Of all my beliefs that I had as a child, the last to go was a belief in ghosts. I’ve always been fascinated by the paranormal, ever since a young child. My favourite film as a kid was Ghostbusters and I had all the toys including my own Proton Pack, trap and a light gun that projected images of ghosts. My grandparents house was a century old, rickety and creaky. That type of old house where, when lying in bed at night, you’d be greeted with a cacophony of sound, of footsteps on the landing moving ever closer as you pull the covers up over your head, tremble slightly and hope you fall asleep before something horrid gets you. In the dark and icy early hours I would look around the room, expectant with equal parts enthusiasm and terror. Nothing ever came through the walls like I expected it to and years later I’d realise that like all old houses it made noises, it made creaks and groans as it settled for the night. My grandfather was into Spiritualism, though he never called himself one- he preferred Christian – but he certainly had a deep interest in the otherworldly.
I used to sit for hours in his front room, his pipe smoke filling the air around me as he leafed through his morning paper. His book collection always made me drop my jaw in wonder as I eyed the titles. One book would jump out at me – Mysteries of the Unexplained. Published by Readers Digest, as all books in a grandparent’s room tend to be, it was a compendium of the bizarre and netherworld. It was the first time I ever came across Spontaneous Human Combustion and I was in awe and terrified at the prospect that at any moment I could be engulfed in flames of my bodies own making. Another book of his that I enjoyed reading in the darker hours was one about ghosts, a tome whose name now escapes me, and I was taken aback at the photographic evidence laid our before me. Most of the pictures are considered amongst the most famous such as The Brown Lady and in my young mind I was sure I was seeing real evidence of the other world. The idea of accidental or intentional camera trickery never crossed my mind, I was taken in and I wanted to be taken further.
Behind my grandparents house was a large park- Humberstone Park. In it’s heyday it was home to a large boating lake, long since filled in. When I was a child it had a large play area, a small brook in which we would go fishing for sticklebacks with our nets, a beautiful nature reserve where frogs would dive and jump into. In amongst all of this were the Rally Banks, named as part of the nature reserve they were a raised wooded area, with sharp, steep banks that provided perfect locale for a tree swing. But the banks themselves had a story long before that of a nature reserve. Between 1883 and 1962 a train track ran through the banks, taking holiday makers to Skegness for a well deserve respite. But as children, stories of course were common- that the reason why the tracks were removed was because of a horrendous train crash, killing all on board. Of course, today, I could simply go on to the internet and search out if the story was true or not, but in the early 1990s that wasn’t possible. Of course, we could have asked people who remember when the train tracks existed but we didn’t, we just knew that the accident had happened, that those people had been killed and that on special nights, when the air is just right, the train and all its long dead passengers would still come thundering through the Rally Banks. And we set out to find evidence of that spectral locomotive.
As a young child I knew nothing about how you would truly conduct an investigation, we all just accepted the story as true and drew conclusions about what we might see if such a vehicle existed with no real thought. But we were kids. We decided that if a ghost train did exist then it would leave tracks, markings we could recognise as train wheels. So we set out one day with a tub of talcum powder and made our way up to the banks. Heading along, we went passed the usual beaten walkway and into an area rarely visited, we figured that it was best to set up our experiment somewhere where people were less likely to traipse, and thus ruin our ghost hunt. We sprinkled the talc liberally about the place, covering the exposed path where we thought the train would travel, and we left. Our thought was that if a train came through then it would leave marks in the talc. Of course, we didn’t realise that if a train did come through it would also have left marks in the loose soil that covered the entirety of the Rally Banks. When we returned a few days later, there were marks in the talc- footprints and signs that people had walked through it, but no sign of a ghost train. But, that didn’t mean there was no Flying Spooksman coming through, only that it either hadn’t come through that night or the tracks had been scuffed by the footfall of those not respecting of our scientific endeavours.
It was not long after this incident that I got the opportunity to delve into the world of the paranormal more fully. My not-a-Spiritualist-but-really-was Grandfather would each Friday leave the house for a few hours and one time I asked him where it was that he went. I soon had my answer as one Friday evening he took me onto the bus and into the centre of town. Just around the corner from the central public library was the Adult Learning Centre, and this was our destination. Up a few flights of stairs we went and my Grandfather was met with who I assumed were friends- warm, kind greetings between a group of older people. I was the youngest there by a good forty years, and it was a small carpeted room, the attendants happy and sipping on cups of tea in Styrofoam cups. On a side note, have you ever noticed how good sweetened tea tastes when it is served in a Styrofoam cup? The chairs were laid out in rows, maybe half a dozen rows and two columns of maybe three chairs across. Me and my grandfather sat on the front row as the nights guest speaker came in. I say guest speaker- this was a spiritualist meeting, so the guest was a medium. She got a few hits, and seemingly picked up on my Great-Grandmother, though in truth when you have a room with around thirty people ranging from their 60s onwards in the 1990s, how many aren’t likely to pick up on a name like Ethel? I was clearly starting to show some signs of scepticism as this “hit” seemed too non specific, too convenient. After the mediumship the chairs were pushed out to the sides and a small wooden table was brought out, placed centre, and the medium asked for volunteers. I was one of them, and I joined the elderly medium with several of the attendees and we each placed a finger gently upon the edge of the table. Like a jack in the box too tightly wound the table began to leap and bounce, though never fully came off the ground. All sorts of things ran through my mind including the potential that there were springs on the bottom we couldn’t see. Yup, the skeptic head was starting to push out the young wonder. Now of course I understand about cold reading, and about the Ideomotor effect, but even though I was skeptical I was still awed by my experience. After, I asked the group organiser a question about Déjà vu. I forget now what his answer was specifically, but it was neither wholly believing nor wholly dismissing. I never went to the spiritualist meetings again, I don’t know why. Maybe I was a bit more questioning than I recall now, or maybe it was just a one off treat for me. Maybe I was grilling my grandfather on the return bus journey and he decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to take a growingly skeptical child with him.
But even though I was skeptical, I still held on to some belief in the supernatural. When I was studying my HND I remember sitting in what we called The Den- and old outdoor toilet, now cleared out and we had fitted it with chairs and posters and a sticky dart board and a Spice Girls poster. It was where we went to smoke and where we, me and my friend Lee, would spend hours discussing the bizarre, the paranormal and the Fortean. Many of our discussions revolved around ghosts and continued life, we thought we were quite the philosophers at the time- deciding that as we are made of energy, and as TV signals are sort of energy that when we died that energy must go somewhere like a TV signal does, that they still both existed in some form. It’s actually a fairly popular belief amongst advocates of the paranormal, this idea that because energy cannot be destroyed then our energy has to continue. Of course, our energy does go somewhere, mostly in the form of heat energy given off, then there’s all that grub for the wiggly worms. We mistook energy for consciousness and I can see why it is an appealing thought, how it attempts to pull this supernatural force into the realm of the natural.
The last time I recall considering the existence of ghosts with any real conviction was when I started work for a ghost tour company in Edinburgh. On one of my first days I asked the other guides if they’d experienced anything, or if they believed. Surprisingly, to me at least, most of the guides I spoke to didn’t believe in ghosts at all. I actually credit working for the tour company with pushing me over to the side of the skeptics. When you work day in, day out with the apparent paranormal you start to see just why people experience certain things. I could see that if I told certain stories it would elicit certain reactions, that if I told people to look out for a particular entity then those (especially those that believed) would inevitably see it. As I learnt more and more about the reasons why people experienced anomalous incidents, and the more I spent observing and seeing how and why people reacted, I started to lose my belief. Before the end of my two years I had not only lost my belief in ghosts but I was working on setting up Edinburgh Skeptics. I think it is fair to say that without the experience of working on a ghost tour then I would likely never have swayed to the skeptic side and would not have started Edinburgh Skeptics. Since moving into the world of scepticism I have found myself traveling the country putting on shows of the supernatural and being involved in the award winning Skeptics on the Fringe. It is hard to think where I would be now if I hadn’t become a skeptic. I’d likely not be performing magic, not have the friends I have now. But this isn’t a post about how great it is to be a skeptic- it’s about how great it is to be a lover of the paranormal. My scepticism has given me new insight into it, and I find it all the more interesting as a result – and there is a wealth of knowledge out there, and a lot of great people who embrace and love the paranormal (Hayley Stevens and CJ Romer are both worth reading). But I will always remember those times as a child, dusting the ground with talcum powder awaiting the apparition of a terrifying ghost train. And loving every minute of it.