Pedantry and Autism: a love story

Pedantry: noun. Excessive concern with minor details and rules; over-commitment to formalism, accuracy and precision; prioritising of simple knowledge (facts and rules and obscurantism) over more general knowledge and/or common sense. Used in a negative context.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a pedant. I have always been a pedant and likely always will be. It stems from the black-and-white thinking style of my autism, my propensity for rote learning and my obsession with the little things, especially my ability to see the minutiae of the trees yet somehow spectacularly miss the forest. I speak ‘correctly’, even though I acknowledge there is no ‘correct’ way to speak; I try to ensure that I am one-hundred percent accurate in everything I say and write, while accepting that perfection is an impossible dream; and I follow the rules, no matter how stupid or seemingly arbitrary.

Despite its negative reputation, I don’t think being a pedant is necessarily a bad thing.

True, if you correct people on their grammar or point out the factual and logical fallacies of their arguments, it’s often seen as arrogant, condescending and belittling. To quote Ben Shapiro, however: facts don’t care about your feelings. Thanks to my autism, and unfortunately for those around me, I’m far more committed to the facts than I am to anybody’s feelings.

It is not my intention to hurt people’s feelings, though. Correcting them when they make a mistake is how I communicate and share my love of language and history with those around me. Much of the time, when I interrupt the flow of the conversation to tell somebody the true meaning and origin of a phrase they’ve misused, it is done with good intentions and because I think it’ll enrich their understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Partly, it’s to show off and try to impress people.

Only sometimes do I do it to be a dick.

But while I can say it comes from a place of genuine concern for the intellectual development of my fellows, another and probably equally important factor is that I can’t not do it. Inaccuracies cause me pain. My cringe-factor is turned up to eleven every time I hear something that’s patently wrong and the only way of alleviating that crushing horror is to put them straight. I can’t let them walk around being wrong. Entitled? Yes, you could probably call me that. But would you rather suffer a momentary embarrassment and then go through the rest of your life being right, or keep on exposing your ignorance to everyone who knows the truth?

It’s been said that the moment an Englishman speaks, another Englishman judges him, so it’s important to get it right. It’s not ‘I drunk it’ but ‘I drank it’, not ‘could of’ but ‘could have’, and there are no such words as supposably, irregardless, and expresso. I imply, you infer; a chicken lays an egg but people lie down; and if I affect something, I create an effect. Unique means ‘one of a kind’, so things cannot be quite unique or very unique, and if you say ‘reverse back’ or ‘past history’, you’re using one word too many. Little things, but they go a long way.

It’s hard to blame people, however, when everywhere they’re exposed to poor grammar. Songs called ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’; pop culture expressions like ‘You sunk my battleship’; movies entitled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. No wonder so many people think that you are hanged, not hung, or that you can ‘literally’ die of embarrassment, yet still be able to tell the tale. And don’t get me started on there, their and they’re.

Misused idioms also hit my ear like nails down a chalkboard. It’s not ‘chomping’ at the bit, it’s ‘champing’, referring to an eager horse biting down on its metal mouthpiece; a damp ‘squib’ is a small explosive device, not a tentacled sea-creature; and ‘tenter hooks’ stretch hides over a wooden frame to make them anything but tender. Language evolves, sure, but there have to be standards, otherwise we’ll all end up speaking gibberish and nobody will be able to understand each other.

I can’t stand people promoting falsehoods either, like the guy who sat in front of me on a ferry into Portsmouth one time, who pointed to HMS Warrior and told his wife it was HMS Victory. That might seem minor, but come on – how can you mistake the legendary Victory of Trafalgar and Nelson fame, a wooden-hulled 1765 first rate triple decker ship-of-the-line that is an integral part of British history and national identity, with an iron-hulled 1860 armoured frigate? How could I not correct that error? It’s something every schoolboy should know.

But the most egregious recent example I’ve come across is in Jon Sopel’s bestseller If Only They Didn’t Speak English. As North America Editor for BBC World News, he should know a thing or two about a) facts and b) accuracy, yet when writing about race relations in the US, an incendiary topic that demands care and attention, he displays an unforgivable ignorance. He writes about ‘the literally millions of Africans rounded up and shipped off in the most appalling, fetid conditions to the East Coast of America’, and how ‘twelve and a half million people left the ports of Africa and came to America in leg irons’. All of this suggests that the slave trade was centred on the US and that it’s an exceptional case in world history, a view that supports certain political ideologies but is entirely inaccurate.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery was awful and I don’t wish to minimise the suffering of those affected, but sensationalism and emotion should never take the place of cold, hard facts. Luckily, these are readily available at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, thanks largely to the work of professors David Eltis and David Richardson of Emory University. Of around 12.5 million slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the period 1519-1867, fewer than 350,000 – less than 5% of the total – went to what is now the United States. Around 40% went to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, 11% to Jamaica and the rest around the Caribbean and South America.

It is therefore wholly inaccurate to claim that ‘literally millions’ of Africans were shipped to the East Coast of America’ or that ‘Twelve and a half million people…came to America in leg irons.’ More than that, it’s irresponsible as it feeds into the myth of American Exceptionalism and continues to inflame racial tensions. I would have expected a person of Sopel’s background to be more careful with his facts. I would also have expected this misinformation to be picked up on and corrected in the subsequent editions, but it has not, meaning thousands of readers around the world will read it and believe that ‘millions’ of Africans slaves were shipped to the US, and use this ‘fact’ to inform their erroneous view of the world. And that annoys the hell out of me.

(To provide further context, the peak figure of American slavery was 3.9 million, recorded in the 1860 census. Furthermore, in the same period that less than 350,000 African slaves were shipped to America (388,000 according to some sources), more than a million Europeans were held as slaves in Africa.)

Pedantry might be seen as bad, petty, unkind and inflexible, but sometimes, as in the Jon Sopel slavery case, it is by far the better approach than playing fast and loose with the facts. As an autistic individual, pedantry is in my nature, as it is in many others who share my condition. We thrive in academia, in the sciences, in linguistics, where accuracy and obsession over the minutiae are seen as strengths instead of poor social skills. And who knows? One day, the difference between the survival of the species and our unfortunate extinction might come down to somebody spotting a single misplaced integer.

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The Non-Specific Anxiety of an Aspie

Anxiety is a normal, healthy human emotion. It comes in for a lot of stick these days, but everyone suffers from it at one time or another and it has evolved for a number of very good reasons.

First and foremost, anxiety keeps you safe. It alerts you to potential dangers, makes you better at threat perception, and discourages you from taking unnecessary risks. It encourages you to think of alternatives, prepare backup plans and expect the unexpected. Indeed, those who experience anxiety tend to be better prepared, and cope better when things go wrong, than those who don’t.

Anxiety can also push you to be better. If you’re anxious about an exam, you study really hard so that you ace it. If you’re anxious about giving a speech, you practice so much you deliver it like a seasoned pro.

Even social anxiety has its benefits. Worrying what people think of you, how to make a good impression, and not hurting their feelings actually makes you a nicer, kinder, more empathetic person who cares about and tolerates the thoughts and opinions of others. Consequently, you tend to be better liked than those who don’t worry how they’re seen.

All of which shows that anxiety is not something negative. Excessive anxiety, on the other hand – that’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

Autism and anxiety go together like syrup and waffles. I’m not going to talk about the anxieties Aspies suffer from altered routines, sudden change, sensory issues, societal expectations or social situations as these are well-known and extensively covered elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to address something surprisingly common but rarely discussed: the general, non-specific, all-pervading anxiety that all is not well with the world.

It’s a feeling that comes and goes, sometimes with identifiable triggers and sometimes not. Probably the most common time I’ve heard it affecting people on the spectrum, myself included, is after moving house. While it’s popularly said that depression comes from dwelling on the past and anxiety from dwelling on the future, this does not hold true for the anxiety I’m talking about, for it exists in the present moment and no amount of rationalising or reasoning can remove it.

I’ll give you an example. About ten years ago I moved into a block of flats. My flat was on the third floor and contained all my belongings. I had a sea view, an allocated parking space, an entry phone system and a concierge. I had my support workers coming in regularly, and kept up the same routine as I had in the previous place. I had everything I needed to feel safe and happy. So why did I spend two weeks curled in a ball on the floor whenever I had a spare moment?

I was terrified, but I couldn’t work out why. The door was locked and nobody could get in. I was on the third floor, so totally safe. I had working smoke detectors and my car was right beneath my window. I had my own curtains and bedsheets, my model, my Jeffery Deaver books and my Starsky and Hutch DVD boxset. I had my guitars, my phone, the internet. I had food, an oven, a washing machine. There was no reason I should feel anxious.

But I did. I was anxious all the time, only without an obvious cause. Despite knowing I was safe, having all the things that I needed to feel comfortable, and having support workers  come in, I had an ever-present feeling that everything was wrong. It’s not something you can think away. There’s nothing you can do to get rid of it. And nor can you distract yourself – this type of non-specific anxiety pervades your very being. It’s there when you wake up and when you go to sleep. It’s there even when you refuse to think.

I’ve known others who, after moving house, take months to finally settle and feel comfortable. Why do we feel this way? Who knows. It happens to me every time I move, even though I’ve lived in sixteen places. The same books in the same order on the same bookcase in a different house fills me with anxiety, and there is nothing to alleviate the dread.

I felt the same non-specific anxiety all day yesterday and most of today. So did my wife, who’s also on the spectrum. We’re going on holiday tomorrow and so we’re both anxious about that – the change of routine, fear of the unknown, and so forth – but this was not that. This was, again, the sense, the dread, that something was very wrong with the world, but we couldn’t really say what.

I think it was because we packed on Saturday, leaving Sunday and Monday to relax. Trouble was, neither of us could. Can’t start a new book because I’ve got one for holiday. Can’t write my novel because I’ve got to a convenient break. Can’t pack my hand luggage until the last minute. Everything felt wrong. Doing the same things – getting the kids up, getting them dressed, taking them to ballet – it all felt wrong. We couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t relax, so anxious we couldn’t even distract ourselves from it.

I’ve spent two days pacing from room to room. Picking up the guitar, strumming for thirty seconds, putting it down. Flapping my hands. Trying to watch TV. Tidying the kitchen, the lounge, the playroom. It all feels wrong.

Let me be clear – I’m not particularly anxious about going on holiday tomorrow. My anxiety was all about the here and now. And how do you get rid of that? I’ve already dealt with my anxiety about the holiday by planning in detail, making backup plans, writing lists, checking and double-checking and triple-checking everything. The anxiety I’ve felt hanging around the house the last two days, walking the dog, going to town – it comes from somewhere else, somewhere I can’t clearly identify. It’s a horrible feeling that makes me want to cry, and sometimes I feel my chest constricting and my heart pounding away, and because it comes from nowhere, because there are no thoughts to challenge or problems to prepare for, there’s nothing you can do but endure it.

That’s what I mean by non-specific anxiety. As I said, sometimes it has an identifiable trigger – moving house, the days before holiday – but sometimes it’s just there, anxiety that serves no purpose and drives you out of your mind. So you learn to live with it and hope that, soon enough, you can stop feeling so afraid.

Suffering fools: an Aspie perspective

As a person on the autism spectrum, I’m often told that, as a result of poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy, I am remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my opinions. This is not true at all. I’m remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my knowledge. That’s something different altogether.

I mean, if I know something, everyone else should know it too, right? How can they not? Are they stupid? Yes, poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy means I struggle not to be a dick to those less well-informed than me.

This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that I know pretty much everythingThat’s another consequence of my autism – I’m obsessed with facts, I have no problem recalling information, and I care more about being right than people’s feelings. Whenever at job interviews I’m asked about my weaknesses, I reply that I’m a perfectionist and sometimes I work too hard (ha ha), and then quietly slip in that I don’t suffer fools gladly.

That’s an understatement – I don’t suffer fools at all.

Over the years I’ve learned to control it, mostly. I’ve come to understand that people don’t spend their time looking up facts and figures and memorizing them, so my favourite pastime is educating others about things that interest me and should therefore, by rights, interest all of mankind – the equivalent ranks in army, navy and air force, the reason the days of the week are so named, what distinguishes a barque from a barquentine, a brig and a schooner, and so forth. I’ve learned to appreciate that people might not have had the opportunity to come across these facts in their everyday lives and therefore I am more than happy to address the gaps in their knowledge – I’m a giver, you see.

But what I cannot tolerate – what really brings out the beast in me – is when people are unaware of things I think they really ought to know. Things that you don’t have to go and look up to understand. Things you couldn’t have missed unless you’ve chosen to switch off your brain and walk blinkered through the world. That’s when I go ‘full Aspie’.

Like when I meet someone who doesn’t know who won the Second World War. Or who the belligerents were. Or that Hitler was a bad guy.

How uninvolved with the world around you would you have to be not to know that? You didn’t know about the Arctic convoys or PQ17? Fine. Didn’t know about kamikazes or the Battle of Leyte Gulf? Forgivable. Didn’t know Hitler was a genocidal madman? Oh come on!

The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve got in a little trouble with a work colleague. She’s very nice and she does the job fine, but boy is she ill-informed about the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone quite as ignorant as she is, and it is triggering all my worst behaviour.

Right off the bat, she didn’t know what Brexit is. Admittedly, nobody does right now, least of all our politicians, but you’d have to be living under a rock not to know there was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we voted to leave by a small majority, and it’s torn our country apart for the past three years. Her excuse – ‘I don’t watch the news’ – makes me want to tear my hair out, or would if I had any. How she’s avoided hearing about Brexit, when it is the dominant topic on sitcoms, panel shows, current affairs programmes and at family gatherings, is nothing short of a miracle. What next? Who’s Trump?

Another time she came in all excited to tell me she’d seen a document – no matter how many times I correct her, she seems incapable of using the word ‘documentary’ – that said autism is caused by vaccination, and isn’t that amazing? Rolling my eyes, I said it might have been, twenty years ago before it had been thoroughly debunked and is now only believed by celebrities, crazy people, and whatever overlaps there are between the two. I proceeded to tell her all about the MMR scandal, and how, far from ruining his life, Andrew Wakefield is now a feted celebrity in America with no less than Elle Macpherson as a lover.

‘Elle who?’ she asked.

‘The supermodel? Nicknamed The Body? Magazine covers, catwalks, movies, TV? Was in Friends as Joey’s roommate? Ring any bells?’

‘No.’

‘Moving on.’

The next snafu was when she insisted that September 11 was an inside job and the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives in a controlled demolition, which inspired this rant (9/11 – the Truth) a few weeks ago. In the course of that conversation, it became clear she didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, had never heard of Al-Qaeda, didn’t know why Palestinians might be upset with America, wasn’t aware of the previous attempt to blow up the Twin Towers in 1993, had zero knowledge of how the Twin Towers were built, and thought that despite its name being the World Trade Center, it was residential. But no, she was convinced it was the naughty government that did it and nothing I said would change her mind.

Another time I discovered she had never heard of the Cold War, or the USSR, or knew that we pointed nuclear missiles at each other with our fingers hovering over the launch button for forty years. Her excuse this time gave me a nosebleed – ‘I wasn’t around then, it was before I was born.’

Yup, we can’t know anything that happened before we were born. Since I was born in 1979, I don’t know who The Beatles were; don’t know about the moon landings; slavery; the Holocaust; Queen Victoria; Vietnam; Woodstock; the Kennedy assassination; or Martin Luther King, Jr. If only there were some way I could discover information about the past, information I could access from anywhere in the world with a mobile phone signal, whether in written, audio or visual form…you can see how hard I had to work not to call her out on this bullshit!

When my manager asked me how things were going with her, I was honest. She’s a good worker, she’s good at her job, but oh my gosh I just want to scream at her for being so…I don’t know what word to use. If she was on a quiz show, I’d be shouting ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ and ‘dumb-ass’ at the screen, like I did this evening to the guy on The Chase who thought Charles de Gaulle was from the Middle Ages. But I don’t think she is ‘thick’, for want of a better word, just completely blissfully ignorant of anything you might expect a 30-something to know.

My manager told me I had to accept that not everybody is into the same things as me. Fair enough, I said: maybe she’s just totally cut off from politics so doesn’t know about Brexit; wasn’t properly trained, so doesn’t know that vaccines don’t cause autism; has never heard of Elle Macpherson because she’s never opened a magazine; believes whatever rubbish people tell her as she has zero knowledge of geopolitics or structural engineering; and is unable to learn about the past without access to a time machine. Okay. It drives up my blood pressure, but I’ll find a way to get past it.

But I really struggled to hold my tongue when I discovered, in a conversation about the murder of Lyra McKee, that she’d never heard of the IRA.

‘The IRA.’ Blank stare. ‘The Irish Republican Army.’ Blank stare. ‘Oh my god, are you seriously telling me you’ve never heard of the freaking IRA? The Troubles? The army patrolling the streets? The bombings? The Guildford Four? The Birmingham Six? Bloody Sunday? They fired mortar bombs at 10 Downing Street. They killed the Queen’s cousin.’

‘When did it happen?’

‘Since the late 60s.’

‘Before my time.’

‘They blew up the BBC in 2001. You’d have been 14.’

‘No, I don’t remember that.’

Well, I got cross. I got cross because it frankly boggles my mind that somebody can live in this country and not know that for a period of thirty years, 3500 people were killed on our streets either for or because of the cause of Irish Republicanism. I got cross because I grew up in the 1980s, and even as a child was well aware of the risks of bomb attacks whenever I went to town, got on a train or saw an unattended bag. And I got cross because I was profoundly affected by the 1993 deaths of three-year-old Jonathan Ball and twelve-year-old Tim Parry, a boy almost the same age as me, killed by an IRA bomb planted in a town centre.

It more than boggles my mind – it offends me that somebody should be so ignorant. She will have come across it multiple times in her life – at school, on Remembrance Day, in films and books and music and everyday conversation. She knows all the words to Zombie by The Cranberries and has seen the music video, what the hell did she think that was all about? It means she’s chosen not to take it in, not to pay attention, not even to notice it, and whether it’s my autism or just me, I find that impossible to understand.

But the real bust up, the real head-to-head, came from something small and insignificant, as do all straws that break the camel’s back. It came when she picked up a roll of fly paper with the words Fly Paper on the side and said, ‘What’s this?’

‘Fly paper.’

‘What’s fly paper?’

‘You don’t know what fly paper is?’

‘No.’

‘Oh my god, have you spent your whole life living under a rock with your eyes closed, how the hell can you not know what fly paper is?’

‘Because I don’t, okay? And you having a go won’t change the fact that I don’t know what it is, so why don’t you just tell me?’

‘It’s sticky paper that you hang up to catch flies!’

And I won’t tell you what I said next. My manager tells me I need to be more tolerant of people who have had different life experiences than me. I get that, I do, but surely there are limits, right? I wouldn’t get annoyed with someone who has genuine reasons for their ignorance –  they have a learning difficulty, they have only just moved here from another country, they’ve been in a coma the past fifty years – but someone who is, by all accounts, ‘normal’ has no excuse or justification for being so ignorant.

Like I said, maybe it’s my autism or maybe it’s just me, but I cannot understand how people like this even exist – people who either don’t know or don’t care who’s running the country, don’t know about major things that are happening or have happened in the world around them, don’t even know about pop culture. What on earth do they do with themselves? What do they talk about with their friends? I don’t get why somebody would come across a word they don’t understand, or hear something referenced that they’ve not heard before, and not look it up. Do people do this? Go through life so happily ignorant that they simply skip over everything they see and hear that they don’t understand? How can they understand anything?

Let me put it this way. If you don’t know about politics (Brexit, Trump, the growing polarisation of society); current affairs (Climate Change, #MeToo, terrorism); pop culture (Star Wars, Kurt Cobain, Batman); high-brow culture (Jane Austen, the Mona Lisa, Picasso); science (medicine, plate tectonics, evolution); or history (Pompeii, the Crusades, Pearl Harbor); then what the hell do you know? And where have you been all your life? And why should I listen to anything you have to say? Because without knowledge to back it up, your opinions are worthless.

Hmm. So maybe I am remarkably intolerant of people who don’t share my opinions. Or maybe I just don’t suffer fools gladly.

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.