PSICAN - Paranormal Studies and Inquiry Canada

Ghosts, Hauntings & Related Phenomena

Written by J.A. Cuddington

Things to Consider When Collecting and Evaluating Witness Accounts of Paranormal Events ­ Points to Stimulate Discussion

Investigations involve collecting information in the form of data, physical items, and witness accounts.  Data such as how long it takes to walk a distance or what the air temperature is are relatively straight forward measurements.  Physical evidence, such as a teacup, a stone or a stain, stand on their own and may help to prove or disprove a hypothesis. The context in which these pieces of physical evidence occur, help to add weight to an account of a chain of events. Witness accounts on the other hand, are far more complex.

Who has not at one time or another sensed that someone was lying?  There was something that you just couldn’t put your finger on, but you felt confident that you were being told a big fat lie.  I served in a Canadian Police force for thirty one years and investigated many things.  Some were trivial and some were extremely serious. In all of those investigations I spoke to people and tried to arrive at an accurate account of the event.  Some people were witnesses, some were victims and some were the culprit who was responsible.  There were even people who had nothing to do with what had occurred but thought it was important that they should offer their opinion anyway!

Consider if you will, the teenage boy who recounts an event to a group of teens among whom is a girl he wants to impress.  While he is telling his embellished story it never occurs to him that it will be retold and then he may be confronted with facts that are in dispute.  One lad slipped while whittling a piece of wood on his back porch and cut his forearm with a superficial cut that did not require stitches.  The story he told his friends was that he had been attacked by a knife wielding fiend in dark clothing and a mask in an alley.  When his intended sweetheart insisted on driving him to the police station to report it he had to go along or lose his credibility amongst his friends.

The boy and I sat down in together in an interview room and I asked him to tell me everything he could remember about what happened.  I paid close attention to not only what he said but also what I observed.  He looked me directly in the eyes and began by telling me about how he and his friends normally hang out down near the mall but they had been told not to come back by the security guard. Now they were hanging out by the high school on the bleachers of the football field.   He spoke at length about why they like to hang out there and all the great games that have taken place on the field.  He even motioned a pass that the quarterback threw in one critical game. I thought to myself “What has this got to do with being slashed with a knife?”  He continued on still talking about the group of kids and the bleachers all the while making good eye contact.   I interjected and asked him if he got attacked there.   He shifted uncomfortably in his chair and looked at his feet.   He folded his arms and said “No.  I was going to the field when all of a sudden I saw him.  He never said nothing.  He just jumped out and slashed my arm with the knife.  Before I could do anything he was gone.  He didn’t tell me his name and I never seen him before.  That’s it I guess.”   Then he looked up at me and wiped the palms of his hands on his jeans.

I waited for a full minute and then I said, “You are going to feel much better when you tell me what really happened.”  And he did feel much better when it all came out.   I wrote up the report that he had been brought to the station by someone who was under the impression that he had been attacked but after an informative conversation he was able to clear up the misunderstanding.  I suggested to him that he might want to clear up the misunderstanding with the girl he was sweet on too, but that was up to him.

When collecting a witness account of a paranormal occurrence it will be in the form of an interview and not an interrogation.  An interrogation occurs when the person being interviewed is reluctant to offer their version of events or is offering a version that is under dispute.  A paranormal investigator has no legal mechanism available to compel anyone to speak to them. There is no way to be one hundred percent positive that the account being offered is not deceptive or embellished.  One might ask, “Why would anyone want to be deceptive or embellish an account of a paranormal occurrence?”  Why indeed!  Having said that however, we can consider some indicators of truthfulness and deception to be mindful of when weigh the veracity of ones’ story.

When one answers a question with, “Why do you want to know that?” it indicates that they are resisting. This in turn begs the question, “Why do they feel they need to resist?” One who is being spontaneous and truthful should be answering questions to assist an investigation.  They all can have reasons to tell a lie.    Some may lie intentionally and some may not even realize that they are lying by just repeating what someone else told them. I found that young children will sometimes get caught up in the excitement and become part of the story they hear a friend telling.

As an investigator, it may be tempting to ask questions that get right to the point and “cut to the chase” as it were.  This kind of questioning tends to lead the person and can end up causing them to simply answer your question and nothing more.  It removes any spontaneity from the flow of information.  It’s better to ask an open ended question like “can you tell me as much as you can about what happened here?”  This way they get to start at the point that they feel is important and give the detail that they recall.”  Don’t interrupt them while they are talking if possible and ask any clarifying questions at the end.

They may offer corroborating evidence as they tell you their account.  It may be in the form of a witness, i.e. “Mary was there and she saw it too.” Or it may be pointing out something physical such as “and then it crashed on the floor and left a gouge in the wood.”  These corroborations are things that help to confirm their account. Observe the person’s demeanor while they are telling the story.  Are they making the same eye contact while speaking to you during their account as they were during the beginning of your contact with them?   One should watch for deviations from the norm.

I took note of peoples’ personal gestures when they were telling me about something that had significant effect on them.  For example, I interviewed witnesses about a serious traffic accident and everyone I spoke to used a head nod and a hand gesture to indicate the speed of the crash and the direction one of the cars had come from.  Then I spoke to two adolescent boys.  The boys claimed to have seen the accident but didn’t use any kind of gesture to indicate the crash. I asked them where they were when they saw the accident.  They pointed to the house on the corner surrounded by a hedge.  I asked them where exactly and they took me to the house and through the door into the living room.  I asked them what they were doing when the accident happened and they said they were playing video games.  I asked them to show me how they were playing and they turned on the TV and lay down on the carpet with the game controllers in their hands.  It was the sound of the crash that made them stand up and look outside.  In their minds they had “seen” the accident, whereas in actual fact they had only seen the final resting place of the vehicles.

If during the recounting of an event someone suddenly exclaims something like, “oh wait, that’s wrong, I forgot to say that just before that happened, I heard someone moaning and…”  this is merely an indication that they are not be afraid to correct or admit to having made a mistake during the recollection of an event  It is far less likely for someone who is telling a lie to have any mistakes in their story because they do not want to appear to be unsure or that they may be lying.  The admitted lack of memory can be considered a sign of credibility". i.e. "I might of forgotten some stuff but I will probably remember it later on".  One can expect brief pauses when someone recalls an event from memory, however when there are long pauses, it may be an indication of a delaying tactic, to allow time to create what they are going to say next.

When I was working with the United Nations in Kosovo I was part of a team that responded to a terrorist bombing of a car with Government workers in it.  There was a great deal of explosives used in a roadside device that essentially pulverized the vehicle and killed two victims.   I debriefed the people who had responded to the scene and they described not only what they saw but they also what they felt at the time, such as nausea and emotion. Some remembered how this bombing connected back to memories they had of events during the war. Several of them described smells at the scene such as motor oil and burning rubber and blood.  One of these individuals, weeks later confessed to me that whenever he was walking to work in the morning he would reach a particular intersection and he would be overwhelmed by depressing thoughts and feelings about the bombing.  I suggested to him that because there was a petrol service station on that corner he was smelling oil and gasoline creating a very strong link to his memory of the bombing.  This allowed him to put his feelings into perspective and he did not dread the walk to work any more after that.  The point here is that people who are being truthful will often relate feelings, senses, and memories connected to the event.  Someone who is lying about something typically does not have thoughts or feelings attached to something they have made up.

Declaring things that didn’t happen such as; “She didn’t hit me.” can be an indicator of a deceptive statement in a criminal investigation. Because of the ubiquitous characteristics of hauntings in literature and modern media however, some people have developed stereotypical expectations of things that we might see or hear. In this case it may not be unusual for a witness to say something like, "It didn't say anything. It just stood there and looked at me."  Whenever I heard someone say something like, “I think that’s about all " or  "That's basically it." I would consider that a cue for me to delve a little further into what they had told me.  Remarks like that might indicate that there are things that they have omitted.

I hope I have served some food for thought when embarking on upon obtaining witness accounts of paranormal events.   Remember, no one single thing is a definitive indicator of truth or deception.  One should take the whole situation into consideration and apply a reasonable person’s assessment of how much credibility to place on it.  Then weigh the statement against all the evidence.[i]

For further reading about the veracity of statements see:

ADAMS, Susan H. "Communication Under Stress: Indicators of Veracity and Deception in Written Narratives"

Dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy In Human Development (Adult Learning and Human Resource Development) April 3, 2002 Falls Church, Virginia

The Truth About Lie Detectors (aka Polygraph Tests)

Article:American Psychological Association, August 5, 2004

SCHAFER, John R. Ph.D. "Text Bridges and the Micro-Action Interview"

FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin January 2008

BACHENKO, J., SCHONWETTER, M. & FITZPATRICK, E  "Verification and Implementation of Language-Based Deception Indicators in Civil and Criminal Narratives"

Proceedings of the 22nd International Conference on Computational Linguistics (Coling 2008), pages 41­48 Manchester,August 2008

GROSS, Bruce PhD,JD,MBA "False Rape Allegations: An Assault On Justice"

Article in the Forensic Examiner®  2750 E. Sunshine Springfield, MO 65804,  Dr. Robert O'Block, Founder and Publisher

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