A group of ghost hunters has been arrested for allegedly setting fire to a historic mansion near New Orleans. Perhaps inspired by the hit Syfy television series "Ghost Hunters" and its many imitators, the men climbed through a hole in a fence and broke into the LeBeau Plantation house near the Mississippi Riveron Nov. 21.

According to the St. Bernard Sheriff's Office, the men were looking for ghosts. Though nobody was harmed, the fire shines a light on the dark side of ghost hunting, a side that seems to be only gaining in popularity.

The mansion, built in the 1850s, had survived through many incarnations, operating as a boarding house, a hotel and even an illegal gambling house. Though the mansion had been shuttered in recent years, its owner, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, had plans to renovate the building. [The Bell Witch to Slimer: 10 Most Famous Ghosts]

The fire and charred remains of the LeBeau Plantation house in November 2013

Image: WDSU

Ghouls abound in New Orleans

The New Orleans area has a rich history of ghosts, voodoo and mystery. LeBeau Plantation house is only one of dozens of gothic mansions and plantations rumored to be haunted. Some are more famous than others, such as the Myrtles Plantation, north of New Orleans in St. Francisville, a prime destination for ghost hunters that is said to be one of America's most haunted homes. Even so, it's hard to find a significant old plantation house in Louisiana that does not have at least one ghost story associated with it. Legends at LeBeau tell of a ghostly woman in a long, white dress walking on the upstairs porch; other stories describe spooky lights in the hallways or the voices of long-dead slaves.

The fire at LeBeau broke out at about 2 a.m. local time Friday, Nov. 21, and the building was almost completely destroyed by the time firefighters arrived. The ghost hunters had been trying to produce a reaction from the spirits they assumed resided there, by doing what TV ghost hunters call "provocation," essentially making loud noises, yelling taunts at the ghosts and banging on walls. Frustrated that their efforts failed to yield any spirits, the group decided to light a fire. Whether this was intended to smoke the spirits out or simply burn the place down, the resulting flames soon reduced the mansion to ashes and four brick chimneys.

While many ghost hunters engage in harmless (and fruitless) fun, as this case shows, there can be a dark, dangerous side to the pursuit. In the wake of popular ghost-hunting TV shows, police across the country have seen a surge in people being arrested, injured and even killed while looking for ghosts.

In 2006, a woman was critically wounded looking for ghosts in a private house near a cemetery; she and a friend were trespassing, and the house owner mistook them for vandals and shot them. In 2010, a North Carolina man died while ghost hunting with a group of friends, hoping to see the ghost of a train that crashed years earlier. The ghost train did not appear — but a real train came around a bend and killed one man who couldn't get out of the way in time.

The LeBeau Plantation House in 1912

The LeBeau Plantation house in 1912. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As for why people consider shows such as "Ghost Hunters" and "Ghost Adventures" to be purveyors of truth, one researcher thinks it's all in the wording. The hosts of these shows often sprinkle into their tales an array of technical jargon and references to tech-y instruments, such as ion generators, electromagnetic field detectors and video goggles with built-in speech-synthesizers. Such science lingo adds undue credibility to paranormal investigators, said Paul Brewer, a professor of communication at the University of Delaware.

Luckily, no one was hurt in the LeBeau blaze, which could have killed someone or spread to neighboring buildings. Seven men from Texas and Louisiana ranging in age from 17 to 31 were arrested on charges related to the case, including arson, simple burglary, trespassing and criminal damage worth more than $50,000.

Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.

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