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, 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.
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 , 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.
 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.