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.

Death.

flowers

It was 8am in the morning. I was blurry-eyed and I had half an hour until I needed to catch my bus to work. I’d overslept. Again.

I grabbed my phone as though I had all the time in the world (an illusion I am guilty of living under every single day) and I noticed I had a message on the Facebook page for my blog. It was from the husband of a friend to tell me she had died.

Would I write some words to be read at her funeral? She thought highly of me.

It was 8am in the morning when I began to cry and I didn’t stop until the next day. I sat at my desk at work secretly crying. I cried on my walk home from work. I’d never met my friend in person but she was ingrained in the everyday existence that I call life. I miss her. She was my friend and I had known her online since I was about 16-years-old.

I have thought about her and her family every day since her death.

I usually find myself thinking about her during my 20/20/20 breaks at work. My optician insists that every 20 minutes I should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to rest my eyes. I look at the trees outside of my office window, they surround the building I work in. It’s a concert hall and it is built on grounds that used to belong to the school next door.

The grounds that are now the foundations of the concert hall were once taken care of by a groundsman. When I was a child that groundsman was my grandfather and I have very-basic-yet-real memories of going to work with him and walking among the greenhouses and sheds that once stood where my office now is.

My granddad died last November.

Something I have learned from all of this grief is that it’s easy to be haunted by the ghosts of those who were once with us but no longer are. It’s easy to cling on and find meaning where there is none and it’s hard to let go. Yet we have to let go otherwise we risk living under the illusion that we have all the time in the world.

Strangely (some would say) I made an impulse purchase of a book called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty and I began reading it shortly after my grandfather died. I’d amassed enough points on my reward card for a free book (or ten) and the cashier insisted I pick one up “as a christmas gift to yourself”. It was 1 month after my grandfather died and 1 month until my friend would die.

I am pleased that I read the book though because it confronts the subject of death with a truthfulness that, although at times is harsh, is right. Is deserved.

Simon Davis interviewed Doughty for his Vice column. Davis writes about death a lot and it’s good because we humans are at risk of ignoring our mortality and to do so comes at the cost of not living. As an atheist I’m often told that to not believe in an afterlife is to give up hope but I never know what I’m supposed to be hoping for that’s so important it has to wait until death. The only thing I do is regret the things I did not do and this gives me hope that I can take steps to lessen my eventual regrets with each day that passes.

So this is me telling you to read the book and think about the lessons within. It’s worth it. There’s a saying… ‘how terrible it is to love something that death can touch’ but this quote is wrong. It’s not terrible at all.

The Snubbing of Tatchell

censorship-image

The Guardian report that the LGBT officer for the National Union of Students (NUS), Fran Cowling, declined to share a platform with Peter Tatchell at an upcoming talk on the subject of ‘re-radicalising queers’.

The first I heard of this was from various social media posts from people outraged that Peter Tatchell, of all people, had been no-platformed. This wasn’t the case though as he hasn’t been denied a platform and Cowling has simply stated in correspondence with the event organisers that she would not share a platform with him.

Cowling claims that Tachell is transphobic and this is her reason for this decision – a claim that Tachell says he has asked her to back up with evidence which she has not done.

Refusing to share a platform with someone you disagree with is the easy way out and achieves less that confronting what you believe to be bad or false information with good information and evidence. That said, we are all entitled to be able to choose our responses. If anything, Cowling has no-platformed herself here, and has denied herself a voice which is an interesting choice to make.

It could be argued that refusing to share a platform with someone is a demand that they not be allowed to talk, but unless Tatchell is refused a platform as a result of this it isn’t equal to being denied a platform as people such as Kate Smurthwaite, Julie Bindel, and others have experienced recently – often for the protection of so-called safe spaces at universities. Such actions are in direct conflict with the safeguarding of free speech. They are forms of censorship and in a world where people are being murdered for expressing dissenting opinions it is vital that such censoring actions be challenged and that free expression isn’t silenced by a minority who would seek to not hear an opinion they do not agree with- whether feminists offended by alleged transphobia or muslims offended by atheists.

But in the process of defending freedom of speech we must ensure that we do not paint targets on the backs of those who are not attempting to censor others for fear of building Straw Men when in reality there are enough enemies of reason out there already happily censoring others. 

Chicken George: The Day I Got A Lesson In Believing

chicken george

I grew up in a council house on a mostly-council-owned street in a Wiltshire village. The plot of land our house sat on had been an orchard before it was developed. Ours was the last house before you reached the bungalows in which elderly people lived and at the end of the bungalows sat our primary school – a minutes walk from home.

My brother is four years younger than me and between us we had a huge group of friends who lived on the same street, or on the streets that connected to ours or were situated nearby.

We all lived in fear of Chicken George.

Chicken George was a man who lived behind the garages at the end of our street. Behind the garages was an expanse of fields called “The Hilperton Gap” which seperated our village from the nearby town of Trowbridge. It has all been developed now and Hilperton and Trowbridge are practically one and the same. The front of these garages were tidy with a concrete floor and a row of uniformly green metal doors. We’d play football there. But behind them grew tall trees, brambles, weeds and goodness knows what else. There also existed in that space between garage and field a man called Chicken George.

If you ventured down the sides of the garages and- god forbid -behind them Chicken George would get you. “Don’t go back there or Chicken George will get you” the older kids would warn, and we would stand in the safe area looking at the brambles and wondering what Chicken George looked like, or how fast he could run (could we outrun him?)

My brother and I- and our group of friends -all lived by the rule that we’d allow Chicken George to live in peace and keep our distance. We’d play our football games in front of the garages and he wouldn’t mind as he munched on rats back there. He would stay there and we would stay out front and it was all good.

Until the day that I decided that I was going to climb on top of the garages.

I’d like to point out now that as a child I had no concept of how dangerous what I was about to do actually was, but there you go. I realised that some rubbish that had been left to the side of the garages meant that I would be able to climb up on the top of the garages.

So I did.

We had never been told that Chicken George went on the roof of the block of garages so in my mind I was relatively safe up there. Obviously being over ten feet in the air on top of a badly maintained garage roof didn’t seem dangerous at all to me, but there you go.

I can remember sauntering up and down the roof as my friends looked on from below, demonstrating how brave and cool I was, until one of our neighbours pulled up in his van and yelled at me to “GET DOWN FROM THERE NOW!”

So I did.

I jumped from the top of the garages into the wilderness behind the garages.

I hadn’t been thinking. I wasn’t a very bright child.

I landed on my back on a fallen tree and somehow didn’t break my spine. It wasn’t something I was worried about though because I was in danger. Chicken George was about to pounce… only, there was nobody there but me. My friends guided me out through the brambles, logs and trees and I went home for sympathy from my mum.

I never did climb on top of those garages again, and neither did I heed warnings of Chicken George. None of us did.

I knew he wasn’t real because I’d observed his absence for myself. My friends saw me survive my fall into his territory and with my survival the myth of Chicken George died.

We did still tell the younger kids he was real though. Just because we could.

 

For Entertainment Purposes Only: On Psychics and Legislation

consumer

There is a UK Gov petition doing the rounds that states ‘Make all those who sell psychic services, prove that their abilities are real.’ You can read the petition in full here. 

It is well intentioned but it isn’t going to work. I know not because I am a psychic myself, but because consumers are already covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008 which replaced The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.

It was under this previous piece of legislation that psychics and mediums would use ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ disclaimers to avoid prosecution for fraud. This is a practice that still continues, probably to avoid breaching the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 which prevents service providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on.

Yet despite the use of entertainment disclaimers at the start of their show many psychics and mediums will go on to deliver what is considered a serious psychic performance or seance. It will upset people, give them false hope, and those who come away from the venue will often believe that what the psychic was doing was genuine.

This is proof that is doesn’t matter if you force psychics and mediums to prove their abilities before the can perform to the public, people will still seek out their services regardless of the risk of being tricked out of their money.

People who visit a psychic show do not deserve to have their money taken from them dishonestly, but the best way to stop this from happening is to educate people about how to spot trickery for themselves and by raising awareness of existing legislation that is there to protect us as consumers.

There are a number of things that people can do to cover themselves; get a receipt, record your session with a psychic, learn what the tricks psychics use are and familiarise yourself with reviews from others who have seen the psychic in question. It’s also important to check the Terms and Conditions of purchase of the venue you’re buying a ticket from as many theatres do not issue refunds.

When I created Project Barnum (an online resource about psychic trickery) a group of volunteers and I phoned dozens of UK venues at which Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and other well known psychics would be performing. We posed as potential customers and asked for clarification about whether the psychic was real or not because they had entertainment disclaimers.

We would ask “are they a real psychic or are using psychological trickery to make it seem so?” and none of the venues were able to tell us. We would then ask “if it turns out they’re using misleading tactics and aren’t really psychic can I get a refund?” Again, the venues were unable to provide any of us with consistent answers. Had I been a real customer I would have been very confused. Had I been an actual customer refused a refund I would have taken it to Trading Standards and I’m confident that it would be possible to get a refund as a result.

The only outcome of stopping psychics and mediums from performing will be to move what they do from the stage where we can all see them and into back rooms, secret shows, or back into the parlours that our psychic ancestors would hold seances and reading during the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism trends. I think that’s a big risk that skeptics should consider very carefully. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anybody really wants.