This post was written in respectful memory of “LOUP GAROU”, long time poster on the Living TV Most Haunted forum, and a fine teller of the chilling tale. We miss you mate…
It is perhaps ironic that despite having worked for several companies involved with Most Haunted, appeared on the show, and (as CJ.23) been for several years one of the most vocal commentators on the Most Haunted Forum (now sadly defunct) I actually watched very few episodes of the show at the time it was transmitted, or indeed subsequently. I used to joke this was because I lacked a ready supply of tranquilizers: in reality I actually lacked a TV set, and later I had a TV set but no cable. However when friends invited me to watch the show I usually found an excuse to be elsewhere, that much is true, and while I did watch the first two series eventually it was because Living TV were kind enough to send me the episodes so I could comment!
In this piece I am going to (after my rambling intro) look at one episode of Most Haunted: Series 3, episode 1, where the team visit East Kirkby airfield in Lincolnshire, a disused WW2 airbase now a museum. I selected the episode at random form a pile of Most Haunted DVDs I acquired at a charity shop: watched it through and made a few rough notes as I went. Owing to pressure of time I will not be research extensively the airbase and history involved, but I will briefly summarise and provide links. It would probably have made more sense if I had selected an episode I actually wrote a research brief for, and used that, but apart from the MHL episodes I worked on I don’t think such notes were very extensive, and it would arguably be unprofessional.
Still I can lay one myth to rest – it was often said by skeptics that everyone involved with MH, even quite tangentially, signed masses of non-disclosure agreements and had gagging orders in their contracts. I never had a contract with either ANTIX or HanrahanMedia for anything I did, and signed no such paperwork. I am not aware, or at all convinced, that it existed. Given how vocal some of the actual stars of the show have been on leaving, I find it very unlikely. It is also noteworthy that other than the allegations levelled at Derek Acorah, no one involved seems to have claimed the majority of “phenomena” the team witnesses was faked, though everyone I have spoken to has a different opinion on who threw the spoon in the infamous Falstaff Centre episode. This matches my general belief that the majority of the crew (and the show blurs the usual talent/crew distinction in TV, so the whole crew pretty much are the stars here) , and in particular Yvette, responded naturally to what they believed to be happening.
My approach to psychical research differs quite a bit from the Most Haunted “vigil” model. I feel I am closer to David Taylor, Andrew Homer and others who take a long time and historical/investigative approach, rather than emphasising trying to witness the phenomena myself. However my time working for Richard Felix, and the twenty odd “MH style” ghost hunts I organised myself have given me a few insights in to how it works, and more importantly how it feels to be part of such an vigil based night. I used to joke that this was all the commodification of “legend tripping“, but hey, it was certainly more exciting than any show about my research would ever be.
I have in the past despite my seeming overwhelming cynicism, and arguments that Most Haunted may have seriously set back spontaneous case research in parapsychology, also defended the show. I still think it was a brilliant creation, and Karl and Yvette pioneered not a single show, but a whole genre of reality TV programming. Also, I have argued that in some ways the much vilified Most Haunted represents something nearer to what actually occurs in ‘real world’ cases of haunting than the rather more austere accounts of apparitions in say the classic SPR literature. For now, however, let us turn from theoretical issues to an actual episode, and watch Most Haunted. Obviously it is probably more interesting if you actually watch the episode as well: at the time of writing it is available in a number of parts on YouTube, with the first part here. You can find the other parts listed on that page. I don’t know if it is a legal version, and how long it will be up, and I in no way endorse copyright violation, but for a reviewer it is rather useful, and I think what follows will make more sense if you watch the episode.
TV.com provide a useful summary taken from the opening of the episode that introduces the location:
Work started on the construction of the airfield in 1942 and by the middle of 1943 East Kirkby’s runways were operational and 57 Squadron, equipped with Lancasters, arrived. During November 1943, 630 Squadron was formed and also remained at East Kirkby for the duration of the war. The number of servicemen and women stationed at East Kirkby soon exceeded the 2,000 level. East Kirkby’s aircraft suffered losses in the Berlin and Nuremberg raids, but its worst night was 21 June 1944 when 11 aircraft were lost in an attack. Towards the end of the war, in April 1945, a Lancaster caught fire while being bombed up, resulting in a huge explosion which set off further bombs. Four people were killed, six Lancasters totally destroyed, and a further fourteen damaged. In the post-war period, the airfield was used for trials and for a short time during the mid-1950s it was occupied by United States Air Force. Eventually closing in 1958, the RAF finally disposed of the site in 1970. In recent years due to the work of Fred and Harold Panton, East Kirkby is now home to the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre.
There is a short but useful wikipedia entry on the location as well.
OK, so what actually happens in the show?
ACT ONE: SETTING THE SCENE
…is the introduction, setting the scene. We are given the information above about the airfield, and of course there is a stress on the large number of planes and aircrews lost. Richard Felix clearly invokes the supposed link between death and tragedy and ghosts, repeatedly stressing the violent and horrific nature of the “passing” of the crews lost here. he refers to the supposed spooks as “unfortunate tormented souls”. The narrative is similar to that offered by Derek Acorah in the episode – ghosts are spirits of the dead, unable to pass over to the “other side”, unhappily earthbound by unresolved business. I have spent so long on the SPR group theorists hypotheses about apparitions it actually came as a shock to me to realise that I used to think this was juts a normal common sense definition of what a spook is: a dead guy or gal, lingering in our world. To be fair, having looked at the ideas of Gurney, Myers, Tyrell, Hart etc on telepathic projections, based upon the supposed evidence for telepathy, I’m actually not of the opinion those theories are better evidenced in any way than the one Derek and Richard favour. The “dead guys” hypothesis may actually have greater explanatory power than many of the parapsychological theories, and rests on assumptions that seem little greater to me than invoking ESP to account for spooks.
Anyway, now what could have been the most interesting bit of the show: Fred and David Panton briefly talk about their experiences. And here we have in a nutshell my critique of Most Haunted - Fred and David, the owners of the museum, clearly know the place inside out. Furthermore they have been there for many years — so we might expect them to have witnesses a great deal more “phenomena” than the MH team can hope to in one night, and furthermore to be able to discount those supposedly paranormal phenomena that are actually caused by unusual natural causes. Their testimony seems vital to me. We could dedicate the whole show to them explaining how and why the ghost stories developed, what they saw, where and when? All the other staff and visitors could be brought in. A cumulative picture of the evidence could be produced.
Most Haunted is not that kind of show. MH is about the crew having an adventure: about a vigil in a haunted location. The show takes place in a bubble of its own, with the events that have gone before merely providing a pretext and direction for what happens in tonight’s investigation. No wonder vigils are now the standard procedure for investigating spooks in Britain’s ghost hunting community, and so little effort and emphasis seems to be placed in to interviewing witnesses, recording and analysing testimony, and collecting supporting evidence. I think this is the single greatest weakness of MH: far more so than the use of psychics, or the questionable assumptions at times at play — it removes the ghost experience from human and historical experience, and renders it an isolated theme park thrill ride for one night only.
It also seems to me to make little mathematical sense. 5 separate apparitional experiences would be enough, in a thirty year period, to give any place a good reputation for being haunted. I make that roughly 2,190 to 1 therefore against anything major happening on the night the team are present. Of course it could be that events are far more common – but even at one a week it’s still 52 to 1 clearly. I may however be greatly exaggerating how rare these things are: wherever MH go, something seems to happen. (And it’s worth noting Karl personally assured me he would do an episode where nothing at all happened if that was the case; in some cases in all fairness it comes very close! The inherent drama of the situation and the interaction between the team actually makes up for it well, so it could and did work.)
OK: so what actually happens? I tried to note down the phenomena
* figure believed to be deceased American airman seen walking toward the control tower.
* murmuring voices heard.
* telephones ring, despite being disconnected (Control Tower)
* green lights observed in control tower (from outside).
* Strange feeling of being watched.
We don’t get enough information to really say much about any of the above sadly. Was the figure seen at night or in the daytime? (My notes don’t say: the episode might). The one thing I did note was that the green lights were seen from a nearby caravan park, so I did for a moment wonder if they were in high summer and possibly fireflies, however unlikely that may be. Again, murmuring voice type noises MIGHT be caused by the wind hitting the hangars, and a low vibration. The telephones ringing however is beyond me, but there may be an explanation.
Actually many years ago while conducting an investigation at the Old Bell Hotel, Dursley, Gloucestershire, my colleague Derek and myself were both asleep in a room when we were woken by the phone ringing. It was 3 or 4am, I forget which, but the time when a ghostly maid is said to have given visitors a wake up call through their door. We got the phone – I answered it, and sure enough the phoneline was dead, and on examination the phone was disconnected at he wall (itself rather mysterious in a working hotel!). Not sure what the cause was, but thought I’d mention it here. Also rather amusing that back in those days we tried to sleep at night during an investigation rather than sit up and look for ghosts.
There follows an explanation about a couple of famous crashed in the rough district of the airfield. One was of a fighter plane that never made it back, the other of a B17 bomber that was refused permission to land despite being badly shot up, and eventually crashed near the runway killing all ten on board, having suffered a catastrophic malfunction or simply run out of fuel while circling in a holding pattern. The suggestion was the figure seen approaching the Control Tower as the pilot of the B17 off to “have it out” with the Control Tower staff. The plane burned on impact, and Dave Panton gave his fascinating memories of the tragedy he witnessed.
The suggestion throughout the episode was that a mistake was made, and the plane SHOULD have been given permission to land. The runway today is combined grass/tarmac at 950m, and the fact it was home to a bomber group suggest to me that in 1944 the runway could have landed a B-17 could have landed, but the runway now may be shorter than it was, given the length these planes needed to take off. However RAF East Kirkby could handle big planes no problem — so that was not why it was denied permission to land. I feel it more likely that other planes were taxiing, or on the runway at the time.
I tried to find out, quickly identifying the name of the plane, the names of all killed, and the date and location of the crash. Now I have a problem. I don’t want relatives to Google any of that, and find me talking about ghosts. It was nearly 70 years ago, but no I feel bad about the possibility. So instead, I shall explain briefly what I found – you can easily work it out for yourselves if you want to check. One site says the pilot suffered engine problems on take off, and tried to land. He overshot the runway, was going round again to try a second time and crashed on the hillside. (Would have to be serious problems given these are multi engine planes, but perhaps a fire?) Yet another site which appears more reliable says it crashed after sustaining damage over Germany on the return from a bombing raid on the Bullay railway bridge at Koblenz, and gives the Mission number. So we are no closer to establishing what happened, but the plane existed and crashed while trying to land.
This pretty much wraps up the first part of the show, where the setting is introduced. We see fragments of the wreckage of the B17 on display, and another small section of a fighter plane. We are told the pilot should have been on leave. Then it cuts to Phil Whyman who has apparently been taking baseline readings with an EMF meter, and checking out “the residual energy” of the location. Phil was well aware by this time of my cynicism about EMF meters – we had talked about it several times, both in forums and in bars. Still it was what he had to do, part of the format, I think introduced by Jason Karl in series 1.
ACT 2: THE PSYCHIC ANGLE
One can say a great deal about the use of psychics in an investigation, and even more about Derek Acorah. I don’t intend to get too involved in these discussion, but in this episode Derek is much like in most. For many people this is probably the key part of the show, and what it does is to expand upon material already discussed, with Derek purporting to make contact with a number of spirit entities, and providing a number of names and facts that correspond with the historical record. IN the brief time I chose locations for the show I felt I had good reason to believe Derek could not know in advance the locations, but Ciaran O Keeffe has suggested a way round this; I am not going to concentrate on these issues here. One thing I think that is important is that Derek is filmed for a long period off time, and presumably edited for material that fits the correct framework, and I certainly do not believe that Karl and Yvette colluded in briefing Derek for reasons I am unable to discuss. One could simply argue Derek could easily have said much that was wrong but not shown — I do not believe that is the case however, for various reasons, notably that his hit rate does not decline in the live broadcasts. I have discussed my thoughts on Derek’s mediumship after witnessing his stage show elsewhere, and will simply ignore the issue here for time reasons, concentrating on other aspects.
Firstly, I must return to ethics. As I noted above, there are very likely living loved ones of those deceased individuals purported to appear in the episode. For that reasons it is not my intention to name the individuals Derek mentions; and for that reason I am unable to do justice to any discussion of the accuracy or otherwise of Derek’s statements with regards to known historical fact. I ill say that Derek gives a number of names, and seems to be accurate with those names, but also gives some curious names; curious in that they are not mentioned in the sources, or indeed known to the ANTIX research team, Richard Felix, and presumably the Pantons.
So does that actually add to the credibility of the psychic testimony, or are they simply wild guesses? There is nothing of the “I’m getting a P… Peter” extremely vagueness and generalised statements about Derek’s performance. He is either genuinely an astonishing psychic who talks to spirits, a complete fraud and actor, or has rather amazingly good ESP and actually picks garbled and occasionally wrong information from those around him. I’ll let the reader decide: however these names that are mentioned but not confirmed fascinated me. While most of the material fits in the framework of stories mentioned in “Act One”, there was some interesting additional material, including spirits watching over the work on a Lancaster bomber with one engine still to be repaired, something Derek noted as coming from “spirit” information.
However — one of the names Derek gives for a spirit, while of a real airman, was of one who actually we learn from Richard subsequently died only in 1989 in Canada. That spirit apparently only visits briefly to watch over things. Whether you regard this as a spectacular cock up or convincing proof of the nature of the afterlife will depend on how you feel about Derek Acorah. Another name given by Derek was certainly that of a real US airman killed after the war in a training accident in the USA, but as the fellow was well known it could be cryptomnesia: I was surprised Richard could not locate it, but then why would he? There is no connection with the UK!
Another interesting aspect is the identity of the apparition said to be seen walking towards the Control Tower. Act One frames this as related to the crew of the downed B17 denied permission to land. Here Derek creates an alternative scenario, where the ghostly pilot is associated with another famous crash the wreckage of which can be seen in the museum, and which is really quite moving. I have discovered the chap in questions relatives are alive, and are very happy it would seem with the Panton’s commemoration of the chaps death, but again I’m going to withhold the name. Those interested can easily find that out from the websites linked above: Suffice to say the plane recovered from a Fen in 1989 after forty years of lying there possibly had with it the pilots wallet (though the body was recovered at the time, and therefore it may have simply been collected then and donated when his Spitfire was discovered) , and it is clear from papers within he was not meant to fly that day, but cancelled his leave. Derek specifically mentions the wallet and leave being cancelled, before they are produced, clearly impressing Yvette. He then ascribes the ghost approaching the control tower to this fellow, and says he was denied permission to land ran out of fuel and crashed.
Except.. this is the story normally ascribed to the B-17 pilot, whose identity is normally given to the ghost approaching the Control Tower. On one experiment under controlled conditions many years ago, a medium, Ms. Morven Alexander gave me a piece of historical information I believed to be wrong, which subsequently turned out to be correct. Could that be the case here? Have people been assigning the wrong identity to the spook? Did both pilots run out of fuel?
On the whole I do not believe the B-17 did. It was either damaged on take off with an engine flame out and failed to perform an emergency landing, or suffered battle damage in the raid over Koblenz and crashed on landing. I have played the card game B17 Queen of the Sky enough to believe the latter is a realistic scenario, but why do I not think there was fuel on board? Because the older Panton recalls the terrific fire when it crashed, and immediately exploded. This does sound closer to the take off, circle and crash on second approach scenario, as the plane may well have been fully fuelled. However if it had a full bomb load I think things may have gone worse with the would be rescuers, so I can’t say for certain.
Did the spitfire crash through running out of fuel after being denied permission to land at East Kirkby? Nope. Thirty minutes in to a training flight out of RAF Digby the plane spun out of cloud, entered an inverted dive, and crashed in to the Fen. It could have been a mechanical fault, a stall, but I’m inclined to think it was spatial disorientation and vertigo, but I would really not pay heed to my thoughts (I have never flown a plane). Horrible, tragic business, watched by the two other RCAF Spitfires flying alongside. No question of fuel, no chance for an attempted landing at RAF East Kirkby, and no reason for an irate pilot to seek out the Control Tower. In fact the Spitfire did not fly from East Kirkby, but RCAF Digby, about ten miles or so away. None of these facts that seem to throw doubt on Derek’s account were mentioned on the programme, whether because Richard did not know them or because of editing I can not say.
As usual, one can make allowances. I was quite confused about who Derek was “talking” to in terms of his spirits in various points in the show, and perhaps I misunderstand. The Spitfire is at East Kirkby today, a fitting tribute to a young pilot lost in the war, but perhaps Derek intended us to think of the B-17 pilot all along. Maybe the psychic channels were confused. Whatever the reason, the account must be compared with the plain facts of the accident. Now there is probably someone out there who thinks “typical debunker, hiding behind supposed ethical issues to make up critiques.” If you do think I would stoop that low (and I must say I LIKE Derek as a person, whatever I think of his mediumship), here you go. The plane was Spitfire Mk.Vb BL655 FJ – B Go check for yourselves what I assert.
And yes, I really do have ethical qualms about naming the alleged spirit communicators on a TV show. The problem of course is that without doing so, the evidence is simply non-existent. I’m sure MH often handled these things with tact and sensitivity, but on at least one occasion I felt they got it badly wrong (in another episode). Whatever one feels, I’m not going to take any chances, as I must live with my own conscience, and feel better safe than sorry.
There is of course far more one could say about the nature of the alleged spirit communications, what conclusions one could draw from them, and so forth. I do not intend to pursue that here, because much of it could refer to any episode. Perhaps I will discuss it in a future blog post. Instead I will concentrate on what to me was the more interesting “third act”, by my arbitrary division of the programme.
ACT 3: The Vigil.
The team soon finds itself on the actual vigil. This begins with a bang – well several of hem actually. Loud banging noises are clearly heard on the soundtrack. What are they? Phil mentions the possibility of the wind striking the aerodrome, but nope this sounds — metallic? Then Karl runs in, with the owners grandson Jonathan. They explain they have seen the apparition of the officer wearing his cap outside, looking towards one of the bombers! The mysterious banging is quickly forgotten, as Karl takes the crew out, and explains what happened.
I’d encourage the interested reader to watch this scene carefully. It seems the two of them outside both saw the same thing, though curiously Jonathan reports seeing a large “orb first”, that then becomes the apparition. I’m reminded of the opinion expressed by a psychic on MHL4 that “orbs are the first stages of a spirit manifestation” – not an opinion I tend to share, being inclined strongly to believe orbs are nothing but artefacts of digital camera processing. There are plenty of sites these days that explain perfectly normally orbs: however hang on, Jonathan was not as far as I can tell looking through a camera? So what did he see? A ball of light? A mist? Or was he looking through Karl’s viewfinder? Whatever happens the image seems to resolve in to a black silhouette of a pointing figure – was this just a shadow, or something more?
This takes me back to when we were filming for MHL4, as “overnighters”. I was camped out at Woodchester Mansion (with permission), and was standing in the very early hours alone near the side of the building when I suddenly saw what looked like three very tall grey robed figures staring at me. Shadows? Bushes seen in the darkness? Tired eyes? I walked away, rubbed my eyes and returned. Bushes I think, and looking from different angles suggested I was right, even if I could not recreate the illusion.. Hard to say – but the original vision had looked like something from an M.R.James tale, or Swinburne’s dark ladies. Maybe something like this befell Karl and Jonathan: or maybe they actually saw a spook, or … Actually, who knows? The problem is the apparitional sighting does not sound like many I have read about in the literature, but it could be genuine. Bizarrely no one seems all that interested. They never do on MH, when an actually apparition is supposedly seen. I have no idea why!
Derek then asks for more noise, because according to him spirits are greatly concerned with demonstrating their presence to us, and providing evidence for their survival of death. On cue, the banging starts up again.
Then it gets really odd. Jonathan the owners grandson starts to “burn up” — apparently actually experiencing a physiological temperature increase, well at least of his surface temperature. His forehead feels hot to the touch. He feels unwell, and appears a little distressed. Derek “confirms” by touch the temperature increase, but as an ex-nurse I’d say this is harder than it sounds. Maybe the lad was feverish, or suffering some other affliction – acute embarrassment? I dunno!
We are suddenly distracted by a couple of pebbles apparently thrown or fallen from (through?) the roof – a common alleged paranormal phenomenon — but before we learn more, things get weirder. Karl appears, announcing he has the same kind of symptoms as Jonathan – a burning sensation, in Karl’s case limited to his left arm. Do ghosts emit some kind of irritant energy?I rather doubt it, yet you could speculate thus, and think that Karl would from what I can make out have had his left side to the apparition which was by Jonathan when they saw it: or you could suspect lighter fluid as someone mentioned! Or it could be auto-suggestion, a somatic effect. Once again we know nothing. Everyone was distracted by the pebbles, and anything could have happened. The problem with a fraud hypothesis is that Jonathan would have had to be in on it – I find that inherently absurd. If Karl faked things that blatantly with outsiders, he would have been exposed and court very quickly. These things also upset Yvette – which I think Karl would be loathe to do, unless she was in on it. Yet Yvette seems genuine in every way here. Nope, I have little idea what is going on…
Derek then comes up with something almost more extraordinary than the phenomena by way of explanation. He suggest that pilots who died in flaming aircraft wrecks may be trying to make their mode of passing known, by some form of telepathy. This left me speechless! I really don’t know what to say about that, so I will leave it. I have seen a medium seemingly throttled (not by me, despite my well known feeling about psychics I hasten to add!) in a room where a century before a lady hanged herself, and I guess the idea is similar, but really this one is just mind blowing! Derek says these are the things spirits will do to prove themselves to us? OK, I think I’d prefer to doubt…
I really must get on to some outstanding work, and other things, so I will summarise quickly the end of the episode. The team all split up again, and Karl, John Dibley and Stuart see strange lights in the Control Tower. A door closes, seemingly on its own. Everyone else has nothing occur to them. It seems phenomena cluster round Karl, except for the stones. Dawn breaks and Ciaran O Keeffe is wheeled out in a VT insert, after reviewing the footage, and says how “fantastic” it was, and how it looked like “genuine phenomena”, before adding some realistic and reasonable sceptical caveats. And then it’s over, and we are left wondering, was it real? What really happened?
Well it is I am told a really good episode of Most Haunted, and despite my short attention span I guess I enjoyed it. Please do comment, especially if you were actually there! I certainly watched it open mouthed at times, and hope my few rather scatty and half-baked comments have amused. I was also amazed when writing this to discover Yvette is the mother of Will Sweeny, Harry Styles of One Direction‘s old bandmate!
Anyway, I may return to review other episodes in the future, but for now all I can say is “don’t have nightmares”
Eight couples who had never experienced any ‘haunting’ activity in their houses and had no reason to expect they would experience ‘ghosts’ were asked by the author to keep a diary for one calendar month from 17th October – 17th November 2012 in which they recorded unusual experiences. 62.5% of the participant couples recruited completed the task and submitted the diaries for analysis. Of the five participant couples who submitted diaries, four reported at least some phenomena that met the criteria, and one couple reported no unusual activity at all. The study was a larger scale replication of Houran and Lange (1996). My findings are compared with those of the original study which featured only one couple.
UPDATE: Within 20 minutes of the first draft of this paper going live on my blog I was contacted by one of the missing research participants and was able to locate the couples data which had been submitted at the time but by Facebook message rather than e-mail. I have therefore revised the figures to take in to account the new material. It had no impact on the overall findings, fortunately.
Introduction: Houran & Lange’s 1996 Study
James Houran and Rense Lange have been the authors of a number of innovative studies in parapsychology. In this 1996 paper they were exploring if hauntings and in particular it would seem poltergeist cases were explicable in terms of a self-reinforcing-psychological contagion hypothesis. In essence the idea is that once one notices unusual anomalies in one’s home, and has ones attention drawn to it, more such anomalies are noticed. The paper is often cited (for example Wiseman 2011; Wiseman 2011b) as it provides an elegant psychological explanation for purported “hauntings”. The original paper is based on the experiences of one couple, mature students, who were requested by the researchers to keep a 30 day diary of unusual events in their home which was in no way believed to be ‘haunted’ before the study began. The small number of participants (one diary) troubled me: it seems dangerous to draw too many conclusions form a single innovative pilot study like this, and I could find no replications, yet the paper is repeatedly cited by sceptics without mention of this limitation. I therefore decided to replicate the study, on a larger scale.
The basic idea behind Houran and Lange’s paper appears simple. Imagine one day you come home and find your books are symmetrically stacked in the living room. You don’t recall doing it, and your housemate is never so neat! Later on, an egg starts to fry on your kitchen worktop, and then you hear an odd voice say “Zuul”. Your attention may now well be extremely focussed upon the weird things happening in your house – you probably approach the fridge with trepidation – and when the cat knocks over a flower vase later and the hot water system causes knocking in the pipes, you are only to quick to jump to the “ghost did it” conclusion. In short, ghosts are by this hypothesis merely a narrative we create to explain little mysteries (anomalies) in our daily lives. When my door keys go missing, I search and search and eventually find them on the shelf where I thought I had looked first, I may be more willing to blame a spook than my poor perception.
In the same year I suggested something similar (Romer; 1996); what did not occur to me was that such observations of purportedly paranormal phenomena would eventually die out. Houran and Lange argue this based upon
“the assumptions that (1) the environment provides a stable supply of events that can be interpreted as paranormal and (2) the probability of noticing an additional anomaly is directly proportional to the number of anomalies already noticed as well as the number of remaining potential anomalies. Under these assumptions, it can be shown that the cumulative frequency distribution of perceived anomalous events should follow the familiar logistic curve.” (Houran and Lange 1996: my emphasis)
So you notice something odd going on; you start to look for it as your attention becomes focussed on the “ghost” – that much seems straightforward. However I am slightly confused by the “number of remaining possible anomalies.” This implies there are a limited number of such events in the environment, and eventually you will reach a point where you have observed most potential anomalies, causing the number of new experiences observed to tail off. I am puzzled as to how Houran and Lange came to this conclusion. If perceptual mistakes give rise to some anomalies, and others are simple misunderstanding of mundane events, I see no reason for them to “run out” as suggested. What limits the “number of remaining anomalies”? Yet this is an important aspect of the paper, even if not explained within it. As has been pointed out, poltergeist type events usually run out if steam in a fairly short period – the “logistic curve” Houran and Lange hypothesise would explain this within their psychological explanation. Here is the graph of the cumulative experiences that were reported by one couple in their diary study. As we can see it neatly fits the predicted logistic curve.
Yet without understanding why the potential anomalies in any given environment (house) are limited in the time period, it is hard for me to understand. Why they predict the classic logistic curve above. I would have predicted an exponential rise in cumulative frequency: the problem is that while this neatly represents reports of ‘actual’ poltergeist cases, which trail off over time, I can’t see why it should be suggested in the first place. What limits the potential anomalies?
Replicating The 1996 Paper: A New Diary Study
Given the fact that people citing the original 1996 paper have at times drawn rather strong conclusions from this single diary study with only one couple involved, I decided to attempt a replication. I intended to recruit ten couples as participants, though that proved impossible. I wanted to see if the couples reported similar experiences to those in the original study, and if the puzzling logistic curve was borne out in the new data.
Recruitment was via volunteers through the authors Facebook account. 8 couples living in the UK volunteered to keep the diaries, and then again two days before the end of the study. Five couples mailed me completed diaries. No reason was given by the other three couples for failure to complete (though simple forgetfulness is one possibility). The couples were all aged between 30 and 50 years, though I did not ask for precise ages, marital status, or other personal information. Two of the couples have strong interests in the paranormal, and two in religion. This was not intentional selection, nor even a feature of the couples who initially responded to my request for participants, but it may be a reason why they stuck with the study till the end.
Of the four couples who submitted diaries, one had experienced nothing unusual which met the criteria at all in the time period, and a second had a relevant experience while staying in a place other than their own home (discussed briefly later.) So from the original eight couples, five participated and three had experiences that met the criteria. The fact three did not is in itself of interest. They were certainly aware of the study – Couple C reported several events which met the criteria, but which occurred while they were away from their home, hence were excluded. Couple D reported that no such experiences occurred in the time frame, though one partner had experienced anomalous experiences in the past. Couple E had one very striking experience.
Those who expressed an interest in participating were sent the following instructions (along with some introductory text and contact numbers for myself. No one called during the study). The instructions, and the 8 categories were based on those employed in the 1996 study – the categories they employed derived from an Lange paper on ‘Contextual mediation of perceptions in hauntings and poltergeist-like experiences’. (Lange et al. 1996) I attempted to replicate as faithfully as possible the original research. Here are the instructions I emailed out to the prospective participants.
“For the next month, until November 17th, please pay particular attention to any unusual occurrences in your residence. These occurrences may be emotional feelings, physical sensations, or environmental events in your residence. Please keep detailed and accurate notes, even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen. I will need the gender and age of adult occupants, and who had each experience noting. If you have children please do not discuss this with them. I have no desire to upset children! The types of unusual experiences I am interested include but are not limited to
* Visual – seeing things not there
* Audio – hearing stuff with no known cause *
Tactile – the feeling of being touched with no obvious reason
* Olfactory – strange smells
* Sensed “presences”
* Intense emotion for no apparent cause beyond that you might normally experience
* Object movements with no apparent cause
* erratic function of equipment.
At the end of the month I would like you to send me the file with your notes. Obviously the experiment requires the full consent and participation of your house mates. I’m asking for volunteers on my Facebook because I want people who I can trust and know. My final report will be anonymized to prevent personal details being shared, and will credit you by name if you wish in the credits. You can end participation at any time.
You can always contact me if necessary on (numbers removed). This is a very important piece of research and I’ll be hugely grateful if you can assist.”
The Phenomena Reported
Only two couples (labelled A and B for ease of reference) provided phenomena that occurred in their own homes. Couple C reported phenomena that occurred to their car, and a phenomena that met the criteria but occurred while she was working elsewhere overnight in the period in question, and while of considerable interest this had to be excluded as not occurring in their own home from this study: however it was still of great interest. Couple D reported no phenomena. Couple A reported 19 events, couple B 10, Couple E 1 – compared with the 1996 couple where in the slightly shorter period of 30 days (as opposed to 32 days in this study) 22 events were reported.
In this study the five couples reported an average of 6 experiences that met the criteria and were in their homes, but of course 50% of the participants reported none – so the actual figures are 0,0, 1, 10,19. Only on the 7th November did three events occur to the same couple on the same day: No more than 3 events are reported on any given day. Halloween (October 31st) gave us only one event – which rather knocks traditional beliefs in this respect!
The nature of the phenomena can be classified by the eight categories used in the original study. There was however a new category that emerged strongly. “Sense presences” were inferred by both couples by the behaviour of there cats seemingly staring at things not there and behaving unusually. Given that this is not a “sensed presence” by a human percipient, but certainly can be seen as building towards the narrative of a psychologically induced haunting, I included these in a new 9th category (which might be called Unusual Pet Behaviour in any replication). The single human “sensed presence” was of a deceased cat, sensed by the owner on November 3rd, and appears in the Sensed presences category as the percipient was human. A visual experience reported was also of a cat where no real cat was; this was from the other couple.
|Phenomena||Couple A||Couple B Couple E||Total (Percentage)|
|Visual||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Auditory||5||1 0||6 (20%)|
|Tactile||2||0 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Olfactory||1||0 1||1 (3.3%)|
|Sensed “presences”||1||0 0||1 (3.3%)|
|Intense emotion||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Object movements||0||8 0||8 (26.6%)|
|Equipment Erratic||1||4 0||5 (16.6.2%)|
|Cat Behaviour||1||2 0||3 (10%)|
One of the issues when tabulating the data was what to call an “experience”. For example, on one experience a cat was heard to jump on the sofa, and the black tail briefly glimpsed out of the corner of the eye – and no cat was there. (A very mundane common hallucination, any cat owner must be used to). As the two events followed each other in quick succession, I recorded them as 2 events – auditory and visual. However for a strange noise heard coming from a bookcase one night, I recorded it as one experience, despite it recurring a few minutes later. Such subjective judgements are unavoidable in dealing with diary studies.
So as we can see “un-haunted” houses can appear surprisingly haunted once we pay attention to the anomalies, just as the 1996 paper said, and as I argued in my (also) 1996 piece a cumulative narrative can be composed from non-associated and presumably non-paranormal occurrences. (We will return to this seemingly solid conclusion later however.) What is also clear is that while there are commonalities the specifics of our two haunts vary considerably, with Couple B reporting object movements and classic poltergeist “small object displacement” or “jottle” effects while Couple A report significantly more strange noises and auditory experiences. So we appear to have a general confirmation of expectancy/priming effects and focussing awareness leading to the development of a ‘ghostly’ narrative – though it is important to note neither couple actually reported their experiences in those terms, and both were aware that the experiment led to them paying attention to the anomalies obviously. Just to confound matter further Couple B included with their diary a query as to whether I was familiar with Houran and Lange (1996), the paper that I was attempting to replicate. While I trust them obviously this could colour their dairy, as they were clearly aware of the hypothesis I was testing. In this day and age finding “naive” subjects for any experiment is increasingly difficult while meeting the needs of informed consent!
The Logistic Curve
So what of Houran and Lange’s hypothesis that the experiences would follow a logistic curve? Let us firstly remind ourselves of what this looks like in the original study.
As I currently lack the software to plot the logistic curve all I can note is this looks more like a straight line distribution to me: it levels off , but if we just plot the experiences the effect of the curve is far from apparent. I see less evidence of the purported “running out of anomalies” effect, and given the tedium of keeping up a diary study, it is just as possible the whole logistic curve tells us more about the enthusiasm of research subjects for participation in a project than the nature of hauntings.
Let us move to Couple B. Here are there results, presented the same way. Firstly graphed as in the original paper.
Again, despite the levelling off in the middle, there is no resemblance to the logistic curve. I am fairly sure that if tested the relationship between the observed values and the expected values would be non-significant. Just to be consistent, here are just the cumulative experiences depicted.
Again we see as I hypothesised a fairly straight line progression. The evidence does not seem to support a logistic curve, and hence does not support a “running out of anomalies” factor. There is no apparent reason why in 32 days the effect should tail off – which is an important criticism of the idea that it explains why poltergeist events are short-lived and episodic, if the psychological hypothesis theory is correct. Let us finally combine all three couples results (with single experience of couple E included) and examine them.
The Logistic Curve is nowhere to be seen. Our couples did not “run out of anomalies” – they continued to find new odd occurrences to remark upon. The very nature of a diary study where the research participants may strain to find things to comment upon to “do their homework” and feel they are justifying their participation may lead to this result, but then one would have expected it to show up in the original study.
Comparing the Experiences
The original paper gives relatively little information about the actual phenomena reported. Equipment behaving erratically was the most common experience, with 16 of the 22 reported events, followed by 5 counts of object movement and one subjective experience. So in the 1996 study the phenomena classes described were far more limited than in this replication. Furthermore it is surprising to read in Houran and Lange (1996)
“Further, in agreement with the focussing effect described by Roll (1977), three out of the five objects which were found to have moved were the same, and all of the erratic functioning involved the same piece of equipment.” (emphasis mine)
If I had the same piece of equipment malfunction 16 times, I would suspect that there was something broken with it, not spooks. 72.7% of the phenomena reported in the original study were malfunctions of this one piece of equipment, the nature of which is not specified. I find this quite incredible. The pattern does not repeat in this replication – all object moved were unique, and Couple B’s 4 cases of erratically behaving machinery only involved two the same, both involving the lounge lamp, several days apart. There is no evidence to support the kind of effect seen in Roll’s poltergeist cases as cited in the new study.
UPDATE: re-reading Richard Wiseman’s Skeptical Inquirer piece gives additional information cited as from the paper, but not contained within the paper.
“Reporting the results in the paper “Diary of Events in a Thoroughly Unhaunted House,” he noted that the couple reported an amazing twenty-two weird events, including the inexplicable malfunctioning of their telephone, their name being muttered by a ghostly presence, and the strange movement of a souvenir voodoo mask along a shelf.” (Wiseman 2011b)
I am not sure what Richard’s source is, presumably the author’s themselves: however of the ‘amazing’ 22 experiences 16 (72.7%) involved the telephone malfunctioning.
Nonetheless the replication provides greater diversity and similarly impressive numbers in some of the 5 diaries. While the original study found a significant case for a ‘focal person’ as often found in poltergeist-like cases, who witnessed 16 of the phenomena while by themselves (72.7%) no such effect is apparent in the replication. It is impossible based on the ambiguity of the records regarding who exactly was present or first discovered an object had moved to tabulate exactly, but the experiences are generally framed from the author’s perspective (in both cases a female) but seem to have involved and been witnessed by their partners (both male) on several occasions, and in some instances the males was the percipient. Again, an effect found by Houran and Lange and common to the case history of poltergeists does not appear in this replication.
The greater diversity of experiences reported seems to me to strengthen the case for a psychological contagion effect, but it is important to note that a) the participants did not come to the conclusion they were being haunted and b) for those familiar with the Census of Hallucination (1894) research, I do not think any of the experiences reported would meet the exclusion criteria used there: object movements were not included in that study. To compare these experiences with say the witnesses at Enfield (Playfair 1980) or Cardiff (Fontana, 1991) or Andover (Colvin 2008) appears unreasonable. These experiences may well lead some people to believe their house is haunted, but with the possible exception of the object movements (none of which were witnessed moving, and for 60% of which the participants offered likely mundane causes) none of them are likely to cause resort to paranormal explanations.
So What Have We Learned?
The replication has provided significantly stronger evidence for the psychological contagion case than the original paper does, in that it shows that a wider range of “paranormal-type” experiences can occur in everyday life, with the potential to be misinterpreted and develop in to a ghost story narrative. Yet we must note several things.
Firstly, the phenomena involved would not I fear withstand an objective external investigator. The participants themselves repeatedly “explain away” the phenomena – after all, as in the original study, they were instructed to report such things even if “even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen.” Secondly, the study may simply show the priming effect of participating in the experiment.There is no reason to think the participants would have thought very much if at all about what occurred, let alone ascribed it to spooks, if they had not been participating in the diary study. It is important to note that 40% of those who responded, and quite possibly the other three participants who did not submit diaries, experienced no notable phenomena. If the three who had expressed willingness to participate but never got back to me had noticed anything similar occurring, you might have expected them to respond.
Yet I have no doubt that life is full of tiny anomalies: during the day it has taken me to write up this replication my partner has texted to say she had her sat nav come on while lying on her bedroom floor and make her jump by telling her to “turn right”; I myself thought I saw Cuddles my black cat sitting on top of a cupboard, but on looking again he was not there, and was still sleeping in my bedroom when I returned to the computer. Neither of us have jumped to the conclusion we are haunted: but I can see how it could well happen, and I think the psychological contagion hypothesis requires much more study, and am thankful to Houran and Lange for their pioneering and important work. Houran and Lange (1996) wrote
‘This resulting cumulative frequency distribution of event times closely follows a logistic curve… thereby providing strong support for our hypothesis that perceptions of anomalous events are an artefact of attentional contagion. This finding implies that explanations of anomalous events need not invoke such untestable notions as “discarnate agents” or “recurrent spontaneous psycho-kinesis”.’
This study found no evidence for the logistic curve – and the author is still confused as to why it was invoked, as it appears to be difficult to justify as a hypothesis. While the replication was relatively small scale, it was of course still larger in scope than the original study, and leads to the question as to why no one appears to have attempted to replicate it in the intervening sixteen years given the elegance and simplicity of the research design. Widely cited, and fascinating in its implications, the Houran and Lange study opens up new vistas for research in to people’s interpretation of ambiguous stimuli, but one must question whether it really demonstrates all that some sceptical proponents have made out.
Chris Jensen Romer, January 2013
Note: I would to acknowledge the kind assistance of Tom Ruffles of the SPR in helping me locate articles used in writing this piece. Participant Bryan Saunders has kindly agreed to be waive his identity, and I would like to thank him and Barbara for their faithfully maintaining their diary throughout the month and all their help. It is always pleasing to have some non-anonymous participants, as it it lowers the potential for fraud (I did not make up the results, but you don’t know that). I would also like to thank the SPR for their research grant support of my ongoing research.
Colvin, B (2008) The Andover Case: A responsive poltergeist, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 72, p. 1-20. Fontana, D (1991) A responsive poltergeist: A case from South Wales, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 57, pp. 385-402.
Houran, J. and Lange, R. (1996), Diary of events in a thoroughly unhaunted house, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 499-502
Lange R, Houran, J, Harte T.M. & Havens R.A. (1996) Conceptual mediation of perception in hauntings and poltergeist -like experiences, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 755-762
Lange, R., and J. Houran. 1997. Context-induced paranormal experiences: Support for Houran and Lange’s model of haunting phenomena. Perceptual and Motor Skills 84: 1455–58.
Playfair, Guy Lyon, (1980) This House Is Haunted: the Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist, Stein & Day, London.
Roll, W.G (1977) Poltergeists in B.B. Wolman (ed) Handbook of Parapsychology, Jefferson, NC; McFarland p.382-413
Romer, C. (1996) The Poverty of Theory: Some Notes on the Investigation of Spontaneous Cases, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61, 161-163
Sidgwick, Eleanor; Johnson, Alice; and others (1894). Report on the Census of Hallucinations, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 10.
Wiseman R, (2011), Paranormality, Macmillan, London.
Wiseman R, (2011) The Haunted Brain in Skeptical Inquirer 35.5 (available online at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_haunted_brain/)
Growing up in Bury St. Edmunds it is almost impossible to not know the story of ‘Maria Marten and the Red Barn’ one of the most famous murder cases of 19th century England. In essence a fairly tawdry tragedy, there are a number of features – including some overtly supernatural elements – that render it fascinating even to this day, but at the time the sensation it caused was vast, and it was to have ramifications in popular culture, how murders were reported, and even the English language.
I don’t have time to give a full account of the case, so I will quickly summarize it here. On Saturday 18th May 1827 William Corder, a son of a prosperous Suffolk family apparently set out to elope with Maria Marten, a village beauty of humble origin. The two walked separately through the night to a barn, the now infamous ‘Red Barn’ on Corder’s property, Maria dressed in male clothing to avoid local notice. In the barn Maria change in to her women’s attire, and while changing met her death, and was buried by Corder within the barn.
Corder remained in the little village of Polstead, and informed Maria’s parents that he and Maria were to wed by Special Licence, but that to avoid her arrest he had sent her to stay with friends near Yarmouth. She was unable to write because of an injury to her hand. Sometime later Corder left for London, and wrote to her father saying that Maria and he were now married, and living on the Isle of Wight, and very happy (and requesting that the father burn the letters, claiming they were hiding from a Mr P.). Yet he told others in the village during his visits many other stories, with little consistency, as to whether or not he was married, and where Maria was residing in the year before the discovery of her body.
A Sensational Case
Now Corder forms the archetype we are told for the “wicked squire” (the murder was just a little too early for tying her to railway tracks) and Maria the type for the innocent country maiden of Victorian Melodrama, and certainly the story formed the basis for large numbers of plays, many still extant today, which were performed by travelling troupes all over the country. Local author Peter Haining informs us that these plays, performed in barns, gave us the word “barnstorming”. Certainly they were hugely popular, and even when Corder was on trial there were puppet shows all over the region and down to London depicting the murder, and in Bury a camera obscura show. A nonconformist minister preached to a crowd of thousands at the actual barn, which was dismantled by souvenir seekers, and in Polstead today there is no trace at all of the gravestone of the unfortunate Maria Marten, chipped away by curiosity seekers. The London papers sent reporters to the Inquest and Trial of Corder, and 7,000 people gathered in Bury on August 10th, 1828 to watch Corder hang.
The Background to the Crime
Yet all this sensation masks some of the story, which may have a bearing on what really happened on the fateful night. Firstly, Maria Marten was mother of two illegitimate children by a local dignitary, a very wealthy gentleman who is referred to at the Inquest as Mr P. (His identity is known and was given in court, but does not matter for our purposes). As such she was open to arrest for the crime of bastardry, that is giving birth to illegitimate children. In fact no attempt was made to arrest her, because the children were not it seems a “burden on the parish”, and because the father made generous provision of £5 a quarter for their upkeep. (Though actually only one appears to have been alive by the time of the murder, and was being raised by Maria’s parents).
A year before the murder William Corder became intimately acquainted with Maria, who he had presumably known for some time as they lived in a fairly small village, and Corder and her went off to live in sin in Sudbury. While there she gave birth to another child, this one by Corder, and again bastardy charges could have followed. The couple returned to Polstead, and the baby died; Corder took the remains off in a box, and told people they were buried in Sudbury, but he in fact buried the child in a field – the body was never recovered.
Maria and William remained lovers, despite the gulf in their social position (nowhere as great as that between her and her former lover Mr P however), and the apparent disapproval of his family. Corder’s father was dead; several of his siblings had died in the last few years of TB, and his elder brother died in what according to Haining was a skating accident, drowning when he plunged through the ice in to the village pond. Mrs Corder suffered an immense amount of tragedy, and now William was heir, and helping to run the farm. Yet he still did not have control of the money, and when a letter to Maria from Mr P was intercepted by Corder, he apparently stole the £5 maintenance for the child from it. Maria now had a problem; she argued publicly with Corder, who could hang for the theft — and she had no way to protect herself from the long deferred bastardry charges, should they be brought. However if Corder married her and claimed the children as his, they would be legitimate, and the problem would go away.
The Night of the Murder
Twice they prepared to elope, but Corder backed out, leaving Maria increasingly depressed and unhappy. Her home life seems to have been troubled by the moral condemnation of her younger sister, who appears to have regarded her as a ‘tart’, and been particularly scathing about how she dressed herself up. The death of her baby seems to have effected her greatly, she had health problems, and now Corder told her she was about to be arrested for bastardry, using this to frighten and control her. On the fatal night he assured her that she was about to be taken in to custody, and so she dressed in his clothes, and for the third time set out to elope and marry Corder. They left by different doors the Marten’s cottage, and walked to the Red Barn – there she was to out of sight of any villagers change, and they would make off to marry by Licence, so no banns need be read.
Corder was lying. There was no intention on the part of the authorities to apprehend Maria, and what followed appears straightforward enough. Maria was changing out of Corder’s clothes in to her own when she was shot by a pistol in the head, and then perhaps stabbed twice with Corder’s sword, before being strangled with her neckerchief. Her body was placed in a sack, and buried there in the Red Barn.
About an hour after they left the Marten’s cottage, Corder went to a cottage close to the barn and borrowed a spade. Sometime later Maria’s younger brother saw him walking across a field carrying a pickaxe. Corder claimed the boy was mistaken, and this was one of his agricultural labourers who had been grubbing up trees, and who also wore a velveteen coat. (The ‘same coat’ part was true, but at the trial of Corder the labourer denied ever carrying a pickaxe that year as far as he could recall.)
Concealing the Crime: The Red Barn
Corder buried the body just one and a half feet under the floor of the barn, and then cleaned up the blood. From that day on he carried the key, and when the harvest was brought in he personally supervised the laying of the crop over the spot where Maria was buried. There is one curious episode during these proceedings, when he offered one of his farm hands a £1 to cut his throat. The man thought he was joking, but it may well be that Corder was under a terrific strain.
The actual barn (a ‘double barn’ in Suffolk terms) was rapidly pulled down by souvenir seekers. An illustration exists (below) but it is rather misleading – the barn was actually surrounded on three sides by outbuildings, with a courtyard formed by these sheds, and a gate some seven feet high at the front.
With Corder holding the key it became difficult for anyone to enter, though presumably he must have somehow provided access to his farmhands, unless the hay was stored very long term. He was in the village for months before taking off to “be with Maria” purportedly in the Isle of Wight, but actually to perform far more extraordinary deeds in London. We will return to those shortly. However for the next eleven months Maria was to remain buried in the Red Barn.
Supernatural Interlude 1: The Discovery of the Body
‘Providence [[CJ: That is, God]] led to the unveiling of the murder’ according to the Inquest; in fact the events which led to the discovery of the body have been a staple of supernatural books from then onwards, because Maria was discovered after her stepmother dreamt where the body was buried, and thereafter managed to convince her husband (Maria’s father) to go look. Note that in most accounts it is Maria’s mother who has the dream – that lady was long dead it seems, and so it was the stepmother, not that it makes any difference. What we know from The Times, April 22nd 1828 is that the dream was Maria murdered and buried in the Red Barn, and occurred for three successive nights.
Now the papers made a lot of this, but in fact in that era of great scepticism they also offered fairly critical comment as well; sadly from the viewpoint of a psychical researcher like me the evidence for anything supernatural being involved is very weak. Maria and William had always met (and one presumes made love) in the Red Barn – it was “their place”, and they were well known by all to frequent it. As early as immediately after Maria apparently ‘left for Yarmouth’ Maria’s parents were suspicious something had happened to her, and that is why they cross-examined Corder after their nine year old son said he saw the latter carrying a pickaxe near dawn on the night he was supposedly eloping with Maria. Many times Maria’s father thought of entering the building to look for any evidence, but he never did because of the aforementioned difficulty of access and the fact the barn was Mrs Corder’s property. Even after his wife’s dreams, when finally convinced he must search the barn, he took the time to ask permission from Mrs Corder, saying he wanted to look for some of Maria’s clothing which he believed had been left in there. To be honest, such deference by farm labourers and the rural poor towards big farmers and landowners is not uncommon even today, or was at least not when I was growing up.
So Mr Marten took a friend, Mr Pryke, and armed with a spade and a rake they set off to the barn, went immediately to the very spot indicated in the dream and quickly uncovered the remains of poor Maria, much decomposed, indeed mainly skeletal. They fetched others, and during the exhumation of the body it was note there was a mark on the wall where a pistol had been discharged, apparently missing any target. As Corder habitually carried, and occasionally fired in to the Marten’s fireplace, a pair of percussion cap pistols, well it looked bad for him.
So the dream – was it supernatural? On the contrary, the bizarre way Maria who could read and write and was close to her parents had stopped communicating, the conflicting stories told by Corder, the enquiries badly deflected by Corder from Mr P (still sending faithfully his fiver for Maria) and village gossip all meant that the dream was probably little more than a reflection of all too conscious anxiety on the part of the stepmother. She may have even made it up to finally make her husband who had spent eleven months doing nothing but worrying actually go and check Maria was not in the Red Barn dead. Some modern sceptics have suggested the Martens were in some way involved to know where the body was: the Trial record makes a nonsense of that suggestion. The dream caused a sensation at the time, but there is no reason to believe it display any supernormal faculty on the part of Mrs Marten. We are not done with the supernatural — I shall return to other supernatural elements later — but the most uncanny thing about the discovery of the body is just how long it took. However, I do have a theory here – not only did Corder have the barn key, but until April the area where they body was buried was under a large amount of winter hay, cattle food I suspect. Only after the cows returned to grazing could it be easily examined. Perhaps the Marten’s were just every patiently awaiting that chance.
Peter Haining also points out that the barn had an unwholesome reputation before the murder. The Red Barn was so called because it stood on a rise and was stained that colour by the setting sun, and such places were associated in Suffolk folklore with murder and horror. It is inevitable that there are stories of ghostly re-enactments of the crime, but none holds much substance and the Red Barn itself is long gone now.
William Corder’s Lonely Hearts Club Fan
During the eleven months between the murder and the discovery of Maria Corder was of course in Polstead for a long period, but eventually he set off purportedly for the Isle of Wight. In fact he went to London, where Haining suggests he and Maria had a number of criminal associates. I don’t have Haining’s book here to check his sources (it is truly excellent and I do want to re-read it) but what we know from the Trial was that Corder seems to have enjoyed himself, and quite quickly given his unwillingness fixed his eyes upon matrimony. He may have planned to leave the country – her procured a passport to travel to France, but never did – instead he did what has been described as ‘inventing the Lonely Hearts column’. He took out the following advertisement in The Sunday Times, 25th November 1827 –
MATRIMONY — A Private Gentleman, aged twenty-four, entirely independent, whose disposition is not to be exceeded, has lately lost chief of his family by the hand of Providence, which has occasioned discord among the remainder, under circumstances most disagreeable to relate. To any female of respectability, who would study for domestic comforts, and willing to confide her future happiness to one every way qualified to render the marriage state desirable, as the Advertiser is in affluence. Many very happy marriages have taken place through means similar to this now resorted to; and it is hoped no one will answer this though impertinent curiosity; but should this meet the eye of any agreeable Lady who feels desirous of meeting with sociable, tender, kind and sympathising companion, they will find this Advertisement worthy of notice. Honour and secrecy may be relied upon. As some little security against idle applications, it is requisite that letters may be addressed (post paid) A.Z., care of Mr. Foster, stationer, 68 Leadenhall-street, with real name and address, which will meet with most respectful attention.
The advertisement suggests Corder’s lonely hearts ad was not the first, but it certainly worked. He received over a hundred replies, with two definitely gaining his attention. One was from a mysterious lady who wanted to meet him, perhaps with the intent of immediate marriage, at a London church. She described herself, and told Corder to wear his arm in a sling, and to wear a black handkerchief around his neck, and attend a certain service where they would meet. Corder was delayed and missed the service, arriving after the lady had left; he afterwards discovered the woman making enquiries for such a man was a high ranking lady with a large fortune, and he was planning to try and contact her again when he met his wife to be.
Corder met Miss Moore in a public place, and they immediately hit it off. The sister of a notable London jeweller, she was clearly dissatisfied with her single state, and three weeks after that first meeting the two were wed. While the marriage was only to last eight or so months before Corder was executed, it seems to have been genuinely happy, and Mr and Mrs Corder opened a boarding school for girls at Grove House, Ealing Lane. It was there, living with his wife and a few pupils, that he was to be apprehended for murder.
After the discovery of the body it was quickly ascertained by missing teeth, clothing, jewellery and a small lump on the neck the corpse was Maria. There was only one suspect, and the village constable set off to London to try and find Corder. However London was outside his jurisdiction, so he went to a police station, where a policeman named Lea was assigned to the case. It took him fourteen hours to locate Corder despite having absolutely no idea where he might be, or even if he was in London, quite an impressive achievement! If Corder had changed his name or tried to hide it would have been harder, but he was easily located, and Mr Lea entered his house pretending he wished to place one of his daughters at the Corder Finishing School. As soon as he had Corder in his study, he told him the game was up and Maria Marten was found; three times Corder denied knowing the girl. Corder was arrested nonetheless, and his sword taken, along with a small black reticule, effectively a handbag, that was once the property of Maria Marten. Inside it were found Corder’s pistols.
Corder was taken back to Suffolk to face the charge of murder; his wife, believing the charge was bigamy at first, stood by him, and did so until their final parting the day before his execution.He was held over night at the George Inn in Colchester, and on the second night there transferred in the early hours to the Cock pub at Polstead, where the inquest on Maria Marten was to be held at ten the next morning.
By ten am The Cock was filled with interested persons and representatives of the London press. There was a dispute between the Coroner Weyman, and the press about whether notes could be taken for their articles – the Coroner ruled against them, so accounts of the proceedings were filed from memory. The Coroner also noted that already the sensation was great, and that the papers, preachers and puppet shows were ignoring ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and had declared Corder the murderer, to great prejudice against him. There is a strong irony in this, as we will shortly see. Proceedings were they delayed by Corder’s representative asking he may come downstairs and witness the testimony – this was am inquest, not a trial, but the Coroner ruled against him and stated instead he may have the witness statements read to him afterwards. Corder who had descended was forced to return to a room upstairs, while it was determined how Maria had died.
In fact this proved extremely difficult – she appeared to have been shot, stabbed two or three times, and then was perhaps strangled. It was not even possible to decide if she was dead when buried, so burial live was added to the list. In the end there were nine different possibilities as to exactly how she was killed — and at his trial, Corder was charged with all nine, so as to make sure one of them stuck. (‘Murder by pistol, murder by stabbing in heart, murder by stabbing in neck’, etc, etc). This legal nicety, like the fact everything in the charge must be valued (stabbed by sword (“worth one shilling”), buried in gravel and soil (“of no value”) seems a bit odd to us today!
The important thing was the Inquest determined poor Maria had been murdered – and Corder was committed to prison at Bury St Edmund to await his trial, while the sensation continued to grow.
Corder’s Other Crime
Corder it seems had already stolen £5 sent by Mr P to Maria; and after her death eh continued to benefit this way. However as he was in prison in Bury he was accused of another crime that could have sent him to the gallows, this time fraud. Those guilty of fraud were shown no mercy at all under the law in 19th century England – while murderers might have their sentence commuted from death on occasion, fraudsters, no matter how innocent, were hanged.
We will never know if Corder was guilty of this crime, but it does appear likely. On the 14th April 1828 Corder had apparently arrived at the White Hart in Manningtree, stating he had business with the bank opposite, Messrs Alexanders. Making conversation with Mr Dale the landlord, he explained he was an agent sent to cash a cheque, and when the bank opened he presented a cheque for £93 on the Hadleigh branch payable to a Mr Cook of Wenlam-Hall from the account of Mr Atkins, butcher of Stratford. The banker Mr Taylor refused, as he knew neither party, but Corder explained he was Cook, and was well known in the area. The landlord of the White Hart helpfully said he knew Mr Cook by sight, so the money was handed over. The presumed Mr Cook was paid in local currency notes — I’d like to know more about what these were – and Cook/Corder dashed off to the Branch Banking Establishment at Ipswich where he exchanged the notes for gold and departed before the fraud was discovered that night. When arrested his wife found eighty pounds in gold in his drawer, and Corder never denied the charges, simply saying “I dare say they will try to make enough of it”. He appeared genuinely defeated and contrite when confronted by Mr Taylor and Mr Dale, both of whom identified him as the fraudster. It seems the crime was committed for the purpose of funding his move to Grove House and new boarding school.
One of the curious things about Corder’s life is he never seemed to have enough money. That is the fate of many of us, but Corder was from an affluent “middle class” home, his father was dead, and since his brother’s death he was heir to the farm which was extensive – the Corders were locally important folk. Yet he hints time and time again at trouble at home with his surviving family, and while it is clear he doted on his mother, she seems to have been unwilling to surrender any control over finances to him. She was very attached to him, and almost certainly took his side in any family squabbles, but she may well have disapproved of Maria, if she knew anything of their relationship, and certainly Corder while a snappy dresser with expensive tastes seems to have been unwilling to seek financial aid from this obvious source.
The trial held at Bury St Edmunds continued the sensation. Chief Baron Alexander presided, and his orders that no one was to be admitted until he had taken his seat led to absolute chaos as the crowds milled around outside, and once his carriage arrived it took an hour and a half for him to gain entrance and for the trial to finally begin. Corder was charged with murder on nine counts, to cover all possible ways he disposed of Maria, and was horrified and outraged to discover the Coroner Weyland was now the Prosecutor! As he complained, this meant the Coroner had already seen all the evidence and cross-examined the witnesses, whereas the Defence had not had access to anything but reports of those proceedings.
However the case against Corder was fairly substantial – last seen with the victim, who was found interred in his barn, with wounds that could have been made by his pistol and sword, and having lied for eleven months about her whereabouts. He had taken his sword to be sharpened shortly before the murder, and there was no evidence he planned to procure the promised marriage licence or actually elope with her; he appeared to have taken special care to cover up the burial site, and for the first time in his life kept the barn locked after the murder, and his endless lies to her family, friends and Mr. P about where she was certainly looked grim. Maria was unhappy when she set out on the fatal night, and Corder had been terrorising her with the claim she was about to be arrested for bastardry. Afterwards when he was supposedly living with her he had refused to give an address to her parents claiming the couple were in fear of Mr P (who whatever his moral failings, seems to have actually done much to support his illegitimate children and keep an eye out for Maria’s welfare). The picture from the trial that emerges of Corder is of a weak, not very bright schemer, who lied constantly to cover up Maria’s fate. Yet there was more to the man than this: he had many friends, his new wife was devoted to him, and those who came to know him in gaol felt sympathy or even liking for the fellow. He was clever enough to work hard on his defence, and indeed his wife and it seems Corder were convinced he would be acquitted – and perhaps today he would be, on technicalities.
So how did Corder hope to be found innocent? There was little hope of claiming the manner of death was incorrect and try for a technicality, as he had been charged with all nine! His second chance was stronger: arguing the body was not Maria Marten. He however chose to admit it was, and the evidence was such there can be no doubt it was anyway. His third strategy was to object to the Coroner now being employed as the Prosecutor, and the Judge was certainly sympathetic to that, as he was to Corder’s point the notoriety of the case was such he had already been judged guilty by the press and public long before the trial began. However, Corder decided to argue the one strong argument he could make, namely that Maria Marten had committed suicide, and he had merely covered up her death.
According to Corder his pistols had been in Maria’s possession since their time in Sudbury, when she took them to have them repaired. The gunsmith testified that a man and a woman collected them, but others did testify to seeing them in Maria’s possession. In his summing up the judge mentioned Corder “snapping” them at the fire at the Marten’s cottage on the fatal night – I was not clear from the trial evidence if it was on this night he did this, but the Martens certainly said he used to do this. If it was, Corder had the pistols when he left their house. However, we know the pistols were found in Corder’s School in what was essentially Maria’s handbag. Corder claimed she had the pistols that night.
As they left the house to elope Maria was seen by her family to be crying, and as she changed at the barn Corder asserted she began to abuse him, comparing him unfavourably with Mr. P. Seeing a chance to call off the elopement and wedding, he claimed that he told her if she spoke to him like this before they were wed how would she treat him once they were married?, and telling her he would not marry her he walked away. As he did so he heard a shot, and turned to see her lying dead, having shot herself in the head with his pistol. (No explanation was given for the second bullet mark, on the wall, though she may have fired there first to attract Corder’s attention as he left, if his account was in anyway true.) He panicked, and concealed the body, cleaned up the scene, went and borrowed a spade and then later returned with a pickaxe, and buried poor Maria in the barn. After that he did all he could to conceal her fate, and this was why he told so many lies and wrote so many untruths.
The greatest problem facing Corder was how to explain the evidence of the neckerchief pulled tight enough to have throttled the girl – this happened he claimed as he dragged her body to the grave — and how to account for the wounds made by a stabbing instrument, growing wider as it went in, attested to by three surgeons and attributed to his sword. Corder made an interesting defence — that these marks were made by the spades of those who discovered and dug up the corpse. I’ll return to this later.
The End for Corder
The jury retired and spent over an hour discussing the case, before finding Corder guilty. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday, and was taken from the court in a state of near collapse. He committed to Bury gaol, and met twice more with is wife, who seems to have behaved with great courage and dignity, and offered him a lot of religious literature and pious exhortations. Many clergy and others sought an interview, but Corder refused to see them, though he did spend time with the chaplain. Finally, on the morning of his execution, he wrote and had witnessed a confession. According to this the argument was actually about the burial of their child — Maria was worried the baby’s body would be uncovered. Why is hard to understand, though many have speculated Corder killed the child, though that claim seems to have little evidence to support it. In the barn they fell to fighting, and while struggling Corder pulled out his pistol, fired and Maria fell dead. He then covered up the crime, and events proceeded as above. Whatever the truth, Corder was led out at noon and hanged in front of 7,000 witnesses on a pasture behind Bury gaol, where he died quickly, his end speeded by the hangman pulling on his legs.
So Was Corder Guilty?
In recent years there have been a number of attempts to suggest Corder was not guilty of the murder. Given this appears one of the most open and shut cases I can think of, and that he confessed, it is hard to see any other possibility. There is however one possibility I think, well perhaps two. At the times rumours circulated Corder was also having an affair with Maria’s stepmother, who was not much older than Maria, and she was involved hence her knowledge of the burial site. I find that hard to believe. Other authors have mentioned Corder’s criminal associates, and even a gypsy fortuneteller lady, but all this strikes me as nonsense. Corder was there when she died, and covered up the death – but was he actually telling the truth about suicide? Maria seems to have been deeply disturbed that night, and perhaps she did have the pistols — if so, perhaps the handkerchief round her neck was irrelevant as Corder suggested. The “sword wounds” could easily have been made by Mr Marten as he found the body. As a child I can recall Suffolk farmers using unusual looking “mole spades” with long slender blades, not unlike those used for tree planting today. Mr Marten was a mole catcher. We know that Mr Pryce probed the ground with the handle of his rake, and found an iron spike, perhaps part of Corder’s pickaxe. The wounds in the heavily decomposed body could be many things. So did Maria shoot herself? I find it extremely unlikely, and think not. Corder must have realised if she had covering the matter up would only make things worse, and in an argument as described I find it hard to see why she did not shoot him instead. A second, slightly more plausible theory would be that actually there was some suggestion of a double suicide, and each discharged a pistol at their head, but Corder decided to live and fired his in to the wall. Possible, but there is no evidence for this at all, barring the curious bullet marks in the wooden wall of the barn. No, I am afraid I think Corder was guilty, but fired twice, trying to stop Maria in some kind of violent physical struggle, probably with the intention of scaring her – but maybe with the intention of murder. In his Confession Corder says this, and there seems little reason to doubt him, though he is at great pains to swear before God that he did not make the sword wounds alleged.
Supernatural Interlude 2: The Ghost of Corder
In Moyses Hall musueum today you can still see a collection of relics related to the infamous murder. These include a particularly grisly item, a book about the trial bound in the Corder’s skin!
For many years Corder’s skeleton was used for anatomy lessons at teaching hospitals. One doctor became fascinated by this grim artefact and on leaving his post stole the skull, replacing it with another with a more ordinary history. Shortly after his return however terrible noises were heard and before long he began to see the shadow of a man in his house, a man who had come to reclaim what was his… Finally, terrified and haunted to the limit of his nerves by Corder’s ghost the unfortunate doctor disposed of the curiosity and peace once more reigned. So claimed a book on Suffolk folklore I read in the 1980′s anyway.
I managed to go a whole year without getting a cold or sick, and was becoming all too smug about it – and now I find myself on Christmas Eve laid up in bed unwell! Well next year I shall do better. Anyway I did not manage to sort out any Christmas cards, apart from a few for my family I shall take home when I visit mum and dad next – because what sibling would not want a Christmas Card in mid-January? Anyhows, I figured I’d make a Christmas card, and then if people want it they can download it and read it, and if they don’t, they don’t have to and I won’t know anyway and we can all live happily ever after.
Now if you know me you have probably guessed that my saving on rewarding Clinton Card’s shareholders and saving Wicked Postmen DC, the lugubrious Postmen Ben and Tom “Christmas Temp” Nowells’ backs as they heft mailbags is not why I did not send cards. I am of course, a notorious Scrooge, and chose to pay the rent rather than do it. That is not the only reason Scrooge appears above though, for this card is about to turn in to an account of the horrors that have recently visited me!
‘Twas three nights ago, and I was soundly sleeping the sleep of the just, having been reading the latest Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR). “I’ll just read this fascinating article and then…” – and of course I was snoring away. The cats padded around mewling, looking for food: from somewhere in the house came snoring, but in my room all was peaceful. And then it happened – I awakened to find two terrible shades, clanking chains and moaning their guilt, calling upon me to repent and mend my ways! (See illustration above). Yes; I was faced by the shades of Derek and Harry, forever banished in to the outer darkness for their sins against psychical research!!! These former ghosthunting associates of mine wailed upon me to REPENT! REPENT! I was immediately filled with curiosity, sat up, grabbed a pen and started to take notes. Derek (and Harry) were alive: There is no doubt whatever about that.
“Oh Frightful Shades summoned forth from my mis-spent youth” I cried, “you two are still very much with us, which means you have probably not run in to the SPR committee recently. You are therefore clearly ‘Phantasms of the Living’? So are you actually telepathic projections from the appearant, namely yourselves, hallucinated by me as percipient, or are you actually caused as Gurney appears to suggest in some of his later writings telepathically generated by me after I passively survey the environment using ESP powers?”
The two phantoms stopped clanking, and looked extremely annoyed. No one likes a smart arse., especially one who has spent the last 15 years since they gave up on this stuff studying theories of apparitions. The phantasmal Derek wailed a lament “You are supposed to say ‘You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’”.
I was too interested to remark on how our understanding of hallucinations in the sane had moved on a bit since disordered digestion was commonly blamed, I was now far more interested in learning all I could about the two “Marleys”. ‘Are you consciously aware of your projecting status? Can you supply me with some veridical data, that I can note down and subsequently show to prove that you were external entities not mere dreams? The winner in the 2.15 at Aintree, your current bank accounts details and sort code and security three digit code, that sort of thing?” I inquired hopefully.
The phantom Harry now responded, in good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon, and with a muttered threat about three more ghosts they vanished wailing through the floor.
Oh well, I’d be ready for them now…
The Ghost of Christmas Past never stood a chance. No sooner had he walked through the wall, the blinding flashes of my cameras froze him in terror. I was upon him with a dictaphone. “Right, spook, I’ve waited years for this chance. First question, are you composed of normal matter and energy? That is, are you physical?” I rammed him unapologetically in the bottom with an EMF meter, and the poor spook let out a howl of horror. “Ah fairly physical.” I prodded his ectoplasmic bulk again, and then scraped off some of his beard in to a Petri dish for analysis. “Right, Second question, are you a telepathic projection, or are the discarnate spiritual remnants of a deceased human as Spiritualists suggest?” It seems the question was too much for the poor spook: he turned, and with a truly melodramatic wail launched himself up the chimney. Never mind. Two more to come…
Like any Big Game Hunter, I have patience. And kit. The unquiet shade of Christmas Present was not leaving until I had thoroughly grilled him on the conditions of the hereafter, and advanced parapsychology 200 years and won a Nobel. Ha! Dawkins and Randi will never recover! All thoughts of Goodwill to All Men, Women, Ghosts and Small Fluffy Animals had left. I had my chance and I was going to take it – these ghosts were gonna talk, or else! My only problem was I do not have a Proton Pack, PKE meter or any of that fictional stuff. What I have is vast amounts of peer reviewed parapsychological literature on ghosts, and that seems to be singularly lacking in practical advice in how to grab one and interrogate it. However soon I had a plan!
I have always said Gauld and Cornell’s 1979 magisterial study Poltergeists is a wonderful book, and as the Ghost of Christmas Present came through the wall, I took my chance to finally use it’s 389 page bulk, and deftly clumped the spook over the head with it. To my horror the book just passed straight through it, and the ghost of Christmas Present flailed about horrified as cameras flashed and my webcam recorded every gruesome detail. “Hey” I said “you looked like John Travolta there pulling those dance moves” The spirit looked indignant, and I hastily pursed my advantage. “OK ghostie, I have you on video to show the world. Now we can do this nicely – or I can dub Staying Alive on that little performance of yours, and post it to YouTube? You will be a laughing stock. So sit down and start telling me everything.”
I felt just a tiny bit mean, but this was for Science! The poor old ghost knew when he was beaten, and sat miserably down. “please” he muttered “ just don’t start on about paradigms, phenomenology or the nature of consciousness. I’d prefer to sit through Skeptics In the Pub than that any day!”. Now I had him! I prepared to discover who was right on apparitions – McCreery and Green, Tyrell, Hart, Myers, Podmore or Gurney! Now I could revolutionise the field.
And at that moment, Marmalade came hurtling in the room, chasing Cuddles, in some 3am feline game. I was distracted, and as I turned to shoo the cats out, the Ghost of Christmas Present grabbed my webcam and apported it to another dimension, before leaving up the chimney in a flash of spectral smoke.
I had twenty minutes to modify the hoover, and I used all I know of Paraphysics and Weird Science. This time the spook was not getting away. I have never built a Carnacki Electric Pentacle before, but I have now, and it glowed beautifully in neon colours on the floor, ready to trap and contain the third pesky ghost. This time, I was READY for them! I had donned a set of painter and decorators overalls I keep for when Hugh is called upon to help out (frequently), and had strapped Lisa’s GOBLIN hoover on my back, and looked for all the world like a cut price DIY ghostbuster…
Anyway, you can guess how it all ended. If the Ghost of Christmas Future is not something you have ever seen it, imagine it as a sort of balefully spooky version of Metal Mickey the robot from the 80′s kid’s show. The electric pentacle did its job well, and I was able to suck the ectoplasmic shade up in to the bagless hoover, but then it all went wrong. The hoover became possessed, and even as I struggled Becky up to witness the apparition, so at least it would count as a collective case (she muttered something about “already passed my VIVA” and went back to sleep) the hoover ran around and around in circles, bleeping eerily, and waving its hose in the air in a frighteningly Freudian manner. Even as I prepared to leap upon it and unplug it, prepare dot bear it in triumph to the SPR office at Marloes Road, the blasted thing managed to open a vortex to another dimension.
Now I, being a generous soul, had of course bought an exquisite, expensive and lovely presents for you all. Unfortunately as the ghost and hoover vanished through the TV to another dimension, it took with it all my carefully purchased Christmas gifts. And this is why I don’t have much research to show the SPR for their generous research grant this year, and why I have not given any of you Christmas Presents and Cards – because a spectre telepathic descending from my attic came and spirited them away, hey?
So it simply remains for me to wish you one and all a Wonderful Christmas time, and a truly magical 2013.
All the best
‘Tis Halloween night, and CJ can look out on the street, confident that soon ghosts will come a rapping and knocking at his door. Goblins and Vampires too – and while recording the knocks echoing through the maison CJ will not add anything to Dr. Barrie Colvin’s research efforts, these rather tangible spooks will need feeding, so I have bought in some chocolate bars. The wind is howling across the roof, and the rain lashes the window – how long till we hear the low rumble of approaching thunder? Perfect Halloween weather I guess!
Since the early 90′s I don’t think I have had many Halloween’s at home. It’s TV, or radio, or a public lecture, but this year while the Trick of Treaters will come knocking, the media haven’t. I can’t say I mind. I could do with the money; a sum like that with things as they are– but actually, if you think paranormal TV or writing on spooks make you rich, you are (as you may have gathered from this blog) seriously misguided. Nope, it will be nice to be home, and yet I feel a trifle neglected.
Yesterday Becky successfully defended her thesis on “A Century of Apparitions”, for her PhD on spooks. She still has revisions to make to the thesis before final submission, but I guess it’s nice to have a girlfriend who is an expert in the area. Sadly she is in Derby tonight, so I’ll be warding off the undead without her expert advice. I received a research grant this year from the SPR to look at poltergeists: well I will, and am actively researching. Not tonight though! You might think with my background in this area I might want to go out and party, or sit at home and watch The Exorcist or something, but actually I have asked some friends round to play a Halloween roleplaying game. Yeah, I know, a bit dull for this old ghostbuster. I’m really looking forward to it though.
Now I could write a lot about the history of Halloween, and why it’s really a Christian festival not a pagan one historically, and why I don’t think that matters a fig and wish all my pagan friends a wonderful Samhain, I won’t, because I have done no original research on the matter. I will just point you to Prof . Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun, if you are outraged by this claim, and you can read his brilliant academic work in the area. Ron is a pagan, and he can say these things without the local moot throwing chairs at him, unlike me. Ah the good old days!
Nostalgia, it’s not what it used to be. Anyway I think back to 1985, when Hugh and I ran our first Cthulhu based live action roleplaying game on Halloween. My parents were away, and we had a group of friends investigate a mystery in our “haunted house”, which had other players dressed up as ghouls in truly horrific monsters, and all kinds of carefully created special effects. Some Trick or Treaters knocked on the door, and were greeted by JB in a full monster costume made for horror impact not Halloween kitsch, and offer them a huge (real) heart. They fled: it was an ox-heart, we had acquired from the butchers – kidney, sheep’s eyeballs and other visceral props were carefully positioned, but I kind of feel sorry for those poor kids. I’d have stopped JB if it had not coincided with one of the players stepping through the cucumber frames in the dark – luckily Axel was not seriously hurt. Anyway the game was fantastic, the players genuinely scared, and the final scenes in the woods near Fornham absolutely terrify, even tome as referee. I hope Hugh dug up the bones he had placed in a parka anorak, and removed the dummy swinging on from the tree afterwards. It was the first “murder mystery” type horror game I ever ran, and while I have run many many more the first is always the best in some ways! Nowadays we would use less fake blood and real meat, and actually use more sophisticated props, but hey we were just kids. If anyone ever wants a game like this run for their friends, you can email me (email@example.com) and my new more vegan-friendly games I will happily run for you and your friends I guess, though it would help if you offer to pay me!
It probably helped that I did not believe in ghosts back then – that was not to change till 1987 and the Thetford Priory incident. I guess if you want a Halloween ghost story, that is as good as any…
Soon after I was off to study for my degree, and in the small Church college I attended Halloween was regarded with deep suspicion by many of the Christian Union. Nothing like the suspicion they regarded me or wicked Uncle DC with. Still the uni (as it became) had Halloween Discos, I think only Hugh ever managed to traumatize people with his Halloween costume. Once I joined the SPR I used to argue I should get the discount for fancy dress as I was dressed up as a ghosthunter, and I did actually manage this one year, so notorious was I. Soon after I founded the Student Parapsychology Society, and every day was Halloween then, not just Halloween at Christmas. My years in the CPRG, SPS and various other groups meant I was often running around at Halloween, and paranormal TV meant it was a time you were always at work.
Hey I could reminisce all night, but soon the ghosts and goblins will approach my door. I had best go and stock up on more chocolate, and buy some tacky Halloween mask I guess just for once I should enter in to the spirit of the season, but to be honest, Halloween is probably one f my least favourite events of the year: perhaps because it normally means work, perhaps because familiarity breeds contempt. For every else, have a wonderful safe and happy Halloween folks, and I’ll pray for you benighted souls as the forces of darkness creep closer to your doors…
And as a strange sadness creeps over me, I’m thinking of Crowley-cat, his shade prowling round his old home tonight I’m sure! I miss you boy, I really do. And on that note, here is my favourite Halloween song, with the best video I can imagine for it. Tonight, while the ghosts of Houdini and Lovecraft play checkers in the hereafter, I’ll remember those great sceptics too, and hope you enjoy this little slice of American Gothic.
So it all started with a rather romantic notion. I have often joked that I will give up spook investigation and take up Mermaid Investigations; let’s face it, the field is less crowded. And then it occurred to me – were there not in 19th century America reports of real live flying Pterodactyls over Texas, originating as journalistic yarns and in the infamous lying contests? I vaguely recall having a book as a child in which there was a picture, daguerreotype style, of some cowboys holding a shot pterodactyl by a barn. Actually I soon found out, chatting about with friends on Facebook, that I may have be suffering from a False Memory – lots of other people remember the same picture, or something similar, but no one has ever been able to find it again. It seems the photo is as mysterious as Live Pterosaurs. In fact a photo that seems to be the one mentioned is doing the rounds — but it is nothing like my recollection. Then you can easily find a shot that was staged for a recent documentary (scroll down the page to see it though worth enjoying whole article) — again clearly not the mystery photo. After much reflection I have come to the conclusion the book I read in the 1970′s probably referenced the alleged photo, and I came to believe I had seen the actual photo in the book – I think that entirely possible. Still it is all rather interesting, if only in demonstrating just how questionable memory can be.
Anyway, do these things really still fly? I want to believe in big flying dinosaurs roaming the skies, but experience and common sense argue against it. So far I have never been chased by one as I wander through town. Still, I figured I knew a bit about them — as a child I was rather obsessed with dinosaurs, as many young boys are, and read everything I could find on them, and I thought I knew about Pterodactyls, Pteradnodons and a few others like the Rhamphorhyncus. So I recalled they were all Pterosaurs, and looked up the Order. First surprise is technically they were not dinosaurs at all (and neither were plesiosaurs and various other marine reptiles). Secondly there were incredibly diverse, and many of them looked nothing like the beasties I think of when I hear the word “Pterosaur”. And thirdly, they are very definitely extinct, dying out 65.5 million years ago, but already in decline by then. So sayeth the Wikipedia article – I did not research any of this throughly.
Interesting, but rather lacking emotional satisfaction. I wanted to read about people who had been chased by pterodactyls! So I started to Google for any eye witness testimony, uncovered a funny but utterly unconvincing YouTube video, and then suddenly found that there actually was a “Living Pterosaur” research community, a fringe even within cryptozoology. Even better, there were several books. Most of the research appears to be on “Ropens”, allegedly living Pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea. Now I’m afraid I have not read anything on that, and can’t really comment, for as I browsing I spotted a book “Live Pterosaurs in America” by Jonathan David Whitcomb, a nonfiction analysis of actual sightings in the USA. This I had to own, so I immediately ordered it from Amazon, and a few days later it was mine! And you know what — I’m glad I bought it, and have enjoyed reading it.
The book contains 35 contemporary eye witness accounts from the USA of what appear to be live pterosaur sightings, and a great deal of analysis. Undeterred by the intrinsic seeming absurdity of believing that Pterosaurs can remain undetected in the USA (which as Whitcomb points out is a fallacious argument: they have not remained undetected at all, or he would not have eyewitness testimony — “largely undetected” perhaps?) the author has actually taken seriously and tracked down people who claim to have seen these things, talking to them on the phone and by email. He is not alone – as well as the various expeditions to PNG to look for the alleged pterosaurs there, there appears to be a small but very active research community looking for live pterosaurs in the USA. I get the impression form the book it is rather competitive, and political, and perhaps as backstabbing as any other part of cryptozoology seems to be — but then again maybe not. You see Whitcomb, and the majority of the researchers are Creationists, and not shy about proclaiming the fact.
So here I am, a very convinced “Evolutionist” who has written a great deal on Darwin, Chambers, Russel Wallace etc reading a book on Live Pterosaur sightings by an out loud and proud Creationist. And you know what? It really makes no difference to the case. So Whitcomb believes in living pterosaurs? The sceptics who attack his research are equally convinced they are extinct. It’s an issue it is rather hard to maintain a strict impartiality on. To be honest, I have no problem with people holding strong beliefs on any issue, so long as they are aware of them and their potential biases, and so long as they declare them openly. I worked out Whitcomb was a Creationist by a third of the way through his book, but the last couple of chapters make it totally explicit. I was rather amused that he agrees with Dawkins that it is impossible to hold a considered Theistic Evolution viewpoint, and I was too tired to really get what he thinks of I.D – it is a good thing I gather, but not Creationism, as far as he is concerned — but I am convinced that the Creationist beliefs of the living pterosaur folks are going to stop a lot of people in the UK at least from even bothering to look at their stuff, which is a shame. You see I think you might have to be a Creationist to actually stick your neck out and look for these wonderful flying beasties, and if they do exist it would be no surprise if only the “Creation Scientists” went looking for them. Creationism actually does not play much of a role in the theories in the book, and I’m still very vague about what exactly a living Pterosaur would prove from a Y.E.C perspective, but I am happy to put away any prejudices and read the book on the strength of the evidence and argument provided, and lay aside my philosophical and scientific differences with these guys. If they can convince me of living pterosaurs, I guess they might convince me of other stuff Let’s face it, convincing me pterodactyls are swooping over California as I type is going to take a lot.
And ultimately, I am afraid I still doubt it is true. However, I am more open to Pterosaurs in other parts of the world than I was before, and I am much more open to the possibility of live Pterosaurs. I actually find it hard to type those those three words together “possibility” + “live” + “pterosaurs”, so strong is my ingrained prejudice against the case. After all, during my dinosaur phase (aged 5-10 roughly) the one thing I knew absolutely was that they were all extinct. (and watching the USAF fly overhead, and listening to the Cold War sabre rattling, I gloomily pondered as a very young child how soon humanity might join them; vague fears that still manifest sometimes today )
Whitcomb’s eyewitnesses don’t really convince me greatly, though they are at the heart of his case. 35 is really not very many, and given there are radio controlled Pterosaur models out there, some of the sightings do seem to be questionable. The testimony given is rather bare, culled from emails, but it could be that Whitcomb’s writing style (generally readable, occasionally jars, perhaps a cultural thing) without all the usual journalistic fluff like “Ada was just putting the kettle on as sunshine played across the blinds…” — none of that in Whitcombe’s reports, just his questions asked and the answers rendered verbatim — doe snot really sell the witnesses. He is definitely sceptical of the testimony he receives, and shows critical thinking about testimony issues, and I must say is an intelligent bloke by the sound of his book.
Nope, my problem is that thousands of Americans have reported being abducted by Flying Saucers. Dozens of people in the UK in the last decade have reported seeing leprechauns or fairies. Bigfoot is still big in the USA; and mystery black cats, usually pumas, roam across the British countryside. As to ghost sightings, well they are so common as to pass without remark. Now I’m not a priori dismissing any of these ideas, and I have certainly spent a good part of my life working on the ghosts issue. My point is that people seem to have a huge range of high strangeness encounters with very odd entities. I would be rather more surprised if no one at all was seeing Pterosaurs in the USA. I do wonder if any have been reported in the last century or this in the UK? The fact people experience something,and it seems very real to them, does not necessarily tell us anything about its ontological status. While Whitcomb addresses hallucinations as an explanation for experiences and dismisses it, well I’m not so sure as I know hallucinations can be surprisingly common in the sane from the medical literature, and ultimately I agree with Whitcomb it does not explain collective cases (ones with multiple witnesses) well. Note I’m not actually proposing any mechanism for the weird Fortean encounters – people have proposed all kinds of explanations from ultraterrestrials to demons to irruptions of the unconscious in to normal life (I guess all three might be the same thing!?) — I’m just noting that it seems hard to accept the evidence for living pterosaurs as more compelling than say the evidence for alien abduction or phantom black dogs. In terms of quantity, and richness of the testimony offered, I must say it seems rather less, by an order of magnitudes in the first case and a great deal compared with Black Shuck. Still, if one of Whitcomb’s witnesses was right about what they saw, and it was a physical real living beastie, well his case wins. I really want it to be true, because — well living Pterodactyls, how cool?
So if I am not that impressed by the individual witness reports, why do I think Whitcomb’s book is worthwhile and interesting? Because while the individual cases are perhaps weak, he draws a good statistical case that something is going on from his tiny sample. Put simply, the physical traits of the pterosaurs described by the witnesses do not seem to reflect the Hollywood stereotype of the pterodactyl we all know. There are different types of creature which emerge from the data, and the majority have attributes which are surprising. I won’t discuss what these are here, because it makes faking easier, but you can find out by buying his book. Unfortunately the descriptions could be just down to a misremembered mismatch of picture of pterosaurs in books, and yet if you accept his hypothesis that not one but two and perhaps several species of Pterosaurs have survived in the USA, well then I guess it’s a good argument. However witnesses vary greatly in physical descriptions – wing spans he cites in the stats section range from 2 to 30 feet, with a bizarrely even distribution. I say bizarre because I would have thought hoaxes and hallucinations would have been clustered more in the larger range, and ditto if common sources like movies or dinosaur documentaries informed the sightings. The even distribution may well be down to the actual problems of identifying the wing span of a bird in flight – try it, I’m rubbish at judging height, and you have little to compare it with. Misidentification of birds or bats is not ruled out by the data, and some of the sightings were close and on the ground, but still I am rather surprised at the distribution of estimated wing spans. Something that Whitcomb does not address is the range of colours seen – browns, tans, greys and black predominate, but one brightly coloured alleged pterosaur stood out as fairly convincing for exactly this reason. As no one knows what colour they were, the lack of agreement among witnesses is worrying if these are real creatures.
Another interesting feature is that witnesses reported they either definitely did not have feathers or probably did not have feathers. This may be down to Whitcomb’s selection criteria; he states he does not investigate reports of feathered sightings, leaving that to bird watchers. Now recently I have read in the media reports of new fossil pterosaurs with feathers, but tracking down the reports has shown these are proto-feathers, the bristles already known to be a feature of pterosaurs, just more evolved. It may provide some evidence for the currently heretical idea that birds may have evolved from pterosaurs not dinosaurs, or it may be an interesting case of parallel evolution (or Creation, if you are a Live Pterosaurs investigator ) but it is not a fatal objection – pterosaurs were not feathered, though with 65 million years to evolve they might not look much like the fossils we have (Whitcomb interestingly holds an Old Earth, Young Life model of Creationism, not YEC). He makes the rather good point that a lot of witnesses actually were not sure if the thing had feathers or not, but were inclined to say not. I think that certainly does reduce the likelihood of hoaxing – a hoaxer’s story or a hallucination would surely definitely not have feathers, but it does not rule out genuine misidentification of big birds.
I still have not really made much of a case for why I found the book engaging, but the answer is that Whitcomb surprised me. A number of the sightings suggest bioluminescence. I really did not expect that. Glow in the dark pterosaurs in the USA? It just gets weirder. I was not particularly convinced by the chapter linking pterosaurs to the Marfa Lights, but they hypothesis linking bioluminescence to bat hunting activities made sense I guess, and this very unexpected aspect of the sightings really did make me think he could be on to something. I found this feature by far the most intriguing: if I was going to invent a pterosaur story it would never occur to me to say the creature glowed, flickered or shone in the dark! It is apparently a feature of the PNG reports, so I guess people who have read Whitcomb’s book on that may add such a detail, but it really is rather odd.
I think by this time if you have read this far you will want to see an actual witness report. here are a couple of extracts from Whitcomb’s blog, the first from Virginia, the second from Georgia. They give you a pretty good feel for Whitcomb’s terse style, and his rather short reports on what was seen. I am delighted howver to see he has set up a game camera in a Southern California site, and is getting lots of shots – maybe one will show the elusive pterosaur seen by the witnesses in their backyard. I certainly shall follow his Live Pterosaur blog in the future. However again we see another niggling problem for me — if all the sightings were in say Nevada, I could buy it much easier than I can the idea these things live all over the USA but never get photographed. OK, there are rare big animals like as Whitcomb points out mountain lions that are rarely seen, but they don’t flap around in the sky! If nocturnal predators, maybe, just maybe. I would not stake my money on it, but I’m not the expert.
So in conclusion, what do I think of the book? It’s not polished, it’s not gripping at least in style (though the accounts are fascinating and Whitcomb makes some clever arguments) and it’s all way beyond my boggle threshold: I’m slightly more inclined to believe in live pterosaurs in the USA now than before I read it (which is to be fair not very surprising at all, given my ***almost*** complete disbelief before I read the book) , but I’m afraid I think the possibility is still very very remote they exist, but it certainly is worth investigating, and I must applaud all the work Whitcomb and colleagues put in. I fear many sceptics won’t even bother to go look for themselves (unless we get sightings in the UK that is not an option for me) or bother to carefully read Whitcomb’s book and look at his case. It is definitely worth reading, and well argued in the main. I would recommend buying his book available from Amazon.co.uk here for under £9. I’m humble enough to admit my opinion on the matter is pretty worthless, as I have not read the literature, have not investigated a single sighting, and know almost nothing about pterosaurs living or fossil. A sceptic of living pterosaur claims who does know his stuff is palaeontologist Glen Kuban and has his critique of living pterosaur claims can be found here. I found him from Whitcomb’s book, and I still think you should read the book as well as Kuban’s page, just in case you were planning some lazy debunking.
I may be a sceptic at heart, but I have no simple answers to what people are experiencing. The 35 cases Whitcomb gives may be the tip of the ice berg – he has estimated I believe 14,000 sightings in the USA, but I think that is extrapolation based on the fact most witnesses won’t come forward. You don’t hear a lot about local newspaper reports of pterosaur sightings though, and one thing that would be really interesting is if anyone could search archives for such, and link them on a web page. I respect the work and dedication of these chaps, and one thing I am certain of.
I still want to see a living pterosaur, because it would be a mindblowing thing to witness! I just hope they are real
It just struck me that I have never written about ghosts of Cheltenham, and considering former SPR President Robert H. Thouless wrote that one of our famous apparitions was among “the best attested in the annals of haunting” I thought I should. It’s tempting to start there, with the famous Cheltenham Ghost, as I have done a lot of original research on the case over the years, but I’m pushed for time today so instead I will write briefly about some other Cheltenham spooks.
A Rosehill Ghost Busted!
It seems fitting, as I first came to Cheltenham to attend the university (then the College of St. Paul and St. Mary) to begin there. Let’s go back to late September/ early October 1987, when I have just arrived and lived on the Rosehill Campus (which no longer exists). I was living in the East Wing Flat of John Priestley House, with a couple of other lads, in Halls of Residence (and shortly thereafter moved to Fullwood Halls on the Park Campus as it happens). I had had my experience at Thetford Priory only a few months before, and another strange experience I rarely tell back in Suffolk. I was very open to ghost stories at this time in my life!
One morning I woke up to find my flat filled with some of the Rec Studies students, big hefty sport lads. Turned out they had fled their rooms in one of the modern brick houses surrounding JPH (also Halls) because of a ghost! In fact I seem to recall some actually stayed in our flat for a few days. My memory is rubbish now, but I do recall the story pretty well though I have not told it as much as I have the Thetford story. If anyone can add more, or correct me, do comment or email me.
It seems that the “ghost ” was actually pretty innocuous – it was the sound of a ball bouncing down the main staircase, heard every night at the same time. At first it had gone unnoticed, until they were told the story of a depressed student who had hanged him or herself by the rather strange method of balancing on a medicine ball at the top of the stairs, and kicking it away, before dying. The ball bounced down the stairs, and that is the sound heard today – so the grim legend went. Of course, it all makes very little sense, but interestingly the witnesses were clearly hearing something.
I was caught up in the first week of college and homesickness, but I found time to make enquiries. No student had committed suicide in the building in question (and indeed any on that campus, and given it was with the exception of JPH fairly modern and the people I asked had all been around before it was built they would know!) and the legend was just that – a story that had arisen to scare Freshers. However, my flatmates and others went and heard a dull thudding sound, as described. In fact I seem to recall I gave them a flat bed Panasonic tape recorder to tape the sound, but whether they did or not I know not. It was getting softer over the two or three days of the phenomena, less audible.
The cause of the spook was now discovered. In the buildings the hot water tank and gas boiler were in a sort of cupboard area under the stairs, safely locked away. The building, empty of students and unheated over the summer holiday had become damp and cold; as the heating came on each evening the stair joists dried out, warmed up and expanded, causing the thudding. No ghost – just building noises. You can always find out of a “ghost” is caused by this by resetting the time your central heating turns on and seeing if the “ghost” follows suit. It only happens normally when you first turn it on for the year, in England in late September/early October, in other words about the time students come back.
Sadly nearby Pittville Campus had no ghost stories I am aware of.
Frances Close Hall really looks like it should be haunted, though doubtless Dean Close chased all the spooks of The Marsh as the area was called before he developed it and built the college around 1849 away. Tennyson called him the “Protestant Pope of Cheltenham” and despised him, and even today his reputation seems to be of an incredibly strong and rather scary religious fanatic, though he was greatly loved by the working people of Cheltenham at the time. I have been all round FCH at every time of day and night and seen and heard nothing, though there was in the late 1980′s a story that the corridor from the main staircase to the library which has a modern faux-Roman mosaic with the Latin phrase for the “legend lives on” was haunted, and students avoided collecting their post at night for fear of what they might encounter. Some said it was the ghost of a Roman legionnaire, which seems rather unlikely given the modern date of the mosaic! I never lived in halls at FCH (no longer a Hall of Residence but still very much a campus) and so am reliant on J.K. and Steve Wood for these vague rumours. If you know more, do email me! While a Roman soldier is out of place at F.C.H it would make perfect sense at Oxstall Campus i believe, but again I know of no alleged hauntings there.
Again, Hardwick Halls had no ghostly reputation that I am aware of, and neither did The Folley. Shaftesbury Hall did have rumours in it’s declining days after it’s sale by the college when it was being run as a jazz club and community centre in a state of increasing dereliction, but I never found any evidence of any haunts (some of the buildings opposite do have good stories however.) The only story I heard that seemed to have a slight ring of authenticity was stories about the Theatre being the source of loud noises and annoyance to the priests who live nearby after it was derelict and long boarded up and empty. I suspect they were hearing noises from Gas night club (later Chemistry I think) across the road, or the short lives Rhythm Rooms in the old Shaftesbury bar. However there is an interesting ghost story concerning the public passageway which runs behind the former Shaftesbury Campus and St. Greg’s church next door, where you can still walk it being a public footpath. I won’t tell it here now because it is not technically a university ghost, but will return to it later!
Ghosts of the Park Campus
And so we come to the place I know and love the best, the Park Campus. I still recall the legend of the Black Duck of Fullwood, a giant black vampire duck that ate Freshers, invented by Martin Peters I think to take the mickey out of my interest in spooks in 1987. It was a running joke. There is one oddity that if I was more inclined to believe my own senses might have been construed as a time-slip. Soon after arriving to live in Fullwood Halls (since demolished; the villas are on the site, but the Refectory and Principal’s House still stand) I wandered down to the lake with my good friend J.K, and turning right we found a lovely paved areas with a bench and little well tended area. A couple of days later we returned, finding the whole place far more overgrown than we remebered, and the bench missing. (if you find the paved spot and look in the water you will see what is probably the legs of it). We remarked at the time that it seemed to have all changed. The most likely explanation is someone threw the bench in the water; still it was replaced, and there is still one there today.
I love the lake and will haunt it one day. Sadly the swans seemed to have gone and been replaced by geese, but I wonder if the 6′ plus catfish still lurks in there? He was immense and monstrous, and it took several sightings by me before my friends believed me after I saw it.
Fullwood inevitably had a ghost story, told by a porter, though I never tracked the fellow in question down, and I knew many of them. It is recounted in Bob Meredith and Peter Reardon’s little book on local ghosts Cheltenham Town of Shadows, and having not asked for permission I will not repeat it here. You can still find it in some shops or second hand here – I can’t believe people are selling it new for £20 and £70, when it is really a very small booklet! Recommended. Ross Andrew’s Paranormal Cheltenham is well worth picking up – I reviewed it for the SPR here.
Anyway the ghost story took place on I think D South, far above the roofs of the current villas, in the now demolished Fullwood Halls. What the bombs of the Luftwaffe failed to achieve (they damaged the north wing in 1941) improved fire regulations made inevitable, but I knew the area well, and lived on B floor for three years without ever hearing anything of the ghost! Still, we do have one real ghost story where I interviewed the witness myself from the Park Campus, and being pushed for time I shall recount it here and then sign off for today. Here is the story as it appeared at the time on the uni website, written by, as usual, me… I have updayted it in [square brackets] where clarification is needed thirteen years later.
Cheltenham, May 3rd 1996
The SPS is based here at the Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education [today the university of Gloucestershire - CJ], and it is interesting to be able to report our first College ghost story in the society’s history. Pseudonymns have been used throughout, but the facts are all correct. I would like to remind would be ghost-hunters that the College is private property and that trespassers are likely to be eaten by the famous College guard dogs and security officers!
The setting for the sighting is Fullwood Hall of residence, which was my home for three years in the late 80′s. I must state at this point that I have never in my ten-year association with the College heard of any similar sighting, so we must assume this was a one-off…
On Friday 3rd of May 1996 the college staged a ‘May Ball’. It was a fancy dress event, on the theme of 60′s/70′s/80′s music. A good time was had by many.
At about 1.30am Amy and her partner Bill had returned to Amy’s room on ‘D’ West on the third storey of the building. The room’s window overlooks a semi-quadrangle, open at one side, covered in grass and with two trees. [Note: this area is immediately north of the Principal's House, D West being the then designation for student rooms up there. The grass area still exists as far as I recall, near the modern villa's]
Amy was looking out of the window, when she saw a woman standing by a tree. The woman was wearing a white dress, had dark hair, and a broad brimmed white hat with several large white feathers protruding. The style of dress was described by the witness as that of an Edwardian lady.
Amy was interested in the woman and observed her for what she estimates to have been three minutes. The woman then walked around the tree and stared at the [presumably "in the direction of" - the line of vision would be blocked by trees and the rise] lake. The area is very well lit; Amy noted the shadow of the tree but no shadow from the figure, which appeared perfectly solid.
Suddenly panicked she went to call Bill who came to the window – taking perhaps thirty seconds. The figure had vanished. It seems highly unlikely that the figure could have ran out of sight in that time, though the possibility of entering the building by a door or window must be admitted, and in a brief test I was able to sprint up to trees and cover in about twenty seconds.
You can read an account of a poltergeist investigation in a student house I did on my blog here.
The University’s Student Parapsychology Society (Defunct!)
For about a decade the university had a student society, the SPS or Student Parapsychology Society, founded by me and deeply involved in investigating spooks etc. (I’d like to see it reborn – contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to talk about this, or tell me a uni or college ghost story, or comment below). I was rather amused to find the old programme of events…
SPS Meetings Spring Term 2000
SPS meetings are held from 5.30pm – 7.30pm every Wednesday of term, and are open to all students. Students should e-mail John Madden for details of lecture locations.
Wk 1 Careers in Parapsychology… CJ
Wk 2 Theories of the Poltergeist
Wk 3 Experimental Psi Research
Wk 4 Modern Resarch in Survival of Bodily Death
Wk 5 The Case for Survival; A Debate
Wk 6 Investigations in the History of Psychical Research… CJ
Wk 7 Do we need a new Psychical Research?
Wk 8 Guest Lecture… speaker to be announced
Wk 9 Psychiatry and Psychical Research
Wk 10 Christianity and Psychical Research: The Power of Prayer?
Wk 11 The Ley of the land; Parapsychology, Earth Mysteries and Cultural History…CJ
I note with wry amusement that 9 weeks talks were given by me, and they really were lectures with handouts, coursework and everything! Oh how I miss those days with the “spusslings” and our bottles of little dead guy wine – they still sell it in what is now Sainsbury’s Bath Road I noticed today! One grows old so fast.
If you have any university or otherwise ghost stories do share them with me – email@example.com, or comment below
On Thursday I’m Talking Ghosts At Skeptics In the Pub, Cheltenham Science Festival Fringe. Controversy May Ensue :D
A quick update seems in order. It’s Tuesday 12th June and The Times Cheltenham Science Festival is under way. I’m still wondering why the brochure appears to feature a perspex butt plug though? Or is it just Global Melting, like Global Warming but hotter? Anyway so far I have seen no events, simply because I have not yet got up and gone out except for a quick trip to acquire breakfast. Secondly, I have a talk to write!
No, the Festival organisers have not gone mad. Every year however Cheltenham Skeptics In The Pub run a wonderful Fringe programme – last year I saw the Festival of the spoken Nerd and Dr Harry Witchell on the Science of Dating. This year the programme looks just as exciting, and while it gets little attention the Fringe Events are excellent and well worth attending if you are in town for the Science Festival. I was thinking of going through the whole run down, from Dark Matters to Science Show Offs on Saturday, but the website does that better than I can. Also these events are all FREE, with a donations bucket being passed around if you want to give (Being Skeptics it’s a bucket not a collection plate – there may be some subtle symbolism I’m missing?)
So I am trying to write my talk on The Science of Ghosts for Thursday night…
Now most of my friends so far seem to respond with “there isn’t any!”. Given I have spent twenty five years studying it, I think there is — but as a recent row on the Rational Skepticism forum suggests, a lot of people think that when I say “ghosts” I mean “Dead Guys” ( & Dead Gals too). This is unfortunate, because it is all a lot more complicated than that. I could say I take a phenomenological approach, rather than making an ontological claim, but I think people would just look at me funny, and I don’t mean phenomenological in the sense of Philosophy they might also think I’m nuts. So just to be clear, I’m looking at how we study two things: the ghost experience, and the causes thereof. (“Tough on Ghosts, Tough on the Causes of Ghosts”? If you want to be really bored you can read my ASSAP conference talk here: this one will be faster, funnier cover very different ground and have more “science” whatever that means!
Anyhow this year my talk will be mercifully free of asides on the philosophy of science, epistemology and other big words too. In fact it will be a) light hearted, b) loud, c) visual (I’m using a lot of video or whatever you call the digital equivalent) clips and also very hands on. Yes I’m running some little experiments and audience participation events, because well, why ever not? So be prepared for Circle Dancing, Knocking On Wood, learning the Power of Expectation and Suggestion, and I’m even doing a little jokey tribute to Bem’s precognition research, which sounds deadly dull, but isn’t at all, at least in my version I hope.
So is there any Science of Ghosts? Yes, way, way too much to even just list the areas covered in the time I have, unless I over run by a week. I think the best way to go is to keep the first half light hearted and fast moving. I have been through loads of topics I could cover, and have thought about presenting on a little of everything, but in the end I have chosen just two topics for the first bit that I can present well upon and have never given a talk on before, one of which is very suited to hands on experimentation.
One thing that seems to confuse a lot of people is why I am talking at Skeptics In The Pub. Paranormal Believers often seem to regard Skeptics, or as us non-Americans usually call ‘em, Sceptics, as the enemy. (Why do we use the American spelling? Is it to prove we know Greek or something?) Skeptics/Sceptics think people like me who spend our time on parapsychology are all woos, unless they have heard of us (Chris French and Richard Wiseman are exempt from this it seems. Stuart J Ritchie probably still gets called a woo, as he is not yet a household name?). I’m desperately hoping that Professor Brian Cox might show to run a picket line and to tell people I’m an utter nobber, but sadly feel that highly unlikely.:D
Anyway why am I talking at a Skeptic’s meeting? Well I have always regarded myself as a sceptic. Yes I’m a methodological sceptic, and sometimes I come to conclusions that sit uncomfortably with other sceptics, but I do believe firmly that doubt and “rational sceptisicm” are the only way forward and are central to the scientific method, or rather most scientific methods, as I don’t think there is only one. It often amuses me that I am far less certain of many things than self-proclaimed forum sceptics who are absolutely rock solid in their beliefs where I have little more than an ever expanding list questions, a lot of data, and a few tentative, provisional conclusions. I encounter this time and time again on the JREF and other forums: people whose faith is stronger than mine.
Anyway, enough rambling. I have a talk to write. I’ll let others decide if I am a Fake Sceptic or not. Whatever you think about ghosts and parapsychology, the questions it raises for Science, how we do Science, how we communicate Science and what constitutes real Science are vital, or so I am inclined to think. I hope some of you will come a long and heckle, whether sceptic or believer!
Here are the talk details
Thursday, June 14 2012 at 7:30PM
40 Clarence St
What’s the talk about?
Ghosts don’t exist, all skeptics know this, right?. Yet even a skeptic can experience a “ghost”, and when one does all kind of awkward questions arise. That was what happened to CJ, and the story of how he became involved in parapsychology, spent twenty five years investigating hauntings and became embroiled in working in paranormal television for a decade before ending up with far more questions than when he started may amuse and hopefully cause you to question your own deep seated beliefs on the subject. Learn the inside view behind shows like Most Haunted, and why despite everything for CJ at least the serious research must continue.
So can Science really address the ghost experience? For 120 years scientists have wrestled with the question of what is really going on when people think they see ghosts, and in this talk CJ promises to present a whistle stop tour of the science that has been published in the field, good, bad and bogus. Can science finally exorcise our ancient fears of the unquiet dead, and explain the night hag? Are buildings haunted, or is it people? And what should you do if you actually see a spook? If that seems unlikely, come along, and find out how you could
The event is FREE, but we will be shaking the Skeptic-Bucket to cover costs
I like James Randi, a lot. He has had a rough year, and I wish him well – and I have long supported the JREF, despite endless objections to some of Randi’s videos. Long time readers of this blog will recall my annoyance, near apoplexy, at woo in the Nazareth Never Existed one, and his sceptical piece on man-made global warming (strongly suggesting he did not believe in it) shocked me, but hell I guess it’s good to question. If a difference of opinion with another sceptic OR parapsychologist stopped me talking to them, and far more importantly, listening and learning from them, I’d be both ignorant and friendless.
The JREF staff I have spoken to over the years have been unfailingly polite and helpful, despite my tendency towards accepting some “paranormal” beliefs, and my strong commitment to investigating these issues scientifically. I’m particularly a fan of the JREF forum, where I have made many friends, and can promise that though there are some acerbic and rather strident critics there, there are also some excellent sceptics, critics and thinkers. I learn a lot there. I have respect for DJ Grothe and Phil Plait, who have both been JREF Presidents, and usually enjoy my reading there.
However, often the JREF videos can be wrong, or misleading. Today I finally saw this years Pigasus awards, ofter spotting a mention on the SPR Facebook page, and went and watched it. The Pigasus Awards are basically Ig Nobel Prizes for the worst in some paranormal, psychic or parapsychological related field, a mock honour that highlights the worst out there. And I tend to actually be pretty pleased with some of the choices, and irritated by others. There is a good wikipedia page on the Pigasus Awards
Anyway this years Awards make for fun viewing, so here they are
Video (c) JREF 2012.
Now, the bit I have a problem with this year is the awarding of the Pigasus for Science to Daryl Bem for his work on habituative presentiment, that infamous study I wrote about a few weeks back – if you have no idea what I am on about best read that first. Given I don’t actually believe in psi, and find it hard to see how it can work — though clearly there would be vast adaptive advantage in precognition if such a thing could exist, so yes in evolutionary terms it would make sense — why am I so irritated?
Listen to the speech again.
“The winner of the Pigasus Award for Science is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research which has been discredited on many accounts, by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”
I had not actually read Steven Novella’s piece before today, but I do in my previous piece refer to the research he cites — Wagenmakers et al (2011) — and link to it and Bem’s response. I am curious as to why Novella was mentioned rather than Wagenmakers here, and even more striking omission is that while two of the researchers who performed the recent failed replication of Bem’s experiment are mentioned, Stuart J Ritchie the other author does not get a mention at all. I have seen lots of theoretical criticisms of Bem’s work – here is an interesting thread on the JREF Forum, and here is Bare Normality’s recent blog post. However to me the most important critique remains that of those who have like Galak & Nelson and Ritchie, French & Wiseman actually replicated the experiments. As I commented in my last piece on spin in science and the Bem affair, there have of course also been successful replications.
Now the use of the word shoddy to describe Bem’s work is to me highly unfair, given that Wagenmakers critique, if correct, is that the methods used by almost all social scientists and lots of “hard” scientists too for dealing with probability are flawed, and these are inherent issues in our statistical methodologies. I’m not going to get involved in a discussion of Frequentist versus Bayesian analysis, because I’m not qualified to do so — but if Wagenmaker’s et als critique as put forward by Novella is correct then it is a common and widespread issue effecting a centuries research across the sciences, not something specific to Bem. How is that shoddy? I don’t know if it is correct – Bem has responded, and I encourage interested parties to go back and read the papers and discussion, which are linked in my last piece. The use of the word “shoddy” however really needs some justification.
Let’s move on. Randi continues –
“such examination, shows very strange methods used by Bem, which ends up unproven, though the popular media of course have chosen to embrace it.”
I have seen some suggestions of methodological flaws, which I linked above, but the paper was published in a major peer reviewed journal and has generally been positively commented upon by many of those who have like myself been through the paper looking for such flaws to explain the bizarre results. As anyone who has read my last piece knows, I am dismayed by the media spin: but plenty of popular science magazines have also reported on the affair, and the failed replications.
The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail? A failed replication speaks far more to me than all the theoretical objections folks have raised, and is no real scandal. People do research, get funny results, others try to replicate and if replication fails we then start to try and work out what the hell is going on. Now in this case Dr Richard Wiseman is maintaining a “file drawer” registry of replications, and will publish a meta-analysis later in the year or next, which will finally clarify what exactly the experiments say. I have plenty of time for French, Ritchie and Wiseman — but this assassination of character by implication and slur just annoys me.
The truth is Bem performed perfectly good science, and while the media hype that followed was a bit odd, over the top and regrettable, he will be vindicated or be proven wrong by perfectly good, and normal, scientific methods. The Pigasus Award seems to be an attempt to place Bem’s research firmly in the pseudoscience camp; I think that is manifestly unfair. I can’t see Ritchie, Wiseman and French condoning this, and have drawn it their attention: all it does is widen the gap between parapsychologists and their intelligent critics, and it’s simply misleading. It does also make those who bothered like the above British team to replicate and seriously take on Bem on the issue look like fools.
And here is the thing: Randi appears to think that Bem’s work is worthy as a Pigasus because it can’t be right. He has made an a priori assumption it will not be vindicated (as have I to some extent, I just don’t claim to know that until the evidence is in, it’s simply a personal prejudice…) but by the award of the Piagsus he goes much further, belittling Bem for taking the subject seriously enough to research it.
Randi seems to think he knows what science contains, and psi is clearly absurd. He ridicules those who use science to investigate these issues – if they happen to disagree with his prejudice, while praising those like Wiseman and French (and the not-to-be-mentioned Ritchie) who use exactly the same methodologies, yet find results he personally finds acceptable. This is not uncommon in an ideological struggle like the parapsychologicalist-believers versus sceptic struggle has been since the days of William James at least, but it is ultimately far more damaging and dangerous to real scientific inquiry than Bem’s research. Science asks questions, tests them, and falsifies hypotheses — and is conducted not by sneering and cheap shots, but by hard work and real research.
As usual the Daily Grail beat me to the story, and did it better, but anyway, enough. As usual, it is science that is the victim here, and the war of spin continues…
UPDATE: Just saw that Stuart J Ritchie one of the authors of the failure to replicate experiment wrote on Twitter “Should put it on record that I think James Randi giving Bem the Pigasus award is unfair, unhelpful and disappointing.”
I agree totally.