Please don’t call them ghostbusters

Lead investigator Ian Murphy (front) with PRAB team members (from left) Mia Swen-son, Brian Tully,  Sean Cronin, Jessica Allen, and Joanna MacGugan.
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Lead investigator Ian Murphy (front) with Paranormal Research Association of Boston team members. Three team members are holding gear they use for their investigations.

While Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and other funny ladies filmed the remake of “Ghostbusters” in Boston this summer, New England’s local ghost hunters recruited on Craigslist. Once a year, an outfit called the Paranormal Research Association of Boston posts an ad for a “trainee paranormal investigator.”

No experience required. No psychics need apply.

The science-based organization exists to investigate ghostly phenomena, wherever they may be found, free of charge. Its motivation is to offer homeowners peace of mind and logical answers for things that go bump in the night.


“We’re not skeptics and we’re not believers,” said Paranormal Research Association founder Ian Murphy, 34. “We’re coming at it from the approach of, ‘let’s see what we find.’ ”

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Murphy’s particular troop of local men and women takes on a handful of cases each month and debunks hauntings the majority of the time. If these were investigators of “The X-Files,” they’d more than likely be kindred spirits of Scully (the doubting scientist) than Mulder (the supernatural obsessive). They approach the idea of ghosts, poltergeists, and phantasms with facts, not feelings.

One client had been told by a medium that a weird circle on the wall of her basement was letting in spooky entities. Was it, the client asked PRAB, a portal to another dimension? No, they answered, it’s probably black mold.

Another client sensed something staring from the corner of a room. According to PRAB, it may have been the effect of high frequencies from old, exposed wiring. The same client was hearing tapping sounds in the master bedroom. PRAB set up vibration and motion sensors. In analysis of audio, video, or high-resolution photographs, no anomalies were detected.

Clients remain anonymous to the public; they are often afraid people will think they’re crazy. Though PRAB isn’t the only paranormal research organization in the area, it is among the largest, with four teams and almost 30 researchers. There’s a team in Boston, one in New Hampshire, another in Colorado, and the original team in Ireland. In Murphy’s Manchester, N.H., home office, a poster features the company logo, a burning candle before a silhouette of the Boston skyline.


Murphy, a paramedic by trade, moonlights in the paranormal world. A Dublin native with a slight lilt to his voice, he hunted ghosts in Ireland. With a cheap camcorder and a microcassette recorder, Murphy tried to dissect the mysteries of Charleville Forest Castle, said to be one of the country’s most haunted locations. He found others online with similar interests and assembled a team, which he left behind when he moved to Boston in 2008. Today, teams on both sides of the Atlantic rarely lack cases, he says.

The weeks leading up to Halloween are among PRAB’s busiest.

A 2013 Harris Poll of more than 2,000 adults found that 42 percent of Americans believe in ghosts. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center found that one in five Americans say “they have been in the presence of a ghost” and 29 percent say “they have felt in touch with someone who has died.”

Though tales of ghosts and goblins may strike some as silly, a few corners of academia take the paranormal quite seriously.

Since 1967, the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies has researched near-death experiences and those individuals who appeared to have memories of past lives. At the University of Pennsylvania, an interdisciplinary humanities workshop called the Penn Ghost Project looks at society’s fascination with the dead. This year, students started collecting oral histories of people’s experiences with ghosts and studying the effect that reported hauntings have on real estate.


(To that end, Massachusetts sellers aren’t required to tell buyers that a property might be “psychologically impacted,” i.e. “haunted,” unless explicitly asked. This includes information about murders or suicides that occurred in the home.)

“We’re interested in the sociological impact of ghosts,” said Justin McDaniel, chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “If people are acting as if it’s true, sociologically it is true. Instead of treating people like wackos, we approach it as something that impacts our culture.”

With shows like “Ghost Hunters” on Syfy and the return of “The X-Files,” the paranormal is a source of endless mystery. It’s based in culture and myth and, sometimes, family history passed down from generation to generation.

“It’s personal,” Murphy said. “People are nervous and scared. They’re sure there’s something, be it evil, be it good. Something’s happening in their house, and they don’t know what to do about it.”

Unlike being in “Ghostbusters,” this paranormal investigator gig doesn’t pay the bills. When they take a case, the team members go into a home, ship, barn, or basement to gather information. They research the history of a structure — and the homeowner. They look at the client’s mental health and medical history. And they complete a full report, which they deliver to the client at the end of an investigation.

Kelly Johnson, 32, a carpenter, was one of the first members. As the team historian, she’s often at the library doing research. She always had a natural curiosity about history and genealogy. In one case, she enlightened a homeowner about a historic skirmish between settlers and Native Americans that occurred centuries ago near the southern Massachusetts property.

“The two paranormal teams I was with before in Washington [state] were very heavy in terms of the use of psychics,” Johnson said. “I enjoyed my former teams, but I prefer working with hard evidence rather than a person’s intuition.”

Turns out that demonic possession and poltergeist slime are not typical occupational hazards for these paranormals. Sifting through hours of data is. That information includes pictures, audio recordings, and endless videos of empty corridors. Investigators also process results obtained from a variety of instruments: an electromagnetic field meter, a multisystem detector, environmental indicators, radiation detectors, and carbon monoxide detectors.

Every plausible explanation is ruled out before the team considers the unbelievable. But even the researchers have experienced things they couldn’t explain. On a trip to Ireland in 2012, Murphy remembers hearing a disembodied voice — a deep, thick brogue — in the office of a rental car lot. The building had once been a funeral home.

An experience Johnson had recently was far more personal.

“A year ago, my dad passed away in a motorcycle accident,” Johnson said. “I flew out to Washington to settle his affairs. . . . When I was sleeping in his room I heard my father’s voice call my name. It was like he was right next to the bed.”

To be a paranormal researcher is to deal with extensive paperwork and a five-page job description for little or no pay. Yet applications flood in every year. Some applicants are seeking a close encounter. Others want proof of more to come after death.

Sean Cronin, 31, of Shirley was referred to PRAB by a friend who said, “I know you’re into this stuff.”

The vetting process requires an interview, criminal background check, and an annual evaluation. People scoff when they hear about Cronin’s volunteer gig, but sometimes come back later and ask for advice on their “ghost problem.”

“Some people are convinced, and just want us to validate a ghost for them,” said Cronin, a corrections officer by day. “I think some people feel special to think they have supernatural activity occurring.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at