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?

On Sally Morgan Warning Her Fans About Scammers

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British psychic Sally Morgan recently caused a bit of a stir online when she posted a video to her official Facebook page warning fans about people on social media pretending to be her and trying to make money from her fans by scamming them.

Many people on my social media timelines have mocked this because they believe that Sally Morgan is also scamming money from her fans in one way or another, but that’s a debate for another day. In fact, I’ve blogged about Sally Morgan and her claims previously on this blog here if you’re curious.

What many people are missing here is that Sally Morgan is doing the right thing by warning her fans because by doing so she is helping them to know who they are handing their money over to and what services they are purchasing and this is good news. Why? Because it means that they have a huge range of consumer protection legislation and consumer protection services behind them to help them if they decide they’ve been tricked out of their money by Sally Morgan.

Being clear about who you are paying, what you are paying for and why makes you a clever consumer who has options if you’re not happy with what you’ve paid for.

If someone is tricked into handing their bank details over to someone who is pretending to be Sally Morgan it’s quite unlikely that they’re going to be able to trace that person very easily. A police investigation might be successful in returning their money to them eventually but it might not. It’s also a highly traumatic experience.

This is why I think we should applaud psychics (and other odd claim makers) when they warn their customers to be careful consumers and to think twice about who they’re handing their money over to. The alternative is that Sally Morgan knows that people are pretending to be her and scamming money from people and she does nothing about it and nothing to highlight it and that’s just not cool. There would quite rightly be an uproar.

Look – people claiming to be psychics are not going away regardless of how many petitions you launch or how many banners you hold up outside of their shows. People will always believe in psychics and psychics will always be around.

The best thing that people who doubt psychics can do is to ensure that those who believe in psychics know how to spot trickery when it happens and what to do when they spot it because people who believe in psychics do not deserve to be conned out of their money.

There are whole swathes of people within the skeptic community whom I refer to as “anti-psychics”. These are not the people out there raising awareness of how to spot psychic trickery (and sometimes being abused for doing so), but instead those who want to see psychics punished and shamed for what they claim. Or even harmed – the aggression I have seen aimed at people who claim to be psychic has been alarming at times.

These “anti-psychics” think that people who believe in psychics must be thick and that because they’re thick they deserve to have their money stolen through dishonest practices. ‘You reap what you sow’ they’ll say. ‘Should have listened to us’ they’ll warn, but ultimately they do nothing to solve the issues that those who want to visit psychics face.

People believe in psychics for a whole range of reasons, many of which are complex and personal and it’s their choice what they spend their money on. If we want to help we can help raise awareness of how to be a smart consumer and how to spot psychic fraud if you see it. On this occasion Sally Morgan helped us achieve that aim because people pretending to be famous psychics are psychic con artists themselves. Nice one, Sally. 👍

Bigfoot Skepticism: This Is Not A Defense

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John Horgan has offered up a written version of a talk he delivered at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) over at Scientific American. The post is titled Dear ‘Skeptics,’ Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More” and in it he makes various arguments about things that skeptics should be spending their time focussing on instead of “soft targets”.

Daniel Loxton and Steven Novella have both written great responses to Horgan that are worth reading. (PZ Myers, on the other hand, hasn’t.)

I’ve defended the role of skeptics in paranormal research fields time and time again on this blog and I refuse to do so today. Sometimes people seem so focussed on trying to justify skepticism with the levels of harm that a chosen topic can cause but here’s a fact – you don’t need to justify skepticism.

Bad ideas deserve to be challenged with good ideas, bad information with good information, bad knowledge with good knowledge. There’s your justification right there.

Skepticism is a way in which you process information and claims that you encounter and I cannot think of a single person I know in this vast community of self-identified skeptics who doesn’t have the ability to rationally approach a whole range of claims – from health to astronomy, politics to religion and beyond. Some of us are even selfish and focus on subjects that apply to our personal lives, like cults, LGBT rights, superstitions about witchcraft, exorcisms, sexism, bogus medical treatments that we’ve encountered, and more…

I happen to be knowledgeable about the paranormal but my skepticism is something I use in all aspects of my life. If your skepticism is self-limiting to the point that you can only focus on one subject at a time then that’s your problem.

I view Horgan’s comments as extremely dismissive of the work that many skeptics have achieved in a whole range of areas of society. From bringing to the public eye the dodgy behaviour of rich psychics, to having a hand in defunding homeopathy on the National Health Service in the UK (where funding is currently in a bit of a crisis situation), to protecting cancer patients from harmful treatments that might not help them… if these are considered soft targets then I have no choice but to politely disagree.

Ultimately though, us skeptics thought to be hitting only the soft targets are often actually doing way more than those who sit around and tell us we’re doing it wrong. And do you know who doesn’t reflect inwardly about whether they’re focussing their efforts in the right way? Peddlers of misinformation, that’s who.  By the way, the latest claim is that Bigfoot is a ghost.

 

On thinking outside of the box: Beware the “real or app?” trap

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In June 2012 a ghost photo taken by a Cheltenham resident in their home started to go viral. It contained the ghost of a baby that had died in the house years before and the owner of the phone it was taken on was sure it was paranormal evidence. It wasn’t. It had been created on a smartphone app designed to create fake ghost photos by inserting ghostly characters into existing photographs.

The phone owner in question hadn’t known this and the fake photo had been created by someone else to prank them and they hadn’t realised the truth before going to the media. I wrote about this particular case when I became involved in it.

Smartphone apps have made it easier than ever before to fake ghost photos (not that is has ever been particularly difficult) that look realistic to an untrained eye – but know what you’re looking for and it’s easy to spot a smartphone app for what it is. There are a whole range of ghosts and oddities that can be added to a photo by an ever-growing range of ghost photo apps. Visit any paranormal blog and you’ll probably find people talking about these apps and attributing photos to them.

Today I saw someone ask their Twitter followers if a photo was ‘real or an app?‘ as though these are the only two possible explanations. The photo in question looked as though it could actually be someone walking into a photograph being taken on a slow exposure setting which can often turn people translucent.

People must be careful to not just dismiss photographs as ghost app creations a priori, but worryingly I’ve seen an increasing number of people doing exactly this. For example, a recent news story from the UK featured some sort of face being photographed in the window of an old hospital and people started speculating on social media that it was just created using an app – but the truth was that it was a Halloween mask placed in the window to spook people passing by. 

One must rule out all possible explanations until it isn’t possible to continue to do so. To just speculate about what could have caused a photo without any evidence on which to base your suggestion is find so long as you don’t pretend that you’re doing something altogether different.

This isn’t me saying that people shouldn’t question things or voice their thoughts and opinions about ghost photos and other forms of evidence – I often do just that on this blog and on The Spooktator podcast but these are different forms of analysis than actual investigation.

I conduct many on-site investigations too where possible, and these have always provided better results than sitting at my computer pondering and googling. There are forms of investigation where site visits are not required – footage replications for example, and audio analysis. But all too often people claiming to be skeptical investigators fall short of the actual investigating. They continually reach conclusions without stepping away from their computers, speaking to the people involved, or moving past the suspicion that every piece of evidence of ghosts is the result of ill intent on the part of the person who has shared it, and this approach bores me beyond comprehension.

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