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.