The planchette slides across the surface of the ornate Ouija board. It settles on one letter, then another. This is what I’ve been dreading. We’re sat around a table in Avenue House, a Grade II listed Victorian mansion in Finchley, north London, in a dark room that was once a tuberculosis ward. Across the floor, a children’s lullaby suddenly starts playing from a music box activated by motion sensor. “Who is SG? Are they your initials?” a woman in our group asks the darkness. I’m agnostic, and scared. If there is a beyond, I don’t want to open the door.
“Did Henry VIII take your land?” someone else asks, which strikes me as random, until I learn we are on a site that once belonged to the Knights Templar. Earlier this evening, ghost-hunting facilitator Craig advised us to be mindful of our questions. These ghost hunts involve 45-minute vigils throughout the night at sites of noted paranormal activity, “calling out” the spirits to make contact. “You might be meeting a departed spirit, loved by someone in the room,” he says gravely. “If you ask them if they’re OK, and they say no – what are you going to do with that?”
Haunted Happenings run events at a former orphanage in Liverpool, a nuclear bunker in Essex, a former prison in Shepton Mallet and the tombs under London Bridge. They sell out months in advance – one person here is on her 11th visit. Elsewhere in the room, people carry devices that register changes in temperature, humidity, electromagnetic frequencies (the last of which are more commonly used by electricians to find wires in walls). Sceptics are welcome, which is a relief. “Their value is eliminating false positives,” says Craig. “If the temperature changes, is the device near a window? Is that noise just a pipe? You have to rule out everything you can.”
Craig’s partner, Karen, also assisting tonight, describes herself as on the fence about the paranormal. “The mind is good at finding patterns,” she muses. But most of the 32 guests tonight are firm believers. Arguably too firm. Whether we sit a vigil in a former schoolroom or the governess’s turret chamber, it’s the same people who announce there are ghosts touching their hand. Every nasal whistle or tummy rumble is seized upon as significant. Someone can see a man. Someone else can too. Has he got a beard? Yeah, I think so. There are faint children running around in smocks. Can you hear that piano playing?
Why are ghosts so often Victorian, I wonder. People expire every minute. There should be ghosts in Reebok or hi-vis tabards, haunting the human resources department. Death isn’t Scooby-Doo. But I do get a taste of modern ghostery: a few visitors have ghost-hunting apps running in the background. “Why are you here?” someone’s phone asks. Such apps – NecroBox, DibbukBox, Djinn Box – often use a “ghost dictionary”. According to another app, GhostTube, “words are selected based on raw readings from your phone’s magnetometer”. Hmm. “Lady of the night!” another phone announces. It’s creepy, but cliched.
Even the Ouija board loses its terror. The name Ouija, trademark of toy company Hasbro, is a portmanteau of the French and German for “yes”. They’re yes-yes boards, and this insistence underpins their working. “Use our energy,” Karen exhorts the spirits. Watching hands, it seems to me the group’s fervent wish to commune is being expressed in tiny, probably subconscious, movements, forever nudging the planchette. (Later, I learn this is called the ideomotor effect.) Nothing moves when no one is touching it.
At our next vigil, in a dark conference room, we take it in turns to use a spirit box: listening to rapidly cycling radio frequencies through noise-cancelling headphones, repeating any phrases that come through. I like the ingenuity of this, but with every random utterance of Radio Belgium excitably woven into a story of a boy who died in a fire here, I get frustrated. What are ghosts? Frustrated DJs who don’t hate dead air?
What I do like is the opportunity to wander round a beautiful building after hours. Avenue House was once the residence of the bishop of London, and we are given time to explore it alone, by torchlight. I appreciate the high ceilings and restored stairs, tall columns of velvet curtain, a strange, brick-walled channel in the basement. I open a door on the top floor, setting off a fire alarm. It’s the biggest jump scare of the night.
Our last vigil is in the basement, and we turn our torches off. “My hand is itchy. Are you hot?” someone says, with much agreement and elaboration from others. I feel cold, because basements are cold, and frustrated by the over-excitability. We’re trying to scare ourselves, like kids around a campfire, but it’s nearly 3am and I want to go home. I’ve detected high spirits among the living, nothing from the other side. I’m leaving less convinced, I tell Craig outside. He’s sympathetic, with a high belief bar too. “For me, paranormal means unexplained. Not necessarily ghosts, or the supernatural. Only unexplained.”
It’s a humbler attitude I can get behind; one that doesn’t attempt to squash cosmic mystery. If the hauntings within us, or the roiling unknown without, were routinely available for inspection, life and death wouldn’t be adventures worth the name. Let the ghosts have their peace.