A Ghost Hunter’s Cautionary Tale

I became involved with investigating reports of ghostly activity when I was Eighteen. In the many years that have followed, I’ve come into contact with many different people and have visited many different locations all with stories to share about their hauntings and ghostly experiences. The problem with stories is that you often have to take them at face value and it isn’t always clear who is and isn’t being truthful or accurate in what they’re sharing.

My approach to ghost research has changed over the years from one of an enthusiastic, naïve teenager on the hunt for ghosts to one of someone in their thirties who no longer thinks ghost exist, with better-developed critical thinking skills and an open mind. My aim now is to investigate reports of ghost activity to try and establish a logical explanation for them and, more often than not, I now see the cranks coming, but there was a time when it was much easier to trick me.

This story involves one of the people who managed this and what happened to them. Not at my hand, I hasten to add. This story will act, I hope, as a warning to those with similar temptations to the landlady at the centre of this tale because witnessing what happened in this instance has taught me a very valuable lesson: you should be careful what you wish for…

A Warning to the Devious

You must first understand that being haunted can be very good for business. There are many people to be tempted through your door when you’ve got a ghost or two; paranormal tourism is a big industry with the public willing to pay good money to spend a night in a haunted hotspot. When I first became involved in ghost research in 2005, The Black Swan Hotel in the town of Devizes proudly boasted to be Wiltshire’s Most Haunted pub. What qualifies a pub as the most haunted? Well it depends on who you ask, but it’s loosely based on how much paranormal activity is reported by individual people, the number of alleged ghosts said to haunt a location, and just the willingness to make such a claim.

The important thing to know here though is that people travelled from all over the UK to visit The Black Swan hotel and to spend the night there ghost hunting in the dark. So well known was the haunting of The Black Swan that it even featured on the TV show ‘Most Haunted’ in 2004, presented by Yvette Fielding and starring Uri Geller as a guest psychic alongside the regular spirit medium, Derek Acorah.

A photo of The Black Swan Inn today from outside
A photo of The Black Swan Inn today from outside

The story goes that the pub had many ghosts but the most commonly sighted was that of a woman in white who would walk through the walls, scaring guests who would flee their rooms in fright. The woman was alleged by the ghost experts associated with the hotel to be called Elizabeth and there was also a ghost of a man- possibly a highway man -called Ambrose, who would torment the other ghosts. The hot spots for activity were reported to be one of the bedrooms and the basement.

As anyone with a passing interest in ghosts knows, men ghosts in the UK are stereotypically angry and mean and women ghosts in the UK are gentle victims, and this was very much said to be the case with the haunting of The Black Swan hotel. This story was so well sold that teenage-me was too scared to walk about the hotel on my own. Back then, I worked as part of a collective of local ghost researchers who would visit haunted locations together and we visited The Black Swan on several occasions.

Local ghosts for local ghost hunters.

The time we spent in the hotel was quite active from a ghost hunter’s perspective in that we saw shadows (which is quite impressive really as we had the lights switched off most of the time), we heard things, saw things, felt things, and we used different types of spiritual divination to communicate with the ghosts directly. Typical copycat stuff from ghost television shows, really. I now know that it was us who prompted this activity to be recorded not because there were necessarily ghosts present, but because of our willingness to find proof of spirits at the hotel. Our methods were biased and produced subjective results which served our purpose.

This story starts to get really interesting though a couple of years after I stopped ghost hunting and started using a more logical and scientific approach to such cases. At this point, I was still learning critical thinking skills so wasn’t the most objective of researchers, but I was trying. One day, we got a call from the then-landlady of The Black Swan hotel which was unexpected because normally we were the ones phoning her to ask if we could visit, but this time she was phoning us to see if we would visit because she was terrified. We agreed that we would conduct another investigation at the hotel and soon visited.

Be Careful What You Wish For…

I should add that it’s been a while since this investigation took place and I don’t have the case files available to work from anymore, but I remember it being a typical ghost investigation, only, as the evening went on it took an unexpected turn as they landlady made an unexpected confession. The story about the haunting was completely fabricated.

She confessed to us that when they heard that the hotel was said to be haunted (as most old buildings are), they realised that the “Most Haunted Pub in Wiltshire” claim was marketable and they wanted to catch people’s attention. This inspired them to work with a local amateur historian (who I will not name here) to create a ghostly back story to tempt ghost hunters in and give them something to work from on their overnight visits.

She told us that none of the historical details were completely accurate and had been cherrypicked to fit with the story of the haunting. It was this false information that they had provided to the then-historian working on the TV show ‘Most Haunted’ which was presented to camera by the crew while at The Black Swan Hotel. Later, Richard Felix would be seen sat among piles of paperwork used to fact check information the alleged psychics Derek Acorah and Uri Geller relayed to Yvette Fielding. I have no reason to believe that those involved in the show knew that the information was fictional.

Historian, Richard Felix, at the hotel with historical looking documents on a table
 Historian, Richard Felix, at the hotel with historical looking documents on a table

Here’s the twist – the landlady was now genuinely terrified of ghostly happenings in the hotel and told us how she would regularly be in the bar area on her own only to spot a tall, ghostly shadow loitering at the end of the room which would move towards her menacingly. She was too scared to venture into the basement on her own – the basement which for years was marketed to ghost hunters as being a hotspot for paranormal activity. The same basement that I had been terrified in all those years earlier.

In fact, during our visit, she was too afraid to walk around the building to turn off lights while locking the building up and a member of our team had to hold her hand and walk around with her. Upon exiting the building, we realised that the basement lights had been left on and she refused to go back into the building because she was so afraid of what waited in there. It would be easy to judge her as faking this too, but over the years I have come to know what a person in the grip of terror looks like, and she was genuinely afraid.

On our visit, nothing which could objectively be described as strange took place and yet there stood before us the now-confessed architect of the haunting, trembling with fear, unable to be the first person to walk into rooms – the very rooms she had happily told people were haunted by malevolent forces.

Looking back, it is my professional opinion that the only ghosts at The Black Swan Hotel are those which were created by an ex-landlady and her amateur historian friend. Yet, this fictional tale coupled with many years of witnessing ghost hunters at work (who can look very convincing and scary if you don’t know the dodgy reality of their methods and claims) had scared this woman so much that she was now haunted by the ghosts she herself had created.

I don’t know if ghosts are still said to roam the corridors of The Black Swan. It has recently been renovated and given a beautiful facelift, now marketed as an The Black Swan Inn rather than as a hotel, and the current management were certainly not involved in any of the dubious claims that I encountered all those years ago. However, fictional hauntings of this nature have a tendency to linger, so who knows for sure.

Something I am sure of is my warning to the dubious among you: be careful what you wish for when it comes to spectres. They may be good for business, but faking a ghost story really might just come back to haunt you…

7 thoughts on “A Ghost Hunter’s Cautionary Tale

  1. draculavanhelsing says:

    Totally agree that ghosthunters need to be far more logical and sceptical in their research and stop copying those idiotic ghosthunter vids on YouTube!!!!! Why assume the funny noise was paranormal when there could be a perfectly natural explanation, why run around in the dark when most accounts report ghosts walking about in the daylight or with the light on; why rely on bogus electronic devices like a ghost box when any words heard could simply be errant radio interference; why rely on EMF meters when no one has actually proven that ghosts interfere with EMF except hearsay (i.e. no laboratory tests done) and where is the proof that a ghost from centuries ago would even understand English or even know how to interfere with electronic equipment (why assume ghosts have powers of telepathy or PK), and why assume the haunting must be either a deceased soul or demonic spirit when in the past poltergeist activity was attributed to irate home-dwelling fairies (i.e. read Kirk’s 17th “Secret Commonwealth”)?

  2. Jeremy Greenwood says:

    Thank you for this fascinating story, more of the same please.
    This is most probably an example of aberrant psychology, though I will be annoying and suggest it might also be an example of a tulpa (I use the term in the sense misappropriated by the Theosophical Society of course, though to me this is an excellent sense, far more useful and understandable than the Buddhist original).
    If you ever write the autobiography of a ghosthunter/blogger I would like to buy it.
    Thanks again.

  3. Annabelle Lee says:

    Not sure why you bother “with all of this” ghost-hunting if you’re truly a nonbeliever. A belief that there is no God, should = No Afterlife =No ghosts. Right? Right. Although I guess there’s a bit of money to be had, possibly? Quite possibly. Definitely…. because the realm of “The Paranormal” is having a bit of a moment, so to speak. Well, at least your honest about it.

    • Hayley Stevens says:

      I make no money from what I do and I’m sorry for you that you’re so unimaginative and suspicious. You not understanding why I choose to invest in something I’m interested in despite it being written in several places throughout the website you’ve left a comment on sounds like a you problem.

    • Ondina says:

      Non-belief in an imaginary ‘god‘ doesn’t equal non-belief in an afterlife in any way, shape or form. Why should we aim to meet a god figure at the end when there have been no signs or proof of it during our lives? (Religious fanatics don’t need to apply). Nobody, absolutely nobody, knows what happens after we die, in spite of what so many ‘illuminated’ people have said and still say, as nobody has come back from death to tell.
      For the same reason, there is no certainty whatsoever that we move on, somehow, into another realm. It may or may not happen and we’ll only find out when our turn comes.
      It’s much more sensible, intelligent and professional to approach possibly paranormal cases with a good dosis of common sense and scepticism, instead of naively believing any tall tales produced by overexcited minds or those looking to cash on the stories, as was the case of this landlady.

  4. Jeffrey A. Savoye says:

    Very interesting to see a hoaxer hoist on her own petard. I do think that being highly suggestive, and being in a dark place, with a head full of ghost stories, is certainly likely to inspire one to invoke what one is imagining. The plethora of ghost hunting shows where nothing of any substance is ever found has ruined ghost stories. The best ghost stories are more about history and folklore than evidence of an afterlife. And now, it seems that a place being haunted is no longer enough, and it has to be haunted by a demon to be interesting.

  5. Ann Green says:

    Very much resonates with the Philip Experiment – a made-up person apparently began to communicate with paranormal investigators. Worth reading up. I don’t think these things can be dismissed until we understand the power of our mind to create phenomena, real or imagined. This lady’s paranoia is also a good reason for not dabbling with Ouija boards. Interesting website, Hayley.

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