Thursday, January 30, 2014

Return to the Haunted Holiday

Several years ago I wrote a blog post about a family holiday we took way back in 2001 in which we were convinced that the cottage we had rented was haunted.

In fact, so convinced were we of the presence of ghosts, spirits and malevolent vapours, that we upped sticks and left several days early.

I admit that I was going through a bit of a Fox Mulder stage at the time, and would probably be convinced of anything, as long as there were blurry photographs or eyewitness accounts from the local village idiot. In fact, I had recently joined a UFO group, and was convinced – amongst other ridiculous claims – that body-snatching aliens live in a cave under Colorado and that I had a radio in my head controlled by Fidel Castro.

Now, older, wiser, I thought it time to revisit this most ridiculous of weeks through the lens of my own ham-fisted skepticism.

The thing is, I've never seen a ghost, even if I claimed I had before. Not seen one. The dead have remained obstinately invisible to me.

So, what happened on those dark, scary nights in Devon? The fact of the matter is that I don't know. The kids (primary school age at the time) claim to have seen a ghost in their room. The (now) ex-wife claims to have seen a ghost in the house as well. I didn't. I thought I had at the time, but that was a glimpse out of the corner of my eye that could have been just about anything. A shadow, a car driving past, look-at-the-red-light-on-the-end-of-this-device-sir because it might as well have been marsh gas reflecting off the planet Venus.

Granted, I was scared out of my wits, but we were told up front that the place was "haunted", and any noise or shadow was amplified by our confirmation bias. We scared ourselves, and believed what we wanted to believe. If visitors had been told that a fifty-foot Michael Jackson would come out of Brixham Harbour singing Thriller on the foggiest night of the year, I dare say people would have claimed to have seen it happen.

As much as we want to rely on our own anecdotal evidence, it's dangerous to take it as accurate simply because people see what their brains tell them what they want to see. We wanted to see ghosts. We saw ghosts. Or rather, we thought we did. People do it all the time. Faces in trees, Jesus on a loaf of bread, Elvis shopping in Tesco on a Saturday night.

I was convinced there were ghosts in that house in 2001, just as much as I am convinced now, in 2014, that there were no ghosts there because they do not exist. I dare say family members will swear blind to the opposite, but that's their opinion, and they're welcome to keep it.

One of the questions that we should be asking these days is this: Why – if everybody has a good-quality camera on their person just about 24/7 – don't we see more photographs of ghosts? Or evidence of UFOs. Or of Bigfoot? Evidence appears as elusive as ever, and far better skeptics than me are expert at debunking claims as they appear in the local and national press.

Where does that leave the evidence of my own eyes? The answer is "open to new ideas". I've been to happy-clappy church services is my years as a religionist, and came out believing that the lady at the front waving her hands to heaven really was speaking in tongues. Now, I'd probably think she was a very bad actor, caught up in her own self-delusion. Or a nutter.

The skeptic in me still wants to believe, but now I want the evidence, and the evidence just isn't there. And no, stage psychics don't count.


Mark said...

My wife's family still talk about the house in which my wife grew up which was apparently haunted. I've heard stories of ouija boards with the pointy, holdy, devicey thing (fine, I don't know what it's called, happy?) flying off and hitting a wall. I've heard stories of my wife at age 4ish telling her parents about the nice old man in the bedroom that nobody could see. Then there's the story of my in-laws putting my wife to bed (still as an infant; this wasn't a recent thing) and checking on her a few minutes later to find her fully clothed, asleep, but now on the bed rather than under the covers. And there's the story of how they all saw what looked like sepia images of people appearing in the artex ceiling (1970s artex ceilings! Still the best!). Despite being non-religious they brought in a priest to perform an exorcism on the house and that sorted it all out. Naturally, I didn't believe a word of it despite there being apparently up to four adult witnesses to some of the events but it was something my wife maintained was true too for several years after we got together. These days, not so much. I think my scepticism and concoction of more plausible explanations - "Are you sure your parents didn't do a lot of drugs back then? I've seen some of their photos and... look, I'm just saying there was a lot of it about." - finally won her over.

Gonzoland said...

There are many houses like those in the photo close to my favourite pub and I've seen some very strange things in their windows whilst walking past them late on a Saturday night. In fact, the whole area takes on a bizarre aspect after sunset. Should I see a doctor?

AmyP said...

Gonzo, Maybe see an eye doctor for glasses or to be sure there isn't permanent damage to the retina. Or get glasses to see more clearly with for next Saturday nite.
I read an online article years ago about somebody who was facing charges for walking around inside his house naked (daylight hours) and passersby who chose to look into his windows offense. Don't know how it turned out.

Mark, I never took recreational drugs but several yrs. ago I was given a BP drug that caused me some problems. One of the side effects was very mild hallucinations, which I'd never experienced before. There was this male ring-necked pheasant that was acting weird in our rural neighborhood. This pheasant would fly up on roofs and look in windows if he heard you talking inside. Once he flew up on my roof to display to the guy up there cleaning out my gutters. This pheasant would chase cars down the driveway, running alongside to the point that you were sure you'd run him over. He was so weird that he hung around and did his feather display when I was taking outdoor pictures for an friend for her music CD cover. (The pheasant actually ended up on the CD cover photo, wouldn't you know it). All this was NOT drug-induced, but one day while on the new BP med I was walking down my driveway and he was running alongside me in the fallen leaves... for the whole minute or so, it seemed utterly surreal: my head was filled up with a sort of dizziness, and my sense of hearing became extremely sensitive --and for a brief moment I considered that the pheasant was God. For me, a committed atheist, this was totally bizarre, and I was aware of the whole thing as it was happening, even laughing at it.

Gonzoland said...

"Eye doctor"
"No. Me doctor. You patient."

Anonymous said...

The photographic evidence is all there. Plenty of it. The delay in its publication is merely a matter of the complex remunerative discussions taking their time to come to fruition.