Anatomy of a Ghost Hunt, Part 1

Having literally just completed my six-hour ghost hunt in an old prison, allow me to describe the experience, with observations about the locations, techniques and phenomena encountered. As this is likely to be very long, I’ll divide it into different posts.

First let me say that I’m a sceptic – that is, I believe that most supernatural phenomena can be explained by natural processes, whether physiological, psychological or environmental. If spirits really do haunt a place and interact with the living, I am yet to see evidence of it.

I do believe, however, that certain places are able to store residual energies that sensitive people can experience, either as a mood or a vision of some past event. These energies, however, are nothing more than recordings (the so-called Stone Tape Theory) and therefore have no consciousness or ability to interact.

At a ghost hunt, the sceptic in the group is always an outsider. It’s understandable – the people running the hunt do it because they’re evidently believers, and most people who sign up to do a ghost hunt do so in the expectation of seeing ghosts. It was clear tonight that I represented a threat to the rest of the group, both because the supernatural apparently feeds off our energy to manifest (and as a non-believer I don’t project the right kind of positive energy required) and because they were worried I was there to expose them as either idiots or liars. Indeed, there was a real pressure to convert me to a believer, to validate their interpretations of events.

And that is the point upon which we differ. I do not deny that events took place, but my interpretation of the cause differs from theirs. I would love to discover that I am wrong, but it would take a substantial piece of evidence to convince me I am. Perhaps we all suffer from confirmation bias – the selection of evidence and explanations that confirm our pre-existing beliefs – whether believer of sceptic, and that is the real window into human nature, and the real lesson to take away from tonight.

The Prison

The prison is in Shepton Mallet, Somerset. It’s 400 years old, has four cell blocks, used to execute prisoners, and for a time housed the Kray twins. In a group of ten (plus two group leaders) we investigated various locations.

The Treadwheel

Once containing a treadwheel the prisoners would be made to walk on, this carpeted room seemed rather like a conference venue. However, buoyed up with enthusiasm as it was the first location, we threw ourselves into the investigation.

The Human Pendulum – Despite having  watched hundreds of episodes of Most Haunted, Ghost Adventures and the like, this was a new one on me. You stand in a circle holding hands (a circle of protection invoking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) and one person, the pendulum, stands in the centre. You then invite the spirits forward and ask them to push the person forward for yes and backwards for no. So you ask questions and the person sways a couple of inches in either direction to give a yes/no response.

The first pendulum was a firm believer who has done it before, so as she effortlessly swayed, I was very sceptical. She described feeling a gentle push in her lower legs, the faintest of touches. The name Andrew popped into somebody’s head, so we asked if the spirit’s name was Andrew and, of course, the answer was yes. While it is difficult to elicit information from a yes/no situation, the group determined he was a teenage prison guard who died of disease in the 1700s. Since the word ‘teenager’ was not invented until the 1950s, this does beg the question: how do spirits remain current with colloquialisms, idioms and slang?

I was then offered the role of pendulum, which I eagerly took. At first, nothing happened, but as I relaxed and got into it, and switched off my body’s natural inclination to remain upright, I swayed in answer to their questions. I didn’t feel any gentle pushes, I merely allowed myself to rock. After dismissing Andrew, and asking if there were any more spirits that wanted to speak, I stopped rocking. Everyone thought this was definitive proof and I should now be a believer.

But I am, of course, sceptical. The human pendulum is a fascinating technique, but it is so easily debunked as a psychological/physiological phenomenon. Standing in a circle of people who want you to sway and ‘allowing’ yourself to  sway opens up all kinds of psychosomatic influences – power of suggestion, pressure to conform, desire to prove it right, need to provide an answer, and simple tiredness and lack of balance. It was interesting, but not conclusive, that my inclination to sway stopped after Andrew ‘left’.

I also remember a trick a boy used to do at my junior school and claimed to be ‘black magic’. He would make someone stand in much the same position as the human pendulum and tap on their back and say he was hammering in nails. He would then rub his fingers around the person’s back and say he was tying a rope around the nails, leaving one end loose. Then, he said, he was going to give the rope a tug in three, two, one, and he’d mime tugging the rope, whereupon the person would rock backwards.

If I believed the human pendulum was supernatural, I would have to believe a nine-year-old was able to perform magic in the playground. If I believe, as I did then, that this boy’s trick was the result of the power of suggestion, then the same process explains the human pendulum. I think it would be far more convincing if the ‘pendulum’ was unable to hear the questions, or even when one was asked. This would eliminate much of the psychological processes influencing the results.

Table Tipping – We then moved on to table tipping. This involves everyone putting the fingers of both hands on a table – in this case, a rectangular piece of wood centred on a single leg of about four feet in length with a small base board at the floor – and asking the spirits to move the table. Now, this technique has been categorically debunked by numerous investigators as a result of the ideomotor effect (unconscious or reflexive muscle movements), so I was already sceptical. As is often the case, the table was so rickety it was very easy to move with one finger, so with twenty hands it was no surprise that it tipped and circled and did everything asked of it.

While we were using this technique, I watched everybody very closely, and noticed some important details. While nine of us had arched fingers and fingertips that glided over the surface of the table, one person had their fingers flat on the table top and their fingertips never moved. Whenever the spirits were asked to do something specific, it appeared that this person’s arms flexed/moved an instant before the table moved, and when the head of the team got out a camera to film, the table would tip when the lens was facing away from this person and stop when it pointed towards her. Now, since I don’t know this person I’m not going to accuse her of deliberately faking it, though she may well have been. As a charitable person I will suggest she didn’t realise she was doing it: with ten of us putting pressure on the table, it would take an infinitesimal amount of force to make it move, so it would be easy to convince yourself it had nothing to do with you.

What interested me more were the responses of the other participants. What was patently obvious to me was seemingly invisible to the rest. While I was waiting for someone to point at her and say, ‘Can we try it without your hands on the table?’ they instead said, ‘None of us are doing it, you can see none the us are doing it. Look, we’re barely touching it. All of our hands are gliding over the top.’ No, not all our hands – nine pairs of hands. The tenth remains suspect.

Everyone was very impressed by the table’s acrobatics, seeing it as further proof of supernatural visitation and again suggesting that after such a display of the paranormal, I ought now to be a convert. I demurred on this point because I still couldn’t believe nobody had noticed. What struck me was how ready everyone was to ascribe the phenomenon to a supernatural cause and not the far more normal explanations available.

I also wondered why the human pendulum required a protective circle invoking no less authority than the Holy Trinity, while the table tipping required nothing. Surely, if using our energy to make one of us sway is dangerous, then so too is using our energy to make a table sway. I didn’t understand the rationale behind the different approaches.

Vigil – We then carried out a vigil, each placing ourselves in different areas with various devices and asking the spirits to interact with us. Despite some people describing sudden coldness on their legs, this was not backed up by any of the instruments and as a subjective experience is not indicative of anything. So we moved on to the next location.

Coming up in Part 2: orbs, electromagnetic interference, and doors closing on their own.

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Running Down the Clock

Time is a funny old thing. The ticking hands of the clock fool us into thinking it’s a constant, moving at the same speed regardless of what’s going on, but time is actually surprisingly malleable. It passes slower the further you get from a source of gravity, so skiiers on a mountain are measurably ageing less rapidly than sunbathers on a beach. Likewise, the faster you travel, the slower time passes, so the astronauts on the International Space Station return to Earth younger than if they’d stayed at home.

Of course, we’re talking nanoseconds here – nothing that humans could notice.

Subjectively, however, time passes at vastly different speeds, depending on our mood, level of attention, hormones and the amount of processing our brain has to do. Ten minutes in the company of a bore can feel like hours; hours in the company of your lover can feel like minutes. The car about to crash into you seems to take forever to hit, but sit down for an exam and half the time is gone before you’ve finished writing your name.

And the larger scale passage of time can be a paradox, being both squashed and at the same time incredibly stretched – especially when you have kids.

‘Can you believe she’s almost four?’ they say. ‘I can’t believe she’s starting school in September.’

On the one hand, it seems like just yesterday she was born; like yesterday we took her home from hospital; yesterday she took her first steps and said her first words. But at the same time, it’s been one hell of a long  four years, the longest of my life. And thinking back to before she was born – back when our lives weren’t dominated by children – seems like peering into the distant past. I read about it in history books and it isn’t me.

And another irregularity of time is when you get yourself stuck in a rut – when the days fly by without anything to mark their passing, but they go by So. Freaking. Slow.

It’s a trap I’ve fallen into over the past few weeks. I know we’re supposed to pay attention to every single moment, to enjoy our kids every second of every day because it goes so fast and they’ll never be this age again, but damn – at the moment I’m just running down the clock.

The days have become so slow, so repetitive, and I’m so freaking bored, all I’m doing is waiting for their bedtime, counting down the hours until I can be me again. But as soon as they’re in bed, I’m too tired to do anything, so I too go to bed. And that’s how I’m living. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Park, soft play, beach. Painting, play-do, bath. Every day, the same, the same. Life has been stripped of its fullness.

Time drags, but suddenly it’s the end of week and I’ve done nothing. And I just feel empty, this horrible sense of ennui, this existential nothingness.

Time stretches on endlessly and shrinks to nothing.

So today, to adjust my relationship with time, I have filled my day with fullness. I’ve driven through yellow fields of rape; explored old buildings cloaked in wisteria; and tonight I’m hunting for ghosts in the ruins of an old prison. Because life isn’t about counting the hours, it’s about making the hours count.

I just have to remember that.

In a World of Poo

Like sex, periods and who farted in the elevator, poo and pooping is something we really don’t like to talk about. As a species, we keep up this strange charade that we don’t poop, even though the presence of toilet paper in everyone’s bathrooms suggests we’re really bad liars. It’s a natural bodily process, yet it’s shrouded by an aura of mystery and wonder, shame and disgust, as though we’re crapping out porno mags we’d hate our grandmothers to see. And that’s just silly.

Now, I’m not suggesting it’s something we should discuss over dinner, and I’m certainly not advocating we start taking photos of our bowel movements to impress our neighbours with, but as someone who suffers from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, is allergic to all different kinds of food, and spends much of his life either sitting on toilets or else desperately trying to find them, it can be a lot of fun watching people squirm whenever you bring it up. And if we can’t talk about it, we’re not only denying the reality of our experience and reassuring other sufferers that they’re perfectly normal, we’re missing out on a lot of potential humour.

From an early age I had problems with my gut. The slightest things could trigger a bout of diarrhoea – too much wheat, too much cheese, a new food, skipping a meal, even simple nervousness. I’ve taken allergy tests (I should avoid gluten, dairy, chocolate and pulses, apparently), given up wheat, and carefully manage my diet, but while severe episodes have become less frequent, my digestive system cannot be called normal by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, I’ve been passing soft stools for so many decades, I worry what might happen to my asshole should I ever pass something hard!

I often disappear from parties, weddings, barbecues and family dinners to spend a half-hour moaning as I destroy a kindly person’s perfectly clean toilet bowl. Thanks to an episode in an Amarillo coach station, I missed my bus, leaving me stranded in Texas while my luggage travelled 450 miles away to Denver. A month ago I was sitting in traffic on a busy road when I realised I just couldn’t hold it anymore – the conclusion to this story, involving my new hat and one of my baby daughter’s nappies, I’m not going to go into here.

But why do I bring all this up on a blog about parenting? Because it’s been dominating my thoughts since I’ve spent the past six days up to my elbows in a three-year-old’s watery-porridge-like poop, and it might be all my fault.

Saturday she had a stomach ache all day and was off her food. That night it started, and by today (Thursday), it still hasn’t stopped. If anything, it’s got worse because despite being out of nappies for a year, she’s become incontinent. If you want to know where she is, you just have to follow the slick brown snail trail that leads across the carpet, and there you will find her, sitting in a mess at the end of it.

Our sinks are clogged with chocolate-coated knickers; the bath tub is populated by two polka-dotted pillows and a slime-smeared rug; and there is a duvet out on the washing line in the pouring rain because it’s better out there than in here.

Some of her clothes aren’t worth trying to salvage, so have been dumped in a bin that the sea gulls have become very interested in. We’ve put her in her sister’s nappies, but as a three-year-old who is mistaken for a five-year-old all the time, they catch only some of the deluge before giving up and resigning themselves to the flow. We are drowning in a floodtide of poo, like a Biblical plague that destroys all before it, and it doesn’t look like it’s ever going to end.

The funny thing is that she’s fine in herself – other than that first day, her appetite has been good, she doesn’t have a temperature, and she has bundles of energy – and nor has she passed it to her little sister, her mother or me, so it’s clearly not viral and/or infectious. I thought it might be bacterial, but apparently not.

After she left a big brown dollop on the landing, which I stepped in at five o’clock this morning with bare feet, I took her to the doctor, who said she would put money on it being a food allergy. Despite eating wheat since we weaned her, apparently you can develop an allergy suddenly – almost overnight. We’ve been told to cut wheat out of her diet and she’s been referred to specialists for tests.

And so my daughter may well be embarking upon a lifetime of being that awkward one at the restaurant who asks for the special dietary menu, the asshole that everyone has to buy expensive ingredients to cater for, and the bastard who keeps stinking out their friends’ houses. And she will likely talk to all and sundry about the realities of living with her condition, and inwardly smile as she watches the discomfort on their faces.

Like father, like daughter.

UFOs over Highcliffe update

Gosh darn it. After seeing those UFOs over Highcliffe I’ve spent all day researching the effects of environmental distortion on perspective, the flight ceilings of various helicopters, the operational capacities of blimps, balloons and UAVs, the science behind contrails, and the history of UFO sightings in the area, when I should just have visited a site called Flight Radar 24, that shows you real time air traffic control maps, which you can backdate and replay. I therefore know exactly what we saw this morning.

The silver UFOs were, in fact (drum roll!)… a pair of 737s on their way to Tenerife. One was at 35,000 feet, the other at 38,000 feet, too high to see the wings, but they appeared lower because of their brightness and the way the sun bounced off them. The rest of the jets I saw were around 20,000 feet, which is why they looked so different. What a delightful thing this ‘internet’ is. I wrote an entire blog post about a couple of passenger jets!

But it goes to show how easy it is to mistake something in the sky for something else, and why you should never jump to conclusions about alien invasions and crafts from other worlds – these were two of the least plane-like planes I ever did see, and I’ve seen tens of thousands of planes. But what were they? Planes.

Now I’m going to go coz I’m kinda embarrassed…

UFOs over Highcliffe

Calling all airheads and aviation fanatics: can you help me identify something I saw in the sky?

I took my kids to the beach this morning, at Highcliffe on the UK’s South Coast. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and we took off our shoes and socks and made sandcastles on the first truly glorious day of spring.

Their grandmother is flying to Spain today, and with the airport nearby in Hurn, we eagerly looked to the sky at the sound of every engine, waiting for a plane to appear from behind the trees that line the top of the cliff. Sometimes a Cessna would appear, someone on a flying lesson or out for pleasure; sometimes a helicopter on a sightseeing tour. Much higher up, passenger jets from Gatwick or Heathrow left contrails across the sky.

But once when we looked up, I spotted something I couldn’t identify in the sky. It made no noise and seemed to be at very high altitude, though without clouds it’s impossible to tell. It was silver, roughly cigar-shaped with the front and rear tapering to points. I noticed it because it was reflecting the sun, twinkling bright and dull and bright again as though catching and losing the sun, making it look as though it was rolling along the length of its axis. There were no wings that I could see, no tail, no lights, no contrail. It was travelling in a straight line, out into the Channel, with no deviation, and seemed to be getting higher (and smaller) as it went.

‘There are two,’ said my three-year-old, to whom I’d pointed it out.

And she was right. Following the silver object was a second, identical in appearance and motion, reflecting the sun like a mirror. It was almost like seeing two daytime stars, though not so bright that you couldn’t see they had mass and form.

We watched them for two or three minutes until they flew too close to the sun and we lost them. During that time, they were clearly either under power or the influence of gravity – not balloons as it was a smooth, continuous movement, and they didn’t alter course or change their positions relative to one another.

My daughter says they were spaceships, but that’s because she’s three. At first I thought they might be satellites in low earth orbit, particularly given the way they reflected the sun, but I’m not sure a satellite would be so easily observable during the day, or so slow moving. And I’m certainly not ready to credit them to little green men!

My best guess is that we saw a pair of helicopters flying high enough that I could neither see nor hear their rotors, even though I’ve never seen helicopters look like that before. Presumably they took off from Bournemouth and were still climbing to altitude when we saw them, en route to France. Until somebody in the know tells me different, that’s what I think we saw.

All I can say for sure is that they were objects, they were flying, and I’m unable to identify them, making them, by definition, Unidentified Flying Objects. But if they were aliens, I can’t imagine that after conquering interstellar travel there’d be much to interest them in rural Dorset, except, perhaps a cream tea that’s out of this world! (Shoot me now…)

[Click here for UFOs over Highcliffe update]

Giving up sugar for Lent

I may have made a mistake. A big one. I gave up sugar for Lent.

Not all sugar, of course – there are sugars in all kinds of food. But I’ve given up foods to which sugar is added, and I’m advising anybody who reads this cry for help – don’t. Don’t do what I did.

But why sugar? I hear you ask. Why not something easy, like chocolate? Are you a masochist?

Yes. And resoundingly no.

I’m a chocoholic. I buy a 200g chocolate bar with the intention of making it last two days at least, and within 20 minutes it’s gone. And living close to the shops, who always have special deals on their chocolate, I can get through a fair few bars in a week. And I know that’s bad, particularly since chocolate doesn’t agree with me. Heart problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity – my chocolate addiction is going to shorten my life. That’s why last year, I thought it would be a good idea to give up chocolate for Lent.

But here’s the rub – because I stopped eating chocolate, I doubled down on sweets, biscuits, cakes, ice-cream and doughnuts. If you’re going to sacrifice chocolate, you have to do it for your health, and if you’re just going to binge on sugar as a replacement, what’s the point?

So I decided this year to nix sugar altogether. Surely I’d feel better, healthier, more alive?

I feel like I’m going to die. It’s been thirteen days. The first week I had cravings, sure, like an addict in need of a fix, but I ate a lot of potatoes and fruit and wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner.

The second week has been hell. I have no energy. I fall asleep at the drop of a hat. I’m not just irritable, I’m angry. My joints ache. My back hurts. My eyes flicker at the sides. I’ve got a constant headache. I’m dizzy and nauseous. I have earache and a sore throat. My belly feels heavy and tender. I can hear my heart in my ears, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. I can’t take a deep breath or I cough. My teeth are now chattering, even though I’m wearing a T-shirt, shirt, hoodie, dressing gown, woolly hat, fluffy slippers, and I’m wrapped in a blanket.

Hmm. Actually I think I might have flu.

[Next day]

Okay, so I just spent all last night shivering and sweating, drifting in and out of consciousness, my mind racing (I wrote an entire novel in my head), and woke up feeling a little better, albeit as grimy as a cinema floor and weak as a  newborn lamb. Yes, this might have been a 24-hour fly bug.

But I stand by what I said – giving up sugar has kicked me in the nuts and knocked me for six. Apparently, you’re not supposed to give up all at once – like any addictive drug, you’re meant to wean yourself off it. But I hope that I’m now past the worst of it, and will start to feel better from now on.

But one thing I have to point out is the weight loss, which might surprise you. When I joined Slimming World a few years ago, I lost 9lbs the first week, 4.5 lbs the second, and 35lbs over 12 weeks.

So how much weight have I lost from giving up sugar for two weeks? 10lbs? 5lbs? 1lb?

Not one solitary ounce.

Hardly seems worth it, does it?

But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!