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Saturday, 12 July 2014

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Video and slideshow: Researchers put ghosts under the microscope

WHATEVER ghosts are – spirits of the deceased, ‘tape recordings’ of past tragedies or just a hyperimagination – we can all be agreed on one thing: they’re scary!

That’s surely the whole point of them, their reason for living – or not living. So why are we all so keen to see them?

Ghost hunts at The Rum Story and Muncaster Castle sell out quickly. It seems people are keen to pay good money just to be scared.

Part of the fascination is in deciding just what a ghost is. It might be dead Aunt Agatha returning from beyond the grave, it might be a ‘stone tape’ of a grisly murder which occurred on exactly the same spot some centuries before. Or it might just be a trick of the light.

Charles Dickens – himself a member of The Ghost Club – wrestled with the problem in A Christmas Carol. Marley’s ghost and Scrooge debate it thus:

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

It raises another issue. Just what constitutes evidence for the paranormal. Does the camera really never lie? Can we believe our own eyes?

Behind the ‘fun’ facade of ghost hunts is a more serious investigation. Dr Jason Braithwaite from the Behavioural Brain Sciences Centre at Birmingham University has devoted many years to investigating apparent hauntings for many years. And with the aid of the so-called ghost hunts, he’s been able to solicit the help and support of many volunteers.

Most of those at the latest investigation were only too keen to assist with Dr Braithwaite’s project.

Although they joked about ghosts and ghoulies for the first few minutes they were much more interested in the truth that might lie behind any phenomena.

Rum Story manager Phil Haslehurst began the evening with a guided tour of the attraction on Lowther Street – being careful not to give too much away about what phenomena had been reported previously.

And Phil knows first-hand what strange phenomena can occur in the building, having witnessed something himself.

Then Dr Braithwaite gave his introduction.

He told The Whitehaven News: “We are studying a case of an apparent haunting in the field so to speak. So we are trying to take the laboratory (and our research methods) into the very environments where strange experiences are reported. I am interested in factors relating to the individual, the environment and the interaction between the individual and the environment. Not all locations have a reputation for being haunted. Psychologically speaking it is interesting to ask why that is and what factors predispose people to think that the Rum Story is haunted.”

And Dr Braithwaite was happy to share with the results found to date: “We have found that certain sorts of experiences cluster in certain sorts of spaces in the location. Haunt-reports are more likely in rooms that are darker, colder, contain more suggestive furnishings, contain draughts, and sources of ambiguous sensations like noises etc. People do come to the Rum Story and report strange experiences - the big question is why? How would science explain these experiences and can we test that explanation?”

Joining the psychic researchers that evening were the Whitehaven Snappers – our online photographic group. Members were keen to ‘capture’ a ghost on film but knew the chance of doing so was pretty remote.

There was discussion of so-called ‘orbs’ – balls of light captured on many of today’s digital cameras. These are easily explained by flash bouncing off specks of dust in the atmosphere.

But the Snappers were also keen to capture the atmosphere of the Rum Story and some of the researchers in action.

Everyone was despatched to all corners of the Rum Story, measuring and recording anything they experienced. After an hour or so, people reported back – and there did seem to be some noises and recordings that could not be easily explained.

On the all-night investigations these measurements are more carefully recorded and analysed but the session gave everyone a taste of modern-day science applied to tales of old.

And the investigations are likely to continue at the Rum Story and Muncaster for some time to come.

Dr Braithwaite said: “We are currently testing a few ideas that have been revealed from earlier investigations.

These should help inform us as to what factors might be both necessary and sufficient for a strange experience to occur. Maybe ghosts are real, but if they are then we need to exhaust all scientific explanations and predictions first. That takes time, dedication, and a careful approach to research. The Rum Story have been fantastic in supporting our long-term investigation there and getting people involved to help us out.”

Finally, what should you do if you see a ghost yourself while touring round The Rum Story?

“They should definitely report any such experience to the staff” said Dr Braithwaite.

“We have a register at the Rum Story where people can log and report their strange experiences. If they can leave some contact details as well we can follow that up and maybe carry out a more detailed interview with the individual.”

If you want to take part in a future ghost hunt at The Rum Story, phone 01946 592933 or visit their website, www.rumstory.co.uk.

Words by Alan Cleaver; Pictures by Whitehaven Snappers; Video by John Mitchell

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