Hans Holzer (1920–2009), A Critical Look at the Dean of Ghost Hunters
By Joe Nickell
During the second half of the twentieth century, “Dr.” Hans Holzer, a self-styled parapsychologist, was the dean of ghost hunters. Attracted to the supernatural in childhood, he went on to pen over a hundred books on occult subjects. He was also a Wiccan high priest and claimed to have had past lives—for instance, supposedly having been present at the 1692 “Battle” of Glencoe (“Hans Holzer” 2009a).
Holzer — who was born in Vienna, Austria, on January 26, 1920 — used to enthrall his fellow kindergarten pupils with ghost tales that he pretended to read but actually only “made out of whole cloth” (Holzer 1963, 9). By age six he was guilty of “regaling my mother’s family in Moravia with tales told me, allegedly, by the wood spirits in the trees along the little river that flows through the city of Bruenn” — tales “about as far from factuality as you can go” (Holzer 1968, 10). Such antics set the stage for Holzer to become not the scientific “parapsychologist” he posed as but one of the most successful raconteurs of “true” hauntings.
After a brief career as associate editor of a “scientific” antiquities magazine, he became a freelance writer and — by about 1951 — a ghost hunter (Holzer 1963, 14, 15, 211). Of uncertain date, his alleged doctorate in parapsychology was from what The Daily Telegraph in London (May 4, 2009) called “an elusive London College of Applied Science (not, it appears, London, England).” Holzer (1963, 10) stated:
"I am a professional investigator of ghosts, haunted houses, and other 'spontaneous' phenomena, to use the scientific term—that is, anything of a supernormal nature, not fully explained by orthodox happenings, and thus falling into the realm of parapsychology or psychic research."
Holzer cranked out book after mystery-mongering book, such as Haunted House Album (1971) and America’s Haunted Houses (1991), in which he reported on his “investigations” of supposedly haunted sites.
He is credited by Wikipedia with coining the terms “The Other Side” and (for the title of his first paranormal book, published in 1963) Ghost Hunter (“Hans Holzer” 2009c). In fact, however, the first term appears in the title of at least one nineteenth-century book, “I Awoke”: Conditions of Life on the Other Side Communicated by Automatic Writing (1895), and Holzer’s antecedent, Harry Price (1881-1948), published a book in 1936 titled Confessions of a Ghost Hunter.
Holzer decried today’s so-called paranormal investigators whom he portrayed as “running around with Geiger counters and cameras and instruments that can measure cold spots” — a method he noted that “really is bullshit” (2005).
His own “scientific” approach was at least as bogus. He took along an alleged “medium” who, after getting “impressions” and supposedly going into a trance, invariably claimed to substantiate the haunting, sometimes even letting the alleged spirit speak using her vocal cords. Holzer’s most famous case was the “Amityville Horror,” in which he relied on a reputed medium named Ethel Johnson Meyers and wrote several books on the subject. Meyers asserted that the house — wherein Ronald DeFeo murdered his parents and siblings — had been built atop an ancient Shinnecock Indian burial ground and was haunted by the angry spirit of Chief “Rolling Thunder.” In fact, the Amityville Historical Society could find no connection between the site and Native Americans and pointed out that in any case it was not the Shinnecocks but the Montaukett Indians who had settled the area. Worse, the Amityville haunting tale proved to have been a hoax (Nickell 2004, 73-77).
In trying to sell Amityville spookiness, Holzer also published “photographs of bullet holes from the 1974 murders in which mysterious halos appeared” (Grimes 2009). Actually, the single bullet-strike photo appearing in Murder in Amityville (Holzer 1979, 158) is labeled a “psychic photograph,” was made under questionable (certainly not forensic) conditions, and exhibits overall blurring (apparently due to movement of the camera when the picture was snapped). What Holzer terms an “auric imprint” may be nothing more than, say, light reflecting from impact - beveling around the bullet hole — if, indeed, it is a bullet hole. (Holzer never used that term, referring to “strange haloes exactly where the bullets had struck” [Holzer 1991, 177].)
Holzer’s work was once examined in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (December 1970). He had taken two mediums to a reputedly haunted house, and they had made certain pronouncements:
"They identified the ghost as Nell Gwyn and gave the cause of the haunting as the murder of one of her lovers on orders from Charles II who had given the house to her. She was supposed to have acted at the adjacent Royalty Theatre. It was also stated that the house had formerly housed the Royal Stables."
"The JSPR article reveals that just about everything the mediums said was incorrect, the house not having been built until after Nell Gwyn’s death, the theatre not having been built until about 150 years later, and the Royal Stables never having been located anywhere near the site. 'Whatever may be the truth about the ESP investigations carried out by Mr. Holzer, his treatment of his historical sources is so unsatisfactory, on the evidence of this case, as to cast considerable doubt on the objectivity and reliability of his work as a whole.'" (quoted in Berger and Berger 1991, 183)
I reached a similar opinion of Holzer’s work, especially after I reinvestigated his claims regarding Ringwood Manor in northern New Jersey. Holzer had arrived at Ringwood with Ethel Johnson Meyers in tow. There she supposedly made contact with the spirits of two former servants but without proof that either had ever existed. One was said to be responsible for ghostly footsteps in the house, while the other, “Jeremiah,” “complained bitterly about his mistress,” Mrs. Robert Erskine. Of the latter, Holzer stated: “The ghost lady whose manor we were visiting was not too pleased with our presence. Through the mouth of the medium in trance, she told us several times to get off her property! She may still be there,” Holzer added glibly, “for all I know” (Holzer 1991, 125).
When I visited Ringwood in 1993, I found the curator, Elbertus Prol, annoyed with Holzer’s account. As a senior historic preservation specialist who had been at Ringwood for a quarter of a century, Prol discounted claims that the house was haunted. He had never seen anything of a paranormal nature about the house and insisted, “I don’t believe in ghosts.” He emphatically discounted the Meyers/Holzer claim that Mrs. Erskine mistreated a servant — whether named “Jeremiah” or not. He observed that the present house was never seen by Mrs. Erskine. In fact, he added, “the area of the house isn’t even near the location of the original house!” (quoted in Nickell 1995, 62). Thus when Holzer wrote, “The center of the hauntings seems to be what was once the area of Mrs. Erskine’s bedroom” (Holzer 1991, 126), he betrayed an utter lack of historical credibility.
Holzer was a skeptic of religion, much of which he termed “man made,” although he advocated having “a spiritual concept of life” and, of course, believed in “the other side.” From there, according to one of his two daughters (possibly Alexandra, who fancies she is psychic), Holzer communicated soon after his death on April 26, 2009. He reportedly sent “his heartfelt ‘thanks’” to London’s The Daily Telegraph (“Hans Holzer” 2009a) in anticipation of his obituary. But what if that alleged communication is as bogus as those that emanated from Holzer on this side?
I am grateful to CFI Libraries director Timothy Binga and librarian Lisa Nolan for their research assistance.
- Berger, Arthur S., and Joyce Berger. 1991. The Encyclopedia of Parapsychology and Psychical Research. New York: Paragon House.
- Grimes, William. 2009. Hans Holzer, “Amityville” writer, dies. New York Times, May 2.
- “Hans Holzer.” 2009a. Obituary, London Daily Telegraph, May 4.
- “Hans Holzer.” 2009b. The Economist, May 7.
- “Hans Holzer.” 2009c. Available online at Wikipedia. Accessed May 6, 2009.
- Hans Holzer. 1963. Ghost Hunter. New York: Ace Books.
- 1968. Psychic Investigator. New York: Hawthorn Books.
- 1971. Haunted House Album: A Ghostly Register of the World’s Most Frightening Haunted Houses. New York: Dorset Press.
- 1979. Murder in Amityville. New York: Tower Publications.
- 1991. America’s Haunted Houses. Stamford, Connecticut: Longmeadow Press.
- 2005. Interview by Jeff Belanger, February 7. Available online at http://www.ghostvillage.com/; accessed May 6, 2009.
- Nickell, Joe. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
- 2004. The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky
Hans Holzer was born in Vienna and developed an interest in the supernatural when his uncle Henry told him stories about ghosts and fairies. He studied archaeology, ancient history and numismatics at the University of Vienna but left Austria for New York with his family in 1938, just before the Nazi takeover.
After studying Japanese at Columbia University, Mr. Holzer indulged an infatuation with the theater in the 1950s. He wrote sketches for the short-lived revue “Safari!” and the book and music for “Hotel Excelsior,” about a group of young Americans in Paris, which opened in Provincetown, Mass., and proceeded no farther. He also wrote theater reviews for The London Sporting Review.
He earned a master’s degree in comparative religion and a doctorate in parapsychology at the London College of Applied Science. He went on to teach parapsychology at the New York Institute of Technology.
In 1962 he married the Countess Catherine Genevieve Buxhoeveden. The marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Alexandra, of Chester, N.Y., he is survived by another daughter, Nadine Widener of Manhattan, and five grandchildren.
In pursuit of ghosts, Mr. Holzer began investigating haunted houses and recording the testimony of subjects who believed that they had had paranormal experiences. This field research, usually conducted with a medium and a Polaroid camera, provided the material for dozens of books, beginning with “Ghost Hunter” (1963).
Mr. Holzer called himself “a scientific investigator of the paranormal.” He disliked the word “supernatural,” since it implied phenomena beyond the reach of science, and did not believe in the word “belief,” which suggests an irrational adherence to ideas not supported by fact. Nevertheless, he held in contempt electronic gadgetry for detecting cold spots, magnetic anomalies and the like, preferring direct communication through a medium.
He did believe in reincarnation and past lives (he vividly recalled the Battle of Glencoe in 1692 in one of his Scottish lifetimes) and was a Wiccan high priest, as well as a vegan.
He felt completely at ease with ghosts. “In all my years of ghost hunting I have never been afraid,” he told Leonard Nimoy on the television series “In Search Of” (for which he was a consultant). “After all, a ghost is only a fellow human being in trouble.” Specifically, a human who has died in traumatic circumstances, does not realize he or she is dead and is, as he told the Web site OfSpirit.com in 2003, “confused as to their real status.”
His continuing ghost quest yielded books like “Ghosts I’ve Met” (1965), “Yankee Ghosts” (1966), “The Great British Ghost Hunt” (1975) and “Hans Holzer’s Travel Guide to Haunted Houses “ (1998). But he had a wide-ranging interest in paranormal phenomena and the occult, reflected in books as varied as “Beyond Medicine” (1973), “Inside Witchcraft” (1980) and “Love Beyond the Grave” (1992).
Mr. Holzer saw life on the other side in sharp detail. As he described it to the Web site ghostvillage.com in 2005, it is strangely like this side, and bureaucratic to boot. The dead who become restless and wish to return to Earth for another go-round must fall in line and register with a clerk.Continue reading the main story