Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Time to lose the plot?

Seriously StrangeThe following account is based on a true story.

Writers of ghost fiction do not generally use accounts of real cases for their work. This was what I picked up from watching a panel at ASSAP's Seriously Strange conference. The panel, called "Ghost Fiction and Ghost Fact: Storytelling and Paranormal Research Panel", consisted of Stephen Volk, Tim Lebbon, Simon Kurt Unsworth, John Llewellyn Probert and Reece Shearsmith. Described as "a panel of acclaimed writers of supernatural tales", they ought to know.

Many people become interested in the paranormal through a dramatic strange incident in their own lives. As such, they tend to 'believe' in the paranormal from then onwards. Not me. I came to it through fictional accounts, particularly on TV. I was mainly motivated by a desire to get a scientific understanding of these phenomena. I didn't 'believe' or 'disbelieve', I just wanted to understand.

So, when I started investigating cases for myself I was surprised by what I found. It wasn't a bit like the fictional ghost stories. A typical real haunting case consists of a series of odd incidents at a particular location. These incidents might include sightings of apparitions, unexplained sounds and smells, objects apparently moving around (I say 'apparent' because they are rarely observed to move but instead are found in different places to where they were left), small areas may appear unusually cold, and so on.

Now, you'll find similar elements to these in fictional ghost stories too. But the difference is that in fictional stories there will usually be other important elements too. For instance, the apparitions might appear for an extended period, unlike their fleeting appearance in real life. And they might talk, something the real ones seldom, if ever, do. And the activities of fictional ghosts usually have a purpose, even if it is obscure at first. The plot of many ghost stories consists of the human protagonists discovering that purpose, through historical research and/or direct contact with the ghost. By contrast, the events that make up real hauntings typically appear completely pointless.

The reasons for this difference, something else I picked up from the panel, was that a fiction audience want a definite plot, not just a series of meaningless incidents. As consumers of fiction, we find stories with plots much more satisfying. We want our characters to face problems and overcome them. We like a resolution to a story. Though I find the meaningless unexplained fascinating I can see how most people don't.

I wonder if this desire for a satisfying story is where the assumption-led investigation methods of the ghost hunting boom come from. The assumption-led methods are clearly inspired by the idea that ghosts are spirits. More than that, such investigations are often aimed at identifying ghosts with former inhabitants of the haunted location and determining why their spirit might be returning. Note how this endeavour closely parallels the plot of many fictional ghost stories.

If, instead of assumption-led methods, you use evidence-led techniques, the idea then becomes to understand, and hopefully explain, the originally reported set of apparently meaningless unexplained events. If you do that you quickly realise that most ghost sightings can be explained by misperception, hallucination and coincidence. Once you realise that, it quickly becomes obvious why hauntings appear so meaningless. Indeed, that very meaninglessness should be a big clue to what is really go on here. To me, understanding the mechanisms behind hauntings is fascinating enough without my feeling the need to turn it into a story. I love stories but I love truth more.

No ghosts were hurt in the production of this blog post.

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