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.

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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.