The Science of Ghosts: how it went!

So what can I say about the Science of Ghosts event?

Well I have been at the Edinburgh Science Festival, and I sort of wish I was there today. I was in a planning meeting last night though for our own Festival, so keep watching this space! Anyway, the opening event was The Science of Ghosts, which attracted a great deal of media attention, and I think I can say that it was an excellent day, and you should have been there! (Unless you are Becky, in which case you were there!)

Becky drove up – it’s a terribly long way, the train is bad enough and we spent the night before trying to find the venue. There were no directions on the website, and finding accommodation and the venue were major hassles – and Richard Wiseman never replied to my enquiry email – next time I shall try Caroline. Even the Science Festival staff who were first rate overall were unable to help us as we walked around Edinburgh in a fog on friday night, seeking where we were going the next day.  If I  had not been able to call Laura Nelson and get her to perform net searches we would probably never have found the venue. Next problem was parking – this is central Edinburgh, and all the parking we could find was a) extortionate and b) maximum four hours. We asked at the uni – the sat nav had taken us to the wrong uni campus, and Edinburgh as two universities as well just to add to the fun — and no one could help. We also spoke to a nursing student, who was really friendly and helpful, but had absolutely no idea where the Anatomy Lecture theatre was!

Walking round Edinburgh in the fog is quite eerie – beautiful city, but chilly and with deep mist like something from a Jack the Ripper film. At a students suggestion we ate at Monster Mash, a little restaurant that does sausage, gravy and mash in various varieties – not much change from twenty quid, which makes me think if this is how Edinburgh students live no wonder they have huge debts, but really good service and great food. Highly recommended! It’s off Teviot Place I think.

On Saturday morning up soon after daybreak to get the bus for the seven miles from the nearest affordable accommodation – a Travelodge in Dreghorn, in to Central Edinburgh.  The Travelodge was fine, with exceptionally friendly staff and superb service – and bus pretty good as well. I must say Scots do seem very friendly, even to those of us with English accents.

So we got  to the venue, and the excellent Festival staff in their orange shirts were very welcoming. I wish I had taken names to email praise to their bosses – but thanks to all of you! About 200 people attended the session — I was hoping to meet a chap off the JREF forum, and spent a whole day clutching a PSPR (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research) – The Scole Report actually – to give to him. Never found him, so gave it to laura in the end, and she can pass it on when she has finished with it!

First event was Richard Wiseman on Investigating ‘haunted’ locations: A scientific approach. This was on quantitative approaches to spontaneous case investigation, and to be honest I don’t think anyone who knows me would have found it particularly new. I have after all being banging on about Gertrude Schmeidler’s approach since the early 1990’s, and as Parasoc, the later CPRG and GSUK have all used various forms of quantitative assessment based on my various methodological designs, well nowt new here.

What is it? It’s when you use people recording impressions and marking them on a map and compare that data against existing witness sightings, in essence. 🙂

It is however still a minority approach in ghost investigation among parapsychologists I think (mainly because parapsychologists always strike me as woefully ignorant of the literature and the papers describing the idea were published in American parapsychological journals from the 1960s to 1983 I think, not the PSRP or JSPR – hence little known in this country.

Those interested can check out Quantitative investigation of a “haunted house”. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1966, 60, 137-149 was the paper which inspired me to try it initially, and Quantitative investigation of a “haunted house” with sensitives and a control group. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1968, 62, 399-410 and Quantitative investigation of a recurrent phenomenon. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1975, 69, 341-352. I’m sure there is a 1983 paper, but I forget it!  Gertrude Schmeidler is one of the true giants of modern parapsychology, and I hope one day to meet her if she ever lectures in Britain. Google will find my own comments on experiments with these – I may try and get the data from the GSUK experiment at Tamworth Castle last summer written up properly soon, if Becky is interested in doing that. Those interested on my musings on this approach ot investigation can find it on google easily enough, on the JREF Forum, or even on some earlier posts on this blog.

Anyway Richard Wiseman did a presentation on the research he was part of at Hampton Court Palace and Edinburgh Vaults. I’m guessing a lot of readers of my blog have already read the papers – but you can read about this and learn much more on Furthermore you can download three of the papers by Wiseman et al on the research which are really very interesting reading, if a bit dry and technical. Have  a look!

Criticisms? I was rather surprised at the emphasis placed on the infrasound hypothesis of Tandy’s – I spoke to both Ian Hume and Tony Lawrence last year about it and both felt it had been taken further than Vic intended, and given the debunking  work of Braithwaite published in I think the EJP last year (yes Jason Braithwaite and i agree on very few things – this is one of them though!), and the ubiquity of low frequency sound in nature, I’m extremely sceptical. I saw Ciaran’s Silent Sound experiment referenced – but I have not read the paper so I’ll reserve comment for now. I’ll just not that I think from the papers that other environmental stimuli were far more important? Um… not convinced!

Generally though Richard Wiseman’s talk was a plea for environmental theories of haunting to be taken seriously by sceptics I think. Whats that?

I’ll give an example. A few years ago Becky  raised the idea that some of the phenomena associated with the Station Hotel, Dudley may be linked to seismic activity. We know that ten days before Dudley Castle featured on the Most Haunted Live show, there was a major earthquake in the vicinity. It seems likely that the underground activity may have been responsible for, and may still be responsible for, some reports of odd phenomena in the district. This is a classic environmental theory of haunting – no ghost, but something in the place making people perceive “ghosts”.  So an environmental theory is one that postulates some natural but not easily detected force is acting in ways which cause apparent ‘hauntings’.

Such ideas are currently very fashionable in parapsychology, and this has led to research like that of Wiseman et al at Edinburgh Vaults, looking for factors which may cause apparent “hauntings” seemingly with some success.

In the 1950’s the President of the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR) G.W. Lambert put forward his UNDERGROUND WATER HYPOTHESIS. He argued that in fact many “hauntings” were caused by underground water, such as streams flowing underground, and that these hidden water courses could cause all manner of odd vibrations, sounds and other phenomena which were interpreted by witnesses as ghostly. He attempted to demonstrate this with particular reference to the famous Morton Case, or Cheltenham Ghost. His theory here was that the Despard family hallucinated the “lady in black” after hearing and feeling sensations caused by periods of heavy rainfall.

It would be fascinating to objectively research this against 19th century rainfall figures for Cheltenham, if such can be found, but the only “proof” he offered was that the hauntings apparently ceased following the opening of the Dowdeswell Reservoir in 1888. In fact this argument is flawed in three ways – a) the ghost was continued to be seen well in to the late twentieth century b) maps of the water table do not suggest any underground watercourse beneath the house at least in the last few decades,and it is relatively unlikely as the house (called St. Anne’s today) stands on a slight ridge between the Chelt and another river valley (Wyman’s Brook) and c) the Reservoir, while still extant, was decommisioned in the 1990’s without any noticeable effect to the water table in the area in question. Further research with Severn Trent would of course be worthwhile.

Of course the archaeologist and occultist T.C.Lethbridge had already suggested underground water may act as a battery or necessary power source for paranormal entities – his ideas were developed through his interest in dowsing. Lambert may have been providing a rationalist answer to this apparent link. What might be interesting is to bring the resources of modern geology to bear on a dozen or so “strongly haunted” spots, hunting for underground water courses.

In the early 1970’s a rival theory developed, linking paranormal activity with fault lines. The earliest version I have seen were a series of articles in the early Fortean Times (then The News) looking at possible links between UFOs and seismic activity in Leicestershire and Staffordshire. Paul Devereaux in particular looked at “earthlights”, lights that seem to appear around areas of seismic stress. It has been suggested that quartz under pressure may produce light effects, or electrical fields which may have some effect on the human brain (see the work of Dr Serena Roney-Dougal.) The problem with this theory is that Britain has mainly tiny faults in the west of the country – yet East Anglia for instance appears very haunted, at least to a casual observer! I did some research on this in the 1990s, which was discussed on a TV show, which suggested that South Gloucestershire haunts did indeed cluster around fault likes, or junctures of fault lines. This was suggestive, but further research is desperately needed before we can draw any conclusions.

Devereaux also drew attention to the fact that most megalithic tumuli and henges seem to cluster around fault lines. I have a sneaky suspicion this may have more to do with geology though and natural reasons than Earth Mysteries – the west of England,where such things are found, is fairly hilly and I suspect that most tumuli and henges in the East where ploughing and arable farming weremore lucrative have long since been destroyed by intensive agriculture, whereas in sheep and cattle farming areas the have survived. As near surface faulting is more common in hilly and rocky areas, we might therefore expect to find a correlation between tumuli and faulting, but not a mystical or paranormal one!

So the question remains – can earthquakes, tremors and seismic activity cause apparent “haunting” phenomena? I believe the answer is yes, probably – earthquakes seem to have an effect on animals and therefore probably on humans, but I do not think we need worry about much more than vibration and shaking occurring – the electrical and earthlight ideas are interesting, but tremors felt unconsciously as Becky has suggested may well be enough. There is, however, still one piece of experimental evidence against the theory to be considered.

The major physical movement of objects has long since been noted as a feature of Poltergeist (RSPK) cases. In the 1970’s SPR veteran researcher Tony Cornell decided to test this hypothesis, in association with I believe a Cambridgeshire council. He arranged for access to a council house which was about to be demolished, placed articles in several rooms, and then had the house literally shaken to pieces by large industrial machinery/ He remained inside as long as it was safe to do so, observing, and then had cameras which filmed until the house actually collapsed. The footage was shown on Anglia TV – I’d love to see it again, as am recollecting from memory of an event many years ago.

Now what the experiment seemed to demonstrate is that vibration caused major cracks in walls etc before any objects flew as they do in poltergeist cases. The vibration would be extremely obvious to a human observer long before any apparently paranormal motion was detected!

Now I know bugger all about geology or earthquakes, but I will raise three quick replies to this problem…

1. The vibration in the experiment was as I recall provided horizontally, by a belt or chain around the structure. In a tremor, he pressure would be vertical – the actual source of movement deep underground.

2. Objects did of course move under vibration. the moved slowly, over a period of time – just as the object at the Station Hotel on the infamous Most Haunted footage did.

3. I suspect the higher up a building you might be, the more you would feel the effects. Room 214 is on the second (3rd US) floor, high above the road, and at the bottom of a major hill, built in to the slope. While I believe it is too high for traffic to cause th motion see on the footage, it does strike me as entirely possible the movement of the chair could be caused by underground activity.

Anyway this should mean you are up to speed on what is meant by an environmental theory of ghosts – and apart from a strong doubt on my part about the idea of confabulation and “paranormal experience” narratives growing with time, which I queried at the end of the day briefly – more research needed, and I think it would make a fascinating PhD if i can find funding, as probably outside the scope of Becky’s — anyway that takes us to the end of the first session, and 10am. Er, given there are seven more sessions to describe I think I shall take a break and return to this shortly with a Part Two!

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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