A Depressing Conversation With A Times Journalist About Exorcisms

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“Do you know of anyone who thinks they or their house has been possessed by a demon?” a Sunday Times journalist asked me over the phone just the other day. Several names popped into my mind instantly but there was no chance that I was letting her have them. “We’ve got about 20 people on a list to speak to about a piece my colleague is doing about exorcisms” she pressed.

Despite explaining that I couldn’t put her in touch with anyone I’d worked with or advised over the years because it would be ethically questionable of me to do so she still didn’t get it, so I went into a detailed explanation.

People who think they’re possessed or think that there is an evil entity in their house disturbing them are usually exhibiting signs on an underlying mental or physical health problem. They’re usually disturbed, scared or hysterical. The last thing they need is my involvement.

“That isn’t to say that everyone who thinks they’re possessed is mentally ill” I explained “but there’s a good chance that they need the attention of a medical professional and not their local ghost hunter, demonologist or exorcist who will do them no good at all.”

To my surprise the journalist on the other end of the phone asked “do them no good how?”

I got the immediate impression that she had been talking to others who had suggested differently while humbly describing what spiritual superheroes they were – saving the general public from evil, and so on.

“Well, just an example… a percentage of people who have dissociative identity disorder report that their alternative identity is a demon, however those people do not need an exorcist, they need a psychologist to help them. Exorcists, demonologists, ghost hunters… they’re all the same, they’ll tell you what they want to be real and often they don’t consider how much their actions could harm you because really they just want to prove to themselves that they are right. That kind of approach stigmatises those with mental illness as evil and dangerous when they’re not, and it also denies them the access to the proper care that they require.”

There was a silence over the phone so I carried on,

“Imagine a different scenario – imagine that something is happening in your house that makes you think there’s something malicious or evil in your house but it turns out to actually have a pretty rational cause like, say, your cupboards weren’t hung on the wall properly and that’s why they’re always open when you come home from work, right?”,

“right…” she replied.

“Well, imagine that you get told by a ghost hunter that it’s an evil spirit that they’re going to banish from your house. They sound pretty convincing when they tell you that by doing a clearing ritual they’ll get it to leave, and for a few days afterwards you don’t notice the cupboards open so you think that it must be because there was an evil entity like the ghost hunters told you but it’s gone now just like they said it was. In reality this is just a sort-of placebo effect. The real problem isn’t gone because you haven’t had the cupboards adjusted, then one day you come home and the cupboards are open again and you’re 100% certain the evil entity has returned and nothing – absolutely nothing anyone says to you will convince you otherwise. That’s pretty harmful, right?”

“Right” the journalist responds – “do you know anyone that has happened to that I can talk to?”, “Well that was a case I worked on” I replied, “but I can’t give you their details…”

That was the second time she tried to get the names and contact details of people I’d just explained were potentially vulnerable. It wouldn’t be her last attempt.

“When someone contacts me I have to be pretty strict about whether I take on their case” I continued, “I cannot be the person who convinces someone that there’s a demon or evil entity with them. If they need medical help then I cannot be the person who gets in the way of that happening. It’s unlikely that I would take on a case today where someone thought they have a demon following them or possessing them because it would be unethical of me to do so-”

“So what do you do?” she asked. “I tend to work on a lot of public cases that have been in the press, or cases where the potential to harm someone is limited. If someone has a weird photo, for example, I can try and work out what it really is, or something like that.”

“Do any of the people you’ve worked with think they’ve been possessed? Can you give me some examples of places you’ve investigated?” “There are some listed on my website, but apart from those, no… I can’t give you details I’m afraid” I explained, for the third time.

“I’ll add you to the list and my colleague who is writing the piece may be in touch with you” the journalist explained. “Great” I replied, wondering if I will be mentioned in the piece at all, and which potentially vulnerable people the paper are going to go to town on without considering the damage their feature will cause to those mentioned and those who read it.

The stigma of possession is real and it is harmful to those in minority groups and those with mental illness. There is nothing mysterious or glamorous about it. What a depressing conversation.

The Dawkins Problem

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Richard Dawkins was right when he recently said that ‘Nothing should be off limits to discussion.’ It was a point he made in a recent blog post following the fallout that happened after he tweeted comments comparing different types of rape and paedophilia.

Yet it is also true that no comment made can ever be made away from the context it is made in and without the historic behaviour of the commenter being added to it. The hypothetical questions above would have touched many nerves regardless of who the author of it was- why use rape or child abuse as examples at all -the fact that it was Richard Dawkins saying it made all the difference here.

Dawkins has previously belittled the problems faced by Western women. He once wrote a fictional letter called Dear Muslima in which he compared one particular experience that Rebecca Watson had with the plight of Muslim women. ‘I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with ‘ he wrote. You can read it in full on the Skepchick website here but you get the idea from that quote.

Leaving aside the obvious issues with referring to ‘Muslim Women’ and ‘American Women’ as mutually exclusive groups that can be compared to one another, and the downplaying of the abuse that women in the Western world face (like being killed by abusive partners, being blamed for their rape or having their reproductive rights taken away by men in authority and more), these comments from Dawkins (unintentionally, I’m sure) gave other men and women the green light to further harass Rebecca Watson and other women within the skeptic and atheist communities for simply daring to speak out about experiences that had made them feel scared, unsafe or uncomfortable. In fact, the harassment that came as a result of what has been named “elevatorgate” is still ongoing and has seen many men and women who supported Rebecca Watson being harassed themselves.

This is why I find the joint statement by Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins condemning such abuse difficult to swallow, and it is why I felt really annoyed at QEDcon when Dawkins was interviewed on stage and was not questioned once about such comments and the impact they have had on the very community he was on stage in front of.

Are we supposed to just forget that this man has said terrible things just because he’s written some great books and speaks well about Evolution? How many evils can one get away with just by being a hero figure in the atheist or skeptic communities? Lots, it seems…

So, when I read the tweets from Richard Dawkins rating different types of rape and paedophilia in comparison to one another my instant reaction was ‘not again…’ and my mind went instantly to Dear Muslima. Dawkins may not have been saying that compared to those who have been violently raped those who have been raped by friends have nothing to complain about nor may he have been saying that those who have suffered ‘mild paedophilia’ have nothing to complain about compared to those who have suffered ‘violent paedophilia’ but it still made it difficult to not be annoyed by his audacity to assume that he has any authority on the experiences of other people.

In summary, although nothing should be off limits to discussion if you’ve a track record of being a bit of an insensitive ass about the traumatic experiences of others you’re probably going to be treated like an ass when you speak about a subject with an authority you do not have. Especially when the data shows that your presumptions are wrong.

Is This The Beast Of Bodmin?

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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?