Halloween’s as good a time as any to reveal that I’ve had 14 requests from bark.com over the past 10 months, from customers seeking the services of a local paranormal investigator. Ashley sees shadows in his park. Kim is being woken from his sleep by prodding, which causes bruising. Mark is loosing weight from the fear of being repeatedly touched by two spirits, who Kim says are “harming my little dog, he is scared, I need help please”. I’m not registered as a professional paranormal investigator on bark, but I’m not so surprised that I’ve been contacted. Why? Let’s start with a snapshot of my formative years. [warning: references made to real violent murders]
My parents have just moved from a house that they’ve lived in for 50 years. Deeds show that this building, once a public house, has been exorcised twice in its 200-year history (I was an alter boy who was both enraptured and terrified when I read that the Vatican still employed exorcists). Our house had its own ghost, Florry, who – from time-to-time – could be seen by dogs who turned to watch ‘someone’ walk across the room. She also visited women on the night before their wedding. Florry was bludgeoned to death on a style across the fields, by a lad who followed her home from the pub.
Years later, as a design researcher at the Royal College of Art, I came across the work of Dr Rupert Sheldrake, and his book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals . The animal world appears to operate with an arsenal of 6th senses, which remain ‘paranormal’ until explained. Executing rabbits at sea to produce observable affects on their siblings on land was hot competition to Harrison’s clock in the Longitude Prize. This phenomena was explored centuries later by the USSR military, for use aboard nuclear subs during dark ops. My own interest in animal powers, resulted in designing theremin perches for domestic birds, to electronically amplify and record the affects of astrological phenomena on their behaviour.
I continue to be drawn towards the effect of other unusual phenomena – thrill in particular – on the human body and mind. The effect of horror films is of particular interest ℅ of my good friends at Mayhem Horror Film Festival at Broadway Cinema. Two of my projects come to mind: Self Examination, which incorporates the theatre of medial examination, and Duality: One Body, Two Brains, which reveals the inner workings of the cerebral cortex. All real science. All great fun.
In 2011, in celebration of the re-release of Stephen Volk’s Ghost Watch (BBC, 1992) I cooked up a most audacious plan – to create a ghost so believable that genuine paranormal investigators would want to take part in a broadcast live event to exorcise the spirit, using an arsenal of techniques, that included a ouija board seance and telekinesis.
The Experiment LIVE took place on October 31st, and was recorded with a live studio audience as a pilot for a reality horror TV show. The haunting and its investigation were covered as serious news by the BBC. The ghost of The Sobbing Boy was also born. He’s even made it into the National Paranormal Database, which has quite a high bar for verification.
My creative use of broadcast medical data has pump-primed my involvement in the development of several formats for television. The show closest to being commissioned was a reality-horror TV show developed for a UK TV channel, (a show which has a lot in common with America’s Scare Tactics – a comedy horror hidden camera television show, at the entertainment end of the factual-entertainment genre spectrum).
Heading towards the other end of the spectrum – the format I’ve been most excited about developing recently has me potentially working with dogs that can ‘see things’ that their human handlers cannot. I barked at the moon when I heard!
We started to shoot a taster for the show before the pandemic, but things quickly went horribly wrong. Alone with my dogs, curtains drawn, on the first night of self-shooting, I started the camera rolling. I heard footsteps running towards the building, a scuffle, a thwump, followed by a low droning moan…
I was detained inside the building for the next 24 hours as police and CSI closed off the street. The memory card from my camera was taken as audio evidence of a most brutal murder, most real.
Am I suggesting that this event is somehow related to the ghost stories of my youth, in a cycle of horror that is doomed to repeat? No. This was an horrific loss of a young man’s life, which left me and the community traumatised. But perhaps this is how some ghost stories begin. What if a trauma like this, which has affected a whole community, is re-experienced as a form of collective PTSD. Maybe this cathartic exorcism of a tragic experience works to move it into folklore, to become a story of a specific moment in time that appears to be stuck on a fading repeat cycle?
Or shall I simply hit ‘reply’ and go and visit Ashley, Mark, and Kim to find out what’s keeping them awake at night?