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.

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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.