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November 2018 Halloween edition cover edit

Do you believe in ghosts? Let’s bust some supernatural myths

Image credit: Dreamstime / E&T typography

I took ghosts, ghouls and things that go bump in the night pretty seriously as a kid. I would never have referred to them as ‘things that go bump in the night’ for a start.

That’s not to say that I was in some way a creepy kid but I was a little earnest and I took a solid scientific approach to the subject. I despised fictional horror and sought out real-life testimonies. I was confident that science would eventually explain it all rationally.

There are still those that think that way and Kate Parker meets them in her feature on the real-life ghostbusters. Admittedly, they aren’t really out to neutralise any ghost – just to investigate the subject with an open mind and perhaps bust a myth or two. Their tools of the trade include the ubiquitous smartphone, which has put a time-stamped, location-enabled, always-ready camera into almost everyone’s pocket. So why don’t we see more pictures of ghosts?

As I grew up and came to understand the media, I began to realise the ‘unexplained’ was more a sort of entertainment and there wasn’t anything wrong with that. In other words, the evidence wasn’t as strong as I had thought. But people enjoyed buying into the illusion. That’s perhaps why, when science does solve a mystery, it never really goes away. We look at ten such not-so-mysterious mysteries.

“Ooh, I had a bad feeling there that I can’t explain.” Or can you? We know what makes a house comfortable, friendly and familiar. So equally, we know what makes the opposite. Tim Fryer finds out what it takes to build the ultimate haunted house.

I also came to love classic horror movies and their brilliant soundtracks, which do half the work in keeping us on the edge of our seats. I’ve always preferred ingenious direction over special effects but the two are related and older than you might think. Hilary Lamb pulls back the stage curtain to find Pepper’s ghost is one spooky effect with a history that predates film and is now being reinvented for live audiences more used to the latest in special effects.

Kids aren’t easily frightened these days. Yet horror was once used to keep children on the straight and narrow. The Victorians thought it almost a moral duty to show them Heinrich Hoffmann’s ‘Struwwelpeter’ translation. And public information films were still at it up to the 1970s, as in this one called Lonely Water featuring Donald Pleasance that you can watch for free on the BFI player.

I’d dismissed Halloween as a cheesy US import involving blackmail (trick or treat, anyone?). As the children grew, I realised I’d been wrong. It has a complex, fascinating history in the British Isles going back to paganism or, rather, its eclipse by Christianity. American movies were just the medium to bring it back to England. The kids loved the dressing up, and for one night a year at least families in our busy London neighbourhood dare to knock on each other’s doors, meet each other and exchange sweetmeats. That’s got to be a good thing.

Christian belief in the unexplained bar chart

Who believes in ghosts?

Image credit: E&T / Yougov 2016


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