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Ghost Hunting vs Ancestral Honoring – Or, Don't Poke the Ghosts

It comes up time and again, and I'm not sure I understand it – Ghost Hunting. I have a love/hate relationship with the practices seeking out the spirits of the afterlife. While I think it can be quite helpful, healing and even practical to have some skills in this area, I see people get caught up to a level that distracts them from their own spiritual evolution.

What I”m specifically talking about are Witches, Magicians, Shamanic Practitioners, Pagans, you name it, going ghost hunting for fun. People without a magickal background, who are looking for “proof” that consciousness can exist after death, I understand their fascination, but I don't understand those in the magickal community who do it.

I do understand those who are what I would call Death Walkers, who help those entities that are in pain to cross over. That makes sense to me. It's part of our service as magickal practitioners. I do understand those of us called to clear a haunting, and having to deal with anything from a mischievous to malevolent spirit. I've gotten that call quite a few times since putting up my metaphoric shingle as a public witch taking clients. Disappointing to most whom I tell, the vast majority could be summed up by “bad Feng Shui” or simply toxic energy accumulated, seemingly taking on a life of its own. Or disturbed nature spirits. Very few have been deceased entities or close to what I would describe as truly demonic forces. Just misplaced force, which I guess is my definition of evil in the world.


I have quite magickal and psychic friends who have been a part of ghost hunting teams, and while perhaps other members of the team are focused on proving the phenomenon is real, these friends are trying to help both the spirits involved, and the terrified family having to deal with that. Again, that's a service and purpose I understand. It's in many ways, a sacred vocations.

But now there has been a rise in the entertainment value, particularly as the summer will end and we grow closer to Hallow's Eve in the northern hemisphere. People are looking for a thrill. I might not like the idea of tourists doing it, but I understand it. I don't understand why Witches and Mystics do it. You can get a better thrill, a jolt of a fear at a theatrical haunted house, and nothing is in torment. Everyone has agreed to the rules. Haunted houses can be fun. I've enjoyed them. But to seek out truly haunted places with entities and then not help the situation seems negligent at best, and spiritually criminal at worse.

Many of the ghost hunting groups and the owners of the property will not let you heal or clear an area, because its their livelihood, to show off a truly haunted house. I heard a story of a renowned occultist visiting the house of Lizzy Borden, and the caretaker extremely concerned he would do something to change the energy. Sometimes a spirit is causing no harm and doesn't want to go anywhere, and in the spirit of free will, I would never think of forcing them. But when a spirit wants help, or is malicious to humans in the area and won't be sated, then its time for them to go, regardless of the tourist attraction. I've spoken to some Christian Ghost Hunters whom I generally respect and knowledgable and well intentions, and their attitude was “we don't know why they are stuck ,but its God's will, so until he changes it, we should do nothing.” That makes no sense for me. Why do anything then? In that paradigm, if someone gets hit by a car, was it not God's will? Why call an ambulance. But we do for the living, so why not help out the dead too?

One of the best ghost tours I've ever been on was in New Orleans, with the renowned Bloody Mary. As we went from historic point to historic point, and she told the stories of the ghosts, we fed them. Like going to an ancestral shrine, but being out in the street, we gave them offerings – candy, liquor and even perfume. We used a level of spiritual protection and sacredness. We communed with the spirits and asked them to share their stories and thanked them. It was truly moving and I loved it. It was in essence a priestess sharing with us the spirits of her community, her home. It was an act of mutual respect.

So if you are seeking out spirits when the veil grows thin, give some thought to how you want to approach them. What is your intention? Why are you doing it? And while you are at it, before you seek out spirits far away from your home, are you taking care of your own ancestors? Are you taking care of your own home spirits? Here are some ideas excerpted from my latest release, The Mighty Dead:

"Ancestral Altars and Shrines

While the terms altar and shrine are used by some synonymously, for the purposes of this work, we shall divide the two into similar, but distinct practices. Ancestral altars are collective workplaces for all of your ancestors, or any of the dead you honor from the various categories. Shrines are for specific ancestors, usually for a short time after death, and integrated into the greater altar after an appropriate period of time. Shrines help give support to the recently deceased to make a peaceful transition, giving energy and focus to their journey. Altars are places where magickal reverence and work is performed with the ancestors themselves.

To build a shrine after the loved one passes, cover a flat surface with a white cloth. Place a stone to represent the ancestral link, usually white and round, along with a clear glass of water and a constant source of light. Traditionally a seven day candle is used, though many modern practitioners of African diasporic traditions use an electric “candle light” imitating a candle with battery or wall current. Other relics and offerings (See Below) can be placed upon the altar. The shrine is kept for at least three days and up to nine. It is a place for loved ones to talk, remember, share story, air grievances and things left unsaid. Regular offerings help empower the dead to fully cross over in peace, as well as love and blessings. More than one shrine can be made to the deceased. In fact anyone who wants to help with this ancestor can make the shrine just after their passing.

At the end of the period of three or nine days, the ancestral shrine is taken apart and added to the main ancestral altar, for all of the household or temple dead. The ancestral altar is also traditionally with a white cloth, though some Witches favor black. If an Ancestor List or book is kept on the altar, add the new name to the list. The stone is added to a box or bowl of stones, one for each ancestor. Offerings are made.

At the ancestor altar you can meditate on the ancestors in vision, speak to them aloud, and ask for help or blessings. Spells asking for the ancestors help or protection can be done at the ancestor altar.


Offerings are the method by which we feed our dead. Many think this is silly and superstitious. They are dead. Why do they need to be fed? It's not so much they need physical sustenance, but the spiritual link between us needs to be strengthened, and the offerings made with proper intent help nourish that link. While intent alone can help, certain substances provide a physical anchor and their inherent vibrations are traditionally nourishing and strengthening to the spirits of the deceased. The links of communication close down if they are not fed properly. Ghosts and other spirits can survive if fed. Most ghosts are fed by fear.

Regular offerings should be made at the shrine when working with a newly deceased and with the ancestral altar. When doing specific work, asking for help, offerings should also be made, though many of are of the mind that you shouldn't feed the dead until they complete the request. Others believe in thanking first, and then asking for favor. Particular holidays are also excellent times to feed the dead, with Samhain (Halloween) being first and foremost. While the NeoPagan holidays can be times of offering, if there were other important religious times to your family, who for most of us were not Pagan, then make offerings then. I make many offerings on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Easter and even American Thanksgiving. I usually make my ancestral offerings on Saturday, Saturn's day, also a day of the dead.

Offerings vary from different traditions and cultures. In China, “Hell Money” is burned, sending the “credit” represented by paper money to the ancestors in the underworld. Even representatives of houses, cars and other material goods are burned to “send” them to the ancestor.

Speaking stories of your family, their lore and magick and history, is a way to feed the ancestors. You are giving them attention. When working with the ancestors of bread and breath, reading their poems, playing their music and reciting their books are a way to feed them, creating a contact to deepen your work. Even reading the favorite poem of an ancestor of blood is nourishing. I read Gibran’s The Prophet aloud for my mother on the anniversary of her death.

Traditional offerings include high energy items, including light, flowers, incense and food. Things that are rich in power, often rich in calories, are ideal. Favorite foods and drinks of the deceased can be a very specific way of attune to an ancestor, or family favorite foods are a way to attune to the whole line. In general, the following are considered powerful and effective offerings:



Pure Water in a clear glass


Starchy Food

Favorite Family Foods

Sweets and Candy

Caffeine (Coffee or Tea)

Spirits (Wine, Beer and hard Liquor)


Temple of Witchcraft co-founder Adam Sartwell has a specific teaching on the meanings and purpose of the offerings. Light, via the candle, is offered for the spirits to see their way in the spirit world and see their own descendants more clearly. It opens the way to communication. Water and bread are to sustain the spirits. They are the basic staples of food. Incense and flowers, scent, are used to encourage their breath and words, so they can communicate more clearly. And alcohol is to enjoy, a blessing passed between us.

Some say leave offerings out no longer than a day. Others, depending on the nature of the offerings, leave it out for a week. Food I dispose of after 24 hours. Liquids often stay out for a week, changed every Saturday. Offerings are traditionally buried, or left in nature, but many feel that releasing them to the drains, toilet or garbage, as they are now devoid of the spiritual substance, is also satisfactory. I try to pour liquid offerings at the base of a special tree, as well as many food offerings. Some seem more appropriate to dispose of as garbage due to issues with animals and environment. Others find such disposal sacrilege. Do what you feel is best for you.

If you are having trouble with the dead who are not at rest, there are some ideas. If you want to prevent spirit contact, try these four things:

Sulfur – While according to some burning sulfur is supposed to attract noxious spirits of harm and evil, at least in a Christian paradigm, most believe sulfur banishes spirits. Some say it only banishes harmful spirits, while others believe it banishes all. I learned to use matches, having sulfur, when doing magick, though the tradition I worked in was not particularly focused upon working with the dead. I have noticed improvements when not using sulfur or giving it time to dissipate.

Salt – Salt is another prohibition. Many who do all sorts of spirit work, from the dead to plant spirits healing, tend to avoid salt from their diet. For some, that simply means avoiding table salt while others a strict low sodium diet. Salt is said to be pure, and absorb energy, cleansing and clearing it. The thought is the salt absorbs the etheric bodies of the spirits, making it harder for them to manifest.

Quicksilver – If you carry mercury, metallic quicksilver, in a vial upon your person, it will keep the spirits away from you personally; though not interfere with the ritual. If you wish to attend something and observe, but not interact with the spirits, carry quicksilver. Others will carry an iron nail, though iron is particularly good for warding spirits of nature and the faeries, it is not always effective with the dead.

Head Coverings – In the African diaspora, when the head is covered, it is a signal to the spirits that you do now wish to be possessed or have direct spirit contact. Covering the crown chakra, usually with a white cloth, helps inhibit their connection to you if you wish to avoid a possession experience.


Cleansing a Space

Often all one needs to do is spiritually, and physically cleanse a space. By shifting the energy of a place, you can make it inhospitable to lingering spirits. The most common method is the modern New Age practice of burning sage. From many Native American traditions, burning sage releases both negative ions and a vibration, an energy that lifts the vibration and spirit of the place where it is burned. Lingering ghosts and unwanted spirits are considered to be of a “lower” vibration. When introducing a higher vibration, the lower vibrations must either match it, or remove themselves from the space, as it is no longer conducive to their nature. Harmful spirits will try to create lower vibration conditions, through fear and anger, to help sustain their presence. Practices such as smudging with sage prevent it. Sage is not the only substance for cleansing, and burning is not the only method. Along with sage, incense smoke from frankincense or frankincense and myrrh, copal, pine, lavender, cinnamon, mugwort and dragon's blood can all be used for cleansing. You can also spritz the same substances in their essential oil form, from a spray bottle mixing a few drops with water, or a 50/50 water/alcohol solution for a similar effect. Along with these clearing substances, oils of lemon, lemon grass, orange, geranium and rose can be quite cleansing. Rather than spraying, floor washes can be made from similar substances, used to spiritually and physically clear. Traditionally one must take the water beyond the bounds of your property line and dump it out into the street. Dumping it in the plumbing or upon your own land keeps the energy there. Non herbal forms of cleansing are rituals envisioning clearing light, such as violet light, burning white candles, burning an alcohol flame with an epsom salt base in a small cauldron or saying prayers.


Cleansing Spirit Flame

4 Oz of 90 Proof or higher Rubbing Alcohol

2 Tablespoons of Epson Salt

5 drops of Lavender Oil

5 drops of Lemon Oil

3 drops of Rosemary Oil


Place the mixture in a small cast iron cauldron with a lid. Place it in the center of the room or home to be cleansed. Put something flameproof beneath it, like a trivet or pan. Throw a match in

and let it burn. Direct all the harmful energy going into the flame to be transformed. Let it burn out, or after a half hour or so, cover the cauldron with the lid. Dispose of any remains off your property.


Appeasing the Spirits

Rather than making the area inhospitable to the unwanted spirits, some take the concept of making friends with the spirit, or at the very least, peace. The spirits are given appropriate offerings to quiet their unwanted behavior. You have this practice in the ancient world, such as the black bean offerings to the larvae in Rome. In the modern NeoPagan Druidic revival, as in the organization Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF, meaning Our Own Druidism), offerings are made to the “outdwellers” regularly as a part of their liturgy. An out dweller is not necessarily one of the dead, but defined as any spirit that might be disruptive to the ritual. So before beginning the bulk of the ritual an offering is made, usually away from the ritual space, to occupy those spirits that could disrupt. Some in PaganNeoPaganism will make offerings to all the spirits unnamed and forgotten in the ritual space, to keep peace with all that is known and unknown. Typical spirit offerings can be given, though alcohol is avoided, unless one wants to get more disruptions.


Banishing Unwanted Spirits

Banishing spirits is a more aggressive form of cleansing magick. Rather than simply making the environment inhospitable to unwanted spirits, it is the forcible ejection of unwanted spirits from the space. Imagine a nightclub or bar. Turning on the lights and shutting down the bar at the end of the night encourages people to leave on their own. That's like cleansing a space. Calling the bouncer over and pointing at someone to be removed is more like banishing. Simple banishing can use the cleansing techniques with the strong intention to banish harmful spirits. A ritual tool, from an incense stick to a wand or blade, can be used to trace banishing symbols, such as the basic banishing pentagram. The practitioner empowers it with energy by visualizing it in a bright and powerful color, such as a blue, white or violet light. The pentagram is then directed toward the unwanted spirits. If the location of the spirit is not known, they can be drawn in the four cardinal directions. Some would also include the directions above, below and in the center of the space. Psychic energy and intention can be directed at a spirit, to bind it from moving, then a suitable environment created. Some will move the spirit to another plane of existence (see Crossing Over) below. More aggressive forms of banishment use spirit traps, akin to the djinn in the bottle or lamp. Other spirits, including deities, angels and other guides, can be called upon to forcibly eject an unwanted spirit. When the unwanted spirit is not a fully formed and conscious spirit, but a remnant or echo of a lower spiritual body from one who has passed, then banishment can actually discorporate the remnant.


Crossing Over

Crossing over is the process of moving a spirit, unwanted or otherwise, from one plane of existence to another. Generally it is the practice of helping those who are Earthbound to continue onward on the journey to the afterlife realms; however the practitioner might envision it. The best crossing over practices are those that involve communication with the spirit and cooperation to cross over. Some spirits are stuck and want help, or can be convinced its best for them to cross over. Yet many occultists would argue that not all spirits of the dead wandering the Earth should be forced to cross. If they choose to remain, it’s their choice. The only time I disagree is when they are causing violence and trauma, and will not relocate to a location where the trauma will not continue. Simple crossing over practices include simply lighting a white candle and creating a pillar of light, an axis mundi or “cosmic elevator” from the highest of the heavens to the deepest underworlds, where the spirit can find its appropriate vibratory level. Others use a symbol, such as a pentagram or hexagram, to open a gate to the realm of the the dead, in the air like a door, or upon the ground. Other spirits can be called to aid the process, while many call upon ancestors who have successfully crossed to guide the process. Others will call upon angelic beings. In the European Witchcraft traditions, particularly the Teutonic and Celtic, the waning half of the year is “haunted” by the spirits of the Wild Hunt, who gather the forgotten and restless dead in the pack before returning to the realms of the underworld. They rise at Samhain and return either at the Winter Solstice or prior to spring. You can call upon the various “masters” of the hunt for help in crossing over restless spirits."

I hope these give you food for thought when seeking contact with the dead, to be clear in your intention and understand the why you seek as much as the how.  

Last modified on
Christopher Penczak is the co-founder of the Temple of Witchcraft, a system, tradition and religious nonprofit organization focused on magickal education and building community. He is an award winning author of over twenty books, including The Inner Temple of Witchcraft, The Three Rays of Witchcraft and Ascension Magick and a co-owner of Copper Cauldron Publishing, a company dedicated to producing inspirational products of magick and art for the evolution of consciousness for individuals and the world. Based in New England, he travels internationally to teach magick and healing.


  • Tanya Cyrus
    Tanya Cyrus Monday, 15 July 2013

    Love this and you bring up such valid points. Blessings!

  • Liz Slay
    Liz Slay Monday, 15 July 2013

    I totally agree. There are too many "ghost hunters" who go about disrespectfully encountering spirits.

  • Anne Newkirk Niven
    Anne Newkirk Niven Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    Brilliant. I'm planning a "Psychic Arts" issue of Witches&Pagans for 2014 and now I know who to go to for authoritative, down-to-earth Pagan writing about ghosts!

  • Christopher Penczak
    Christopher Penczak Tuesday, 16 July 2013

    Thanks. Sure, feel free to hit me up for it. Just give me enough time as things are crazy busy and I don't want to miss a deadline.

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Wednesday, 17 July 2013

    Good piece. I agree that if you really are dealing with the dead, they are not for entertainment. But there may be "cast-offs" and other bits of psychic debris that can be moved away.

    Poltergeists now —  I am glad that I never have had to deal with that phenomenon!

  • Christopher Penczak
    Christopher Penczak Thursday, 18 July 2013

    Thanks! I think most things people encounter are cast offs and shells when they think they have a trapped soul, and lot of it is just amalgams of that psychic junk that sticks together. I don't think I've ever experienced what I would call a true poltergeist, but the worse was an apartment where a lot of abuse happened, and the energy there was very reactive, causing things to fall down and break repeatedly, in all different parts of the house. I would have almost thought it was a fault line. But no presence to it, and none of the typical teenagers going through puberty. I suppose one of the renters could have been manifesting a low level telekinetic activity, but it all stopped once we did a simple heavy duty clearing.

  • Johnny Allison
    Johnny Allison Friday, 16 August 2013

    I have to wholeheartedly agree. I have heard people taunt and jeer at these entities in the hopes that it will draw them out. I believe that many times ghosts would like to move on. I don't see how parading them in front of an audience helps this process. They may even come to enjoy it. Which would only hinder them in their progress as far as I can tell.

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