We’re standing in the room that used to house the gallows. Paul Toole- a tour guide for the prison -is telling us about how a ghost burned his hand. It’s dark and torches are shone on his hand where there sits a scar. It looks quite like a cigarette burn which has healed. I mentally note “because it is a cigarette burn which has healed.”
I’m visiting Shepton Mallet prison with Danny Robins and Simon Barnard ahead of an overnight ghost hunting event with Haunted Happenings. Danny (pictured above with yours truly) hosts Haunted and that’s why we’re at the prison, because he wants to explore what ghost hunting is really about. You can listen to episode 6 of Haunted here, to hear what happened. Paul has agreed to speak with Danny prior to the ghost event taking place, and so there’s a group of just five of us wandering around the dark, foreboding Shepton Mallet prison. It’s such a cold November evening that when we stop so that Paul and Danny can discuss a particular aspect of the prison haunting, the rest of us gently- and quietly -keep moving in any way we can to stay warm.
Before we reach the execution room, we’re shown through the myriad of corridors, wings, courtyards, and rooms. At one point, we’re standing in a small yard separated from a larger courtyard by a gated wall. We’re on a doorstep, about to enter the prison buildings for the first time. Danny, Simon, and Paul are stood in the doorway, and myself and Paul’s wife, Nikki, are stood a bit further back. Suddenly, from behind us, I hear a sound and I turn to see who is joining us. As I do so, I’m pretty sure someone ducks out of sight from the gateway we’d just walked through, and behind the tall wall to the side.
“Did you hear chains?” Nikki, whispers to me, excitedly. I agree. I guess the power of suggestion really is strong. I thought I’d heard footfall, but it must have been prison chains. We ignore the noise at first, but then I hear something a second time and I place my torch against my thigh to hide the light and I go to investigate the source of the noise. Once at the gate, I shine my torch through and around, but there’s nobody there.
We visit the prison on the night before Bonfire night. It’s a Saturday and people are celebrating a day early. As we walk around this terrible place loud pops, fizzles, and bangs punctuate the silence. Somewhere nearby is a road and the calming swish of traffic can be heard if you listen carefully.
We walk into a room which could easily be a classroom. Pale pre-fab walls, a sink in the corner, a white board on the wall. A massive hole has been smashed into the bottom of one of the walls. If you crawl through it you apparently end up in some of the original cells. It’s through this hole, Paul tells us, that ghost hunters capture orb photographs.
“It’s quite dusty,” Danny points out. He isn’t exaggerating. Paul explains that there’s a method for taking orb photos which rules out dust. He tells us about taking four photos to establish if what you’re photographing is a spec of dust because if it’s in all four photos then it can’t be a spec of dust. I think to myself that he- and the ghost hunters he seems to place such faith in -have underestimated the nature of dust. It… blows around.
In fact, Steve Parsons has experimented with orb photography and concluded it was airborne particles people were seeing (Parsons, 2012) and the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena conducted a huge study and concluded that orbs were dust and similar artefacts, too. (Townsend, 2007.)
The prison seems disjointed where it sits. This place in which such horrible things happened to people is just there, beneath the fireworks, near restaurants and pubs, and alongside people going home, to work, or to visit friends. In these rooms we walk through, these sterile corridors, men were subjected to awful conditions and conclusions to their lives. Some of them were worked to death, some were executed. Our tour in the dark is exciting but solemn, too.
We’re told that a particular wing is haunted by a woman in white – she wore her wedding gown the night before her execution and the wing is meant to be subjected to strange, ghostly winds. However, when Danny, Simon and I walk down the length of it and into the darkness all I can think of is how sad the history of this building is, and how the ghost stories seem to be historical revisionism in action.
The execution room is visited towards the end of our tour. We first stand in the condemned man’s cell and walk through a doorway into a room where the wooden base of what would have been the gallows sits. Then, a few minutes later we walk down a set of stairs outside of the prison building and Paul shows us the room beneath the execution room which is where the bodies would have fallen from the gallows and would have hanged until the men were deceased.
The solemn tone of the tour ends here because they’ve hung a Halloween mannequin from the ceiling. It’s wearing a white sheet and is covered in gruesome blood and I’m really not impressed. I don’t know if it’s because I’m still grieving my mother’s death, but this mannequin in this room annoys me. It inspires within me a sense that the solemn tone of the entire tour has been false.
I think back to the loitering shadow in the gateway which ducked out of the way when I turned. I think of the suggestion of “chains”, and I wonder if we’re being had…
A little later, we are standing at the back of a large room as the ghost hunt customers are briefed on the evening ahead. As I observe the group, I can’t help but think how some of these people are here to find ghosts, whereas some of them are here to find specific ghosts – the ones that haunt them everywhere.
Regular visitors to this blog may recall the strange experience I had in the days that followed my mother’s untimely death. It has been over two months since she died and nothing has happened since and I can’t describe to you the willingness I have, deep down, for something else to occur. I don’t believe in ghosts and yet I wish that mum’s ghost would do something else. With each day that passes I know it’s unlikely.
If I wasn’t a skeptic ghost investigator with over a decade of experience under my belt, that need for a sign might be incentive enough for me to pay £50+ to join Haunted Happenings on one of their ghost hunting events in allegedly haunted hot spots across the country. With an array of unscientific equipment and nonsense spiritualist-esque techniques, I’d be presented with plenty of opportunities to find signs from mum wherever I looked.
Just as the ghost hunt got started, an event organiser explained to Danny that they turn the lights off and plunge the prison into darkness so that people don’t have to rely on their eyes and can rely on their other, now-heightened senses to detect ghosts. In reality, turning the lights off and employing the techniques used during such events just raises the chances of people having experiences, getting hooked to the feeling of validation and comfort it brings, and booking more events because they- like me -need more.
I don’t know if this is a cynical ploy, or if the event organisers sincerely believe the stuff they claim, but as someone who is currently grieving it feels pretty predatory to me. All that I know for sure is that people who are bereaved are seeking closure which ghost hunting events claim to offer, but in reality all they actually provide is ambiguity and no firm answers.
As much as people have a right to run entertainment events, and as much as people are free to attend them, it isn’t clear where the line lays between entertainment and something more...
…perhaps it lays in that room, with that mannequin?
Parsons, S (2012) Orbs: A Load of Balls! [Online], Parascience, Available at http://www.parascience.org.uk/PDFs/OrbKill.pdf (Accessed 26 Nov 2017)
Townsend, M (2007) Orb Zone: a case study [Online], Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, Available at http://www.assap.ac.uk/newsite/articles/Orb%20Zone%20Theory.html (Accessed 26 Nov 2017)
All photos in this piece used with kind permission of Danny Robins.
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