‘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.
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!
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.
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.
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.