Those who know me probably know that I am a ghost hunter. What does that actually mean, in real terms? Do I wear a pith helmet and shorts, and carry an elephant gun, and like the big game hunters of old, try and bag a ghost? Do I strap a proton pack on my back, and try and zap spooks into a ghost-trap while my trusty PKE meter warns we are facing a disaster of near Biblical proportions? Do I use a Ouija board to make contact with the little girl who drowned in the mill stream, or do I use a medium to move over the tragic victims of the great beer flood of 1814? Am I a devout Roman Catholic engaged in a parachurch exorcism movement, battling demonic forces? Or a scholar in the tradition of the Society for Psychical Research? A neurologist trying to understand the physiology of hallucinations, or a psychologist explaining the phenomena in terms of Anomalous Psychology — misperception, priming, etc? Am I a horny teen trying to scare my girlfriend’s pants off at the ancient burial mound, or a witch trying to open portals between the worlds? A necromancer trying to raise the ghost of John Dee at Mortlake cemetery to learn lost secrets of alchemy, or a couple whose Urbex podcast never took off who are intent on becoming what ever the spooky version of influencers are? Am I a Cable TV producer trying to make the bigtime, or a sceptical blogger intent on debunking all the nonsense? Or am I a raconteur like Elliot O Donnell, or a physicalist ghost hunter like Andrew Green? A Society ghost hunter like Peter Underwood? An academic specialist in the cultural history of spooks? Or something else entirely? I have hardly began to scratch the surface of the possibilities. When you tell me you are a ghost hunter, I honestly have not got a clue what you mean nowadays. Perhaps it is time we abandon the term?
WE ALL HATE EACH OTHER
Let’s face it, we don’t really have much inn common do we, other than an interest in the paranormal? Yet time and time again we hear talk of Paranormal Unity (makes me thing of the Vulcan mindmeld!) or of the “Paranormal Community”. The one thing my slightly outsider status in the Paranormal Community has shown me about different groups is that many of them actively loathe one another — hate each other in fact.
Now a lot of people are going to criticise me for expressing this entirely true fact, but come on, we all know that it is the case. Go back to the 1960’s and every county in England had a ghost group or two perhaps; by the late 1990s maybe three. Then post 2003 and Most Haunted, BOOM! Ghost groups everywhere!
Except while a lot of new people have got interested and started investigating, and some have been doing it a long time (33 years in my case and still not caught a single spook so I really am crap at it!) generally the explosion of groups is not caused by new folks getting started, but by the previous groups falling out and endless schisms. Or the groups die, and then are reborn with a new name: but the same old faces, still peddling the same old nonsense. Like me for example.
My first formal group, created on the 1st April 1993 was the CPRG (Cheltenham Psychic Research Group). It became national, then splintered – the Anglian Psychic Research Group was the best run follow up. Some scientifically minded members went off to found the Gloucester Psychic Research Group, and Prof. Mike White who ran that I believe went on to become Chair of ASSAP. The psychic and spirituality inclined members of the CPRG left to form GASP! – the Gloucestershire Association of Spiritualists and Psychics. I was left in the short lived CARP (Committee for Active Research in to the Paranormal) that died really fast after the newspaper got our phone number wrong and published the number of a house where the only person at home was a teen with Tourette’s Syndrome.
Then I founded the Student Parapsychology Society, and the SPS actively tried to reach students and build an interest in parapsychology, as well as give me an excuse to drive all over the country with a minibus full of really cool and cute students.
I had meanwhile fallen out with Tony Cornell (following an action of Andrew Mackenzie’s I somehow got the blame for!) and the Bizarre adventures of the CPRG’s Derek and Harry had basically resulted in my being blackballed by the SPR – the Society for Psychical Research. Still the 1990s saw me make loads of paranormal documentaries and news appearances – “experts” were rare and I was young, educated and articulate.
So I left the SPR, but not before I was given a lorry load of their paperwork and journals however: and trying to get that in to good hands brought me in to touch with ASSAP (the Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena), which Mike White had now left, and which was back in the hands of the Walton brothers. A schism in The Ghost Club that had split in to the Ghost Club and The Ghost Club Society caused me to join neither, but when I left the university in 2003 the Student Parapsychology Society was finally wound up, as no one was left who wanted to carry it on. Then my friend Andrew pointed out we had no girlfriends, and so we founded the Myers Society, named after F.W. Myers who lived here in Cheltenham; that became better known as Parasoc, and as by this time I was a researcher for a cable TV show called Most Haunted. Oh, and we got girlfriends. (Priorities!)
Parasoc eventually felt apart in political infighting on the committee (they all do) but meanwhile I had formed GSUK and no I don’t have a clue what the acronym stands for now! We went ghosthunting all over the country and became friends, and then the Chairman of ASSAP David Wood co-opted me to serve on the committee of that organisation, following a mass resignation incident. My girlfriend Becky had turned her ghost research in to a legitimate PhD by this time (Coventry University 2013) and she joined too, and I set about working on the cultural history of psychical research — and discussing tabloid spook stories on Facebook. 😉
The thing is one CJ would be bad enough, but the field is littered with them. Bruce, Toss, Tim, Lyn, four more folks with a similar trajectory from round here. Let’s face it, we don’t exactly grow and get more groups: it is more like “Rock Family Trees“, if you know the book. Scandal, infighting, romance and skulduggery – and that is just the university academics 😉
Generally though the paranormal world is the traditional small pond with whale sized egos where everyone hates everyone, and you can’t get an SPRman, a Ghostclubman and an ASSAPman to walk in to a bar because it would be no joke, it would be murder. 😉
WE ARE NOT THE SAME
OK I exaggerate, and myself and Tom Ruffles famously published a joint article simultaneously in the ASSAP and SPR magazine calling for closer cooperation or union, and I remain dedicated to working closely with rather than against them . I grew up a couple of streets away from Alan Murdie who heads the Ghost Club, and shared experience of trekking to the Tollgate garage in Bury St. Edmunds in the rain to buy milk can overcome any institutional prejudice. 😉
So if I jest and exaggerate, my point is still sound. THE SPR, ASSAP and The Ghost Club each have slightly a different perspective and culture, but are all identifiably with the tradition of British Psychical research. I would argue those three groups, with an overlapping membership, are fairly similar in outlook and work together reasonably well. The Parapsychological Association seems to cross over with the SPR a lot, as does the Society for Scientific Exploration and the Scottish SPR; ASSAP has a crossover with the Forteans and the Magonian psychosocial Ufologists, the cultural studies bunch and the Anomalous Psychology brigade. The Ghost Club? I imagine stately home owners and habitués of London clubs, but I may well be wrong. 😉
Yet compared with the ghost hunting groups, we are like peas in a pod. Why? Because the beliefs of post of these groups are so widely divergent they are have almost nothing in common. The US Warrens inspired demonology inclined groups (John Saffis springs to mind) have almost nothing to do with the Spiritualist rescue circles of the UK. Those inspired by Most Haunted have nothing to do with those who use Frank boxes and ghost hunting apps: different generations? I thought K2 was a mountain; I found out when working at Derby Gaol for Richard Felix (I missed all that off my biography above) it is a type of EMF meter. Ouija boards have little appeal to me, but table tipping and Bacheldor, the Owens and Conjuring Up Phillip? Yes I am interested, though increasingly sceptical.
And whereas in the past when a poltergeist case or a haunting developed the prime contenders of it were the SPR, ASSAP or the Church, the local Spiritualists or perhaps a dowser, well now the poor afflicted family do not have a clue as to who will turn up. And ParaUnity, the idea we are one big happy community with shared values? That possibly adds to the confusion. I mean I am pretty open minded, and ASSAP holds no corporate hypotheses on the nature of the phenomena, but we are big on ethical codes and rigorous methodology, to the point where it can get in the way of actually doing stuff perhaps? Still we have principles, and we have nailed our colours to the mast, and while I am Chair I intend to insist on good manners, fundamental decency and actually doing some research.
The problem with trying to all draw together is that we lose sight of who we are, and what we are trying to achieve, and who our audience is. And s my plan: to drive apart the community, and try and create scales, a questionnaire, to define where we fall on several axis, so we can say who we are and what we are trying to achieve.
SO LET’S SMASH UP THE PARNORMAL COMMUNITY!
Why? Not because we want to say X is better than Y; that is nonsense. Is Hockey better than Football? Netball better than Cricket? No! They are games played to different rules for different audiences involving different skills.
This is the paranormal scene; massively diverse, with different expectations, different ambitions, different theories. I have argued before that the paranormal is the Recycle Bin of Science; but it is also a home of spiritual seekers, clever raconteurs, amazing broadcasters, dedicated scientists, and so many others. We are a broad church: and we can and should get along. However much of the pettiness, the politics and the anger is not because we disagree: on the contrary, it is because we look at our “fellow ghosthunters” and they say things we don’t approve of or believe, but we feel they are bringing us in to disrepute. Our fellow group members have different expectations to us, and some will go from group to group searching for what it is they want (petite brunettes I’m told?) and never finding it: and we argue with them because they want a different outcome to us.
The smaller the group, the more vicious the fighting I find: ASSAP is astonishingly peaceful compared with some groups I have belonged to, and national organisations can afford to have more diversity and disagreement, and wider goals.
However, if we can clearly define WHAT WE BELIEVE, WHAT WE ARE TRYING TO ACHIEVE, and WHO OUR AUDIENCE IS we might progress faster. If we can create scale and descriptions that are more specific than “paranormal researcher” we might start to see progress, and cases going to the most helpful people for that case. I seem to wander around the community making bad jokes and get on with a lot of very different groups, but we do not all want the same thing. In fact the only reason I can think of to say we do would be if I was trying to sell us all something and I don’t have a device on sale! 😉
In Part 2 tomorrow I will propose some scales and principles for defining what a group is about, and what the researcher is actually up to. For now, what do you think? Are we all working together towards uncovering the truth, or is the ghost hunting community more nature red in tooth and claw, endlessly fighting and never going anywhere?
Do comment folks, and feel free to tell me I am an idiot. I fear however I may be correct this time.