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Tuesday 14 June 2016

The Ghost That Stumbled

     In the movie, Ghost Patrick Schwayze, deceased was shown by a more experienced ghost how to move small objects by psychokinesis. It figures; a ghost has no flesh and bones, so how can it pick up items? For that matter, how can you even see one, since it has no body to bounce light off? Terry White (The Sceptical Occultist) suggested an apparition may be a psychic manifestation, given that occasionally it is visible to one person but not another. But how do they make sounds? To my knowledge - I may need correction - ghostly footsteps are not audible to one person but inaudible to another. What is pounding the floor? And what if you could make a ghost involuntarily collide with something?
     This is the story of the first ghost encounter by the celebrated psychic researcher, Harry Price (1881 - 1948), which he related in both his autobiography, Search for Truth (1942) and Poltergeist Over England (1945). From this, you will gather that he considered the entity a poltergeist, because it made a sound without being visible. I have my doubts, but it is certain that poltergeist phenomena do occasionally occur during more traditional "hauntings".
     In any case, it must have taken place in early October 1896, because he was fifteen years old at the time, and was returning to school for the Michaelmas term. On the way, he decided to break his journey and stay with friends in a Shropshire hamlet where he used to spend nearly all his holidays and vacations. This time, however, he discovered that the talk of the hamlet was the strange goings-on in the old Manor House, a building constructed about AD 1600 and, like any respectable old building in merry England, reputedly haunted.
     Except this time it really was haunted. It had recently been purchased by a retired canon of the church and his wife. Within a few weeks of their moving in, strange things began happening in the stables and out-buildings: animals untethered, pans of milk overturned, utensils scattered - the usual. Nearly every night something would be disturbed in the woodshed, but when a watch was set inside, nothing happened - inside. But stones would rain on the roof from outside.
     Then, quite suddenly, it all ceased - in the outbuildings. Instead, the phenomena moved to the manor house itself: the pattering of a child's bare feet in the gallery, kitchen utensils disturbed, and the fires being raked out at night so frequently that the canon's wife took to pouring water on the embers before going to bed. One wonders why the church didn't simply exorcise the entity. The last straw was a heavy thumping, as of someone in heavy boots stomping through the house at night. The owners decided to decamp for a while.
      This, then, was the situation when the future psychic researcher visited the village, so he invited one of his male friends to join him in investigating the place. All he had was a ¼-plate Lancaster stand camera. You have to remember how very primitive was the art of photography in 1896. Cameras had to be mounted on a stand, and a flash produced by igniting some magnesium powder with an electric spark from a battery. Digging deep into his term pocket money, Master Price purchased the rest of the equipment and, lest the magnesium powder fail to flash, he mixed in some gunpowder from four or five sporting cartridges.
     It was about 9.30 pm when they entered the Manor House. I was perplexed at first that he gave no indication as to how they gained entry. On second thought, however, it was unlikely he would need to explain it to readers in the 1940s. They would be aware that no-one locked doors in quiet hamlets at that time. They probably still don't. (We certainly didn't do so in the Brisbane suburbs when I was a boy.) The first thing they did on entry was, by the light of a stable lantern, to search every room and attic, fasten every window, lock all the doors and remove the keys, and barricade the doors to the exterior with pieces of furniture. Nothing of flesh and blood was going to get in on their watch!
     Now picture the geography of the house. The teenage trespassers were settled in the downstairs morning room. From the adjacent hall a fifteen-step stairway led to an upper gallery from which the important rooms of the house branched off. But at the top of the stairway stood a small gate - which the boys fastened with a bit of string - whose original purpose was to prevent the household dogs entering the more comfortable parts of the house.
     About half past eleven they heard a thud from upstairs as if someone had stumbled against a chair. Their blood began to run cold. Then, just before midnight came the sound of some heavy person stomping around upstairs in clogs, before stomping down the short gallery. It paused briefly at the dog-gate. They always wondered whether it stepped over it, as a mortal would do, or merely passed through it. Next, they counted fifteen loud clomps as "it" descended the fifteen stairs, paused for about three minutes, then stamped heavily on each of the fifteen steps as it returned up the stairway. Again, there was a pause at the dog-gate, but just as the boys were planning to investigate, clomp! clomp! clomp! down came the ghost, down all fifteen steps. Again a pause in the hall, and then "it" started to ascend again. By now their courage had returned. When the fifth step was reached, Master Price opened the door, his "courage in one hand, and the camera in the other", with his friend close behind with the lantern.
     Nothing! All the sounds had ceased. Perhaps the entity was just as afraid of them as they had been of it. They decided to examine the entire hall and stairway. Nothing was amiss. It was time to put the camera into use. They brought out some household steps which had been found in the kitchen, and set them up twelve feet from the bottom of the stairs. They were six feet high. Now Harry took out some chalk and, using a book as a set-square, drew a square on the floor in order to ensure that the steps were exactly parallel to the stairs. The camera was placed on one of the steps. He stationed his friend on the seventh or eighth step with a lighted match so that he could focus the lens on him. He could thus be sure that the ghost would be in focus. He heaped up about an eggcupful of magnesium-gunpowder mixture in a watch-case, and inserted the photographic plate, after which they retreated to the morning room with the electrical apparatus.
     All this time their invisible companion had remained completely silent. Should they photograph it as it was descending or ascending? They decided on the latter, for their juvenile reasoning was that it would be less concerned once it had already inspected the apparatus. About an hour passed, then the heavy footsteps recommenced in the upper story. This time there was a longer pause at the dog-gate then, clomp!clomp! clomp! down it came. Once the hall had been reached, there was silence for five or six minutes, then the footsteps started back up the stairs.
At the seventh thump I pressed the button of my pear-push and - a most extraordinary thing happened, which is difficult to describe on paper. At the moment of the explosion the ghost was so startled that it involuntarily stumbled on the stairs, as we could plainly hear, and then there was silence. At the same moment there was a clattering down the stairs as if the spontaneous disintegration of the disturbing entity had taken place. [emphasis in the original]
      Even the morning room was lit up by the rays of the flash emerging from under the door. They rushed into the hall, now thick with smoke. The household steps had been moved slightly out of the chalk square, they did not know how. On the second stair from the bottom they found the empty watch-case. It had apparently been turned into a projectile by the explosion, and had produced the clatter which had puzzled them. Poor blooming ghost! It couldn't even stomp around a house without some crazy kids shooting at it! They didn't appear to have heard anything more from it that night, though apparently the house continued to be the centre of phenomena for some months.
     And the photograph? It revealed a very much over-exposed staircase.
     Don't you wish life was as exciting as that when you were fifteen? Shortly afterwards, Harry Price started an amateur dramatic society, and when he was seventeen he wrote and starred in a three-act play called The Sceptic, which featured a cardboard ghost. It would be interesting to read the script, for it was based on this adventure.
     But the mystery still remains: if the entity wasn't solid, how did it make the noisy footsteps and, more importantly, how did it make a noise when it stumbled?

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