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.

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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.

Anatomy of a Ghost Hunt, Part 2

For those just joining us, this is part 2 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.

Cell Block A

Cell Block A is a dirty, mouldy block that comprises the condemned prisoner’s cell, the executioner’s room, the execution room itself, a ‘poltergeist room’, and 37 cells arranged across three floors. With paint peeling off the walls, bare metal bed frames, heavy doors that creak, bars, echoes, and a large open space that is entirely dark, it is a creepy place to explore at night. This, of course, ensures that any phenomena encountered are given supernatural, rather than perfectly natural, explanations.

The investigations conducted in this block were calling out for responses (voices, touches, visual phenomena) and trying to get spirits to interact with our devices. Given the stimulation from such a suggestible environment, it’s no surprise that we picked up ‘activity’, which again reveals more about people’s perceptions of events than the events themselves.

Camera Orbs – One of us ‘ghost hunters’ spent much of the night with her phone switched to video so she could see orbs in real time. Up on the balcony outside the cells, she duly reported seeing numerous orbs – small, indistinct balls of light that zip across the screen and are believed by many in the ghost hunting community to be the first stage of a ghost manifestation. I saw them too, but was less impressed as to their significance.

Prior to the invention of compact cameras, orbs were few and far between. Now they’re everywhere, and there is a very simple, non-paranormal explanation for this phenomenon. Professional photographers use a flash on a long stick, angled away from the lens of the camera; compact cameras and camera phones have a flash that is often less than an inch from the lens. This means the light of the flash is going directly out along the line of sight, and thus if it hits anything – dust particles, water vapour, insects – that light bounces directly back into the lens. You can go into any room and take photos in the dark, and eventually you’ll capture an orb.

Many in the group were excited by the way the orbs moved, some of them upwards, others in zig-zags. In an old, crumbling, three-storey cell block with all manner of air currents and disturbed by twelve investigators, the orbs captured on this camera were undoubtedly dust particles. It is remarkable how quickly people will infer a supernatural presence on the flimsiest of pretexts. Indeed, I would have thought that the burden of proof for the supernatural ought to be incredibly high; among believers, it appears to be incredibly low.

K2 reading – Almost immediately after watching the orbs, a group of ladies with their own K2 meter started picking up activity in one of the cells. I had been in many of the cells by myself and picked up nothing on the K2 device I’d been given, so I joined them to see if I could confirm their findings.

The K-II EMF meter is a staple of ghost hunts. It’s a device that fits nicely in the palm of your hand and was designed to detect electromagnetic fields so that builders don’t drill directly into live wires. Ghost hunters, however, claim that ghosts can use it to communicate by manipulating EM fields. Essentially, it is five lights running from green (no EMF) through orange (some EMF) to red (lots of EMF!). Or, if you like, green (no ghosts) to red (ghosts!).

I can understand why ghost hunters love the K2 meter. Instead of relying on subjective experience it provides pseudo-scientific ‘proof’ in the form of a light that everyone can see, and it sure beats sitting in the dark all night without experiencing anything. The thing I find curious is that people simply accept that a device designed for something completely different is being influenced by spirits, without understanding how the device works, how it is influenced by electromagnetic fields, or having any underlying theory about how or why ghosts would be able to affect it. I asked the group leaders about this and they were a little vague. It essentially boils down to: it’s a magic box, the red light equals a ghost because that’s what I’ve been told. Like many things, it comes down to faith and belief instead of science and rational analysis.

Joining the ladies in the pitch dark cell, I saw that their K2 meter was indeed twitching at various locations in the room. I held mine here and there and it did the same. A third K2 meter was brought in and all reacted identically. After every flash, the ladies were conscientious about thanking the spirits for their efforts to communicate, assuming, of course, that this was bona fide otherworldly contact. As they were on a mission to convert the sceptic, they again asked if I was ready to believe.

I was not. Switching on my torch, I discovered a smoke detector apparently installed in the cell after the prison was closed. The closer I put my K2 meter to the smoke detector, the more it twitched until, touching the smoke detector, it held red. It was the only cell in which there was an electronic device and the only one in which we picked up an electromagnetic field. Clearly debunked, I thought.

Apparently not. The ladies did not believe it could affect the K2 meter when they were three or four feet from it. Later, in another part of the prison, I found an identical smoke detector when I was by myself, and the K2 meter responded in the same way, even three or four feet from it. Given that it didn’t detect EMF anywhere else in the prison, clearly the batteries in the smoke detectors were being picked up by the EMF meter.

I don’t think many of the people who use the K2 meter to hunt ghosts realise how incredibly sensitive it is to electrical devices. During a break I watched how the meters would respond when people were fiddling with their phones several feet away. I put mine beside my watch and the lights triggered every time the second hand ticked. I also experimented by putting the meter near a light bulb, and depending on how you hold it – turning it through 90-degrees on any axis, for example – you can affect whether or not it picks up the EM field. Hell, I even found that if you tapped the case in the right place you could get it to detect itself!

Therefore, while many were excited that we picked up EMF readings during our ghost hunt and cited this as an example of a supernatural encounter, any objective analysis would have to conclude that the energy we detected was electrical and not spiritual.

Drama, drama, drama – While we were investigating the cell, there was a commotion elsewhere in the cell block when one of the team had a door close on her. I’d had this happen to me several times already – you walk into a cell to look about, turn around to discover the door has swung silently closed behind you. The first time it happened, my heart skipped a beat for about half a second as I realised I was shut in a dark prison cell; so I simply walked to the door and reopened it, and watched it swing closed again as it was on a slant. Explanation: gravity.

The girl it happened to was not so calm, however, and as a believer in spirits, she was so shaken up by it she refused to join us all in the Poltergeist Room – a grandiose name for an empty office where nothing happened – and instead had to be accompanied by a team leader. This was the same individual who had (unconsciously?) manipulated the table tipping earlier (see Part 1). It got me wondering whether certain people enjoy the drama of ‘encountering’ the supernatural, so much so that they actually create encounters in order to have an experience they can react to. This person was attending with her parents, so I wonder if it was a kind of performance for attention. In any case, this person’s experiences tonight were clearly the result of psychological influences and in no way evidence of the supernatural.

Noises – Lastly in Cell Block A, we encountered noises down the corridor between the cell block and the Poltergeist Office, as though somebody (or something!) was following us. It sounded like feet scraping across a tiled floor, only for a couple of seconds, but as a big, old, echo-y building with parts dating back to the 1600s, anomalous noises are surely to be expected. Requests for a repeat of the sound went unanswered. Some people commented that as they stared down the dark corridor it appeared to get darker, which I imagine is an ocular phenomenon from eyes not designed to stare into the dark.

This ended our time in Cell Block A, where we caught dust particles on camera, detected a battery on our K2 meters, learnt a lesson about gravity, and heard unidentified sounds not inconsistent with our location. We then moved on to the gym.

Coming up in Part 3: scrying, spirit boxes, and visible orbs.

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.