Ghosts and Skeptics in Britain

By Cameron Hewitt

A few years ago, I visited a half-timbered old guildhall from the time of King Henry VI, in what little survives of the historic town center of Coventry, England. As I explored the vast, echoey space, I noticed that the two museum attendants were listening to a recording of white noise. As I was leaving, I asked, “What’s that?”

CH11MayCoventry_067The attendants — a younger man and a middle-aged woman — exchanged a knowing glance. Should we tell him? She took a deep breath. “Look, you may not believe this, but this place is extremely haunted. So every night we set up this recorder to keep a log of the many creaks and bumps. See?” She showed me a long, handwritten list of times and types of noises. As I was looking at it, a loud clapping sound — like a chair being tipped over onto a wooden floor — erupted from the recorder. “Ah. There’s another one,” she said, adding it to the list.

My interest piqued, I probed a bit further. “So, have you two actually experienced this?” Another knowing glance, this time with barely suppressed smiles. “Oh, constantly. Every day, we hear some bump or knock.”

They proceeded to tell me stories that curled my toes: Normally it was just a strange sound coming from a room they knew was empty. But other things had also happened. Strange things. People on the nighttime cleaning crew kept quitting — refusing to give a reason. And one time, when the two attendants were certain they were the only people in the building, one last patron — an elderly woman — arrived to look around. As she was leaving, she filled out a comment card. When they read it later, it said, “Fascinating old space. But that gentleman dressed in historic clothes in the back room was very unfriendly. I kept talking to him, but he never said anything back!”

I asked if they’d personally seen anything strange. Both of them had — usually just flashes of light or inexplicable shadow. But the young man described one particularly harrowing experience. One evening, he was all alone in the building, closing up. He ran up to the rickety old minstrel’s gallery overlooking the hall to carry out his duties. When he turned back toward the stairs — the only stairs — he found a ghostly figure blocking his path. Terrified, and with no other options, he simply pushed his way through the phantom and quickly left the building. “What did it feel like?” I asked. “Cold,” he said. “Very, very cold.”

“That sounds terrifying! How do you spend so much time here?” They shrugged. “It’s not so bad, really. We get used to it. It’s routine — just part of the job. And I don’t think we’re ever in any danger. We’re not so much frightened, but curious. That’s why we record the noises. Try to see if there’s any pattern.”

Maybe I’m a total sucker. Maybe they sit there with their tape recording all day, waiting for a live one to nibble at the bait. But I don’t think so. They seemed like decent, honest people. They didn’t breathe a word of the hauntings until I asked them about it, and even then, they were initially reluctant. I think they really believe these stories. Whatever was happening — explainable by science or not — was happening a lot.

CH15JulStirling_047Tonight in Stirling, Scotland, I took one of those nighttime “haunted walks.” An actor, dressed as the ghost of the hangman, led us through the old kirkyard, reciting a carefully composed litany of ghostly stories from the city’s history as we walked between the tombstones. After the show, he broke character, and we chatted as we walked back down into town. Turns out he’s quite a serious historian, who’s written two books about the history of the town.

We passed the heavily grilled top window of the old tollbooth building, which during his spiel he’d described as the place where the condemned would await the death penalty. Pointing it out again now, he said, “That was actually my office for four years. I didn’t even realize that there was anything strange about it until one day, I mentioned the space to a friend, and he said, ‘Don’t you know that’s the most haunted place in town?'”

I asked him if he’d ever actually had any strange encounters himself. “I’ve had plenty of strange encounters in this town. But none of them were paranormal.” It turns out that the person who has devoted his life to studying, researching, and writing about paranormal activity in Stirling for the last two decades…is a total skeptic. He’s actually accompanied “paranormal investigators” into the graveyard, and prides himself on finding scientific facts to debunk any unusual findings they come across.

He described an example. One of the town’s pubs recently took down an old bit of paneling, revealing a hidden compartment behind. Suddenly, the workers were overcome with terrible feelings. They couldn’t breathe and felt distressed. The only items they could find in the compartment were some empty cans and a faded old black-and-white picture of what appeared to be a priest. Paranormal investigators and psychics came in to investigate. And while they were doing that, the “ghost hangman” decided to do some actual historical research. He found a faded watermark on the back of the photograph, and conferred with a local museum curator. It turns out, in Victorian times, the pub was owned by the town’s portrait photographer. His wife hated the fumes from the developing chemicals, and insisted that he do his work at the pub. At a certain point, his darkroom was simply boarded up, with all those nasty chemicals inside, evaporated and trapped for over a century…until modern-day workers unsealed the space and inhaled them.

Should we believe the haunted museum attendants in Coventry? Or the skeptic ghost walker in Stirling? Or perhaps both? One of the joys of travel is being exposed to different real-world perspectives…then having an opportunity to make up your own mind.

Have you experienced any unexplained happenings in your travels around Europe?