Orkney: Stepping back in time with ghosts…

I was fortunate enough last week to travel to Orkney as part of a student trip. This was my first trip to Orkney, and spending my teenager years growing up on the Isle of Skye I was looking forward to returning to island living and ‘island time’ for a few days. Last year, I visited Skye for the first time in several years and was shocked to see the impact of increased tourism. In particular, I was concerned to see how the commercialisation of folklore around sites like the Fairy Glen had been leading to the degradation of the natural environment. I was, therefore, interested to see if Orkney was experiencing similar problems.

In the last few years Orkney has become a very popular destination for cruise ships. This has resulted in a seasonal influx of large tourist numbers coming off the cruise ships to explore the island each day in the summer months. From discussions with some of the Orcadians during our trip these visitor numbers had brought positive economic benefits to the community. However, inevitably large tourist numbers entering the island was also causing issues in terms of pressurised infrastructure and degradation to historic sites. The community is, therefore, currently looking to adapt its tourism offerings to ensure a sustainable approach to welcoming tourists and sharing the ‘gems’ that Orkney has to offer, whilst preserving its heritage and natural environment. 


As we explored Orkney we had the privilege of meeting a number of individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living on the island. We also had the opportunity to hear some of the fabulous folklore and ghost stories that Orkney has to offer – which are in abundance! Unlike Skye, the stories we discovered where not offered as a commercialised package but came from the personal stories that had been passed down through the years. There was something authentic, exciting and precious about these encounters which made you feel like you were hearing them for the first time. The ghosts stories we heard also provided the opportunity to learn about Orkney and its community in different ways: 

  1. Ghost stories enabled us to discover Orkney’s people. We were very privileged to visit Skaill House out of season and hear some of its ghost stories. skaillhouseWe learnt about the wife of one of the laird’s whose ghost is said to reside upstairs. She appears to get frustrated when the staff tidy up too early in the morning, showing her displeasure by banging on the floor. We also learnt about the son of one of the Lairds who was tragically killed in an accident involving his horse. The boys picture can be found in the house, and it is said that he is responsible for the rocking horse moving on its own. A polite ghostly gentlemen has also been seen in one of the exhibition rooms and has been known to answer visitor questions – only for them to later learn that he was not really ‘there’! Through these stories we learnt a lot about the former residents of Skaill House, their personalities, what they liked to do and their relationships with each other.skaill2
  2. Ghost stories also helped us to see Orkney in different ways.  As well as learning about some of the personal stories of Skaill House, we also learnt more about its location. The house is built upon a Norse graveyard and is situated just along from Skara Brae, illustrating the significant age of the land and how its use has changed through the years.  We also learnt about ghostly footsteps that are heard in the Orkney Museum, often at lunchtime. We had not heard of the museum being haunted until these stories were told, and suddenly the age and former use of the building as a family home was brought to life. These stories added layers to the sites we visited, allowing us to see them in different and more complex ways.  skarabrae
  3. Ghost stories allowed us to step back in time. By learning about the personal stories of the people of Orkney, and how the places had changed and evolved through the years we were able to experience the temporal dimensions of the island. These stories paint a picture of how things were, the ways they were experienced and the people that played a role in these past events. 

The ghosts stories of Orkney provided a unique way of seeing the island and appreciating its heritage. Beyond its ghosts Orkney also has a rich history of folklore, many of which can be read in Tom Muir’s Orkney Folk Tales. These stories have the unique quality of giving life and context to places that are not necessarily ‘tourism hotspots’. As such there may be an opportunity here to use Orkney’s folklore and ghostly tales to develop alternative forms of tourism to help alleviate pressure on popular destinations. 

There is, however, a lesson to be learnt from Skye and the ways that folklore have been commercialised. Orkney offered us an authentic glimpse into its heritage through ghost stories, and this felt important not just as a visitor but for the people we spoke to. Stories may be an interesting way to share Orkney’s heritage in different ways, but how these are developed and offered will need careful consideration to ensure the people, place and past associated with them is represented in authentic and sustainable ways. 

orkney view



Why host a conference on the supernatural in contemporary society?

On 23rd and 24th August 2018, we will be hosting a new conference called, Supernatural in Contemporary Society (SCSC). The conference will be held at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, and aims to provide a platform to discuss the continuing role of the supernatural, and its value to culture, heritage and tourism. I am hugely excited to host the conference and we have two excellent key note speakers lined up – Dr David Clarke and Professor Dennis Waskul. However, why host such a conference? And why focus on contemporary issues?

The inspiration to host SCSC came predominantly from the fascinating body of research that exists out there on the supernatural in a range of contexts. I have, however, often found it difficult with my own research to find a ‘home’ for it. There are obvious homes for research in the realms of parapsychology with conferences such as the Annual Convention of Parapsychological Association or the SPR Annual Conference. There are also some fascinating projects and conferences available for those that explore the supernatural in the realms of literature and folklore – see for instance the excellent conferences hosted this year as part of the Supernatural Cities and the Open Graves, Open Minds projects. Networks such as Exploring the Extraordinary have also provided opportunities to explore extraordinary experiences in a range of subject areas. However, there is not a clear home for research that explores the supernatural in everyday contexts such as tourism, events, heritage, media, and as a profession. Additionally, there seemed to be an opportunity to host a conference that could explore links between subject areas and potentially promote cross-disciplinary working. After recently writing a chapter for a new book, The Supernatural in Society, Culture and History (by Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton), it became clear that there was value to be had in making these links across research topics. As such, a conference that invites research from a range of scholars has the potential to provide interesting insights and opportunities for future research directions.

The supernatural also continues to be a prominent feature in our modern world. However, we are often focused on ‘why’ this is rather than considering the value and impact it may have. Looking at contemporary issues of the supernatural in everyday society may allow us to explore these issues further. In addition to academic papers, the conference will also invite short case study presentations and posters from industry, and host an industry workshop with heritage organisations to consider the value and impact of the supernatural for tourism. Heritage organisations are increasingly using ghostly stories and supernatural legends to promote their sites . For instance, the recently opened Peterhead Prison is already hosting overnight ghost hunts and ghost walks, and the National Trust regularly promote their ghosts to attract visitors. A conference that focuses on contemporary contexts (such as heritage), explores links between research and industry, and is forward thinking in terms of future research and projects, should be beneficial for scholars, organisations and those with a general interest in the topic.

SCSC therefore intends to provide a platform for sharing research across disciplines, exploring areas for new research directions and developing networks for academic and applied projects, and discovering what the value and impact of the supernatural is within contemporary society. If you have an interest in the supernatural, have research you would like to share or have case study examples to discuss with our delegates we would be delighted to see you there!

You can find out more about the conference and the Call for Papers here –

You can also follow us on our Twitter (@SCSC2018) and Facebook.




8 Tips for Talking Ghosts: The Media

Ghosts don’t frighten me…but the media does!

Today I attended a workshop run by Women in Journalism Scotland who do some excellent work training, mentoring and encouraging women in the media. I took part not because I am a journalist but because if I’m honest the media makes me a little nervous. My nerves are not necessarily about appearing on camera, giving an interview on air or being quoted in an article, I have done some of those things before. You see what unnerves me is the context…my area of expertise is the paranormal, and that comes with baggage!

It’s a hugely frustrating piece of baggage (the kind where you take your holdall and after hours of lugging it around train stations and airports wish you had purchased a wheely bag…but also kind of know that a wheely bag doesn’t get you to the same exciting places as one you can carry, adventure-like, on your shoulder…). Its frustrating because I know I am knowledgeable in my field, I have been involved in the area for over 10 years and received a PhD in the topic. I also know that there are some really interesting and engaging conversations to have and although I am comfortable talking to peers, colleagues and my students about it I still find myself  nervous of having such conversations through the media. The paranormal unfortunately is a topic ‘haunted’ by its past, and current popularisation. It has a history of sensationalised cases that have hit the media and then turned out to be either fake or misunderstood. In recent years the rise of paranormal TV, film and representation on social media has left its scars and the paranormal has found its place in entertainment rather than perceived as a serious topic of research. The question of “is it real?” and “do you believe?” has dominated debate and opinion, and those who research the area are often considered ghostbusters regardless of their focus. It’s credibility as a discipline is, perhaps understandably, sometimes questioned.

This is a shame. There are some fascinating studies that explore the Supernatural and it’s role in our society beyond questions of belief or existence (not that these are bad questions!). However, I fear that like myself some people will be nervous about sharing this research with the public through the media. I am an academic, and I understand that whatever opinion I give or research I share reflects on my academic credibility, as well as the University I represent. I am nervous that the newspaper headline will read Ghostbuster Lecturer…or an interview will be accompanied by spooky sound effects in the background…the usual clichés. However, after attending the event today I have realised something – the only way to tackle this issue is for experts in this area to lead the way and shape the conversation.

I raised my concerns at the event today to a panel of journalists and explained my area of expertise and why I was concerned. It was lovely to see the excitement that this kind of topic brings when people hear that the paranormal is your area of study – I encounter it quite a lot and this is positive! They sympathised with my plight but also provided some good tips (for both this topic and more generally) that I thought would be useful to share. This advice is from industry professionals working in the media and journalism, and whilst I am yet to try these out, I hope they will be useful for others considering sharing their research.

8 Tips for Talking Ghosts (or indeed anything else…)

1. Do your research into the publication/ media outlet. Tabloids are likely to sensationalise and there may be specific media outlets that work with your topic (for instance my research into haunted heritage may receive a better write up with someone like BBC History).

2. Be honest and communicate the parameters you would like to talk within. If you are not comfortable talking about an area raise this in advance, a good journalist will adhere to this. This it seems is particularly important in the paranormal world – I often find that everyone assumes you are a parapsychologist in the field, and often ask psychology based questions, even if this is not your area of study.

3. Ask for either the questions or general ‘jist’ of the interview in advance. Again, most journalists should at least be able to give you a feel for the direction of the interview.

4. Prepare. Particularly think of any challenging questions that could be asked and how you will respond.

5. Don’t feel that you have to answer everything. If you are unsure be honest and explain in the interview that this is not your area of expertise.

6. Think about what the key message is you want to communicate and make sure you get this across. Interviews may be short or cut off quickly so you want to get your ‘sound bite’ in when you can.

7. You can say no. If your not comfortable doing the interview or with the outlet it will be published in you can say no, other opportunities are likely to arise.

8. Be proactive. If you want to be a spokesperson for your area of research seek out opportunities in places you would like your voice to be heard.

I hope these tips are useful. I certainly found the sessions helpful, and will be using this advice in the future if media opportunities arise. Please do feel free to discuss any experiences you have had with the media and paranormal below, or indeed share your own advice on the topic.


How to steal a ghost…

This week I watched the Halloween special of Ghost Adventures. There was the usual demonic presence, portal opening and ‘attachments’ that seem to have become all too common in the show. However, this week the second part of the show focused on Zak’s Haunted Museum – a timely promotion for his new attraction. In previous posts, I have discussed the commodification of ghosts, and attractions such as haunted museums and collections are a clear example of this process in action. It was, therefore, not a huge surprise that the episode focused on the haunted items in the museum and demonstrated the paranormal possibilities that might be in store for unsuspecting visitors.

In the second part of the episode, however, something did happen that surprised me – Zak stole a ghost (or at least seems to be trying too). ghsotadventuresAs a special feature in this episode the team investigate Annabelle, the notorious haunted doll. Annabelle does not form part of the collection at Zak Bagans’ Haunted Museum and instead resides at the Warren’s Occult Museum. For this episode, the doll was transported to Zak’s museum for the purpose of an investigation under the watchful gaze of its guardian. Before the investigation takes place we see the dolls guardian using gloves to handle her as a precaution to minimise contact with the doll and, as he states, the potential for a spirit attachment to be formed. During the investigation Zak is warned not to touch the doll, however, despite these warnings he grabs its foot – claiming to have been compelled by the doll to do so. As this is happening a 3D mapping camera also captures footage of a ‘mapped’ figure moving between Zak and the doll. At a later point this mapped figure appears to move outside of Zak and the doll, and disappear into the environment. The guardian angered by Zak’s actions removes Annabelle from the premises.


Obviously, much of the footage has been edited and it is difficult (as it is with all of these programmes) to distinguish the sequence and reality of the events that occur (not just in terms of the paranormal but also the true reactions of the participants). However, Zak’s reaction to the events was interesting and has the potential to have very ‘real’ impacts. After the doll is removed Zak suggests that the doll might no longer be in Annabelle but may now be attached to the museum.

This is excellent news for the museum! Unable to showcase the infamous Annabelle doll in person,  they can now lay claim to hosting its spirit. Actually quite an ingenius move when you think about it!

Perhaps I am being cynical, and maybe these were all honest reactions, however, the possibility that Annabelle’s demonic spirit may now reside at the museum does have commercial benefits. It will be interesting to see how this story is played out in the PR and marketing of the attraction.

annabelleI do wonder, however, how the owners of Annabelle feel about this? And the prospect that the characteristic that made her so famous may no longer be there? Essentially, according to Ghost Adventures, they now only own the ‘shell’ of a doll whose spirit has decided to live elsewhere. I am no expert on the value of possessed items, but I would expect that this significantly lowers an items worth and appeal. I also wonder how fans of the Annabelle story feel? Does this mean that Annabelle ceases to exist in the form that made her so famous?

Regardless of the reality behind the dolls story and indeed the legitimacy of Ghost Adventures as a show, this is a fascinating attempt to benefit from the appeal and notoriety of a supernatural legend. By hosting the doll on the show and in the haunted museum, Zak has set up a situation where the possibility of the spirit transferring to the site is ‘plausible’. The museums ‘haunted’ environment (including a room full of other haunted dolls) invites the possibility that Annabelle’s spirit might choose to stay – after all who would not want some spooky doll friends!? Likewise, the actions of Zak to ‘touch’ the doll when he is advised not to engenders the possibility that an attachment has been formed. Finally, the ‘evidence’ from the mapping camera further implies that something has left the doll and disappeared into the museum. All of these scenarios set up the possibility that Annabelle’s spirit could leave its current residence (in the doll) and inhabit a new space (the museum). This ‘possibility’ has also been suggested by Zak and his crew after the episode aired:


I suggested at the start of this post that Zak ‘stole’ a ghost and perhaps this accusation is unfounded – these may have been genuine actions and reactions to the situation that unfolded. However, I can’t help but feel that the situation is very convenient and I do wonder how aware Ghost Adventures were of the impact of their actions on the Annabelle legend, and the promotional benefit it may bring to the museum. Either way it will be interesting to see who claims to have Annabelle’s spirit residing with them, and where paranormal ethusiasts will choose to visit her…





The night I found my scream! Experiencing the York Maze Hallowscream

On Sunday morning I woke up a little bleary eyed, and slightly bemused as I came to terms with my surroundings – a small, but lovely, AirB&B in York that we had booked out for the weekend. As I reached for my water I noticed that my throat was tender, and my voice a little croaky as I attempted to clear it. Coming down with a cold was my first thought, a common side effect of teaching freshers at the University, however, as I slowly awakened I started to remember the night before. My throat it seemed was less impending ‘freshers flu’ and much more likely the result of being chased by numerous supernatural and nefarious creatures, and the inevitable screaming that followed!

The evening before we had visited the York Maze Hallowscream. As horror buffs, we had planned the trip for a few months, travelling down from Scotland simply for the hope of being scared. We were not disappointed.

At 6.45pm we were picked up from York in the Hallowscream bus. 9A fairly normal looking bus from the outside, but as we entered we were greeted by two cheery ghouls who took our reservation. We sat towards the back of the bus, and I could not help but notice the excitement and evident anticipation as the other guests also discussed their destination. The bus started to move, and the television screens sprang to life revealing the story of the Hallowscream event. A gruesome story of a circus master and his performers slain on the grounds of the Maze, only to return to seek revenge on the living…a glimpse into the horrors that awaited us…

The bus pulled up outside the Maze and we were wished well by our goulish driver and host. As we started to make our way to the entrance, the sounds of screaming could be heard and the very faint but definite murmuring of a chainsaw. As we reached the queue the chainsaw sound grew louder…as did the screams. Excitedly we waited in line, exchanging expectations and excitement at what lay beyond the entrance. We did not, however, need to wait long. Just as we reached the entrance from the darkness a clown appeared, chainsaw in one hand and a fearful grimace on his face. He ran into the crowd, scattering punters as they hid behind each other squealing and darting in different directions. Nadine grabbed onto me and her mum, “No, I can’t do this”…but it was too late we were here, and we were here to be scared.

We collected our RIP tickets (allowing us to be VIPs for the evening) and made our way through to the first experience, a health and safety briefing. This was, however, unlike any H&S experience I have encountered before. After being herded into a large barn (which had a somewhat sinister feel to it anyway) we were addressed by a spectral head which took us through how the event would run, and laid the ground rules – no running (?!), and no touching the actors. We were then released into the night…

Our first experience had a rather unglamourous beginning as we all decided a toilet stop would not be a bad decision given the inevitable scaring that was to follow. Just as we were about to leave the toilet block, however, a women came crashing through the door looking rather flustered. Instead of entering a cubicle she just stood there looking at the door. Bravely, Tracy slowly opened the door and peered out into the darkness only to quickly retreat shutting the door behind her to the sound of a chainsaw reving up outside. 4The door then flew open and in jumped our not-so-friendly clown friend from earlier. At this point Nadine dived into a cubicle, locking the door behind her. The clown soon left, and the chainsaw noise dissipated. After a few minutes, I slowly opened the toilet block door. The coast was clear. Confidently I walked out calling for Tracy and Nadine to follow me. A few feet out, however, I regretted my decision. The clown was hiding around the back waiting in the shadows to jump out at me, with a scream I darted off into the safety of the well lit area beside the cafe only to here Tracy and Nadine also scream and retreat back into the toilets. It took a good 10 to 15 minutes before Nadine could be coaxed from the toilet cubicle and we were reunited once more.

We headed towards the main Hallowscream attractions. Even the walk towards the attractions was exciting, there was the trepidation of another chainsaw wielding clown jumping out at any moment and some fantastic special effects including a giant eye ball that looked down on us as we entered the marquee. Inside music was playing, food stalls lined the sides of the tent, and every now and again a scream could be heard followed by a creature in hot pursuit of an unwitting punter. This was going to be a good night…


There were five attractions on show to explore at the maze. I will not go into details of each of them so as not to ruin the experience for those that attend. They were all, however, fantastically scary. For the first two attractions 2073 and The Difference Engine, Nadine clung so tightly to my back that I thought she might actually climb inside my skin. Each attraction was a sensory overload as you are subjected to total darkness, strobe lighting, smoke filled rooms and fabulously realistic props, all whilst actors taunt and surprise you at every turn. Your mind is left completely bewildered as it attempts to cope with an assault on the senses all whilst battling with an “i know its not real, but…” conflict you are experiencing inside. You come out of each attraction exhilirated, amused and relieved to have reached the end and survived…only to be greeted by that chainsaw wielding clown or other characters such as Leatherface and the creepy twins which keep you on your toes, even as you are munching down on your tasty pulled pork burger from one of the stalls! Perhaps my favourite and most frightening moment was at the end of one of the attractions when you assume you have finished only to face a long smoked filled corridor. At the end, a man is standing with a rabbit head and chainsaw by his side. With only one way out we edged towards him, crowded together in fear, when suddenly he ran full speed towards us, chainsaw in hand. We fled darting through the smoke only to exit screaming and flustered past the waiting crowd…who must have wondered what fears lay ahead of them…

We had three hours between arriving on our bus and the time we were due to leave. It went past so fast, and we could not quite believe when it was time to make our way back. We left excited, entertained and somewhat exhausted after all of the scaring and screaming. On the way back to the AirB&B we relayed stories of our most fearful or humorous moments…all agreeing that actually the start of the night, Nadine barricaded in the toilet as a clown waited outside was one of the highlights! It was a lot of fun being scared, and whilst it was not ‘real’ it provided the opportunity to imagine the ‘possibility’ that it was. Each corner turned, each darkened room entered, and each ghoulish character we encountered offered a chance to escape reality and be fearful in a very ‘real’ way. As Tracy said on our way back home you got the most out of the event when you embraced and immersed yourself in the experience as the ‘victim’. Experiences such as Hallowscream allow us to let go of the sensible and rationale side of ourselves, allowing ourselves to become reenchanted with the world, even if only for a few hours.

As I lay in bed nurturing my croaky throat the next day, I smiled. We had travelled for nearly 5 hours to be scared and we had made the most of it, war wounds to show. The Hallowscream had lived up to our expectations…and I was already planning for the next one…


Collective Paranormal Experiences – discovering ghosts together


In my earlier post, ‘Noticing ghosts together’, I discussed how unusual events are noticed and shared collectively. In particular, I mentioned how the use of “that” questions draw attention to an event and imply strange or transgressive qualities towards it. In this post I would like to explore how an event progresses from first being noticed by a group, to being understood and categorised as potentially paranormal.

This discussion further draws upon my doctoral research which examined the social interaction of paranormal investigation groups. I, therefore, approach this from the perspective of examining the talk and actions that inform how people come to understand paranormal events. It should be acknowledged then that I do not discuss the psychological or broader sociological influences (such as belief), in this context, but certainly recognise that these may play an additional role. This approach does, however, provide an interesting perspective into how groups collectively come to understand the nature of an event.

At the route of this discussion is the understanding that individuals do not immediately categorise events as paranormal, but go through a variety of processes to reach this ghoststairsconclusion. This has been acknowledged by other researchers, for instance, in their book Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life, Dennis and Michelle Waskul (2016) examine the sense-making practices that individuals go through to determine an event as paranormal. Likewise, Robin Wooffitt has examined how people account for strange events, often drawing upon normal narratives to explain abnormal encounters (a device he calls “I was just doing X…when Y”). This research suggests, as does my own, that individuals do not immediately ‘jump’ to a conclusion that they have experienced a  paranormal event but reach this conclusion through various individual and social practices.

The research I have mentioned predominantly focuses on individual experiences, and how these are accounted for to others after the event. In contrast my research explores how groups collectively reach an understanding of an event being paranormal as it occurs in the moment. There are challenges for the group to contend with in this context, perhaps most notably they are often dealing with phenomena that is ‘invisible’ (such as sounds, fleeting visions). Therefore, there are added challenges in not only ‘seeing’ the phenomena that is being discussed, but also determining its features and whether these constitute something that is paranormal. It is not, for instance, like pointing to a physical object, such as an apple, and attempting to describe it. By breaking down the interactions of groups, however, it is possible to analyse the resources that individuals and groups use to discuss and negotiate unusual events and their paranormal potential.

Below I discuss a couple of ways that groups collectively come to understand events as paranormal in nature – by positioning events in empty space and establishing their features through talk and action. This is a very brief summary, a full analysis can be found in my latest paper (available for free with the publisher until 17th November).

Empty Spaces

There is a strand of studies that examine a practice called Deixis am Phantasma, the practice of pointing at empty space. Traditionally, this has been examinedemptyspace2 in storytelling and the ways that people might use empty space to illustrate abstract ideas (for instance, if I tell you a story I might point to an imaginary map in the air to demonstrate how far away one thing is from another). During my research, I noticed that this was also common during paranormal events, and that empty space was often used a resource to not only locate an event, but also to imply paranormal qualities. In the context of this research an empty space is defined by its lack of any physical object or normal influence that could, conceivably, be responsible for the event that occurred.

To illustrate this let me provide a few examples from the data used in my doctoral studies. These examples are taken from video footage collected during paranormal investigations and focus on ‘moments’ when a reputedly paranormal event occurs:

  1. During an investigation the group hear a large bang. One of the group says “now what was that?”, and this is followed by a different member of the group pointing out of the room into the hallway. As he does this he says “over” indicating that he believes the sound has come from where he is pointing towards – an empty space outside the room they are in. At this moment, the group are all located in one room, and as such a bang from outside this room in a space void of people, has the potential to be unexplained.
  2. In a different investigation, the group hear a moaning sound. One of the group members asks if the group heard “that”. After agreeing that the group have heard something, they then locate the ‘moaning’ sound in an empty space behind the group.
  3. In a final example, the group are conducting a Ouija Board experiment and hear the sound of a grandfather clock. As there are no grandfather clocks in the room one of them says “what the fuck is that?”. After identifying that it sounds like a grandfather clock another member of group asks if it might be the regular electric clock located in the room. The group explore this possibility by going over to the clock and listening to the ticking sound that it is making. They quickly, however, agree that it was not the sound of the electric clock but the ‘booming’ of a grandfather clock and locate the sound in a different empty space away from where the electric clock is situated.

Positioning the event in an empty space is important to understanding and categorising it as potentially paranormal. It provides a space for the event to be ‘seen’ and assessed collectively by the group. Empty spaces, by the very fact that they do not contain an obvious explanation for the event, imply transgressive qualities towards them. If for instance, the large bang occurred in the room with the rest of the group it has the potential to be attributed to a ‘living’ person. Likewise, if the moan had come from near one of the group members it could have been one of them, and if the clock sound came from the area of the electric clock it is likely that this could simply be the source of the sound. By positioning events in empty space, no apparent source is evident for them and as such a paranormal potential is implied.

Establishing the features of an event

In addition to locating events in empty space, groups collectively establish the features of an event together. Gestures are often used to aid this, as individuals illustrate the experience that they encountered to others. By establishing the features of an event (e.g. what it sounded like or looked like), the group develop an understanding of its properties and whether these have the potential to be paranormal in nature. For instance:

  1. In the grandfather clock arms2example discussed above, in addition to locating the event in an empty space one of the group members describes the sound that they heard as an “old boom” rather than the sound of an electric clock. She describes this as “like a heart beat” and as she says this gestures to her heart to illustrate the ‘heart beat’ sound that she heard.
  2. In a different instance, the group hear the sound of a dog scratching. Initially they attribute this sound to one of the group members and ask her to scratch the clothes that she has on to establish if it was her. She denies this but still scratches her clothes to prove this, as she does so they confirm that it was not her, and sounded more like an actual dog scratching. To illustrate this two groups members scratch in the air and make a “chu chu” sound. They then locate the sound in an empty space between two of the group members.

The features of an event are negotiated between the group through talk and gesture to establish its paranormal potential. By identifying that an event differs from any normal explanations that may be available, a collective understanding of the event as paranormal is established.

What does this mean?

In the context of paranormal groups these interactions are important in establishing the nature of an event. These findings suggest that firstly events are not immediately identified as paranormal, but this understanding is reached through the collective activity of the group. This activity is carefully managed and the group draw upon various resources which are available to them to reach an understanding – including the environment around them (i.e. empty space) and their ability to illustrate the events features through talk and action. Secondly, the observation that an event is not immediately categorised as paranormal is in itself interesting. It demonstrates that social confirmation of an experience is desirable and actively sought by the group. Finally, it demonstrates that categorising an event as paranormal is a negotiation between the group, rather than a conclusion that is forced upon them. This is not to say that issues of influence and power between group members is absent, but it suggests that collective paranormal experiences are perhaps more complicated than simple persuasion or manipulation. Discovering ghosts together is a social process, and groups demonstrate a careful and conscious effort to manage how these experiences are presented to and understood by others.





Collective Paranormal Experiences – noticing ghosts together

In my earlier post, I discussed the need to examine paranormal experiences from a social perspective. This post is the first of three which will discuss the findings from my doctoral research, exploring social interaction and paranormal events in the context of paranormal groups. In this first section, I would like to discuss how paranormal events become noticed by more than one person, and as such become part of a wider group experience.

The findings from my doctoral research are based upon a research method called Conversation Analysis. This allows the detailed analysis of interaction – most usually conversation – with a focus on the discovery of processes and patterns within everyday conversation. For the purpose of my research I was keen to use this method to examine the interaction between individuals as they take part in paranormal investigations, and more specifically when they report an experience taking place. As such, I adopted this method to examine video data of groups having experiences. One of the advantages of this approach is it provides the opportunity to break down social interaction (such as conversation, actions, movements) by transcribing the activities taking place. It provides an in-depth insight into what people do and when.

I trawled through over one hundred hours of video data to find cases when paranormal groups reported an experience taking place, and then transcribed what was going on, moment by moment. It provided a fascinating perspective into what happens during a paranormal event between the people that are experiencing it. As I did this, I started to notice patterns in the way that unusual events were noticed and shared.

What is that?

As I examined the transcripts of data, a regular word emerged each time an experience was noticed – “that”. This was particularly prevalent when an unusual event occurred in the external environment, such as a sound or vision (‘feelings’ are slighting different and I will examine these in a later blog). And “that” was always posed as a question. For example, in one instance a scratching noise can be heard, as this happens the group look towards a space in the room and one of them says, “what was that?”. In another example, a popping sound is heard, and the first reaction to the sound is “what’s that?”. Sometimes the reaction to an event would be upgraded, demonstrating shock and surprise at the encounter, “what the hell is that?” and “what the fuck is that?” to name a couple of instances.

Whilst initially the posing of a “that” question seems fairly mundane it is interesting to thatnote the choice of the word ‘that’ rather than a description of the event taking place. Individuals did not say “did you see a ghost standing in the corner”, “did you hear a breath”, “did you hear a man speaking”, at least in the first instance of noticing and announcing this to the group. This is interesting because ‘that’ carries with it certain characteristics. Firstly, it is a demonstrative (i.e. we use it to demonstrate certain things in the environment – i.e. look at that flower). Secondly, it is also an ambiguous term unless accompanied by the thing we are describing. As such, by leaving ‘that’ on its own we invite others to discover what ‘that’ might be with us. Thirdly, and leading on from this point, ‘that’ in certain contexts is a special type of demonstrative because it has the potential to imply transgressive qualities to an event. Think for instance about what you might say if you saw something quite disgusting on the floor, your reaction may be “urghh, what is that?”. It is often used then to point out things in the environment that are unexpected or unusual in form.

In the context of paranormal groups, a “that” question following an event in the environment does a number of things. It communicates to the group that someone has noticed something in the environment, that it may be unusual or transgressive in nature, and by posing the question invites others to discover what it may be. This is important in our understanding of paranormal events because it indicates that individuals do not immediately identify an experience and then communicate this to others, but invite the discovery of these events collectively. By using the term ‘that’ the event, regardless of what it might be, is also poised from the beginning as having potentially unusual characteristics. Therefore, from the first noticing of an event the group are invited to discover it’s unusual potential.

The “that” question appears to be an important starting point in the formation of collective paranormal experiences. As I examine further in the paper “The transgressive that: Making the world uncanny”, this is not only evident in ghostly encounters but collective UFO sightings also. In the next blog, I will go further to discuss how a group progress from ‘that’ to identifying an event as paranormal in nature. Until then I encourage you to listen out for “that” questions when you next watch a paranormal show or see a collective experience taking place – you will notice just how frequent they are. A warning though, as I have found in my own research, once you notice “that” it is difficult not to, in some respects it quite literally haunts you…





Collective Paranormal Experiences

There are numerous explanations and theories regarding why paranormal experiences occur, and what they may be. Believers in the supernatural may argue that experiences are evidence of the existence of ghosts and the otherworldly. Skeptics, on the other hand, may explain such phenomena away as the result of environmental and psychological influences, perhaps even fraud or simply the ‘need’ to believe in something. Regardless of these debates, paranormal experiences are still a prevalent part of our human and indeed, social, experience.

Over the last six years my interest has been in the ‘social’ element of such experiences. It all started with an encounter of my own, and a subsequent interest in understanding collective experiences:

When I was a student I took part in paranormal investigations as part of a local group in Aberdeen. During one investigation we were spending the night in the local Tolbooth (an old Scottish jail). We had split into teams to investigate the building and I was sat with a fellow investigator in one of the old cells – the rest of the team were located in other parts of the building. I vividly remember that we were sitting eating some biscuits that we had bought on the investigation to keep us going through the night. We were taking a break – by this point it was in the early hours of the morning – and not actively ‘looking’ for anything. As we sat there, I started to notice what looked like a shape standing in the doorway to the other room. At first I thought it was just my imagination, and although I could see it, I was aware that it was not like seeing it with my eyes – almost like a vision overlaying reality. This ‘vision’ became clearer to the point where I could see a man standing in the doorway, dressed in old, quite ragged looking clothing. The experience was not at all scary, and did not even feel particularly real. My initial thought was that I was just tired. That was until my fellow investigator said, “can you see that?”. I proceeded to ask her what she could see, and her reply astounded me, “it looks like a man standing in the doorway”. I replied, “yes”, and asked her what she could see. Between us we both described exactly the same figure. After a short while the vision seemed to dissipate and we were both left puzzled by the encounter. Had we both just seen a ghost? Or somehow shared the exact same vision between us? 

I have had a number of paranormal experiences, I guess one of the reasons that I became interested in researching this area. Looking back I am fairly sure that many of these could be explained by rational causes, however, this one always fascinated me. It also became a significant experience for me because I had shared it with someone else, and therefore it felt more ‘real’.

As I continued my research in this area and started my doctoral research it became clear that social confirmation of paranormal experiences is an important component in our understanding of them. Collective experiences have formed part of our spiritual and social history for a long time, and even in this modern day we seek confirmation of such encounters together – consider for instance the significant rise of paranormal and ghost hunting groups. Given the nature of paranormal experiences, and the ontological questions that surround them, collective experiences also provide an affirmation to such events. If more than one person is involved in experiencing the ghost, it has the potential to negate the psychological component – i.e. “it was not just my imagination, because Sue saw it too”. This is not to say that having a collective experience proves the existence of ghosts, and the argument for environmental or collective psychological influences still remains. However, investigating how we come to see and understand paranormal events together can offer some interesting insights into the ways that the paranormal is experienced.

In my thesis, I address collective experiences in the context of paranormal groups. I appreciate, however, that this is a fairly chunky piece of bed time reading and as such over the next few blogs posts my aim is to explain these findings. In doing so, I will discuss how we come to notice paranormal events, discover them and ‘feel’ them collectively.


Fairies vs. Tourists: Isle of Skye

Last week I had the privilege of returning to the West Coast of Scotland for a short camping trip with my husband. It is the first time I have been back to the West Coast, where I spent my teen years growing up on the Isle of Skye, for about 10 years. Needless to say it was as stunningly beautiful as I remembered it being, and even though the weather was a little soggy, the scenery was still breath-taking. I have always found that about Scotland – the weather is somewhat unpredictable but regardless of this it is still able to enchant you, indeed sometimes the moody clouds and misty mornings add to the wonder.

Something had changed though since my last visit…tourists…and lots of them. I first noticed this when we were considering finding a hotel on Skye – from previously living on the island I was fully aware of the midgy potential at this time of year and did not quite fancy sharing my tent with them. However, pretty much all of the hotels were fully booked or VERY expensive. As such, we had resolved ourselves to camping (we actually did find a hotel in the end after ending up with a very soggy tent the night before – but that is a different story!). Once we arrived on the island I was surprised to see just how many tourists there were, as well as lots of new road and tourist signs which I could not recall from before. Skye it seemed was experiencing a tourist boom!

When I lived on Skye previously we relied heavily on the tourism industry and as such I was initially pleased to see the island doing so well. Tourism 10-15 years ago was much more seasonal, and certainly not to the same magnitude! Preferring to have more of a nostalgic trip though, and to show my husband around the spots that I had grown up in and remembered fondly, I was keen to stay away from what had now become the tourist hot spots. One such place I wanted to show him was the Fairy Glen – an enchanting little place near Uig at the north end of the island. I had visited a few times when I lived on Skye and you could always enjoy a quiet stroll through the miniaturised landscape.

I was, therefore, stunned to find out when we arrived that we struggled to find IMG_2459[1]somewhere to park. Twenty to thirty cars lined the small single track lane through the Fairy Glen, and dotted around the landscape were groups of people grabbing selfies. We finally managed to find somewhere to park, and started to walk along one of the well worn paths that I could not remember from my previous visits. It suddenly felt much less a nostalgic trip and more like a tourist attraction.

Another odd thing grabbed my attention as we reached what is known as Castle Ewan. Lots of miniature piles of stones were scattered across the landscape, and spiral patterns etched into the ground with larger stones, leading to a smaller cairn in the middle. There was one particularly odd pile of stones that had coloured paint on it, as if people had marked it with highlighters. Later on my husband noticed another area of stones with this colourful graffiti sprawled across it. I started to realise as I looked around that visitors were adding to these piles, and treating them as if they were a natural part of the landscape – I guessed they assumed put their by the ‘fairies’.



On our way back to the car I noticed something odder. A large group of people walking backwards around one of the circular stone patterns on the floor, they were laughing and trying not to fall over each other as a kilt wearing tour guide directed the strange ritual. They had stones in their hands which they were dropping on the floor as they walked around.


This strange behaviour was a little baffling, however, after a bit of investigation it seems that some tour companies are encouraging visitors to leave stones and walk backwards to appease the fairies as local folklore suggests. However, these stories appear to be entirely made up. Skye does have some fascinating fairy lore and stories associated with it including the ‘Fairy Flag’ at Dunvegan Castle, and the stories discussed here by Carolyn Emerick. The Fairy Glen, however, like the Fairy Pools gets its name not from the legends (at least known) in the area but the mystical and beautiful landscapes that they inhabit. Given this, I am not sure that these rituals to bring visitors ‘goodluck’ are necessarily appeasing the fairies, they are most certainly, however, changing the landscape. Indeed, if there are fairies at the Fairy Glen I am fairly sure that the sudden influx of tourists moving stones around their backyard would do quite the opposite of appeasing them!

One thing that did strike me though was that the tourist-made structures that now inhabited the Fairy Glen did add another mystical element to the place. There was strange eeriness to the abandoned stone spirals, and crooked rock structures littering the landscape. Personally, I think the beauty of the Fairy Glen can be appreciated in its natural form with or without its fairy residents. However, what became viscerally clear from my visit was that this place has little choice in whether it has fairies or not. Every stone placed, step walked backwards and story told (real or not) by its increasing tourist crowds sprinkles a little more fairy dust on the Glen…


From an academic perspective I found the role that tourism was playing in the formation of local legend interesting. I wondered to myself how long it would take, given the significant visitors numbers, for these stories to become part of Skye’s ‘official’ fairy lore. On a personal level, however, I found the treatment of the Fairy Glen in this way quite sad. The landscape is beautiful and mystical without the creation of rituals to add to the visitors ‘experience’. As such, I would encourage guides and visitors to consider how such a place can be appreciated without an impact upon the natural environment. The Fairy Glen is a stunning setting to tell stories of fairies, amongst the miniature hills, lochs and trees, but perhaps that is all that is needed. I would like to believe we can still be enchanted by the beauty of a place, and its authentic natural properties, without the superficial ‘thrills’ engendered by performing such rituals.




Mountain ghosts: otherworldly encounters in high places

Recently I summited Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, standing at 5895m. It was an extraordinary experience (which I write more about here), and whilst I did have some more unusual moments on my climb these were more of the reflective and awe inspiring kind triggered by the immense beauty of the place. In my research I have, however, come across stories of ghostly encounters on mountains around the world and always found this a fascinating topic. From my own experiences walking Munros around Scotland it also does not surprise me. There have been more than a few occasions when  I have thought my walking companion was beside me, only to turn around and find that they stopped a while back to take a photo. Indeed during an earlier training walk for Kilimanjaro this year, we got lost on a mountain called Ben Chonzie after the weather closed in. This resulted in us descending the wrong side of the mountain to then have to climb up it again before we could find our way home. The cloud level was very low, the rain had drawn in and needless to say after many hours of walking by this point we were all a bit miserable. On the way back up the mountain (for the second time!) there were a number of occasions when I thought I could hear another pair of footsteps right beside me. However, when I turned around they would seem to stop and I would notice that my husband and mother-in-law were a distance behind me. I remember thinking at the time that it was a little eerie, and the misty surroundings and lashing rain did not help with this lingering thought…

I am fairly sure that my own experiences have most likely been a mixture of the weather conditions, feeling pretty exhausted or the environment. It is after all easy to hear things you would maybe not pay attention to if the weather was lovely and you could enjoy the view (such as, for instance, the echoes of my own or others footsteps). However, my experiences do not stand alone and many others have reported unusual encounters in the higher places of the world. Here are just a few of these stories:

Mount Everest, Nepal

The world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is considered the ultimate survival everestchallenge. Standing at 8848m, it attracts hundreds of climbers each year determined to stand at the highest place on earth. Mount Everest, however, has a darker side claiming over 250 lives many of whom have succumbed to altitude sickness or been the unfortunate victims of an avalanche. Due to the height of Everest and difficulty navigating its landscape many of the bodies remain on the mountain leading it to become known as the highest graveyard on earth or ‘rainbow ridge (or valley)’ due to the colourful down jackets worn by fallen climbers. It is perhaps not surprising then, that mountaineers have reported ghostly encounters in such a place. In 2004, Sherpa Pemba Dorji reported seeing dark shadows at the summit of Everest during his speed ascent. In his account he says:

“When I paused at a mound of rocks I saw some spirits in the form of black shadows coming towards me, stretching their hands and begging for something to eat. I think those were the spirits of the many mountaineers killed during and after their ascent of Mount Everest. The bodies of many of those who died are still on the mountain and one climber who died from an accidental fall is still hanging from a rope.”

In an earlier expedition in 1975, climbers Dougal Haston and Doug Scott described how they felt the presence of a third climber with them after they encountered trouble just below the summit. Spending the night in a snow hole, with no food and limited oxygen, they report how this third climber comforted them and talked them through their ordeal.

K2, China-Pakistan Border

The summit of K2 stands at 8611m. Although smaller than Everest it is considered to be K2one the hardest challenges a climber can face and the ‘Holy Grail of mountaineering’. It is also considered to be a much more perilous ascent, with 23% of attempts on K2 resulting in death (compared to 4% on Everest). Perhaps one of the most interesting ghost stories from K2 was reported in 1992 when Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher attempted the climb. Six years earlier during a particularly bad summer, which saw 13 deaths on the mountain, a British female climber called Julie Tullis died after a bad fall. She passed away from frost bite and her injuries at Camp IV. As Thor and Scott were waiting at Base Camp six years later their quiet was interrupted by a radio call that said, “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?”. The pair were alone on the mountain and the call was made by a British women.

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, USA

Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina gets its name from the rock formations that make up its peak, resembling the head of a bearded old man laying down to 681px-Grandfather_Mountain_NCsleep. Tourists to the area regularly visit the mountain and trek along its trails. It is reported, however, that during these visits a number of people have come across the hiker of an old man who seems out of place. Unlike other hikers he wears old workers clothes, an old army rucksack and carries a long walking stick. He also never acknowledges anyone’s greeting, quickly moving past them and then disappearing further up the trail. Nobody knows who the ghostly hiker is, and whilst some suggest that he is the spirit of a hiker who became lost and died on the mountain, others suggest that he is simply the spirit of an old man who loved the mountain so much that he has returned to continue enjoying it after his death.

Ben Macdui, Scotland

A little closer to home for me, ‘The Big Grey Man’ of Ben Macdui is a fairly well-known ghost story from the Cairngorm mountain region. There have been numerous reports since the late 1800’s of a mysterious and sinister figure that haunts the mountain and surrounding area. During his climb in 1892 Professor Norman Collie reported how he felt as if he had been stalked by an unseen presence that followed him down from the summit of Ben Macdui. Whilst he did not see the figure he could hear its large footsteps and had the feeling that it was a menacing creature. He vowed not to return to the mountain alone again and concluded that there was “something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui”. Others have reported similarly strange encounters on the peak with regular stories of climbers being overcome by a poignant feeling of dread and fear, and the impression of a malevolent presence nearby. Another tale tells of a man who had come face-to-face with a large brown creature staring at him through his tent as he slept at the summit. Terrified he froze, until the creature moved away, and he watched it descend down the mountain. He described the creature as about twenty foot tall. A similar creature has been seen by others up until as recently as the 1990’s, and some claim that these creatures are guarding the land around the mountain chasing away those that dare to trespass. More stories of ‘The Big Grey Man’ can be found here…


It is perhaps not surprising that mountains are home to ghostly encounters. From my own experiences hiking I can appreciate the often surreal and harsh surroundings that open up the possibilities of something supernatural or otherworldly. I am sure that many of these encounters can be explained away by the effects of the environment, or psychological causes – the ‘sensed-presence effect’ is particularly relevant to some of the encounters mentioned. For those peaks that inhabit the ‘death zone’ and where oxygen is deprived these considerations are perhaps even more likely. However, what interests me from these stories is the variety of encounters that are reported and the different interpretations assigned to them. There is the comforting ghost that accompanied the two Everest climbers, the ‘lost’ ghosts reported on both K2 and Everest, the sinister presence protecting its land on Ben Macdui and the ghost who simply loves the mountain in North Carolina. Whether we walk with ghosts or not on mountains these accounts provide an interesting insight into the way that we see and experience these magnificent landscapes.