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In "Provoking, or How to Lose Friends and Influence Ghosts in the Paranormal World," Jason Sieckman takes a tongue-in-cheek but critical look at provocation, a technique some paranormal investigators employ to get a rise out of spirits and stir up more activity.

I see belligerent people picking fights all the time.  I don’t know if it’s what we are as a nation, or what we are as a species, but we seem to love to tick people off.  However, paranormal investigators take it a step further.  We have been known to, on occasion, tick off the dead.  But there is a reason for it.  It’s called provoking.  This article will try to give a basic outline of the “what,” “how,” and “why” of this somewhat controversial paranormal investigative technique.

What is provoking?

icon provoking

Short answer:  it’s basically picking a fight with a ghost.  Long answer:  it is the use of any combination of insults, profanity, slurs, and/or rude belligerent comments by a paranormal investigator during an investigation with the intent to anger or upset a spirit or ghost in such a way that motivates said ghost or spirit to manifest itself in some form or fashion that can be recorded on audio or video medium.

Here are a few things provoking is not.  Provoking is not a form of therapy where paranormal investigators vent frustrations from their day jobs and personal lives by taking them out on non-corporeal beings (i.e. beings that can’t fire them or punch back).  Provoking is not intended to get back at dead people who in life were annoying bullies and who died before all their victims had a chance to dish it back.  Provoking is not personal.  It’s all business.

It is a conscious effort on the part of an investigator to get spirits so riled up that they make a noise, throw something, touch something or someone, show themselves, or provide some other type of very real and observable manifestation of their presence.  It is frequently used during a vigil.


How do you provoke?

The best way I can think of to answer the “how” of provoking is by way of illustration.

Several investigators are in a room investigating a report of a shadowy ghost who looks like a man wearing a suit and who pushes people.  The investigators are running their assorted audio and video recorders but nothing is happening.  They ask the ghost to tap once if he is in the room.  Nothing.  They ask him to change the temperature or move a trigger object lying in the middle of the floor.  Nothing.  The audio recorders might pick up an EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon), but by definition these are recordings of ghost voices or sounds that investigators don’t hear and won’t discover until they analyze their evidence later.  The investigators really want to get some solid evidence of a haunting before they leave.  Finally, one investigator advises the others, “I’m going to try provoking.”  The others assent.  This is where the provoking begins.

The first investigator shouts, “Okay, bully, if you can pick on other people, why can’t you pick on me?  You loser!”  They wait several seconds to listen for sounds, to watch for objects to be thrown, and to leave room for a possible EVP to appear on their recorders later.  Then the second investigator chimes in, “You knuckle head!  Come on.  You want a piece of us, don’t you!  Bring it on, sissy pants!”

[Just for your information, I’m keeping this clean because I don’t want my article to get an “R” rating.  The language during a provoking might get much rougher, or not, depending on the religious views or geographic origin of the investigators.  If you don’t mind foul language, make sure you have someone from New Jersey in your group.  They are masters of the craft; just make sure that when you reveal your evidence to your clients there are no small children in the room.]

The provoking in this hypothetical scenario would then continue alternating between moments of deliberately offensive fight-picking and moments of silence.  If the investigators are successful, then at some point they will start getting some of the physical evidence they are looking for.  One of the investigators says, “You’re momma is sooooooo ugly that…” and then suddenly a cardboard box flies from a corner of the room and knocks the investigator right in the forehead, causing him to abruptly end his corny joke from 1984 and land flat on his back.  After the socially requisite 7 seconds of “Are you okay?” comments, then it is time for huge amounts of laughter and Schadenfreude.  It’s also time for these investigators to pat themselves on the back because, if the video camera was rolling, they just caught some incredible evidence of paranormal activity.

The evidence would be further bolstered if, in the course of conducting further research on the location, the investigators discovered a man who loved to wear suits, who adored his homely mother, and who died there in 1897.  Again, this entire scenario is fiction.  Any similarity to actual people, living or dead, is completely coincidental.  And if this whole scene shows up as a video on “YouTube” in a week, then I want a copy sent to my e-mail address as quickly as possible.  (I also request that the role of “Man hit in head with cardboard box” be played by someone that looks like Tom Cruise, if not Tom Cruise himself.)

While this scenario isn’t the only way provoking works, it is an example of a common way it works.  Variations do occur.


Why do you provoke?

This is where it gets controversial.  Some groups or individuals don’t provoke.  They say it’s not appropriate in life, or in death, to be insulting and rude.  Some investigators swear by it (no pun intended).  And there are as many reasons for and against provoking as there are investigators.  I’m going to provide a general outline and synthesis of some of the reasons that I have come across.

If you do participate in provoking there are three assumptions that can be made that shed light on “why” we do, or do not, provoke.

1.  Intelligent Haunting

The first assumption is that you are investigating what is commonly referred to as an “Intelligent Haunting.”  An “Intelligent” haunting is one where the ghosts are aware you there and are capable of interacting with you.

This is different from a “Residual Haunting,” which is a type of haunting where the ghosts are more like recordings of past people and events that have somehow  become engraved on a location.  The “Residual” haunting will replay itself, over and over, at different times whether anyone is there or not.  These ghosts, in theory, will not respond to your insults.  They don’t know you are there. They possibly aren’t even aware of their own existence.

Some of you may ask, “What about poltergeist hauntings or demonic hauntings?”  Yes, both these types of hauntings, in theory, will respond to provoking.  But it is the fact that both these types of hauntings are considered “Intelligent” by nature that they are capable of hearing you and reacting to you.

Incidentally, I don’t recommend trying provoking with demonic hauntings.  Anyone that locks himself in a dark room and wants to pick a fight with beings that have names like “Belphagor” and “Ashtaroth” seriously needs to have his head checked.  In fact, I don’t recommend even making nice with demons.  If you see a demon, smile politely, walk away, and then run as soon as feasible.

Notice, I didn’t say that one of the assumptions is that you believe in ghosts.  This is not a prerequisite.  The fact is, provoking can be used as a method to help someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts investigate their existence.  But if you are going to hurl insults into thin air then you are assuming that, if ghosts do exist, they will be able to hear the insults and respond.


2.  Lack of Motivation

The second assumption is that, during a vigil, the ghosts can hear you but aren’t interested in responding.  The purpose of provoking then becomes to “motivate” them.  The motivation comes from rage or anger, which is a very motivating factor.  People, in life, respond quickly and powerfully to anger.  Just try driving on a freeway during rush hour.  Now try changing lanes without signaling or driving the speed limit in the fast lane.  (Disclaimer:  This comment was made for illustrative purposes only.  Neither the author, nor his family, can be sued for any bullet holes or vehicle damage the reader might receive should they foolishly actually try this, especially in Southern California).

Just for consideration, here are some thoughts about this topic.  What about other ways of motivating ghosts?  What about using humor, or sadness, or lust?  These also evoke strong emotions in the living.  Why not the dead, too?

I think that these are all things that might be considered as future tools in paranormal investigation, but they have some disadvantages when compared to the anger that provoking seeks to access.  For example, humor can get us to laugh and chuckle, but it doesn’t usually get us to throw things.  Sadness is also powerful, but it is slower to pick up momentum, won’t usually result in a strong physical reaction, and depresses the investigators.  If you want to sit in a dark room and tell sad stories, then I bet you’re great fun at parties.  Lust would be interesting though.  Maybe you could get your best looking investigator to strip down a little.  Maybe you could put a dollar bill on the ground as a trigger object.  To the best of my knowledge no one has tried this.  If you do, please invite me when you reveal this to your client.  I really want to see how you explain it.  Personally, I think the fact that I have ideas like this is one reason why my group doesn’t let me be in charge of important decisions.

The point is, anger is a strong and quick motivator.  It elicits strong physical reactions.  And it’s not hard, or embarrassing, to experiment with.


3.    Investigator Capability

Here is one of the biggest assumptions we make as investigators.  We are assuming we even know how to push a ghost’s buttons.  If we properly research a location, prior to the actual investigation, we should hopefully have an idea of what people lived there, who died there, and what ghosts allegedly haunt the place.  We should also, hopefully, have an idea of what type of person the ghost is and what type of things motivated them in life.  That information must be used by investigators when they investigate or try to provoke.  Otherwise you are just throwing random insults in the air.

One of the Directors of my paranormal investigative group, Pacific Paranormal Investigations (PPI), Karl Sherlock, brings up an interesting point about an episode of [a popular ghost-hunting show].  His comments are about one of the investigators who is attempting to provoke a spirit in an Opera House in New Zealand.  The building’s dead architect had killed himself in the 1930s.  The investigator on the show states, “Dude, I think your opera house sucks.”  Karl points out the following:

Firstly, why does he think this language is going to have any affect on a person who lived during the 1930s; secondly, why does he think this vernacular is going to be understood by someone living in New Zealand?  Thirdly, what does the content of this provocation have to do with the actions and motives of a suicidal man?  If I were this ghost, I'd just be rolling my eyes and trying to send this snot-nosed kid on his way.

These points are important ones to consider.  If a ghost is supposedly from an earlier era, do they only know things from their own era or have they “grown up” with the surrounding culture and been able to assimilate new knowledge?  If a ghost only spoke Spanish in its life, will it suddenly know English in death?  Are the things we are saying when we try to provoke likely to actually motivate a spirit to respond?  Are the things that worry ghosts, or anger them, the same in death as they were in life?

I don’t have any answers to any of these questions, but we should consider them when we start provoking.

Another thing to consider is whether or not we even know which spirits we are provoking.  What if we start hurling profanity-laden invectives in a room we think is haunted by an angry evil man but in fact is haunted by an innocent child?  Do we as investigators truly have the capability to know who our audience is?  Again, I have no answer.  I only mention this as a consideration when we examine the “why” and “whether to or not” of provoking.

These three assumptions are by no means the only assumptions we make when we provoke, but they serve to illustrate some of the reasons why.

In closing, provoking is one of numerous tools that paranormal investigators have as an option when conducting their investigations.  But understanding “what” it is, “how” it works, and “why” we use it, are just the beginning.  Some investigators have gotten very interesting results with its use.  Some won’t touch it.  There is a plethora of opinions about its effectiveness.  If you have ever used this technique before, or just have some thoughts about this article or paranormal investigation in general, we at PPI are definitely interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences.  Visit our forum and share your thoughts at our website: