Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Me and Poltergeists

Who ya gonna call? Ghostbusters! Me and Poltergeists

I’ve been skipping down Memory Lane a lot lately; probably a sign of middle age if not worse. A good deal of the events in my books have their roots in real experiences, and real heart-break too. Some have their roots firmly in events that would have most of us humming the tune from the Twilight Zone or possibly reaching for a rosary.

I lived in a Victorian terraced house as a student in Liverpool; it had been divided into four neat bedsits of varying size (each with a fourth share in the bathroom and hot water). During the two years I lived there, I occupied three of the four bedsits. I started in the ground floor front bedsit, moved to the back of the house on the ground floor six weeks later (it was a temporary occupancy) and a year later, following two break-ins that had made me feel unsafe, I moved to the upstairs back bedsit. Like most student digs it was down at heel and scruffy but it was extremely cheap to rent and my landlady was a decent sort. The other girls I shared the house with didn’t give me much cause for complaint (one is a good friend to this day) and given the issues many faced with damp, dangerous properties and uncongenial flat-mates, I was on to a winner.

Except for one thing.

The house had certain problems that are very hard to explain. Things as nebulous as atmosphere are notoriously easy to dismiss as being either figments of imagination (I have quite a good imagination) or the result of old, poorly maintained houses rife with damp and draughts. Small items within each self-contained flat-let went missing, only to reappear in places it was improbable if not impossible for them to have ended up. On one occasion, my door keys vanished from my kitchen table, only to reappear on a shelf so high I had to stand on a chair to reach. If you have read Away With The Fairies, you’ll know the kind of weirdness I am talking about. Had it just been me, I could accept it might have been a sequence of coincidences or imagination, but over the two years, all the other girls mentioned odd things happening. Lights would dip and electrical things would falter; you might hear footsteps and there was no one there. Eerie but not terrifying. Counter to what you might expect, I wasn’t that bothered about any of it, though missing items did make me get very cross.

Until one morning when things took a turn for the worse.

It was about eightish and I’d just woken from the alarm clock and was lying there thinking about getting up and making some tea. I’ve always needed plants and green things around me, so I had a few potted spider plants and that year I’d grown a hyacinth bulb. The flower was splendid that morning, emitting one of my favourite scents at that time. It was growing in one of those glass pots shaped so you can grow the bulb without soil; the reservoir is filled with water and the roots grow into it. I’d put the thing on the chest of drawers across the room from the bed.

Without warning, the plant, glass pot and all, rose up and hurled itself across the room at me, missing my head and hitting the pillow, drenching me with water. I lay there stunned (and wet) and was unable to move. I lived entirely alone in that tiny flat; my fiance lived a few streets away and visited most evenings but went home to bed.

The room felt unusually cold and not just because I was soaked with hyacinth water. Something sort of clicked and I leaped out of bed, dressed rapidly and exited the flat at high speed. I was so spooked, I didn’t stop for a cup of tea or breakfast or even a wash. All I wanted was to get out of the building and among other people. I stood and shook at the bus stop and eventually, a bus arrived and took me in to the university. Over the course of the day, I went through every rational possibility that could perhaps explain what had happened, and nothing worked. In the end, I concluded that something of supernatural origin had hurled that hyacinth at me. Later research suggested a poltergeist; I simply don’t know. We were all slightly too old to be triggering classic poltergeist activity. I was at that time the youngest in the house, and was around twenty one at the time.

Some years later, I saw something that defied explanation. A shop in Guisborough (a small market town in North Yorkshire) had weird things going on; the owner was a pal of mine and she was genuinely worried by it all. Candles that lit themselves at night are causes for worry. I was in the shop one day; my friend’s youngest son was at the till. We had been chatting when he went white and pointed to a shelf near where I was standing. The shelf held a selection of china oil burners; one at the back of the shelf had risen in the air, all by itself, and hovered for a second before hurtling across the room at the lad, only deviating at the last moment to smash on a wall rather than on his head. I can promise there were no fishing wires or booby traps.

You may wonder what I did about my flat. I did nothing. I went back that evening, and carried on as normal. I was unnerved for a few days, slept with a light on and a crucifix under my pillow. I’ve always been a pragmatist and scary as it sounds (and indeed was) it wasn’t scary enough to make me quit a decent flat where I paid around half the rent usual for such a place. But I have often wondered whether the girls who lived there in the years after I left ever had the same sort of uncanny goings-on.

There is one coda, though. It took me about two decades before I ever grew hyacinths from bulbs again. I didn’t want to take any chances.

Most Haunted Live

   On Friday morning my husband rang me from work with the fatal words, “I know you’re probably going to say no but I thought I’d ask anyway….” and then proceeded to tell me that a colleague of his had offered us priority tickets to go and be in the audience for Most Haunted Live. Now if you’re not familar with this programme, I’d suggest you look it up but basically it’s a team of people who visit various sites around Britain that are said to be haunted and conduct what they call experiments in the paranormal and what most people would describe as running around in the dark, screaming a lot. There’s an equivalent programme running in the USA and many countries and they have a faithful fan base who adore their show. The team consists usually of a so-called psychic or medium, a paranormal investigator(often from a university no one has ever heard of) a lot of camera crew, and a tame celebrity or two as well as the presenter. In this show’s case, the presenter is the panda-eyed Yvette Fielding, most famous for screaming an awful lot on this show, and the tame celebrity was Paul Ross, brother of the more famous Jonathan.

I very nearly did say no, as I would have a bus ride to town, then another hour on the bus to get to where my husband works(where he was waiting with the car) and then at least another hour driving through the wilds of Norfolk in the fog and the cold. But I thought, What the heck, it’s an experience, to which my daughter’s comment  was,  “Yes, but then so is getting your tongue caught in the tumble dryer!” 

We had to be there by 6.15 to get our priority seats but due to the fact that there was nothing on our map to tell us where the actual entrance to West Raynham air field was, we drove right round the perimeter one and a half times before finally finding our way in. It was then 6.30, but Nigel wasn’t letting this deter him, nor the fact that despite being told our names would be put on the guest list instead of the friends who couldn’t make it, neither set of names were there. We just stood there looking stubborn and the TV steward woman, flapping a bit at our stony demeanour hustled off and then came back with two wristbands and took our names. We then had to be searched and Nigel got sent back to the car with his two inch Swiss army knife. I hope none of these people ever work properly for security as I had a much bigger Swiss army knife on the belt of my jeans and nobody noticed. They just opened my handbag, removed my tissues from their wrapper so I didn’t rustle and vaguely patted me down. The sawn-off Kalashnikov in my boot went unnoticed too…

We were in a massive air craft hangar, on the disused air base, and it was all set up with sufficient seats for 500 people. Now, clearly I am naive but I was surprised at the optimism of this. How could they possibly expect 500 people to turn out on a filthy night like this, just to be in the audience for a third rate TV show?

How wrong I was! By the time it began all seats were taken and about 100 people were lurking out the back and sides in the hopes of a seat if any of us lucky ones gave up and went home. By the time anything happened, I was already bored.

The premise of the show is that the team go and conduct an investigation of a supposedly haunted site, and this had been going on all week. What the viewer gets to see is the scene in darkness, viewed with night vision cameras, the “crew” talking to each other with torches under their faces to light them up spookily (just as at school camp), the medium telling them what he can sense, then noises and rapping happening, supposedly sounds being heard, etc etc etc ad nauseam. The screaming is all part of it. During the live shows, audience members(carefully vetted beforehand I assume, the public are not to be trusted!) are selected to take part in seances usually with ouija boards and in vigils where they sit in darkness and wait for the ghosts to communicate with them by either touch or by other means.

At this point, I need to point out that I am a firm believer in the existence of paranormal activity. I’ve come across enough of it first hand to be unable to deny it. This then is why programmes like this one upset me so much.

It’s not just the pretentious TV bods, so full of self importance and shit I can’t imagine how they can actually live, or the exploitation of vulnerable members of the public, or the sheer stupidity of what we’re expected to swallow as “research”, or the obvious fakery and trickery that goes on and the contempt for the viewer that is self evident.

It’s the fact that if there are truly spirits trapped between the worlds, they seek to contact them and make them perform like circus animals.

“Can you throw something? Can you touch someone? Can you knock once for yes and twice for no? ”

Oh, please. That should read Oh puh-leeze! Can you imagine how you might feel, finally making contact with someone only to have them demean your plight by asking you to do tricks? I’d do more than throw things, believe me. If you were stuck between life and death, surely you’d want someone to come and help you get unstuck?

This is the arrant cruelty of the show and the paradox. If there really are spirits in this place(or another) then they come along and mock them. If there aren’t spirits in that place then the whole thing is a total sham.

Relax, I can hear some say. It’s only entertainment.

Hmm. I do remember something about bread and circuses, except Roman circuses had gladiators fighting to the death.

That aside, it’s pernicious for several reasons. The first I have mentioned. The second is the fact that this sort of thing diminishes real paranormal research; it makes it seem ridiculous and beyond a joke and despite the fact that valuable research is going on it is denigrated by many. The third is it inocculates the public against the real thing. By this I mean that the majority of viewers see it as probably all a sham and therefore all paranormal activity and research is seen in the same way. This has a knock on effect. It means that fewer people are open to the idea that there might be more to life than what we can see and hear right here, right now. If you’ve seem something on TV, and have drawn your conclusions about it, what need is there for further thought, further consideration of the issues? It’s the same as dismissing all church matters because you’ve heard some priests turn out to be paedophiles.       

Bursting with both laughter and indignation, we waited for a commercial break and sneaked out at about 10.30pm, the show going on till midnight, and grabbed a hot drink and a burger at the van outside(not complimentary either but thankfully not expensive) before hitting the road home. We got home at around 12.30, and it’s taken me since then to put my thoughts together. Did I enjoy it? Yes, and no. It was a very interesting experience to watch the process of making live TV, for which I am grateful. Would I go again? Probably not, unless I had some way of actually contributing my real thoughts on it. As an audience member I was(with 499 others) treated with a certain amount of contempt and general rudeness by the stewards, and really, we were there to give a spurious credibilty to a show that has none of its own. We were there to clap and look enrapt; to verify credibility when we were in no position to actually do so. Watching the ouija board action up on a projection on the wall, it seemed very certain to me that the finger of crew member and presenter Yvette Fielding was the one pushing the glass. I could see her move first; she also had an earpiece on which meant it was an easy matter for someone to direct her to the right letters in the darkness. I can’t prove this but that’s what it looked like to me. And if you ask a reputable spiritualist, they’ll probably tell you the oiuja board brings  pretty low class of spirit…

TV has a lot to answer for.