Lauren Nowacki10-Minute Read
UPDATED: July 07, 2023
Is it warm one minute and freezing cold the next? Do your lights randomly flicker? Are you startled awake by whispers and footsteps in the middle of the night? It’s one thing to enjoy supernatural phenomena in a horror flick – but it’s quite another thing when it’s happening in your home.
When you can’t make sense of the unsettling events happening in and around your home, you may wonder, “Is my house haunted?”
In the movies, you’d pick up the phone and call the Ghostbusters. But since their services aren’t an option, you’ll need to look for telltale signs that your home is haunted.
A haunting happens when a ghost or other energy (typically the spirit of an animal or person who has died) visits you or takes up permanent residence in your home. It’s often said that spirits get attached to a person, an object or a space. That’s why historical homes, properties with real or imagined grisly pasts or old homes inherited by a previous owner’s loved ones are often believed to be haunted.
Paranormal activity in a house – moving objects, strange noises, cold spots or an apparition sighting – is an event or experience that can’t be explained by the laws of science or any other earthly discipline. People usually turn to a ghost, poltergeist, energy, power or unknown force to explain supernatural activity.
If you’re experiencing these scary events, your home may be haunted. However, a good ghost hunter errs on the side of caution. What may feel like classic paranormal activity or signs of a haunted house can often be explained by logic.
Here are seven signs that can cause a home’s creeped-out residents to believe their house is haunted. With the help of two paranormal investigators, we explore the paranormal explanations for these unusual events and offer alternative explanations.
Paranormal explanation: Knocking or thumping noises and unexplained footsteps or voices are often believed to be a spirit trying to get your attention. They could also be the result of a residual haunting, in which the spirit repeats an action from their past life.
Alternative explanations: “Thumping noises are often associated with plumbing,” explains Noah L., the founder and lead investigator of Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee, a nonprofit organization that offers public education on paranormal activity and free home investigations. “They’re most common in homes with radiant heat or loose plumbing that’s not secured to the rafters. Whenever the radiator turns on or the hot water comes in, loose pipes can slam against the floor, causing thumping or knocking sounds.”
As for voices and footsteps, Noah recommends checking your attic space or walls for potential pest infestations that may cause rustling or shuffling that may explain the “whispers” or “soft footsteps.”
“Squirrels jumping around can sound like someone walking above you,” Noah says. “Some rodents can make noises that sound like children laughing or crying when heard through the floorboards.”
There are many explanations for the strange sounds houses sometimes make. And did you ever stop to consider that the strange noises may be coming from outside your home? The voices you’re hearing could very well be your neighbor’s TV or radio playing at high volumes, or it could be a nightly argument over whose turn it is to walk the dog.
Paranormal explanation: “The theory is that spirits can change ambient temperature,” says Todd Bonner, co-founder of Detroit Paranormal Expeditions, a Michigan-based team that researches and investigates reported hauntings across the country. “When we feel cold spots, it could indicate paranormal activity.”
“The idea behind why cold spots happen is that the spirit is needing an energy source to do something, so it’s pulling the thermal energy out of the air, causing the cold spot to happen,” explains Todd.
Alternative explanations: Todd also recognizes that “the cold spot could be anything from a draft or an air conditioner blowing air through the vents of the home.” Search the space for vents that may be installed in unusual spots or hidden behind furniture. You should also check your home ventilation system, windows and doors for drafts.
According to Noah, humans create a microclimate around them caused by body heat that’s generated to keep us warm. “After sitting for a while, the ability for your body to heat the air around you diminishes,” he explains. “You’ll start feeling colder because that microclimate around you has broken down and is making you feel chilled.”
Paranormal explanation: A flash of light, a menacing shadow or floating balls of light are commonly believed to be a spirit manifesting before your eyes.
Alternative explanations: Consider the position of your windows with the street. According to Noah, car headlights from the street can flood into a home, bounce off any reflective surfaces and generate shadows that appear to move as a car passes by.
As for the floating orbs or balls, which are usually seen in photos, one explanation is that they’re simply small insects, specks of pollen or dust particles illuminated by your camera’s flash. A blur in a photo could be caused by a smudge on your camera lens.
Paranormal explanation: Unexplained smells like sulfur, tobacco or perfume are said to be a sign of a spiritual presence. “Sometimes ghosts can give off scents from their former lives,” according to Todd. “We had a case where the grandfather smoked pipes. We could actually smell the tobacco. It’s very rare, but it does happen.”
Alternative explanations: Before diagnosing an odor as otherworldly, look for potential sources of odors in the house. Drop citrus rinds into your garbage disposal, check your trash for cigarette butts or ash and check rooms for lit candles or spills. Check humid rooms for mildew and mold and check pet beds, crates and other popular nooks and crannies for pet odors.
Consider any materials that are nearby, too.
“The most common explanation for these scents is that certain materials can absorb odors and release them from time to time,” Noah explains, adding that “this is usually because of heat.”
According to Noah, if you notice a scent around a certain time of day in a particular room, it may be the sun’s heat warming the room and causing a fabric to release the strange scent.
Paranormal explanation: A ghostly presence can cause lights to flicker and other electronic glitches because it is believed the spirit is manipulating the lighting to communicate. Another idea is that it’s pulling energy from your devices so they can appear.
Alternative explanations: Your problem may be faulty wiring or another electrical problem – not a ghost. This is particularly true in older homes. Check for jiggly light switches and check all your light bulbs to make sure they’re screwed in tight. Check that the voltage of your appliances is compatible with the circuit you’re using. Even if everything checks out after your preliminary investigation, you may want to call a professional electrician to confirm your findings.
Paranormal explanation: In a haunted house, objects move on their own, fly through the air, go missing temporarily or disappear forever.
“Seeing something move by itself is the holy grail [for paranormal investigators], aside from seeing full apparitions, of course,” says Noah. “The object they’re moving could be something they’re interested in, something that had meaning to them or something they don’t like and want to get rid of. For [younger spirits], it could be that they just want to play.”
“We don’t know how they’re able to do it, but the idea I would subscribe to is some sort of transference of energy,” explains Noah.
Todd has another explanation. “This type of haunting [would be] considered a poltergeist,” he says. “It’s a type of ghost or energy that is responsible for physical disturbances. They can [move objects] by using water currents, electrical currents or your own energy.”
Alternative explanations: According to Noah, one of the most common explanations for moved or missing objects is people forgetting where they put their stuff. He also warns that you may be on the receiving end of a prank. If everyone knows you’re convinced your home is haunted, they may move or hide objects to give you that exact impression.
An even less sinister explanation may be the wind currents in your home. When you notice an object moving, resist the urge to bolt out of the room and, instead, check if any windows or doors are open. Check for drafts and consider any areas where there may be a cross breeze. If items are rolling off counters or onto the floor, it could be something scarier than a ghost – it may be structural or foundation issues in the house. If you’re experiencing that kind of movement or shifting or it’s hard to open and shut windows or doors, call a professional to inspect your home’s foundation.
There is no formal way to certify your house is haunted. But let’s say you’ve ruled out alternative explanations for the paranormal activity in your home and are convinced your house is haunted. Now what?
Some of the most famous haunted houses in America have even scarier histories. If you’re curious about the event(s) that may have sparked the haunting, consider researching your home’s past. There are several ways to get more information:
Ask your neighbors about their experience with the previous owners and whether they know any stories about the home. Talking to neighbors can offer insight into a home’s history. Knowing more about the home’s history can help validate (or invalidate) your theory that it’s haunted.
Todd and Noah both recommend keeping a journal of the strange activities you’re experiencing. Make sure to include as much information as you can.
“Write down what happened, what time it was, what the weather was like and who else was there,” says Noah. He recommends doing this for at least 2 weeks, which may give you enough time to see if a pattern emerges. “If there’s a pattern,” he says, “there’s most likely a more reasonable explanation for the activity you’re experiencing.”
Your documentation may include written evidence, recordings of sounds and video of unusual sightings. Even if it doesn’t help narrow down what’s happening, this evidence can be extremely helpful for paranormal investigators if you decide to contact one.
“If the homeowner has tried things on their own and nothing helps, calling [a paranormal investigator] would be kind of your last resort,” explains Todd. “We can sometimes figure [out] who is doing the hauntings, but mostly, we help the homeowner understand what’s happening.”
Paranormal investigators often bring an unbiased view to the situation and know the various causes – both natural and supernatural – to test. Investigators also use equipment that may be difficult or expensive for homeowners to purchase.
“A lot of the equipment we use are standard video cameras and high-quality audio recorders. We also have equipment that records variables, like temperature, humidity, vibration and radiation for the entire investigation,” explains Noah.
While paranormal investigators can help you understand more about what’s going on in your home, you need to be careful about who you hire.
Noah advises homeowners to “go with a reputable group who has references and at least 2 years of experience.” And warns that they must also be careful when sharing personal stories with investigators. “Ask about other cases they’ve done and make sure they don’t charge you. No group should charge for what they do.”
While you may be tempted to sell your property, it’s usually an extreme option and rarely necessary. There are likely perfectly rational, nonparanormal reasons for the strange events in your home. Try to rule out all other possibilities before putting up a “for sale” sign.
Even if you’re totally convinced your home is haunted, there are a few other considerations to keep in mind.
“Even if your home is haunted, 99.9% of the time you don’t have to do anything,” says Todd. “Most energies that I’ve encountered have not been negative. People can coexist without any issues at all. Humans are stronger than any spirits, so live your life and enjoy your home.”
A listing may indicate that a home is haunted, but you can always do your own research. You can even leverage your knowledge of a home’s spooky legend and make an offer below market value. And let your real estate agent know you’re interested in buying a haunted property. They may have the perfect home for a buyer who won’t mind living with a nonliving resident.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there is usually another explanation for the unexplained activity in your home. If you’re experiencing any classic signs of paranormal activity, consider alternative reasons for the activity and test them out for yourself. You’ll likely find that something else is happening.
In the meantime, get your scares second-hand and listen to a real-life ghost story on our favorite podcast episode of “Home. Made.”
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