Is This The Beast Of Bodmin?

beast

The beast?

According to ITV West Country, Henry Warren was taking photos of Bodmin Moor when this “mystery creature” pictured above jumped out in front of him and ran off. Could it be the legendary Beast of Bodmin? Probably not. 

In my opinion this is a fox – one without a bushy tail which is no uncommon among foxes (particularly if they have mange which, sadly, is also not uncommon.) There are a few things that jump out at me immediately upon viewing the photo of the alleged beast that convince me of this; it has a reddish coat, the front legs are those of a fox leaping as it runs (see below for a comparison photo), what at first looks to be a blunt cat-like head is actually an illusion caused by shadow cast on the foxes head as it looks away from the camera.

photo: Wikimedia
Fox Jumping. Look at those cute little paws! Photo: Wikimedia

There is also nothing in the background of the photo to provide a rough scale of the animals size (no trees, fences or walls), only bushes and shrubbery, so I do not believe that it is as large as we first assume it to be (think: Essex Lion which turned out to be a cat, for an example of a similar instance of this happening.)

Foxes are totally cool, but even so, I don’t think they quite qualify for “BEAST” status.

Are Calls To The Police About Ghosts Wasting Police Time?

Photo: West Midlands Police

In 1977 when single mother Peggy Hodgson first witnessed strange noises and furniture seeming to move on its own she called the police. One of the constables that responded to her call witnessed a chair slide across the floor but ‘could not determine the cause of the movement.’[1] The incident would later become part of the Enfield Poltergeist case in which numerous eyewitnesses reported strange incidents that they could not explain. 

Ordinary people witness really weird things all of the time and sometimes they call the Police. There is nothing out of the ordinary for people who are scared and confused to call the Emergency Services, yet Nigel Rabbitts, chair of Devon and Cornwall Police Federation, said it had “continually raised concerns about demand versus resources”, the need for “investment and training of staff who take the calls” and managing the public’s expectations. He told the BBC that “there should be a public debate as to what the public see as a priority, how resources should be distributed and what percentage of calls for service should be screened out.”[2]

Many acquaintances of mine have scoffed at the recent BBC news articles (here and here) about the calls that police services have received in recent years about things like witches, ghosts, aliens and more. I would like to challenge them to leave their skepticism and non-belief at the door for one moment and consider how frightening it can be to witness something weird that you, in that moment, cannot fathom. I do not agree that these calls are a waste of resources or that they justify a public debate regarding what is and isn’t a priority for the Police Service to respond to. It isn’t the place of the general public to decide this due to a general lack of specialist training and awareness in these circumstances.

For many people it can be terrifying to experience something scary and strange and it is little wonder that they reach for the phone and call the Police. I often joke at Skeptics in the Pub talks about having developed the super-human ability to run through pitch black rooms without hitting the furniture, but there have been some occasions when I have been besides myself with fright.

Putting yourself in the position of the eyewitness makes it easy to see why some people would reach out to the Police for help, especially if they do not have anybody else to help them and, personally, I’d rather someone contacted the Police instead of local ghost hunters. They have a better chance of finding the right solution with the Police than they do with pseudo-scientific ghost hobbyists who will tell them all manner of incorrect things…

…especially if their strange experience is actually a symptom of other problems.

I’ve written in detail the ethical problems caused by ghost hunters who come into contact with vulnerable people without considering the impact their irrational behaviour and practices can have upon that person. I’m not suggesting for a moment that every single eye-witness who says they’ve witnessed something peculiar can fall into the vulnerable categories in my post (see link above) but it is a safe bet that a number of people who report these things can. Often people who display paranoid or irrational thoughts require medical attention that (hopefully) the Police would be able to organise.

The Chief Executive of the mental health charity Sane, Marjorie Wallace, said:

“In our experience it is absolutely essential that mental health services and police communicate, as it can be very difficult for the police to know what to do when a person expresses thoughts or fears which may lead them to feel abnormally threatened or distressed.” [3]

So, when people have the knee-jerk reaction that people are “wasting police time” by calling the Police about ghosts, monsters, witches and so on they might want to step back and consider the bigger picture first. Are Forty-eight calls to the Thames Valley Police between 2010 and 2013 such a drain on resources?[3] Are Thirty-five calls to the Devon and Cornwall Police between 2010 – 2013 such a drain on resources?[2] That’s a dozen or so potentially vulnerable people a year calling the police for help because they’re scared and confused and need help or assistance.

As a tax payer I am totally cool with that. I’d suggest that instead of there being a public debate about how the police prioritise these calls perhaps we ought to be discussing how the police respond to these calls and whether or not they are treating vulnerable people in a way that benefits them and their needs instead. Now THAT I am skeptical of…

[1] Joe Nickell“Enfield Poltergeist, Investigative Files”,  August 2012. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
[2] Chris Ellis “Alien and witchcraft calls to Devon and Cornwall Police”July 2014, BBC News
[3] Linda Serck “Thames Valley Police Receive Calls About Witchcraft And Aliens“, July 2014, BBC News

3 Weird Things That Happened To Me (& Why I Still Don’t Believe In Ghosts)

Me in the chapel at Littlecote Manor

Every time I speak at a conference or similar event there is a Q&A session directly after my talk and, more often than not, someone will ask me “Have you ever experienced something weird that you cannot explain?” Yes, is the response. I’ve seen some pretty weird shit over the years. Reactions to this answer are usually one of two – if it is a skeptical audience I share what happened and people try to work out what it could have been (which can be interesting), or if it is a believer-orientated audience I share what happened and I’ll be asked another question “Why don’t you believe in ghosts then?”

I have been researching and “hunting” for ghosts for roughly ten years in one form of another. As regular readers of my blog will know I used to believe in ghosts and tried to find evidence that they existed but this changed in 2007 when I re-evaluated what I believed to be true about the existence of ghosts and an afterlife. When I stopped believing ghosts to be real it was because I learned about rational causes for weird things people associate with ghosts and was able to rule out a lot of the strange experiences I’d had over the years, but there are still some things that happened to me and my team mates on location that I cannot explain. Here are three such experiences…

#1 – The  Little Boy That Wasn’t There

During one of several ghost investigations held overnight at a small shopping centre somewhere in Wiltshire I was sitting on the floor with three other investigators and someone was asking out for a response in true ghost hunter style (“let us know if you’re here. Can you make a noise? Show yourself? Move something?“)

What happened next was over in an instant and, to this day, I can recall the sense of not quite being able to process what I had seen. I was facing a long, straight section of the mall area that ended in a sort of T-section which led to other out-of-sight areas of the shopping mall. At the opposite end of the straight bit that I was facing was a large cafe with a seating area outside in the mall. I watched as a little boy ran across the T-section from one side to the other, in front of the cafe seating area, before vanishing from sight into the mall area around the corner.

The shopping centre was locked up and the only people on site were one security guard in an external office and us. “Did you…?” I began to ask, and two other team members confirmed that they’d seen the child too. We went off in search for a little boy that had somehow gotten into the mall despite it being locked down but we reached locked doors in either direction and the guard confirmed no child was on site.

Perhaps we didn’t see a child, but our expectations shaped something random into a child we expected to see? Perhaps there was a child and we were the butt of a prank? I can’t be certain, but it was pretty weird

#2 – The Whistler

This happened at the same location some months earlier with a different group of people. The centre was locked down once again and the only people on site were our team and a security guard in the external office. This odd experience happened in the same straight section of the mall that experience #1 (above) happened in. There was a vendor stall in the centre of the shopping area from which someone was selling personalised gifts and, because the shopping centre was shut, it had been covered over for the evening with a large cloth.

Us ghost hunters were just beginning our evening in the Centre and we were standing in a group on one side of this vendor stall talking about what we were going to do and when, when suddenly we all realised that we could hear someone singing from the other side of the vendor stall. It still makes me shiver to recollect that moment. They were singing “laaa-laaa-laa hmmm hmmm hmm hmmm”. 

We stared at one another with wide eyes not sure what to do when, suddenly, the la-la-laing stopped and someone frickin’ laughed at us from the other side of the stall. This sent the team scurrying around the vendors stall in both directions to “trap” whoever was messing around with us (for that is what we presumed was happening – that we were the butt of a prank), but in true horror movie style we met on the other side of the stall and there was nobody there. We then lifted the flaps covering the vendors stall to see if we could find anyone hiding inside which was the only other place they could have gone… but there was nobody there.

#3 – “Something just grabbed my fucking arm!”

Littlecote Manor in Berkshire is a 16th Century mansion that is rumoured to be haunted by some pretty sinister spirits. The manor has been turned into a hotel, the management of which allow ghost hunters access for a price, and I have visited this location on several occasions.

The second occasion at this location saw me witness something that baffles me to this very day. The mansion/hotel still has the original chapel in the centre of the building and I was in the chapel setting up a camcorder on a tripod (as seen in the photo below) when someone behind me pulled my elbow as though trying to get my attention. I span around to find nobody standing directly behind me and asked a team member nearby if they’d grabbed my arm. They denied that they had and other team members vouched for them not being anywhere near me prior to the moment I reacted.

I do wonder if it was a muscle spasm or if my shirt got caught up somehow, but to this day I’m not 100% sure what caused the sensation of a tug on my arm but I do recall that it felt real and it surprised me.

Me in the chapel at Littlecote Manor
Me, on the right, in the chapel at Littlecote Manor

Lots of people can’t understand why I don’t believe in ghosts if I’ve experienced these things but the answer is simple; there is no evidence that any of these things were ghosts. I could assume these things were ghosts, I could suggest these things were ghosts, but there is no certainty in the conclusion that these weird things I experienced were ghosts.

I can’t think of a satisfying rational explanation but I understand that this does not mean there isn’t such an explanation.

To say these experiences of mine were evidence of the survival of the human soul would be a leap of logic, and this is why I do not accept eye-witness testimony as evidence that ghosts are real, that a place is haunted or that a reported occurrence was caused by ghosts. People find it difficult to accept that eye-witness testimony doesn’t count as proof but that really is the case… I mean, if I don’t accept my own eye-witness testimony as proof because of the lack of evidence to support a paranormal conclusion, why would I accept yours?

Ghost Hunt Gadgets That Insult Your Intelligence

My personal collection of silly ghost gadgets.

Owning a collection of gadgets that you claim detect ghosts in one way or another is a staple part of belonging to a ghost hunting team. By explaining to the layman just how Electromagnetic fields can cause a minority of people to experience sensations of being watched while you wave around a plastic box that has coloured bulbs that light up randomly is all that you need to make it seem as though you’re an expert in your field, despite the fact that you’re spouting pseudo-scientific bullshit.

As long as you’ve got the gadgets in your hand it doesn’t matter if you completely make nonsense up on the spot – people will believe that you know what you’re on about because using scientific looking devices makes you seem like a legit person.

My personal collection of silly ghost gadgets.
My personal collection of silly ghost gadgets.

In my own personal arsenal I have a KII meter, a laser thermometer, a GhostBox, a Mr Ghost EMF iPhone antennae and a Ghost Laser Grid (as well as torches, dictaphones and other similar bits). This little collection set me back well over £300 over the years and the gadgets do not do what it is claimed they do. I knew this when buying them, though, and bought them as demonstration items.

Yet, as useless as the gadgets I bought are when it comes to detecting other-wordly presences, ghost gadget continue to develop, change and “progress”  with new items being released into the market on a regular basis. I thought I’d share some of the more spectacularly bad pieces of crap marketed as ghost hunters.

Behold…

The Teddy-bear K2 Meter. It is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a K2 meter (a basic sort of Electro-Magnetic Field meter) built into a teddy-bear that the creators suggest will make K2 sessions “more successful” because ghosts are more likely to interact with something they recognise instead of a bog standard K2 meter which ye olde spirit might not recognise. It also lights up, which is always a bonus for ghost hunters what with working in the dark for no good reason and all…

These meters were originally used by Ghost Hunters to detect changes in naturally occurring Electro-Magnetic Fields which were believed (incorrectly) to be caused by ghosts manifesting themselves and giving off energy discharges that caused the EMF in a location to fluctuate. Get a fluctuation on your meter and you’ve probably got a ghost manifesting around you…

but these days teams are too lazy to take baseline readings and compare other readings to these every 30 minutes or so. Instead they use EMF meters as a sort of hands free planchette and ask ghosts to light the bulbs on a meter up to indicate yes  or no in response to questions.

See the Teddy-bear KII Meter it in action:

Then there is the V Pod which emits its own EM Field which interacts with other fields around it, apparently. Any disturbances (i.e ghosts) will make the pod light up the closer it (the ghost) gets. The GhostHunter store sells this item with a useful reminder in the copy that states ‘Please keep in mind that EM Fields can and will be affected by materials and or objects that conduct electricity’. No shit, Sherlock!

V Pod and REM Pod
V Pod and REM Pod

The REM Pod is similar to The V Pod. It does exactly the same as the V Pod but happens to have the antennae and light-bulbs positioned differently. These devices are basically designed for detecting ghosts and ignore even the faintest scientific link that there might be between Electromagnetic Fields and Anomalous Phenomena.

spring board

The Spring Ouija Board is one of the more ridiculous things I have seen offered and used by ghost hunters. It takes the nonsense associated with the traditional ouija board to a whole new level by offering ghosts different options.

They can either spin the base or use the planchette attached, for some reason, to a spring to select different letters. This utterly baffling bullshit appears on more and more ghost hunting team websites and makes me want to weep.

I haven’t seen one of these in person but I’d imagine that a spring loaded planchette would be much, much easier to influence than a traditional planchette which is dragged across the surface of the board. I also think the design of this board is hideous. Give me a good old-fashioned Parker Brother’s board any day of the week over this monstrosity…

ovilusThe Ovilus comes in many different forms with different numbers to indicate how advanced the device is. The picture here shows the Ovilus III which allegedly ‘takes reading from the environment using several sensors including one for electromagnetic readings and uses a mathematical formula to convert these readings to a number that responds to a certain word that is stored in the word database of more than 2000 words.’

Guys, it uses a mathematical formula so why am I even incluing it on this list? Oh yes, it’s here because it’s laughably bullshit. It is claimed that The Ovilus will “speak” the corresponding word through its built in speaker or, on the latest models, show words on a text display. I’ve used an Ovilus device and it emits random words that ghost hunters make fit their situation by ignoring words they don’t expect to hear and only focussing on those that they expect to hear. Ridiculous… and if you don’t believe that ghost hunters use this on their ghost hunters here is a video of it in action

There are plenty more devices on the scene than just those I’ve shared above. What are the most ridiculous devices that you’ve seen marketed at budding ghost hunters?

GSOW: ‘we have a private forum & we’re fine with that’

FACEPALM

‘Nothing shady goes on in our secret forum, honest. You’ll have to take my word for it though, ‘cos it’s private. We’d let you join, but we can’t. Not even our friends get to join.’

The above is my personal summary of a rebuttal written by the team leader of the Dutch language group of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project to recent criticism. Before I am accused of creating a straw-man argument I will point out that my summary is not a direct quote, but it comes pretty close

Rebecca O’Neill recently wrote criticism of the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSOW) project from the point of view of someone who is studying ‘how curation has moved from being the pursuit of a singular expert within an institution such a museum, gallery or archive, to a collective endeavour in which many “citizen curators” (a term that I am developing) work together to curate content both off and online.’

In my own latest criticism of the GSOW project I mentioned her in passing. I wrote at the time:

… an audience member who is studying the way information is shared on Wikipedia questioned why the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia group have a private (described as “secret”) forum away from Wikipedia if what they do isn’t agenda driven. This went unanswered with just “my editors only put out good stuff” given in response.

Leon Korteweg wrote the rebuttal on the GWOS blog after seeing a link to Rebecca’s article on my Facebook wall. His response was everything I expected it to be and nothing more.

In her criticism Rebecca points out that there are problems around the fact that GSOW use a private member-only forum in which they discuss the work their project does. She writes that she has ‘no knowledge of the nature of the discussions on the forum as I have not approached the group to become a member.’

Simple solution, says Leon in his rebuttal, ‘you can always apply to join if you want to help improve Wikipedia, value the scientific method and the evidence it produces, use critical thinking and want to get instructions on how to write about it in an encyclopedic fashion …’ 

…only one problem though, he goes on to explain, ‘we can’t demand that of you, and we don’t give access to people who are simply interested in ‘keeping track of what GSoW does.’ Not even close friends get access, Leon says, so why would critics, right? It’s okay though because he continues ‘we have a fine blog and Facebook group page for that, both of which are public, which should suffice

Trying to get people involved with GSOW to understand that the private forum is creating suspicion and confusion about their tactics and possible agenda is like trying to get blood from a stone. It seems that they hear what people are saying but want people to just take their word that the criticism is unjust and that nothing bad happens in the private forum.

The response always seems to be the same: if you’re Rupert Sheldrake or Craig Weiler you’re labelled a crank and your criticism is ignored, if you’re a skeptic you’re told ‘we do only good stuff in our secret forum, trust us’ with no evidence provided. Leon ends his piece with ‘Yes, we have a private forum, and we’re fine with that’ and that speak volumes.

I recently wrote a piece about why I am done with the skeptic movement, and I’m glad that projects like GSOW are things I am leaving behind.

Further Reading:

On Guerilla Skepticism & Skeptic Outreach | Hayley is a Ghost blog
Further Thoughts for the day | Hayley is a Ghost blog
Taking out the garbage | Hayley is a Ghost blog