Pseudoscience and Amber Necklaces: Just Say “Magic”

In my previous post I poked fun at people who believe an electronic box can detect allergies, enzyme deficiencies and underperforming organs simply by running a mild electrical current through the skin (electrodermal testing). In this post, since a girl turned up my daughter’s birthday party wearing one the other day, I’m turning my attention to a favourite medical intervention of the tie-dyed parent: the amber necklace.

Amber necklaces, for those fortunate enough never to have procreated, are strings of amber beads you make your infant wear from the age of three months to seven years, usually around the neck but sometimes around the wrist or ankle, to soothe their teething pains and whatever else happens to ail them. If you question the wisdom of tying something around a baby’s neck, fear not: they are designed to break at the slightest pressure, so you only have to worry about your child choking to death on amber beads and not being strangled.

Now, I’m not going to say that amber necklaces don’t have painkilling properties, mostly because I’m afraid of getting lynched by the Mumsnet mob, but also because debunking every nonsense health fad gets tedious after a while. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of the marketing of amber necklaces that really gets my goat: pseudoscience.

I hate pseudoscience, I really do. It’s the hot chick in the porn film who puts on a white coat and glasses to pretend she’s a professor when we all know she’s wearing nothing underneath.

Exhibit A: succinic acid.

While some of the advertisers go all airy-fairy, citing ancient wisdom and claiming amber is a bio-transmitter that contains an electro-negative charge that activates the root chakra to promote natural healing, a surprising number of others drape themselves with the veneer of scientific credibility. Baltic amber contains succinic acid, they say. Succinic acid is rich in antioxidants that combat free radicals, they continue. Occurring naturally in the body, it’s a key intermediary in the Krebs cycle, a stimulant to the neural system aiding recovery, and a boost to the body’s immune response in fighting infection.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? I don’t know if any of that is true or not – I suppose I could find out – but there’s no need, because it doesn’t matter. All that matters is: does the mechanism for getting that succinic acid from the amber into my child sound plausible?

According to the intellectual behemoths behind amber necklaces, the infant’s body temperature dissolves the succinic acid from the amber, allowing it to be absorbed into the baby’s skin.

Wow. Just wow. After dazzling you with medical jargon, they drop the ball spectacularly with that one.

You don’t need to know anything about succinic acid to realise how extraordinarily unconvincing that explanation is – it only takes a soupcon of logic and the distant memory of your basic chemistry lessons at school. Are they really suggesting succinic acid is so incredibly stable and unreactive it can remain in fossilized tree sap for millions of years, yet so amazingly unstable and reactive it will dissolve with the barest application of warmth? Really?

Furthermore, the reason most alternative health advocates avoid mainstream medicine is because they dislike the idea of putting chemicals (i.e. medicines) into their children’s bodies. Yet they seen strangely fine at allowing an unknown strength or dose of a natural chemical to seep into their babies. Wouldn’t you want to know more? How much succinic acid is too much? What happens if they OD? Are there any side effects? What if it’s a really hot day?

Frankly, if someone told me that chemicals were leaking from my children’s accessories into their bloodstream through their skin, I’d be somewhat worried about that. I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy one specifically because it can drug my kids. And if succinic acid is so useful, why not buy it in pill form? Then you could control exactly how much they’re getting. Doing it via a necklace seems a little reckless to me.

Most advocates of alternative medicine claim to be inquisitive, discerning and sceptical people. Instead of blindly accepting the word of mainstream medicine like the rest of us sheep, they aren’t afraid to question the orthodoxy and seek out the Truth (with a capital T). Strange, then, that people who reject the scientific proofs of mainstream medicine appear so ready to believe anything that alternative medicine tells them, no matter how much it goes against basic logic. In fact, the more it flies in the face of accepted medical doctrine, the more they seem to accept it.

Ironic, don’t you think, that so many non-conformists choose to non-conform in exactly the same way?

Anyway, I don’t have a problem with people giving their kids amber necklaces, or wearing copper bracelets or magnets or whatever other unscientific fad they choose believe in. For one thing, it makes hippies easy to spot; and for another, so long as they’re using them in addition to regular medicine, rather than instead of, and they’re not hurting anyone, it’s nobody’s business. If it makes them feel good, helps them get through the day, then more power to them.

All that I ask is that people are honest about them. Don’t say it works because of some pseudoscientific claptrap you’ve pulled out of your ass. It’s patronising and offensive to anybody who understands basic science. Just say it works by magic. I would respect that far more.

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Magic Allergy Testing Rubbish

I have mentioned before, many, many, many times, that I am a sceptic. I don’t believe in ghost hunting, conspiracy theories, psychokinesis, homeopathy, UFOs, or the the anti-vaxxer movement. I don’t suffer fools gladly, and I most certainly don’t appreciate people with zero knowledge of medicine or healthcare offering me medical advice. Indeed, I think I’ve made it pretty clear to not only my readers but everybody in my life that if they come at me with pseudo-scientific, superstitious nonsense I’m going to cut them off at the knees.

So why do some people never learn?

My eldest daughter has asthma, for which she uses an inhaler. I don’t have a problem with that, because why would I? A certain person in my wife’s family, however, has a different view.

‘You want to cut her reliance on that inhaler,’ she said. ‘It’s very bad to use it long-term; it causes so many health problems and it’ll give her bad teeth.’

As someone who has asthma and has used an inhaler for around half my life, I have never heard something so absurd. But she doubled down on the ridiculous by suggesting we send my daughter for an allergy test to see what we should avoid, the implication being we can ‘cure’ her asthma by going gluten-free and eating more quinoa.

She then offered to put us in touch with her nutritionist for an allergy test, which would involve connecting my daughter to a box that measures the electrical resistance of her cells and organs (a.k.a. electrodermal testing). Knowing I’m a sceptic, she offered the ‘proof’ that this same nutritionist had used the machine to diagnose a friend’s one-year-old as having too few digestive enzymes, and suggested the foods that would remedy this.

The first warning sign was when she said ‘nutritionist’. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a crank, but while ‘dietician’ is a registered, protected title, like doctor, ‘nutritionist ‘ is not, meaning anybody can claim to be one. That’s not to say that there aren’t professional nutritionists out there – you can probably trust a ‘registered nutritionist’ with a BSc in Nutrition who is voluntarily regulated by the Association for Nutrition, for example – but if they wear a beanie hat and smell of yoghurt, it’s probably best not taking lifestyle advice from them.

The second warning sign was when she said the nutritionist would perform an allergy test. While dieticians are qualified to give advice about diet with respect to specific medical conditions, such as coeliac, nutritionists are not – they give more general advice about diet and healthy eating. So why would a nutritionist be doing an allergy test and then giving advice about the results?

The third warning sign was, of course, the magic box that somehow diagnoses every problem in your body. I mean, seriously, do people really believe that? Have they never visited the doctor for a mystery ailment and been sent for further tests? Why would he give you a blood test, refer you for a gastroscopy, do a stool culture or dip stick your urine if he could just hook you up to a machine and know you inside and out, lickety-split?

And the suggestion that running a very minor electrical current through your body can tell a machine that you are lacking in digestive enzymes is so ludicrous, it’s not even worth discussing. All I will say is that when the NHS, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the Australian College of Allergy, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and the Allergy Society of South Africa all advise against electrodermal testing as it has no scientific basis whatsoever, it doesn’t take a genius to work out it’s a pile of BS. Yet still people believe it! Why are so many so ready to turn their backs on reality and common sense to live in a world of make-believe? I just don’t get it.

Yet despite my pointing out the absurdity of the suggestion, and stating in no uncertain terms that we would not be doing it, my wife took it seriously and is now worried about the dangers of long-term use of inhalers, and keeps asking me if there’s any harm in having the test done. The harm, dearest, is going to a snake-oil salesman instead of a medical professional in order to get fake medical advice about a chronic respiratory condition that is already being dealt with by the asthma nurse. The harm is that we’re being encouraged to turn against inhalers, the very medicine designed to treat asthma, in favour of magic beans. And the harm is that if you go down that road you lose my respect because you reveal yourself to be a gullible idiot.

But she won’t see things my way, which is so frustrating, her response being that I am entitled to my opinion and she’s entitled to hers. Oh for crying out loud, I replied – it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. The sky is blue; water is wet; electrical boxes can’t tell you how much bacteria lives in your gut. And when it comes to the safety of my children’s health, her opinions don’t matter one jot.

I reminded her that I had one of these tests done myself, around twenty years ago when I was young and stupid, and was highly dubious of it even then.

‘It didn’t work because you’re a sceptic,’ she said.

‘So you need to believe in it for it to work?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then it’s a placebo, and the bare minimum standard you can expect of a medical intervention is that it performs better than a placebo, so what good is it?’

But you can’t win them all – there’s no arguing with stupid.

For the record, steroidal inhalers can slow the growth of children, but this only affects 1 in 10,000 sufferers. And that’s with high-dose, long-term use, while my daughter’s dose is entry-level low. The risks of not treating your asthma are considerably higher, and I know this from personal experience.

As a baby, my parents were adamant that I had asthma. The doctors were adamant that it was whooping cough. By the time the doctors realised their mistake, my asthma had been untreated for so long that I was left with scarred bronchioles. Bronchioles are the tubes in your lungs that carry the air you breathe to the different regions, and they are designed to be elastic, expanding to increase airflow when you’re exercising and need more oxygen and contracting when you’re at rest. Guess what? Scarred bronchioles don’t stretch.

What this means is that no matter how fit I get or how healthy I am, I become out-of-breath very quickly during exertion because my tubes just won’t open up. When I get stressed or anxious or ill, I can’t take the deep breath needed to make me feel better, and if I ever do yoga or tai chi, I have to take two breaths for every one that you’re supposed to take. All because I didn’t have an inhaler when I should have.

So, no, I don’t take it lightly when somebody advocates replacing tried and tested and scientifically proven medicines with sugar pills, especially when my wife is unduly influenced by her family members.

I just can’t comprehend why seemingly rational people so often switch off their critical thinking skills when it comes to their health. But maybe my wife is right, and it comes down to belief. They put their faith in the nutritionist and his mysterious box the same way they trust the tarot card reader and her pack, the fortune teller and her crystal ball, the astrologer and his birth charts – because it offers certainty, however false, in an uncertain world.

You know, I think it might be fun to send my wife to have one of these tests herself. Since her hands are always sweaty, and the tests work through skin conductivity – or galvanometric skin differentials that signal energy imbalances along meridians, apparently – she’ll probably test positive for every allergen and health problem programmed into it. Then we’ll see if she continues to think it’s real, or if she’ll admit it’s a con to sell her nutritional and dietary supplements!

Thank You

After my previous unhappy post, I would to thank all the people who have reached out to offer me love and support. I was in a very low place – I still am – but I’m getting up every day and doing what needs to be done. There are arguments for and against sharing your pain in the internet – for showing vulnerability in any sphere of life – but despite all the trolls and hatemongers out there, I firmly believe the majority of people are decent, kind and compassionate and only too willing to help out a person in need, and your responses are evidence enough.

Love like your heart has never been broken and trust like you’ve never been betrayed. Life is better that way.

Aspie Daddy will continue as before!

Much love,

Gillan

I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.

Anatomy of a Ghost Hunt, Part 5

‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’ said Arthur C. Clarke. He might have added, ‘And any insufficiently understood phenomenon will be mistaken for the supernatural.’

This post contains my final (sceptical) thoughts about the ghost hunt I participated in at HMP Shepton Mallet, a 400-year-old abandoned prison in Somerset that used to house the Krays. To catch up, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Organisation

First up, a big shout out to Bump in the Night Paranormal UK, who ran the event. When I arrived and saw around sixty ghost hunters and twenty-five staff, I thought it was going to be a disaster, but it was incredibly well organised. We were divided into pre-selected groups of ten with two supervisors apiece, and followed a strict timetable that ensured the groups were far enough apart around the prison that we wouldn’t interfere with one another. It ran like clockwork and I have the utmost respect for their logistics.

Seeing what you want to see

In the past few days, many people have asked me if I think the organisers set anything up. I have replied that there was no manipulation, no staging, no fakery and no trickery. There doesn’t need to be – the people who attend ghost hunts want to experience the supernatural, and so in a suggestive environment with lots of poorly understood tools and techniques to play with, there’s ample scope for them to generate ‘paranormal’ activity all by themselves.

There was a definite agenda by the participants to interpret events through the lens of the supernatural, and not enough effort was given to debunk them or consider alternative, less sensationalist explanations. Thus psychosomatic phenomena were treated as genuine otherworldly contact; any interference with electronic devices was deemed a result of paranormal activity; and both fear and excitement were experienced as the participants got what they came for – a good night’s entertainment. I have no doubt that they saw exactly what they wanted to see and that we encountered nothing supernatural throughout the night.

As a self-described sceptic, I am well aware that I open myself up to the same accusation of bias – that I arrived with an agenda of disproving the supernatural and therefore deliberately ignored evidence to the contrary, making me no different from the believers. I do not believe this to be the case, however.

My starting point was neither to believe nor disbelieve in the supernatural – it was to experience a ghost hunt first-hand and discover if I could identify whether occurrences had earthbound explanations or were genuinely inexplicable by rational forces. As I’ve mentioned before, the burden of proof for the supernatural should be incredibly high – that is, it must defy every logical, rational, normal explanation before it can be deemed supernatural. This is an honest, rational approach to investigating the paranormal.

This is not what the other participants did. Their starting point was that phenomena was supernatural unless it could be proved otherwise. That is not a particularly objective basis on which to conduct research, and resulted in massive claims being made of very insubstantial evidence. Indeed, people were so ready to believe that an EMF meter could pick up ghosts, without having any idea how they worked, I think if you said metal detectors could find ghosts we’d soon see legions of ghost hunters swinging them around old castles and getting excited every time they encountered a hidden nail!

Interpretations

Since everyone kept trying to convert me, I repeatedly told them that while I did not deny the activity took place, my point of departure with them was in the cause of those events. Here are the phenomena we experienced during the investigation and the differing interpretations of them:

Human pendulum – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: psychosomatic, power of suggestion, conformity, balance issues.

Table tipping – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: psychosomatic, power of suggestion, ideomotor effect, deliberate fakery, wobbly table.

Cold feeling – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: it was cold.

Camera orbs – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: dust particles in front of a camera with a poorly positioned light source.

Door closing by itself – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: gravity.

K2 EMF reading – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: we picked up EMF from a smoke detector.

Sound of footsteps – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: large room with hard surfaces in 400-year-old building, sound could have been anything.

Spirit box – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: radio signals, gibberish.

Visible orb – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: visual distortion, imagination, power of suggestion.

Ouija Board not working – Their interpretation: paranormal (spirits didn’t want to speak to us). My interpretation: pointer was sticky, meaning it couldn’t work as it normally does through the suspension of disbelief.

Cat ball rolling down side corridor – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: in the dark, we rolled it somewhere different than we thought.

Cat ball lighting up – Their interpretation: paranormal. My interpretation: insufficient expertise to identify the cause of it lighting up, though there are multiple non-paranormal causes that could explain it.

As you can see, I tried to debunk everything we experienced and think I was pretty successful at that. This did not stop the believers believing, however, and I guess that is where we stand apart – theirs is a ‘belief’, without rational, evidence-based analysis, while mine is a rational, evidence-based analysis without a belief.

Why they believe

I think it’s too easy to label the believers gullible, illogical or stupid. I think it probably has more to do with an intense desire, a desperation, even, for there to be more to this world than we can see or hear. They want the reassurance that there’s a life after this one, and that there are still mysteries that science cannot penetrate, and paranormal investigations afford them that opportunity, provided they suspend their disbelief, ignore the evidence against and join in the ritualized theatre of ghost hunting.

I think the belief also makes people feel special. In the same way that conspiracy theorists get a buzz from thinking they’re one of the anointed few who can peer behind the curtain and see what’s really going on, paranormalists get to think that they know the truth about the world, not like the rest of us with our closed minds and inability to appreciate what they can. It’s also exciting to play with something dangerous and forbidden – how much better is it to think that orbs are ghosts trying to communicate with you and not the light of your camera flash reflecting off dust particles back into your lens?

Deep down, however, I think that believers know their faith is built on insecure foundations. Their powerful need to convert me from sceptic to believer was, I am sure, based more in the fear that I’d point out all the fallacies in their thinking and expose them as idiots than a desire to share with me the secrets of their supernatural world.

Energies

One thing I found rather inconsistent was their overuse of the term ‘energy’. First it was used in regard to a positive outlook that would encourage the spirits, so was a form of emotional energy. Then it was offering our energy to encourage activity, so I suppose that could be considered spiritual energy. Then there was talk of energy interfering with the K2 meter, so that’s electromagnetic energy. And finally we had to whizz the pointer around the Ouija Board to generate energy, so that is what? Kinetic energy?

Given the lack of an underlying theory of ghosts and spirits, ‘energy’ seems to be an incredibly loose term that is conveniently used as an explanation both for why things happen and why they don’t. It’s essentially shorthand for ‘magic’, but since people know magic is ridiculous, they use the term energy instead to suggest a pseudo-scientific veneer of credibility. Any proper investigation would need to ditch this word, or at the very least distinguish between the various types, if it wants to be taken seriously.

Final thoughts

If the supernatural exists, I am yet to see any evidence of it. I would love to be proved wrong, but I don’t think the evidence provided by public ghost hunts is convincing enough to convert me. It is more a form of popular entertainment than genuine inquiry, far too prone to suggestion, conformity, misinterpretation, imagination, and other examples of psychosomatic phenomena. It was an interesting experience that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I am certainly not going to waste time creeping round old cemeteries with a K2 meter anytime soon. If I want to be afraid, excited and unsettled, I’ll rent a decent horror movie.

As for ghosts, they are free to visit me anytime. I would make them more than welcome.

Anatomy of a Ghost Hunt, Part 4

For those just joining us, this is part 4 of my (sceptical) account of my ghost hunt in HMP Shepton Mallet, an abandoned prison that used to house the Krays. To catch up, check out Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.

Cell Block C

Cell Block C is slightly larger than Cell Block A, comprising 43 cells spread over three floors and including a room allegedly used by the Krays after bribing the guards to give them some alone time together. Unlike the other cell blocks, mannequins have been placed in cells on the ground floor to recreate conditions, which are undeniably creepy in the dark. By this time in our investigation, around four hours in, people were starting to get tired and their enthusiasm was wearing off. Unfortunately the resulting ‘low energy’ meant that the supernatural lacked the stimulus to make itself known i.e. there was less wild speculation, exaggeration and misinterpretation of natural processes.

Ouija Board – Since nothing much was happening, we decided to try contacting spirits using a Ouija Board. What most people don’t realise is that, far from being an ancient form of contacting spirits, the ‘spirit board’ didn’t first appear until around the 1850s with the upsurge of spiritualism, and the Ouija Board as we know it today was invented in 1890 and marketed as a toy, no different to Monopoly. Indeed, today it’s a licensed trademark of Hasbro, which gives some indication of how much credence you should give the Ouija Board.

As with the table tipping (see Part 1), the Ouija Board has been pretty well debunked as a result of the ideomotor effect (unconscious or automatic muscle movements). All objective sources agree that it works through the interaction of your expectations, beliefs and desires with the power of suggestion and a willing suspension of disbelief. That’s why fans of The Doors get Jim Morrison and depressed people get messages to kill themselves – you see what you want, or conversely don’t want, to see.

Yet despite this, there is a great deal of fear and superstition surrounding the Ouija Board, framed in the context of ‘messing with forces you don’t understand,’ and several group members refused to participate. Everyone has a friend-of-a-friend who had a bad experience once, and I think if you’re particularly susceptible to suggestion or are struggling with your mental health, then getting ‘messages’ through a Ouija Board can probably be quite harmful. The messages you receive, however, have nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with human behaviour.

How it works in practice is like this: when you all put your finger on the pointer (the planchette) and ask if there’s anybody there, you all want it to move to Yes. It’s no surprise, then, that it moves to Yes. As it’s moving, you all convince yourselves you’re not moving it, and you have plausible deniability because it could be someone else – but the fact is you’re all moving it, and all denying it, because you want it to move. The real proof that it’s in the domain of psychology is that if you blindfold the participants, they start spelling out gibberish. You need to be able to see the board to spell out what you want it to say, which wouldn’t be necessary if spirits were really controlling it.

Not that gibberish necessarily dissuades true believers. I remember doing a Ouija Board at university and spelling out KLEU, which was interpreted as ‘Luke’, and VA, which was deemed to be ‘Victoria and Albert’. The others thought we were communicating with a Victorian spirit named Luke, whereas I thought we were simply hitting a random string of letters. As I said, you see what you want to see, even if it’s a dyslexic ghost who can’t spell its own name.

Anyway, back to the ghost hunt. Here in Cell Block C, after asking if anyone was there, the pointer didn’t move. We were told to whizz it around ten times to generate more of the ubiquitous ‘energy’, but this didn’t make it any more responsive, and after two more attempts we shut it down.

The reason the Ouija Board didn’t work tonight is actually quite simple and backs up everything I’ve written above. Normally the pointer is incredibly light and loose so that it takes the barest amount of force to move it – so little, in fact, that the participants don’t notice they’re doing it themselves. For some reason – perhaps somebody spilled something on the board – tonight’s pointer was a little sticky. Not so sticky that it wouldn’t slide across the board, but sticky enough that you’d have to put a noticeable amount of force into it in order to get it to move – too much to be able to convince yourself it wasn’t you. Ergo, it did not move. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Vigil – We did some vigils in various places. I shut myself in a cell and lay on the bed in the dark, but nothing occurred so we moved on again.

Infirmary and Morgue

The morgue and the infirmary appeared thoroughly modern inside, no different to your local doctors surgery, albeit with reinforced windows. There’s a corridor with consultation rooms opening off it, and a dentist room at the end that still smells like a dentist room. Unlike the cell blocks, there was nothing particularly suggestive about the location, so I was surprised by the activity we encountered.

Cat Balls – We brought with us some cat balls, which are, as you might have guessed, toy balls for cats. They’re plastic spheres of perhaps an inch in diameter that light up and flash like a Christmas tree at the slightest touch. As the corridor was apparently very active, it was here that we tested.

The corridor was shaped like a T, with us in one end of the crossbar. We rolled a ball just past the side corridor and asked it to respond. Amazingly, it lit up two or three times in a row. Then it stopped.

After a few minutes of nothing happening, we switched on the spirit box (see Part 3) and again, through the occasional garbled syllable, the group decided something was trying to communicate. Somebody asked, ‘Are you the one who lit up the cat ball?’ and at that precise moment, the cat ball lit up. Somebody cried out, ‘Oh my god, that lit up the moment you said cat ball,’ and as they said the words cat ball, it lit up again.

We therefore turned out attention from the spirit box back to the cat ball, but it didn’t light up again in response to our requests. We rolled another ball out and asked for someone to roll it back, but received no further activity.

Upon going to collect the balls, the person who had rolled it grew very excited as the ball was two or three feet down the shaft of the T. Her interpretation was that a spirit had rolled the ball, only instead of rolling it back, it had rolled it down the side corridor. Since it was pitch dark when she rolled it, it could conceivably have hit the skirting board and bounced down there, so I don’t think it was the conclusive proof of the supernatural she made it out to be. Also, wouldn’t we have seen it flash?

I was rather impressed by the coincidence of the cat ball lighting up twice when people said the words ‘cat ball’. While retrieving the ball I slapped and stamped on the floor all around it to see if it could be triggered by vibration, but it didn’t respond. It was the closest we came all night to something inexplicable.

Inexplicable, but not, I imagine, supernatural, despite the rest of the group regarding this as a prime example of a paranormal visitation. For one thing, it had already lit up in that location several minutes earlier and the timing could have been pure chance – a stopped clock is right twice a day, after all. For another, I don’t know enough about cat balls in general and this cat ball in particular to draw any reliable conclusion. Do they light up only through touch, or are they affected by electrical currents, radio signals, low battery power, poor construction methods, cheap circuitry? Likewise, does the location have pipes beneath the floor? Could a breeze have hit the ball? A car driving past? There are numerous reasons the ball could have lit up, and it is only the location and timing that make it seem significant. Furthermore, it was not an intelligent response, in that it did not light up in response to a question or request, which implies that locating the source of the activity in the supernatural is reading too much into it.

Human Pendulum – To finish our ghost hunt, we did another human pendulum (see Part 1). This time, the person acting as the pendulum was not as receptive to suggestion, and it took repeated instructions to relax and allow herself to sway before she actually gave in to peer pressure/opened herself to the spiritual energy, and started to sway in response to questions – forward for yes and backwards for no. Even then, she didn’t sway more than about an inch in either direction, so the group leaders declared this must be a child spirit as it was finding it difficult to move her. They asked if it was a child – no. Then they asked if it was a child grown old in spirit – yes. So it was indeed a child spirit that has grown up after passing over.

I have to admit that by this point my bullshit sensors were sounding warning sirens in my ears, so I stopped taking it seriously and didn’t listen to the next few questions. But I did hear them confirm that this child spirit or grown-up spirit or whatever the hell it was had been the one playing with the cat balls, because as a child-grown-old-in-spirit it clearly still liked playing with toys. Oh, and this child had a friend called Angela, because somebody in the circle ‘felt’ the name Angela. Strewth.

Here ended our official investigation. I was asked repeatedly if I was ready to change my mind. By this point, having been very well behaved all night, I really wanted to scream, ‘No! I think you’re all nuttier than squirrel shit!’ but I settled for the non-committal mantra I’d adopted all evening, which was that it had been ‘interesting’ and given me ‘food for thought’. Indeed, it’s very difficult to answer that question as a negative since it’s not a simple disagreement about facts. They obviously sincerely believe in the supernatural and felt that we’d spent all evening in the company of spirits, so for me to deny that and suggest that nothing we encountered was outside the normal range of interpretations is to say that they’re wrong, deluded, gullible, irrational, illogical, naive and ignorant, which is a hell of a thing to say to someone you’ve only known a few hours.

Lone Exploration

The last hour of the night was at our leisure to explore. I actually really enjoyed this section as it’s pretty awesome creeping around an abandoned prison by yourself in the dark, peering into cells, going into the execution room, climbing winding staircases and leaning into whatever dank and dangerous hole takes your fancy.

I was struck, however, by how oddly unmoved I was. Even as a sceptic, I thought finding myself alone in Cell Block B – all 94 cells of it – would be frightening; that climbing up to the gatekeeper’s quarters would be at least a little unnerving; and that I’d have reservations about crawling through a tiny hole into a newly-discovered cell from the early 1600s. Instead, I had no problems with any of it. And, of course, I encountered nothing even remotely unusual.

I went into a cell, closed the door, turned off my torch and lay down on the metal bed frame, among the peeling paint and mouldy floors, and could easily have slept there without any worry.

How far I’ve come from the twenty-year-old who was afraid of the dark.

Coming up in Part 5: Conclusion, with thoughts on the whole experience of ghost hunting; the techniques of human pendulums, table tipping, camera orbs, visible orbs, K2 readings, spirit boxes, Ouija Boards and cat balls; why people might believe this stuff; and various other miscellaneous observations.

Anatomy of a Ghost Hunt, Part 3

For those just joining us, this is part 3 of my (sceptical) account of my ghost hunt in HMP Shepton Mallet, an abandoned prison that used to house the Krays. To catch up, check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Gym

The next location we investigated was the gym. This comprised a mirrored workout room downstairs and a huge sports hall upstairs. There was nothing even faintly suggestive about this location, looking no different from a regular gym, albeit empty and with the lights out, so I assumed there would be no activity here. However, when you’re on a ghost hunt with believers, any location can be made to yield results, and the gym was no different.

Scrying – We started in the workout room. As the walls were floor-to-ceiling mirrors, the group leaders suggested we tried ‘scrying’. They described this technique as standing a couple of inches from the mirror, putting a torch under your chin, and asking the spirits to superimpose their face over yours. We didn’t need to invoke protection, they said, because the ghost isn’t actually affecting you – it’s in the mirror. Since that means you’re summoning a spirit to stare back at you nose-to-nose, several people backed out of this one. Also, its similarities to the ‘Bloody Mary’ game where kids dare each other to stare into the mirror and chant her name to summon her corpse means it’s linked to primitive childhood fears, which can be pretty hard to break.

I’ve heard this technique described as various things before, but never scrying, which as far as I’m aware is a form of divination using mirrors, crystal balls, etc. I already knew that parapsychologists have found a number of optical illusions, visual distortions and dissociative effects that occur when you stare at your face in a mirror in a dark room, all with natural explanations, so I had no problems trying it. I don’t think we did it anywhere near long enough, as nobody saw anything.

I’m not even sure why we did it, other than that we were on a ghost hunt and there were mirrors handy, because nothing about the location suggested the supernatural besides being inside a prison. Indeed, you can stare into your bathroom mirror and as your eyes relax, you’ll eventually see your face change, for the same reason that if you draw a spot on the middle of a sheet of paper and stare intently at it, it disappears – it’s a phenomenon that exists through the interaction of optic nerve and brain, not through any external reality. As such, it has nothing to do with the supernatural and is an entirely subjective experience that cannot be shared.

Or so I thought. Afterwards, the group leader related an incident recorded on camera in that very room whereby you could see a twenty-something girl’s face morph in the mirror into an old man, piece by piece – thin eyebrows turning bushy and grey, wrinkles appearing, and so on. Many in the group were impressed by this, but as an unverified anecdote, it has zero evidential value. Furthermore, inquiring minds would have to ask why, if this video showed clear proof of a ghost face manifesting in a mirror, it is not plastered all over the internet? I would suggest that either this video does not exist, or it does not show this phenomenon with anything like the clarity claimed of it.

Spirit Box – Moving on to the sports hall, the group leaders brought out the spirit box (or ghost box), which is regularly used on Ghost Adventures and is something that I was quite excited to experience firsthand. It’s essentially a radio that automatically sweeps through multiple frequencies every second, equivalent to putting your finger on the tuning knob and constantly turning it. Ghosts are said to use the resulting white noise of static, distortion, music, vocals and speech in order to ‘talk’ to the living. How this is meant to work is unclear – do they speak through the device, manipulate the pre-existing sounds, or adjust the frequencies to assemble words from various stations like Bumblebee in Transformers? As with most things in the paranormal investigation community, the group leaders put it down to that vaguely-defined catchall term ‘energy’ and quickly moved on.

In common with every other example of Electronic Voice  Phenomena (EVP), the problem with the spirit box is that it’s so subjective. While some in the group claimed to hear specific words in the cacophony in response to our questions, I heard only gibberish. Whenever an individual syllable could be heard, it was declared that a ghost was trying to ‘come through’, but it didn’t have quite enough energy to make itself understood. Thus a split-second of random speech from a DJ or newscaster was declared to be a male spirit, while an excerpt of a pop song was declared to be a female spirit. Indeed, one person commented, as though it was supernatural, that they thought they could hear music – at this point I wanted to yell, ‘Of course you can hear music, it’s a freaking radio!’ but instead I referred to the findings as ‘interesting ‘.

As with the K2 meter, I can understand why ghost hunters love the spirit box – they can interpret the random noises it makes to fit their preconceived notions and they can tell everyone, as my group did later in the evening, that spirits had made contact with  them. Again, however, without understanding how the device works or with any theoretical framework to explain how ghosts could use this tool to communicate, it seems that people are overly ready to believe in evidence of the supernatural instead of the far more likely explanation that an untuned radio is going to make noise, and some of those noises are going to sound vaguely like words because most of what is broadcast on radio waves comprise words of one sort of another.

Visible Orbs – I was clearly wrong to assume that a dark sports hall would yield little activity, because the phenomena were not yet at an end. One of the ladies in our group – the same that detected EMF from the smoke detector and decided it was supernatural (see Part 2) – saw an orb with her naked eyes. It was flying around the ceiling, up past the beams and light fittings in the darkest part of the gym. She described it as football-sized, very faint, like a wisp of smoke, and it just so happened to be in exactly the same place that the group leader had already told us somebody once saw an orb.

I can’t confirm the existence of this orb, because despite her describing its movements and location, none of the rest of us could see it. This lady was attending with friends, all firm paranormalists and on their sixth ghost hunt together, and I found one of their comments – ‘It always happens to you’ – very instructive. On the one hand, you could argue that if phenomena regularly occurs to this person and this person alone, then perhaps they are sensitive to the spirits or in tune with the supernatural. My own interpretation why this person experiences so much activity would be that she is clearly more gullible, more suggestible, less objective and therefore more prone to misinterpret the experiences she’s having, than the rest of us. Of course, as the rest of the group called up to the invisible orb, thanked it for visiting, offered it energy so it could manifest and tried to interact with it, perhaps she’s not alone in her eagerness to believe.

Why a ghost would fly about in the rafters of a sports hall was never touched upon. I will admit, I pictured Slimer from Ghostbusters circling the chandeliers in the ballroom, only this time holding a basketball and getting ready to dunk. That’s the only reason I can think of for spirits being present in such a location. In any case, the fact she saw an orb in the same place the group leader suggested there might be an orb is suspicious at best, and likely the result of staring into the dark and interpreting the resulting ocular disturbances through a particular point of view – essentially, she saw what she wanted to see, and what she wanted to see was a ghost.

This ended our investigation of the gym, and we moved on to Cell Block C. In honesty, I was unimpressed with any of the phenomena we encountered in the gym. I think using the same tools and techniques we could get the same results in any gym on the planet, which would imply that either every gym is haunted in the same way, or that these tools and techniques do not actually provide any insight into the supernatural.

Coming up in Part 4: Ouija boards, morgues, cat balls and solo exploration.