Archive for the ‘Ghosts’ Category

The Winchester House

March 26, 2017

Windows on the INSIDE?! I’m not saying it’s ghosts, but it’s ghosts. (By Kai Schreiber from Jersey City, USA – Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9036971)

 

I first read of the Winchester ‘Mystery’ House when planning a trip to California a few years ago; unfortunately I didn’t make it on that trip but I hope to see it one day. Recently I heard of a new graphic novel called ‘House of Penance’, based upon the traditional story attached to the house. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to his father Oliver’s famous rifle company, believed that she was haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by her husband’s product. This supposedly led her to build and constantly remodel a house in an effort to placate them, leading to doorways on the outside, stairs that lead to nowhere, that sort of thing. The problem in digging into this one, as you’ll see, is that we have no idea what Sarah Winchester actually thought or believed. We don’t know if she actually suffered with mental ill-health, if she believed in ghosts or spiritualism, nor indeed what she may have thought about the violence committed with her family’s weapon. According to the ‘War Is Boring’ piece, the new narrative here is of gun control. The article admits: ‘There are hundreds of stories about the house and the woman and it’s likely we’ll never know the full truth’ (and clearly the book itself is fiction). However, the author clearly buys the fundamental claim that the house makes no sense and must be the product of some kind of paranormal belief and/or deep psychological problems. We can’t rule that out, but I did wonder if there might be any rational explanations, and it turns out that there are (along with some equally irrational ones that don’t involve ghosts).

 

Fortunately for me, the legendary Joe Nickell comprehensively nailed this one 15 years ago for ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ magazine. I can’t find the text of this on the CSI website, so I hope they don’t mind me linking to this existing Google Groups post containing the full text. The title is ‘Winchester Mystery House: fact vs. fancy’, from the Sept-Oct 2002 issue (vol.26, issue 5, p.20). He covers a lot of ground, but I will just paste in here Nickell’s answer to the main claim; that the weird appearance of the house was an attempt to contain or confuse the dead victims of the Winchester rifle:

 

Fancy: Sarah Winchester’s “curious building techniques” resulted from her desire “to control the evil entities and keep them from harming her.” For example, “One stairway, constructed like a maze, has seven flights and requires forty-four steps to go ten feet” (Smith 1967, 38). Some interior rooms have barred windows, a floor is comprised of trap doors, and there are doors and stairs that lead nowhere (Rambo 1967; Murray 1998, 59).

 

Fact: The winding stair with two-inch steps had nothing to do with ghosts and everything to do with Mrs. Winchester’s severe arthritis and neuritis. The low steps were built to accommodate her diminished abilities (just as elevators were later installed when she was forced to use a wheelchair). The curiously barred interior windows have a simple explanation: they were once exterior windows, but the constant additions to the house relegated them to the inside. The doors and stairs that lead to dead ends are similarly explained. As to the floor with trap doors, those are in a special greenhouse room; they were designed to open onto a zinc subfloor so that runoff from watered plants could be drained by pipes to the garden beneath (Rambo 1967; Winchester 1997; Palomo 2001).

So, the Winchester House was the product of a super-rich, reclusive woman with changing needs and desires, and the near-unlimited funds to meet them. Eccentric? Perhaps. But there’s really no evidence here that Winchester was in any way (literally or figuratively) ‘haunted’ by the victims of the Winchester rifle. Indeed, if she were, why fritter her millions away on housebuilding? Why not donate to charity or to a pacifist organisation? Or become an anti-war/anti-violence/anti-gun advocate herself? As usual in scepticism, we see that credulity abhors a vacuum; in the absence of facts, people will make up stories to explain things that don’t readily make sense.

When the Lights Went Out – Revenge of the Black Monk

August 22, 2012

If a ghostly monk can bite a sandwich, what’s stopping you from giving it a damn good thrashing?

There’s a new ‘true life’ haunting movie coming out next month, and this one is British.

Interestingly in this case the director has a connection to the ‘real’ story (Wiki’s version here). Inexplicably, he’s advanced the period setting by nearly a decade, presumably to hook the story onto another real life event; the energy crisis of 1973/4 (hence the title). Ironically, this draws attention to one alternate explanation for the lights going out during the ‘real’ haunting – power cuts and electrical problems happened before said shortage, and they still happen today. Even this may be redundant when we consider another explanation; that somebody might simply have been turning switches off;

‘The lights would go out, and when they looked in the cupboard under the stairs the main switch would be turned off. On one occasion, Mrs. Pritchard carefully taped it in the “on” position with insulating tape; half an hour later, the lights were off  again, and tape had simply vanished.’
-‘Poltergeist!’, 1981, p.130

Wooooooo! Ahem. Anyway, Holden is the son of a one of the contributing figures in the story, Mrs Rene Holden:


‘Another neighbour, Rene Holden (who was a bit psychic), was in the Pritchards’ sitting room when the lights went out. In the faint glow of the streetlamp that came through the curtains she saw the lower half of a figure dressed in a long black garment.’
-‘Beyond the Occult’, 1988 p.237

‘A bit psychic’? Isn’t that like being ‘a bit pregnant’? The other major incidents involving Holden’s mother were the apparently spiritual theft of a fur coat, and the mysterious throwing of a plate of sandwiches around a room before a ghostly yet physical bite was taken out of one of them. All of this being under cover of another bout of another selective power failure. The latter is a rare instance of potential physical evidence of the paranormal that could have been tested, bearing as it did the impressions of apparently ‘enormous teeth’. Instead however, Holden kept the sandwich herself and somehow allowed it to deteriorate into ‘crumbs’ after only a few days. So we are told by author Colin Wilson, who has produced the closest thing we have to a written primary source for all this; his book ‘Poltergeist!’ (along with his other books like ‘Beyond the Occult’, referenced above). Though the director of the movie has drawn from family oral history for his version of the story, Wilson’s book was written closer to the time when the events in question happened, so might better reflect personal testimony. Then again, maybe not. In any case, his book was still published a good decade on from the ‘hauntings’, in 1981. Wilson himself was not involved or even present at the time, so far as I can determine. This, along with Holden’s film, is by its nature actually a secondary source and of limited usefulness in getting to the bottom of events. As Wilson relates, ‘no trained investigator came on the scene while the disturbances were at their height.’ So we don’t have any evidence from parapsychologists or even the pseudoscientific investigations of the average ‘ghost club’ to go on. Nor even any newspaper reports (that I could find). Just anecdote; although in this case it isn’t just family tradition, as visitors are also claimed to have experienced supposedly supernatural shenanigans (which of course doesn’t mean that they were). The film director claims that the police witnessed the ‘ghost’, and local MP Geoff Lofthouse writes of his personal experiences in his autobiography:

‘I suppose it would be about 1965, and I was in a Council meeting with Violet Pritchard, when I started ribbing her about the stories that were going around that her son’s house up on East Drive was haunted. Violet had great charm, but also great directness. She looked me in the eyes and said: “Well Geoff, if that’s what you think, you had better come up with me.” So after the Council meeting I picked up Sarah, and we went up to Joe Pritchard’s. Just as we entered, Violet said: “This will wipe the smile off your face.” The stories of the poltergeist had been going the rounds for a few months then. Sarah had heard them, but neither of us took them very seriously; after all, Chequerfield estate was not some haunted house in the South of London or a ruined tower up in the Yorkshire Dales, it was newly built council housing on what had been agricultural land. In we went and sat down. We had been there about twenty minutes when suddenly there was a banging on the wall, at this sound the dog, who was sitting right in front of me, stood up stock still and the hairs on his body rose up in the air. It only stood a second before darting through the door. Joe Pritchard said “It’s here again,” and to prove that it was, two candlesticks rose up and were thrown through the air. One second they were standing on a sideboard, or it may have been a shelf, and the next they had gone up into the air and broken the chandelier. This was enough for Sarah. Without any ado she dashed out of the house. I was just following her when politeness caused me to stop at the bottom of the stairs to say: “Excuse me but I have to go.” And I did, I went rapidly at the point when a number of blankets were thrown down at us.

In most things I am a bit sceptical, but when it comes to the stories of the Pontefract poltergeist I am a true believer. Taps were turning themselves on, and a whole range of activity was taking place, and this in a family of everyday Pontefract people. I decided that Violet Pritchard should be my Deputy Mayor because of all the people I have met in my life as a politician, I regard few politicians with such warmness as Violet Pritchard. When I say that she was a kind and simple soul, I do not mean to be disrespectful in any way.’
-’A Very Miner MP’, 1986, p.69

Very disconcerting at the time, no doubt, but so can fiction be. There are any number of explanations for what Lofthouse relates that don’t require the existence of ghosts – something that should require some pretty extraordinary evidence to accept. This lack of empirical evidence is a perennial problem with hauntings and similar experiences, in that all available evidence is anecdotal, mediated through a third party, and not recorded until years after the fact.

Wilson, too, is not a parapsychologist. is well-known in paranormalist and Fortean circles, having written a string of ‘factual’ books and bought into a wide range of ‘phenomena’ from illusionist Uri Geller (‘The Geller Phenomenon’) to the lost city of Atlantis. He’s also an author of true crime books and fiction.

Sightings like Holden’s led to the ghost being identified as that of a local historical figure, the ‘Black Monk’. Amusingly, this turned out to be a load of nonsense, and so Wilson, having himself debunked this hypothesis (p.146-7 of ‘Poltergeist!’), rationalised the whole thing away as the ghost choosing to look like the monk based upon overheard family conversations. Alternatively, the sightings were hallucinations, delusions, confabulation, or something else entirely. But it seems that it’s easier to just make the facts fit the story on the presupposition that what the family experienced was something paranormal.

So what really went on here? We’ll probably never know, but other cases from the Fox sisters to the Enfield poltergeist suggest that these ‘ghosts’ are linked to a very real phenomenon; that of growing up. The paranormalists express this in terms of supernatural manifestations fuelled by the available ‘energy’ of puberty, but a more realistic interpretation would be that they are the result of childish attention-seeking, acting out, and/or teenage angst. The title of the new film becomes highly relevant here. All of the major physical manifestations (sandwich hurling included) took place ‘When the Lights Went Out’, giving a great deal of room for real, live, human beings to get involved, just as in physical mediumship. Whatever the case, the film looks likely to provide an interesting dramatisation of a real life experience of a ‘haunting’ – but through no fault of the makers, it isn’t evidence of the paranormal. Doubtless the true life marketing will convince many that it is.

The Angle of Mons

April 3, 2012

I’ve so far refrained from commenting on the ‘Angel of Mons’ story, mostly because this Fortean Times article absolutely nails it, and though I’ve yet to read it, I’m sure the full book on the subject (also by Dr David Clarke) thoroughly pokes its dead husk with a stick.

There is also an earlier and more extensive article by Clarke in Folklore journal, reproduced here, a Skeptoid podcast, and just to give some balance, one of the original sources for the claim of ghostly and/or angelic warriors helping British soldiers at the Battle of Mons is online at archive.org. This includes ‘eyewitness’ testimony all apparently based upon an original work of fiction by author Arthur Machen, and all investigated by Clarke and others over the years. The ‘Angel’ is about as open and shut case as it’s possible to get where eyewitness sources are concerned.

But I recently received a Google alert directing me to this blog, which scoffs at Clarke’s scepticism and asserts that;

The issue in the 21st Century isn’t whether the event actually happened – It is whether such an event Could happen.”

Er, is it? I’m not sure how that follows, but even if angelic apparitions were documented and scientifically verified reality, there would still be reason to believe that this incident never happened. And contrary to another statement from the linked blog post, it isn’t because the ‘Angel’ was really;

“…collective hallucination arising from battle fatigue…”

…as the writer claims others claim. No-one today is seriously suggesting this, least of all Clarke, though he does detail this explanation as part of his research. The author of the blog piece clearly hasn’t properly read the article that he links to, as the consensus explanation for the ‘Angel’ is that it was a fictional story that grew legendary ‘legs’.

The invocation of ‘Ockham’s razor’ is also odd, given that even the most ardent believer must admit that the existence of angels is not scientifically evidenced, nor is it today a mainstream belief in the UK, where this commentator is based. But then, phrases like “paradox ridden fairytale” and “meat grinding existentialism and…no hope materialism” being applied to science gives you an idea of the ‘angle’ the writer is taking here. It’s a licence not only to believe what one likes, which I certainly don’t challenge, but to claim it as falsifiable truth.

Well, sorry chum, but it doesn’t work that way. As for;

“why therefore go to all the trouble to dismiss and destroy the Mons story which is a manifestation of human spiritual hope amongst the dark meat grinder of holocausts such as a world war ?”

You said it yourself. Mythmaking under the pressures of one of the most horrific conflicts humanity has ever known is a fascinating and important area of study, whether or not you believe that the events described actually happened. But at the same time, a proper investigation into such stories will almost certainly have to tackle the question “did it really happen”? Some of us feel that it’s important to separate fact from fiction for the same reason that fictional literature, movies and video games are enjoyable and rewarding, but it wouldn’t be healthy to live our lives as though the events described in them were real – as appealing as that idea might sometimes be.

PS Yes, it’s a lame title. Deal with it.

Scientific American on the Fox Sisters

December 26, 2011

I’m afraid you haven’t got long to peruse it, but there’s all sorts of great stuff in the Scientific American archive, available from 1845 – 1909 for free until the end of the month. Here’s a snippet from 1848 (Vol.5, 8th Dec, transcribed below) on the infamous Fox Sisters (though not naming them). It’s more cynical than sceptical, but you have to love the Victorian turn of phrase, and they do have a point about the lack of falsifiable information that mediums produce:

‘There has been quite an excitement in Rochester, N.Y., about mysterious sounds heard by visitors in the presence of three bespirited young ladies. Committees of ladies and gentlemen  have been appointed to try and find out the cause,  but all  in vain.  The  ladies’committee divested the  be-spirited damsels of their clothing to find out whether that something or  other,  we suppose, was not concealed underneath,  but the  sounds were heard just  as well. They were placed on feather beds  and all  sorts  of  non-electric conductors, but the sounds were heard just the same – thus proving,  no doubt, that there is no relationship between spirits and magnetic current. The sounds reported to be heard, are certain raps on the floor or wall, and these raps have been formed into a kind of alphabet,  to repeat certain names, &c. (queer, this, very). We perceive by the names of some of the gentlemen on the committees, that they are men of high standing in Rochester, and some we know personally. It will all turn out to be a piece of nonsense,  because the raps and all that has been done, is stuff – nothing sensible or of utility. All ghost stories are made up of just such miserable fiddle-faddle – and we all know that the swallowing of pins, mounting the air on broomsticks, &c., constitute the amount of witch learning.’

‘sup niggas?

November 5, 2011

Aaaaaah! Ghost dog!

I trust readers will recognise my title for what it is (an ironic Shaun of the Dead quote), and not go all drama-llama on me. That aside, I had to post about this pathetic piece of ‘news’

Ghost of the Dambusters dog: Picture ‘shows long-dead Labrador’ at memorial to WWII heroes

More in the form of a video from the Beeb (shame!) here.

If it’s a ‘long-dead’ dog, then why the blue blazes is one of the schoolgirls in the grainy photo touching the bloody thing? We don’t even get the usual photographic anomaly – what this ‘story’ boils down to is a real, flesh-and-blood dog wandering over to a group photo (‘appearing from nowhere’) and then wandering off again (disappearing, ‘never to be seen again’). Well, if that’s the photographer being quoted, who was only visiting RAF Scampton, why the hell would he see it again?? If he’s saying that no-one ever saw it again, how the heck does he/anyone know? Black labs are hardly rare, and tend to all look alike (racist black mark #2 against me I fear). I seriously doubt that none have ever visited since.

The idea that you can precisely measure a ‘dog-sized’ area of depressed temperature is hilarious.  I find it odd that despite claiming that the group’s aim is ‘to debunk rather than prove’, it seems that Mr Drake’s mind is made up in this case despite the flimsy evidence, when he’s quoted as saying;

‘There is definitely paranormal activity there.’

Not so much evidence of the paranormal. More evidence that school choirs make field trips and black labradors like people. Newsflash.

This may be great PR for Scampton and may help keep the memory of 617 Sqn alive as the quoted historian says (although the words ‘end’, ‘justifies’ and ‘means’ spring to mind), but let’s not forgot that it also generates more publicity for the ghost hunting group coming up with these claims.

Figment of Imagination enquiries

April 18, 2011

What an actual Welsh zombie looks like – see this superb BBC documentary series…

The always excellent Zed Word blog has reported some interesting supernatural-related enquiries made under the UK Freedom of Information Act to Dyfed-Powys police in Wales. You can read the various disclosure reports here (page over to the 2010 content for most reports – alternatively I’ve linked most of them below).

Before we have too big a laugh at the expense of others, I should point out that tragically, if inevitably, many calls/reports (and possibly even FOI enquiries) have been made by those with mental health problems. Others are obvious nuisance/time-wasting calls. The zombie incidents make for particularly disappointing reading even for a hardened sceptic;

Unknown 04.11.2006 A phone call made with strange noises and sounded like someone saying zombie.

Haverfordwest 31.10.2008 Report of a person acting suspiciously wearing a zombie mask and dressed all in black.

Pembrey 14.12.2009 Reporting that they are filming a horror in the park about zombies.

Not really in the spirit of the enquiry, I would suggest. More of a keyword search data-dump. Can’t really blame the Fuzz for that though; I’m pretty sure they have other jobs to be getting on with.
Other, slightly more interesting reports just from this constabulary include phantom cats (lots), witches (some) and werewolves (none). Relatively few suggest even a legitimate claim of a supernatural sighting, let alone any subsequent earth-shattering investigation that provided any evidence of one. A handful of ‘actual’ sightings of ghosts is, amusingly, outweighed in the same report by complaints of ghosthunters causing annoyance or alarm. And of course, there are the UFOs, none of which were followed up using police resources, clearly indicating a massive cover-up…or some common sense, depending upon your point of view. Equally encouragingly, it’s clear that in common with virtually all police departments worldwide, the services of psychics are NOT called upon (another denial here).

Some disclosures contain no information as the enquirer has phrased things such that to provide a proper answer would take too much time and money – one of the exemption criteria. Frustratingly, one of these relates again to the activities of amateur (is there any other kind?) ghosthunters. Had they been more specific we might have discovered more about the ‘supernatural’ denizens of Wales, or at least the loons who go looking for them…

I’ll have to see which other UK police services and perhaps even local authorities might have published similar data online – without submitting my own frivolous FOI enquiry, of course!

Paranormal Investigations Live

November 2, 2010


Perhaps “Least Haunted” would have been more appropriate

 

I never thought I would miss ‘Most Haunted’, but Living TV’s ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ (henceforth PiL) plays like one long deleted scene from that venerable series. No entertaining histrionics by OTT mediums, just lots of mooching about in the dark. Amusingly for me, it also “stars” the “Ghostfinder Paranormal Society” (GPS), whose co-founder Ian Wilce got a bit annoyed with some of my comments a while back (as related recently on BadGhosts.co.uk).

Ian’s foam-flecked, swivel-eyed face hasn’t made the big-time sadly – that honour falls to his mate Barri Ghai, who seems a bit nicer. BadGhosts.co.uk have the team and PiL pretty well owned, but I’ve had my eye on this new show for a different reason.

Though Most Haunted and its ilk have made historical claims in the past, this new show is (I believe) the first to recruit an “historian” as an in-studio expert alongside a psychologist or parapsychologist. The quest for historical accuracy seems a bit redundant when the very premise of your show defies rationality, but hey, parapsychologist and sceptic Ciaran O’Keefe did a decent job being the voice of reason – why not have a proper fact-checker? However, given the live format, I’m not sure how any historian hope to verify or falsify the inevitably vague statements produced by any kind of ghost-hunt? There’s a big risk that you’ll end up just providing “hits” by fitting facts and stories to what’s being said – just like a sitter at a psychic reading.

Now, the guy they’ve chosen, Ashley Cowie, seems like a nice chap, and I’d rather not character-assassinate the guy. But if he’s going to be pimped as an “historian”, we should look at his credentials and his approach. to avoid accusations of “ad hominem”, I’ll then focus on what he actually says on the show.

Cowie is billed as a specialist in “symbols, lost artefacts, and architecture”, though his bios (e.g. this one) don’t hint at any qualifications or experience relevant to the role of historian. In fact he’s a former businessman with no academic publications to his name. He has had two books published on (where else but) Rosslyn Chapel. The ‘Rosslyn Matrix’ is a speculative interpretation of one of the drawings carved into the wall of the crypt/sacristy. You know you’ve made it into the speculative history pantheon when pseudohistorians extraordinaire Knight and Lomas are referencing you.

His other book ‘The Rosslyn Templar’ deals with (sigh again) the Knights Templar and their links with the chapel. If it deals strictly with the 19th century invention of those links, it’s a worthwhile effort, but Rosslyn specialist Jeff Nisbet is not impressed. The promotional angle for the book also sees Cowie apparently renouncing his scepticism over the KT and Rosslyn (see the Scottish Sun), so I have to wonder whether this book isn’t as speculative as his first. Cowie seems to have landed the PiL gig based on this Da Vinci Code bandwagon-jump, and his status as resident historian for STV’s “The Hour”.

He does hold an elected fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which requires that you have two existing members as sponsors, carry a vote from the current membership, and pay a £40 membership fee, you’re in too. We can’t know on what basis Cowie was accepted, but the two books and telly appearances would probably do it, considering that even tour guides have managed to land an “FSA Scot” after their name.

However, I don’t think academic chops were top of the list when hiring a PiL historian. As the Scottish Sun put it;

“HUNKY historian Ashley Cowie is Scotland’s real-life Dr Robert Langdon.”

and

“..female fans flock to his book signings”.

Yup, sex appeal and the Da Vinci Code. Incidentally the vaults he’s talking about in that article were thoroughly investigated in the 18th and 19th centuries and were found to be empty, so I have to wonder what findings he’s waiting for.

Now, there’s no reason why an amateur historian, good-looking or otherwise, can’t do good work. We can’t reasonably expect a serious historian to touch a show like this with a 40-foot pole. So how does Cowie acquit himself on the show itself? What claims are made, and how does he deal with them?

The subject of the “hunt” was Castle Menzies in Scotland. It doesn’t start well for Cowie’s approach when he states:

“I don’t personally believe in the supernatural, however I think it’s really important that in subjects like this we remain open-minded. For as little evidence as there is to say that there is a supernatural element or dimension out there, there’s no evidence to say that there isn’t. so as long as there’s speculative evidence out there I think it’s so important that we remain open-minded, either way”.

Oh dear. Your standard appeal to ignorance in the form of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, with the old “open mind” canard thrown in. This ignores the total lack of any real evidence of the paranormal in over 100 years of investigation. To quote mentalist Ian Rowland:

“In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to ‘an open mind’ is not ‘a closed mind’, it is ‘an informed mind’. In such contexts, any appeal to ‘keep an open mind’ is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge.”

We even get the oft-heard line “I’m a sceptic but…” in this PiL video.

Several fairly outrageous claims are made during the programme. Namely;

 

1. A secret mentally disabled son of a Menzies chief died falling down some stairs.

The only vaguely new aspect to this show are the spurious pieces of ghost-hunting technology used by the GPS team. One of these is the “Ovilus” which is basically a Magic 8-Ball seemingly guest-voiced by Stephen Hawking. It does nothing more than chuck out random words from a limited dictionary, which in this case yields at one point the words “fell” and “sorry”. Now, the usual routine with a random word, letter, idea or emotion hit upon by (say) a psychic would be to have it “validated” by someone. Usually this is someone associated with the site who’s desperate for visitor figures or PR exposure, or a cast member who’s been fed this information. In other words there’s a list of supposed ghost stories and an attempt is made to fit each piece of “evidence” to one of them. This would be an opportunity for a resident historian to critically assess the claim against what’s known of the history. Instead, the words are fitted to a story “of a boy who fell down the stairs” (quote from the Twitter feed) BY THE HISTORIAN HIMSELF. He repeats a supposed ghost sighting of a young boy in ‘period clothing’ who was;

“…the son of a clan chief who was a bit demented and was kept in the top story. And that’s a FACT”.

Cowie does at least point out that the story relates to a different part of the house, but again stresses the importance of an “open mind” – the implication being that the words could have come from the dead son.

The big question is – where is our historian getting his information? More on this later.

 

2. A daughter of a Menzies chief who is having a lesbian affair with her own step-sister is kidnapped by the devil.

Classic stuff. To quote Cowie;

“Apparently one of the daughters of one of the Menzies chiefs was having an affair with a step-daughter. so the two lesbians were going to make their way into the woods to go and have an appointment with the devil which was orchestrated by the chief’s wife. Now the chief made…the step-daughter…carry a cross, and made her daughter carry a book, the bible. Somewhere on the way to the cave, they swapped items, so the wrong person, the daughter was actually kidnapped by the devil, as the story goes, entered the cave and was never seen again.”

I had to “LOL” at the pseudo-incestuous lesbianism, which is anachronistic even if you postulate some smutty folklore propagated by locals about the lord and lady at the big house. However, the swapping of the holy items smacked of authenticity, so I checked up on it and found that IS closely based on “real” history – or rather, folklore:

“Local tradition, accentuates the feminity of the locality of Weem. Below the cave with a spring in it, is a rocky fissure which is- said to communicate with Loch Glassie, two miles away in the moor above. The story is that the lady of the district sent her daughter and stepdaughter, or by another version, her two daughters and her step-daughter to seek a calf that had strayed into the rock. She protected her own child with a cross as a talisman (or a bible, other version), but during their wanderings the child handed the talisman to the step-daughter. They followed the lowing of the calf until it led them to the cave into which the younger sister entered, but only re-appeared as a mangled body floating at the head of Loch Glassie. In the ballad describing the incident, the one who enters complains of being retained by “iron gates,” and says that “the man of the red hood ” is between her and returning.”

This in turn bears some resemblance to an old Gaelic ballad. Rather crucially, the innocent pursuit of a stray animal is omitted and replaced with the lesbo-fest. I note with interest the emphasis on the feminine in the link above, which originates in a 1901 summary of highland legends in the ‘Celtic Magazine’. Sometimes a “red hood” is just a red hood – however this hint of Freudianism may be the origin of this very 21st century modification to the story.

 

3. A room in the castle was used for burning babies.

Over to Ashley;

“Somewhere between the 13th and the 17th century, one of the clan chiefs, erm, was attempting to birth a son, and apparently he had three females, or indeed three female offsprings [sic] who weren’t any good, y’know? Because of course if a female was to be born, went away and married a neighbouring clan and…the lands and titles could be lost. So the clan chief put the mother down to the room, his wife down to the room and the first three babies, all born as girls were literally thrown onto the fire. Now, this sounds like a made up story, but there are actual printed reports from maids to the wife, who had their fingers chopped off for revealing their story to locals around Aberfeldy and Weem. So you know, there’s some substance in that, and it was a common practice.”

This is bullshit. Cowie should have gone with his instinct on this one. By this logic every female child of every highland clan would have to be killed or kept secret for life if there was no male heir. Renaissance attitudes to abortion were somewhat flexible, but the nobility are no more likely to resort to multiple infanticide – a crime punished as murder – in the pursuit of an heir, than we are today. In fact dormancy or passing on of titles and lands, whilst avoided if possible, nonetheless happened all the time.

For their part, the investigating team are told nothing about any of these “facts”. Oh, except that it’s called the “Baby Burning Room”. As a result they seem to place some significance upon the fireplace in the room, and seem mystified by its great height. I can only assume that they haven’t visited many historic properties, since grand fireplaces were pretty much de rigeur in big stone-built rooms that require a lot of heating.

I could find very little online regarding even the claim, let alone any supporting evidence for it. However, the same story does appear on the website of another paranormal group to visit the castle;

“Room 15 is another little room that has never been liked. Tori calls it the ‘childbirth’ room and has seen a woman covered in blood here. John informed us that other sensitives also associate this room with childbirth and it was, in fact, a servant’s bedroom. He went on to tell us the gruesome tale as to why the first born and heir to all the Menzies and other important families’ wealth and lands were boys. Simple – if the first born was a girl she was killed at birth. A wealthy family stood to lose everything if the first born was a girl and she then married. A servant would be instructed to throw the infant onto a fire and would then be exiled and told not to mention the deed on pain of death! This would have been commonplace even in the 1800s.The fact that this little room was a servant’s room did not tie in with the spirit impressions gained by more that one of the team. A ‘lady’ or noble woman in an expensive/embroidered dress had been mentioned before by Katrina and Tori. She was pregnant and in labour, kneeling in the doorway facing the stair, begging for help as others were rushing up the stairs. This was thought a little odd if the room was for servants.

However, in discussion one evening  John mentioned that room 15 was indeed linked with childbirth. There is an account of a servant being implicated in the disposal of an infant.  He has read various written accounts from the castle and he has deduced from the various stories that room 15 is the room meant. He also went on to say that the lady of the house would have been kept imprisoned during her first preganncy. The pregnancy would have been kept secret until the birth just in case a deformed child or worse, a girl, was born.”

So this story must come from “John”, who is the “curator” of the Castle. More on him (and the reason for my scare quotes) later.
4. In the 1745 Jacobite rising, English soldiers beat and abused a daughter of the clan chief in one of the rooms of the castle, for which they were summarily killed and dismembered.

As the clan chief remained neutral during the ‘45 having been pardoned for his part in the previous rising, the likelihood of his murdering three Government soldiers without censure is therefore slim. It also seems unlikely that such a story wouldn’t appear in one of the many history books available via Google Books, as once again this story’s online footprint is tiny.

I could find only two instances online. The first is PiL’s own website, which admits – in direct contradiction to Cowie’s claims on camera on the night, that the claim is implausible and should be regarded as “hearsay”. Not only that, but the show’s own website dates the same story to the Wars of the Kingdoms in the mid-17th century (and yes, I’ve searched for the story in both eras).

The second reference is telling – it’s from the same paranormal investigation site as the last one. We see the claim that “spirit” informed this other team of the story;

“During our first ever investigation at the castle we were informed by ‘spirit’ that a group of men had raped and murdered a girl (possibly the Laird’s daughter) in the stables (the stables no longer exist). The culprits (soldiers) were stabbed fatally in the back (dirked) by the Laird or on his command and were taken into what is now the shop area to die. Each of the men was taken in one by one and the one following didn’t know the fate of the man who had gone in before. They were then cut up and fed to the dogs. We were told that the shop didn’t look like it does now as it didn’t have the door to the outside and once had a window on the far wall. 6 soldiers had been involved and executed.”

Once again the “curator” at the site supposedly confirmed a version of this story subsequently;

“We had initially thought the story to be too far fetched and even omitted the bits about dismemberment form the website.

However, we were told soon after that there is a hand-written document somewhere in the castle detailing a similar crime although the curator can’t remember if it was the Laird’s daughter or not who had been the victim. This information is not in the public domain. John also informed us that execution was done by means of being dirked (stabbed in the back) and this is again something we didn’t know but to be honest  is probably easy to find out about.”

Given the similarity of the story as reported by the ghosthunters to the one reported on PiL by Cowie, either the “curator” is borrowing his stories from the “findings” of the ghosthunters, or the latter are retrofitting their ideas to stories told to them afterward.

 

5. A clan chief fell from his horse and injured his leg and head, going mad and dying thereafter.

As with the other stories there is little to nothing to be found about them online, including clan and castle history on Google Books and archive.org. There is another “psychic” claim regarding a middle-aged “imposing” gentleman who supposedly died in a similar way. It’s not as good a match though. In any case it’s another example of Cowie obligingly fitting a story to ghost-hunting “results” in order to create a “hit”. This time it’s a word (“leg”) and a funny feeling (in a team member’s leg) coming out of a seance.

So, we have one genuine story given a lurid modern makeover, and four others that seem to originate with the “curator” of the castle – perhaps even with ghost-hunting groups that have come before PiL. Of course it is claimed that there are actual documents to support these stories, but if so they are not in the public domain and have not been drawn upon by historians.

Cowie is likely doing nothing more than repeating what he’s been told by the same “curator”. This would certainly parallel the way that “research” is typically done for shows like this – the incumbents are uncritically used as expert sources, and whatever traditional folklore or modern myths they provide are used as material for the show. It makes sense from a TV production point of view. Time and money are short – why do your own research when people associated with the site have existing knowledge? It’s also suspicious that the house’s alarm system goes off at one point, yet the “curator” claims that he turned it off and is the only one with the code.

So who is this “curator”? That would be a John Jack, who is not a curator or historian by background, training, or qualification, but actually holds the job title of “Castle Administrator”.
Any genuine sources from the castle are therefore being interpreted by someone without the skills to do so. I’ve have seen how stories surrounding historic properties are modified or even created out of thin air by front-of-house staff and tour guides to please the visitors. It’s often about sensational stories, not historical accuracy. Increasingly, they also welcome paranormal groups either for publicity or income, just as Castle Menzies has. The Castle Administrator is not only facilitating requests by paranormalists – he’s actively courting them.

I would suggest that the upshot of all this is Mr Cowie’s being reduced to the role of patsy for the publicity-hungry Castle caretakers and the PiL production team. He’s there to legitimise the stories told by the former and link them to the ‘results’ generated by the latter’s ghosthunting teams, distracting the viewer from the total lack of any meaningful “hits”. Potentially useful for boosting viewer and visitor figures (though that remains to be seen) – not so good for objective investigation or for that matter the public’s understanding of what is an important historic building. We’ll see whether PiL survives its ratings, and if so, whether they persist with their historian idea.