Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Strings or Poltergeists?

One of the most disappointing things about evidence of the paranormal is that usually the skeptics are right - most of the time it's either faked or misinterpreted. The latest piece making the rounds on the Internet is a video recorded by a family in Coventry, England, of an alleged poltergeist that haunts their home.

Lisa Manning and her two children have been living in fear following hundreds of eerie goings-on.

Ashtrays have been flung through the air and they once came home to find their dog lying motionless at the bottom of the stairs, with serious injuries.

Vets said it was as if their pet, who later died, had been pushed down the stairs in their home.

And if you were thinking there’s no such thing as ghosts – the sinister happenings have been caught on a secret camera set up by Miss Manning’s partner.

In what could be a scene from horror flick Paranormal Activity, the footage shows a chair sliding across the room as cupboard doors slam open and shut.

What the video actually shows is a cupboard opening - but not closing - on its own along with the sliding chair. That's significant because it's very easy to make a door open on its own with a piece of string, but a lot harder to make it close using the same method. Similarly, the chair moves across the floor as though dragged by one of the legs, the bottoms of which remain curiously out of frame.

Unfortunately for the Mannings the events in the video are simply too easy to fake for them to be considered solid evidence. Ghost Hunters, for example, did catch some video of a sliding chair on one of their investigations, but the footage was a lot better for two reasons. First, the chair slid evenly and quickly without rotating, in a way that would have been hard to reproduce by dragging. Also, the bottom of the chair was in frame and no string was visible, though it is true that had monofilament been used it wouldn't shown up on camera.

After seeing the video, housing association Whitefriars is now helping relocate the family.

But in a desperate attempt to put a stop to the haunting Miss Manning called in a priest to exorcise her home.

The weird disturbances have left the mother, her daughter Ellie, 11, and six-year-old son, Jaydon, so terrified they have fled their haunted house in Coventry six times.

Miss Manning, 34, said: ‘Your home is meant to be a safe place but ours isn’t. ‘I have to sit with my daughter when she goes to the toilet or has a bath as she’s too afraid to go on her own.

‘The worst bit is we can’t see it so we have no clue as to where this poltergeist is or what it’s going to do.

‘Things have got so bad my kids are now seeing a counsellor.’ Ellie added: ‘I’m scared to go home from school and I don’t like to go upstairs on my own.’

Despite admitting to being sceptical of the paranormal at first, Miss Manning has now resorted to putting up crucifixes to banish the spirits.

‘The priest said we definitely shouldn’t stay,’ the care worker said. ‘This truly is a horror house.’

As any skeptic would note, the events in the video are explicit enough that this has to be either a hoax or the real thing. It sounds like most of the family is genuinely scared, so I'm guessing they're not in on it. Rather, my suspicions lie with the partner who shot the video. Note that in the clip the camera just happens to be set up so that the bottom of the cupboard door is out of frame as is the bottom of the chair, remaining so even as it moves. To me that implies some careful staging of the scene and positioning of the camera.

It's also possible that real paranormal activity is going on in the house, but after failing to capture it on camera the family decided to fake the video. What I really don't like about the "professional skeptic" approach is how quickly they tend to conclude that if they can debunk one piece of evidence it means that anything they can't explain must also be faked, even if they can't figure out how it was done. It's possible as well that the movement of the chair and cupboard could be genuine and just coincidentally happened to present itself in a way that would be easy to do with strings, but in most cases like this the strings suffice as an explanation all on their own.

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Hypnovatos said...

While the 6 yr old can be coaxed into believing it saw and heard things it never saw, the 11 yr old would be far more difficult to convince they saw and heard something that they did not. Anyone interviewing them would make swiss cheese out of their testimony if false.
I'm actually reminded of the '83 flick, "The Entity", sans spectral rape.
I wish there could be a quicker response time to getting film equipment into these homes, before the families have completely moved out.
Something like this does have me wondering the same possible conclusion as you... the partner behind it all and the family entirely innocent.

Unknown said...

Part of the problem with searching for "proof" is that anything you find will by its nature only be of use to you. No matter how many measurements a ghost hunter makes or how much video is recorded, anyone who it is presented to is going to come to the same conclusion: "Either something really is going on, or it's a hoax."

Which is exactly where we started.

Scott Stenwick said...

What I meant when I commented that either something paranormal was going on or it's a hoax is that something like this video completely rules out a normal phenomenon that's being mistaken for something paranormal. If you have a video that, say, shows an object falling off a shelf on its own that happens to come from California, what likely happened is that the object was placed precariously and a barely noticeable earthquake came along and dislodged it. But a chair sliding across a room has to be pulled by something, either a ghost or a string.

As far as evidence goes I do think some pieces are better than others. There are a number of things that would have made this video much harder to fake, such as the bottom of the chair legs being in frame so that you could see whether there was a string or the cupboard door closing in addition to opening on its own. You're right, though, that in terms of the formal scientific method these cases are tough to investigate. Repeatability is a big sticking point, since these phenomena are so unpredictable. Magick has the same problem, and once we invent an instrument that can measure consciousness we may finally be able to get the research up to a level that mainstream scientists will be willing to work with. Of course, how such a device would work is anyone's guess.