As we head for Halloween, RACHEL JONES looks at the world of ghost walks and paranormal investigations.
As a group of wary visitors huddle in a rain-sodden dockyard, a cloaked shape emerges from the darkness.
The thud of his staff on timbered walkways echoes around the ancient buildings and ships and his voice booms out ‘line up against the wall!’ The visitors are quick to obey their host at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – after all, he is very commanding – and a ghost to boot.
Dressed in the 18th century cloak, cap and breeches, this ‘spooky’ guide from ghost walk group Dark Encounters is unnerving the visitors with tales of death, destruction and dockyard spirits.
He and his cloaked cohorts are bringing the history and legends of the area to life for the group who have booked onto one of the organisation’s popular ghost walks.
Dark Encounters and other ghost walk organisers are experiencing a boom in customers who are prepared to be scared.
Jonathan Fost, who set up and runs the organisation, is delighted people are willing to be frightened out of their wits by his team of actor guides.
‘There’s a risk of making these things too dry in terms of history. By interacting with people and making it funny, hopefully they get to live a bit of history and take it with them, they get the feeling of what it’s all about,’ he says.
The group thoroughly research the period they are covering and look for the hidden gems of history – the little details rather than the famous historical dates.
And they also cover the ghostly side of things – tapping into the area’s spooky stories.
The walks are as much about theatrical fun as history. But the Dark Encounters team also takes a serious look at the mysterious and unexplained. The organisation’s ghost hunts are very popular, fitting the trend of people looking for ‘Most Haunted’ style experiences in sinister locations.
Paranormal investigations are conducted by groups all over the country. In the Portsmouth area, the ghostly hotspots frequented by these organisations include Fort Widley, Fort Purbrook, the Kings Theatre and Southsea Castle.
But Jonathan warns that real-life investigations aren’t quite as sensational as those depicted in horror films and on television shows.
‘They’re always more subtle than that. If people come expecting to see ghosts flying around they’re going to be disappointed.’
Experiences might include unexplained tapping noises or mysterious voices on recording equipment.
Still, at a recent ghost hunt in the black tunnels beneath Fort Widley, several people heard the chattering of teeth, which is spooky enough for some.
‘It’s pretty intoxicating,’ says Jonathan.
‘You’re in a dark, scary location looking for ghosts so yes, people get very scared. We always look after the newcomers though.’
Those taking part in the ghost hunts are contributing to Dark Encounters’ records of paranormal activities.
Jonathan has a degree in physics but says his scientific background doesn’t hamper his research into the paranormal.
All the investigations are conducted under experimental control with equipment including recording devices, night cameras, electro-magnetic field meters and thermometers and if a ‘spooky’ experience can be explained, it will.
‘The investigations are interesting from our point of view because we’re working with such a random selection of people. Some are very spiritual, others far more sceptical,’ says Jonathan.
‘If we start getting a correlation between teams it goes into our casebook. If four people hear footsteps then we’re interested, but if all the groups experience the same thing, then it becomes pretty significant.’
But they take into account factors like faulty equipment and psychology.
‘In situations like that people will start egging each other on,’ admits Jonathan.
Of course it’s a subject that divides opinion and the investigators have the sceptics and non-believers to answer to.
‘For me it’s a journey of discovery, trying to map an understanding of what is happening. It’s not so much that a ghost exists but why do people think they exist? What is really going on? There is clearly something that defies current explanation, we just don’t know what it is,’ says Jonathan.
And anyway, he adds, it’s all about having an adventure in a dark, scary place.
‘I still get a buzz from being in these places at night when the general public aren’t around. I never tire of seeing HMS Victory lit up as we’re walking through the deserted dockyard. It’s quite creepy.’