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Spooks, Spirits and Ghosts: Is One in My Home?

The paranormal is something that has always fascinated Liz, and, she currently shares her home with a mischievous spirit.

Is it a ghost, or some normal sound from the building itself? Or is someone playing tricks?

Is it a ghost, or some normal sound from the building itself? Or is someone playing tricks?

Things That Go Bump In the Night

How do you know whether you have a spook spirit or ghost? (Various names for the same thing, depending on your region.) Let's look at this "for instance" example:

You are relaxing at home and hear a sudden thump, creak, groan, crack or bang from somewhere in your house. You jump; a natural reaction to a startling unexpected sound or sight. If this is the first time this has happened, and/or if you are new to the particular house, you may well write it off as something from outside or, if you have children, something they were doing.

If this becomes a frequent occurrence, you may start to question whether your house is haunted, or your own sanity. Most likely, you have not gone insane. Neither have your children become conniving sneaky noise-makers.

Do you have a ghost? Maybe, and maybe not. There are a lot of things that can cause such sounds, even regularly repeating ones. If you watch any of the popular TV shows that deal with the paranormal, you'll see that the investigators spend as much or more time de-bunking as they spend trying to prove a spirit presence.

This article will deal with such debunking. At the end, I've included several links to various "how to" sites for information on fixing any problems you may uncover.


What is paranormal activity, anyway? Well, according to a strict dictionary definition, it is anything out of the normal. It has become widely accepted in the culture however, to restrict the meaning to anything of a ghostly or other-worldly nature.

In fact, "paranormal" is a joining of the prefix "para" from the Latin meaning, "around," or "with," or "in support of," and our word "normal" meaning accepted range of behavior or status of operation. You are already familiar with this "para" prefix in its two other most frequently-used connotations: paralegal and paramedic.

However, before you jump to the conclusion that your house is haunted, let's go over a few things to check first.

Listen For Common Sounds

If you have been out driving, particularly on a cool day, stop and listen to your car, after you have arrived home and shut off the engine.

It will not be long at all--a matter of a few seconds--before you start to hear ticking and tapping sounds. This is the metal in the engine cooling down and contracting from its hot and running state to its cooling down to cold state.

Of course, this is not a loud noise, and you won't hear it once you leave the garage and go inside. But, if you're working in the garage, and hear ticks and taps, think about whether the car has recently been running.

The House Itself May Be Responsible

We tend to think of our homes as static, inanimate objects, serving only as shelter from the elements. We do not talk to them, call them on the phone, or tuck them into bed at night. (Well, in a sense, we do 'tuck in' the house at night--closing windows, locking doors, turning down the thermostat...)

However, in a very real sense, a house is a living entity. The lumber in its framing was once a live tree, and it maintains its characteristics even though the tree is no longer living. In other words, it remains subject to the changes in weather from damp and cold to dry and hot. It is equally responsive to the artificial weather of our heating and air-conditioning systems.

Likewise the other elements that make up a house are alive in their own way. The water piped in is a form of living entity, subject, just as we are, to cold and hot. Unlike us, however it is also able to change its form from solid to vapor according to temperature variations.

Electricity is a big one. It is pure energy, and capable of every variation and nuance ranging from the tiny battery powering your grandpa's hearing aid to the millions of volts in a lightning strike.

The steel and iron rebar reinforcing the concrete flooring and the bolts connecting your home to its foundation came from Mother Earth, and connect the home back to the earth.

If you are hearing bangs, pops, creaks and groans, it may well be the house settling, as the framing expands and contracts with the temperature changes throughout the day. This is particularly true of both brand new houses and very old houses.

Remember your grade-school science lessons: heat expands things; cold contracts them. In metals, woods, water, this phenomenon is easily heard and observed. It is also visible at the level requiring expensive equipment such as scanning electron microscopes.

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With all this in mind, a bit of detective work may still be required to rule out a ghostly presence. Remember: a credible paranormal investigator has the job of debunking and ruling out as normal sounds or incidents as much as or more so than proving the existence of a spirit.

Besides, checking to determine the cause and reason for noises and shadows is a lot like playing detective. This search alone can take away a lot of fear, especially if you regard it in that light.


— say professional investigators

Old Houses Are Especially Prone to Creaking Noises



If it is summer, take a dry 2" x 4" piece of lumber, about 2 feet long, and leave it out in the hot sun all day.

As twilight approaches, bring the lumber indoors, and set it in a very cool spot, such as right under the air-conditioning register. Sit nearby, and listen. You will hear faint cracking, creaking or popping sounds. This is the wood reacting and adjusting to the temperature change.

Sized up to the framing in your house, these sounds can be proportionally louder. Additionally, because of the other structures, such a heat ducts and pipes, there can be an echo or telegraphing effect, making the noise seem louder, or coming from a different area.

Blame The Electric Grid

If you have lights that flicker, it could be a matter of a loose wire somewhere along the line, or even something as simple as a light bulb that has become a bit loose in its socket from vibration, or in the case of fluorescent lights, is on the way to being burned-out.

If there are areas where you are feeling "creeped out," such as a feeling of being watched, the next thing to check is your electrical wiring. Many paranormal investigators believe that a high level of electromagnetic field (EMF) in a house can itself cause feelings of unease, up to and including paranoia and hallucinations if the levels are high enough and a person is very sensitive to this.


— Lizzy

If the levels are very high, such as if you live near or under a transmission tower or substation, you could very well experience a static electricity feeling--like your skin is crawling, or you hair standing up on your arms. Don't freak out. Check it out.

(I personally feel, and have suggested, that such high EMF's can actually provide the energy for a spirit to use in manifesting itself. So, it can cut both ways. The jury is still out on this.)

If you do not have the proper equipment, by all means call in an electrician to check your wiring. It could be something as simple as the main ground wire that has become disconnected or corroded.

Is It The Heater or Air Conditioning?

Next, pay attention to what else is going on when you hear these creaks and pops. Did you just turn on the furnace or A/C a little while ago? Aha! If the noises occur in conjunction with that action, there's your answer.

What kind of heat do you have? Is it different than you had where you lived before? Hisses and bangs are a famous by-product of steam heat--the old fashioned iron radiators you see in older housing in New England and in old movies.

Hisses occur when bits of steam escape from safety release valves, and noises that sound like someone hammering on the metal usually indicate the system needs to be bled as there is air in the pipes.

If you have ever had to shut off the water to work on plumbing, and when you turned it back on, have seen how the faucet spits, sputters, sometimes hisses and even shakes visibly, you are witnessing the same thing that can happen with steam heat.

The difference is, the steam heat is a closed system, and the air cannot escape as it does out the faucet, so it bangs its way through the piping. This sound can also 'telegraph,' sounding as if it is coming from right next to you, when the trapped air that caused the noise is actually at the other end of the house, or vice-versa.

Modern radiators and baseboard-level heaters are usually electric, so there won't be any clanging and banging. However, you may hear some ticking sounds, as the metal expands and contracts. It is usually not loud enough to hear unless all else is quiet.

Central Heat: Gas Furnace

A gas-fired forced-air furnace system usually runs very quietly. If all else is quiet, you can hear the blower running, but that's about all. If there's rattling or squeaking from here, call a repair service, as there is something not right with the motor or fan.

It can, under certain conditions, cause a massive "whoosh" sound when it ignites. If this is the case, call in a furnace cleaning service, as the most likely cause is a buildup of dust in and around the main burners. What you have heard was a small dust explosion. Yes, dust can explode.

I witnessed this first-hand as a child. A friend and I were playing in the basement, near the furnace. It cycled on, and just such a "whoosh!" occurred with enough force to blow open the burner access door, which then loudly clanged shut. We both went shrieking up the stairs: it was very startling.

Dust Explosions?

Yes, dust can explode, given the right conditions of air and heat.

I remember a story from my childhood: my father telling of being at the 1939-40 Chicago World's Fair, and seeing an exhibit in which they had an automobile engine running on ordinary flour!

Of course, an internal combustion engine works, (in over-simplified terms), on the principle of tiny explosions within the cylinders. The gasoline is atomized into a fine mist, and the spark triggers the explosion that drives the piston downward, providing motive power.

All they had to do with the flour was create a system to puff it into the cylinders as an ultra-fine powder mixed in the right amount of air, and presto! A car running on flour.

Heating With Oil or Coal

I have never lived where either oil or coal was used for heating, so I am not qualified to address any odd noises those systems may produce. All I can offer is this: if you have such a system, listen to it, and learn its normal operating sounds so you will be able to tell if the system needs a repair or if something else is causing the sounds you hear. (I suspect, however--and this is but guesswork--that either of these fuels merely provide the heat for the boiler in a hot water or steam heat radiator system, as discussed above.)

It Might Be The Plumbing

Check your plumbing for leaks, drips and runs. Faulty faucet washers are a common source of dripping water which, when heard from a distance, can sound like a ticking or tapping noise, depending upon what type of surface is under the leak.

The John, the loo, the toilet, the WC, the potty; whatever you choose to call it, is capable of making some odd sounds that can cause concern to the untrained ear.

Does the toilet seem to flush on its own? Do you own a mischievous cat? You may have seen this funny video of a curious kitty. Of course, this showed up on their water bill, rather than by hearing this behavior, as they were not at home when it was happening.

If it's not a cat, check the seal at the bottom of the flapper valve. If the seal is bad, little bits of water can be leaking into the bowl, noiselessly, until the tank level is low enough to trigger the, "Hey--I need a refill!" action.

You can test this by adding some food color to the water in the tank, and do not flush. Wait a while, and check to see if the color is coming into the bowl. If so, you have a bad flapper valve: fix this, and your ghostly flusher is banished.

The good old "reading room" can produce a variety of odd sounds

The good old "reading room" can produce a variety of odd sounds

Replacing Toilet Flapper Valve--It's Easy!

What Appliances Might Be Noisy?

Most of the time, our appliances serve us well and go unnoticed. However, many of today's common appliances do have their own distinctive sounds. Learn what goes on, and listen to your various appliances to become familiar with the sounds they make. Most are no cause for alarm. Here is a list of the most common things you'll hear.

  • Crashing noises that may sound like a distant crash outside, or like a child dumping a load of plastic building blocks onto a bare floor. Most likely culprit: the ice maker in the freezer dumping a fresh load of cubes into the bin.
  • Clanking sounds that are fairly regular. Probable culprit: the clothes dryer if a load is running with jeans, jackets, overalls, or anything else with exposed metal fasteners .
  • Swishing, airy, gurgling sounds. Usual culprit: the dishwasher.
  • Faint 'tick-tick-tick' sounds. Most likely culprits: (1) do you have a gas stove with an electronic igniter system? It is possible that the burner control knob has been turned just enough to activate the igniter, but the burner is not lighting, because the knob has not been turned far enough to open the gas valve. (2) check all your clocks--you may have one that ticks that you did not notice before. (3) as mentioned above, an electric heater cooling down or heating up.
  • Humming sounds are most likely caused by the refrigerator motor cycling on and off. It is the alternating electrical current that is responsible for this hum. I won't go into the techincal 'why this is' here--that's a whole other article!
  • Rushing/running water sounds. Prime suspect: the washing machine during spin/drain cycle. Also the dishwasher, or toilet, as above.
  • Loud thumping, bumping, banging noises, possibly with a whining accompaniment: A single suspect: the load in the washing machine is badly out of balance during the spin cycle.

Drafts and Cold Spots

The first thing to check is whether or not any windows or other doors to the outside are open at the time. This can create either a draft or negative pressure (suction) that could be responsible.

One way to check for drafts is to light a candle, and place it near the suspect door. If the flame wavers as if in a breeze, you have a draft.

Tracking down where it seems to be coming from is your next task. (Hint: the source of the draft will be on the side away from the direction the candle flame is leaning.)

Drafts can be responsible for many seemingly paranormal events, such as curtains moving, feeling cool or cold spots, etc.

As with noises, a forced-air central heating system can also create a draft, and a cold or cool spot, even if it is heating season. Typically, when the blower first comes on, the initial output will be the cooler air that was sitting unheated in the duct work; the reverse is true in summer.

Windows That Slam Shut

In the case of old-style sash window, which raise up and down, the problem may be a broken sash cord. With the cord broken, the counterweight that balances the window when in the open position will be gone, and the window won't stay open.

Sometimes, it will stay open at some times of the year, and not at others. Or it may stay open at one part of the day and bang shut at another. this can be attributed to swelling and shrinking of the wood both around the window frame and the casing due to weather changes. As it swells, the window will stay put (and may even be harder to open). As it shrinks, the window will fall shut.

Doors That Open or Close on Their Own

There are many normal explanations for doors that seem to open and close or slam shut when no one is near them.

Check the operation of the door itself. In old houses especially, it is fairly common for the house to have settled out of square. To test for this, release the latch or turn the knob until the latching mechanism is just barely moved away from the door jamb. Let go, and observe whether the door swings on its own. Next, open the door all the way, and let go, making the same observation.

If the door swings open or closed, it is an issue with the house having settled. How fast or slowly this occurs depends on the degree of settling. A small carpenter's level is handy for this. Place it on the floor in the middle of the doorway, and watch the bubble. The further to one side it moves, the worse the settling problem. If you don't have a level, a small ball or marble can be placed on the floor, and observe whether it begins to roll on its own.

If the house is very old; a century or more, any such out-of-square or level condition may even be obvious to the unaided eye. With the door shut, examine the area between the door and the frame. If you see a gap that is wider at one point than another, you've found an out-of-square issue that will explain your misbehaving door.

Sometimes, this occurrence could be a matter of a loosened hinge instead of the floor having a pitch. Fix the hinge, and the problem is solved. (Although usually a loose hinge will cause binding instead of voluntary opening.)

Lastly, check the latch itself. If the door is out of alignment for any reason, the latch pin on the door may not line up properly with the receptacle in the jamb. To test for this, close the door firmly, and attempt to push it open without using the doorknob. If it opens, your problem is the latch.

Old houses settling can make doors appear to open or close on their own, or creak when opening or closing

Old houses settling can make doors appear to open or close on their own, or creak when opening or closing

"A Shadow Moved Across The Hall..."

Shadows take many forms, and are at the simplest level a matter of light reflection or refraction from a light source onto various surfaces.

By paying close attention to the normal play of light within your home, such as the progression of the "sun puddles" throughout the day from the walls, to the floor, and pieces of furniture, you will know what is normal in this respect.

Similarly, at night, pay attention to what light and shadow play is normal for the lights on in the room, or car headlights going past the windows.

Before you freak out and decide you have another--unseen--person living in your home, be sure your kids are not playing games with light switches or flashlights. I recall as a child finding the 3-way switch in the hallway fascinating--being able to turn the same light on and off from two different locations is amazing to a kid.

If you have pets, notice the shadows they cast as they move about. And again, if children are in the home--are they goofing off by creeping about in the darkness with blankets over their heads? A glimpse of such activity out of the corner of your eye can be unsettling, but it bears investigating.

Can you see the 'ghost' in this old window?  You might even see two!

Can you see the 'ghost' in this old window? You might even see two!

Glass And Other Shiny Surfaces

Mirrors and other glass surfaces not only reflect light, but can bend it. This is refraction. A prism is a classic example of how to bend a beam of light. A beveled edge on a mirror or old-fashioned window glass acts as a prism. Such bending and reflecting of light beams can cause shadows or spots of light to appear in areas you might not think they could be.

Mirrors are made by coating one side of a piece of glass with a silver coating. This blocks the light from traveling through the glass, thus providing you with the ability to see what you are doing in shaving or putting on makeup. However, as mirrors age, this coating deteriorates, and cracks and splotches can be seen.

This deterioration is largely responsible for people's claims of, "OMG! A ghost showed up standing beside me in this photo!" In truth, the silvered backing has gotten "all messed up" on an old mirror, and our brains try to make sense of what that splotch is.

This is a phenomenon known as pattern matrixing. The human brain is hard-wired to recognize faces, so our brain inserts a face into the irregular shape. Presto! A ghost legend is born!

It doesn't need to be glass. Do you have any furniture pieces that are finished in a high-gloss paint? How about kitchen countertops? Shiny surfaces on stoves and refrigerators? These can even be a darker color; it is the glossiness that causes the reflection, not the color.

Have You Seen a Spirit?

In Conclusion

If you pay attention and learn the sounds your home and its appliances normally make, you will be in a far better position to determine whether or not you have any genuine paranormal activity.

© 2010 Liz Elias


Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 23, 2012:

Hi, tammyswallow--

Thanks so much, I'm pleased you found something useful here. No need to be scared, however. Spirits are just people--or were just people--and they are the same as they were in life. Some nice, some not so nice, but all the "creepy, scary, horrifying" aspect of hauntings is pure Hollywood nonsense. So, rest easy. ;-)

Tammy from North Carolina on January 23, 2012:

Great hub Ms. Lizzy,

It is always great to approach these things skeptically. I lived in a house that I WISH I could have debunked these things but couldn't. It is very scary. These are great tips, especially the suggestion of the wood. Very well done!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 21, 2011:

Hello, Stephanie--

Not having been in the house in question, I cannot say for certain, but my guess would be--not the house--creaks, groans and pops are one thing, but none of those truly sound like footsteps.... ;-)

Thanks much for your comment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

Stephanie Henkel from USA on December 21, 2011:

Having lived in several old houses, I can vouch for the mysterious noises, creaks and groans that frequently occur. The one I could never explain was hearing the sound of footsteps in an upstairs bedroom. Maybe it was the house, maybe not...

You gave some really good and useful explanations here for ruling out those ordinary and natural sounds created by wood, metal, heat and cold, etc. It's definitely a good idea to rule these out before jumping to the conclusion that there are spirits haunting our house.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 12, 2011:

Thanks for your input, kookoo88.

It is good to be aware of the differences in sounds. A friend of my mother's at one time lived in a very old house, and yes, the usual creaks and groans were there.

What could not be explained away were the footsteps going up and down the attic stairs.... ;-)

kookoo88 from Cripple Creek on January 12, 2011:

This is very true. I live in a hundred year old house and it's always making noise.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on January 11, 2011:

Thanks, Minnetonka Twin...glad you enjoyed the article. Yes, do come back. Part two will deal with capturing and investigating the real thing. ;-)

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on January 10, 2011:

Great information DzyMsLizzy-You were so thorough with your practical reasons for why one might think there is something paranormal going on. I look forward to part two.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on December 31, 2010:

Hi, Christine!

Thank you so much! I am speechless! Coming from someone with your experience, that means a lot!

Christine B. from Medina, Ohio on December 31, 2010:

This is a great article, Liz... I couldn't have done it better, myself. I'd like to use it to pass on to my investigators and to clients. Please let me know if that would be all right with you.

Cobra on December 30, 2010:

Good job, so maany these days freak out first, then seek answers.

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