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Haunted graveyard?The following account of a ghost case is fictional - it never happened! However, any similarity to real people (living or dead), events or incidents is more than mere coincidence. Though fictional, this ghost case draws on events from many different real cases (changed or generalised). It shows how an 'innocent incident' can lead towards somewhere being described as the ''the most haunted place in England!' (the 'paranormal escalator' effect). It also demonstrates how difficult it can be for paranormal investigators to unravel what is often a complex story by the time they become aware of it.

The beginning ...

Mrs F was walking through a local graveyard one foggy winter's twilight, after visiting her husband's grave, when she caught a glimpse of a tall dark figure straight ahead of her. She looked around the graveyard anxiously but soon realised she was on her own. She looked back towards the dark figure but it had completely vanished! All she saw was a dark, old gnarled tree! Thoroughly unnerved, she set off quickly back the way she had come, vowing never to set foot in the graveyard ever again!

On returning home, she told her son about her sighting. Skeptical, at first, he soon realised how upset she was. Knowing her as a level headed person, not given to flights of fancy, he started to take her seriously. As she described the figure, details emerged that she had not remembered at the time - a long dark robe, a cowled head. She could remember no feet. The figure must have been floating in the air!

The son, familiar with the graveyard, pointed out that there was no other access to the spot where someone could have approached without being seen by his mother. This circumstances therefore ruled out the figure being a real person. And given the detailed descriptor of the figure it was obviously not a tree or bush! They both agreed, at length, that she had seen the ghost of a monk!

Commentary 1

What actually happened here? One witness briefly saw a 'dark figure' in conditions of low light. The 'figure' appeared to vanish leaving only a 'dark gnarled tree'. This is a classic description of a visual misperception, where someone's brain has substituted a 'human figure' for a poorly seen tree that vaguely resembled a person.

The witness added further details after the event. Though, sometimes we can accurately remember more of an event later, there is also a high probability of confabulation, where our brains 'fill in' missing details of memories that were not, in reality, seen. The 'monk' figure is a typical interpretation of a dark featureless 'person', whose human shape was disguised by a flowing robe. The witness did not notice the 'feet' (as there were none -it being a tree - and nothing in her misperception to suggest any). To make sense of a figure without feet, she unconsciously decided it must have been floating just above the ground! This is typical of confabulation. As the witness's unconscious brain had 'decided' the figure was a ghost, it could do things no real human ever could (like floating). We all know what ghosts are 'capable of' through constant cultural exposure from childhood.

The fact that the witness was thinking about her dead husband is typical of many strange incidents that are subsequently interpreted by their witnesses as paranormal. It may have suggested the idea of contact with the 'spirit world' making her more susceptible to interpreting a misperception as a ghost.

The son, seeing his mother was in earnest, put aside his initial skepticism to support her idea that she had seen a ghost. His 'moral support' reinforced her own initial interpretation of the events, cementing them into her memory. He also noticed that the circumstances of the sighting precluded any real person being involved. Witnesses frequently remember facts after the event that preclude a natural explanation when they are suggested (though these are not always confirmed by subsequent field trips by investigators).

... the media gets involved ...

Mrs F's son decided the story was worth a mention in the local newspaper. So, he contacted them and Mrs F was interviewed by a journalist. The journalist was keen to do the story because the public show an ongoing, undiminished interest in the paranormal. To add some background, the journalist talked to a local historian. The historian knew of no 'tragic events' recorded about the graveyard. He did mention, however, a legend about how someone who was supposed to have committed suicide there after a failed romance. He couldn't verify the legend.

As a result of the newspaper story, several readers wrote in with their own tales of odd occurrences in the graveyard, though none were quite the same as Mrs F's. These are published in a follow up story. The journalist also contacted a local 'ghost hunting' group who agreed to do an investigation. They reported seeing several odd lights and recorded some samples of EVP. The site was subsequently written up in a local ghost book, where the author described the life and tragedy of the 'monk'. It became a well-known haunted location, regularly attracting ghost research groups.

Commentary 2

Once the story entered the public domain, through publication in a newspaper, it attracted further reports of apparent ghostly activity. These were different to the original report and may have been mis-remembered 'odd occurrences' from the same area (a spooky-looking place). Whatever their status, the stories tended to reinforce the apparent paranormal validity of the original 'ghost' sighting in the public imagination.

Whenever ghost cases emerge, there is speculation about the 'identity' of the supposed ghost. The search for a likely 'candidate' will use local history. If this provides no suitable suspects, legends may be used instead! In this case, it seems unlikely that a monk would be involved in a romantic tragedy but the story was nevertheless used to 'identify' the ghost. In reality there was no 'monk', but these sort of stories acquire a momentum in the public imagination until they appear to be 'established facts'!

Once a place gains a reputation for being haunted, it attracts authors, journalists, paranormal researchers and tourists. They, too, may experience odd things, largely because of psychological suggestion ('expectation'). This only enhances the 'haunted' reputation still further.

What if it really HAD been paranormal?

What if the original observation had in fact been something paranormal, rather than misperception? Oddly, it's unlikely the case would have evolved any differently. This is why it is important to have no prior assumptions when investigating a case.

What would have improved the credibility of the case would be independent reports, of similar sightings, made prior to the one that triggered the case. However, if these only emerged as a result of publicity, they could be a result of confabulation - witnesses unconsciously 'altering' their memory of previous strange observations to fit with the reported case. If prior witnesses could be found who knew nothing of the case, their testimony would have greater weight. In addition, if ghost researchers holding a vigil recorded the same thing as the original sighting, that would add to credibility of the case. However, the researchers involved would need to be unaware of the details of the sighting, otherwise it could be psychological suggestion.

Conclusion

A paranormal researcher faced with unraveling this case comes in at the end! By then they will be faced with:

  • books and newspaper reports
  • many witnesses (from the original one to later locals and tourists)
  • reports from 'ghost hunting' groups full of weird events

An interesting point about the ghost hunting reports is that they rarely record the phenomena that triggered the original report ie. a sighting of a 'monk'. Instead, they will often report mediumistic messages, EVP, orbs, object movement, etc. Many of these are the result of assumption-led investigation and might occur equally well almost anywhere, haunted or not. Scientific investigations should concentrate on replicating the events of the original witness report.

The paranormal escalator

What starts here as a minor case of misperception can easily end up being escalated to a 'major haunting', attracting a lot of publicity and many paranormal researchers. This merely illustrates what happens in the real world.

Places can attract a haunted reputation when there is no 'initial event' at all, just a legend or local rumours. Spooky looking places have attracted a haunted reputation, without any definite initial witness reports, and purely fictional stories have had the same effect!

Paranormal escalator

Once on the 'paranormal escalator' (pic above), incidents rapidly grow, fanned by constant intense public interest in the paranormal and ghosts. And for those 'on' the paranormal escalator, like witnesses, reporters, ghost hunters and authors, it can be difficult to 'get off' since they have invested their credibility in the case being genuine. A paranormal investigator must be prepared to 'go down the stairs' to uncover the truth, without preconception, behind reported events, whatever it turns out to be.

Once a place is thought to be haunted, the reputation tends to stay more or less forever. Just as with an escalator, events always move in the same direction - towards confirming a place as haunted - even if it isn't!

© Maurice Townsend 2009