Every author has one. It crops up time and time again, stalking us from event to event, pursuing us through school visits, and chasing us via e-mail; It tracks us down relentlessly, the Ahab to our white whale.
Every author has their question.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
It’s a fair enough query. As someone who makes a living writing books about ghosts, its certainly not a surprise to get asked it.
The real problem lies in answering it.
During the day, the answer is no. During the day, I’d say that although I find the subject of the supernatural fascinating, there’s something incredibly incompatible about ghosts mingling in a world of microwave meals, soap operas, chewing gum stained streets and bills tumbling through the letter box. Just as, when I was a kid, it was impossible to imagine Narnia at the back of my MFI wardrobe that was smothered in Garbage Pail kid stickers, it’s hard to overlay the supernatural on modern England. There’s something about the over whelming normality of every day life that banishes them. Fish and chips and phantasms. Tupperware and poltergeists. It simply doesn’t work.
However, at night…
The dark makes everything different. Every child knows that, and deep down, whether we admit it or not, every adult knows it too. The imagination entertains notions when the sun goes down that we wouldn’t even give a second thought to during the day. It paints dark figures in shadowy corners, hands reaching out from beneath the bed for exposed ankles, and threads the sounds of an old house, the creaking of pipes, the knock of radiators, with something else entirely. At night time, the rule book changes.
When I was growing up, I was convinced that my bedroom was haunted. So many nights I’d hear the sound of something being dragged across the floor, and feel the weight of something sitting on the end of the bed, that it became second nature to me to fall asleep with music playing to drown out the noise, knees tucked in to my chest. Of course, most children go through this - name a child that hasn’t woken in the night, convinced that something is in the room with them? As soon as I moved away from home, the night terrors became forgotten, consigned to the dustier corners of memory. However, to this day, when I go back to stay in that room, I hear that familiar noise, and suddenly nothing has changed at all. My heart races, I squeeze my eyes shut, and I tuck all my limbs safely away inside my duvet. Twelve years old, and twenty nine years old, and the only difference now is that instead of listening to Guns and Roses until I fall asleep, I bring ear plugs along. My sole nod towards my increased years.
So, yes, I believe. And, no, I don’t. It all very much depends on when you ask me. So when I was contacted by a team of paranormal investigators, inviting me along to a ghost hunt, I thought it was finally time to lay the question to rest, to get a definitive answer, once and for all. No provisos, no conditions, no time constraints - a simple one word response to the question that haunts me.
Do you believe in ghosts?
The investigation took place at the Seaview hotel in Birchington, and I was invited along by the organisers, Thanet based group Isle of the Dead. (By the way, I couldn’t really bring my duvet along to hide underneath, so I bought my boyfriend instead.) As first impressions go, it didn‘t seem that foreboding. It was a dark night, though it failed to be stormy and settled for light drizzle instead, its less dramatic cousin. The building itself seemed normal enough. There was a distinct absence of bats, gothic masonry, or creaking floorboards, and an excess of busy carpet to disguise pub stains, and authentic locals decorating the bar. I drank a diet coke (dutch courage is frowned upon in ghost hunting circles), and introduced myself to the Investigators, who themselves were reassuringly average. No excesses of velvet, no cloaks, no top hats, no unfathomably long fingernails clutching crystal balls. In fact, we walked past them at first, convinced that they were just more regulars meeting for a drink, before they recognised the anxious look of first time paranormal investigators etched across our faces, and retrieved us. At first glance, everything seemed as it should be in an average, if slightly aged, inn.
It was the second glance that told a different story.
Outside in the dimly lit garden, the two trees that leaned in towards each other, bedraggled with climbing plants, revealed itself under closer scrutiny to the jaw bone of a whale, embedded in the earth, its arching mouth draped with leaves. Individual vertebrae from the same beached creature scattered the garden, a secret grave disguised as a rockery. Inside, on the wall, an old photo showed the dead whale, stranded on the shingle, children posing proudly on top, their tiny figures with linked hands dwarfed by the corpse beneath them.
The lay out of the inn had something of a dream like quality to it - I went to the ladies room, and after accidentally taking the wrong door out, found myself in a dark hallway on my own, before hastily retracing my steps. A large door that you would expect to lead you to a stairway, would lead you into a cupboard cluttered with cleaning products, and a small, discreet door tacked onto the end of a corridor would open out unexpectedly into a vast space, fringed with chairs. The building had a beguiling mixture of the mundane and the morbid side by side, with picnic tables next to whale bones, and anecdotes about ghostly goings on, bedding being tugged away from terrified guests, ancient coins appearing on the stairs, being peppered with the every day routine of running a bar, serving drinks, and emptying drip trays.
Eventually, as the bar shut down, and sections of the inn fell into darkness, we were divided into groups, and after a brief ceremony designed to protect us from harm, we set off to begin our investigation.
It turns out that psychic investigation involves a lot of sitting in the dark, listening, contemplating, looking, and thinking. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Goosebumps, perhaps. That creeping feeling that spreads through the back of your head when you feel like someone is watching you. Breath freezing on the air. It was all rather pleasant, actually. A chance to sit in silence, and reflect. I must confess, I felt a distinct lack of the supernatural. As hard as I studied my surroundings, finely attuned to every noise, every movement, questioning every car headlight that bounced in through the curtains, every footstep heard outside the door, I failed to find anything out of the ordinary. Nothing externally seemed to be happening - all the investigation appeared to take place on an internal level. Both Brian and Wendy, the mediums in our group, conveyed impressions they were receiving from the room, people that had lived there, events that had occurred, a man who sat in the chair by the sink, names that bore significance, a suicide that had taken place in the corner by the chimney flume... It was like plucking strands of stories from within the four walls, individual threads that gave a faint outline of events that could have been. It was a fascinating process to watch, but for me, the real question lies in how you would recognise an actual psychic experience. Perched on the edge of a bed in a darkened, unfamiliar room, in quiet contemplation, its easy for your imagination to begin whirring away. Add to that the fact that you’ve been told haunted, and your mind automatically begins to mull over the ways such a haunting could potentially manifest - a shadow stirring in the corner of the room? A figure standing over your bed? Objects moving from where you left them? As the psychics in the room tuned in, trying to gauge the nature of the supernatural that was meant to lurk there, I found myself wondering how they could tell where their imaginations ended and their intuitions began. Names, events, dates, lives and deaths are bandied around, and committed into notes, so that later they can be studied to see if any truths can be divined from them.
We moved from room to room with varying degrees of success. The only time I personally encountered anything that could even be vaguely construed as odd is when I am convinced that, through the crack of the door, I can see someone sat on the bed, only to enter the room to find it deserted. Even this didn’t register as something disturbing, or ghostly though, merely as a curiosity, a trick of the light. I guess part of me expected paranormal investigating to be like an emotional version of a roller coaster, tugging at your heart rate, and causing spikes of fear and adrenalin, when the reality proved much more sedate. I was assured that this was not always the case - Brian and Wendy shared stories of ghost hunts where things have taken on a much darker edge, but they both openly admit that tonight not a great deal of supernatural activity is going on.
“It’s very flat in here.” Confides Brian. “There’s nothing happening.”
“At least,” Wendy adds with a smile, “you know we’re not just making it up.”
And therein lies the problem for me. I was expecting to be either converted to a believer under a tide of experiences, or to become the hardened cynic as those around me cited evidence and I saw, or believed, none. I’m not entirely sure how to process this middling ground, in which neither event occurs. So, I take photos, and listen, and sit in the dark, and meet some thoroughly nice people in an unorthodox setting, and come absolutely no closer to answering that elusive question.
At the end of the night we say our goodbyes, and at the very unnatural hour of four a.m. stagger, bleary eyed, from the confines of the inn into the yellow glow of streetlights outside. Reality reasserts itself with a vengeance, as we discover my Ford Fiesta has had a more dramatic night than we have. It waits, sadly huddled against the kerb, covered from hubcap to sunroof in broken eggs. There’s only so long you can ignore the rules of Modern Britain before they come crashing back down on you. Street lights, pavements, hubcaps, eggshell, and not a ghost in sight.
I’ve been invited to go back - this time to a location that they have visited before, and has been described as “very active”. I’m going to go. Maybe this time I’ll find the answer I’ve been looking for, but if not, you can’t fault quiet contemplation in interesting settings. I'm already working on a new book, and some of the ideas stem from daydreaming the night away in a not so haunted hotel. I may not have found the answer to my question, but I have found the perfect cure for writer's block.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
5.28.08 @ 10:08a
My favourite ghost story is the old 1930s film, "The Uninvited." Not until "Psycho" and "Jaws" have I been so terrified by fictional movie events. For years I couldn't take a shower in an empty house. I've never gone swimming in any ocean since 1975 (I think it was 1975). And yet I don't believe in ghosts, although this particular ghost story scared me mightily. Not only that but it has a completely unpredictable ending (which I won't spoil for anyone who hasn't seen it, because it is worth seeing) which causes head scratching, and "how could I have not seen that coming" musings. Because there are insufficient clues, dummy! That's how. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece, Louise, and hope you let us know how your next ghost hunting event works out.
5.28.08 @ 11:22a
Great job, Lou. I can totally see you doing this (with Kieran in tow). Makes you wonder how many nights are spent on fruitless investigations like this one, in order to find the dozen or so that they can build up enough to put on TV.
Sorry it wasn't more exciting for you, but for what it's worth, I prefer your ghosts to the real ones anyway :o)
5.28.08 @ 2:02p
Naught to show but an egged Fiesta? The ghosts may not have been afoot, but apparently the lesser demons were.
5.28.08 @ 2:23p
I believe in ghosts. Though I'm not psychic, I've been on a couple of ghost hunts- known as "spirit quests" in the Philippines- and remember a few memorable things- the sound of a scream from where no voice existed, new batteries in a camera refusing to work in a house but working fine outside it.
Hope your next "ghost hunting" is eventful!
5.29.08 @ 6:44p
When I went to Scotland in college, my friend and I went on a nighttime graveyard tour in Edinburgh. I know in the academic part of my brain that it was a cheesy touristy tour, but the part where he took us into the crypt and told stories about a ghost that tried to tear people's faces off scared the living beejesus out of me. Since then, I've always wondered what an actual ghost hunt would be like. Thanks for sharing!
5.30.08 @ 7:47a
Very cool, Louise!
I've had a few encounters with spirits, including one that I believe lives in our current house. Regarding that one, I probably would have thought I was imagining things, but a friend encountered "her" ('cause that's the vibe I get) one day while alone in the house, and I had never mentioned it. I came home and she said "the strangest thing happened today..."
"She" usually hovers around when I'm on the computer at night. I don't think she likes it. I feel a coolness behind my back all of a sudden, (and the air units in this room are in the floor) or I'll see a brief shadow of movement in a particular doorway that has nothing to do with changing light. And if I say outloud (yes, silly, but I do it) "It's okay - don't worry - I know I should go to bed", the shadow and/or coolness disappears.
It's happened frequently enough over the years that I'm pretty used to it by now. To my knowledge, nothing has ever happened in our 1959 Dean Martin Party Palace (as we cheerfully call it!), but a house 6 doors down was investigated by the Iowa ghosthunters organization. That turned out to be a mad mother or somesuch of one of the men who lived in the house.
What I can't quite grasp is defining a spirit, or only thinking it's "trapped" or "bad".