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

We are the Monsters

all monsters are human

We all consider ourselves to be rational, ethical people, and we wouldn’t dream that we were potentially harming others with our behaviour. As a previous blog post showed, ghost hunters who do unethical things do not always realise that they’re being unethical.

How then do we ensure that we don’t make the same mistake? I pointed out in that blog post that it’s important to work to a code of ethics – either one that you’ve written up yourself, that an investigator/team you’re working with has written, or perhaps one a venue has in place.

It’s easy to think that irrational people are unethical investigators and that rational people are ethical investigators but this is false. Nobody fits those pigeon holes so perfectly.

A code of ethics covers your back, but it primarily works for the people you come into contact with. It protects them from you doing harm to them through your actions, it guarantees complete confidentiality and it enables them to stop the investigation at any time. No questions asked.

I don’t speak for other paranormal researchers but I am terrified that I am going to do the wrong thing when I deal with somebody who has asked for my help and so I’m glad that I have a safety net that limits the harm I can do.

I have today made public my code of ethics [PDF] in the hope that it will inspire others to actually use a code of ethics that exists outside of their head*. Skeptics (myself included) talk often about the harm they want to protect others from but if we’re not careful we can become the monsters that we’re trying to chase away.

*please contact me before replicating, redistributing, or using my code of ethics as your own.

 

Are Poor People Who Report Ghosts Just Fakers?

ghosts and hauntings

In days gone by if something weird started happening in a manor or home belonging to a wealthy family the finger of blame would probably be pointed at the servants because ghost nonsense has always been something that poor people bother themselves with.

When Peggy Hodgson told her neighbours, the police and the press that odd things were happening in her council house people suspected the working class family were trying to get moved to a new house by faking activity. There’s evidence to suggest that there may have been foul play in this Enfield Poltergeist case but who knows what the motive could have been if there was one? Today in the 2010’s when the press write outlandish articles about a family dealing with a terrifying “ghosts” people are still quick to point the same finger of blame… but on what foundations are such accusations based?

In episode 7 of The Spooktator we discuss research by Inside Housing in which it is shown how many council and housing association tenants reported to their landlord that their house was haunted between  2003-2013.

There is a chart on the Haunted Houses article that shows how many reports of this nature responding councils received and how they were dealt with. A total of 73 cases of paranormal activity (possibly ongoing activity of one-off occurrences) were reported to the associations or councils in the ten year time frame – 6 of these resulted in an exorcist or medium being called in, and just 9 of these resulted in the tenant moving out.

These figures are not that staggering when you consider that recent polls measuring the belief in paranormal subjects suggest that anywhere from 30% – 50% of the general public believe that ghosts exist. You would actually expect there to be more cases of people contacting their landlords to report that their houses are haunted.

Obviously there will be times when people don’t report stuff to their landlord and contact a medium, their religious leader, or local ghost hunter directly, but these are not recorded and it is the recorded data I want to focus on here.

The statistics from this report show that the accusation of having an ulterior motive is pretty baseless, so… are people just being classist when judging the poor who claim to see ghosts? Possibly (and as someone who lives in social housing who has witnessed prejudice I’d suggest “probably” was accurate.)

Worryingly though, Inside Housing were unable to gather a full set of data from all councils as ‘the vast majority of councils said the information was not available because either it had not been recorded, or there was no relevant complaint category in their computer systems.’ None of the councils had a policy regarding how to deal with reports of this nature meaning that if something strange happens in your house the outcome of this could literally depend on where you live. This is bad news considering that for many the real cause of paranormal activity can be underlying or undiagnosed/mistreated mental or physical health issues.

So the next time someone who lives in social housing reports that their house is haunted and your gut reaction is that they just want a new house maybe ask yourself what alternative you would prefer – perhaps it’s the one where the housing association leave someone living in a house that terrifies them without offering help, and perhaps you think that because you’re actually satan?

The Worst Ghosts of 2015

hampton court

It has been an entire year since I correctly predicted that Slenderman would be seen in the UK in my ‘Worst Ghosts of 2014’ round up. In that year I created a feature on this blog called The Weakly Ghost Bulletin which morphed into The Spooktator Podcast which examines ghost related headlines on a monthly basis. It’s been busy…

…so, without further ado here are the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015!

#5 The Ohio Ghost that was literally crap

figure outside Ohio mall

In May, Examiner reported that a woman called Tonya Nester was taking photos of the closed down Randall Park Mall in Ohio and a friend noticed something odd in one of the photos that was quickly concluded to be a ghost.

‘What exactly is the angelic figure in the photo?’ asked Examiner reporter John Albrecht. Well, John, bird crap is what it is.

The photo was taken through a car window, dirt tracks left from rain visible, and the white smudge being called a ghost or angelic is bird poo.

#4 That Samurai Ghost that photobombed a little girl

Samurai-Ghost (2)

In April some people lost their composure over a photo that it is claimed shows a pair of ghostly legs behind a little girl who was on holiday with her family. Taken on a smart phone, the childs father claimed nobody was standing behind her at the time the photo was taken. This, it turns out, is not true.

japan policeDon Cake worked out that it was a guard standing a slight distance away from the child and emailed the Fortean Times (FT332, p. 76) to tell them that the beach in the photograph is a short distance from the Summer palace of the Emperor of Japan, which is well guarded by officers who wear the uniform (pictured), which resembles the legs of the so-called ghost. If you look carefully you can even see part of the light blue shirt beneath the childs left elbow.

 

#3 The grey lady of Hampton Court that was actually… not

hampton court

Many people claimed that this photo taken by 12-year-old Holly Hampsheir in February shows the ghost of Dame Sybil Penn (aka the gray lady of Hampton Court) and that the apparition is wearing period clothing which is interesting because it totally isn’t.

It is, in fact, a panoramic photo that went wrong and what we’re seeing are the distorted features of a fleshy (an alive human.) This is explained by Mick West in more detail here, where he also replicated the photo. West said ‘it’s just the result of taking a panoramic photo in low light on the iPhone. Panoramic photos are done by holding the camera up, and panning from left to right. The camera takes lots of photos and then stitches them together … but because it takes a while to take all the images, if something moves while you are taking the panorama, then it will get distorted.’

#2 That eight-foot-tall Ghost 

Although this photo technically dates back to pre-Christmas 2014 it wasn’t until 2015 that it came to the attention of the media which is why it has been included here. It was taken by teacher Debbie Monteforte and a family friend said “The family insists there was no one standing behind them and there was no place to hang a coat. Even if there was someone standing there, they would have to be 8ft tall to appear like that. It’s beyond spooky.”

However, in Weakly Ghost Bulletin #4 I explained how a quick look around on Google Image Search revealed another photograph taken in the same area of the pub that showed that perhaps a person standing in that position wouldn’t have been 8-foot-tall after all.

Kings Arms Ghost Comparison

#1  Slenderman. Obviously.

It feels right that we finish with the story I opened with. I am awarding the #1 spot on this list to two people: Lee Brickley and Christine Hamlett.

In January 2015 Brickley (who has previously made the #1 spot on this list) generated bizarre headlines by claiming that Slenderman had been seen by many people in the Cannock Chase area. He also made the observation that throughout history people have reported seeing tall creatures and spirits which led him to declare that Slenderman wasn’t created online.

What a genius.

He’s wrong, of course. The fictional creature called Slenderman is an internet creation that probably takes inspiration from real-like folklore. I wrote about this in more detail in a blog post called The Evolution of Ghosts and Monsters in which I point out that ‘many in the Cannock Chase area reported that they saw the so-called Slenderman entity while experiencing sleep paralysis, but if they lived in a different part of the world they might perhaps report that they saw a Grey- an alien considered synonymous with E.T. encounters -rather than a spirit or monster.’

It didn’t stop there though. Enter Christine Hamlett…

Hamlett, a self-proclaimed spirit medium, claimed to have caught Slenderman on camera.

Alleged photo of Slenderman
Alleged photo of Slenderman

This is quite amusing because Hamlett also claimed to have caught a Black Eyed Child on camera when Brickley made the headlines in October 2014 with claims that Black Eyed Kids were prowling in Cannock Chase (you can read more about that on my blog here)

not slenderman
Alleged photo of Black Eyed Child ghost…
More recently Hamlett made headlines with claims that she caught the ghost of one of the Pendle Witches on camera, but her claims were shown to be historically inaccurate. You can read my breakdown of the Pendle Witch claims here.

So there we have what I consider to be the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015 – a whole range of bizarre claims that, encouragingly, were investigated and explained by rational researchers.

You can check out previous years Worst Ghosts showcases here, and throughout 2016 I will examine ghost related headlines on a monthly basis on The Spooktator podcast. Be sure to subscribe on Soundcloud or iTunes!

 

Is This The Halloween Generation Of Ghost Research?

black eyed kids

TScience, you're doing it wronghe traditional approach to ghost research is long dead and here to replace it is the Halloween Generation; They’re always on the look out for the next opportunity to both indulgence their sense of being at one with themselves and their addiction to hedonistic thrill seeking. Overnight stays at haunted “mental asylums” and the plethora of the “Most haunted” places in the land, piles of ghost photos that show nothing of importance, gruesome looking puppets that it’s claimed are haunted by demons, theatrical claims of being attacked by demonic entities, endless lists of modern technology that both seek and disprove the existence of spooks while actually accomplishing neither, mirror scrying (with both regular and black mirrors), seances, working with psychics and spirit mediums, dowsin- wait. No. Those are traditional methods that can be traced right back to our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors. So what has changed?

In his delightful book A Natural History of Ghosts Roger Clarke writes that ‘watching a TV show like TAPS, with its extraordinary emphasis on detecting and surveillance technology, modern American ghost-belief is a mixture of Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters, English Jacobean Protestant theology and a Halloween whizz or Irish Catholic and pagan tradition.’ 

Quite.

It’s tempting to look about today (both in America, the UK or elsewhere) and complain that the modern world of ghost research has lost the plot, that those seeking fame and fortune dominate the field, that dodgy methodologies and personalities claim all of the headlines and attention, and that people are being stupid with their ill-supported conclusions. In the next breath many then point out that they wish they could travel back in time to a world where ghost research was honourable, decent, respected… but that’s a world that did not exist.

We ghost researchers of today are all cut from the same cloth of our predecessors and their predecessors, and the future generations of ghost researchers will also be cut of this cloth, and those that follow them and so on and so forth. Our influenced as far reaching and muddled and sometimes hard to distinguish.

If recent surveys are to be believed more and more people believe in ghosts, but did society ever stop believing? I find it hard to believe that there was a sudden dip in ghost believers between the end of World War 2 and today. That seems odd. I would posit that we’ve always been a national of believers in ghosts and in a world that seems to be becoming less and less religious ghosts have become less taboo, and so has believing in them.

And although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the ghost stories from our ancestors would be thought of as dull and boring by today’s standards they’re actually as popular as ever, not to forget that the BBC have long breathed life into the ghosts that were born from the mind of M R James (more recently with the help of Mark Gatiss.) The adult generations of today grew up with stories of friendly ghosts – Casper, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Rent-a-Ghost, Nearly Headless Nick… is it any wonder that ghosts are as popular as ever? Is it any surprise that the traditional and modern seen to entwine to create the modern idea of what ghosts are and do?

The only thing that has really changed is the way that we live now. Gone are the crossroads ghosts wailing a warning to passengers on the road and here to replace them are the Road Traffic Collision hot-spot apparitions. It isn’t often one hears of sightings of ghostly horse drawn carriages, but stories of people hitting people with their cars who had seconds before appeared from nowhere in the road are plentiful. An otherworldly reminder to be careful. 

It isn’t the ghosts that change, it isn’t the ghost researchers that change and it isn’t the ghost eye-witness who changes… it’s society.

Today we can talk to people from all around the world in real-time. We can share with them our experiences and our thoughts and, much like our societies, our ghost cultures have become multicultural. I’ve written before about Asian ghosts who seen on countryside tracks, creatures with fictional-internet origin that seen in the Midlands, beings with American folkloric roots haunting British families in their homes as they sleep.

If our ancestors had the internet their ghost stories would have been much the same as ours. If they had live television I think they’d watch a “live Exorcism” being broadcast (as you can this halloween), I think Harry Price would have been on This Morning with Holly and Phil on a regular basis…

‘…but today you have estate agents cashing in on haunted houses‘ you might argue, ‘so many places claim to be haunted to draw in customers‘ you might complain, and you’re right, but this isn’t new either and isn’t going to away any time soon. The “most haunted” brag pre-dates Yvette Fielding and her television crew, it pre-dates Harry Price and his “Most Haunted House” and it will continue to exist because ghosts are a human by-product and humans are going to be around for a very long time. Our frustrations with the modern world of ghost research are not new problems, the Halloween Generation has always existed, it’s never going away… it just has Twitter now.

#GhostsArentJustForHalloween #ISeeDeadPeople