The strange lights of Shirley Street, Hove

In Haunted Brighton [1] Alan Murdie discusses a case of odd optical effects reported by residents of Shirley Street and Clarendon Street in Hove, 2002-3, which some commentators attributed to ghosts and others to UFOs or extraterrestrials.

The phenomena took the form of ‘Xs and bars which flicker along… [the] street’ [2], or ‘perfect circles of light with a pronounced X at the centre’ [3]. Murdie reservedly remarks that ‘interpretation of the light markings… [was] very much in the eye of the beholder’ (p.44), but concludes: ‘no single explanation has yet conclusively accounted for all the sightings’ (p.45).

I was intrigued by how this case defied the usual categories of paranormal experience, so I spent a morning in the library digging for the original reports. Sure enough, there they were: photographs of odd lights on the walls of houses along the affected streets, although much detail had been lost in the conversion to microfilm.

Concluding that there was nothing for it, except to organise a team and stake out Shirley Street, to see if the lights would show up again, I was making my way across town when a possible explanation for the case loomed up right before me.

X-shaped reflections of sunlight (some within circles) cast onto the exterior of a house.

Robert Street, Brighton. 16th September, 2014. 0900.

What could possibly be causing this? Spectral forces from beyond the grave? Space brothers from Venus? Crossing over the road and making the daring experiment of putting my head in the place where the lights appeared, I saw the following.

The sun's reflection shining brightly in a multi-panelled window.

What I could see when I put my head in the place of the reflections.

The circles and crosses were caused by the reflection of sunlight from a paned window across the street. Ironically, I was on Robert Street, Brighton, and the building whose windows cast the reflection was formerly the offices of the very newspaper that had seen fit to print the reports.

For the lights to appear the sun would need to be at an low angle to and parallel with one side of the street, so that its light could hit that side and be reflected onto the other. This meant that the effect could only occur in the morning or evening and would not be observable during the bulk of the day.

Of course, I could not be sure that this fully explained the rumours of spooks and aliens in Shirley Street. Strictly speaking, I should have made the effort to make the same observation on the actual site. Yet it now seemed to me highly likely that this simple phenomenon was indeed the cause. Wondering why no one else had been bothered simply to put their head in the way of the lights and see their source, I continued on my way, wiser and sadder.

References

[1] Alan Murdie, Haunted Brighton (Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2006), p. 44-45. Further references are included in the text.

[2] The Argus, January 14th (2003), p. 13.

[3] The Argus, December 20th (2002), p. 3.

Poltergeist Acoustics

In 2010, the Journal for the Society of Psychical Research published ‘The Acoustic Properties of
Unexplained Rapping Sounds’ by Barrie Colvin, which advanced the theory that rapping sounds produced by (alleged) poltergeists have acoustic properties different from those produced by regular means. In brief, Colvin suggested that whereas normal knocks start at their maximum volume and decrease, poltergeist knocks build up to their crescendo.

The unexplained rapping effects described in this study […] appear to involve the relatively slow build-up of a stress within a material, culminating in an audible sound when the level of stress reaches a specific magnitude.

Here are some examples:

Wave form begins at max volume and tapers off quickly

Knocking with knuckles upon wood, with the microphone close by, produces a wave that begins at its maximum volume.

Poltergeist knock - rises to crescendo.

A poltergeist knock from a case in Schleswig, Germany (1968).

Colvin addresses in his paper the inevitable objections concerning the reliability of his ‘poltergeist’ samples, and acknowledges that further work remains in order to support his hypothesis.

Recently, Chairman of the Ghost Club, Alan Murdie, highlighted Colvin’s work as possibly the first instrumental (rather than anecdotal) evidence for the existence of poltergeists [1].

As audio analysis software [2] is freely available these days, I decided to investigate Colvin’s hypothesis for myself.

The first thing I discovered is that good quality recordings of alleged poltergeists are extremely hard to find. I had imagined the main difficulty would lie in distinguishing ‘poltergeists’ from sounds that are hoaxed or have other natural causes. Recordings offered on YouTube and on the websites of paranormal groups were either obvious fakes, or else too faint or poor-quality to allow detailed analysis of their sound wave properties.

My search turned up only one usable recording that wasn’t included already in Colvin’s study. This was a YouTube clip featuring unexplained knocking sounds recorded by paranormal investigators at Borley church [3]. I took a sample from the clip, and was intrigued to discover that its soundwave properties agreed with Colvin’s hypothesis.

Borley church knock sound wave - rises to crescendo

A knock taken from a recording made by investigators at Borley church.

But the second thing I discovered was that although Colvin was unable to replicate the ‘poltergeist’ wave form by natural means, other researches have, in the meantime, enjoyed far more success. One of these is Maurice Townsend, who accomplished the ‘poltergeist’ waveform in a variety of ways – for example, by pushing an object rather than by striking it; or by recording noises that sound like knocks, but are actually sharp creaks [4].

C.J. Romer [5] has also worked out how to replicate ‘poltergeist’ knocks by natural means. He suggests it requires nothing more complicated than positioning the microphone at a distance from the source of the sound, or by placing the microphone inside a room and then knocking on the wall from outside. In the first case, the effect might be explained by the way sound waves move within a confined space, bouncing from surrounding walls and arriving at the microphone at slightly different times, thus creating the effect of a ‘gradual build’. The closer the microphone to its sound source, the less apparent this effect.

In the second case, sound is passing through two mediums before it reaches the microphone: firstly, the solid wall; and then the air inside the room. This, too, seems to have an attenuating effect on the waveform produced by the recording.

So – case closed? Not quite! Romer presented 12 waveform samples on his website, four of which (obtained from Colvin himself) were allegedly ‘poltergeists’. Romer professed himself unable to take the difference. However, when I took the test myself, I was surprised to have identified three out of four, the fourth being a sample I’d narrowly rejected.

I wasn’t selecting at random. I’d noticed that the ‘poltergeist’ samples had a simplicity in their waveform that the non-spooky samples lacked. The amplitude of the non-spooky samples seemed to oscillate in a more complex fashion than the ‘poltergeist’ samples.

To show what I mean, I’ve coloured the lower and upper part of the sound waves differently. In the ‘poltergeist’ sample the transitions between red and green are more regular and equal (‘tit for tat’), whereas in the non-spooky samples, one of the colours dominates for a while, with the other in a minor role, before the roles reverse (‘yin and yang’).

Wave form rises to a crescendo and demonstrates symmetrical pattern in its amplitude

An allegedly paranormal knock, recorded at Borley church, shows a symmetrical pattern in its amplitude.

Wave form builds to a crescendo -- has asymmetrical amplitude.

The wall of the room and a wardrobe are between me, knocking, and the microphone.

Was I really onto something? Or was I projecting patterns onto something insignificant? One of the difficulties with the hypothesis is the lack of examples to work with. And even where examples can be found, we cannot be absolutely certain they aren’t natural or hoaxed.

Colvin had taken some of his samples from a commercially available CD of paranormal recordings [6]. It was only after I’d purchased my own copy that I was in a position to conclude the feature I thought I’d identified probably isn’t significant. The samples from the CD simply didn’t display the symmetry that had been apparent in Romer’s samples.

See if you can work out which of the following three sound waves are ‘poltergeist’ and which are natural. Answers are in the footnotes [7].

sample 1

Sample 1.

sample 2

Sample 2.

sample 3

Sample 3.

I’ve written to Romer and have asked him for more details concerning his samples. I haven’t heard from him yet, but for now I would guess that all four samples might come from the same case. The ‘symmetry’ I thought I’d found would (if that’s true) be simply a feature of the acoustical environment where the recordings were made.

There is nothing paranormal about sound waves – although that doesn’t mean there cannot be a paranormal cause for sound waves. However, this remains to be demonstrated. And having undertaken the exercise I’ve described here, I’m far from confident that Colvin’s hypothesis will lead to the ‘instrumental evidence’ that Murdie suggested. To claim that we could identify a poltergeist from how it sounds is surely as problematic as the claim that we might recognise a ‘ghost’ from how it looks. Few people, these days, would be willing to hold up an alleged photograph of a ghost as ‘instrumental evidence’ for their existence. If the paranormal can be said to lie anywhere, then it must be in the cause of these supposed manifestations, rather than in those manifestations on their own account.

To take Colvin’s hypothesis forward, we would need to establish a causal link between the poltergeist and its knocking sounds. Then we could introduce variables into the recording procedure – such as different positionings of the microphone – to explore the effect on the sound waves produced. Two possibilities come to mind: the first is the establishment of long-term sitting groups, with the explicit aim of producing poltergeist phenomena under controlled conditions (like that described in Owen & Sparrow’s Conjuring Up Philip). The second is that future investigators of spontaneous cases should simply go in prepared and forearmed with knowledge of Colvin’s work, and – please – put the microphone as close to the sound source as possible!

Notes

[1] Alan Murdie, talk given at the London Ghosts Conference, held by the London Fortean Society at Bishopsgate Institute (October 3rd, 2012).

[2] I used Audacity, an open source program that can be downloaded for free.

[3] The Ghost Hunters, a BBC documentary made in 1975.

[4] Maurice Townsend, ‘Haunting Sounds’ (2012).

[5] C.J. Romer, ‘Knocking away the poltergeist evidence? A follow up on Dr. Colvin’s JSPR paper’ (September 6th, 2010).

[6] Okkulte Stimmen – Mediale Musik: Recordings of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007, 3-CD box set (Berlin: supposé).

[7] Sample 1 is allegedly paranormal, from a case in Pusruck, Germany (1971). Sample 2 is me, knocking on the outside wall of a room. Sample 3 is allegedly paranormal, from a case in Thun, Switzerland (1967).

Report on the London Ghost Conference 2012

Organised by The London Fortean Society, attendance was not as large as I’d imagined, but there were perhaps a hundred souls gathered at The Bishopsgate Institute for the two concurrent strands of talks, one in the Great Hall and the other in a more intimate seminar space.

Ghosts straddle multiple registers: folklore, history, science and art, as well as personal experience. The talks explored ghosts through all these perspectives, which occasionally collided in some unusual ways.

History and folklore went head-to-head in Mike Dash’s opening talk on ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ (SHJ). Bypassing the secondary literature on this Victorian proto-Batman, Dash, a historian and author, returned to primary sources and has uncovered that chroniclers at the time never quite asserted SHJ was an individual, but used the name as a catch-all for pranksters and high-jinks in general. SHJ manifested in wildly different guises (especially when news was slow and times tough for freelance reporters), and there are plentiful antecedent cases to suggest that a figure resembling SHJ was never far beneath the surface of the Victorian imagination. Indeed, the number of similar cases from around the world since, suggests that study of SHJ is the study of imagination acquiring credence through mass media.

Spring-Heeled Jack

Spring-Heeled Jack, a steampunk Batman. Illustration from a nineteenth century ‘penny dreadful’.

I had resolved to stay in my seat in the Great Hall until lunchtime. Next up was Alan Brooke, probing the intersection between folklore and personal experience. Brooke is co-author of Haunted London Underground and presented accounts of the tube’s most famous ghosts, as well as tales collected from London Underground staff. It was anecdotal, but entertaining. Apparently, although various stations disrupted burial grounds during their construction, these do not correlate with those generating the most reports of ghosts.

Next, another folklorist: Paul Cowdell, on ghosts in London’s hospitals and theatres. Cowdell wrote his PhD on belief in ghosts in post-war England. The emphasis was less on personal experience, more on how narratives are constructed. A figure in a black cloak can become ‘a monk’ or ‘a Roman soldier’ depending on the history of its location. Theatres are commonly haunted, perhaps because they are populated by people who tell emotionally intense stories. Hospitals, too, are sites of emotional intensity. Cowdell focused on stories of nurses in grey (variants on the traditional grey lady) who appear to patients at the brink of death. He also hinted at the birth of new narratives, occasioned by practices such as burying phones with the dead. If there’s no ghost without a story – he seemed to be saying – then what makes a story might also make a ghost.

Lunchtime! I grabbed a sandwich from a nearby outlet, and fell into conversation with a geographer who had written her PhD on the relationship between people and ‘haunted’ places. Just how many doctors of ghostology are out there? In response to bemoaning the lack of paranormal groups in Brighton she offered an interesting factoid: during her research she had found it impossible to elicit accounts of hauntings from people living in seaside towns… Curious…

Transferring to the seminar space for the next two sessions, the dreaded after-lunch lull failed to manifest, because artist Mario Lautier Vella gave the most intriguing talk of the day, on his experience of living in a haunted flat. Beginning with a sudden apparition in the lounge of a short, thin man, the phenomena erupted into repeat-sightings, knocking, footsteps and sounds of objects being moved. Mario conveyed his acute distress at these events and his longing to cut loose from his unwanted guest – or guests, as it turned out, because having consulted mediums, psychics and the ouija board, he was informed that five ghosts are resident in his home.

A most intriguing talk, but also the most enigmatic. I struggled not to switch into ‘investigation’ mode as I sat making notes. For instance: Mario’s neighbours told him they often heard footsteps and noises whilst he was out, yet he later mentioned how his parents frequently let themselves in when he is out at work. The initial impression was of a sudden paranormal invasion, yet he also detailed his teenage psychical experiences, and the extensive supernatural belief-systems of his parents.

So far he has refused offers from external parties to visit his flat, on the grounds that it is his private home. Instead he confronts the phenomena with his friends and invited mediums, and has produced some fascinating artwork – partly as a means of coping, perhaps.

In stark contrast was the next speaker, John Fraser, a prominent member of The Ghost Club and author of Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide, who set out to define to what extent ghost-hunting is a waste of time.

He noted how some locations reputed to be haunted can produce lots of merely subjective effects, whereas others, with no such reputation, sometimes produce objective, measurable incidents. A search for ghosts ‘in the field’ (so to speak) rarely provides a setting for viable scientific experiment. ‘Ghost-hunters aim too high,’ Fraser suggested, and drew a provocative analogy between paranormal enthusiasts and alchemists: just as the alchemists laid foundations for science, so too – one day, maybe – the raw observations of paranormal researchers might provide a grounded body of research.

senate house

The brooding edifice of Senate House at the University of London.

It was time to swap back to the Great Hall for artist and curator Sarah Sparkes’s talk on the ghosts of Senate House, that monolithic art deco building at the heart of the University of London. Staff in the building have developed a rich body of folklore and allegedly paranormal experiences, which Sarah is collecting on-line. On the interface between folklore, art and personal experience, I felt this was the least substantial talk I heard, but if I’d been in the mood for psychogeography, rather than looking for practical hints on getting to grips with ghosts, I would have warmed more to the tales of blue ladies, uni principals crushed to death in lift-shafts, and the dreaded 8th floor: supposedly haunted by some old books that belonged to Harry Price.

The final talk by Alan Murdie [1], Chairman of the Ghost Club, was a rallying call around the classic case of the Enfield poltergeist, to move beyond the sterile stand-off between ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’.

Murdie, a barrister by profession, described how sceptics dismiss Enfield as a hoax, but without returning to the evidence collected by the investigators, Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair. Murdie commented that any barrister who treated evidence in such a blasé fashion would easily be defeated. To his knowledge, only one sceptic had taken the trouble to review the evidence, Dr. Melvyn Willin, who was moved to revise his views on the case.

As long as we look for evidence one way or the other, we will tend to experience it as fitting our preconceptions. Murdie reminded his audience that poltergeists have been reported for centuries, and that Enfield was not the first or last case to have produced substantial evidence. He suggested that research into poltergeists might be moved forward by its commonalities with the phenomena of demonology, possession, mesmerism and hysterical symptomatology, and also by considering the oddly polarised attitudes towards poltergeists between male and female researchers. He also highlighted Barrie Colvin’s research into the acoustics of poltergeist knocking as perhaps our first piece of instrumental rather than anecdotal evidence.

This was rousing stuff and a great note to end on. (It certainly gave me some ideas for new things to make and do.) The talks were a little on the ‘soft’ side of ghost research, but there were redeeming moments. Perhaps the London Fortean Society was catering for a specific taste. ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) had their stall at the back of the hall, but – I noted – hadn’t attracted many new members, which I found surprising. It’s lovely to spend time chatting about ghosts, but even better – to my mind – is working out what they are, and (supposing it’s possible) trying to find ways of getting our hands on them.

Note

[1] Some of the elements of Alan Murdie’s talk appeared in his regular Fortean Times feature, ‘Ghostwatch’, as: ‘Enfield and the “Sceptics”‘, Fortean Times, No. 288 (Special Issue, 2012), p. 18-19.