JThe planchette slides over the surface of the ornate Ouija board. He settles on one letter, then on another. That’s what I dreaded. We sit around a table at Avenue House, a Grade II listed Victorian mansion in Finchley, north London, in a dark room that was once a tuberculosis ward. On the other side of the floor, a children’s lullaby suddenly starts playing from a motion sensor activated music box. “Who is S.G.? Are those your initials? A woman in our group asks the darkness. I’m agnostic and scared. If there’s an afterlife, I don’t want to open the door.
“Has Henry VIII taken your land? someone else asks, which seems random to me, until I learn we’re at a site that once belonged to the Templars. Earlier in the evening, ghost hunt host Craig advised us to be careful with our questions. These ghost hunts involve 45-minute vigils throughout the night at sites of noted paranormal activity, “calling” spirits to make contact. “You might encounter a departed spirit loved by someone in the room,” he said gravely. “If you ask them if they’re okay and they say no, what are you going to do about it?”
Haunted Happenings hold events at a former orphanage in Liverpool, a nuclear bunker in Essex, a former prison in Shepton Mallet and the graves under London Bridge. They sell out months in advance – one person here is on their 11th visit. Elsewhere in the room, people wear devices that record changes in temperature, humidity, electromagnetic frequencies (the latter of which are more commonly used by electricians to find wires in walls). Skeptics are welcome, which is a relief. “Their value is to weed out false positives,” says Craig. “If the temperature changes, is the device near a window?” Is this noise just a pipe? You must exclude everything you can.
Craig’s partner Karen, who is also attending tonight, describes herself as being on the paranormal fence. “The mind is good at finding patterns,” she muses. But most of the 32 guests tonight are devout believers. Probably too firm. Whether we sit a wake in an old classroom or in the governess’s turret bedroom, these are the same people who announce that ghosts touch their hand. Every nasal hiss or belly rumble is captured as significant. Anyone can see a man. Someone else can too. Does he have a beard? Yeah I think so. There are fainted children running around in smocks. Do you hear that piano playing?
Why are ghosts so often Victorian, I wonder. People exhale every minute. There should be ghosts in Reebok or high visibility tabards, haunting the human resources department. Death is not Scooby-Doo. But I get a taste of the modern ghost: a few visitors have ghost hunting apps running in the background. “Why are you here?” asks for someone’s phone. These applications – NecroBox, DibbukBox, Djinn Box – often use a “shadow dictionary”. According to another app, GhostTube, “words are selected based on raw readings from your phone’s magnetometer.” Hmm. “Lady of the Night!” announces another phone. It’s scary, but cliché.
Even the Ouija board loses its terror. The name Ouija, a trademark of the toy company Hasbro, is a portmanteau of French and German for “yes”. These are yes-yes advice, and that insistence underpins how they work. “Use our energy,” Karen urges the spirits. Looking at the hands, it seems to me that the fervent desire of the group to commune is expressed in tiny movements, probably unconscious, constantly pushing the planchette. (Later I learn this is called the ideomotor effect.) Nothing moves when no one touches it.
At our next vigil, in a darkened conference room, we take turns using a spirit box: listen to rapidly cycling radio frequencies through noise-canceling headphones, repeating any phrases that come our way. I love the ingenuity of this, but with every random utterance from Radio Belgium weaved excitedly into the story of a boy who died in a fire here, I’m frustrated. What are ghosts? Frustrated DJs who don’t hate dead air?
What I love is the ability to walk around a beautiful building after hours. Avenue House was once the residence of the Bishop of London, and we have time to explore it alone, by torchlight. I appreciate the high ceilings and the restored stairs, the tall columns of velvet curtains, a strange brick-walled canal in the basement. I open a door on the top floor, setting off a fire alarm. It’s the biggest jump scare of the night.
Our last vigil is in the basement, and we extinguish our torches. “My hand is itchy. Are you hot?” someone says, with much agreement and elaboration from the others. I’m cold, because basements are cold, and frustrated with overexcitability. scary, like kids around a campfire, but it’s almost 3am and I want to go home I detected a good mood among the living, nothing on the other side I leave less convinced,” I tell Craig outside. He’s likeable, with a high belief bar too. “To me, paranormal means unexplained. Not necessarily ghosts, or supernatural. Just unexplained.”
It is a more humble attitude that I can adopt; one who does not attempt to crush the cosmic mystery. If the hauntings within us, or the unknown swirling outside, were regularly available for inspection, life and death would not be worthy adventures. Let the ghosts have their peace.
A descent can feel like death?
I’m trying out GhostTube in my new flat, where no one died, on a Wednesday afternoon. He spouts nonsense like “rituals” and “life” and “what year is it?”, sounding less haunted, more like it’s on pills.
No. Nein. Was boring. 2/5