Midnight on Friday. Thirty people are crouching in a dark castle crypt, silently waiting for ... what? A ghostly apparition, or an otherworldly sound - a communication, in short, from beyond the grave. Suddenly, a woman screams. "Something just hit me on the head!" The tension broken, everyone starts talking at once and turning on their torches.
We are on a ghost-hunting event at Oxford Castle, one of a growing number of paranormal-themed experiences springing up around the country. Fright Nights, the company behind the evening, organises ghost hunts at 170 locations in the UK, scaring - or trying to scare - 1,000 customers a month. While it claims to be the "undisputed number one ghost hunting company in the UK", it has certainly spawned a lot of imitators - Haunted Happenings, Dead Haunted, Let's Be Spooked - all making a living from our desire to be frightened.
Martin Jeffrey founded Fright Nights 10 years ago. At the time, there were no public ghost hunts in Britain, but interest in the paranormal had been piqued by TV programmes such as The X-Files. Jeffrey, who carried out his first investigation into the supernatural when he was 14 years old, began by taking groups of friends on informal ghost hunts. A business idea was born, and Fright Nights now employs around 40 full- and part-time members of staff and has a turnover of more than £500,000.
Ghost hunts, as you'd expect, take place in old buildings that are thought to be haunted. Members of the public are guided by a medium or 'parapsychologist' through vigils and seances, 'glass divination' and gadget-checking. Some companies place the emphasis on fun and frights, while others pride themselves on a more scientific approach. The event I attended was aimed at sceptics, so the opening remarks from medium Ian Doherty were a little surprising: "I'm like the little boy in the Sixth Sense: I see dead people."
And indeed he did. Dozens of ghosts paraded before Doherty throughout the night, all described by him in impeccably accurate historical detail. Unfortunately, none were seen by the rest of the group, though some valiantly reported feeling "a bit cold" from time to time. The fact that we were spending the night in a draughty 11th century castle may or may not be connected with this strange phenomenon ... To be fair to Doherty, he was certainly entertaining.
Ghost hunt Nothing to be scared of?
Ghost-hunting participants vary enormously, from devotees of the paranormal to hen parties looking for something different. On my visit, several sceptical-looking groups clearly found it nothing more than a bit of a laugh (I overheard one woman's no-nonsense description of Doherty: "Full of shit!"). Others took it deadly seriously. Tony, the 'believer' of the group, plied the experts with questions and took their answers about 'spirit energy' and 'alpha waves' at face value. In return, he regaled them with tales of spooky experiences of his own - and his friends, and even a relative's cat.
An analysis of Fright Nights' customers found that they are "a complete cross-section of society", says Jeffrey. They vary in age from 18 to 85; they have different religious beliefs; some come in couples, some in groups. But many of them have one thing in common: gender. Seventy per cent of ghost hunters are women. "Maybe men are more sceptical?" posits Jeffrey tentatively.
Ghost hunting has become a popular pastime. According to Dr Ciaran O'Keeffe, a parapsychologist from Living TV's Most Haunted programme, there were 150 amateur ghost groups in Britain in 1999. Now there are 2,500 and counting. Ghostly experiences can be purchased as gifts online, and sales of "ghost-detecting equipment" are soaring.
The recession has done little to dampen the public's enthusiasm for the supernatural. (And ghosts, presumably, are unaffected by the credit crunch, having no fears of eviction.) Since the end of July, Fright Nights' bookings have been up 20% on the same period last year, previously the busiest year ever. Interestingly, August is the busiest time, not Halloween.
What has caused this surge in popularity? Television is credited with bringing the paranormal into the mainstream, from America's Ghost Hunters to Britain's Most Haunted. On the latter, spooky experiences happen to 'ordinary' people, from cameramen and makeup artists to members of the public. This, says O'Keeffe, "has made an interest in the supernatural more socially acceptable."
The success of Most Haunted, which is currently on its 13th series, seemed to be a major trigger for the setting up of new ghost-hunting companies. Jeffrey complained about the "sense of commercialism" that informs the later additions to the paranormal marketplace. "People with no previous experience have started companies", he says.
His own company can hardly be said to lack commercial instinct. The night at Oxford castle, which ran until 5am but included no food other than biscuits, cost £75 a head. Jeffrey defended his prices - this was a premium event - and argued that Fright Nights deliver a good value and "fulfilling" experience. "Even if there's no recognisable paranormal activity," he added.
There's clearly a difference between watching a spooky television show and wanting to spend the night in a haunted house. What drives this desire to experience fear? Psychologists refer to this contradictory impulse as the "paradox of horror" - seeking out that which should be unpleasant.
One theory that attempts to explain this paradox is that horror provides a relatively safe thrill, akin to bungee jumping or riding a rollercoaster. Jeffrey describes ghost hunting as "the new extreme sport". The fear is largely simulated and safe, and therefore enjoyable. In Oxford, people were positively determined to have a frightening experience. "My fingers are a bit tingly", said one woman, more in hope than certainty. "My arms are heavy", said another, prompting much excitement and jostling to stand in her spot. Ghost hunt Woman in white.
Another theory is that people are looking for answers to existential questions, and are willing to take risks in order to find them. They want tangible proof of life after death. O'Keeffe agrees. "Ghost hunting is the new religion", he asserts, tongue only slightly in cheek. (Ghost-hunting experts secondary mission seems to be to appear in Private Eye's Neophiliacs column.) During our 'glass divination' session, when we tried to contact the spirit world via a beaker and six fingers, some participants were practically begging the unseen spirits to make contact. The glass didn't move for me, but the hectoring tone of medium Mandy Taylor may have put the ghosts' backs up: "Spirit! Can you move the glass, please! Move the glass please, spirit!"
Jeffrey points out that people look for evidence of the supernatural in times of loss and grief. "One of our busiest weeks ever was after 9/11. It was incredibly sad and disturbing," he said. He advises those suffering trauma to seek proper counselling, not a medium.
It might be assumed that ghost hunting is an American import, as Halloween is such a big celebration in the States. Certainly it has taken off there too, but Jeffrey believes there is something peculiarly British about this strange pursuit. "It has always been in the British psyche", he said. "We have the greatest ghost story writers in the world - including Charles Dickens."
Indeed, Charles Dickens was a member of the Ghost Club, which is thought to be the oldest paranormal research organisation in the world. Ghost hunting is nothing new, then, but it is only in recent years that it has become easy for the average amateur to pursue it. Gadgets and other merchandise have become affordable, and websites and forums allow people to share their discoveries. Professor Chris French, co-editor of The Skeptic magazine, which takes a sceptical look at claims of the paranormal, says the demand has always been there. "In the past, we had ghost stories around the campfire," he says. "Now, people can actually get involved."
If it is a simple case of supply and demand, is there anything wrong with charging up to £100 for a ghost hunt, as some companies do, even if there is little chance of witnessing any supernatural activity? (In 20 years of investigations, O'Keeffe has only witnessed two incidents that he was unable to explain; French has not witnessed any.) Ghost hunts, frankly, can be rather boring - we sat around drinking coffee and waiting for something to happen for much of the time. Worse, though, are the groups that deliberately fake paranormal activity. "Some ghost-hunting groups - not all - are deliberate con artists who are just ripping people off for their own benefit," says French. "A lot of people are being ripped off."
O'Keeffe agrees. "The huge majority of ghost groups are operating unethically," he says.
EU regulations that came into force in May last year have tightened up the rules in this area. The emphasis is now on the medium to prove they did not mislead the customer, rather than the customer having to prove the medium was fraudulent. Jeffrey welcomes the change in the law. "There has been a huge increase in fraudulent mediums [in recent years]. It saddens me. It's the biggest lie you can tell." Fraudulent mediums must be exposed, he says.
One way to avoid wasting your money is to go to a reputable company. Another, even more foolproof way, is to give the ghost hunts a miss altogether, and visit the 'haunted' location on a regular tour. The best thing about the trip to Oxford castle was learning the macabre history of a building that was used as a prison for hundreds of years, right up until 1996. Discovering the fate of little William Wakenell, imprisoned in 1871 at the age of 11 for stealing half a pound of sugar, was far more chilling than standing in dark, waiting for a ghostly touch that never came.