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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MMR and Autism

I’ll lay out my position right at the start so those who have already made up their minds to the contrary are prepared for my vitriol: MMR does not cause autism. The MMR/autism link has no basis in reality. As an autistic father of a neurotypical child who has her MMR tomorrow, I am sick to death of people telling me that vaccinations cause autism, and I will therefore be disparaging towards the anti-vax movement and, by extension, anti-vaxxers as a whole. You have been warned.

There. Now we can get started.

To the average man on the street, the letters MMR and the word autism have been inextricably linked since the early noughties. The media had a field day whipping up a national health scare, frightening parents and misreporting the facts. As a result of this, there seems to be a general undercurrent of feeling that MMR might cause autism, that scientists don’t really know the answer, and that the jury is still out on whether it’s safe or not.

Not true. The jury is in. The jury has been in for years. But news stories about all the studies published in the past decade showing how MMR doesn’t cause autism are far less newsworthy than sobbing, guilt-ridden parents with shattered lives bewailing the fact that a vaccination might have damaged their baby. Thus the one highly questionable, discredited and fraudulent study suggesting a link between MMR and autism has received massive amounts of media coverage, and the rest have received pretty much none at all. And that makes the press equally culpable in the propagation of the anti-MMR scam.

The fact is, the jury should never have been out in the first place as there has never been any evidence to suggest MMR causes autism beyond gut feelings and anecdotes. The thing is, I understand the parents jumping on the anti-vaccination band wagon. To discover your child has autism is obviously a big thing, and when life deals you a random blow, it’s human nature to look around for someone or something to blame. Thanks to a man named Andrew Wakefield, the object of blame became the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella.

‘Who is Andrew Wakefield?’ I hear you cry. It might surprise you to learn that he was the lead author of the paper published in the Lancet in 1998 suggesting the link between MMR and autism. Surprising, because perhaps you thought there were numerous studies and a body of evidence that pointed towards this link, rather than one solitary paper based on a test group of a whopping twelve subjects. One paper describing twelve autistic children, eight of whose parents blamed MMR for their autism, provoked a total of 1257 news articles in 2002 alone. That’s like responding to the neighbour’s kid throwing a snowball at you with a full nuclear strike.

Now, I don’t need to tell the intelligent reader that a sample of twelve children is ridiculously small to extrapolate a global theory of cause and effect. Nor do I need to point out that one study, the results of which were never repeated and which were outright contradicted by various meta-analyses of massive data sets, should be described as ‘unreliable’ at best. What I do feel I ought to point out is that not only was Wakefield’s study an anomaly, it was also found to be fraudulent.

There are two key facts you need to know about Andrew Wakefield that might help you judge the efficacy of his work. Firstly, he was paid £435,643 by trial lawyers who wanted evidence to suggest MMR was unsafe, with payments starting a full two years prior to his paper being published. Secondly, he applied for patents for his own vaccine to rival MMR. Therefore, he was paid lots of money to try and prove MMR caused autism, and if he succeeded, he would make tens of millions from his own vaccine. This is what we call a ‘conflict of interest’, something he hid from the Lancet, who said that, had they known, they would never have published the paper.

What’s worse, it was discovered that many of the results in the paper had been manipulated. Diagnoses were adjusted and dates were moved in order to strengthen its conclusions that autistic symptoms started directly after the children received the MMR jab. Furthermore, the parents of eight of the twelve children in the study were already seeking compensation for MMR damaging their children before the study took place. Indeed, they were represented by the same lawyers who paid Wakefield to prove MMR was unsafe. Thus the selection of subjects for the study was far from random. That’s before we mention that Wakefield formed a partnership with one of these parents to market autism tester kits on the back of an MMR scare to rake in a predicted $43 million a year. To say the conclusions of this paper were ‘unreliable’ is an understatement.

Long story short, the General Medical Council said Wakefield had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly, and that his study was improperly conducted. He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct on four counts of dishonesty and was struck off the medical register. The Lancet then fully retracted the paper. Case closed.

Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The damage was done. In people’s minds, MMR might cause autism, and so rates of vaccination fell. According to the Psychiatric Times, as a result of Wakefield’s paper the number of cases of measles in the UK rose from 56 in 1998 to 1348 in 2008, with two deaths. Similarly mumps, very rare before 1999, was up to 5000 cases in January of 2005 alone. The MMR scare therefore caused some very real consequences for thousands of families.

I don’t want to ram the evidence down your throat since it’s ridiculously easy to Google any number of studies rejecting the link between MMR and autism, so I’ll just mention two. A study in Denmark including all children born between January 1991 and December 1998, covering 440,655 children vaccinated with MMR and 96,648 unvaccinated found no difference in the rates of autism or autism spectrum disorders between them. Likewise, a 2012 meta-analysis by the Cochrane Library covered 14,700,000 children and found no causal link between MMR and autism. Which is much more conclusive than a study carried out on a sample of twelve.

Yet despite this evidence, anti-vaxxers still maintain a link between vaccination and autism. They claim that rates of autism are increasing and that their child’s or their friend’s child’s symptoms started around the time of the MMR jab. There must be a link, right?

It’s true that rates of autism are increasing, but not because of an increase in the actual incidence of autism – rather, better screening methods and increased public awareness of autism mean more people are being diagnosed with it. And autistic symptoms often kick in around twelve months – right at the time they have the MMR jabs. As I said before, it’s understandable that parents of autistic children might want to blame something for their child’s condition, however inaccurate that might be.

What I find wholly unacceptable, however, is for celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Charlie Sheen , Billy Corgan, Robert De Niro and Donald Trump to repeatedly preach about the dangers of vaccination, ignoring any and all scientific evidence to promote scare stories and misinformation, which has led to epidemic levels of measles and mumps. Why people would choose to listen to a Playboy model, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a drug addict, a Smashing Pumpkin, a man who strapped a boob to his chestand an orange-skinned capitalist who makes sexually suggestive comments about his own daughter, rather than doctors, scientists and the National Autistic Society, is beyond me. In regards to their views on vaccination, these people are more similar to Boko Haram and the Taliban than they realise.

Now, in order to provide balance, I have to point out that no medical intervention is 100% safe. Around 1 in 5000 children who have MMR will suffer febrile seizures, while 1 in 40,000 will develop immune thrombocytopenic purpura and 1 in a million will contract meningitis. However, if you compare this to rates of complications from measles, mumps and rubella – 1 in 1000 with measles will get meningitis and 1 in 5000 will die, while 1 in 40,000 with mumps loses their hearing and 1 in 10,000 will die – then MMR is much safer than the alternative.

I have no qualms or doubts about having my daughter vaccinated. If you’re undecided, that’s okay. All parents have the right to choose what is best for their child. Do some research, weigh up the benefits and the risks. But make sure you choose with your head, not your media-induced irrational fear of giving your child autism. Because MMR does not cause autism.

And don’t get me started on ‘Why can’t we have them as three separate vaccinations?’…