Don Philips: the desperate ghost hunter

Don Philips

“Even if it’s really quiet, my ears are quite tuned to hearing these guys. We’re actually communicating with them on a device that’s not actually made for communicating with spirits – it’s a digital recorder. The frequency is not perfect but they’re obviously somewhere in that range.”

Don Philips is the founder of the GSI Paranormal team and the above quote is taken from an episode of the television show ‘Man vs. Weird’ in which comedian Simon Farnby travels the world to meet people who claim to have superhuman powers. At the beginning of this particular episode he joins Philips and the GSI Paranormal team on a ghost hunt. A really, really boring ghost hunt… an almost homeopathic version of a crap Most Haunted knock off type ghost hunt…

“We’ll go anywhere, and we’ll usually find something” one of the team members tells the camera, “…even places that haven’t been reported as being haunted, we can usually find something there.” Well, the right crappy techniques and the will to believe anything is evidence will enable you to find ghosts where you want to find them, but that doesn’t do anything to prove a haunting.

Don Philips became involved in paranormal research after he had a scary experience with what he calls “a black mass” in his bedroom when he was seven years old. Some time later he started a paranormal investigation group.

“… straight away I realised I didn’t need any equipment but a digital recorder … they answer any question I ask them. I’ve asked about parallel universes and alternate realities and yes they do exist apparently.

Philips believes that he had the ability to capture the voices of spirits of the deceased on hand held digital recorders and offers these recordings as evidence that the soul survives after death, but in reality his recordings are a poor quality and likely caused by external interference, internal mechanisms (the recordings often sound clunky) and the auto-gain control of the device. He offers these recordings as evidence and calls them Actual Voice Phenomena (AVP), alluding to the idea that they are a class above Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), but they’re not. Those interested can read about what causes EVP recordings here.

In the programme produced for Channel 4 and available to watch on 4OD, Philips leads an investigation at the local council offices in Wigston where staff have reported hearing the sounds of children in what was a nursery, a baby crying near a back staircase, the visual apparition of a grey lady, and the sound of a child falling down a staircase where a boy actually once broke his neck from doing just that.

Philips begins the investigation by scouting the building out. “I’ll have a walk around, see where it feels strongest then invite the spirits to come to me and speak to me.” As he does this, his right hand man Nick Stoppani explains to the camera just how good Don is, saying “I can tell you hand on my heart that Don is the only person I have worked with that, for me, has given me the proof.”

The investigation is, quite frankly, pants. They smell something a bit weird in one room, then in another room Don suddenly proclaims, in that voice ghost hunters use for when they’re standing in dark empty rooms “I’ve got a lady with me now. Sweetheart I’d really appreciate it if you’d give me your name as loudly and clearly as possible, please.”

They get nothing.

Don also does some recording on the staircase where a child died after falling down the stairs, commenting wisely “this is sad just here” as he enters the area. He plays back the recorder and there’s a loud static sound that he swears is a voice saying “Wanker I will kill you!” Stoppani agrees enthusiastically that he has heard it too, but something tells me he’d agree with Don if he claimed he was the Son of God as long as there was a television appearance involved somewhere… then again, I’m a skeptic so I would say that.

There’s a moment where Don starts hyperventilating and coughing. “I just got blasted into next week” he claims, seemingly overwhelmed by… something. “I’ve never seen Don to that extent. Shocked me, shocked me, mate” Stoppani informs the camera man, shaking his head in an attempt to make the viewer understand just how edgy and exciting life with GSI Paranormal really is, but failing.

A little later they hold a seance, Don’s trusted digital recorder is still in his hand as he asks “who is behind me then?”, playing it back shortly later and listening intently, “…all of them” he whispers dramatically, but all that can be heard is a static clunking noise.

Don Philips isn’t the controversial character that some would have you believe.

I mean, yes, technically he threatens to sue people just for criticising him and his team, and yes he and his team mates aggressively harass people who don’t agree with them

..but in reality Don Philips is just a sad product of pop-culture paranormal – a man who talks to the dead and insists that they really, really do talk back even if you can’t hear it. The only controversy that comes with these particular ghost hunters are the awful over-hyped claims they make time after time again as they desperately try to stay relevant in a community where even the most open-minded believers eye them with caution and skepticism.

Scientists show that Ouija works! (Not)

board

Take a Break Fate and Fortune OuijaCanadian scientists have proven that Ouija boards have mysterious properties, according to Take a Break’s Fate and Fortune magazine of July 2014. In their “Spooky Science” section they reported that ‘Scientists investigating Ouija Boards have come up with some fascinating findings. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, sat two blindfolded participants down at a board and asked them to place their fingers on a glass. Unbeknown to one of them, their ‘partner’ was asked to silently leave the room. The remaining person was then asked a series of questions, which they’d previously been unable to answer. Strangely, when asked the questions again, they were able to answer them via the board. 

Student Ashwin Krishnamurthi, who took part said: ‘I thought the other person was trying to move the glass, but he wasn’t, because he’d actually left the room.’ Proof that Ouija messages really could be coming from the spirit world? We like to think so…’

Proof, more like, that Take a Break either didn’t read the study properly, or misinterpreted it so that it would please their readers who, by large, believe in ghosts, psyhics, crystal healing, witchcraft and other similar fringe beliefs. Have UBC really proven that Ouija boards communicate with ghosts? No… but their research suggests something even cooler…

A feature on the UBC research in the Smithsonian Magazine reveals what actually takes place in the study (as well as providing an interesting insight into Ouija), while the Inner Intel Project, run by the UBC Visual Cognition Lab describes the research on their website as follows:

Ouijas have long been advertised as a means to communicate with the supernatural, which may be an easy misconception. The movements ouijas make have been studied in the past by psychologists, and are classified scientifically as ideomotor movements. This is the phenomenon we investigate at the lab, in order to see whether a connection between these involuntary movements and our subconscious really does exist.

In the abstract of their published research the UBC researchers explained that they were studying whether ideomotor actions could help participants express non-conscious knowledge. The abstract goes on to explain:

Results show that when participants believed they knew the answer, responses in the two modalities were similar. But when they believed they were guessing, accuracy was at chance for volitional report (50%), but significantly higher for Ouija response (65%). These results indicate that implicit semantic memory can be expressed through ideomotor actions. They also suggest that this approach can provide an interesting new methodology for studying implicit processes in cognition.

The UBC research may be on the way to demonstrating that Ouija boards can provide insight into the unknown, it’s just not the unknown that Take a Break would have you believe. Ghosts are quite boring in comparison to what research like this may be showing about consciousness.

Suggested reading:

How People Are Fooled By Ideomotor Action, Ray Hyman
Science of Scams: Ouija Board, Derren Brown and Kat Akingbade

Take a Break photo: Laura Thomason

 

Slenderman: Myths, Murder and Humanity

Slender-Man-Artistic-Wallpapers

In her book The Biology of Violence, Neuroscientist Debra Niehof, after twenty years of studying whether genes or the environment make people violent, explains that both biological and environmental factors are influences and that particular types of stimulation – such as films, News coverage, or other sorts of media, are not going to provoke violence in every consumer. It’s the individual person that is the catalyst.

Yet we have a tendency to focus on these casual links formed between the criminal and what “influenced them” rather than considering other factors that may have been at play in their lives, factors that we may have also been exposed to in our lives. Violent video-games, horror movies, heavy metal music, gothic culture, and online communities have all been labelled as bad influences in the past when violent crimes have been committed, but are these links really justified?

In 2011 Dr Kathryn Seifert wrote for Psychology Today that in her Thirty years of experience and research as a psychologist working with high-risk youth and their families she had identified numerous factors that determine whether a person is at risk for developing violent tendencies, including  biological traits, family bonding, intelligence and education, child development, peer relationships, individual characteristics, cultural shaping and resiliency. She wrote

When the accumulation of negative factors (such as maltreatment, chaotic neighborhoods, or psychological problems) and the absence of positive factors (such as opportunities to be successful, adults who provide encouragement, or a resilient temperament) reach a threshold, that’s when violence is more likely to erupt as a means of coping with life’s problems.

When two Twelve-year-old girls attempt to murder a friend because they allege they believe in ‘Slenderman’ and wanted to become his Proxy’s (human servants under hiscontrol) why are people asking if we should ban or close horror related websites rather than asking how young girls can get to the position in which a belief leads them to try and kill another child?

For some it is enough to resort to headline reactions that are “Just Asking Questions” while forging unsupported casual links between criminal and inspiration, but really it’s the underlying factors that need to be explored, and it is these that are may be revealed as the investigation unfolds.

It’s easy to blame myths and to suggest that myths are dangerous and delusional, but in reality myths reflect us humans and our cultures, while Horror genres explore our most basic fears. It isn’t the myth that is dangerous, it isn’t horror that is dangerous, it is the humanity that they explore that is dangerous. You, me, everyone around us… in the right bad conditions we can all do horrendous things. It’s this, I suspect, that people find difficult to accept.

We must blame them and cause a fuss
Before somebody thinks of blaming us!

 

So, Most Haunted is coming back…

ghost costume

Lots of people have been asking me what I think about both Most Haunted making a return, and many cast members leaving the Ghost Hunters (TAPS) team.

To cut a long answer short:

To elaborate, these shows have nothing to do with paranormal research. I’ve written about why in more detail before, but ultimately these shows are created to appeal to those interested in pop-culture paranormal. Thrill seeking ghost hunters that don’t know what science actually means, for example, or those who believe in ghosts and are actively looking to confirm their beliefs are right.

Although I first became a ghost hunter because of Most Haunted, I soon grew up and realised what a prick I had been for those years that I thought that show was something to aspire to. Most Haunted is an entertainment show that was most probably inspired by Ghostwatch which was written by the profoundly talented Stephen Volk. Watch Ghostwatch and then Most Haunted and you’ll have your mind blown at how similar the formats are (other than one being fictional and one presenting itself as factual.) Yet, despite this – and despite the numerous times that Most Haunted (and it’s American cousin Ghost Hunters) are accused of faking stuff on their shows, the majority of ghost hunters treat the episodes as training manuals.

As a result of hyping up something quite mundane to meet with growing audience demand they create false expectations for those who have no real experience of paranormal research, which in comparison to an episode of one of these shows, is pretty boring and tame when done properly (but worth it when your research pays off).

The legacy of shows like Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters and their many clones is one of unethical practice and pseudo-scientific conduct from hundreds, if not thousands of amateur ghost hunters across the globe. The shows have inspired a generation of ghost hunters who do not research their methods before applying them to cases because if it’s good enough for their heroes on television it’s good enough for them.

People who experience weird things are often vulnerable and deserve to have ethical researchers handle their case with scientifically sound protocols, but instead they often end up with Yvette Fielding clones or Zak Baggins macho-wannabe’s who tell them their house is, like… totally haunted. Their EMF says so.

The 5 Weirdest Things People Have Said To Me

Gossip

I recently read a Cracked feature called ‘5 things I learned as a Ghost Hunter’ and, although I don’t agree with everything (e.g. EVP are not evidence of ghosts) I was filled with relief to discover that I am not the only ghost researcher to have had the “I’ve got bugs crawling out of my vagina” phone call. When I told a friend this in an IM they were shocked and, when they recovered, asked what other weird calls I’ve had. So, without further ado…

The 5  Weirdest Things People Have Said To Me As a Ghost Researcher

#5 – ‘I was viewing a house I wanted to buy and my son said he was speaking to a man when there was nobody there. Will you come to Manchester to see if there is a ghost in this house for me before I buy it?’

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#4 – “Hold this crystal. Feel it?”
Me: “er…”
“-feel the earth, feel the heavens *sueezes my hands really hard* FEEL THE DEAD! TRY HARDER!”

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#3 – “There is a ghost dog that is trying to communicate. If I go into a trance will you ask it questions?”

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#2 – “Aliens implanted a tracker device in my tooth, they also gave me the ability to teach children how to be telepathic.”

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#1 “Giant spider ghosts materialise in my house and try to crawl inside of my vagina”

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