What red-blooded skeptic could turn up an invitation to stay in a haunted house and meet the inhabitants — certainly not your intrepid chair-entity….

You get a lot of interesting invitations when you head the Skeptics, but this one was more interesting than the usual Rotary talk request. Film-maker Rachel Davies was touring the country putting together a documentary about the existence of ghosts, tentatively titled Adventures Beyond The Material World. Would the Skeptics be prepared to provide a representative in amongst the priests, psychics and clairvoyants? You betcha!

So that was how I found myself driving madly over the mountains through teeming rain on Holy Thursday to spend a night in a haunted house with the ghost team and a local ghost-friendly person. Sadly the latter, possibly scared off by the thought of meeting a real skeptic in the flesh, was there more in spirit than in flesh — she pulled out at the last minute.

That left the two doco people and me, knocking around in the haunted house. Actually it was a run-down journalist union holiday home in Akaroa, looking much like a rather disreputable flat I lived in during my student days. A dead seagull in the front yard was solemnly filmed (would have been more interesting if it was a raven — seabirds aren’t exactly uncommon in this harbour township…). We stomped around the old house, inspecting the saggy beds and testing the doors for creaking (they performed beautifully in this regard), and settled down for a chat.

Rachel and her off-sider seemed to have had a great time touring around the place, chatting up people in bars and casually waving around their minimal video gear (courtesy of Nayland College) in true “real TV” fashion. They had heard some “amazing” stories which “rocked”, and were very hopeful of trapping more than the local bar-prop on tape.

One “spooky” experience had been with a psychic up north who had done what sounded like a very professional cold-reading on Rachel. I made a modest attempt myself, rounding up the usual phrases, which she seemed to find equally intriguing. The thing I found intriguing was the contradiction between their hopes for their film and their acknowledgement that they were unlikely to get anything useful on tape. It didn’t seem to worry them any — these girls just wanted to have fun.

They seemed a bit disheartened by the no-show of the person who had claimed to hear “heaps” of ghosts in our Akaroa hideaway, so I did my best to cheer them up. They enthusiastically taped me unpacking my “ghosthunter’s kit” – Peter’s black leather pilot case looked nicely authoritative, and they oohed and aahed at the digital still camera, the digital video camera, the tripod, the reference texts How to Test Your Psychic Powers and Great Scams from the Beyond and, last but not least, the Elizabethan chemise I had brought along to ensure I was in the spirit of the place, so to speak.

I had intended taking along our large spotlight, imagining the line “that’s not a torch, THIS is a torch”. I had toyed briefly with secreting some dry ice in a cupboard and “discovering” it, but thought that that was really a bit too theatrical. (Besides, years of experience would suggest that the discovery would be filmed but not the explanation for the phenomenon…)

Over our fish and chips — this was a budget production after all — we had a long talk about ghosts, why they might exist, what sort of evidence one should look for and what alternative explanations abounded. I had mentioned to them early on that Skeptics tend to be a bit wary about participating in such efforts. After all, we’re well aware that, in many cases, skeptical input can end up being very brief compared to those believing in their particular phenomenon (it’s far more interesting to hear about someone’s UFO abduction than any possible reasons why it mightn’t have happened!)

The girls were interested to learn that I had been contacted the previous year regarding a poltergeist claim, and a little crestfallen when I had to add that a small amount of preliminary investigation suggested the individual concerned had a more tenuous grasp of reality than first indicated, to put it delicately.

I talked about the difficulty of actually investigating traditional ghostly phenomena. They are so subjective — “did you feel that cold patch?”, “I saw a shape” — and hence difficult to test in any sensible fashion. The human mind is such a wonderfully inventive, imaginative thing and few people credit just how strong the powers of suggestion can be. And I warned them that I had a very well-developed imagination…

We drew lots for who would sleep in which of the upstairs rooms where whatever it was supposed to be supposedly happened. (They wouldn’t tell me what the actual ghost claim was; I had suggested each participant be told a different story to see if that had any significant effect on our experiences.)

I think I made them a little nervous by cackling when I discovered the door handle on my bedroom came off. I tested it to be sure I could use it from the inside, and then carefully laid it next to the bed. I figured if anything was going to come through my door that night, it would have to materialise through the panelling. Then, with the camera set up to cover the small room, I went cheerfully to sleep.

My counterparts had a more difficult night. For film purposes they left the lights on, with a red filter over them – not particularly conducive to sleeping. Maybe after a week or two of this, sleep deprivation will provide the hallucinatory experience they are seeking!

Then the really horrific thing happened! It was dawn and there was movement in the house….

Now my experience of media people is that they are not usually early risers, but these girls were up and ready to hit the road at 7am on Easter Friday – a truly frightening thing to behold.

Why did I bother driving on a bad road in bad weather on a holiday to sleep in something not much better than a doss-house with two strangers? Well, I like to think it gave me a chance to demonstrate that the Skeptics are prepared to be thoughtful and imaginative, and demonstrate curiosity and humour when dealing with the wonders of the human condition. Take that, Casper!

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