Pagan Spirits

This short but interesting little article marks my third successful submission to Pagan Dawn magazine, after Rebellious Kisses and Highgate Hindsight. Not only did this project give me free reign to discuss my interest in ghosts away from the graveyards that seem to dominate my more recent interactions with the discarnate, but also had the additional honour of being included in their commemorative 50th anniversary issue too. Of course that was simply a happy coincidence, though it is nice to think that no matter what happens now I will always remain a very minor footnote in British Neopagan history.

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Pagan Spirits
A Spiritual Perspective On Paranormal Investigation
By Gavin Fox

Ghost hunting is not for everyone. Indeed, those who already have a rich and varied experience with the spirit world through their regular Neopagan practice are unlikely to want to spend the night in derelict and abandoned buildings seeking out the dead. They may feel that the quest is mired in pseudoscience and untested gadgets, or accuse their fellow investigators of heaping skepticism upon what should be a sacred interplay with the unseen. Some would argue that nothing good can come from disturbing unknown souls in their places of rest, that the best lessons are learned on top of hills and beside streams but never in the cemetery.

For those who are yet to recognise the Pagan call within their spirit, yet yearn to experience the world of the supernatural for themselves, any brush with the discarnate can lead to an enduring fascination with those things usually unseen. Long before becoming a magickian I was one of those people, lost in the darkness while spirits crowded around the Ouija board in front of me like moths to a graveside candle. I asked many questions of those who had traversed the veil and received precious few answers in return. In all I have learned more about the afterlife since turning my hand to necromancy than I ever did ghost hunting, but that does not mean it was a waste of time.

Long before I joined any formal groups I was hunting alone in the derelict buildings in and around London, attempting to emulate the methodology showcased on the numerous television shows that were all the rage at the time. While I would not recommend breaking into such locations now, as much due to the risk of arrest as anything else, these liminal sites tend to be interesting enough to just explore should the rumours of a haunting prove to be false. By far my favourite was a mothballed shopping centre near Tower Bridge, complete with scale replicas of merchant ships in dry dock to the rear and still working toilets in the lower levels too. I definitely felt something following me around down there, though unfortunately caught very little of interest on film.

Soon old churches, semi-derelict blocks of flats and even a historic meat market which was closed due to dangerous structural issues would draw my attention, and I explored them all in turn as the opportunity to do so arose. While a digital camera was always by my side it was my instincts that I really relied upon. Deciding early in the search that it would be through non physical means which my results would manifest I wandered stealthily though a number of London’s most haunted places, quietly imploring the discarnate inhabitants to make themselves known. Few did, leaving me as hungry for answers as I had been in my youth and tired of the constant cat and mouse game with the security companies that was developing as well.

A decade or so into my search and the desire to polish my skills drew me towards a couple of semi-professional ghost hunting organisations in and around my home town. Spoiled for choice as far as potential organisations to join, I decided to try and prioritise the ones which had been involved in the study of paranormal phenomena for longer than most of the current members had been alive. Even though my lone wolf attitude, fuelled no doubt by the solo adventures that I had previously conducted, led to some friction with those in charge on more than one occasion it was still a worthwhile experience.

Despite the fact that my magickal nature had matured while searching through the discarded bones of London’s lost architecture I was not yet attending any of the varied Pagan and occult moots located there. As such, the monthly lectures by visiting paranormal investigators who were at one time or another associated with the groups who hosted them offered a rare social outlet for the weird ideas which I had been absorbing. The sceptical tone of many of the topics would provide a vital counterbalance the more bizarre events that I was at that time experiencing too, and help to keep my feet planted firmly on the ground.

Not having to journey into the night alone is by far the best thing about becoming a member of such an organisation, though as previously mentioned the overt scepticism that is sometimes on display can be off-putting for some. Just how open your fellow ghost hunters will be to a mystical view of the spirit world depends greatly upon the general ethos and values which originally brought them together. Some groups, especially those seeking accreditation from larger organisations such as ASSAP[1], tend to remain planted firmly in the scientific end of the spectrum. Thus any sort of spirituality is generally frowned upon, at least during investigations.

This can be easily circumvented by simply neglecting to tell them what you are doing, and as long as you continue to report your findings in the manner that they prefer it never really becomes an issue. I have personally performed grounding rituals in toilet cubicles both before and after an investigation, rejoining my teammates without them ever having a clue what had just occurred in the gents right under their noses. While a scientific mindset is the norm, aggressive scepticism is far less common than you would think and worrying about this should not put interested Neopagans off seeing what is out there. Each group is different, and some are far more spiritual than their charter would claim once the lights go out.

Ghost hunting is not particularly dangerous and it is unlikely to become a negative influence in your life as long as you are sensible. Most people who get hurt on investigations actually run afoul of the real world dangers associated with exploring derelict and dilapidated structures, such as falling down stairwells or off of slippery roofs towards the parking lot five floors far below. Being a member of an organised, and insured, group tends to mitigate these concerns and is yet another reason to carry out what amounts to a paranormal apprenticeship with one when just starting out in the field. Yet for those who insist on working alone, as I once did, the following points are worth considering.

Firstly, read the right books. Paranormal investigation is finally struggling towards becoming a scientific discipline these days, albeit one with an over-reliance on an ersatz collection of incorrectly used gadgets and a background hum of Spiritualist ideas. As such you really should take the time to do your homework before even thinking about setting foot inside any supposedly haunted location. Two of the best books I have read are Ghostology[2] and Ghostbusters UK[3]. The former is a textbook of sorts which delves into the art of ghost hunting, while the latter is a rip-roaring series of personal essays by a seasoned paranormal investigator who was happy enough to work within a magickal methodology when required. For those who would like to get a grounding in the more skeptical end of the spectrum as well, Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal[4] is a an excellent choice.

Secondly, question everything, including your own evidence. An understanding of concepts such as Occam’s razor, which argues that the simplest answer is usually the most likely one, can greatly enhance our ability to think critically when something decides to go bump in your night. Fear leads to panic, and panic to accidents. Add to this the dangers already inherent in the kind of structures visited after hours and the price of overreaction can be deadly. It is also worth remembering the fallibility of eyewitness recall, especially when hearing about hauntings second hand, and how easily even the most honest of people will unconsciously embellish their story. If your best friend’s parole officer saw a Roman legion keeping time with them whilst they stumbled home from the pub at two in the morning, the odds are that it is not worth your time.

Finally, for those looking to ease themselves into organised activities public events are a great start. Run for profit by private companies who offer thrills and chills after sundown, these paid for excursions neatly bridge the gap between solo and group investigations. While technology is still front and centre on the night there are usually mediums and occasionally even witches on staff as well. Dowsing, seances and the like are all part of the experience, and depending upon how well the crowd gets along these can end up being very fun to attend. A major downside can be a lack of believability with regards to any paranormal incidents encountered on the night, as the organisers sell tickets based on their capacity to put on a show and may choose to fake phenomena as required.

Ghost hunting remains a hard sell, and it would be wrong of me to say that all Neopagans should grab a torch and start sitting around in their local cemetery in an attempt to contact the dead. My hard won experience as a necromancer has taught me that those who have gone before us are always watching and waiting, looking for a chance to interact with the people who remain behind. But in those early days, long before becoming a magickian of any kind, I relied on paranormal investigation to gain my footing in the unseen world. In hindsight I understand that it is this transitory aspect of the practice which makes all the cold nights and dodging security guards worthwhile. As those who have traversed the veil are now so we all one day shall be, and I for one would rather learn about my final destination in advance.