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Interview with Dr. Ciaran O'Keeffe

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Interview with Dr. Ciaran O'Keeffe
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An Interview with Dr. Ciaran O'Keeffe
Ciaran is that rarest individuals, a professional parapsychologist. He frequently appears on Most Haunted in the United Kingdom and in the United States, and Jane Goldman Investigates. Ciaran is also a researcher at Université de Toulouse in France.
Ciaran recently took time off from his busy schedule to answer some questions for Boulder County Paranormal Research Director Richard Estep. We would like to thank Ciaran for his time, and congratulate him on the recent birth of his son.

1 – Ciaran, what’s happening with MH at the moment? Have you gathered any impressive evidence, or witnessed phenomena that you found genuinely perplexing?


Most Haunted Series 9 has been shown on television and filming is underway for Series 10. It is due to be shown from 19th February onwards on Living TV in the UK. For 2008 I’m not sure about Most Haunted in the US ( Travel Channel) but given the success of the previous lives I’m sure we’ll return. 
In terms of evidence or phenomena specifically from the show: there are some instances that have allowed for further analysis: e.g. the ‘spooky laugh’ at the Golden Fleece (York); the ‘ghost’ at Mains Hall (nr. Blackpool); and phenomena on the Queen Mary (e.g. footprints in swimming pool, voices in room B340).
In these particular examples, and a couple of others, I’ve been able to either revisit footage, or sound recordings, and witnesses (or staff members). There have been a lot of other alleged phenomena captured on MH where the only evidence is witness evidence and questionable footage. A good example would be the ‘moving pool balls’ at the Hollywood Legion. The footage only shows the ball moving after it has started, there is only one camera and it is very difficult to assess the position of everyone in the room and where people’s hands are. For that reason any assessment concludes with speculation or opinion.
With the Mains Hall or Golden Fleece alleged evidence there was considerable footage available before, during and after the event to enable an appropriate level of analysis. In addition there were a number of different witnesses or staff from whom I could obtain statements for the report. These reports will appear on my website at some point in the future. There have been a couple of instances where I have been immediately perplexed. It is only following post-hoc analysis (after-the-fact analysis) and given time to reflect where I’ve been able to come up with viable alternative explanations for alleged phenomena. Suffice to say there is no occasion on MH where an alternative explanation is not available, and, from that, in my opinion, no occasion where I consider something to have been indisputably paranormal.


2 – You’ve just returned from a MHL event at the Winchester mystery house in California, and are going to be appearing on Children in Need this year.


Yes. Not sure of the question here. I enjoyed the experience at the Winchester Mystery House - a fantastic place to visit, and San Jose is a wonderful city also.
Before visiting I had read extensively about the place and was suspicious of its haunting reputation. I had narrowed down specific items from the story of Sarah Winchester consulting a medium and where the names for this medium had come from. The inconsistencies and distinct lack of historical fact concerning the story made me skeptical of the reasons put forward for people’s haunting experiences. I was also fortunate in being able to watch the GhostHunters’ episode where TAPS investigated WMH. They made similar conclusions to mine (especially after having visited the place) and yet I was still keen to get to the bottom of some of the phenomena they reported and that was reported by staff members (e.g. banging and apparition in basement, bizarre smells, temperature drop in ballroom). Although all my findings may not have been televised I was satisfied that a natural explanation could be found for all phenomena, even if it was down to suggestion.

As for appearing on Children in Need – I think you’re referring to a ‘ghost event’ in the UK in November (2007) to raise money for Children in Need. The event was a huge success and raised several thousand for a worthy cause. Unfortunately I was unable to attend at the last minute due to a pregnancy emergency. For those concerned readers, everything worked out wonderfully and I am the proud father of a little boy – Renan Xavier O’Keeffe!


3 – You have a well-deserved reputation as the “voice of reason” on MH, a calming influence and objective scientific observer. During one MHL event, you were overcome with emotion and had to leave the scene – which was quite out of character. What was behind that? Although it’s happened before on the show, it usually occurs to those crew members of a rather more nervous or excitable disposition.


First off, thanks for the compliment. My emotional reaction was as a result of many upsetting events that had occurred during the previous year and in the couple of months leading up to the event. I do not wish to go into the nature of those personal events, suffice to say my emotional outburst was not paranormal and conducting a first night’s live investigation for Most Haunted acted as an emotional trigger.


4 – We’ve witnessed a media explosion over the past several years, on both sides of the Atlantic. How do you think the increased public interest in the subject of the paranormal has affected research? Are people more credulous, or more skeptical? Our team has noticed an increased likelihood that people will interpret mundane sounds (creaky floorboards, buildings settling down after a warm day) as “paranormal”.


The positive influence of the increased interest has been the public acceptance of research into the subject. It has enabled online surveys to flourish and the recruitment of participants for parapsychology experiments has been easy. I’ve even had to turn away willing participants and volunteers because I haven’t been running experiments at the time. In the past that was unheard of. In addition there is a positive side to groups flourishing as it has made the subject more mainstream (though there is also a downside to this).
I’m patiently waiting for a proper shift in skepticism. Before, when the paranormal media boom began (say 5 or so years ago), even the slightest creak or fleck of dust had people screaming or hearts pounding. Now, I think, people experience such minor happenings in the context of their investigation and are able to explain it appropriately or at least discuss natural explanations after the fact. I thought that this general shift towards a more skeptical approach was enough. I was wrong. The problem now is that any evidence that is framed in a scientific or technological way is seen as highly evidential. So when alleged evidence of after death communication (ADC) is found using EVP, or an apparition captured using film or thermal imaging, or an EMF meter shows an increase in mG, or objects move on film, it is all accepted without much criticism simply because technology is involved and/or because the evidence is captured as part of a “scientific’ investigation. This is more often than not when the investigation’s only nod to science is a handheld piece of technology. Simply having a flashy meter does not mean it is science.
There is no doubt, however, that this trend together with an increase in ‘paranormal practitioners’ has also meant a more credulous acceptance of the paranormal generally. It certainly is the modern time of mediums and psychics, angel therapists, rumpologists, aura readers etc etc etc. For respectable amateur groups this is a dangerous trend and results in being tarnished with the dodgy brush!


5 – We are firm believers in the idea that paranormal research is one of the few remaining fields of scientific endeavor in which the “professional amateur”, working on their own time without funding or backing, can make a genuine contribution to the advancement of science. As an academically qualified professional parapsychologist, what are your thoughts on this?


Be very careful with how you use the word ‘science’. Simply waving an EMF meter around does not a make a person a scientist. Conducting EMF surveys of haunted locations, preferably with a static tri-axial EMF meter, and ideally a top of the range magnetometer, and then sharing the data with others, is a step in the right direction.
A genuine contribution to the advancement of science in such a domain as ‘haunting experiences’ can occur, however, by collecting data. That data can be eyewitness accounts untainted by poor interviewing techniques or the testing of scientific theories of hauntings (e.g. EMF, infrasound etc.). If the data is shared, collected appropriately, then it may advance our understanding of this fascinating field. So, in a nutshell, with the right approach, the “professional amateur” as you say, can make a contribution.


6 – Do you foresee a day when paranormal research groups will conform to some sort of universal professional standard – for example, a common set of guidelines or research protocols that govern the way in which they operate?


I hope so but I think it is wrong for one person or group to impose a methodological approach on another as every method comes loaded with preconceived ideas, opinions or beliefs and who’s to say which one is right. What is needed, though, is a worldwide knowledge and acceptance of ethics. Groups, and individuals, need to be aware of the short, and long-term, influence they have on clients or property owners. Often groups have unbridled access to private homes and this opens the flood gates for other ethical issues.
For interested readers I suggest checking back regularly on my website as I’ve recently published a set of ethical guidelines in an academic journal (Journal of Society for Psychical Research). I will announce when a more streamlined version of the guidelines will be more widely available.

On a related issue, I think the establishment of a more ‘universal’ network of groups is a good thing. It would reduce the back-biting and trivial politics that seems to have arisen, certainly in the UK. In addition it could possibly prevent ‘ownership’ of allegedly haunted locations by groups interested in exclusivity (and sometimes money-making ventures). Also it could aid in the sharing of data, advice and even members. In establishing such a network (TAPS Family is a very good example) there needs to be care taken in ensuring that the network label either not become a ‘badge of quality’ unless it is enforced (in much the same way the APA or other scientific organizations operate).


7 – Nothing prevents the average man in the street from printing up a business card calling himself a “parapsychologist” or “paranormal researcher”.What should the public look for when they contact a paranormal research team for help? 


This is related to the point of ethics I’ve made above. Within the ethical guidelines clients/public are provided with pointers for the sorts of things to look out for with regards to groups. For example, providing the means for the client to check out all your claims (e.g. experience, qualifications, prior cases etc), is a good start. One of the main issues for the client is feeling confident and trusting of those you are inviting into your home – criminal records check, references etc. The more the public come to realize that anybody can call themselves a ‘parapsychologist’ or ‘investigator’ the more they will be on their guard.


8 – You recently published a book, co-authored with Yvette Fielding, as a “how-to” guide for would-be paranormal researchers. Could you please tell us a little about the writing process, and how things turned out with that project?


The project was originally conceived as representing both our voices – a believer voice (Yvette) and a more skeptical one (Me). It also gave me the opportunity to provide a wealth of information about the history of psychical research, some key cases (e.g. Enfield, Cardiff etc), and to clear-up some of the misperceptions about ‘ghost hunting’ and the various equipment used. There is a lot of information out there about the field that rarely makes it to the popular market and I was keen that some of it was highlighted for the more mainstream reader and for some Most Haunted viewers who hadn’t realized the depth and breadth of the subject.

We also included a section covering some of our own investigations. These were not Most Haunted investigations, it was just Yvette and myself. In the investigations we were aided by, and sometimes led by, Steve Parsons and Ann Winsper from Para.Science (a group we both have a lot of respect for). We specifically chose unusual locations (e.g. nightclub, offices, residence) as opposed to the usual castles and stately homes. It was also a great opportunity for Yvette to experience, first-hand, ghost investigating in the real world rather than infront of cameras. The whole book experience was great for both of us and it led to a second book due out late 2008 that just covers our own private, international, investigations.


9 – Over the course of your career investigating allegedly haunted locations and paranormal phenomena, have you come to any conclusions as to the validity of ghostly activity – or is the jury still out?


The jury is most definitely out. Over the course of my career I’ve seen an increase in the number of normal explanations for paranormal phenomena. Many of these explanations still remain theoretical and need further testing. To often media skeptics proffer alternative explanations as fact when it is not the case. What I have seen happen is that parapsychology has returned, somewhat, to looking at haunting experiences with increased vigor. This is something that has happened moreso because of the increased interest in the field from amateurs and the prevalence, and acceptability, of eyewitness accounts.


10 – The word “skeptic” has become misunderstood, and skeptics can be maligned among certain circles. We at BCP believe that the correct meaning of the term should be, essentially, “show me the evidence”. Does a skeptical attitude have a dampening or inhibitory effect when investigating hauntings?


You’re right with regards to the misunderstanding of the word ‘skeptic’. It is too often confused with cynicism.

A truly skeptical attitude should have no inhibitory effect at all. There is no research in parapsychology to show that it does. A cynical (non-believing) attitude, however, has been shown in certain parapsychology experiments to be a hindrance to positive results.

11 – As prices of EMF meters have fallen, and the units themselves have become more readily available, this has become a prevalent device amongst amateur paranormal investigators. Do you consider unexplained fluctuations in EMF levels a valid test of paranormal activity?


If, by this, you mean that the discovery of unexplained fluctuations in EMF (or more correctly electromagnetic radiation) indicates the presence of a ghost, then no. ‘No’ meaning it is not a valid test and it is not the reason why EMF meters or the whole concept of EMF testing in haunting environments came about. To fully understand why EMF meters should be an essential part of a ‘ghost hunters’ kit I suggest reading Dr. Michael A. Persinger’s work. The reason such meters should be used in a haunted location is to find sources of particular levels of electromagnetic radiation. If it’s found, then it is a viable explanation for certain haunting experiences. If such levels are not found then the EMF explanation for someone’s experience is discounted.  To reiterate – EMF meters are NOT Ghost Detectors


12 – Some researchers have theorized that truly impressive results require the presence of a “sensitive”, “psychic”, or “medium”. In your experience, can a purely technical approach that focuses primarily on verifiable, reproducible data, yield valuable results – or is the presence of “the human factor” required?


Very good question. The majority of impressive eyewitness accounts of hauntings come from ‘regular’ people. From staff members, tour guides (and people on tours), cleaners, security guards, family members at home, etc. Additionally, you occasionally hear, in these accounts, caveats like “I’m not psychic in any way,” or “I don’t usually believe in this stuff.” For this reason I would argue that the presence of a “psychic’ or medium is not necessary in investigations, but that is just my opinion. A solely technical approach would have to be one that gathers evidence to counter claims of the paranormal. By that I mean that if a particular location has regular accounts of haunting experiences then a technical approach should attempt to discount natural, environmental, reasons for the experiences (or perhaps find them). If all other explanations are accounted for, and discounted, then doesn’t it make the weight of the paranormal explanation greater?


13 – You were instrumental in proving that one medium on “Most Haunted” was relaying results that had been obtained from a completely conventional source. What role, if any, does the medium have in the field of paranormal research? Do you find the lab results obtained by researchers such as Gary Schwartz impress you?


If you access my site ( you can find information regarding both aspects of this question. Regarding the medium ‘exposure’ on “Most Haunted” the only thing I can say for certain is that in those particular locations the medium was definitely not communicating with spirit. Alternative explanations are given. In addition, those incidents, and others (which include glaring errors from the medium), raise questions about the source of the information that comes from the medium (e.g. prior research, being fed the info etc.).

With regards to the role of mediums in paranormal research, there are 2 answers here. The first refers to mediums in scientific paranormal research (i.e. Parapsychology). The Koestler Parapsychology Unit (in Edinburgh University) defines parapsychology as “the study of apparent new means of communication, or exchange of influence, between organisms & environment.”  A medium, receiving messages from spirit, is demonstrating a ‘means of communication’. For that reason parapsychologists have been interested in the claims of mediums and testing them under controlled conditions in the laboratory. I’m impressed by the various programs of research that have been conducted by Gary Schwartz (and colleagues) in Arizona, and Tricia Robertson and Archie Roy in Glasgow. Impressed because they have attempted to test mediums under controlled conditions – trying to prevent any communication via normal channels (e.g. fraud, cold reading etc.). I’m impressed, but not convinced. I’ve published public criticisms about some of Prof. Schwartz’s studies which can be found on my site (

here’s another answer which is to do with the role of mediums in paranormal field research. This is a matter of choice for the individual investigator or group (see my answer to Q12 for more on my opinion on using mediums). There has been some preliminary work done that shows certain mediums may be more susceptible to environmental variables like infrasound. They then either interpret their infrasound caused experience as a spiritual one (natural explanation) and come up with information about spirit, or the infrasound opens up an internal doorway of some sort (supernatural explanation). Of course this is all theory at the moment. Focusing the investigation on what a medium says, however, is not necessarily the most fruitful way of getting results. The focus should be on eyewitness accounts and experiences. If some of those happen to be mediums, then so be it.   

14 – Electronic Voice Phenomena is a persistently recurring, reproducible event. A large base of EVP recordings now exists, and EVPs have been picked up in Faraday cages, under various lab conditions (such as the Pye engineering labs experiments, or those that once occurred on Radio Caroline). Can modern science explain EVP, do you believe that it is paranormal or explicable in nature, and why are academic researchers not doing more to investigate it?


Before I answer your question I encourage any readers interested in doing EVP research to actually read some of the original research (e.g. Raudive, Ellis etc). To often today the approach to EVP in amateur “ghost hunting” groups is quite subjective.
There is a wealth of, on the face of it, very impressive evidence has been captured by various members of the EVP (and ITC) community and, yes, the early results from the Pye recordings and elsewhere are intriguing. Some of these impressive results, though, were conducted, in my opinion, without full knowledge of the possibilities of interference from external sources, or of the psychological idea of pareidolia (or apophenia) and suggestion, and of the necessity of implementing full controls. In addition, the field of ITC has now become so popular that it is attracting the usual crackpots and frauds to its ranks. The research now, however, is apparently highly technical, and is conducted by academics (and other relevant professionals) from various backgrounds all over the world. If you check out any of the ITC websites you’re sure to find astonishing recordings. So, to answer part of your question, there is serious research being conducted in this area.

Despite my comments sounding complimentary (they are), they hide an underlying skepticism. My main issue is with the level of technology being used. There appears to be a direct, negative, relationship between convincing results and standard of equipment used. I’ve accompanied many groups and investigators when alleged EVP evidence is captured. The equipment used is inevitably a hand-held digital Dictaphone (at best). This brings with it a load of problems when it then comes to interpreting any recording as paranormal, regardless of the settings used. Should results be produced in ‘genuine’ Faraday cages, eliminating internal noise and rejecting poor quality equipment then it’s a good starting point. I say ‘genuine’ because I’ve been presented with recordings of alleged spirit communication captured in a Faraday cage only to find out later that the Faraday cage consisted of little more than a metal colander!

15 – Ciaran, to wrap things up – during the course of your varied and impressive career in parapsychology, what is the single most impressive piece of evidence you have encountered?


I’ve encountered impressive evidence countless times (there’s a book in there somewhere!). The problem is in verifying its authenticity, discounting every possible natural explanation. It’s rare, but over the course of my career thus far I’ve come across it twice. One happened on an investigation at a nightclub. The owners of the club had captured CCTV footage of the fire doors opening of their own accord, as if pushed by unseen hands. The doors could not be opened from the outside and needed a heavy bar to be pushed from the inside to open them. On the footage, which had a wide shot of the doors, there was no-one on the inside. The incident had supposedly only occurred again once since. On an investigation which I was part of, it occurred again. There were various environmental meters recording around the door area and also hand held footage of the incident happening. To date, I’ve been unable to come up with an explanation. I should add that the club has suffered many many fires, some arson, some cause unknown, over its recent history.

The second impressive piece of evidence is from an investigation I was not part of so I’m only basing my thoughts on the account of the group (Para.Science) leaders and the 5 members of the group who also witnessed it and the actual audio recording. To summarise – the investigation was of an alleged haunted former school. It was conducted at night. On the sound recording equipment used the unmistaken sound of a large group of children playing is heard. There was no-one else inside the building apart from the investigative group and no-one outside. 


Thanks very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions, Ciaran. We are most grateful.




 2008 Boulder County Paranormal