A sceptic’s guide to ghost hunting

Avenue House, Finchley, courtesy of hauntedhappenings.co.uk

I spotted this entertaining article in the Guardian yesterday, but didn’t have time to do anything about it. It’s part of a series where regular correspondent Rhik Samadder is sent off to try unusual things for himself, and write about the result. This one caught my eye because it’s about ghost hunting – the practice of spending a night in an old, atmospheric or haunted building in order to look for evidence of spiritual activity.

In Samadder’s case the building was Avenue House, a listed building in north London which used to belong to the Bishop of London. Judging by the descriptions, and the photo I tracked down online, it’s simply oozing atmosphere – and the company’s website (hauntedhappenings.co.uk) talks of footsteps in locked rooms, and sightings of ghosts, even in broad daylight, by staff and visitors.

I have to admit I’m in two minds about events like this. On the one hand some buildings have some extraordinary stuff going on, and this is a great way for lots of people to scrutinise those happenings and apply some scientific research to them. On the other, ghosts seldom appear to order (and not always in ancient or atmospheric buildings) and I can’t help thinking the write-ups could be skilful hype – or even pure fiction. The article makes the point that the people who come along tend to want to see ghosts, which means they’re more susceptible to self-suggestion. There’s an interesting suggestion as to why Ouija boards only work when people are touching the planchette; a wry query about why ghosts are always Victorian; and some quiet fun poked at ghost-hunting apps on mobile phones.

This isn’t a hatchet piece, though. The chap running the tours welcomes sceptics, apparently, because they help to winnow out the obvious reasons for strange noises and events, leaving behind the ones that are genuinely ‘unexplained’. Samadder himself confesses, at the end, to being more open to the ‘unexplained’ than you might think. And whether you believe in the ghosts or not, Avenue House looks like an amazing place to visit…

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