Investigating Britain’s Sexiest Ghost

torquay selfie (1 of 1)

The day I arrived in Torquay was the sunniest we’d had yet in 2016. People lined the sea front in their holiday clothes and ate chips and ice-cream. The breeze from the sea ruffled through, providing an occasional release from the unrelenting heat, spinning rainbow pinwheels and tumbling seagulls around the sky as it went.

A man with a sweeping brush drew complex patterns into the sand, moving in a way that suggested this was a form of meditation for him. Elsewhere children ran around just because they could, sticks at the ready to poke in the sand. Boys with kayaks fought the waves, a photographer carefully stalked a group of sandpipers up and down the shore. It was charming just as the British seaside always is but I didn’t have time to stop and enjoy it. I was on a mission to investigate Britain’s sexiest ghost, and ghosts wait for no man.

sexiest ghost Torquay
The ghost

That ghosts are even real is a subject of much debate but Torquay museum insist they’ve got one, and not just any old ghost at that. Theirs is the sexiest one. Part of me is alarmed that you can still be objectified once you’re dead but that’s a different conversation for another day.

Last October their ghost made the headlines when it left fingerprints inside a glass case which houses a mummy. It hasn’t been established just how a ghost could leave fingerprints on glass without having physical hands but let’s humour this idea for a moment.

Just prior to the fingerprints being discovered it is claimed ‘the female ghost was seen creeping between the artefacts. She was wearing old clothing showing off all her assets as she emerged from the floor and cast her eyes down towards a light.’

In July 2015 the ghost was photographed in the Old Devon Farmhouse exhibition, leaning forwards slightly and showing off her cleavage. There has been speculation online about the cause of what is seen in the photo. Some people believe it to be staged, others suggest it is the reflection of someone in a window pane among other theories.

I was contacted by US paranormal researcher Benjamin Radford who wanted to know if I (as a British paranormal investigator) had heard anything through the grapevine about this particular case. The grapevine is a valued asset to paranormal researchers and it’s usually through word of mouth that tip offs come that help solve cases. After a long discussion I agreed to visit Torquay to have a look at the room and to take detailed photographs so that a cause might be established once and for all.

Ghost photos that are genuinely interesting are rare; they generally tend to be bad hoaxes, random blurs mistaken for something, photographic errors, or nothing at all. There was certainly something in this photo which made it stand out in my mind. There are times when an investigator can work out what is happening without an on-site visit, but more often than not actually being on location is beneficial and eye-opening. The answer can slap you right in the face when you thought you’d need hours of sleuthing. You might meet the “ghost” in person and be able to kill your afternoon in the pub instead (this has happened.)

Upon arriving at the museum and venturing onto the top floor where The Old Devon Farmhouse exhibit lives one thing became apparent straight away. The ghost was not caused by a reflection as many had suggested. I found all of the reflective surfaces in the room and took photos of the fireplaces through them from different angles to try and replicate what is seen in the original photo but it wasn’t possible.

Photo 21
The things I do…

As I inspected the area I saw that there were small benches next to one of the fireplaces that were in the right position for the ghost to have been seated on at the time. Therefore it is my conclusion that Britain’s sexiest ghost  was actually a living person sitting in the dark next to one of the fireplaces. It almost looks as though her face is lit by the screen of an electronic item such as a camera or phone.

The small benches in question
The small benches in question

After my inspection of the exhibit I found staff members and volunteers on the ground floor and inquired with them about the ghost. They explained that many people took part in ghost hunt events in the museum and had strange experiences. One of the women I spoke to explained that a whole shelf of books had flown off of the shelf in the gift shop one afternoon as she spoke with customers. That was the one original activity that any of them could recall – everything else was related to these ghost hunting events.

This is problematic because people taking part in a ghost hunting event have primed themselves to interpret things that they experience as most likely to be paranormal. When a haunting is largely based on the experiences of people who have paid to have a paranormal experience it isn’t a very reliable or interesting case and eye-witness testimony is not useful evidence or data.

I inspected the mummy case while at the museum. Remember, this mummy made headlines in October 2015 when ghostly fingerprints appeared on it during a ghost event.

Photo 98
Can you see the fingerprints?

The only problem is that there were fingerprints and greasy hand marks all over the case when I visited. The case is quite low down so that children can see the mummy properly so there’s absolutely nothing to suggest, to me, that fingerprints appearing on this display are out of the ordinary.

Photo 101

To establish that the fingerprints were not inside the case originally, or that they had simply not been noticed before would be an incredible feat. But even if we know for sure that this was true there is nothing to suggest that fingerprints appearing inside a case were caused by a ghost. There are a number of perfectly ordinary scenarios that could result in prints appearing inside the case when they weren’t there before.

I believe that these ghost-related headlines and events are all inspired by falling visitor numbers and are an attempt to to get people through the door and to drive revenue. It’s a shame because this sort of ghost tourism is quite uninspired when there are such interesting exhibits one could use to engage the public with but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. 

It has been reported that ‘council figures show the [visitor] numbers dropped in 2013/14 from 25,957 to 18,743′ and the same report detailed how in 2015/16 the museum faced a 42% budget cut from the local authority. The Austerity that the Conservative government have imposed upon the United Kingdom is slowly strangling art and cultural organisations throughout the country. Museum manager, Phillip Collins said the funding cuts could ‘kill Torquay Museum before we are able to put ourselves on a secure financial footing for the future.’ 

That museums face this challenge is heartbreaking. Please visit your local museum, and not just because Britain’s Sexiest Ghost might be lurking in the shadows. Pervert.

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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.


“Feel like a Mulder, Question like a Scully”

mulder and scully

I’ve written before about the moment on a case investigation when something happens and you’re not quite sure what is going on and it’s equal parts exciting and equal parts intriguing. I think that’s the closest you can get to feeling like Mulder and Scully on one of their more adventurous cases.

Sure, it might end up to be foxes in the garden outside of the property sounding a bit like a baby crying and not an actual ghostly baby crying in the next room (that happened) and you might not end up chasing something mysteriously and scary as the perfect duo from The X-Files often do, but it’s still cool. And in that moment it’s easy to see how simple it would be to convince yourself (and, in turn, convince others) that what you are hearing is paranormal and mysterious. To add that kick of spooky flavour to your reality.

But you mustn’t.

Twitter user @fowkc brought the above tweet from @realscientists to my attention this morning and lo! a new mantra has been born.

Feel like Mulder, but question like Scully.

I’m a non-believer but I still love a good mystery. And I love investigating these mysteries in a way that hopefully reveals what’s going on. It’s easy to fall into the pattern of using the facts (“it’s wasn’t a ghost, it was carbon monoxide”, “it wasn’t Nessie, it was driftwood”, “she isn’t psychic, she’s using cold reading techniques”) to punish those who dared to believe something paranormal, but that isn’t productive.

I love the Loch-Ness Monster legend, and that of it’s younger cousin Bownessie and I am an advocate of being open-minded yet rational in the research and study of weird experiences that people have. I try to champion skeptical inquiry in my research, and you should too! This is why I still investigate weird stuff despite not believing in the paranormal, it’s why I am a member of the recently re-established Fairy Investigation Society, and it’s why I will always have time for people who want to talk about the weird stuff they’ve experienced.

Because it’s important to Feel like Mulder, but question like Scully.

but don’t use a gun ‘cos that’s dangerous, and try not to chase scary things on your own and don’t go getting arrested or anything. Gawd. 

How Ghost Evidence Is Rated And How People Get It Wrong


The plural of anecdote is not data. 

It’s a rule that anyone involved in paranormal research, even casually, is familiar with. The things that we experience are open to our personal biases and the biases of those around us – not to mention the flawed memory that we have to contend with when trying to accurately recall something that we experienced (and yes, that does include those that people refer to as “expert witnesses” due to their occupation.)

Anecdotes are a good starting block for paranormal investigation and nothing more. This makes it quite difficult for paranormal investigators to investigate those cases where eye-witness testimony is the only information to go on. As an investigator myself I always encourage eye-witnesses to immediately note down anything odd that they experience in the hope that the cause will become apparent in any patterns that might emerge – experiences seem to happen in warmer weather, just after they’ve watched Ghost Adventures, when the heating has been turned off, when they’re tired…

But even noting down an experience soon after having it doesn’t protect the testimony from the aforementioned biases, suggestion or flawed memories. At the very core of being a paranormal phenomenon experiencee is the decision that an experience is significant. This decision itself is influenced by personal biases and the suggestion from our peer groups. Can any of us confirm that something we experienced is paranormal in nature when there aren’t characteristics that have been documented and proven to belong to ghosts? I think the answer is no, not as conclusively as many people do.

This is why more physical forms of evidence of ghost manifestations are considered to be much more useful to paranormal investigators. A photo or piece of footage that contains something ghostly or strange is thought of by many investigators to be more reliable… yet these forms of evidence are also at the mercy of the same issues that plague eye-witness testimony too! It’s never-ending.

As pattern seeking creatures it is our natural instincts to seek meaning where there is not – that could be a face in vague shapes in a photo, or in the decision that a strange knocking sound just as you ask a question is significant (would it have been if you hadn’t asked a question? No.)

It’s even easier to think the insignificant is significant and to find meaning in randomness in the context of a paranormal investigation where you might be hoping to experience something strange. This is why it’s really important to have a methodology that limits the amount of bias that can be introduced to proceedings. Additionally, if you’ve been told that you work or live in a place that is paranormally active you’re more likely to interpret something insignificant as significant because the ghost stories are one of the first things that come to mind when you encounter something that seems a bit odd.

We also have to consider whether something strange in a photo or on footage is actually just something normal being misidentified, such as a hair or finger in front of the camera lens and out of focus, or perhaps an insect whizzing past just as you trigger the shutter of the camera. Or perhaps could have been purposefully altered to look strange. Hoaxing ghost photos has always been extremely easy to do – even easier with the advancements of modern technology such as smart phones and editing software meaning that you no longer need to keep partially exposed photography plates to hand. Not only this but even the ways in which you use your camera can cause a photograph to look strange. A long exposure, for example, can cause people who stand in shot and then move out-of-the-way to look partially see-through or distorted and using a panoramic setting on your camera incorrectly can make people in the photograph look… well… bizarre and unrecognisable!

A reliance on such forms of so-called evidence clearly has many shortfalls, but so too does the aim to prove that a location is haunted or paranormally active by seeking these forms of evidence in the first place. If you have a conclusion in mind before you even conduct an investigation then you’re likely to interpret what happens during your investigation in a manner that fits with your already decided conclusion and that isn’t very open-minded.

Depending on eye-witness testimonies as evidence that something paranormal is real is poor form, but providing something more than just eye-witness testimony doesn’t automatically strengthen the case. If investigators don’t have a good methodology that limits the way in which personal biases can be introduced to their investigation then they will inevitably be chasing their own tails like agitated dogs and agitated dogs don’t make good paranormal investigators.

Have You Seen A Fairy? Share Your Experience!

seeing fairies
Reports from the lost FIS archives

When I saw that ‘Seeing Fairies – From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society by Marjorie T Johnson had been published I bought a copy and read it immediately. My first love will always be ghosts, and monsters come in at a close second (I love you, Nessie!), but there is something about fairies that has always interested me.

I found the book fascinating even though I don’t quite believe that these people were seeing fairies. Do I believe in fairies? No. Do I want to see a fairy? It depends… I don’t want to be chased by a small angry man with a stick, but a lot of the eye-witness testimonies sound so lovely and calming, so I think I’d quite like to see a gnome wandering around my garden. In reality though I don’t think that’s very likely.

That didn’t stop me from contacting the Fairy Investigation Society and asking if I could become involved in their research and activities.

Yes, that’s right. A skeptic who wants to investigate fairies.

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge human experiences and I find the experiences that people report fascinating to study and it is possibly my favourite part about being a paranormal researcher. Sometimes I am able to provide rational explanations for these experiences and other times I am not, but I still love the stories either way. I love listening to people tell these stories too, safe in the knowledge that I don’t think they’re stupid.

The FIS have just launched the Fairy Census which is a two-year project to chart fairy beliefs and fairy sightings in Britain and Ireland. I had some minor input on this that I hope will help gain an understanding of a modern societies take on fairy phenomena.

The Census is going to be the biggest folklore survey of its kind ever undertaken which is really exciting. The census is launched this week in Fortean Times magazine and includes an online form for those who have had fairy experiences, and another questionnaire to measure how fairy belief has changed in recent years among the general public.

There have already had some responses with some pretty interesting experiences being shared. Project coordinator, historian Dr Simon Young, says that: “We are not interested just in what people see, but why they see it. For example, fairy sightings are often associated with sleep deprivation or unusual moods. We are also interested in how fairy sightings change. So, fairies seem to have, generally speaking, gotten smaller through the centuries. Will this trend continue? With the census we will have the means of measuring changing beliefs.”

If you’ve seen something that you think was a fairy please consider filling out the survey. Or, if you’ve got an aunt or a friend who says they’ve seen a fairy perhaps you could pass it onto them, or fill it out on their behalf? I think the result of this will be extremely interesting and it would be great for this to be shared far and wide.

The surveys can be found here.