Spooky Britain: how ghosts became a national obsession – The Guardian


Spooky Britain: how ghosts became a national obsession

‘The more time we spend in our houses, the more likely we are to be haunted by them.’

‘The more time we spend in our houses, the more likely we are to be haunted by them.’ Illustration: Jamie Wignall/The Guardian

‘The more time we spend in our houses, the more likely we are to be haunted by them.’ Illustration: Jamie Wignall/The Guardian

Mysterious glowing orbs, unexplained chills, things that literally go bump in the night: signs of paranormal activity have reportedly surged during the pandemic. As have specialist investigators, organised ghost hunts, eerie podcasts …

It was the middle of the night in April 2020, and everything was “perfectly quiet”, says Mandy Dean. She lives alone in a two-bedroom flat in the north of England and doesn’t tend to go to sleep until around 2am. She was in bed, reading, when suddenly it sounded as if a heavy weight had been dropped on the bedside cabinet beside her. “I jumped out of bed, legged it out of the bedroom, and slept in the living room with the light on,” says Dean. “This happened three nights in a row, and on the fourth night, it was the same sort of noise, but it wasn’t at the side of the bed – it was in the wall right behind me.” She adds: “I’m going to sound crazy, but I know I’m not.”

After those four nights, the noises stopped for a couple of weeks, then started up again. Dean did everything she could to find an explanation. The flat below her was empty, but she asked another neighbour and he couldn’t explain it. She checked the heating, the pipes. “You think: ‘Am I actually hearing it?’ Maybe I’m getting a bit stir-crazy. Because of lockdown, my daughters couldn’t come to see if they heard it as well.”

Dean called in a paranormal investigator once home visits were allowed. While they were sitting in the living room having coffee, she says, the investigator felt something “really cold go past his legs. About five or 10 seconds later, we heard this bang over by the TV, like something had been dropped. Both of us looked to where the noise was.” The leaves on a plant nearby were moving, she adds. “We go over, and there’s nothing there. So we try to replicate it.” When they lifted the digital streaming box by the TV and dropped it, “it was pretty much the same sound, but we never saw it move”. The investigator, she says, thinks the activity has something to do with the death of her father from Covid-19, because it started a few days afterwards. Dean isn’t convinced, although she heard similar noises in 2016, several weeks after her mother died. At the time, Dean’s daughter was living with her and also heard the noises; she was so scared, she would sleep with a fan whirring to drown the sounds out.

Anecdotally, at least, paranormal experiences proliferated during the pandemic. Caroline McKendrick, of Somerset Paranormal Investigators, believes there has been an increase. “Particularly during lockdown,” she says, “which wasn’t ideal because we couldn’t visit people’s homes.” Prof Christopher French, head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, is not surprised to hear reports of a rise. “There is historical evidence for increased interest in, and reported experiences of, this kind of stuff at times of uncertainty, stress and turmoil.”

There is certainly a growing fascination with the paranormal, and other phenomena such as UFOs. TV shows on this theme are booming in popularity, from reality programmes following ghost hunters at work, to dramas and spooky films. Numerous Facebook groups have sprung up with people posting pictures they have taken, convinced ghostly faces can be seen in blurred images; organised ghost hunts are well attended. Last year, the Pentagon released a report on “unexplained aerial phenomena”, and UFO research is being taken more seriously, prompting one expert to predict: “2022 is going to be a seismic year for UFOs.”

The podcast Uncanny, documenting eerie and terrifying tales, has been a hit; its host, Danny Robins, also made the successful podcast The Battersea Poltergeist, and his play 2:22 has been well received by critics and West End audiences. “I think culture is reflecting back the horror of our society,” says Robins. “The more extreme and horrific society is – and Lord knows, with Trump, Brexit, coronavirus and Ukraine, it has been about as extreme as it gets within most of our lifetimes – we seek ever more extreme forms of entertainment. I noticed from the audiences of my podcast, people are saying: ‘We want to feel that hit of fear.’”

Tim Gibson is a paranormal enthusiast who moderates several online groups, and says there has been “a huge surge in interest”. He started experiencing unexplained activity at the beginning of the pandemic. A marketing consultant, he had recently moved into new business premises when coronavirus hit and ended up working there alone. One of the first things he noticed was a framed print, encased in bubble wrap and propped up against the wall, falling over with no explanation. Since then, Gibson says he has taken more than 1,000 videos showing lights going on and off and things moving. He sends me a recording he took, in which a ghostly moan can be heard. “We’ve come to the conclusion that if we were to give it a title, it would be poltergeist activity,” he says. In one of the rooms, he says: “We caught something that seemed like an unbelievable white glow, and when you slow it down, you can sort of see what looks like a face in there. What on earth it was, we have no idea. My wife has experienced [activity] as well, while she’s been here.”

‘People want to feel that hit of fear.’
‘People want to feel that hit of fear.’ Illustration: Jamie Wignall/The Guardian

He has had a longstanding interest in the paranormal, and has done investigations in the past, but for this he called in a more experienced investigator to help. Investigators are usually not paid for their work, only being reimbursed for petrol costs.

“We won’t say it’s ‘paranormal’, because we don’t have proof,” says Gibson. “The paranormal would suggest there’s an afterlife, and nobody’s got any conclusive proof of that as yet.” But he believes in the paranormal? “Absolutely. This is what keeps, I think, all investigators going. We’ve had our own experiences, which is generally what starts our interest. It’s from there: you go looking for irrefutable proof of an afterlife of some sort.”

There is a paradox to ghost stories, Robins points out, “that is simultaneously frightening and comforting. The fear is exhilarating, but – at a time when we feel intense existentialist anxiety – it’s like a buffer zone between us and death, that idea that there might be something more out there.”

Robins has had “hundreds and hundreds” of people contacting him with their stories recently, although this is more likely to be as a result of the success of his podcasts than an overall increase in experiences. Hauntings, he thinks, “often come from a growing feeling of uneasiness in your surroundings” and clearly the pandemic has caused this for many. In the past couple of years, we have spent more time in our homes, but the pandemic just accelerated the trend towards isolation. “For a long time, we’ve been living more solitary lives, linked by computers and not real-life encounters,” says Robins. If you feel trapped inside, he says, “to the point where the familiar starts to feel claustrophobic, your mind starts to go to other places. A sceptic would argue that the more time we spend in our houses, the more likely we are to be haunted by them.”

There are other aspects swirling around. “The interest in the supernatural, post-first world war, definitely came from a breakdown of organised religion, and simply not being able to deal with the amount of grief that was pouring out,” says Robins. Religion is even less likely to provide comfort and answers now – in the latest British census, less than half were expected to say they were Christian, a fall from 71.6% 20 years ago, although an increase in other faiths has been predicted.

Is a belief in the paranormal also linked to a growing disregard of science and “experts”? Does the rise of conspiracy theories run alongside the rise in paranormal interest? “I think there is an overlap between some of the people who are seeking answers through the more populist forms of politics and some elements of ghost belief,” says Robins. “You’re seeing that sweeping kind of idea of ‘We want to believe’, and conspiracy theories are about that. I guess it’s simple answers to complicated questions.” Robins points out that the stories he receives “cover the entire spectrum of society. These are rational, sane people having very strange experiences.” One of the most compelling cases on Uncanny was that of Ken – now a scientist – who described a haunting at his university (giving rise to the series’ catchphrase: “Bloody hell, Ken”).

“The last few years have been the most stressful that many people can remember,” says French (Uncanny listeners will recognise the professor as one of Robins’s contributors). Stress can interfere with sleep and “sleep deprivation can cause a greater propensity to hallucinate”, he says. “One of our main topics of research is a phenomenon called sleep paralysis.” This is where someone “wakes” but cannot move, and it can be terrifying – people may experience hallucinations, and some have described seeing ghostlike or demonic figures. “If you’ve got susceptibility, it’s more likely to manifest if your sleep pattern is disrupted,” says French. “If you are one of those people, and it’s not a particularly rare phenomenon, you’re more likely to have an attack if you’re going through a very stressed period. About one in 12 people will have at least one episode of sleep paralysis some time in their lives.”

There are other, more mundane reasons that people may have experiences they believe are paranormal. Working from home, perhaps on streets that are quieter than usual, they may notice things they haven’t before. “Your house might make funny noises where it’s settling in the heat of the sun or as the heating clicks in and clicks out, that you might not have been aware of,” says McKendrick. “People have become heightened and aware of their surroundings, being at home 24/7.” (She also believes, though, that under psychological stress and with negative thoughts, people can manifest poltergeist-like activity.)

There are other reasons for some of the calls investigators receive, caused by the crisis in mental health funding and under-resourced care. Hazel Williams, a paranormal investigator with the London-based group Spectrum Paranormal, says she often gets calls from people suffering from mental illnesses involving psychosis, who believe the voices they are hearing are ghosts. Cheshire-based Tony Hayes, of Paranormal Investigation UK, says the same. “I’ve spent more time on phone calls to mental health services, and the police on occasion, when an individual is clearly unwell, and there is a safeguarding issue,” he says.

Another reason that interest in the paranormal has been growing, says Williams, is the increased use of technology, and people posting their own “paranormal” content on social media. “I’ve never known a time when there’s been this abundance of paranormal content everywhere,” she says. More people’s homes are fitted with video-recording devices – such as baby monitors, or home security – and just about everyone has a cameraphone. Almost every case can be explained, she says. “It’s actually quite normal for cameras to pick up dust particles,” she says, which can look like glowing orbs on recordings. “Because of the way the media portrays orbs on TV as spirit energies and ghosts, people tend to jump the gun.”

Hayes noticed that after the US paranormal series Ghost Adventures went on air, he would get a surge of calls the following morning – previously, they had been spread out over the week – and the things people complained about were often things that had been on the show. “Over the last four or five series, they’ve moved into darker phenomena, chasing demons, and the calls fit in with that,” says Hayes. “Generally, demonic reports would be probably one every couple of years and we’re suddenly getting dozens of the things.”

We make, says French, the most incredible – and unproven – conclusions to explain unexplained phenomena. In the case of UFO sightings, he says, “we very quickly go from something that we don’t know what it is up in the sky to ET, and it’s a huge inferential leap”. When UFO “flaps” – numerous reported sightings – first started to occur in the late 40s and early 50s, people didn’t make the same immediate connection. “If you look at the opinion poll data from that era, the notion that this was something extraterrestrial was hardly part of public consciousness at all,” says French. On sighting something unusual in the sky, “the main worry was that it was Soviets testing secret military technology. This was the height of the cold war, and the degree to which people were projecting their fears about Russia.”

We don’t like not being able to explain things, he says, and we will often take even the flimsiest evidence. “That applies to everybody – believers, sceptics. It’s confirmation bias. We’re all disposed to ignore any evidence that seems to contradict what we either don’t believe or don’t want to be true, and to not see any problems with the evidence that apparently does support what we want to be true.”

Dean doesn’t agree her “haunting” is related to any kind of sleep disorder, because she sometimes hears the strange sounds during the day, although she does accept that her sleep has been disturbed. Sometimes, the noises are frightening, but she has become used to them. “It’s still happening at the moment, but it’s not every night. I’ll have a period where it’s quiet for about seven to 10 days.” The element of doubt is there, she says, “but when you’re in the moment and you’re going through it, and it can’t be explained no matter how many times you try to rationalise it, you have to accept that there’s probably something on the other side.”

Some names have been changed

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