When the skeptic get spooked

Woodchester Mansion photo by Stewart Black

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Woodchester Mansion with a small group of others. It wasn’t a paranormal investigation but more a tour of the building and we were there from about 11pm through to 2am-ish.

It is a beautiful building in its own way – incomplete, with doorways that lead to a two-floor drop, floors that aren’t quite there and in some places are completely absent. It feels as though you’re stepping back in time to the 1800s and that at any moment the architects and stonemasons will pick up the tools they left behind and carry on. Why they left their tools behind nobody quite knows…

You know that the building you’re standing in is old and yet it almost feels new and throughout the time we spent there I couldn’t shake the discombobulation that came as a result of that.

As we walked around Paul and Chris (who had kindly agreed to do the tour at a moments notice) explained the history of the building and the many eye-witness accounts that have been reported from visitors and staff over the years. We were listening to them speak while standing in a first floor hallway when suddenly the noise of something moving in the hall on the floor below us caught our attention.

It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been to the mansion, but the previously-mentioned missing floors meant that even though we were a level above the hall we were able to look through what was meant to be a doorway (but isn’t) and down into the hall through what should have been the floor of the missing adjacent room. There was nobody present and nothing obvious that could cause the noise.

Old building, lots of open spaces, windy night… who knows what the noises could have been. What interested me more though was the report that most weird experiences at Woodchester Mansion seem to happen to those not expecting to have experiences (e.g. not ghost hunters, or ghost hunters who aren’t yet ghost hunting.)

This is my experience too – whenever I have had a strange experience it has been when I was working, when I was packing up equipment or setting it up, when I’ve been a guest somewhere and not there as an investigator. This isn’t to say that ghosts are real and are pranksters, but it’s incredibly frustrating because when people inevitably ask you if you have any evidence you don’t because you didn’t have a camera with you, or you’d just packed it away.

The most interesting thing happened after we’d left the building for the night and were about to leave. The group of seven had arrived in two cars and were stood next to them talking – CJ and I went to the outbuilding that houses toilets. The women’s toilets are around the corner from the men’s and as I was inside I heard someone call my name but when I left there was nobody there which surprised me because it certainly sounded like a vocalisation. I walked around the side of the building and met CJ just as he was leaving the men’s and asked if he’d called my name but he hadn’t. None of the others had left the group of five that stood with the cars. Certainly not evidence of anything I know, but intriguing nonetheless.

To conclude, I left Woodchester Mansion realising that I was actually in support of paranormal tourism. We’re going to discuss this on Episode 10 of The Spooktator when it comes out and I’ll write more about this after the episode is released so do check back if you’re keen to hear more.

Thanks to everyone who made the trip possible – it was an incredible way to spend the night and morning. I would thoroughly recommend that people visit Woodchester Mansion either as tourists or as part of a ghost tour.

featured photo by Stewart Black, Flickr

We are the Monsters

all monsters are human

We all consider ourselves to be rational, ethical people, and we wouldn’t dream that we were potentially harming others with our behaviour. As a previous blog post showed, ghost hunters who do unethical things do not always realise that they’re being unethical.

How then do we ensure that we don’t make the same mistake? I pointed out in that blog post that it’s important to work to a code of ethics – either one that you’ve written up yourself, that an investigator/team you’re working with has written, or perhaps one a venue has in place.

It’s easy to think that irrational people are unethical investigators and that rational people are ethical investigators but this is false. Nobody fits those pigeon holes so perfectly.

A code of ethics covers your back, but it primarily works for the people you come into contact with. It protects them from you doing harm to them through your actions, it guarantees complete confidentiality and it enables them to stop the investigation at any time. No questions asked.

I don’t speak for other paranormal researchers but I am terrified that I am going to do the wrong thing when I deal with somebody who has asked for my help and so I’m glad that I have a safety net that limits the harm I can do.

I have today made public my code of ethics [PDF] in the hope that it will inspire others to actually use a code of ethics that exists outside of their head*. Skeptics (myself included) talk often about the harm they want to protect others from but if we’re not careful we can become the monsters that we’re trying to chase away.

*please contact me before replicating, redistributing, or using my code of ethics as your own.

 

Are Poor People Who Report Ghosts Just Fakers?

ghosts and hauntings

In days gone by if something weird started happening in a manor or home belonging to a wealthy family the finger of blame would probably be pointed at the servants because ghost nonsense has always been something that poor people bother themselves with.

When Peggy Hodgson told her neighbours, the police and the press that odd things were happening in her council house people suspected the working class family were trying to get moved to a new house by faking activity. There’s evidence to suggest that there may have been foul play in this Enfield Poltergeist case but who knows what the motive could have been if there was one? Today in the 2010’s when the press write outlandish articles about a family dealing with a terrifying “ghosts” people are still quick to point the same finger of blame… but on what foundations are such accusations based?

In episode 7 of The Spooktator we discuss research by Inside Housing in which it is shown how many council and housing association tenants reported to their landlord that their house was haunted between  2003-2013.

There is a chart on the Haunted Houses article that shows how many reports of this nature responding councils received and how they were dealt with. A total of 73 cases of paranormal activity (possibly ongoing activity of one-off occurrences) were reported to the associations or councils in the ten year time frame – 6 of these resulted in an exorcist or medium being called in, and just 9 of these resulted in the tenant moving out.

These figures are not that staggering when you consider that recent polls measuring the belief in paranormal subjects suggest that anywhere from 30% – 50% of the general public believe that ghosts exist. You would actually expect there to be more cases of people contacting their landlords to report that their houses are haunted.

Obviously there will be times when people don’t report stuff to their landlord and contact a medium, their religious leader, or local ghost hunter directly, but these are not recorded and it is the recorded data I want to focus on here.

The statistics from this report show that the accusation of having an ulterior motive is pretty baseless, so… are people just being classist when judging the poor who claim to see ghosts? Possibly (and as someone who lives in social housing who has witnessed prejudice I’d suggest “probably” was accurate.)

Worryingly though, Inside Housing were unable to gather a full set of data from all councils as ‘the vast majority of councils said the information was not available because either it had not been recorded, or there was no relevant complaint category in their computer systems.’ None of the councils had a policy regarding how to deal with reports of this nature meaning that if something strange happens in your house the outcome of this could literally depend on where you live. This is bad news considering that for many the real cause of paranormal activity can be underlying or undiagnosed/mistreated mental or physical health issues.

So the next time someone who lives in social housing reports that their house is haunted and your gut reaction is that they just want a new house maybe ask yourself what alternative you would prefer – perhaps it’s the one where the housing association leave someone living in a house that terrifies them without offering help, and perhaps you think that because you’re actually satan?

The North Wales Incident: Lifting the lid on unethical ghost hunters

ethics

When you are a ghost hunter it isn’t always obvious when your behaviour is about to become unethical. You can become so caught up in the moment, truly believing that you’re finding evidence of ghosts that it’s the hunt for more evidence that’s at the front of your mind rather than a sense of what is right or wrong beyond the ghost hunt.

This is probably what happened recently in North Wales when a paranormal research team moved their ghost hunt from inside a pub and across the road into the local parish church graveyard. I imagine that the investigators didn’t think twice about standing among the graves and asking for spirits or ghosts to make themselves known. What could possibly go wrong?

Yet, a local resident who has family buried there was mortified and deeply upset when she heard what had happened from a friend who took part in the ghost hunting event.

I heard of this from a paranormal researcher that I know through mutual friends after the researcher was approached by the upset woman for advice. The researcher told me ‘she had spoken with her relatives and was afraid what occurred would become common knowledge in the vicinity. There are a few people she knew that would be deeply upset by what happened.’

I was asked to write about this as a warning to other paranormal researchers, and to point out that this isn’t the way to behave. Yet, although I agree that what happened wasn’t right, part of me wondered what had driven those people from the pub where they were invited to be, and across to the graveyard where there was no such invitation.

I contacted the team in question to tell them what had been reported to me and to ask why they had made the decision to do that. I wondered if perhaps I would receive abusive messages in response as I often do when being critical of ghost hunters, but instead I received a remorseful response.

‘We as a team would like to take the opportunity to send a sincere apology to all concerned’ they wrote, going on to explain their conduct. ‘We are deeply sorry though … and we do take this opportunity to apologise to all. We would have ideally liked to apologise directly but that is not to be the case. We shall bare the concerns raised in future and make it public that we will not visit this type of location again.’

There are lessons to be learned here for all.

Harm has occurred because of the behaviour of these paranormal researchers. In their email they explained that ‘every paranormal team at sometime or another have visited a church yard’ which is false (I’ve never visited a graveyard with any team I’ve been involved with) and is also potentially indicative of their decision making process.

As humans we attempt to live in accordance to what is and isn’t moral but our own senses of morality can be compromised by biases. This is why it’s important to have a previously-agreed-to Code of Ethics and Conduct that doesn’t get compromised because of what other teams do and what you’d like to do.

The code of ethics that I personally use as a researcher wouldn’t allow me to enter a graveyard to look for ghosts. Hell, it wouldn’t even allow me to involve paying members of the public in something I marketed as an investigation without the use of an entertainment disclaimer. It’s these things that set us apart as researchers – those who give a shit about others before themselves, and those that don’t.

Even so, the team involved in this incident seem to be genuinely sorry about what has happened and I think many critics of unethical ghost hunters can learn something important here too. These incidents are often not malicious in origin and are instead the product of ignorance. Attacking ghost hunters for being unethical does nothing to fight that ignorance and does nothing to lessen the unethical behaviour being criticised. A number of people would do well to think of that when they next take to Facebook for a very public rant about the latest team they’ve seen doing questionable things.

If anyone reading this would like to chat about creating a code of ethics for their team you can contact me here.

I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

scully