What Makes a house feel haunted?

Woodchester Mansion, Gloucestershire

Have you ever had the feeling that you are being watched, that there is someone unseen in the room with you? Ever had the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and felt a blast of cold air around you? Heard foot-steps when there is no-one else in the house? What’s lurking in the shadows, in the dark recesses of your mind?

Our senses tell us that something is wrong, something is about to happen, something is not quite right. We have a feeling; we see a shape out of the corner of our eye, a face at the window. I have conducted many investigations at locations where people have experienced visual, auditory, olfactory and kinaesthetic experiences. Probably the best location in our region is Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire. It's history is fairly unremarkable, a building that remains to this day unfinished but a prime example of Victorian nostalgia for the gothic. I and investigators who I trust have had numerous anomalous experiences at this location. I have been present when the sound of children could be heard and footsteps in the upper floors when nobody else was in the vicinity. Some have experienced full apparitions and had their hair tugged in a violent manner.

We walk into an old house and we have a feeling of expectation, our senses are heightened and adrenaline starts to flow in our bodies. I had this feeling whilst stood alone in the pitch black of the basement in Bodmin Gaol. Why did I do that? I wanted to experience what it felt like to be in a reputedly haunted location by myself. I wondered why our rational responses are suppressed and fear takes over. I did get a sense that someone else was with me. I heard stones hit the floor. The disorientation played havoc with my mind. I thought that I had been in there for half an hour but it was a little more than fifteen minutes before I climbed the stairs back into the light. Whatever you believe, I knew in my own mind that there was no reason why I should feel uncomfortable or need to keep looking behind me or into the corners of the rooms. Reviewing video footage later I realised that I was not alone. Bats were flying all around me.

Returning to the other investigators on the upper floors, surrounded by the history of the place I started to think about the prisoners that had lived and died there, the executions and the cruelty. I’m sure that these feelings were unconsciously with me the moment that I entered the building even before stopping to think consciously about it.

I have visited a number of interesting locations whilst investigating the paranormal and they all have something in common. There are areas that just scream out to you that something could happen. The dark corridor, the staircase, the cold room that nobody wants to sleep in. We don’t like descending into basements that smell musty and damp. It may be that the very look of the exterior of a house provides that suggestion that we might experience something, or is it something that we have learned to expect?

Research carried out on young babies shows that learning starts in the womb. As soon as they are born, babies start to distinguish different black and white stripe patterns, they start to recognise the human face (Johnson, 1991). Research on primates shows that if they have never experienced snakes, they are not afraid of them. But they quickly respond to the reaction of other primates that have a fear of them.

‘We aren’t born afraid of spiders and snakes but we can learn these fears very quickly’ (DeLouche, 2008)

At the turn of the last century Pavlov and then Watson in 1921, discovered ‘conditioning’, a mechanism that would become one of the bedrocks for a whole theory of learning based on association. Watson conditioned an 11 month old boy to be frightened of a rat having shown no previous fear of it, by associating the appearance of the rat with a loud noise. (Beck, 2009)

Superstition, our belief systems and popular culture, all have a part to play in influencing our own perception of the world. From the earliest times recorded in ancient Egypt, there were beliefs in ghosts and apparitions. There have been countless ghost tales, told and re-told over the centuries. We have enjoyed these stories and the sense of fear that they invoke. With the advent of film and television, this became more visual and accessible to the popular masses. Going back to my earliest recollections of scary programmes, how many of you, as young children, hid behind the sofa when Dr Who came on, especially the episodes with the Daleks. My earliest recollection of a ghost film was The Haunting made in 1963 (although I watched it on TV some years later). As a young boy, it made an impression on me that has stayed with me today. Then in the 70s and 80s there was Friday 13th, The Fog, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street and who could forget Poltergeist. We watch these films to entertain us, to scare us. How much that association stays with us is unknown. If you have a religious upbringing, you might be inclined to believe in the ‘afterlife’ and the existence of ghosts as spirits that had not passed on. As a youth, walking home through a graveyard alone in the middle of the night, I would quicken my pace and focus my gaze on the pathway in front of me, knowing that if I did this I was less likely to see anything that would scare me. I don’t know if I expected to see a ghost but there was something about being in a place where all those dead people were buried. How much does this priming influence our personal experiences of what might be deemed to be considered paranormal?

Bodmin Gaol

In 1999, Professor Richard Wiseman and a group of colleagues investigated the haunting phenomena at Hampton Court Palace. The study involved over 600 members of the public walking through certain areas of the Palace and noting down their location whenever they experienced any unusual phenomena. Results revealed that people consistently experienced unusual sensations in certain locations. People who believed in the existence of ghosts reported more experiences than disbelievers. Some of these experiences were caused by natural phenomena, such as subtle draughts and changes in air temperature. Finally, there was some tentative evidence linking the locations in which participants reported their experiences with certain types of geomagnetic activity. This was a test of the relationship of magnetic field influences on the percipients as discussed in previous research (Roll, 2000) (Persinger, 2000)

Hampton Court Palace

The effect of positive and negative priming of certain groups during briefing was also examined. This study found that significantly higher numbers of believers reported experiences in the positive suggestion condition than disbelievers (Wiseman, 2002).

Whether you are a believer or disbeliever, every ghost hunter involved in an investigation has one thing in common, expectation and suggestion. It takes a strong will to walk into a reputedly haunted location with a completely open mind. At the basic human emotional level there will be an unconscious will for something to happen. I have often wondered why some places seem to appear to be haunted more than others. That is to say, people are more likely to report anomalous events at these locations than others. I have had the pleasure of investigating many reputedly haunted locations over the years. Take a look at the two locations below (fig 1 & 2). I’m sure that most of us would expect the 16th century manor house (fig 1) to be a reputedly haunted location. In fact it is, but there has not been a reported sighting of a ghost for over sixty years. Whereas the old school house (fig 2) has had recent anomalous activity recorded by a number of different witnesses who were not expecting anything to occur. Both of these locations I have been fortunate to investigate and whilst the manor house was the most atmospheric, the old school and convent had the most anomalous activity reported.

Fig. 1 - C16 Manor House, Gloucestershire

Fig 2 - Old School and Convent, S. Wales

Some of you will be aware of Barrow psychiatric hospital, just outside of Bristol which lay abandoned for many years. It won’t surprise you to know that many paranormal investigation groups have carried out investigations here and reported activity occurring. However, before it became derelict, there had been no reported paranormal cases. Many people trespassed to enter the site. So why did it become a popular place to carry out an investigation?

Could it be that the mere fact that it is no longer occupied, together with the connection to it being an ‘asylum’, provides the expectation that troubled and even malevolent souls may be prevalent there. Whether this works on a conscious or an unconscious level is irrelevant. If you have gone there expecting to experience something of a paranormal nature you may be primed to see patterns in unexplained occurrences of a sound, sight, smell and kinaesthetic nature. Add this to the fact that it is dark, possibly damp and unpleasant and this has a dramatic effect on our senses.

“If you attend a ghost vigil and see a shadow resembling a figure, you are more likely to interpret it as a ghost than if you just visited at the same time of day as a tourist or guest” (Townsend, 2009).

Barrow Hospital, Bristol

We are more likely to draw links between these individual occurrences and interpret patterns. After all, that is what humans do best. We are hard wired to do so. Our own perception of the world includes a mind design for detecting patterns and inferring structures where there may be none. These theories form the basis of supernatural belief, and culture and experience simply work to reinforce what we intuitively hold to be correct (Hood, 2009).

So what makes a house feel haunted? The same way that we like to compartmentalise things in our mind, we associate a look and an atmosphere as belonging to that category of ‘haunted’. It is what we expect it to be either on a conscious or unconscious level. If something happens that we simply cannot explain, we may be more likely to attribute it to something more akin to paranormal.

As hard as it might be, if we look at unexplained incidents individually and investigate the possible causes, then we are more likely to be objective and less prone to joining the dots. A study performed by ASSAP showed that one in five of us believe we have experienced something paranormal (Sewell, 2014). The belief that it was paranormal may be influenced by a predisposition towards believing in the paranormal. That’s not to say that non-believers and sceptics don’t experience things that they can’t explain. They are less likely though to conclude that it was paranormal.

Whether you are a believer or not, you may still get that adrenaline rush and feelings of curiosity and expectation when entering a property that our brains categorise as likely to be ‘haunted’. For some it’s the same feeling you get when you sit on a rollercoaster at a theme park and that’s half the reason that we enjoy it so much.

Works Cited

Beck, H. Levison, S. &. Irons, G., 2009. Finding Little Albert: A Journey to John B. Watson's Infant Laboratory. American Psychologist, 64(7), pp. 604-614.

DeLouche, J.S, LoBue, V., 2008. Detecting Snakes in the Grass. Attention to Fear - Relevant Stimuli by Adults and young Children. Journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Hood, B., 2009. Supersense. s.l.:Constable Robinson.

Johnson, 1991. Newborn's Preferential Tracking for Face Like Stimuli and it's Subsequent Decline. Cognition 40, pp. 1-19.

Persinger, M. Tiler. S. &. Koren. S., 2000. Experimental Simulation of a Haunt Experience and Elicitation of Paroxysmal Electroencephalographic Activity by Trancerabral Complex Magnetic Fields: Induction of a Synthetic "Ghost". Perceptual and Motor Skills 90, pp. 659-674.

Roll, W. G. &. Nicholls, A., 2000. Psychological and Electromagnetic Aspects of Haunts. Proceedings of 43rd Parapsychological Association, pp. 364-378.

Sewell, N. &. Wood. D., 2014. ASSAP National Belief and Experiences Survey 2014. Anomaly, Journal of Research into the Paranormal, Volume 47, pp. 9-10.

Townsend, M., 2009. Paranormal Witness Memory.

Wiseman, R., Watt, C., Greening, E., Stevens, P., O’Keefe, C., 2002. An Investigation into the alleged haunting of Hampton Court Palace: Psychological Variations and Magnetic Fields. Journal of Parapsychology, 66(No.4), pp. 387-408.

The Building Blocks of the investigation of anomalous phenomena

As a professional investigator for the last 35 years, I have come to realise that there are a number of investigative models used all over the world which provide structure to investigators and assist in the prioritisation of certain decisions and actions after careful consideration of the facts. This structure ensures that evidence is gathered effectively and that consideration is given to risk and human rights. As investigators of anomalous phenomena, this should be at the heart of any investigation involving a member of the public.

The UK Police have the five ‘Building Blocks of Investigation’ to help them during crime investigation. These are Preserving Life, Preserving the Scene of the crime, Securing Evidence, Identifying Victims and Identifying Suspects. They are completed in this order so that victims can be safeguarded and evidence is not lost through attrition of material. Out of each building block will come a number of decisions or actions to progress the investigation.

Translating this to ‘paranormal investigation’ as a concept, could provide a structure to assist anyone seeking to help a member of the public who has experienced something that they cannot explain, they sometimes fear and often they just want to establish what has happened. The foundation for any investigation is knowledge of ethical practice, adopting an ethical approach and having an in depth knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, through training and study. The investigation structure could be achieved in the following manner:

1. Identify Harm and Risk and Produce a Strategy to Manage it.

Very often, initial contact does not allow for an assessment of vulnerability, harm or risk. A message left by voicemail, email or some other contact is usually brief, requiring further contact to ascertain the nature of the referral. Careful questioning will draw out the facts being reported but this needs to be done in a manner which establishes information about the caller so that an assessment can be made about the ages of those involved, the health physically or mentally of the client, the vulnerabilities of those involved and the social and political risks of taking the investigation on. The ASSAP Code of Ethics is at the heart of this and provides guidance about the types of cases which really should not be engaged in without specialist training and careful consideration of the consequences. When a clear risk is identified, investigators have three options. Firstly, they can politely decline to investigate where the risk to individuals outweighs the need to investigate, for example if somebody has been recently bereaved. Secondly, where a need to safeguard individuals is apparent, then referral should be made to the relevant safeguarding agency. For example, where mental health issues are apparent, referral to local social services mental health team, or where coercive and controlling behaviour is apparent, to the police and social services. I have had to adopt both safeguarding options during anomalous phenomena investigations and investigation of the reported phenomena has been abandoned once this has been identified. The third option available, when risks are acceptable with proper management, is to continue to investigate and have a working strategy to reduce the risk. For example, removing the vulnerable person from the central position of the investigation and ensuring that they are not present during it. Where a parent is reporting that a child has experienced phenomena, you might wish to use the parents account to establish the facts and remove the child from the process completely.

2. Secure Evidence

With most anomalous phenomena investigations this usually means interviewing witnesses. A good interview will illicit much information pertaining to the Who, What, Where and When, of the circumstances leading to the witnessing of the event or activity. The How and Why may not be answered during the interview but can be examined during hypothesis development. Once a witness has been spoken to, there may be corroborative evidence available such as other witnesses, CCTV, other forms of video including dashcam footage and photographs taken on mobile phones. It is important to gather these as soon as possible ensuring that they are captured in their raw state, uncontaminated and unedited. This ensures that the integrity is maintained for peer analysis. A working copy of any video, audio or photograph can be produced from the master copy to enable enhancement. Once evidence is secured it can be examined to provide further lines of investigation.

3. Eliminate Normal Factors

This will require a survey of the location to ascertain extraneous factors which may be the cause of the reported phenomena. A sound knowledge of commonly occurring natural phenomena will assist the investigator in excluding factors that can be explained with or without further investigation or replication of the conditions. In some reputedly haunted locations it may take some time to establish naturally occurring phenomena including sounds, vibrations, low light shadows, reflections and the examination of the operation of any equipment, including equipment used by the client to record activity. This will also include an examination of the structure of properties, plumbing, electrical appliances and animals, rodents and birds living within a property, together with the impact of weather conditions and external factors such as vehicles and other properties and houses nearby.

It may be at this time that an assessment of the client/ witness gives rise to a suspicion that some influence on their cognitive ability may have taken place. This could occur in conditions of tiredness, hallucinatory moments, the influence of alcohol or drugs and misperception of shapes, noises, smells and objects moving. The relationship between attention and perception of the witness at the time of the event should be explored in as much detail as possible. Often returning to the scene with the witness will help develop context of what occurred. Where possible, examination should take place in as close to the conditions that were present when the phenomena occurred. The more time that elapses between the event being witnessed and the examination of the location or of the witness, the more chance there is of condition changes and contamination of scenes and memories. Environmental factors will vary greatly at external locations, but time of visit should be as close as possible to that of the reported phenomena. If visited at night, a re-visit during daylight might reveal important detail not observed before. An example would be examining a location where a witness saw lights in the sky. It may not be apparent at the time but a check of Google satellite images and a return later might reveal that the lights are that of a vehicle or farm machinery and where there was thought to be sky, there is in fact land consisting of hills some distance away.

4. Build Hypothesis and Investigate

When enough information is compiled, it may be possible to develop hypothesis as to what may have occurred or be occurring. The investigation plan should be developed to test the hypothesis. There may be more than one hypothesis to test however, and prioritisation can be made using the principle of ‘Occams Razor’. William of Occam was a 14th century monk who developed a principle that “the hypothesis based on the least number of assumptions is likely to be the best hypothesis”. So base your hypothesis on what is known before speculating what might be going on. An example of this principle would be as follows;

A client reports that they are being visited at night by a ghostly entity that stands at the bottom of their bed and speaks to them. They also hear strange noises which sound like someone walking about. They live alone and have no pets. Interviewing the client reveals that they only moved to the property four weeks ago, they haven’t been able to sleep much and they live in a mid-terrace property. An understanding of a number of potential contributory factors for these phenomena might help develop a plan to investigate. Likely hypothesis would be that the client is experiencing, near sleep experiences together with the effects of ‘new house effect’, as their brains are still unfamiliar with the natural sounds and movements of the property. This could be tested by vigils backed up with some form of camera recording at night (operated by the client) to record what happens when they are asleep. It may be that the sounds of footfall and talking can be explained as noise travelling from adjacent properties not noticed by the client. Of course the regularity of the phenomena occurring will dictate the type of investigative response. If investigation does not confirm any of the hypothesis then we must evaluate what we have learned and develop new hypothesis.

5. Evaluate, Conclude and Report

As we have shown from the above example, at the conclusion of the initial investigation we should evaluate how effective our investigation has been to understand the phenomena reported. During any investigative evaluation we should ask five key questions:

1. What do we (now) know?

2. What does that tell us?

3. What do we need to know?

4. How are we going to get that information?

5. What resources do we need?

The answer to these questions will drive our investigative lines of enquiry. If we have not finished our investigation following evaluation, we should return to step 4. When we are happy that our hypothesis is confirmed by the investigation results, we have concluded our investigation. If we cannot disprove our hypothesis, it holds weight. The nature of anomalous phenomena investigation, however, does not always lend itself to nice clear answers. Often there is still ambiguity and results are open to interpretation. The very concept of replication of circumstances surrounding the phenomena is not always possible, so we have to understand the impact of variables, such as weather, light, temperature, vibration and external interaction to the possible outcome. At some stage we must conclude our findings and report what we have learnt, identifying what may still be left to establish. Keeping comprehensive records of methodology and results will provide an audit trail of the investigation process, allowing others to replicate the process to provide peer review. This is how we provide integrity to our investigation and findings.

It is fair to say that contemporary investigation of anomalous phenomena has a number of varied investigation techniques, in terms of understanding the various unexplained events and occurrences that are reported on a regular basis. Only with structure can we fully identify what has taken place and what still needs to be determined. This will enable us to understand the world around us better and provide credibility for the client.