I said I’d write something about the weekend, and i guess I should, but for anyone hoping for fantastic proof of the paranormal, look elsewhere! What follows is a short account of a weekend ghost hunt that was notably devoid of actual spooky happenings.
GSUK is a small psychical research group set up by Becky Smith and I after we stopped working for Richard Felix at Derby Gaol. It’s every much a group of friends, and we have a forum where we chat, occasionally talk about the paranormal and plan our low cost little ghost-tourism jaunts, where we go to supposedly haunted locations and stay a night, a lovely way to see the country. I can’t recall exactly how many trips we have done, but we have ranged all over the Midlands and South West of England, and our regulars do try to attend every single event, for which we are very grateful. Perhaps the most interesting thing about GSUK is just how little of a paranormal nature ever seems to happen to us – in all our trips, only on one have I been really convinced something very odd was afoot! So unlike many ghosthunting groups, we are spectacularly unsuccessful in our endeavours.
Another peculiarity of GSUK is the wide range of beliefs that members hold. A year or two back Becky and I got our folks to fill in Michael Thalbourne’s Australian Sheep/Goat survey, an instrument for testing belief in the paranormal. The majority of our members were actually extremely sceptical compared with the British public, and i was the second LEAST sceptical member of the group. Only one member counts as a strong “paranormal believer”. Yet we are convinced that the phenomena are worth investigating, and even Balders (Tony Robinson), our most sceptical member by far, is open minded enough to drive all over the country checking out the evidence for himself.
Even in religious beliefs we are diverse, ranging from Natalie Evans, our Wiccan-Spiritualist believer, through to the passionate atheists and then David Carter Green, David Sivier, Dawn Bedwell and myself, all practicing Christians. No, we don’t burn psychic believers at the stake – though if I could get away with it a few New Agers might make for a great open air barbecue! We are a tolerant bunch, often amused by each others ideas but we are good friends through shared experience I guess, even if the experience is limited to talking on a forum, eating together in nice hotels and wandering around looking for spooks! Anyway a great group of people, and we always welcome new people, as long as they are not loonies. :)
Anyway there was not even time to advertise this one on Facebook, where GSUK has 60+ fans – we just mentioned it on the forum, and it filled up immediately. We had to turn people away for once, almost unheard of! The plan was simple – make our way to the Old Bell, Long Street, Dursley, and book in, have a meal – the food there is simply wonderful, huge meals very reasonably priced, then drive down to the Ancient Ram Inn, Wotton-Under-Edge, stake it out till the early hours then return to the hotel in Dursley where people could sleep or sit up and look for ghosts as the mood took them. As the Old Bell is very reasonably priced, and we agreed we would give John Humphries owner of the Ram a sensible donation, the weekend was not too expensive, and I think it was worth every penny, even if I say so myself…
Getting There – an adventure in itself!
On Saturday Becky picked me up and we made our way to Dursley, where our intrepid investigators assembled form all over. Many arrived at Cam & Dursley station, or as Tracy calls it after an earlier visit, “Damn and Cursely”. Would be ghosthunters should note it is a few miles up a very steep hill from Dursley, and a couple of miles from that town and Cam. There is a bus route, but folks dropped of by train in what appears to be the middle of the countryside may feel a little hard done by, so arrange lifts or look at bus times in advance! Once we had all arrived at the Old Bell, we had the usual meeting and greeting, the aforementioned excellent meal, and as many of us had been to the Old Bell before, in my case many, many times, a cheerful social afternoon. Any ghosthunters reading this may wish to check out the Old Bell Hotel, a wonderful place to investigate with a genuinely ghosthunter friendly staff (and I’m usually available to show you round with enough notice as well if you want to know my side of the story – I blog about my previous experiences investigating the Old Bell here), but be warned – the hotel rooms are directly above Capone’s Nightclub, which is open till 5am in the morning, and the exuberant youth of Gloucestershire and pounding music are VERY audible all night.
On a previous investigation we ended up parodying Most Haunted, with me shouting “Did You Hear That?” over the sound of dance music, and when an ashtray moved in the dining room on the first floor it was clearly the vibrations from the speakers. You would have thought we were disgruntled, but not a bit – it’s very comfortable and we all I think enjoyed a good nights sleep, except those disturbed by certain member’s almost legendary snoring! However if you are planning to investigate here, do choose a week night.
At seven pm we set off for the Ancient Ram – you need cars to get there across the hills from Dursley, it’s about thirteen miles I think. We set off in convoy but some cars quickly became detached, but most of us went the wrong way in Wotton itself, and when Becky and I took the lead we could find no where to turn round, so we drove some eight miles before we finally managed to turn back, and I managed to get us to the Ram. We arrived in darkness, and pouring rain. I know where it is, I have been many times over the years, most recently being filmed for a US show called Ghost Adventures (Travel Channel, showing this month) just a month or two back, but I can’t find the Ram’s postcode anywhere and so Sat Nav was useless – and owing to some fault Becky’s Sat Nav played up all day.
The Ancient Ram House
I have quite a long association with the Ancient Ram. Back in 1993/94 I conducted a lengthy investigation, including a 72 hour vigil with a team. On another occasion I investigated alongside a team from ASSAP, and with the CPRG made a number of other trips there. I believe Derek and Harry’s report will still be filed at the SPR offices in Marloes Road – I was not actually party to the report, and am not sure what was said therein, but I certainly personally formed the conclusion that there did seem to have been a series of poltergeist type events in the late 1980’s when John’s daughter was resident in a room at the top of the stairwell. My memory, which may be faulty, was at the time we investigated John lived in the area which is now called The Barn, and was sole resident. I don’t actually recall the “ancient grave” which is in the main room downstairs, though I do know it was apparently uncovered in late 1968, so how I missed it I have no idea! The house itself is far more cluttered than it was then, and the upper storey and attic is now no longer reachable, after the staircase collapsed under the weight of some rather large ghosthunting ladies. This has led to some notoriety for John Humphries as he has signs up which inform the public that fat women are not welcome upstairs! If you are at all sensitive about your weight probably best give the Ram a miss – even if you are slim as Becky, who is positively thin, you might be worried the building might collapse about your ears.
The Ghost Adventures episode was not my first time with TV at the Ram – Most Haunted filmed there, though I was not present, in the period I was a researcher for them, and ditto Dave Barrett’s Y Files and of course the episode of Ghost Hunters Spectres of the Severn in which I feature quite prominently talking about fault lines and Gloucestershire hauntings in relation to the geology of the area. The building is definitely picturesque, with features of historical interest, and there has been considerable controversy about the council’s refusal to help the owner John Humphries preserve a grade 2 (star) listed building which is clearly in structural disarray, and at the time of his taking it on in 1968 was actually as I understand it condemned to demolition. I do not really know the ins and outs of the court actions, and the loss of an adjacent area of land ot New Life Church Dursley following another court action, but it is clear that John is struggling to keep his home in a habitable condition and that the property requires massive capital investment if it is to be there for future generations to enjoy. Ghosthunters are one of the ways, along with American tourists brought to the building by a Mayflower connection, that John is able to attempt to fund the restoration.
Arriving finally at the Ram it was already nighttime, and we managed to make John hear and gain admission. He has recently been hospitalised after local kids beat him up after breaking in (he is 82) and he is now very security conscious. He proved, despite many rumours, an excellent host, and we all felt sorry for the sweet old chap, who is little like the more vigorous and opinionated John Humphries of the 90’s. He gave us a lengthy guided tour, in the course of which I noted several features I had not seen before, but mainly I was amazed by how much stuff he had accumulated – almost every room is filled with piles of stuff, from furniture to soft furnishings, stacked high. When Most Haunted was filmed they must have carefully filmed round this, unless the clutter is much more recent.
Only got back today from GSUK’s latest ghosthunt, this time to the Ancient Ram, Wotton-Under-Edge, and the Old Bell Hotel, Dursley. I’ll write up our adventures tomorrow as I’m too tired tonight, but rather than keep everyone waiting, I did not see any ghosts! Still it was a great weekend, and the usual thanks to Becky for putting up with me and driving, and to everyone who came along and made it such a memorable occasion. It was particularly nice to unexpectedly see Graham Atkinson, who joined us at the last possible moment, and many old friends. John Humphries was in fine form, though frail health, and while we did not get spooked I think we all enjoyed ourselves. Anyway full report to follow….
A short post till the hour comes round for this rough beast to slouch to TESCO, being bored…
I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.
Thomas Paine –The Age of Reason
Oddly enough, despite a dramatic “ghost” experience in 1987, I did not immediately come to consider seriously the afterlife hypothesis. After all one might come up with many explanations of “ghosts” which do not require the human to persist in some sense beyond death, and for many years I did (and still do in they majority of cases I think) favour those. I am as noted personally disinclined to consider the survival (life after death) hypothesis – it strikes me as deeply counter-intuitive.
Anyway the summer of 1993 saw me reasonably well versed in parapsychology, and how to investigate a “haunting”. That summer I was contacted by a gentleman who owned a small hotel, and who stated his family who lived there had been troubled by a series of ghostly happenings – could we do something about it? Immediately we have a problem – I want to investigate ghosts, but people who call me usually wanted to get rid of them! I am a researcher, not an exorcist, no not even a ghostbuster! Fortunately a few months earlier we had also met a psychic claimant, Morven, who asked to be tested to see if her mediumship was genuine, or self delusion, or something else!
Morven was a lovely middle aged woman from Ireland who had been in the area for about two or three years. We agreed to the test, and with our “haunt” some thirty plus miles away in another town, felt it unlikely she could have foreknowledge of the case. As by profession I am a researcher, I conducted newspaper archive and book searches for material on the locations “haunting”, and established that no stories had been published for almost twenty years, but that there was a legend of a maidservant who hanged herself in one room after she found herself pregnant and her lover went off to the English Civil War, never to return. This necessitated that we go to elaborate lengths to prevent the medium gaining knowledge of her location.
We therefore placed cotton wool over her eyes, and taped it in location. We then placed a sleeping mask on top, before employing a full head bag of total opacity, secured at the neck to prevent peeping. We placed a walkman with loud music on, and drover her out of town by a circuitous route, doubling the 30 mile trip. I did not reveal the location to my team until minutes before we set off, when one sceptic went ahead to make sure any obvious items in the five hotel rooms we planned to use for the experiment were removed, and the curtains secured to prevent any glimpse of the sky line or other external identifying features.
On arrival the medium, now thoroughly car sick and gagging was taken as quickly as possible in to one room, and the hood removed. Our research ethics were awful! She however soon perked up, and identified one room as the haunt location. Now this was correct, though if she had gone by the published accounts she would have been wrong – the rooms had been renumbered ten years before as I had previously established. Still she had a 20% chance of that!
She then reported a strangling sensation, and said a woman about 5’10” tall had hanged herself in the room. Fine, but rather tall we thought, and hardly unlikely given the age of the building! Furthermore she described turn of the century dress – 300 years out from the accounts we had! A radio team present taped (and broadcast next day) her “reading” – and the highpoint was the suggestion of unhappiness (do happy people hang themselves?!!),too much booze and a name. She gives the name as follows – “Amy – no, Emmy. The surname is almost the same. Yes, it’s something like Emmy Emily”. She offered NO other names, and a few minutes later we had to open the window to giver her air, calling the experiment off..
I (rather gleefully I am afraid) told her she was completely wrong.
A week passed, and an interested local historian, Lionel Ayliffe, checked out the local coroners records – to find the only suicide recorded in the building happened in 1904, a lady named Amy Amery who was a servant who hanged herself after being dismissed for being a drunk. This material had not been published as far as I can ascertain since the tragedy in 1904 when it had appeared in a local newspaper.
I am still disinclined to the mediumistic hypothesis by nature, but following this apparent success I decided to experiment further. The medium made a number of correct statements, and one possibly incorrect – that the body was buried in the church opposite, something we could not ascertain. It was no more than a spark, but it got me interested. I claim no real evidence here – coincidence perhaps? – but it led me to at least investigate the survival hypothesis.
Annoyingly, the tapes are lost. There is an account in The Psi-pher, the CPRG magazine, written close to the time – that is filed with the SPR, and in the British Library, but I don’t have a copy. I will try at some future date to find the newspaper articles from the local press at the time. The “hit” was impressive – and I am tempted to speculate on how Morven could have gained access to the information, by various natural and “paranormal” hypotheses. For the moment however, I’ll reflect more on the whole issue of mediumship…
Morven is no longer with us. I worked with her till 1995, when she became clearly unwell, and she died of breast cancer, refusing all but palliative care, brave and cheerful to the end. Her absolute conviction death was not the end was demonstrated int he immense courage with which she refused treatment. She left a wonderful son and daughter, two lovely people, and my memories of her are all fond. She died far too young, and I was angry about it, and I must say blamed her belief system to a small extent, however irrationally. Fear of death does make you fight harder maybe? Still Morven, I hope you are happy somewhere and giggling at me writing this… I’ll write more on Morven another time, in tribute to her memory.
Morven “did feet”. She was reflexologist I think, and she insisted on doing this to my feet, free of charge. It was ok I guess, I did not really think it would have much effect, but it was soothing I think, depite my cynical jokes throughout the session. I really hope I did not offend her, now at least! I can be, like Clovis, terribly frank. One night after the session she offered to try and get in touch with the Other Side for me, and despite my utter religious and moral rejection of necromancy and mediumship, I said, “well if anyone has a message I’ll gladly hear it.” Eventually she did give me a message, and with some heavy prompting by me, she finally gave me one part of a message I had expected from my grandmother. If she had then given the second part, I would have been convinced – as it was, I’m afraid I was not. There was nothing evidential to me in the message: to this day, no one has ever given me the two things i would expect to hear from her.
Why do I have problems with mediumship? Partly, it is to do with the dignity of the dead. I dislike treating the dead as performing seals.Here are the wise words of Stan from South Park –
You see, I learned something today. At first I thought you were all stupid, listening to this douche’s advice, but now I understand that you’re all here because you’re scared. You’re scared of death and he offers you some kind of understanding. You all want to believe in it so much, I know you do. You find comfort in the thought that your loved ones are floating around trying to talk to you, but thnk about it: Is that really what you want? To just be floating around after you die, having to talk to this asshole?
Now obviously I do not feel this way about Morven. She was a truly lovely, talented human being, who felt she had a special gift. Yet, in most cases in my experience, given enough time mediums do suffer in their own lives. The Fox Sisters succumbed to alcoholism I have met some lovely mediums, like my dear friend, Natalie, but I have also met some who I could honestly categorise as douches. Except possibly a douche has some valid medical usage – I don’t know… Yet to me, dabbling with the dead does not seem to generally result in much good. Ironic words for a fervent investigator of mediumship and spontaneous cases? Well, look at it this way – I use the bus analogy.
Imagine you are on a bus, and a stranger tells you to end your marriage. They inform you they are your long lost uncle, know all about your life, and while they really just tell you a lot of platitudes, with maybe a couple of verifiable facts, they insist they are telling you the best, for your own good. Would you take that advice? I have a frind who told me she was given up on her plans to study Classics at postgraduate level, because the board had advised her. The university board? A board of classicists? I was puzzled. No, it turned out the board she was taking advice from was – a ouija board! To me this is tantamount to insanity. Sure, I’m probably really offending vast swathes of the readers of this blog – well a couple of you, as amazingly fifty people a day do read this, why I have no idea – anyway, I can only say it as I see it.
Now, what is the difference between listening to a medium, or supposedly a “disincarnate, disembodied spirit” and the guy on the bus who says he is your uncle? Some Christians believe they have the gift of discernment of spirits – I sure as hell don’t – but I can judge things by their fruits, and i have never been persuaded That much good cvomes of taking advice from the “dead”. My problem – are they always the dead? Pretty much every culture has a tradition of daimonic spirits, demons, evil spirits, angels, call them what you will- non-human intelligences. Many mediums talk to me about “lower astral entities”, who impersonate the dead. So really dudes, I’m a bit wary. In fact I’m more than a bit wary – I’m positively opposed to listening to the “dead”, and making life choices on that basis. Sure my religious thinking probably results in prejudices, but if these things exist – how do we know they are what they say they are???
So do I believe in life after death? As a matte rof religious faith, yes. “Everything is NOT pointless” is CJ’s mantra, and I’m a colossal optimist – where Louie and I differ sharply. But evidentially? Again, a guarded “yes”.
What really made me decide to favour it was the JSPR papers of Robertson and Roy on their PRISM research. These experiments examine the common (and on the face of it reasonable) sceptical claim that the statements given by mediums which purport to come from deceased communicators are so vague and general as to apply to anyone, and secondly that “cold reading” (which is possible, I can do it myself) whether conscious or unconscious accounts for any successes. Now as communication theorists generally agree that over 50% of communication is non-verbal, and that latter is demonstrable (even by me) to be possible, then immediately we need to devise quite a complex protocol for testing a medium.
What Roy and Robertson did was to design a simple procedure, by which a mediums statements to an individual in an audience were recorded. They then asked people not present how many of the statements they could accept, and found a incredibly high difference between the two sets of results. It was statistically demonstrable that chance could not account for the difference. The probability was less than 1 in 10,000 million the results were due to chance. Somehow the mediums were making statements which were NOT generally applicable, though about 30% of statements were vague enough to be taken as true by the average person. However over a large sample the statistics speak for themselves — somehow the medium was receiving information, or the recipient was far more likely to accept statements than the later research pool of a similar demographic “marking” the statements.
Now I’m sure that would not surprise anyone at all. After all the medium can SEE the audience member,and receive feedback. I’m sure we are all familiar with Cold Reading, and Hot Reading (deliberate research and preparation) remains a possibility. Therefore I am not especially surprised that the experiment gave the results it did…
However Robertson and Roy did not stop there. They published their protocol, in their second journal article, and deliberately sort out critical and sceptical evaluation. The protocol was tightened to a triple blind experiment, where the medium was not able to see the audience, and the audience did not know who was the recipient, and the two experimenters did not share this information two and a half years they conducted trials with this basic protocol and six different variations. And their conclusion? The statistical evaluation clearly showed that somehow the mediums were “hitting” far beyond probability, and that the chance could not be responsible. Some other factor is involved – what it is we do not know.
Sure that does not mean all “mediums” can do this. Most are doubtless deluded, charlatans or simply mistaken. The selected mediums studied however, chosen for their integrity and seeming ability were somehow obtaining information without any obvious sensory cues, in triple blind experimental conditions. That in no way proves afterlife – I can think of several other possibilities – but it was equally clear that cold reading was not responsible, and that in fact 60%+ of statements made were far too specific to be accepted by an audience, regardless of the common assertion that is exactly what is happening.
So at the moment, I accept the theoretical possibility of life after death and even mediumistic communication – but I’m not a huge fan of talking to the dead. :)
Anyway time for Tesco! If anyone actually read this far do comment, and I admre your patience with my dull uninteresting nonsense. :)