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.

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Funny ha-ha and funny weird

Thanks to that funny thing called life (along with a chemical imbalance called ‘my brain’), I’ve been rather down of late, so I thought I’d cheer myself up (and others?) by recording those funny and weird things my daughter’s been doing. Because really, when you’re circling the abyss and getting ready to fall, there’s no better lifeline than a child’s laughter to pull you back from the edge (disclaimer: a child’s laughter is no substitute for a lifeline. Always use a rope from an accredited climbing centre when circling abysses.)

I discovered this last night while dancing about to John Denver as I was cooking dinner. It was, apparently, the funniest thing Izzie had ever seen. I’ve never heard her laugh so much. And nice laughter too. I guess in a few years, the laughter will come for a different reason, but for now she thinks I move like Justin freakin’ Timberlake, so that’s a boost to the self-esteem.

Of course, a slight blow comes from the fact I just realised yesterday that instead of singing about his lover, a hillbilly strumpet named Country Rose, John Denver was actually singing about ‘country roads’. So I’ve been singing it wrong for twenty years. Yikes! A bit like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy…’

Which brings me neatly to sounds. Izzie has learnt two new sounds. The first isn’t so bad. It’s a loud, drawn out roar that combines hello, how are you, I’m Izzie, do you want to be friends and let’s play. A little weird when you’re pushing her round the village and she roars at everyone you walk past, but survivable.

The second sound is drawn from the depths of hell.

She’s discovered she can make a noise on the in-breath as well as the out-breath, but this  in-breath noise is enough to make you shudder. It’s a gasping, choking hiss, like she’s being strangled or some strange demon creature has possessed her and wants to summon serpent warriors from a netherworld. It’s worst when you’re settling down to sleep and this freaky, banshee shriek comes through the monitor, sending a chill down your spine. You leap out of bed because it sounds like she’s having an asthma attack, but no, she smiles up at you, innocent eyes all aglow. And then roars at you in greeting. Creepy.

Actually, night time has become altogether weird. Three a.m. I’ll hear a noise and get up to check on the baby. I stand outside the door to listen, but there’s silence. I gently, oh so gently, push open the door, and then I see…it. This figure, dressed in white, bathed in the white glow of the baby monitor, standing up, motionless, just staring at the wall two inches from her nose. Just standing there. Not moving, not making noise. Staring at the wall. It’s like something out of Poltergeist.

Then she slowly turns her head to look at you. Ye gads, at three in the morning that’s enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies!

They're Hee-eeere!
They’re Hee-eeere!

Even weirder are the sounds from the monitor. A few weeks back it started playing piano music for a few seconds. There was nothing in her room that plays a tune. I looked at Lizzie, she looked at me. ‘Did you just hear -?’ ‘Yes, that was weird.’ Checked on Izzie and she was fast asleep.

A couple of nights back I jerked awake as I was sure I heard a man’s voice shouting profanities right in my ear, right through the monitor. But the baby was sound asleep.

And speaking of sound asleep, because she’s so active during the day, Izzie has started sleeping like a log. Or perhaps a better way of saying it would be that she sleeps the sleep of the dead. Half a dozen times in the past fortnight I’ve gone to check on her and she’s so still, so quiet, I’ve momentarily thought she’s dead. I watch for the rise and fall of her chest – nothing. I put my hand by her mouth to feel her breath – nothing. It then takes a huge effort of will to reach for her wrist and check her pulse, because I dread feeling cold skin beneath my fingertips. But she’s never been dead so far, so that’s good!

She’s developed a fascination with Grandpa’s cans of cider too. There’s this thing called object permanence – basically, once something’s out of their sight, babies don’t realise it still exists so won’t look for it, whereas later they realise things exist even if they can’t see them. Well, Izzie’s cracked that one – no matter where he puts it, where he hides it, she continues to look for it, crawling all over him like an alcoholic spidermonkey. Gives new meaning to the expression ‘monkey on my back’.

Her level of activity is astonishing. If I need the toilet during the day, I pop her down in her cot and go sit on the loo with the door open as it faces the nursery. Within seconds, a little hand will appear on the top of the headboard, then another, before the top of the head, eyes and nose come straining to get a look. She’s like that graffiti motif Kilroy Was Here. Watching me take a crap. Thanks honey.

It extends to nappy changes. You put her on her back on the changing mat and she immediately rolls onto her front and crawls away because she knows what’s coming. You manage to grab her by the ankles, drag her kicking and screaming back, take off her tights – she crawls away again. You hold her by the ankles, lift them up in the air, but she twists so her upper half is facing the opposite direction to the lower. In that odd, contorted position, you take off her nappy, clean her up. You let go for a split second, look away, look back to see a little naked bottom disappearing behind the sofa. At which point you think, ‘Sod it!’ and let her keep on half-dressed. Although it’s a bit like Russian Roulette – peace right now weighed up against the risk of having to clean poo out of the carpet. Sometimes peace right now is worth any amount of future scrubbing.

 

 

And since she’s just vomited yellow stuff all down my trousers, I’m going to sign off here. Like I’ve said before, you need a sense of humour to be a parent – otherwise, it’s just tragic!