Close encounters

Close encounters
By Steve Pratt

Dr Ciaran O’Keefe is a rarity – a parapsychologist who goes ghost-hunting on TV. He tells Steve Pratt about his haunting experiences and reveals some of the tricks of the spirit world

THE verbal appeal “Is anybody there?” is followed by three loud bangs. But this knocking isn’t a ghost responding to the question.

The thumping on the door is a bid by one of our number to attract the attention of those inside Edinburgh’s Blair Street Vaults and get someone to open it.

We – a posse of journalists, psychics, mediums and an internet ghost hunter – are locked out, halting our mission to discover if the spirit is willing to talk to the press at the launch of the country’s biggest ghost festival.

Now in its fifth year, Mary King’s Ghost Fest takes its name from a resident of one of the closes off the Royal Mile until her death in 1644.

The Close was preserved when the City Chambers was built over the site in 1853. The collection of underground houses and spaces that exist today is not only thought to be one of the city’s most haunted locations, but is also an award-winning visitor attraction.

This mix of the spooky and the entertaining seems the perfect place to encounter Dr Ciaran O’Keefe, the voice of reason on Living TV’s Most Haunted programme.

He’s a sceptic in the true sense of the word, explaining: “That means I’m open-minded to the possibility, but have to let the evidence speak. I’ll listen to mediums, to psychics, to stories people tell me about ghosts and be enthralled by them. But I’m also aware of the psychology of what’s going on and the environmental aspects.”

Call him the voice of reason, party pooper or even villain. As he defines it, “the person who, when somebody has some fantastic experience, stands there and says, ‘actually, guys, there may be another explanation for what’s going on and it’s certainly not paranormal’.”

He proves the point by taking us on a tour called The Real Mary King’s Close, following in the footsteps of a Most Haunted show made there. A mysterious tapping noise is heard. In Annie’s room, a marble is thrown across the space. In another, a machine indicates the presence of spirits with a screeching noise.

Medium Ewan leads a seance. We stand in a circle in the near darkness. The question “Is anybody there?” is asked. The silence is broken by the sound of cows mooing. This isn’t a message from beyond, we’re in an old cowshed and the bovine noises are part of the regular show.

Some people feel a slight breeze and drop in temperature.

Back above ground, O’Keefe pulls the carpet from under us by offering an explanation for everything we saw and experienced. He was responsible for the tapping and the marble projectile.

He moved the machine so it made a noise. And the cold was simply a matter of auto-suggestion.

O’Keefe balances the scientific and the spiritual in his work, the showman in him fostered in amateur dramatics. Away from Most Haunted, he’s employed by the University of Toulouse as a doctor of parapsychology.

Specialising in hauntings makes him an even rarer academic species. The majority look at ESP – which takes in telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance – which is laboratory-based, hard science.

None of them, I suggest, tackle the subject so entertainingly as he does. He takes this as a compliment. “Within the academic world, my colleagues know my work speaks for itself.

They also know I wear another hat, my media hat, for shows like Most Haunted and Jane Goldman Investigates,” he says.

His university role includes forensic psychology as well as parapsychology. In both, he’s the sceptic offering alternative explanations.

Along with O’Keefe’s haunting investigations, Mary King’s Ghost Fest features ten days of events for both novice and experienced ghosthunters, everything from online ghostwatching to ghostly family storytelling.

BACK in Blair Street Vaults, spiritseeker Paul Rowlands gives us a preview of his paranormal equipment, a light and sound show that, hopefully, will capture the sights and sounds of spirits. He demonstrates EVP – Electronic Voice Phenomenon – that presumes spirits can record their voices on tape. Next they’ll be wanting to audition for Britain’s Got Talent.

Medium Dawn pens the party in a dark, dank room where the only light emanates from a random light generator that emits strange noises if the spirits are raised.

“If you feel a draught, the first thing I’ll say is check there isn’t a breeze coming in from the door or the window,” she says. “Always look for the practical first. It’s easy to let things run away with you on a ghost hunt.”

She suggests ghosthunters sniff each other to get a whiff of perfumes and aftershaves.

It’s not just seeing ghosts, it’s about smelling them as well, she says. “People will say, ‘I know my gran’s with me because I can smell her perfume’.”

If the nose is a vital tool on a ghost hunt, so too, is how you feel. Breathless or cold, for example. Dawn goes very hot when there’s spirit activity. Rather like me after a couple of gin and tonics.

Our presence doesn’t attract spirits, unwelcome or otherwise. No headaches or breathlessness. No draught round the knees. There’s no repeat of a previous visit when Dawn couldn’t see out of one eye. No sign, either, of the ample-bosomed woman encountered earlier that evening. She’s one spirit I wouldn’t mind bumping into.

O’Keefe hopes his Most Haunted tours will be entertaining, but doubts they’ll produce any surprises. “Nothing that would make me stand on a soapbox and say there are such things as ghosts. Unless, of course, a ghost comes up to me, shouts boo and everybody in the room sees it and it’s also videotaped. And who’s to say that wouldn’t happen?”
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