove this is what you say it is?”
So really, a good ghost hunter is a skeptic first and foremost.
“Right. And again, because ghost hunting is so hyped nowadays, people don’t know how to maintain a fair share of skepticism. They don’t know how to analyze and submit evidence. I can debunk most claims of paranormal experience. They’ll get pissed off and say I don’t know what I’m talking about, but the truth is, they’re so wrapped up in the excitement and adventure of ghost hunting, they forget to do the research.”
Does that make it hard to develop camaraderie in this field, when part of your job is debunking what others have found?
“Oh, yeah. I tried in the past to have unity, because we could all learn from each other. But so many groups hoard their evidence; they even hoard locations! They say, ‘This is our spot, no one else is allowed to investigate.’ Well, that’s bullshit. It builds credibility if you have multiple teams investigate a place. But people are territorial now because they all want a television show.”
Do you think Hollywood has done a disservice to the public by making people believe they can actually drive ghosts out of their home?
“When it comes to ghost-busting, I wish it was a simple as throwing on a proton pack, grabbing the ghost trap, and heading out. [Laughs] It’s not like that. Psychics will say, ‘Pay me $300 bucks and I’ll throw around some white sage and your ghosts will be gone.’ Bullshit. If you’re dealing with an intelligent haunting, the only credible responses are through EVP. We’re still not sure how it happens. But when you go into a haunted location, you produce a controlled environment, and you ask ‘What is your name?’ and then you play back your recording and the response says ‘Edward,’ how do you explain that?”
Would you move into a house if you knew it was haunted?
“Yeah, because I still have a lot of unanswered questions. I would love to move into a beautiful historic Victorian home that’s haunted—unfortunately, I can’t afford it on my ghost hunter’s income. [Laughs] Granted, I live the life of a single man, so I don’t have kids to raise, I can travel more, and I can splurge on equipment.”
Do you ever take a normal vacation? Like, do you ever just go sit on an unhaunted beach?
“[Laughs] I’ve been on unhaunted beaches before, yes. But 95 percent of the time, it’s all about the ghosts.”
What’s your bucket-list haunt? The place you dream of investigating?
“[Aokigahara], the Suicide Forest in Japan. It’s at the foot of Mount Fuji, and it’s not like there’s a bus that’ll drop you off in front.”
Has being a ghost hunter made you more comfortable with your own mortality or less because you see how trapped and restless some spirits seem to be?
“When it comes to the paranormal, there’s always going to be more questions than answers. In terms of my own mortality, some days I’m afraid of dying. I don’t practice any religion, so I don’t have that to fall back on. All I know is that odd things are happening out there. Questions are being answered on recorders. Is it a ghost? I’m not sure yet. Maybe it’s psychic phenomena and we’re projecting these answers onto recorders. But it’s still like, wow. I can’t stop ghost hunting. It’s a drug.”
You’re quite a prolific writer. What are you working on now?
“My newest book is Haunted Toys. This will be followed by Haunted Ships and Lighthouses, Haunted Sex, and then Haunted Amusement Parks.”
Wait, hold up. Did you say “haunted sex”?
“[Laughs] Yes. It focuses on encounters where people claim they’ve been sexually attacked by a ghost.”
Always attacked, never consensual?
“Usually. Although there are some people who are open to [sex with ghosts]. It’s a thing! In fact, I’m in the middle of filming a documentary for Amazon with the same title.”
And you believe these people are having sex with ghosts?
“Well, that’s what we’re trying to prove. Does this phenomena actually occur? Is it psychological or is something physical happening? We put naked men in a haunted room that used to be a brothel and one gentleman said he felt himself being groped. We’ve got another segment we want to film where a female claims to have a sexual relationship with a ghost. We’re going to see if we can prove it. That one is consensual.”
You also mentioned haunted toys. As in children’s toys?
“Yep, from haunted dolls to creepy games children play. There is this one Japanese game you wouldn’t believe; it’s called Hide and Seek Alone. This is where a child guts a doll, fills it with rice and fingernail clippings or a lock of their hair, and then sews up the doll with a red thread. This binds their spirit to the doll. Next, you set the doll next to a tub of water, take out a knife, and run around the house turning the lights off and tuning the radio to static. You find a hiding place, like a closet, and count to 10. When you’re done, you run back to the doll and stab it three times while saying ‘You’re it! You’re it! You’re it!’ Then you submerse the doll in water with the knife, run back to your hiding spot, and wait. There are claims that you will then hear the doll walking around, scraping the knife against the walls. You might even hear the doll talking or laughing. The only way to end the game is to find the doll, which may or may not be where you left it, and spit saltwater on it. That breaks the spell.”
When you research these games for your book, do you actually try them at home?
“Oh, god no.”
Because you’re afraid?
"Not afraid. I would never want to summon a spirit that you know wants to do you harm. Why put yourself in danger if you don’t know what you’re up against? That’s asking for trouble.”
Last question: Why do you think humans are so obsessed with ghosts?
“We’re fascinated with lots of things: magic, Harry Potter, werewolves, Dracula. We’ve always had a fascination with the mythical world. It’s an escape. Also: People like fear. It’s why we love roller coasters and haunted hotels. We’re addicted to the adrenaline rush of putting ourselves in danger.”
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