I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.


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!


The Problem With Britain’s “Most Haunted House”

the cage

I’ve had a Fortean Times subscription for a number of years because I largely find the features interesting, but I’ve found myself becoming more and more frustrated at certain features in the last year or so when certain ghost stories are given uncritical promotion, or when the author fails to remain unbiased.

In FT327 The Cage in St Osyth, Essex is given a four page spread and is dubbed as “The Most Haunted House In Britain”. The piece, written by John Fraser, provides a nice introduction to the location and it’s fascinating history of imprisoned witches and some of the spooky activity people claim to have witnessed, but he makes a glaring error.

Fraser writes ‘I received an email from Vanessa Mitchell asking for advice. Her tenants were leaving the cottage and she was reluctant to rent it out again believing that the levels of apparent paranormal activity made it unfair on any prospective new inhabitants … we were surprised when she asked if it was feasible to rent out the house to paranormal research groups.’

Fraser then sings the praises of this decision because of the amount of research this allowed to happen at the haunted cottage. But wait a minute… if this was such a successful move and there has been so much research why haven’t we seen the huge amounts of data and what it means?

That’s because it isn’t actually research that is happening at The Cage, it’s overnight ghost hunts where groups pay a large amount of money for the privilege of up to one day in the building. There is no consistency to these so-called investigations as each team use different methods, and the evidence often presented is psuedo-scientific in nature – EVP recordings, medium testimony, EM fluctuations and similar.

It counts for nothing.

You can’t conduct an investigation in one day as there are so many data variables that you have to try and account for before you even begin to investigate allegedly anomalous phenomena. How can you study the mean temperature of a location in just one day? How can you account for regular electro-magnetic fluctuations in a building in just one day? How can you map out the normal movements of the building in just one day?

You can’t. And these limitations work in favour of the person renting out a haunted building because it guarantees that the ghost hunters will have odd experiences because they have a lack of data to work with, and this keeps the legend alive…

…except when it doesn’t.

When I previously wrote about some of the dodgy evidence presented on the Facebook page of The Cage as proof that it was haunted many ghost hunters left comments about how disappointing the location was:

I can assure you that the cage is most defiantly not that haunted. There might be a ghost knocking around but when our team went we got NOTHING. And we usually go away from a location with some sort of evidence to suggest that there may be a haunting.

She took me around for about 20 minutes before the investigation, telling me about everything that happened, and this made me suspicious because locations don’t usually do that.

I was recently with a team at this property and to be honest, my garden shed is more haunted.

…didn’t feel in the least bit ‘spooked’ and actually found the place had a comfortable atmosphere if you shut your ears to those trying to freak you out…

I am somewhat unconvinced about the claims that have been made.

Now, many of these people will have used bad methodologies which resulted in their disappointment but I was still interested in the feedback of their time at the location. More interesting though was a comment left by previous owners of the cottage.

Jenny Arlott said ‘I find the claims of The Cage being haunted rather amusing. My mum owned the cage before Vanessa and we found it to be a beautiful, quirky but cosy cottage and had some great times there. The history of the house is so interesting so I can understand wanting to capitalise on this, but it certainly isn’t haunted.’

This throws up interesting questions that any investigator should seriously consider, like ‘if previous tenants didn’t experience this activity but current tenants do then what causes that?’ and ‘could the cause be the person and not the location?’ and ‘should I even be getting involved, is it ethical of me to do so?’ but nobody has asked this and so this supposed legend has been allowed to continue.

The only way in which anybody will find answers about what is going on at The Cage is if a group of decent investigators are allowed unlimited access over a number of months (at least) with no charge being made but, excuse my skepticism, I don’t think that will ever happen. Ghost hunting business is good and it’s about to become better thanks to a four page spread in the Fortean Times.

The Enfield Haunting: A Contemporary Ghost Researcher Reflects…

Being thrown, or jumping?

The Enfield Poltergeist case began in 1977 when a set of disturbances started happening in a council house in Enfield, London that would become one of the most famous (some would say infamous) poltergeist cases in the history of the United Kingdom.

Peggy Hodgson, a single mother who lived with her four children Margaret, thirteen; Janet, eleven; Johnny, ten; and Billy, seven, called her neighbours, the police and then the media who all witnessed strange activity for themselves. This led to investigators from the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair, becoming involved in the case. They conducted a five month investigation at the house and seemed utterly convinced that something paranormal was occurring. Reported activity witnessed by the family and people in their home allegedly included knocking on walls, moving furniture, spontaneous fires, a child levitating or being “possessed” (often described as acting as though in a seizure), objects being thrown or damaged and more.

enfield family
The children were at the centre of the case

What happened in Enfield captured the imaginations of many; Stephen Volk wrote Ghostwatch with inspiration from the case which starred Michael Parkinson in a drama pretending to be a live broadcast from a haunted home in London. It was banned by the BBC for scaring and confusing audiences and would eventually inspire found footage movies such as The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. More recently the Enfield Poltergeist case has inspired a television series from Sky called The Enfield Haunting retelling the story in a highly dramatised fashion.

The marketing for the series claims it to be ‘The most documented paranormal event in British history’ but how accurate is this marketing? The reports that came from the house are incredible accounts of strange activity at face value but is there more than meets the eye when it comes to the Enfield Poltergeist? It certainly seems so once you skim the surface.

‘ She [Janet] was always near when something happened, and this in­evitably led to accusations that she was playing tricks, although Grosse was already fully convinced that she could not be responsible for all the incidents” (Playfair 1980)

‘I have a saying’ says investigator Joe Nickell when I ask him about Enfield, ‘”The person who thinks he can’t be fooled has just fooled himself” for example, the two men [Playfair and Grosse] insist that an object was thrown that was out of the reach of the children. But it is common in such cases for the perpetrator to have secretly obtained the object earlier and to have flung it when the observer was not looking.’

Nickell isn’t alone in his skepticism. It’s believed by many that the Enfield case was simply children messing around, tricking people, and playing up to those who were giving them attention. When you learn that the children in the house were caught faking activity on several occasions it does become quite difficult to accept the claims that although some activity was faked other aspects of the case were not faked. As outsiders how can we be sure either way?

‘Margaret Hodgson is on record as saying about 2% of the phenomena was the girls playing around, and Janet has admitted they cheated at times, but were always caught’ says British paranormal investigator, CJ Romer, ‘and if I recall correctly Tony Cornell [of the SPR] was particularly put off by the way  he though Janet was loving every moment and endlessly amused by the investigators failure to get to grips with it.’

Interestingly, when SPR investigators Anita Gregory and John Beloff spent a few days with the family they concluded that the children had faked the poltergeist activity after they caught them purposefully bending spoons. Janet admitted to Gregory that they had fabricated some of the occurrences.

Can we be so sure then that they were always caught when they faked activity? Well, no we can’t because we have to rely on the word of those present and it has been demonstrated time and time again that testimony is not a reliable form of evidence due to biases and the unreliability of memory. When recalling something that happened in the past we draw on relevant associations to the present meaning that our memory changes because the reason we are recalling it changes which results in us accidentally putting emphasis on certain aspects of a memory while not recalling other bits of the same memory that would provide a different context to the testimony. We’re also good at misremembering what actually happened and making our memories conform to fit with what others remember or describe.

Many people who believe that what happened in Enfield to be paranormal in nature are quick to point out that even police officers witnessed strange activity for themselves… but do police officers really make better eye-witnesses?  No, although they are trained to be observant as part of their jobs they are also susceptible to biased thinking and fallacious memories. This is something that the Police Force acknowledges and is  mindful of in certain situations, such as selecting identification line-ups, questioning suspects or victims, allowing witnesses to be interviewed with co-witnesses and more.

As a contemporary paranormal researcher and investigator I believe that the appropriate response to paranormal claims is skepticism and the Enfield case has been met with great skepticism at every stage – when it first began, during the investigation, when it concluded and even today, decades later.

I’ve always wondered what I would do if the case happened today and I was contacted to investigate. I would be reluctant to become involved in a case with distressed children for ethical reasons but I think I would do as much as I could to work out what was going on. CJ Romer agrees, pointing out  that there was a lot to gain from studying the Enfield case, ‘it stood to tell us more about poltergeist cases, and the family’s distress was extreme.’

Yet, when you read the accounts from those involved in the investigation it quickly draws a picture of an investigation that was quite chaotic and this, I feel, is why Enfield will never reach a proper conclusion. It’s fine for Sky to tell us it was the ‘the most documented paranormal event in British history’ but will there be any mention of how chaotic that documentation was? Will there be any mention of how we can’t be sure that it was paranormal activity as a result?

I doubt it.

Yes, there were reports of activity that I’m not willing to dismiss a priori as childish trickery, such as a wrought iron fireplace being wrenched out of a wall, snapping a pipe in the process, but at the same time I do feel as though investigators didn’t do enough to investigate in a controlled manner that enabled them to reach a sound conclusion. Who am I to criticise? I wasn’t there!

But being present on an investigation that has concluded should not be a requisite to understanding what happened. It almost feels as though there was no sense of urgency to discover what was really going on and at times it seems as though Grosse and Playfair were completely overwhelmed. Could this have been taken advantage of by intelligent children out to play a game? I certainly think that’s possible.

Being thrown, or jumping?
Being thrown, or jumping?

There is good evidence that activity was largely open the biases of the investigators and that trickery was involved throughout the case. Although I don’t think there’s enough evidence to support the damnation of the entire case as a hoax that doesn’t mean that I think the activity was paranormal in nature. Too much was left undocumented with no controls in place, like Janet being allowed to go into a room on her own to “talk” in the voice of the alleged ghost, and no investigator being present when a time lapse camera was placed in a room with the children to give context to any photographs captured, such as the one of Janet being “thrown” through the air that actually looks as though she’s just jumping from the bed.

Had an investigator been present they’d have been able to add the proper context to their investigation, but instead mystery was allowed to prevail because I suspect that deep down Grosse and Playfair both wanted Enfield to prove something to them and the world. Were they trying to explain the phenomena or were they trying to document evidence that it was paranormal in nature?

Some claim a recently bereaved Grosse became too emotionally invested.
Some claim a recently bereaved Maurice Grosse became too emotionally invested in the case.

This is a shame though because if Enfield happened today investigators would not be given the chance that Grosse and Playfair were handed. When Peggy Hodgson contacted the newspapers about what was happening their case was referred to the SPR and there’s no doubt in my mind that if the family had contacted the media of today for help no reputable organisation would have been contacted by the media to go and investigate. The Hodgson family would have briefly made headlines around the world, attracted the local pseudo-scientific ghost hunting groups who have little regard for ethical research, and that would have been that.

US investigator Joe Nickell thinks this is actually what happened back in the 1970s, ‘mysteries should neither be fostered nor suppressed, but carefully investigated with the intent of solving them.’

‘ In retrospect’, he adds ‘the “poltergeist” disturbances at Enfield are easily explained, and some were quite trivial. But the occurrences were hyped by self-styled “investigators” and a willing news media to the extent that, even today, the truth must be sought and the facts explained to a new generation.’

…and you know what? Maybe he has a point.

When you watch The Enfield Haunting on Sky keep in mind that due to this approach and due to the unanswered questions we don’t know anything for sure about the case. There is a lot of justified skepticism and doubt about what happened in that house to that family and we’ll probably never know the truth.

Weakly Ghost Bulletin #8.5

the ritz ghost

It seems that I was a bit premature when I published the Weakly Ghost Bulletin #8 yesterday and there are a few stories that came to my attention after I had published the bulletin. With this in mind I am going to start publishing the WGB on a Sunday in an attempt to avoid this. For now though, here is #8.5


This is technically from last week but it was sent to me after I published #8.

Steve Sangster of filmed a campaign video at Orpington Priory in a bid to highlight the proposed closure of the museum. Upon inspecting the footage filmed using a drone he believes there is a ghostly figure captured (at the 1:20 mark, shown above) loitering in the garden. 0

He told NewsHopper “When I watched it back I noticed a dark figure in one shot, I zoomed in and it was like they were talking to somebody. I filmed really early in the morning and I don’t remember anyone being there. Normally the only spirit I believe in is vodka. Maybe the spirits have come back to save the Priory.”

Yeah, or maybe it’s a person who them went somewhere else that you didn’t notice because you were busy flying a drone around?


the ritz ghost

Dawn Bark took the above photos at The Ritz at the end of 2014 and, for some reason, waited until the end of February 2015 to go to the newspapers with the story and expects us to just take her word that there was nobody behind her on the stairs and that the figure we see is a ghost. She told the Daily Star “I was checking through my phone, deleting duplicated and blurred pictures from our London trip, when I came across the blurred image. I clearly remember taking the two pictures in the powder room and can say with certainty that no one else came into the powder room while I was in there.”

There clearly was someone behind you, Dawn, we can see them in the photo.

Spotted by credits for #8.5: @fortean_uk