When My Skepticism Offends…

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When I write and talk about paranormal subjects I often find myself prefacing what I have to say with non-committal language such as “so-called”, “alleged”, “self-proclaimed” and similar so that people won’t accuse me of dismissing or accepting claims a priori.

Anyone who investigates, researchers or reports on paranormal subjects from a rational or skeptical position will often find themselves in a no-win situation with accusations of being too accepting or too skeptical at the same time.

Yesterday I had a light bulb moment in which I realised that it didn’t matter if I preface what I say with such wording because people will become offended regardless which is comes to the ideas they believe being questioned.

I saw a Facebook post that made the claim about how ghosts are just troubled dead people and I pointing out how I found it funny that ghost hunters often act as though they’re doing the dead a favour. Superhero complex or what?

In response I was asked where my respect was for this persons right to believe what they choose. It was pointed out to me that one day I would die – would it be funny then?

Well… possibly?

It has become really clear to me over the years that people who hold irrational beliefs don’t always know the difference between having a right to believe what they wish, and having the right to not have those ideas questioned or ridiculed. The later isn’t a right anyone has, no matter how violently they may try to claim otherwise.

I respect your right to believe what you choose to and I recognise the importance that belief in paranormal ideas can play in the lives of people, but I don’t have to hold any respect for the ideas themselves. I don’t find the perpetuation of myths a respectful thing, and I do not respect those who use and promote pseudoscience as science. Especially when there are bad consequences.

Ideas can be criticised and if you happen to believe in bad ideas and don’t want them to be criticised then you’re in for a bad time.

Telling people they’re being disrespectful when they question your claims sounds a lot like trying to wriggle out of having to back up the claims you are making with evidence and that’s just sly and questionable. What kind of researcher are you, exactly?

You can believe what you wish but you sure don’t have a privilege to see your beliefs go unchallenged no matter how much you dislike it. I become hugely suspicious of anyone who says that a person shouldn’t be criticising ideas because it is disrespectful. It reminds me a lot of secular students on university campuses who are censored for fear of offending religious students. Replace the religious students with people who believe in ghosts and it’s pretty much the same situation and the same sense of entitlement.

Fact is though that if your ideas are bullshit, your beliefs are based on bullshit, and you spread that bullshit then it’s bullshit and bullshit doesn’t deserve any sort of respect.

Investigating Britain’s Sexiest Ghost

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The day I arrived in Torquay was the sunniest we’d had yet in 2016. People lined the sea front in their holiday clothes and ate chips and ice-cream. The breeze from the sea ruffled through, providing an occasional release from the unrelenting heat, spinning rainbow pinwheels and tumbling seagulls around the sky as it went.

A man with a sweeping brush drew complex patterns into the sand, moving in a way that suggested this was a form of meditation for him. Elsewhere children ran around just because they could, sticks at the ready to poke in the sand. Boys with kayaks fought the waves, a photographer carefully stalked a group of sandpipers up and down the shore. It was charming just as the British seaside always is but I didn’t have time to stop and enjoy it. I was on a mission to investigate Britain’s sexiest ghost, and ghosts wait for no man.

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The ghost

That ghosts are even real is a subject of much debate but Torquay museum insist they’ve got one, and not just any old ghost at that. Theirs is the sexiest one. Part of me is alarmed that you can still be objectified once you’re dead but that’s a different conversation for another day.

Last October their ghost made the headlines when it left fingerprints inside a glass case which houses a mummy. It hasn’t been established just how a ghost could leave fingerprints on glass without having physical hands but let’s humour this idea for a moment.

Just prior to the fingerprints being discovered it is claimed ‘the female ghost was seen creeping between the artefacts. She was wearing old clothing showing off all her assets as she emerged from the floor and cast her eyes down towards a light.’

In July 2015 the ghost was photographed in the Old Devon Farmhouse exhibition, leaning forwards slightly and showing off her cleavage. There has been speculation online about the cause of what is seen in the photo. Some people believe it to be staged, others suggest it is the reflection of someone in a window pane among other theories.

I was contacted by US paranormal researcher Benjamin Radford who wanted to know if I (as a British paranormal investigator) had heard anything through the grapevine about this particular case. The grapevine is a valued asset to paranormal researchers and it’s usually through word of mouth that tip offs come that help solve cases. After a long discussion I agreed to visit Torquay to have a look at the room and to take detailed photographs so that a cause might be established once and for all.

Ghost photos that are genuinely interesting are rare; they generally tend to be bad hoaxes, random blurs mistaken for something, photographic errors, or nothing at all. There was certainly something in this photo which made it stand out in my mind. There are times when an investigator can work out what is happening without an on-site visit, but more often than not actually being on location is beneficial and eye-opening. The answer can slap you right in the face when you thought you’d need hours of sleuthing. You might meet the “ghost” in person and be able to kill your afternoon in the pub instead (this has happened.)

Upon arriving at the museum and venturing onto the top floor where The Old Devon Farmhouse exhibit lives one thing became apparent straight away. The ghost was not caused by a reflection as many had suggested. I found all of the reflective surfaces in the room and took photos of the fireplaces through them from different angles to try and replicate what is seen in the original photo but it wasn’t possible.

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The things I do…

As I inspected the area I saw that there were small benches next to one of the fireplaces that were in the right position for the ghost to have been seated on at the time. Therefore it is my conclusion that Britain’s sexiest ghost  was actually a living person sitting in the dark next to one of the fireplaces. It almost looks as though her face is lit by the screen of an electronic item such as a camera or phone.

The small benches in question
The small benches in question

After my inspection of the exhibit I found staff members and volunteers on the ground floor and inquired with them about the ghost. They explained that many people took part in ghost hunt events in the museum and had strange experiences. One of the women I spoke to explained that a whole shelf of books had flown off of the shelf in the gift shop one afternoon as she spoke with customers. That was the one original activity that any of them could recall – everything else was related to these ghost hunting events.

This is problematic because people taking part in a ghost hunting event have primed themselves to interpret things that they experience as most likely to be paranormal. When a haunting is largely based on the experiences of people who have paid to have a paranormal experience it isn’t a very reliable or interesting case and eye-witness testimony is not useful evidence or data.

I inspected the mummy case while at the museum. Remember, this mummy made headlines in October 2015 when ghostly fingerprints appeared on it during a ghost event.

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Can you see the fingerprints?

The only problem is that there were fingerprints and greasy hand marks all over the case when I visited. The case is quite low down so that children can see the mummy properly so there’s absolutely nothing to suggest, to me, that fingerprints appearing on this display are out of the ordinary.

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To establish that the fingerprints were not inside the case originally, or that they had simply not been noticed before would be an incredible feat. But even if we know for sure that this was true there is nothing to suggest that fingerprints appearing inside a case were caused by a ghost. There are a number of perfectly ordinary scenarios that could result in prints appearing inside the case when they weren’t there before.

I believe that these ghost-related headlines and events are all inspired by falling visitor numbers and are an attempt to to get people through the door and to drive revenue. It’s a shame because this sort of ghost tourism is quite uninspired when there are such interesting exhibits one could use to engage the public with but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. 

It has been reported that ‘council figures show the [visitor] numbers dropped in 2013/14 from 25,957 to 18,743′ and the same report detailed how in 2015/16 the museum faced a 42% budget cut from the local authority. The Austerity that the Conservative government have imposed upon the United Kingdom is slowly strangling art and cultural organisations throughout the country. Museum manager, Phillip Collins said the funding cuts could ‘kill Torquay Museum before we are able to put ourselves on a secure financial footing for the future.’ 

That museums face this challenge is heartbreaking. Please visit your local museum, and not just because Britain’s Sexiest Ghost might be lurking in the shadows. Pervert.


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Who Do Gettysburg Ghost Gals Think They’re Kidding?

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“Every team back in the 90s was male-dominated. You didn’t find any teams that were female-run” claims Brigid Goode, a member of the Gettysburg Ghost Gals in an interview with Irish Central.

In the article it is claimed she has ‘been doing paranormal investigations for decades and founded the Gettysburg Ghost Gals in 2012.’ In an MTV article Goode also claimed that “during investigations we get better results than the men do.”

Hmm.

Ugly gender stereotyping aside, we always knew there’d be people who’d ride of the coattails of the new Ghostbusters movie this year and it appears that the Gettysberg Ghost Gals (GGG) are those people. Members of this US based team have cropped up on various media outlets basking in the limelight of the movie by claiming to be the first all-female ghost-hunting team in the US. This, is seems, somehow makes them relatable to the new Ghostbusters who also happen to be women.

The Ghostbusters were a team of (mostly) parapsychologists who had their funding withdrawn by their university and struck it out on their own but the Ghostbusters are nothing like real-life Parapsychologists. I’d even go as far as to say that they’re bad and unethical researchers. Look no further that the Zener card experiment near the beginning of the film for evidence of this!

In her book  ‘Parapsychology: a beginners guide‘, Dr Caroline Watt writes that ‘Parapsychologists do not run around in boiler suits, hunting down marauding ghosts with proton packs. Instead, like other scientists, parapsychologists often carry out well-controlled studies and publish their findings in both mainstream and specialist academic journals.’

Running around chasing ghosts with weird equipment? Sounds familiar!

Further into the MTV article mentioned above Goode tells aspiring ghost hunters to ‘“Know your equipment, and know what you’re talking about. If they use modern equipment, pieces of ghost hunting equipment that we actually use, it would add legitimacy.’

This is not true because there is no equipment that has been proven to detect ghosts. Nobody has ever established the qualities of ghosts so how on earth would you go about detecting them?

A browse of the GGG website reveals nothing much about the methodologies they use, but there is a page dedicated to the paranormal equipment companies that sponsor them, and their event management company, and all of their public appearances… it’s all rather unimpressive.

I was prompted to write this post after noticing that someone called Chris Goode (who I presume is related to Brigid) recently tweeted that the Gettysburg team should have been included in a list of influential American ghost hunters produced by Planet Weird.

Awkward…

It seems to me that this attention-seeking ghost hunting team aren’t very good at researching ghosts which leaves them only one claim to fame – that they’re Americas first all-female ghost hunting team. There’s no way of establishing this as an accurate claim (and I’m pretty sure it could be disputed) but who really cares?

There are so many women who made waves and shaped paranormal research (and many who continue to do so today) despite their gender so if your only claim to fame is your gender then you’re not really that special.

Glasgow Shopping Centre Calls In… Paranormal Experts?

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What happens when you ask a group of ghost hunters to visit a location at which people have reported seeing ghostly apparitions? Well, long-time visitors to this blog will know that the answer is that they usually find ghosts. Does that mean you’re haunted? No…

In the last few days a variety of news channels have reported that Glasgow Paranormal Investigators (GPI) have been called in by the managers of the Silverburn shopping centre after at least four sightings of a woman in black have been reported.

On social media the group have told their followers that they ‘can’t really comment on what’s going on just now’ but have told the media that “the most important thing is to ensure whoever it is finds a peaceful resting place.”

Wait… what? No. The most important thing is work out what’s causing the sightings, not to just assume it’s the spirit of a deceased person. Oh dear…

A quick look at the eye-witness reports (which I believe are all we have to go on at this point, but I’m happy to be corrected) indicates that the sightings of the “woman in black” have taken place when the shopping centre is open to the public.

Really doesn’t make a compelling case when you start to factor in the possibility that it could just be shoppers that are being seen and mistaken as ghosts. Or perhaps pranksters. How does one rule this out?

A quick look at the GPI website and you’re met with the claim ‘GPI are committed to obtaining as much evidence as we can of possible paranormal activity’ which doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence that an investigation is going to be rational and balanced in its approach.

‘It is not uncommon for a spirit to be attached to a site before the present building was constructed’ they told the press, ‘Possibly Silverburn or the construction of the new cinema disturbed it. This can be common in hauntings.’

Oh dear, Glasgow. It seems that you’re about to inherit a new haunted cinema that is probably anything but haunted.

A spokesperson from Silverburn told the press “we are aware that a shadowy woman has been spotted around the centre. We have reached out to local experts in the field of paranormal activity, who will hopefully be able to shed some light on the matter.”

No, no I don’t think you have…

Here’s The Deal With Paranormal Tourism

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Earlier this year I visited Woodchester Mansion for a midnight tour of the building and two things happened: I had a strange experience, and I realised I had pro-paranormal tourism leanings. This was a revelation that shocked a number of people and I promised that I would write about it in more details, so here I am.

Ghost Heritage: the good and the… not so good

When you visit somewhere like Woodchester Mansion the money from your pocket goes towards the upkeep of the building which, like many historical sites across the country, is owned and cared for by charitable trusts and/or people who volunteer their time.

Places like Woodchester Mansion need to raise a certain amount of cash to keep the building open and in a good condition. Old buildings have a habit of breaking and bits fall off – Woodchester mansion, for example, have got to raise something like £2million to fix some pillars that are holding part of the chapel roof up. With this in mind I think that paying to go on a ghost event at such a location is a positive thing because it’s a way in which the heritage of the building can be protected. I see it as no different than booking to go on a ghost walk or a ghost tour – many of which I’ve been on and enjoyed.

My experiences at places with Woodchester Mansion, Preston Manor and Longleat House are those of volunteers or staff members presenting an overview of the alleged ghost heritage of the location in a way that doesn’t misrepresent anything. It’s essentially tourism with the lights off.

If you’re a ghost hunting group it’s your choice what you spend your cash on, but personally I am 100% behind anyone who books to visit a heritage site because I know that their money is going to a good cause and good use.

As long as the person running the event doesn’t promote nonsense “ghost hunting” techniques and spread misinformation then I do not see this as a problematic situation. In fact, I applaud locations like Preston Manor in Brighton who consulted with me a few years ago about how to make their ghost events ethical experiences for everybody.

On the flip side of this there is another sort of paranormal tourism where the money goes from your pocket and into someone else’s pocket and, in my opinion, this is where things start to get a bit murky. Take 30 East Drive as an example here – they charge a huge amount of money to essentially visit a house that had activity in the 70s and the profit goes… where, exactly? Well, I know from experience that it goes directly into someone’s bank account but after that there is no trail.

When The Good Becomes… Not So Good

There are, of course, those heritage venues that conduct ghost events in completely the wrong manner. Many will hire the venue out to third party events companies who conduct themselves in an unethical manner and promote both non-scientific methods as well as claims that are utterly nonsense and potentially harmful.

When there is a profit to be made you should always question to what extent you are being sold something.

Spreading bad and false information is bad enough, but doing so when you don’t really believe in it yourself is manipulative and inexcusable. People who believe in paranormal ideas are often seen as a means of profit by these companies and it is within the best interest of the companies to create positive experiences – in their case, paranormal occurrences.

Back in 2005 I was the lead investigator of a ghost hunting group and even though the members of the group hadn’t paid to visit the location I felt a certain pressure for them to be impressed. I now suspect this probably had an effect on the way in which I personally perceived things that happened during our time at a location.

Swap those team members for paying members of the public and that pressure increases. I’m not suggesting that every paranormal events company fakes activity to meet the expectations of their customers (though I know some of them do), but these events cannot be considered actual investigations because there is a certain level of bias involved in the way in which things are processed.

Odd things that have a rational explanation are more likely to be chalked up as paranormal in nature on these events to keep people happy. If you are paying to attend a ghost event overnight you are not paying to attend a ghost investigation with proper controls and methodologies in place.

Ghost Tourism vs. Ghost Investigation

Attending an event run by such a company is not at all like being involved in a paranormal investigation – yet more often than not ghost hunting events are marketed as just that.

In 2009 I ran a ghost hunting event at a Victorian theatre with the intention of showing the customers the good and bad investigative methodologies you can use when investigating paranormal claims. I wanted them to experience an actual paranormal investigation but it just didn’t work because it wasn’t exciting. Why? A paranormal investigation is more than just a couple of hours spent at the location – it starts with careful consideration and drawing up a list of your initial thoughts. Maybe pulling a few books off of your shelf and looking for that chapter you think will be helpful, it’s talking to your peers who have experienced similar cases for advice – all before you’ve even stepped through the door. To try to sell such an experience to the public is impossible.

Which is why it’s absurd that many people who conduct these ghost events claim to be paranormal investigators.

Paranormal Tourism clearly has its good, bad and ugly aspects but while there is scope for harm there is also the opportunity to support the trusts who look after the heritage sites of our country. If you’re thinking of going on a ghost hunt I suggest working our where your money ends up and if it isn’t going towards the upkeep of a heritage site why not consider an alternative ghost related event that does help?