Ghosts have always been a popular attraction for the curious and the sightseer. In 1762, hundreds flocked nightly to London’s Cock Lane to see for themselves the antics of Scratching Fanny. At Hydesville in up state New York the home of the Fox family was similarly besieged in 1848, while inside, three sisters communicated with the spirit of a murdered pedlar and inadvertently founded the entire Spiritualist movement. Throughout the 1930’s day trippers packed onto charabancs and motor coaches and set off from all over the Home Counties to the tiny, isolated village of Borley in Essex, determined to catch a sight of the ghostly nun or the phantom stagecoach, made famous by ghosthunter Harry Price. To this day, every July 28th, on the traditional anniversary of the nun’s sighting, Borley plays host to a contingent from Essex police in order to prevent the ghost hunters from overrunning their rural idyll.
Beyond the merely curious and the voyeuristic there are some who are intrigued and interested by ghosts and who seek to investigate and answer important questions: Exactly what is a ghost? How does a ghost manifest? Do ghosts prove that we survive death?
In 1st century BC Athens’s the Philosopher Athenodorus took the rent of a haunted house in order to investigate for himself the ghostly figure that plagued the property. In the 1890’s a group of investigators, including members of the fledgling Society for Psychical Research rented Ballechin House in Perthshire. Claimed to be The Most Haunted House in Scotland, their detailed investigation was presented in the book “The Alleged Haunting of B—House”. Beginning in 1929, Harry Price spent almost 20 years carefully investigating Borley rectory, writing two bestselling books and many articles about the case and his experiences there. In an echo of the Ballechin case, Borley rectory became known as “The Most Haunted House in England”.
Today, ghosts have never been more popular. There are hundreds of ghost investigation groups in the UK and dozens of companies who provide the opportunity to spend a night in a haunted location. Newsagent’s shelves carry numerous chat magazines, many of which carry an obligatory true ghost story with lurid, bizarre titles such as “My Blind Dog Sees Dead People” and hardly a week goes by without one or other of the daily papers running a terrifying tale about a family forced from their home by a rogue poltergeist. Fans of the spectral can choose from dozens of movie titles to watch at the theatre or perhaps settle on the sofa with a box-set of DVD’s from their favourite ghost hunting show. It is even possible to take part in a live ghost hunt from the relative safety of a theatre seat. Every weekend there are literally hundreds of people searching for their own ghostly encounter? People from all walks of life, all levels of interest and every persuasion and belief are engaged in the hunt for that most elusive of creature; the ghost. Armed with cameras and camcorders that see in the dark, digital audio recorders that record every ghastly utterance and an extensive collection of gadgets they wander around haunted houses, castles and pubs in the hope that they will capture that vital proof that ghosts really do exist.
Hundreds of people, tens of thousands of man hours expended each week in the search for ghosts and the ghostly but what do we have to show for all the effort? The evidence remains scarce, elusive and contentious. We will ever really understand what ghosts are? Probably not. But should we stop looking? Of course not.
© Steve Parsons 2012