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.