ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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This article originally appeared in ASSAP News 87 , when well-known author and investigator John Spencer was our guest columnist. He looked into ghostly demographics, with examples from investigations carried out with partner Anne Spencer.

Why do certain buildings seem to have more ghosts that others?

One researcher we were working with, after a rather uneventful night's ghost hunting, commented: ‘This place is ancient, there has to be something here.’ We were in two minds about that. ‘Even a 1980s-built house is built on ancient ground,’ we suggested. ‘Everywhere on Earth is equally ancient, native Americans once walked where New York is today.’

But, in fact, ghosts do not appear to be evenly distributed. Some places do have a higher percentage of hauntings than others, and it is pertinent to ask why that should be. Although there are reports from all sorts of buildings (ghosts in modern houses and high-rise blocks built in the 1960s, and so on), the fact is that older buildings, and certain types of buildings, do seem to have more ghost reports associated with them.

Castles, for example, all seem to have a ghost story - or many - associated with them. Perhaps there is something about the castles themselves that we have to take into account. Perhaps the structure of castles is part of what makes for a successful recording-type ghost. (Note: A recording-type ghost is one that is held to be 'bedded down' in the fabric of the surroundings in much the same way as a video records an image, later to replay it.) Solid stone walls, perhaps the reasonably common square or rectangular shape of the castle structures, might all be factors that make for a strong echo through time.

We might also consider that castles have seen a great deal of history, and in many cases were places of a great deal of concentrated emotion. Major events - which leave strong emotional imprints - have been played out there probably more than anywhere else in the country. The stately homes and palaces of royalty are also buildings well known for their ghosts. Whereas only a selection of ‘ordinary' houses seem to have ghostly manifestations in them, most of the grand homes of the land can boast a ghost or two. Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, for example, is famous for the spontaneous movement of doors around the 'Red Room'. When one guest, the jazz musician Acker Bilk, pointed out to the Marquis of Tavistock that ‘The doors have just opened on their own’, Tavistock casually replied: ‘Oh, don't bother about that. It's just a ghost. He often wanders around. I think we have seven in all at the Abbey.’ Hampton Court Palace is another such building sporting many ghosts, including several reports of the shades of the wives of Henry VIII.

One difference between stately homes and 'ordinary homes' might be the sense of history and awareness of ancestry. Royalty, and most of the families in stately homes, have a known, and long, history of their ancestors. Perhaps such an awareness of the depth of history makes people more sensitive to ghosts. On the other hand, it is not just the family members themselves that are aware of such ghosts; many are reported by employees on the estates, or by visitors to those homes open to the public. Perhaps their own attitude of mind is affected by the grandeur of the surroundings, which perhaps in turn opens up the mind to greater receptiveness. Anyone who takes the time to ‘stand and stare’ can hardly fail to be moved by the atmosphere in such places as the Tower of London, or indeed Hampton Court.

There could also, however, be more spurious reasons why more ghosts are reported in such places. There is the expectation raised by ‘common knowledge’ that the building is haunted, sometimes even explained in the brochures tourists buy while visiting, and which would certainly be known by those working on such estates. Looking out for a specific ghost in a specific location can make every creaky door suspicious, every fleeting glimpse of shadow or movement of light seem like a figure. Built on top of genuine sightings, these spurious claims reinforce the impression that these buildings are more haunted, or at least more frequently haunted, than other locations.

The fact that many ghosts are often identified as famous family members, or previous kings and queens, may itself be a form of expectation. Perhaps sometimes a visitor genuinely sees or hears a ghost, but there is a temptation to attribute that often vague and fleeting glimpse to a famous person. If your one sighting of a ghost takes place in Hampton Court, how much more satisfying if you believe it to have been one of Henry VIII’s queens than one of the servants.

Other buildings of frequent ghost reports are churches. The church of Marton, in Lincolnshire, for example, was restored in 1891. Shortly after taking over as vicar, the Reverend Alan Taylor ‘became aware of a curious circumstance at the parish communion’. Although no sighting took place he ‘formed a clear impression’ of a bald-crowned elderly man with a mane of white hair flowing over his ears. He was wearing a dark green cassock. It appears possible, according to the accounts of parishioners, that the figure was that of a choir-man who was at the church at the turn of the century. A church that is far from restored - only a few partial walls remain - is Minsden Chapel, near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. It is reputed to be haunted and there have been reports of the sounds of ‘sweet and plaintive music’ and occasional sightings of a figure in white. Indeed, there are few churches that do not have some local association with hauntings.

Perhaps the connection to churches is all too obvious. Ghosts are strongly associated with religion: there are large numbers of reports of nuns and monks among the spectres seen. Yet perhaps again expectation is playing a part in such reports. British history is replete with monks and nuns and perhaps human-shaped dark images are erroneously assumed by some to be monks or nuns, particularly if the sighting should happen to be at a place where a monastery once stood. But churches have so many reasons that might make them associated with ghost reports. Ghosts - for many people - represent the dead, or life after death; the church as a place of religion naturally brings this to mind. Church graveyards are also places ghosts are thought to haunt, a direct association with death. Like castles and stately homes they are often old, large, solid, stone structures with large voids within, all of which may play a part in ‘recording’ a ghost. And they are places where great emotion has been expended and generated; at christenings, marriages, and funerals, as well as at other services.

Another type of building where ghosts are often reported is the theatre. There can hardly be a theatre anywhere in Britain that does not claim a few ghost sightings. The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, claims over 500 ghosts! Why should such buildings be favourite haunts of ghosts? Perhaps the answer lies in the recognition that - even in ‘ordinary’ buildings - many ghost sightings have been triggered by building work. Such work has sometimes been the trigger for apparitions, strange lights and sounds, the ‘triggering’ of ‘recording-type’ ghosts and poltergeist activity. In addition to the occasional ‘real’ building work or renovation which would take place in theatres, it is worth considering that theatres undergo almost constant temporary rebuilding work with new stage scenes created and destroyed for each production. Whole teams of carpenters, electricians and other specialist theatre builders frequently work inside theatres, redesigning stage sets, sometimes involving the removal or redesign of auditoriums and so on. Perhaps this constant activity increases the statistical possibility of hauntings in theatres as opposed to other types of buildings.

But theatres are also a place of melodrama, expression and energy. Emotions from the lightest and most humorous to the darkest and most grim are played out nightly by actors, many of whom are emotionally affected by their performances and - temporarily anyway - are throwing themselves into the most extreme passions. And if they do their work right, the audience is also at least temporarily filled with emotion: awe, love, anger, and so on. Huge rooms filled with compressed powerful emotions may well be a factor in manifesting ghosts. Certainly in individual sightings emotional states seem to play a part in a great number of experiences. Before, during and after performances theatres are perhaps highly charged with whatever this power is and perhaps it brings about either a triggering of recording-type ghosts or even draws interactive ghostly presences back to the sites of their former heights of success or depths of despair.

Actors are generally a superstitious group and reflect their superstitions in odd ways. It is well known, of course, that Shakespeare's Macbeth must not be mentioned by name but is usually referred to as ‘the Scottish play’ to avoid bad luck on stage. But consider the way actors challenge their superstitions: green is thought to be an unlucky colour, but the rest room in theatres is known as the Green Room; obviously an actor or performer needs to be physically fit in order to work, yet the customary way to wish a performer good luck is to wish him to ‘break a leg’. In theatre-land it is noticeable that the majority of theatres have ghosts to which the actors have attributed omens. The sighting of a particular ghost is usually held to herald the likelihood that the production is going to be a success.

Most importantly, actors are people who use the creative side of their brain. Whereas most people use the scientific, calculating side of their brain, actors are forced to suppress this in favour of the irrational emotional side. And there is evidence to suggest that in order to experience the paranormal - whether it is to channel automatic writing, use telepathy or PK or perceive ghosts - it is thought that it is the intuitive, creative, irrational part of the brain which has to be activated. One psychic we spoke to commented that ‘One of the greatest barriers to mediumship is the intellect, and the most serious problem I had to learn in my early psychic career was the suspension of my intellect. If, during a practice of extra-sensory perception, I allowed logic to prevail, and permitted myself to rationalise the impressions I received, and the things I said, I would be hopelessly lost within a conflict. It is necessary that I totally bypass my conscious mind.’ In theatres we therefore have probably the highest concentration of people trained to use - and using - their creative intuitive side of the brain.

We cannot discuss hauntings in this way without considering the phenomenon of poltergeists. That said, it is recognised that poltergeists might be a quite different experience from ‘true’ hauntings, that they might represent an energy of the ‘witness’s’ mind. But if the consideration mentioned above, use of the right brain, is relevant then perhaps it also is so in poltergeist cases and the places they arise. Private homes get very severely affected, public buildings rarely do. In private homes poltergeists often come and go in a few months, reaching a sometimes frightening crescendo. The famous ‘Enfield’ poltergeist is an obvious case in point. Public buildings, on the other hand, often trickle along for years at a low level instead of burning out quickly. Why should this be so?

We suggest it is because of the personal stake of those present. Private homes have a dynamic within them that usually changes. Homes with children growing up are constantly changing. Perhaps the poltergeist comes during a certain point in that dynamic and then diminishes when it changes. There is ‘negative’ evidence for this in one case we examined. A poltergeist affected a house for several years without even reaching a peak, but it was a house of little change - two middle-aged people, no children, and no particular changes. But the poltergeist ceased immediately, and apparently forever, when one of the couple died. In public buildings there are usually fewer, or no, people with the same level of attachment to the building. Indeed, often the point about these old buildings is that the curators take great pains to ensure that the building's dynamic does not change.

And of the ghosts that inhabit these old buildings? We are reminded of the old joke about the castle that is being sold cheaply. The would-be owner, unable to understand why such a beautiful old place should be on the market for such a low price, visited the building and asked the old curator if he knew why. ‘They say it’s because it’s haunted,’ said the curator. ‘And is it?’ asked the buyer. ‘I don’t believe so,’ the curator replied. ‘I've never seen a thing, and I've lived here for over 500 years.’