in the garden... home counties
or as long as there have been beliefs, there have been ghosts. For as long as there have been ghosts, there have been sceptics. Those who maintain that a spirit world is in direct contact with the conscious world – and seek out evidence of this fact – used to be called Ghost Hunters, and are now known as Paranormal Investigators. Those who dedicate themselves to disproving this fact through scientiﬁc method used to be called Scientiﬁc Sceptics, and are now known simply as Debunkers.
The Homes Counties, for their own part, have something of a reputation for unexplained phenomena. However, the application of any sustained investigation into the coach and horses of Pluckley or the footsteps of Borley Rectory reveals an incredibly vague selection of myths and legends, most cynically retold for the purposes of tourism. The “real” sightings of south-East England, the first-hand experiences, remain within the hands of
organisations like the Sussex-based Ghost Club and the Kent-based Haunted Places Paranormal, and it is these hauntings that debunkers like Professor Christopher French – Head of the Anomalistic Psychological Research Unit at Goldsmith’s College – seek to explain. With Halloween fast-approaching, KUDOS spoke to both parties – hunters and debunkers – to try to find out exactly what it is that goes bump in the night...
hunting and debunking
Tools of the Ghost Hunter: #1
The EMF Meter
a brief history
he collision of practical proof and hearsay characterises the pursuits of the modern ghost hunter. The idea of an individual’s “spirit”, a non-physical entity which survives the physical death of that individual, is older than any existing religion; the ancient civilisation perhaps most obsessed with ghosts were the Egyptians, whose Book of the Dead is one of the ﬁrst – and most detailed – depictions of a soul’s journey through the afterlife. Ancient Roman writer/philosopher Pliny the Younger qualiﬁes – among other things – as the West’s ﬁrst ghost story teller: in a letter to a colleague, he tells the tale of Athenodoros Cananites, a much earlier philosopher who rented an Athenian house rumoured to be haunted. Those rumours – according to Pliny – proved to be true. This strange mixture of belief and storytelling are the unstable bedrock of the ghost hunter; but, although the reasons a team investigate a given site maybe be based on idle gossip, their methods have evolved beyond untestable reportage. Both Haunted Places Paranormal and the Ghost Club – which can count Charles Dickens among its former members – use proven instruments such as EMF meters, infra-red cameras and temperature guns, but the conclusions which their read-outs are used to support remain controversial. All of these devices regularly provide tangible results, but the leap of faith to be taken is the assumption that because somewhere is radiationﬁlled, or experiences erratic shifts in temperature, it is also haunted. Ginette Hobbs and Cathy Gearing – respectively, heads of Haunted
Places and the Ghost Club – have made this leap of faith, and are keen to present their own ﬁrsthand experiences and those of their team. The modern sceptic has had to adapt to the widespread use of scientiﬁc apparatus in ghost hunting, but there remain no instances in which paranormal phenomena have been observed in experimental conditions satisfactory to both the hunter and the debunker. This does not mean, however, that Professor Christopher French is not a busy man: it seems that as the debunking increases, so too does the fervour to believe. His Anomalistic Psychological Research Unit at Goldsmith’s College London has the aim of rigorously applying academic disciplines, such as psychology and neurology, to supposed cases of paranormality, hence disproving them.
The EMF – or ElectroMagnetic Field – meter measures the energy generated by electrically charged objects. The presence of such energy in locations where there seem to be no potential generators leads some to attribute the ﬁeld to paranormal entities. Unreliable because of the number of items that emit EMF.
We’ve got the hunters; we’ve got the debunker, so let’s put the Haunted Home Counties to the test... N.B. The sites described by both teams are privately owned businesses that only welcome pre-organised investigations. In other words, don’t show up in your Ghostbusters outﬁt and expect to be welcomed.
Tools of the Ghost Hunter: #2
The Temperature Gun Temperature measurement can be achieved by many means, but most favoured among ghost hunters are the gun-shaped ambient sensors. Sudden drops in temperature are another example of tangible evidence ascribed by hunters to spirits.
haunted site #1 valentine ’s mansion, west essex
We begin with the Kent-based Haunted Places Paranormal, a group comprised of 5 members whose investigations use the basic tools of the ghost hunter, without resorting to an overwhelming amount of scientiﬁc experiment. The site is a 300 year old Grade II listed building in Ilford, East London, currently under restoration. Will our resident debunker be convinced?
Hunter: Ginette Hobbs Full-time Mother from Welling Member of Haunted Places Paranormal “After an evening of various activity and experiments we ended the investigation by doing a vigil in the cellar. The whole group sat at one end of the cellar and a number of us could see the ﬁgure of a man on the cellar steps. We called out for him to come forward but he stayed where he was. We knew there was no-one else in the house and that the guard would not leave his post so we can only presume the image was that of a spirit. We decided to relocate ourselves down near the cellar steps and started calling out. I could see a shadow moving in front of me and some others in the group said they could see the same. I could see a dark ﬁgure standing beside Sharon [Slatter, fellow investigator]. She conﬁrmed that she could feel a presence to her side. I asked for the ﬁgure to become more prominent and asked for a parting gift as we was about to leave, there was then a mass of purple light and the ﬁgure by Sharon became a full silhouette of a man wearing a cloak and a top hat”
Debunker: Prof. Christopher French Psychologist at Goldsmith’s College “One of the interesting things you pick up on here is the way that people psych each other up. Typically, you’ll ﬁnd you’re sitting in pitch darkness, obviously under those kind conditions, whether or not you’re really seeing the things you’re really seeing is highly debatable. In this particular instance, it’s very likely what they could see was a shadow; it only needs to look vaguely like a human ﬁgure under those conditions. It’s the same as when you’re a child and you think you see someone at your door and it’s just your dressing gown. It’s the power of human imagination and suggestion, in a group situation. In these supposedly haunted places, sometimes you record unusual patterns of electro-magnetic activity. There’s a school of thought that accepts that unusual patterns of EMF activity are there, but that in susceptible individuals the EMF can cause hallucinatory experiences. There’s another idea applied to infra-sound. Infra-sound is sound energy that’s below the audible frequency range, and the idea is that this can bring about these anomalous experiences in people that are typically associated with haunted locations; it might be a sense of presence, it might be unusual sensory perceptions, like you’re being touched, the chill running up the spine. Something also implied in this description is that more than one person saw this and they all saw the same thing. We’ve done studies of a phenomenon called Memory Conformity which refers to a situation in which one person’s account of something they’ve witnessed seems to corroborate what another says they saw. When you witness something unusual – like a crime or a possible ghost sighting or a UFO or the Loch Ness monster – people will typically discuss what they’ve seen. It may well be that one person thought they saw a vague kind of shadow and the others see a top hat and other details, and that actually directly inﬂuences the other person’s memory”
public library, north kent Our second haunting site have sadly decided to remain anonymous as they no longer allow investigations, but more details of this – and all of the investigations – can be found on the group’s website, listed below. Will the cacophonous antics between the bookshelves convince Professor French more than the “Haunted Mansion”?
Hunter: Sharon Slatter, Engineering Adminstrator from Dartford & Member of Haunted Places Paranormal “I was in one of the library’s ofﬁces with my group and we were calling out [to a spirit] and asked if a book could be knocked off a shelf. Not thinking that this would happen, we carried on calling out. I heard a slight bang from behind me and put my torch on to see what it was and there was a book on the ﬂoor. There had been nobody near the shelves at the time as we were at the other end of the ofﬁce. We had also heard a cat meow and knew there were no animals in the building. On listening to the Dictaphone recording, the sound of a cat was clear”
Debunker: Prof. Christopher French “With regards to the book on the ﬂoor, the implication is that the book wasn’t on the ﬂoor initially and that the slight bang was the book falling, but we don’t actually know that. In addition to seeing things that aren’t there, people can also fail to see things that are there. There’s been a mass of research recently into what’s called Change Blindness; where you don’t see something simply because you’re not paying any attention. The classic example is a study where you get participants to watch a video clip of people standing round in a gym, bouncing basketballs back to each other. The task you give them is to count how many times the balls bounce. Typically the people say how many times they thought it bounced; then you ask if they saw anything odd and about 50% of people will say no. You play the tape back to them and a man in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the bunch, stands there, beats his hands against his chest...and 50% of your participants don’t see that, which is stunning. The idea that you go into a room and immediately clock everything that’s in there just isn’t true. You pay attention to things you need to pay attention to and very often, you simply do not see those things. So far as the cat’s meow goes, it may not have been a cat. On one of the ghost watches I did for the [ITV] series Haunted Homes, the hunters were recording sound to hear EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) and one of the things we had reported at this radio station was that with this particular ghost they could hear sneeze. During the vigil they heard this noise and played the tape back to me the next morning and no doubt at all, there was deﬁnitely a ‘CHHH’ sound on the tape. I couldn’t deny it sounded like a sneeze; there was deﬁnitely a sound. The next night, the paranormal investigator on the team was on the same landing where the sound had been recorded and I saw a very disgruntled look on his face, and I followed his eyes and he was looking at this automatic freshner on the wall. We hung around for a while, and sure enough, there was the ‘CHHH’ sound. When they broadcast the program they made a big deal of the sneeze but didn’t provide this explanation! So it may have been an animal in the building, it may have been a ﬂoorboard creaking...we don’t know”
Tools of the Ghost Hunter: #3
The InfraRed Camera Generally standard video recorders with night vision settings. For use in dark locations, and frequently used to capture ‘orbs’ (debatable spirit manifestations) and record audio of the investigation.
haunted site #3 michelham prior, east sussex The second group consulted were the Sussex-based Ghost Club: an organization which has existed since 1862 and can count Charles Dickens among it formers members. The site of their paranormal experience was the Michelham Priory; a historic home located on a moated island.
Hunter: Kathy Gearing,
Chairman of The
Ghost Club and Head of Investigations, from Hastings “I noticed a slight drop in temperature at the very top of the landing leading into the Archivist’s Library. I wandered quietly down the stairs on my own. When I reached the ﬁrst landing, I came to a spot which felt colder than everywhere else. I felt quite shivery and breathless, and walked backwards and forwards a few times to test out my feelings. A sweet cloying smell, which reminded me of burning incense, seemed to ﬁll the area. The rest of the group joined me, and all of us could smell it. I checked the woodwork in the vicinity for any residue of scented polish and could ﬁnd nothing similar, and nobody was burning incense. The only source of scent I could ﬁnd was a ﬂower arrangement on the windowsill; however this did not bear any resemblance to the ‘mystery aroma’”
Debunker: Prof. Christopher French “Smells are very commonly reported in these experiences. When you mention ghosts, most people think of seeing something, but most reports tend to be of hearing or sensing things or strange smells. In the case of this strange smell, it falls back to the same kind of explanation. It’s possible that there really was something that was producing an unusual smell and they weren’t able to locate it, but that doesn’t mean there was anything paranormal. Unfortunately we have to say, we don’t know what it was. Some of the explanations of these things – when people have dug deeply enough – can be very very unusual, esoteric things that you wouldn’t guess. People hear a ticking sound in the wall turns out to be a beetle that makes that kind of noise. Again, it may well be suggestion; one person says they can smell something so do others. That’s very plausible. There’ve been televisual experiments where a commentator says they’ve developed a new form of television that can produce smells. It’s completely bunkum of course. They then got people to phone in and when they said that the television should now smell of freshly cut grass, or apple pie, then people would phone in and say they could smell it. The power of the human imagination, and of suggestion, is never to be underestimated. Similarly with changes in temperature. Studies have planned out cold spots in houses, and people’s reports do tend to cluster in these spaces. Often there are mundane explanations; the temperature really is a little bit cold. Or when people go from high levels of illumination to low levels, they tend to report unusual feelings. Or when you go into a room with a high ceiling. If you think about it in evolutionary terms it makes sense, if – at some point in our history – a human walked into a big cave and had never been there before, and didn’t know what was in there or what was up there, it would’ve been a good idea for alarm bells to go off... It’s all about context: if I’m doing a lecture about this stuff and a light bulb goes off or my projector breaks, I’ll make a joke about it being a ghost. If I made the same joke in a statistics lecture, it’d go down like a lead balloon!”