Time to tell ghost stories!
OK, here is my ghost story. It was the reason for my involvement in parapsychology, and almost twenty years on I believe it to be true, but no longer can rely on memory. This account was written in 2001 (for a book introduction, hence narrative/genre style).
“It was 1987 and I was at a wargames meeting with four friends, all aged about the same as me – I was the youngest at just about to turn 18. We were driving through a town called Thetford in Norfolk, England, when one of us needed the loo badly, so we turned in to a cul-de-sac off the flyover which runs through the middle of town, looking for an alley or something for a call of nature!
At the end of the lane we stumbled across one of those delightful secrets English medieval towns spring on you – flanked by modern housing estates we found a medieval Priory, laying in ruins, built of the local flint stone and clad in ivy. A sign in the car park informed us that it was Thetford Priory, a victim of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-C16th.
Well we were not that enthralled by this (we were from Bury St Edmunds with its beautiful monastery ruins), but we wandered through the evening light – it was about 8-8.30pm on a warm August day, (August 8th 1987) which in England means it is still light, day in fact – and eventually found a secluded part of the ruins, where the urgent business could be undertaken behind a bush. As the other chaps gathered we turned to look at the ruins one last time.
It was then we became aware of a joker wearing a black sheet over his head, pretending to be a ghost. I think it was Darren who saw him first, and remarked on this guy in a very light hearted tone – he was looking at us from a first storey (thatone above the ground) window, and was obviously watching us. Now if you imagine someone whose skill at Halloween costume making seems to go as far as throwing a bed sheet over his head, well that is what we saw – at least that is what I think I saw!
Darren, being the most headstrong of us said ‘lets scare him!’ and charged forwards, towards the facade of the building, which has one large arch and a smaller one in which there was a staircase up to the room we had seen the chap in. As I followed, partly to restrain Darren, partly in a spirit of Scooby Doo ‘and I’ve of gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids’ I’m not sure what I was thinking.
And then we saw him coming down the stairs – the sheet billowed out like a woman in a ball gown, and there were three dark spots on his stomach area. At least that’s what I saw, and as I was running – well I was not the most observant. We threw ourselves up the staircase at the guy, who was now well within reach, halfway down the stais; which is why our impact with the flint wall at the back of the room came as a surprise. No stairs existed.
There was no floor in the room the figure had stood in. I struck my head, as did Darren. We were both nauseous, and I felt like i might vomit a few minutes later. There was also a distinct feeling of coldness, and I completely lost the plot.
What had the others seen? Well everyone agreed that there was a very real and very tangible staircase. They all also agreed that there was a figure, though David described it as a smoky mass – but if he did not think it was a joker in a sheet, why did he not challenge our statement before? Axel said it looked like a monk – but any shadow can look like a monk, hence the hundreds of spectral monks said to prowl English towns. Marcus later described the figure as like spiderman in a black costume.
Anyway on the way back we had a curious mix of nausea and extreme emotional reactions, along with a strong feeling of being cold, and a lot of shakiness. Eventually we got home (16 miles) and on the way David forbade us to discuss what we had seen. Only David had any previous belief in the paranormal, and he suggested we created independent signed testimony. . The statements were kept, and then compared – it was then that the fairly major differences in the description of the figure first came to light – apart from an agreement on the staircase, the figure being male, and wearing black, there was however a complete consensus on the order of events.
There was one more rather bizarre aspect to this sighting – as we left the Priory we had a sense the building was in somehow rebuilding itself, making its self more real, around us. Axel shouted ‘jump the walls – break its reality’. We missed that off the documentary – it sounded too sensational. Yet it was exactly what I felt, and evidently Axel too, and as I ran for the car I also felt as if with every step I was plunging deeper in to mud or wet sand – possibly a physiological response to extreme fear, the legs turn to jelly sensation.
At this point I had a major crisis of belief. At that point I was an absolute atheist materialist and advocate of scientific reductionism, despite my family’s firm belief in spooks etc, maybe because of it. The experience convinced me that people did see ‘ghosts’ – that experience is genuine. What those ghosts are – hallucinations, tricks of the light, abnormal mental phenomena, ESP, spirits of the dead, demons cavorting, whatever – I did not and still do not have sufficient data to judge. It just became obvious to me that people had profoundly unsettling experiences which were hard for those who had not been there to relate to, and which lead you to question your sanity, your place in the world, and what the heck really happened.”
I welcome any comments. My position: the experience of having encountered a “ghost” is undoubtedly a real experience, but that tells us nothing of the mechanisms or causality underlying the experience. I recently asked the lads what they thought we experienced that night — now if the confabulation theory is correct, we might ahve expected the story to grow in the telling. Tow responded – Marcus wrote
I remember me, you, Munch, Axel and Darren going to the Priory on a misty night. We all (even me the arch sceptic saw a stairway in that door way. Some of the rest of you (Axel and Dave esp) also saw a monk with some stab wounds. We all freaked out and ran off for a bit. When we came back nothing was there apart from a ‘vibe’. There you go that is all I can remember, it was circa 20 years ago.
Then Axel responded –
TBH Chris, I have very limited memories of the event.
Dave, Darren, Marcus, you & I were there.
We say a black, robed figure come out of the arch.
We ran away.
Now bear in mind this is despite having occasionally discussed the story between ourselves over the years, and having even featured on a documentary show talking about it in 1996. We really now have very little idea of precisely what happened that night — and I don’t think any of us would pretend otherwise, though I have not heard back from Darren or Dave. Still that in itself bears out one of the findings of the Census of Hallucinations - and makes me doubt the widespread assumptions that stories of ghost experiences grow in the telling, or are crystal clear in the memory.
I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank those who have donated so far to the blog; you know who you are, and i think I have talked to each of you, and to the gentleman, he knows who he is, whose sixty pound donation astonished me and means that I have food and electric till my next money comes through. What can I say but a very sincere thank you to you all?
EDIT: If you are interested in Poltergeists you may wish to check out my other blog: POLTERWOTSIT
Yesterday (Halloween) Becky and I attended the SPR Study Day on Poltergeists. I won’t be writing a review for my blog as I have been asked to write a review for the SPR magazine The Paranormal Review but obviously the subject is one of considerable interest. I have been fascinated for nearly twenty years with Poltergeist/RSPK cases, and have participated in a number of investigations (one minor one is reported elsewhere in an earlier post on this blog). I have a very real interest in following up any case – those who feel they may be experiencing something of this nature are welcome to drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can contact the SPR Spontaneous Cases committee.
Anyway while I won’t be writing directly about the fascinating insights from yesterday here, I thought a brief theoretical overview of the poltergeist phenomena would make a great blog post, and was about to start work on one when I remembered that Becky wrote an essay on this for her MSc last year. Well I will edit it a biot to tweak it, and with her permission have simply reproduced it, with my own comments interspersed, below. I hope it proves of interest! It’s a first for the blog to have something not written by me, but I think a healthy one. :) This version was not the final version of Becky’s assignment, but an earlier draft, but it is all I have to hand!
The term poltergeist derives from an old German world which means ‘noisy ghost’ or ‘spirit’. Although this term is now rarely used in Germany it has become a common term in English. [CJ: 'Polter' meaning to make a noise was also a 19th century Suffolk dialect term, probably adopted from the Dutch; so I am not sure if the words etymology may not be English -- but as far as I am ware the first usage in English was Catherine Crowe's The Night Side of Nature, published in 1848. The term 'hobgoblin' or just plain 'ghost' was in common usage before this.)
This term suggests that poltergeist activity is caused by the spirit of a deceased person; however there are four main distinct theories for what causes poltergeist activity. This essay will begin by looking the common features of poltergeist activity and then will briefly describe two well known poltergeist cases; Enfield (Playfair & Grosse 1977) and Cardiff (Fontana 1993). It will then look at the first two theories of what poltergeist activity is, these being fraud and misinterpretation of natural phenomena. The second two theories; the Entity Hypothesis and Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK) will then be discussed as theories of poltergeists.
It will be argued that fraud and the misinterpretation of natural events may be able to explain a few cases of poltergeist activity but certainly cannot explain the majority of them, especially cases like Enfield and Cardiff. It will also be argued that there appears to be evidence for both the Spirit Hypothesis and RSPK in some cases of poltergeist activity so rather than two separate theories a more appropriate theory may be a combination of the two.
When purportedly paranormal activity is experienced in a house or other type of building this activity will be considered to be either place-centred or person centred.
The Symptoms of the Poltergeist
If the activity is place-centred this means that the activity is linked to the building; the occupants of the property can change and the activity will continue. This would usually be called a haunting but may be classed by some as a poltergeist outbreak. If the activity is person-centred this means the activity appears to be linked to a person and will follow this person to different properties; this is typical of poltergeist activity. The person that the poltergeist activity is linked to is known as the focus and it has been found that the focus is often a young adolescent around the age of puberty who may be facing personal turmoil of some kind (Irwin, 2004; 158).
There are several different types of activity ("symptoms") associated with poltergeists which include the movement of objects, noises, bite and scratch marks appearing on people, and water inundations (Gauld & Cornell, 1979). One of the most common types of activity is the movement of objects which can include small objects such as keys, ornaments and cutlery and the movement of much larger objects such as wardrobes, beds and tables. [CJ: Called SOD, an acronym for Small Object Displacement - blame the 'sodding' poltergeist!]
Gauld and Cornell found that of all the poltergeist cases they looked at, 64% featured the movement of small objects and 36% featured the movement of larger objects. Another common type of activity is noises which can include knocking, banging and scratching sounds. Gauld and Cornell found that noises featured in about 50% of the cases they sampled. 15% of these cases featured the appearance of scratches or bite mark appearing on people’s bodies and the outbreak of numerous small fires featured in about 11% of cases, with some of these fires featuring objects that would normally seem to be incombustible. Finally about 5% of these cases featured water inundations, which may include the unexplainable appearance of puddles of water. (CJ : Gauld and Cornell’s book remains the classic study, well worth acquiring). Another common feature is that most poltergeist outbreaks tend to be brief, lasting around two weeks to two months although some cases have been found to have lasted for more then a year (Irwin, 1994; 154).
The Enfield Poltergeist
One of the most famous British poltergeist cases is that of the Enfield Poltergeist (Playfair, 1980). The activity at Enfield started on 31st August 1977 and lasted over a year, finally ending around the beginning of 1979. The family who lived in the house at the time included Mrs Harper, Rose aged 13, Janet aged 11, Pete aged 10 and Jimmy aged 7. The activity began when Pete and Janet reported that their beds were shaking, this was followed by shuffling sounds and knocking and then a heavy chest of drawers slid out of the bedroom on its own. Activity experienced at Enfield included the movement of furniture and other objects (large and small), knocking, and the poltergeist developing a voice, all of which seemed to focus around Janet. Many other people witnessed the activity at Enfield including the Harpers neighbours, the police, reporters and different types of investigators. (The case has been much discussed, and it must be noted that a minority group of the SPR investigators did not believe it to be of paranormal origin – a position Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair heartily contest.)
The Cardiff Responsive Poltergeist
Another well known British poltergeist case is the Cardiff poltergeist which was investigated by David Fontana over a period of two years from June 1989 to early 1992 (Fontana, 2006; 64-80). This case involved mostly stone throwing and some movement of objects in a lawnmower repair shop and adjoining garden accessory shop. As well as the owner John, four other middle-aged people were closely involved with the case; Pat John’s wife, Paul Pat’s brother, Paul’s wife and a business associate who worked with John in the workshop. Activity was also witnessed by visiting salesman and acquaintances of John and Pat’s family. We will refer back to both these classic modern cases in the following discussion.
Theories of the Poltergeist
There are four main theories for what causes poltergeist activity. These are fraud, misinterpretation of natural causes, The Spirit Hypothesis and Subconscious Psychokinesis or Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK). Each of these theories will be addressed in turn.
The first of these theories, that is fraud, holds that poltergeist activity is simply childish pranks (Irwin, 2004; 156) or deliberate hoaxing. When you consider that poltergeist activity is often associated with adolescent children it would suggest that children playing tricks may be a possible explanation, however if you actually look at some of the activity supposedly experienced if accurately reported fraud cannot account for this. In the Enfield case one occurrence particularly astounded the family and investigators (Playfair, 2004; 66-67). In the bedroom where the family was sleeping there was a gas fire that was cemented into the brickwork of the building. One morning while the family were still in bed there was a violent shaking sound that caused panic in the bedroom. When Playfair reached the room he discovered that the gas fire had been wrenched from the wall, it was still attached to the half-inch pipe that connected it to the mains but this was now bent at a 32 degree angle. When the investigators went to dismantle the gas fire they found it hard to move due to the weight of it. It is therefore hard to believe that this kind of activity can be faked in any way; it would not be possible for Mrs Harper or any of the children present in the room to wrench out a gas fire that is concreted into the wall.
On another occasion a researcher called David Robertson was experimenting with trying to get Janet to levitate (which she claimed to have done before) by bouncing on the bed. On one attempt Janet exclaimed ‘I been through the wall’ meaning she had passed through the wall into the bedroom of the house next door. To test whether Janet may have actually passed through solid matter David gave her a large red cushion from the living room and asked the poltergeist to make it disappear. Before he had even left the room Janet called out and the cushion had disappeared. Janet said she had thrown it at the closed window to see what would happen and it had gone through and gone onto the roof. Playfair tried to get the cushion on to the roof to see if this could be done. He found to begin with that the window was hard to get open and then he had to lean out dangerously far and reach up as far as he could to get the cushion on the roof. He did manage this but nearly fell out of the window doing this. In the amount of time Janet had before calling out and taking into account Janet’s size compared to a grown man it is inconceivable that Janet would have been able to open the window and get the cushion onto the roof.
Fraud and Misinterpretation
While some poltergeist cases can be explained by fraud, Gauld and Cornell found that 8% of the 500 cases they looked at involved total or partial trickery, this certainly cannot explain the majority of cases, especially those featuring activity that is currently beyond known human capabilities. A stronger possibility is that poltergeist activity is misinterpretation of natural events. Whereas the fraud theory states that poltergeist activity is deliberately faked this theory states that it is genuine misinterpretation. This means that noises or movement of objects is caused by vibrations from small earthquakes, the movement of water through underground streams or subsidence (GW Lambert, 1956). Cornell and Gauld looked at whether these natural events would be able to produce the kind of object movement featured in poltergeist cases by measuring the vibrations needed to produce this movement and comparing this to the vibrations produced by these events. They looked at the movement of an object in contact with a wall 6ft above the ground which is thrown a distance of 6ft and 9ft, an object in contact with a wall 3ft above the ground which is thrown 6ft and 9ft, a stone being thrown from the floor of a room to a ceiling 12ft high and a teacup flying from a table. They found that the vibrations produced by natural events were far too weak to produce the sort of object movement under consideration and in fact an earthquake would substantially damage a building before this type of movement could be produced. Therefore it would be obvious that this type of movement was being caused by natural events because anybody in the building would be able to feel the earth movement and the building may well fall down around them.
As well as not being able to explain the sort of movement considered above these natural events will not be able to explain other activity such as water inundations, fires, apports and the substantial movement of much large objects such as tables being overturned.
The Entity Hypothesis
Two theories are the most supported by researchers into the poltergeist phenomenon. The first of these is the Entity Hypothesis which states that poltergeist activity is caused by an entity, possibly the spirit of a deceased person. This theory appears suitable to explain poltergeist cases that are place-centred, as the activity is not linked to a particular person, and those that seem to display a level of intelligence. This would appear to be the best theory to explain the Cardiff poltergeist. Towards the end of the activity one of the people most closely involved with the case started to see an apparition of a young boy within the workshop, therefore it may be assumed that this was an apparition of the spirit that was causing the stone throwing activity. The activity at Cardiff also showed evidence of intelligence. Sometimes after unlocking the premises and entering the kitchen they would find that there had been attempts to lay out cutlery on the table as if ready for a meal. One day John decided to test whether somebody in the workshop was responsible and so after closing they sat with their hands visible on the counter and the stone throwing continued. A suggestion was made to request for certain tools to be bought to them. Each time they requested a tool this appeared in front of them appearing to drop down from the ceiling and John commented he would not have been able to find the tool that quickly himself in the workshop. A common feature of poltergeist phenomenon is that when objects move they appear to travel as if being carried; they appear to be lifted, carried in a straight line and then are placed down again or drop straight down as if they have been released. The stone throwing in the Cardiff case does not appear to follow this type of movement, however one day John placed an object on the far side of the workshop and attempted to hit it with stones. After unsuccessfully being able to hit the object John called out for Pete to hit it which he immediately did. Therefore although the stones in the workshop appear to be thrown and not carried Pete was able to accurately hit an object that Fontana and John were unable to hit. It appears that Pete would attempt to be helpful, was able to respond intelligently to requests and would join in games and be able to beat the people in the workshop. As will be discussed shortly this level of intelligence would appear unlikely if RSPK is responsible for poltergeist activity.
Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK)
Those that do not believe in life after death or the existence of spirits or that just do not believe that spirits are responsible for poltergeist activity may instead support the theory of Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK). The theory of RSPK says that poltergeist activity is the result of the unconscious use of psychokinesis (PK) as a way of releasing psychological tension (Irwin, 1994; 158). Psychokinesis means ‘movement by the mind’ and involves the movement or alteration of an object without any direct contact with the object (Irwin, 1994; 6). The theory of RSPK supports a claimed common factor in poltergeist activity, which is that a child around the age of puberty is usually the focus of the activity. Around this age children may experience a lot of psychological tension because their bodies are changing and they are facing become an adult and if this tension builds and this cannot be released through normal means this may result in a psychological release of PK. This release of PK may result in the movement of objects or other possible effects around the focus.
Returning to Enfield at first Janet appears to be the focus of the poltergeist activity and indeed she reached puberty and started her periods during the outbreak. However a lot of factors in this case also appear to suggest that the activity may have been caused by a spirit. The poltergeist developed a voice, which appeared to be linked to Janet as it would only speak when nobody was watching her, however the voice claimed to have lived in the house and to have died downstairs in a chair. Later when Janet was sent away from the house, although some activity did follow her activity also still continued at the house and while Janet was away an apparition of a man was seen in the living room.
It appears that although RSPK may explain some aspects of poltergeist activity such as the association with adolescents around the age of puberty that the activity seems to focus around this may not be able to account for other aspects of poltergeist activity. Very little is known about what PK actually is and even less is known about how to try and control it. As mentioned previously a common feature of poltergeist activity is that when objects move they appear to be lifted and carried; would it be possible for an object to be moved in such a controlled way by unconscious PK. Unfortunately not enough is known about PK to be able to say whether this would be possible or not, although it appears if the PK involved is unconscious it would not be possible for it to be that controlled. Would this unconscious PK also be strong enough to move larger objects such as the fireplace that was wrenched from the wall in Enfield and could this explain other activity such as fires and water inundations. It appears that trying to explain poltergeist activity with RSPK is currently using one unexplained phenomenon to try and explain another unexplained phenomenon.
A suitable explanation may be a combination of the two theories. It may be that spirits are responsible for poltergeist activity but the build up of tension within adolescents provides useful energy for the poltergeist to use and therefore they become the focus of the activity. The existence of a spirit causing the activity would explain the intelligent nature of the activity when at first it would appear that the activity is originating from the focus as subconscious and probably uncontrollable PK.
While fraud and misinterpretation of natural causes can explain a few probably very simple poltergeist cases these theories certainly can’t explain the best cases in the literature. The Entity Hypothesis seems to be most appropriate for the Cardiff poltergeist case because the activity displayed a level of intelligence that might not be expected with RSPK, and sightings of an apparition were reported during the outbreak. Although RSPK at first seems to be the most appropriate theory for Enfield because the activity appears to focus around Janet, on closer inspection of the activity experiences and as an apparition is also sighted this case appears to contain aspects of both theories. At this stage we simply can not tell if psi or entities underlie the poltergeist.
Investigating a Haunting
Investigating a ghost ultimately comes down to common sense. Firstly, it is necessary to visit the site of the haunting and take detailed notes on the environment. Are there any obvious factors that could be causing strange noises or smells, or even hallucinations? Could the ghost have been nothing more than a reflection or trick of the light? Is there a secret door or panel through which the ‘ghost’ could have passed? Thoroughly scrutinize your surroundings, taking photos so you can later think it through and demonstrate to others what you have established. Is a phosphorescent fungus emanating light after dark? Could rats or mice in the walls be causing the odd scratching noises? Check out the structural integrity and electrics of the house. Examine all possibilities very, very carefully.
If you haven’t already interview every witness, taking careful notes. Follow police procedure here, and interview witnesses separately, keeping them apart so they can not contaminate each others testimony. Try to assess how honest they are being about their experiences, and try to avoid asking leading questions. Feel free to use quick trick questions to try and see if their story changes. Any good website on interview technique for journalists can teach you a lot here!
Ideally, check the witnesses medical history, and check their current physical health (but bear in mind questions of ethics and confidentiality, as always). Some apparitional experiences, especially those of hallucinatory smells, can be rooted in temporal lobe epilepsy, though the experience is also fairly common among the perfectly healthy. Was the percipient very tired, or under the influence of drink, drugs or medication? Do they seem reliable? Many a case come in to doubt when you meet the witness face to face!
There is a mass of theoretical material which could be considered, such as the Persinger field fluctuation theory (that ghosts are associated with falls and poltergeists with increases in the Earth’s Magnetic Field readings which in turn is related to sun spot activity). Or what about Serena Roney-Dougal’s fault hypothesis? (that quartz crystals in fault lines generate a piezoelectric field under seismic stress which causes neurochemical reactions which render you more psychically aware, or just prone to hallucinate). Or maybe you’d like to examine Albert Budden’s electrical allergy hypothesis? (that some people have an allergy to electrical fields and therefore hallucinate aliens, ghosts, etc.) Try to think of how you can create simple tests to falsify various hypotheses. This is where ghosthunters tend ot be weakest – in their understanding of the theoretical frameworks and testing thereof. Many are just “collecting evidence”, trying to secure a conviction if you like, to prove the existence of the “paranormal”. Taht might catually be holding us back from making progress on understanding the actual causes of many “paranormal” events…
Information on current parapsychological theories can be discovered easily from the web. Keeping up with the current research is sadly a full time commitment, but a LEXSCIEN sub can get you access to a lot of reading material.
Generally when investigating ghosts the vital thing is to establish what type of experience you are dealing with. Did the “haunt” try to communicate, act intelligently, or show awareness of its environment? The next question is the ghost of who? You need as much information as possible on that person, their likes and dislikes, what happened to them, etc. Is it really a disincarnate person? How does that work? A demoin pretending to be one? A trickl of the light? Overactive imagination? :)
Sadly, ghosts will not materialize in front of your cameras. No matter how good the evidence someone will say it is a fake, and you may as well resign yourself now to the fact that definite irrevocable proof will be forever beyond you. You can’t change the world, but you can impress the parapsychological community. Therefore gathering evidence and publishing reports is a vital part of being a parapsychologist. Try to make your case as watertight as possible, write it up properly, and make your findings available!
Investigating an apparition can be even more frustrating. At least a ghost interacts with you, and maybe even talks back (even if it is only hollow moans). Imagine investigating the Royalston Ballroom that is haunted by the apparitional smell of violets! How would you proceed? The thing about apparitions is that they are supposed to replay when the conditions are right. They have no motive, though they have an identity or origin that must be researched. But ultimately, what really matters is ensuring you can work out what is needed to trigger a replay. Once you have identified this, you may wish to gather all the equipment you can and attempt to make recordings, or possibly purchase the property and try to make money by taking tourists on ghost tours! The only problem is that such manifestations may have a short life span, and that it may very well ‘run out’ halfway through the investigation, never to recur… or may just be totally fictitious. ;)
Crisis Apparitions and Phantasms are equally hard to investigate. Firstly you must identify who the agent who ‘created’ the haunting is. Then you must attempt to locate them, and in the case of crisis apparitions save them from whatever danger they are in if they are still alive, or deal with the problem if you are too late! Another even worse possibility develops from the idea of the Phantasm – if the person who is inadvertently appearing as a ghost is alive and well how do you convince them of the situation and attempt to stop the haunting?
Despite all the difficulties ghosts are a fascinating field of study, and Investigators may expect many interesting possibilities and unique situations to arise out of any haunting case.
A few research questions to help you get started –
Who owned the property in the past?
What are the inhabitants personalities like?
What is the geology of the area?
Are there underground streams, sewers, subsidence etc?
What is the state of physical repair of the property?
What does local legend and folklore say about the area?
What is the local history of the area?
What records, floor plans, deed, wills etc, etc can be gained from City Hall?
What other paranormal events have occurred in the area in the past?
Is there any important material in the newspapers archives?
Can professionals – Doctors, Ministers, Social Services – help the family? Ask the family to contact them if you will, but never try to take on a job better suited to a highly trained professional. Keep your distance, act professionally, don’t take sides in family poiltics or try to play therapist…
What is the natural fauna and flora of the area?
Is the weather significant?
Are the graves of previous inhabitants local?
House Adverts in old newspapers may reveal significantly lower prices for a reputedly ‘haunted property’?
Is any major construction work occurring in the vicinity?
When and how has the structure been rebuilt or renovated?
Do animals react strangely in the property?
Have you prepared floor plans?
How do you set about investigating a case? Something unusual, quite purportedly paranormal is occurring – the investigators seek to understand it. The following notes are merely tentative guidelines. There can be huge differences between one case and the next. In 1995 the author, working as a field researcher investigated three mediums, three hauntings and two poltergeists as well as an out of the body experience. There is a huge variety from case to case; yet it has become obvious that certain methods are consistently useful.
On arrival at the location the first thing to be done is to fully interview each of the witnesses. Interviews should be done individually with the interviewer and interviewee out of earshot of those who are yet to be interviewed, and those who have given testimony should not discuss their answers with those yet to be cross-examined. The testimony is often the centre of a case as it is quite possible (and in reality probable) that the investigators will not themselves experience the phenomena, although anything is possible! Try to think of clever questions, and always be aware that people are usually telling the truth as they perceive it, which may be coloured by their own assumptions. Use common sense to try and get a grip on what they really believe and their motivations in talking to you.
Obviously to get the right answers you need to ask the right questions!
“I had thoroughly searched the ruin before, hence knew my plan well; choosing as the seat of my vigil the old room of Jan Martense, whose murder looms so great in the rural legends.”
HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear
Secondly, prepare a map of the property, and mark the exact positions of each person present at the time of each event, as well as the location where any phenomena occurred. In addition, examine the surroundings in as much detail as possible. How often has one been able to track that pesky knocking spirit to a faulty water pipe in the basement? This is the only way to rule out normal explanations for what might otherwise seem completely inexplicable.
Photography can then be used to create a permanent record of any evidence left and also of each room and the exterior of any property. Armed with this information the team should then return to a safe place to discuss and plan their next move. This planning phase is vital, but most teams will neglect it. We call the initial visit the recce (for reconnaissance) and use it to be well prepared for a vigil or full investigation. It is important that the testimony is compared, and the relative reliability of witnesses assessed. Was there a natural explanation for events? It is probably true as Sherlock Holmes said that it is a mistake to hypothesise before all the evidence is available, but in psychic research it is invaluable to be prepared, and to consider all options, ‘however improbable’. You should try and think of possible experiments and ways to test what is happening on location…
“I had come with a fierce resolution to test an idea. I believed that the thunder called the deathdemon out of some fearsome secret place; and be that demon solid entity or vaporous pestilence, I meant to see it” HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear
Next you must fall back on your own initiative and ideas. Can you establish a hypothesis for what is occurring, and if so can you devise a plan to test it? Tryu and think of something that will falsify your theory – you can’t prove it is right, you can prove it is wrong however!
Various persons will also offer their own explanations based on their personal belief systems, but which is and which is causing the current problem? Investigators should use their imaginations to devise tests that will test the evidence. Does the knocking spirit only appear when the hot water faucet in the bathroom is opened? Test it to find out!
“Fear had lurked on Tempest Mountain for more than a century. This I learned at once from newspaper accounts of the catastrophe that first brought the place to the worlds attention…”. HP Lovecraft, The Lurking Fear
Library research is one of the least exciting but most necessary aspects of psychical research. The library may tell the investigators what buildings if any, once stood on the site in question, and give details on a vast range of relevant previous owners). Geological surveys are also vital – is the property subject to subsidence or underground water which may be causing some of the phenomena?
As well as libraries they might check out local records offices, newspaper archives and university departments for specialist information. The one book I like to carry is a history of fashion – it allows swift evaluations of witness statements against known dates for certain styles of dress. Yes I know the idea of me knowing anything about fashion may shock!
Even when all the witnesses are interviewed the investigators have still not exhausted the possibilities of talking. Do the locals know anything? Of course, such additional interviews can get tricky when considering the wishes of those already involved. Often, a family suffering a haunting, for example, will not want any of their friends or neighbours to know for fear of ridicule. It is always important to bear such things in kind when investigating. A witness who previously knew nothing about the phenomena and did not know the other witnesses is worth their weight in gold, for obvious reasons.
A technique I have been playing with for some years, which may be of interest… A way of employing psychic claimants and sceptics in investigating a purported haunting.
The idea was first developed by NY parapsychologist Gertrude Schmeidler, in her paper on Quantitative Assessment of A Haunted House. I don’t have the paper or the reference to hand, but the proposed protocol has been developed quite a bit since then, though to almost universal disinterest. A few UK groups I have been involved with have tried it, with varying levels of success, but surprisingly positive results.
Note a positive result here means a high degree of agreement between the “psychics” and the witnesses – but that in itself tells us nothing about the nature of the “phenomena” — I’ll get back to that shortly…
Here is my current version thereof. I still refer to it as the Schmeidler Protocol, as it is clearly based entirely on that, and because The Schmeidler Protocol sounds like it should be a cool 70′s thriller or a Quatermass episode. Feel free to critique my methodology –
Now firstly, you are going to need an experimental team. Let us assume you are the Investigation Coordinator. Firstly, locate your haunted property. Interview your witnesses – being careful not to ask leading questions – and get the main facts. A case with multiple witnesses and visual apparitions, preferably where the witnesses have not conferred is ideal. However any multiple attested ghost case where you can record primary accounts from the people concerned is cool. Obviously one with no published history, where events are currently occurring, but are known to very few people works well.
Secondly you need to have a set of good clear accurate maps. These are issued to your psychics or their “buddy” (see next).
Now, take your “witness testimony”, and select words relevant to the phenomena for each account. Just a list of words which constitute a hit. How improbable that hit is is really really problematic to work out – word frequency tables won’t work in my opinion, because the nature of the ghost narrative predisposes certain words more than in normal usage, and ghost books are edited and hence not reliable as a source. Also some words simply go together in conceptual blocs – young, pretty, talented, sexy, actress, singer. Cliches! Cliches bugger up your probabilities no end. Still you need to know what constitutes a “hit” for the Word Challenge! ( I might not be a rich and famous ghosthunter, but I might have made it as a gameshow host…) Also get your witnesses to draw on your map exactly where they saw things. Take measurements if need be. Then produce a composite master map, showing all witness reports.
OK, next up – find your psychics. I’d personally try and get them from 30 miles or more away (I’d also drive them to the location hooded, blindfolded under the hood, wearing head phones and playing loud music by a very circular route, just in case. In the past this has provoked severe motion sickness, but has not actually resulted in me being sued or arrested – to date.) Many psychics might prefer you just don’t tell them where they are going till the day, and some properties location or function is obvious once inside and the blindfolds taken off anyway.
Now you need five psychics, and 5 buddys – fellow investigators, with no knowledge of the building,and who are kept apart from each other, and have never met the witnesses. The buddys should each have a VCR and record all testimony. They should hand the map to the psychic.
Now the psychics and buddy are sent in, independently, to the empty building. Each records on their map where and what they are experiencing, marking exact locations if possible. I usually use small squares which can be filled in. Record all the walk through.
Thank your psychics. Give them a filmed ten minute debrief after they left the building, asking of extra impressions etc. Make it clear they have everything they want to say recorded, and have no” I was going to says”. When they have agreed that on tape, end the interview and film.
Now this is pretty hard work. Why five people to walk the psychic round? Why can’t you just do it?
Because you know what happened and where. Even if you are incredibly careful with what you say, your body language breathing or even sweat might be giving them clues. So someone who does not know the stories or witness testimony is needed to do this. Also, as we are going to test the mediums/psychics/sensitives statements for consistency, well if you have just heard Madame Arcana say this room is filled with an invisible demonic menage a trois, when you take Fluffy the Vampire Boffer in the same room 5 minutes later you might give off clues… So you need independent walk rounds.
I’d also ask 5 imaginative ghost sceptics to walk round as a control – but there is a problem here. We can’t prove they are not actually psychic. In fact one of our sceptics consistently hits well above chance in ESP tests 9for the first ten minutes till they grow bored at least), and on a couple of runs of this experiment did better than some of the “psychics” – more on this in a moment..
Next, you thank everyone, and play back the testimonies on a big screen, to make sure everyone agrees they were not edited. Then you can overlay the maps on transparencies, and talk through the results, and introduce the witnesses. the press might like this bit too – if the venue wants coverage. Its a nice way to round off the proceedings.
* the psychic testimony versus the “Word Search” lists
* the psychic maps versus each other
* the psychic maps against the witness maps
So what have you got?
* ghosts do not wander around much – a rather large assumption!
* the witnesses are reliable
* the psychics had no foreknowledge of the building
You might have some evidence indicative of the haunting hypothesis.
Of course by “haunting” here I mean in my usual sense to mean – something makes people think this bit is spooky. You might want to look for mould, damp, lighting oddities, weird angles, etc, etc to see why people all chose the same areas. The fact they agree ultimately tells us nothing about the nature of the “haunt” – it merely tells us there is an objective “haunt” ie. something odd going on in that particular area. Smell may well be important, or magnetic fields, or I dunno. You work that out for yourselves…
So there you go. I’ve written up a lot more on how this can work, and indeed since ’93 when I first tried it in the UK it seems to slowly be becoming more common. Not many ghosthunters pay any attention to it, but I personally think it might be rather useful?
WILD PARANORMAL THEORY!
I wrote this for fun a couple of years back on James Randi’s forum… thought might amuse! I thought time to allow myself some wild speculation and kookery, and the original featured LOTS OF STUFF IN CAPS, and bright coloured text and fonts. Still, I actually was quite serious, as I realized as I got in to typing it – so here is a less brightly coloured, parody lite version of my musings. Reading them know I think they were quite sensible actually…
Ok, here goes… question — “if ghosts are spirits, how do they open doors, bang on stuff, and interact with the physical world?”
Well I have argued for a long time that ghosts may be primarily INFORMATION – not necessarily the Recording hypothesis (a ghost is a recording of a past event) , but something similar.
The idea is a ghost is NOT physical in the accepted sense – it is closer to being made of the stuff of ideas or thoughts, but an objective idea/thought, which may be experienced by independent witnesses. It is real – just non-physical.
No if so, a human brain may be needed to “receive” said idea. So hence the absence of excellent quality ghost photos/films – (some do exist, but let us pass on that for a moment, and assume they can all be explained away) – by this theory ghosts can only manifest when there is a human being to see or hear or whatever them.
Yet as a casual search and analysis of a random sampling of ghost cases by Becky Smith and myself showed – ghosts are USUALLY associated not just with appearances, but with knocks, bangs, small object movement, doors opening, etc, etc. Minor physical phenomena.
Also, and confusingly, many ghosts show directed intelligence – they seem to act with purpose, and occasionally even interact with the living. An information model could include the possibility of intelligence – but a recording can not. So is there a way of saving the recording hypothesis in the light of the physical and intelligence aspects of the hauntings?
My guess is yes: the key is in the observer.
Now we are dealing with miracles, and two very different miracles interest the ghost hunting kids and the parapsychology gang in my experience.
Ghosthunters generally are interested in ghosts. Duh.
Parapsychologists are interested in supposed unknown powers of the human mind, called PSI – ESP, which includes psychokinesis (mind movement), telepathy, clairvoyance etc, etc.
Assuming both miracles exist, and that is a big assumption, I think ghosties might work like this.
The ghost of Elizabeth haunts the physical location of Harris’ house – and is information. Some, maybe all humans have the capacity to experience Elizabeth, maybe the cat too, but when there is no observer, ‘she’ can not be perceived. Ghosts haunt people, not houses.
If a witness however “tunes in” to Elizabeth, their own psychic powers may be activated – they can blame the impossibilities they commit on the ghost. Denial of personal responsibility for the psychic actions may be psi-enabling according to many parapsychologists. Ditto belief. Both might make some sense. It was the ghost moved it, not me.
So if you took 5 different ghosthunting groups to the house, although there might be some agreement on the ghost, there might also be a lot of different phenomena, unwittingly created by the different groups own psychic powers, unleashed by the fact they can perform impossibilities because “Elizabeth” did it… . I call these hypothetical “additions” to the phenomena “psi-de effects” – a term I am proud of, but if anyone invented it or can find a reference to it before 1993 do let me know!
So my guess, and we are multiplying miracles here, is that the “ghost” does not ever interact with the physical in any way. That is done in fact by humans, using these psi powers, who ascribe it to the ghost. This would explain the physical aspects of the hauntings –it might even explain some of the intelligent behaviour.
In which case even Recording/Stone Tape could be rehabilitated as theories to explain ghosts. I have no idea how psychokinesis would effect matter (wonderful gobbledigook – “you wouldn’t understand madam – it’s technical!) , but at least we have no moved from “spirit” to a ‘mere’ energy conversion.
If I am right, Spirits by definition possess no energy, no mass, only information. It requires information to be a fundamental principle of reality – which I’m guessing might annoy those who know something about physics, which I am afraid I don’t.
So when a psychic talks about energy – it is their own energy that is really involved – not the ghosts. Without the ghosthunter, there is NO ghost – but that does not make it in any sense less real.
And furthermore – lets apply Occam’s Razor to this tawdry mess of multiplied miracles – we don;t actually need the ghost or spirit to be real. If PK, or some other psi abilities were real, then Harris’ belief in the ghost as it build may slowly allow him or another resident to psychically generate the ghost by PSI alone… which strikes me as no more likely than the ghost, but in keeping with what we are seeing.
That was fun. It may even make some sense, and it’s therapeutic to take the mickey out of oneself and ones colleagues occasionally. Personally, I don’t think we need to invoke anything more than misperception in this case, but hey its always fun to think up a theory!
Have fun, and really do hope you get to the bottom of it. Hope my levity does not offend. I really do hunt ghosts for a living, more or less… if only I could charge my clients I’d be wealthy!
Any comments or ideas? :)
A bad attempt at humour on my part, originally written back in the days when I was a researcher/consultant for the TV show Most Haunted , and posted by me on a few websites since. I rather like it though, and it does contain a lot of truth!
If you are looking for Edinburgh Science Festival’s Science of Ghosts event the website is here –
I mentioned it in a previous post and loads of people have come here looking for it! Still I am going, and hope to see you there! Anyway on with the spookiness…
The six types of Ghosthunter according to CJ –
1. the Safari Group - out to “catch” a ghost on film, armed with the latest in video, camera and laptop equipment. Every “vigil” begins with several hours of wiring and setting up sensitive devices all over the shop to allow these latter day big game hunters to bag the spook. Usually succeed only in making you uncomfortable using the toilet in case you are being filmed or monitored, and while generally pleasant folks there is more technobabble than an episode of Star Trek. Always find an “anomaly” which as they are usually waving around EMF meters sensitive enough to pick up a fridge being turned off at 300m is no surprise! Unfortunately likely to follow their own mobile phones in their pocket around with the EMF meters, convinced it’s a spook, and tend to be Very Serious Indeed, while having very little knowledge of the literature of parapsychology. Never publish their results.
2. the Legend Trippers – usually young people, who have dared themselves to go to the spooky place, where they plan to drink alcohol, tell ghost stories, frighten each other and make out. Not all legend trippers are teenagers – some are much older, but if you want to flirt and hear a lot of screaming these are your folks. No ghosts caught but they have a good time, a bit like a fairground haunted house! They never publish their results.
3. the Pyscho-dramatists - ok, these tend to be ladies, and these groups usually revolve around one or two star performers, with several minor competing mystics, all of whom compete to tell you the story of the lost little Victorian girl who was the daughter of the wicked Squire who abused her terribly, etc, etc – sort of paranormal MisLit. Occasionally they encounter Terribly Evil Entities (TM) whose lack of corporeality has not slaked their lusts, and who have designs on the mediums person, which in many cases having seen the medium and witnessed their shrieking I would agree anything planning on ravishing is a deeply unnnatural entity. When they find a spook a redemptive myth is played out, and the spirit “moved on” in to “the light”. Bizarrely, despite my cynicism I once saw this process appear to do something useful — not all people in this category are nuts — however a considerable number are. They never publish their results.
4. The Enthusiastic Amateurs – always nice, people unsullied by contact with other ghost hunters and sometimes still naive enough to think that orbs are definitely paranormal, and scorn the dust hypothesis, these people have watched Most Haunted and bizarrely responded by wanting to do it themselves rather than selling their TV and emigrating. I like them a lot, because generally you can teach them a few good habits, and sell them merchandise for said dodgy TV show, and because on the whole these are good hearted people with often great knowledge of local folklore and history. Enthusiastic, fun folks. They never publish their results.
5. The Ghosthunting Machiavelli - this person has been in a dozen groups in the last year, all of which split off or schism-ed from each other. They have appalling relations with half the groups in the UK, and love to discuss ghost group family trees, their many enemies, and who is doing what with whom (in the bedroom not the haunted house usually!). Often they have a profitable sideline in running paying events, but really they seem to mainly succeed in creating new groups and then alienating the committees of said groups. They never publish their results, which is probably just as well!
I suppose I should offer my own perspective and why I differ very slightly while still having many of the failings I point out light heartedly in others, and some new ones all of my own. All these “types”, and most groups contain a mix of types, resulting in internal conflict, favour a method of investigation called the “vigil”, which means pretty much sitting around all night waiting for stuff to happen. They hope to observe and interact with the phenomena first hand, and hence all the mediums/night vision cameras/EMF meters (very handy of you want to put a nail in the wall and not electrocute yourself, or see if your neighbour has turned on their washing machine, not so useful for ghosts!) and shouting “is there anybody there?” Not bloody likely with you lot kicking up a row.
I have of course sat through many hundred of these (being paid to do so for a long while) but my preferred method is the Inquiry Model. Briefly, arrive in daylight, and interview carefully the witnesses to previous “sightings”. Record their testimony, and photograph “the scene of the crime” from many angles. Try to ascertain where the story originated, and who knew what and when about the purported phenomena. Collect interviews and evidence for as long as it takes,and perhaps attempt to reconstruct the incident. Carefully check out maps, and local histories for any useful clues, and then consult with relevant experts – often builder, plumbers, electricians, naturalists, geologists. The emphasis here is on understanding how the account arose, and on trying to find the origin and explanation for the ghost, rather than sitting around trying to see it yourself. of course if the occurrences are frequent you might well do that — but the tragedy of Most Haunted was it suggested ghost hunting was about personal encounters with the unknown, whereas really its generally about understanding and trying to explain other peoples experiences, and then writing up what you find. I’m not sure I have put this very well, but perhaps you can follow my intent?
Anyway, not sure if that is particularly helpful, but I thought I’d try and explain and am happy to field questions if I can. That is my personal experience, and despite my cynicism, I rather like the vast majority of ghosthunters who are lovely folks – and it is a topic I genuinely love talking about!
This is in St. Briavels Castle, between Bristol, Birmingham, Cardiff and Oxford in the Forest of Dean. An excellent cause, a chance to get spooked, make new friends and maybe even see a ghost!
Thought this might interest some readers of this blog — Phantomfest are a volunteer ghost group who are holding a charity ghost night in aid of the Youth Hostel Association on Saturday, March 14th, 2009, wher emember sof the public can learn how to hunt ghosts. Tickets are £35 including some simple food and accommodation in Youth Hostel style bunk beds, but a whole evening of fun ghosthunting style activities! They do a number of these throughout the year but this may well be the last one in 2009 as the Castle is closing for refurbishment, do so try to make it. There are usually about 50 guests present for the various talks, ghost hunts and other spooky goings on, and I’m giving a talk or two as per usual. You get to sit in the dark and maybe see something – in fact on my first ever ghost hunt there I saw something I still can not explain, and on a recent visit experienced two bouts of mysterious physical phenomena!
Email email@example.com for details, or visit their forum at
if you decide to come along or have been before do add to the comments so we can chat about it!