Here’s my ‘paranormal’ story, since it’s Halloween.
In the summer of 1983, we took a family holiday to Scotland to a place called Crubenmore, near Newtonmore in the Scottish Highlands, and stayed in a wooden cabin next to Crubenmore Lodge. We had travelled up as full family: my mum, dad, and both my brothers. We were also joined by my dad’s sister, who used to accompany us on family holidays, which were always somewhere within Britain.
Thanks to the magic of Google Maps, I can actually show you a picture of the place.
The cabin was divided into three sections, with a bedroom and bathroom at one end, a large living room area in the middle, and a couple of bedrooms at the other end.
I was twelve at the time and had developed an interest in ghosts, as many of us do at that stage. I should say at this point that my father was a Church of England vicar, and so we grew up with a spiritual element to our lives, although it was a mainstream C of E church, and so there was no affirmation of faith through charismatic behaviour, such as speaking-in-tongues or any other such ‘magic tricks’ – just an ordinary and friendly congregation. I remember my dad and mum telling me at some point not to dabble with ouija boards and I took their advice, but heard the usual incredible stories from friends at school of their experiences, or their friends’ friends’ experiences.
Anyhow, for some reason, somebody mentioned during the course of the holiday that the actor Alec Guinness had died. He was actually still very much alive at the time, and had in all likelihood come up in conversation due to my fondness for all things Star Wars as a twelve-year-old boy.
During the course of a night, I woke up (or was at least semi-conscious). I was quite frightened of the dark at that stage and used to regularly ask to go to sleep with the lights on. As I lay in my bed, the following words entered by head, although I didn’t voice them out loud.
“The ghost of Alec Guinness, are you there? Knock once for yes, and twice for no.”
Suddenly, there were two very definite and clear knocks on the wooden panelling behind my headboard. I jumped out of the bed with a start and called out for my brother and aunt, both of whom were sleeping in the same large bedroom. I called out again for my aunt, but she didn’t respond, so I made my way towards the door in the dark, planning to make my way through the living room area to my parents’ room. I remember thinking that I’d be safe with my dad – he was after all a vicar and would have some kind of magical powers!
As I reached out to open the door, it swung open in front of me – not just ajar, but fully open. By this stage I was really frightened and pretty much ran across the living room to my parents’ room, where I insisted on spending the rest of the night.
Now, here’s the thing. At the time, I can remember thinking in the morning that I was actually quite happy with the idea of the existence of ghosts. I accepted it completely and actually saw it quite positively. If there were ghosts, there must be an afterlife. Fine! Putting the scary stuff to one side, that was great!
However, over the following weeks, I began to attempt to rationalise it. Perhaps I had imagined the whole thing. I was definitely not fully awake when it happened. Perhaps if the events I describe had happened, the knocks on the wooden cladding were my bed hitting the wall a couple of times, or my older brother moving around in the next room. The door opening may not actually have swung fully open – I had merely imagined that it had. If it opened at all, perhaps it was, as would be expected in such a building, due to my movement, a draught, or simply the building itself moving.
I had a further eerie experience on a separate occasion – in church. My dad used to repair the pipe organ. He had originally trained as a piano tuner and then took a very much hands-on approach to maintaining the church pipe organ, which resulted in pipes being made at home and hours spent routing around the back of the instrument at church. On one occasion, he asked me (or probably ordered me after I’d driven my mum to distraction) to accompany him there. I sat in front of the keyboards while he did what he needed to do maintenance wise, my feet dangling above the organ bass pedals, which I always loved to stand on – brilliantly farty notes. I now understand why I discovered a love for the low frequencies of synth bass pedals, beloved of Prog Rock.
I glanced around at one point and saw a ghostly figure as clear as day stood against the whitewashed wall. Its face was very vivid and its features extremely clear to me. I turned around in fright and then decided to brave my fears and to look back again, hoping that it had gone. It was still there. Somehow, I summoned up the courage to approach the figure in the pews. As I approached, the shape shifted slightly and it became clear that it was merely shades on the wall which my brain had formed into recognisable features, as our brains are wired to do. If I had taken a photo at the time, it would have been a classic ‘ghost photo’.
So, what do I think of these experiences now? Well, the second one taught me to confront those kind of scenarios and attempt to find the rational explanation. The first one taught me that the brain is very good at making you think you experienced things, or convincing you that they happened in a certain way. It has also presented my brothers with endless opportunities to mention the experience, or just Alec Guinness whenever possible, so if you can’t beat ’em…
It’s why eye-witness accounts have been shown on many occasions to be completely unreliable. People remember what they want to – good or bad. And if we are in a state of mind to expect ‘paranormal’ experiences, anything which validates that expectation gets the ‘stamp of approval’ in our memory.