The CUSP

podcast

There is an interview with me on Episode 32 of The CUSP (The completely Unnecessary Skeptical Podcast).  You can listen by clicking here (excuse the sore throat, I’m currently battling a throat and ear infection. Boo!) 

For those visiting my site for the first time after hearing me on the show, welcome! Here are some links that might help/interest you:

my research
The Clevedon Pier Ghost case that I mentioned
Ethical investigation into anomalous phenomena
The Be Reasonable podcast that I co-host with Michael Marshall

The 5 Worst Ghosts of 2013

thumb ghostbusters

This year was lacking in ghost stories that took me into the field to investigate and I’m hoping that 2014 will remedy that with ghouls to chase and phantoms to fight. While I wait for that to happen I thought I’d cast my eye back at 2013 and list what I think were the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2013.

I should point out that although they’re listed here these stories fulfilled that need for terrible paranormal news stories that make me shake my fist in a pantomime style and roar ‘Oh no it isn’t!’ when headlines proclaim ‘this is a ghost!’

These stories, in all reality, aren’t terrible and horrendous. Just bad. The really horrendous ghost stories are the ones we don’t hear of. They’re the stories where selfish ghost hunters act unethically in other peoples homes and businesses, scaring people silly by not thinking their actions through. The real ghost horror stories are the ones where people destroy property or break the law for a cheap ghost hunting thrill.

Without further ado, let’s look at the The 5 Worst Ghosts of 2013!

#5 The Exmouth Rugby Club Ghost

Footage captured on the CCTV system in the bar at the Exmouth Rugby Club showed the bell that is traditionally rung for ‘last orders’ ringing on its own, freaking out nearby staff members who ran to investigate. The papers jumped on this story pretty quickly, quoting staff members who claimed it could have been the ghost of an old landlord called Nigel haunting the premesis.

When interviewed by The Daily Mail, manager Frank Bright said: ‘A few people have mentioned Nigel’s name. He was great man, an all-round good guy – and certainly no threat to anyone. ‘The bell ringing on its own is pretty odd, I’ll give you that and one of the girls was quite freaked out.  But I’m a bit more level-headed and I’m sure there’s some way to explain it; I just can’t put my finger on it at the moment. ‘There was one time I was here on my own and I heard a whistle. I turned round and shouted “hello, hello” but there was no-one here.’

I contacted the Rugby Club to see if they really thought it could be haunted but was told pretty quickly that they didn’t really think they were haunted at all.

Frank’s comment was  was light hearted, think we’ve got better things to be doing as a rugby club than having Most Haunted turn up! It wasn’t a staged ghost video. we favour the idea that the ringer slipped down from where it’d been hung up during cleaning’. 

Case closed.

#4 The Napanock Ghost Cat

The apparent apparition of a cat in a US hotel caused quite a stir in the paranormal research community, prompting much commentary about whether it was or was not a ghost, was or was not a cat and was or was not genuine footage.

The footage was taken from an IR DVR camera in The Shanley Hotel in Napanoch, New York but what we see is a low quality copy of the original that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

cat ghost

When I first read the story and saw the video on the WhoForted.com site I commented that it might be the product of ghosting which can happen on some CCTV and Camcorder systems, but having watching it over it could just as easily be a piece of lint floating on a breeze or even an IR light being shone down the hallway from behind the camera.

Without further information and footage we will never know for sure. This ghost was not at all impressive.

#3 Amanda Byram’s Whitstable Ghost Photo

The Byram fake photo
The Byram fake photo

I thought twice about including this rubbish ghost in this list because when it first made the headlines we had no way of knowing that this hoax was part of a bigger stunt for a Channel 4 television program called The Happenings. However, even the bigger stunt was a bit rubbish so I felt that the ghost photo featuring TV presenter Amanda Byram deserved a place here.

Back in September I was sent a link to this news story featured in the Canterbury Times by the journalist who wrote it, asking for my opinion. The story is about a supposedly strange photo captured by TV presenter Amanda Byram. The photo is of Byram posing with two members of the public, and next to them is a translucent shadowy figure and was taken as she allegedly investigated the story that features later on in this list. It’s a fake made using a Smartphone.

#2 The Kelvedon Hatch Apparitions

kelvedon3

In September, The Brentwood Gazette reported that Spooksavers (a Ghost events company) captured a spirit portal in action at an overnight event in the Secret Nuclear Bunker in Kelvedon Hatch. The photos in question show people in the room surrounded by lots of wiggly and fuzzy lights.

kelvedon 1

A little investigation with the help of Bob Dezon showed that these photos were less than impressive. We found out that the rooms in the bunker are full of various reflective surfaces (see picture A), and we also know that it is possible that the photos may have been taken through a window (see picture B). Both of these, coupled with a slow shutter speed and slight movement of the camera could cause the effects seen. Not only that, but if you study the blur in the first photo above, you can see ghostly forms of the shoes of the people in the photo, which suggests to me that a slow shutter speed has indeed caused this effect.

Picture A

kelvedon room

kelvedon window photo

It’s also worth pointing out that various cameras and similar devices were being used by numerous people present, as seen in the photo montage below taken from the event gallery. It’s impossible to rule out that a camera with its screen on, or perhaps a meter with an on-light illuminated in the hand of someone in the photo was moved around at the time of the photo being taken.

photos from the kelvedon eventThese apparitions were the product of wishful thinking and not a spirit portal. Doh.

#1 The Whistable Floating Tea Ghost

Those who follow my blog regularly probably knew this particular story would feature in the #1 spot of this list. This was part one of a bigger prank, with the Amanda Byram fake photo being part two for the television show called The Happenings. Read more about this here.

The Whistable floating tea ghost hit the news in July when a nutrition shop claimed that two boxes of teabags had been caught floating off of shelves in the store on the CCTV system, leading people to think there may be a ghost in the area. Initial speculation led people to believe the store were perpetrating a hoax for attention, but it seems that even they weren’t in the on the trick.

It's behind you!
It’s behind you!

The Happenings is a television show for Channel 4 in which two magicians convince people that strange things are happening in their town. Episode one saw them trying to convince a town that the citizens were being tested for psychic ability, the second episode saw them trying to convince people in Whitstable that their town was being terrorised by a ghost, and the third will see them convince a town that they are in danger of a Vampire. The floating tea footage and Byram fake photo were stunts for the second show.

The shows have had mixed receptions and, although I can appreciate what they’re trying to do, I think they’ve often rubbed people up the wrong way – especially within the paranormal research community.

These are my Worst Ghosts of 2013. Let’s see what shocking spectres crawl out of the woodwork for 2014…

Why not check out previous years?

The Worst Ghosts of 2012
The Worst Ghosts of 2011
The Worst Ghosts of 2010

Whistable… not so haunted.

thumb whitstable

Turns out that Whitstable might not be so haunted after all (who knew) and that all the recent ghost related news stories coming out of there were for a Channel 4 television show called ‘The Happenings’. I just saw the advert for it on television and they used the High Quality version of the floating teabag box CCTV ghost footage (which wasn’t available to the general public) and they also showed the Amanda Byram photograph too.

The Byram fake photo
The Byram fake photo

Also worth noting is that the name of the original video on Youtube about the teabag box ghost has been changed. It is now called ‘Whitstable paranormal activity is first glimpse of The Happenings’. I had my suspicions that we were being fooled by the same person or people when this article about Amanda Byram mentioned a TV Producer but I simply didn’t have the time to research any further.

Ho hum. The series will be available via the 4OD service if you want to watch it. What is the point in this? I guess it might be an attempt to get people to question everything they encounter, but I’m not so sure that tricking people is the best way to do this. Entertaining though, I guess…

I AM ALL CONFLICTED! WAAAH!

Review: Stop Worrying! There probably is an afterlife

stop-worrying-webcoverIt has been a long time since a book about ghosts made me feel the excitement I used to feel in my gut when researching the ghost sightings I would go on to investigate with my ghost research team, but Stop Worrying! There probably is an afterlife by Greg Taylor was a joy to read and, at times, made me feel excited about ghosts again.

The last time that happened was when I read Mary Roach’s Six Feet Over, or Will Storr’sWill Storr Vs. the Supernatural’ and I’ve realised that it’s because they’ve all got a common theme in the narrative – an exploration of an interesting subject led by the authors genuine curiosity.

In fact, this book made me realise that the historic research (that influences modern research) that Taylor writes about in this book is the research that has captivated me since my teens and that popular paranormal culture has simply always been a fun distraction. I realised this when reading Taylor’s extensive exploration of death bed visitations. In fact, this part of the book genuinely moved me to tears. Why? I’m not sure. I think it’s because of the joy these experiences brought to those who witnessed them, and isn’t that often what ghost stories are about?

Yet, there were some things in this book that I didn’t necessarily get and I felt that in some areas being explored we were being asked to accept things that didn’t necessarily follow a logical route and several alarm bells rang when I read Dr Julie Beischel tell the autor that ‘her experimental designs are not always those desired or recommended by skeptics, as her primary aim is to provide the right setting for the phenomenon to occur: “We don’t do this research to please skeptics; we do it to gain new knowledge”.

Beischel goes on to explain

We also need to account for cold reading… To prevent that from happening, the medium will be what’s called masked or blinded to the sitter. The medium won’t be able to see, hear, smell, etc., the sitter during the reading: but, as stated above, the sitter should be involved somehow in order to optimize the environment, so we’ll just make sure his intention is that his discarnate communicates with the medium.

His discarnate communicates…? Isn’t that a bit of a presumption variable to throw into the mix? To assume that a sitters discarnate can communicate? That it even exists? She then states

I think the difference is one between statistical evidence and evidence that is meaningful to a sitter … A p-value won’t convince a sitter of communication and a dazzle shot doesn’t provide objective evidence that can be statistically analyzed. [So] in addition to item-by-item and whole reading scores, we also have raters choose which blinded readings they believe were intended for them so if one reading contains true dazzle shots but not a lot of other correct information, that may be reflected in the raters’ choices

and this is where my biggest problem with the book is properly demonstrated. There seems to often be an over reliance on things that can be classed as positive hits (such as the “dazzle shots” that Beischel mentions above, hits that seem too specific to be guess work on the part of the medium), and a tendency to ignore the things that are negatives or misses. This is cherry picking and it’s something that I am ll too familiar with as an ex-believer in ghosts.

There also seems to be a reliance on strange things as being significant when they’re actually not. Deathbed visitations, for example, are interesting and profound experiences but I think it is assumptive to proclaim that they are evidence of the survival of the spirit. There are too many factors that could contribute to these experiences that I don’t feel we are justifiably about to rule out completely.

It reminds me of when I would have strange experiences while ghost hunting. I would happily proclaim these happenings as evidence of the existence of ghosts, when in all reality that was a huge leap of logic on my part.

I don’t believe in the things discussed in the book but they are an interesting part of the history of paranormal research and I don’t think you have to believe in the paranormal to find it interesting as, say, social or cultural phenomena. I don’t think much of other skeptics who admit they haven’t read the book yet dismiss it because of the beliefs of the author but I understand their skepticism.

All in all though I would recommend this book to anyone who is genuinely interested in paranormal research and ghosts, but would recommend that people research the studies mentioned for themselves before reaching a conclusion. There are many subjects that Stop Worrying has prompted me to research further, adding yet more books to my ‘to read’ pile and that, surely, is an indication that this is a book worth reading.

 

Mummy, is Santa really real?

saint-nicholas-postcard

A Wiltshire based vicar has landed himself in a spot of bother after telling children at a Chippenham school the story of Saint Nicholas which is the origin for the modern figure of Santa Claus. Apparently children went home in tears as Christmas was ruined for them.

The Guardian reported that ‘Linzi Merritt, whose son Levi, nine, attends the school, said: “It’s the older children who have suffered the most because their parents can’t really talk their way out of it like the parents of younger children can.”

This raises a number of questions; Are we really criticising a vicar for not lying? Is it bad to lie to children? Who needs Santa the most?

I personally found out that Santa was a lie at the age of Eleven – a whole year  before I left Primary School. I love my parents, but I still haven’t quite forgiven them for this. I found out when my teacher bluntly asked my class ‘…none of you still believe in Santa, do you?’. I pretended that, like everyone else, I was cool with the fact he didn’t exist despite feeling quite stunned inside. It was horrible and I felt a bit let down by the very people I trusted the most in the world. I can vividly remember wondering why they had kept lying to me for so long.

Believing in Santa is fun but there comes a point when Santa’s existence morphs from being just a story into an outright lie that parents fight to keep going, which I think it’s a bit weird. Is it right to pretend Santa does exist when a child starts to question his existence? I sit on the ‘no it isn’t’ side of the fence.

See, Linzi Merritt says she is angry because parents can’t talk their way out of this with their older children like they can younger children, but instead of being angry about this I think she should realise that the children are learning to question claims and that it is a bad thing to try and trick them away from the truth once they’ve discovered it.

Parents told The Guardian that this revelation has ruined Christmas for many of the children which seems a shame, but ultimately over-the-top. I must confess that as I write this I am wearing a knitted jumper with ‘HO HO HO’ across the front of it for I am one of those weird atheists who like Christmas even though I’m not a child or at all religious. I like giving presents to the people I care about, I love the mixture of religious traditions that people follow (christian carols and a pagan tree, how fun), I like sitting down as a family to eat a lovely meal (which is rare these days), and I love Christmas television – comedy repeats that you still laugh at, The Queens Speech and the Doctor Who Christmas Special (I <3 Peter Capaldi and can’t wait for this years episode!)

With this in mind I find it hard to understand how suddenly not believing in Father Christmas can ruin all of this fun because let’s face it, as a child, Christmas is mainly about the presents, the food and the television, and as long as those continue to exist then the existence of Santa doesn’t really matter all that much in the end.

So I guess the question is… who was believing in Father Christmas more important to? The children who no longer believe? Or the parents who were desperate to keep the lie alive? I know who my money is on…