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Is a Building's History Useful After All?

PSI Member and Consultant Ken Taylor ( responds to to the article ‘Does a Building’s History Matter’?

As an author who has spent a great deal of time investigating the histories of allegedly haunted sites, not least because these details help provide the context of many paranormal experiences, I have an anecdotal point to raise in response to Dave Wood's challenging article "Does a Building’s History Matter?" (PSI Newsletter 19, July 2008).

I wholeheartedly agree that a medium who declares "Lizzie has been here in spirit for many years", and a historian who finds an Elizabeth in the 19th century Census, should carefully consider the chances of coincidence, before claiming proof of the soul's survival. But I have found historical research useful in achieving exactly opposite ends.

For fifty years there have been reports of sightings ghostly monks in dark habits with hooded cloaks roaming the ancient George Inn in the rural village of Blackawton, South Devon. Local legend informs us that the Inn originally housed the masons that built the adjacent medieval church of St Michael, which was owned by a monastery in Torquay. There would, therefore, have been monks coming and going for centuries.

The local tradition offers a neat, self-supporting story that the shadowy monks glimpsed in the George were either living earthbound spirits, or recordings of the Stone Tape sort. Either way, they were unquestionably monks.

The alternative perspective — that the dark figures were simply a trick of peripheral vision — simply didn't get a look in. Until, that is, I undertook the historical research...

In the 13th century the feudal lord of Blackawton gave his manor to the Premonstratensian monastery of Torre Abbey. This monastery was not actually the home of monks but canons who lived by a monastic rule, a seemingly negligible point.

These canons were priests whose vocation was to preach and administer pastoral care over their parishes, so they would indeed have been a familiar sight in the village.

The local legend appeared vindicated. But then I discovered that the Premonstratensian canons had a nickname — a name inspired by their distinctively coloured habits — they were the White Canons. The dark figures that haunt the George are certainly not the ghosts of these historical priests famed for their white robes.

It was at this point that I could gain attention for the rational point of view, pointing out that the receptor cells at the eye's periphery only register shades of light and dark, and that these cells are our evolutionary adaptation for evading predators, and are especially quick to register movement, particularly in low-light conditions.

Glimpsing a dim and featureless movement may remind us of a silent figure enveloped in the dark folds of a monk's habit. Link that with a nearby monastery, and it conjures a compelling bias toward interpreting any vague sighting as an actual monk. Thus, a little knowledge is indeed dangerous, but undertaking more thorough historical research laid this particular persistent local legend, to rest.

Perhaps this sort of case is a rarity, and the adage 'seek and you will find' is nowhere more true than in the study of the paranormal, so I do agree that historical research can lead the unwary into many a blind alley. But it can also be a persuasive way of opening people's minds to new ideas.

Dave Wood's assertion that investigating site history does "a great deal more harm than good" appears to be aimed at preventing investigators being blinkered by a site's history. I agree that a rigorous, impartial investigation could be conducted without any insight whatsoever into the lives of medieval monks or any other precursors; and I can see the reason to suppose that it should be so conducted. But I fear the tone of his article might unnecessarily alienate a committed and genuinely open-minded sector of the paranormal investigating community: the historians (a band who know better than most just how easy — and dangerous — it is to twist facts to fit fashionable ideas).

While history may be of limited practical use in accumulating data, and it may be of questionable value in the task of interpreting that data, I feel that deliberately isolating phenomena from their historical context carries its own risks. It seems to me that when dealing with paranormal phenomenon outside the laboratory, where psychological factors (such as subconscious suggestion arising from the visual clues of architecture and age, and simply the look of a site) can play a large part in people's experiences, wilfully ignoring a site's history may even prove counterproductive.

Perhaps I have missed the point of his article, and I have certainly not seen the evidence that undoubtedly underpins his point of view, but it seems to me that it remains possible for a carefully coordinated programme of historical research to be accommodated within a scientific approach to paranormal site investigation.

Ken Taylor

PSI’s Dave Wood Responds...

I’d like to thank Ken for his thought provoking article - this is why we keep him on the figurative payroll!

Your argument is persuasive and makes a good case for the limited use of historical research in a small number of cases.

Perception of history can have a major impact on a certain type of case. We know the context guides our perceptions in such a way that we misattribute unusual events as ‘ghosts’ - based on the popular portrayal - it logically follows that if your perception of what a haunting would be a particular building is guided by a knowledge of the history of the building, your perception could equally be guided.

This presents an ethical and methodological tightrope on which to balance. The argument tends (although not unavoidably) towards a pseudo-scientific duality: if the historical research corrects the perception people may think again about their experiences. However if it supports their perception, they may come to an either-or conclusion that their misattributions are, by default, actually paranormal.

The probable answer is to deal with these situations very carefully on a case-by-case basis, and being careful to avoid the pitfalls of allowing history to unethically add to a perception of haunting within a building.