For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.
Do I believe that, when our body dies, it is survived by some form of immaterial essence? No. Do I believe that the spirits of the dead persist on Earth in such a way that they periodically reveal themselves to the living? No.
And yet I believe in ghosts.
To my mind, ghosts are psychological phenomena born of intense emotion. In some cases, a ghost is a manifestation of emotional trauma. In other cases, a ghost is a passing re-connection with either a memory or an earlier emotional state. I believe that there are places that are haunted by the sheer weight of history and I believe that some of us are followed around by the fragments of trauma, longing, and loss. Ghosts can be summoned and spoken to. Ghosts can be so persistent that they require some form of exorcism to remove them from people’s lives. Ghosts can be seen when we baffle our perceptions with enough ambiguity that our minds step in to fill the blanks.
I have been going on ghost-hunts for about a decade now. I started out going on ghost-walks before paying to go on organised hunts and I now go on one every couple of years, usually when I can convince someone to go with me. I do this because I find ghost-hunts to be these endlessly fascinating collections of psychological phenomena that reveal a lot about not only the ambiguities of human perception but also about group-dynamics, and the eccentricities of post-religious spiritual experience. Oh… and if you’ll let it… ghost-hunting will also tell you a lot about how to run an RPG.
My first ghost-hunting experience was in a disused horror maze on the South bank of the river Thames. During the day, the venue was full of spooky locations with inexpensive special effects that triggered whenever a group of tourists wandered past. Out of hours, the venue was a slightly sad collection of props. Upon arriving at the venue, we were split up into smaller groups and taken off to various parts of the building where we were to be guided through a series of experiences. This hunt was not particularly brilliant… we left after sitting for an hour around a Ouija board whose planchette stubbornly refused to move. However, the first experience was a great demonstration of how ghost-hunting functions.
We were lead down into the entrails of the building by a man in a utility waistcoat. We stopped in what appeared to be a concrete corridor and the group leader asked us to extinguish all light sources before revealing a set of glow-in-the-dark table-tennis balls. He set them on the ground and invited us to concentrate on the balls: Even in the dark, the space was claustrophobic and we could hear footsteps and slamming doors from elsewhere in the building. After a while, the balls did appear to shift and the group leader spoke directly to the spirit, encouraging them to come forth and move the balls. As someone who once studied a bit of psychology, I knew that the movement of the balls was illusory; a product of micro-movements in the eyes combined with the lack of reference points in the dark making it appear as though a pair of stationary ping-pong balls were moving about. This is how a good ghost-hunt functions: You place people in an atmospheric location, you turn off the lights in order to maximise the probability of misperception, and then you make references to ghosts and spirits to provide a supernatural context for what is basically your brain stepping in and trying to make sense of ambiguous sense data. It’s not your brain’s fault… just as your brain will turn clouds into faces; it will turn ambiguous sense-data and odd occurrences into evidence of wilful design. This is the seedbed of all religious experience: Your brain is used to interpreting the world in terms of agency and so, when weird things start happening, your brain will immediately step in and try to convince you that something or someone moved the glow-in-the-dark balls that appear to be rolling around without anyone touching them.
That first hunt was really informative as the evening started out with a really successful session only to end on a complete damp squib.
The problem with ghost-hunting is that skill levels vary wildly from ghost-hunter to ghost-hunter and paying to attend a professionally-organised hunt is really no guarantee that you’ll be paired with a decent team leader. This very much reminded me of gaming with strangers as there is still very little guarantee that you’ll get a good game out of any given session. Part of the problem lies in cultural attitudes towards the acquisition of skill.
Ghost-hunting suffers for the fact that recognising the existence of different skill-levels requires you to acknowledge the role of the ghost-hunter in generating any of the phenomena that occur during a hunt. Ghost-hunters will often stress that they do not ‘fake’ the phenomena they encounter and so there seems to be limited engagement with the idea that effective ghost-hunting is a product of skills that people possess in unequal amounts. Indeed, the closest ghost-hunters come to acknowledging the existence of skill-levels is the idea that not every ghost-hunter is a medium and presumably mediums are more ‘sensitive’ and so more likely to generate effects.
While the rise of the professional ‘actual play’ GM has caused a lot of people in RPG culture to start believing that good GMing is only possible if one is an innately talented professional actor, RPG culture has historically been pretty good at acknowledging the idea that GMing is a skill you can acquire and improve with the passage of time. There is also recognition that different GMs have different styles and that these different styles will result in different kinds of session.
Having run games since I was a teenager and been to enough ghost-hunts to notice similarities, I am struck that being a good GM and being a good ghost-hunter involves some of the same skills:
Firstly, learn how to establish an atmosphere. Ghost-hunters usually do this by selecting a room that is appropriate to their style of hunt. At the very least, it should be a room that is quiet and whose lights can be extinguished but one can also go a bit further by finding rooms with particular features and vibes. For example, I once attended a ghost-hunt at an old stately home and the most effective session by far was the one that took place in a hot and oppressively claustrophobic room that had once been a nursery and was now filled with old Victorian prams and bassinets. At first glance, the room was too bright to be atmospheric but the second the door was shut and our bodies caused the temperature to rise, the effect was tangibly unpleasant.
Careful room selection and control over stuff like lighting and noise levels port directly across into any RPG session. If you are running a horror game, find a creepy space. If you are playing a hex crawl where the group are liable to being attacked by weird animals, play outside. Atmospheric lighting is pretty cheap too and there has been an explosion in the number of RPG-specific sound effect compilations available to buy and download but you can find loads of useful playlists on Spotify too.
Secondly, learn to prime the pumps. Non-traditional RPGs often stress the narrative powers that they hand to players but all RPGs involve the creation of imaginary spaces fed by both the GM and the players. The only difference between traditional and non-traditional RPGs is that non-traditional games expect everyone at the table to share the narrative responsibilities while traditional RPGs default to GMs having control of the narrative. To be frank, unless GM is running a dungeon with a literal set of rooms and encounters then chances are that they are going to be responding to ideas and assumptions put out there by their players. The best way to get good contributions from the players is to feed their imaginations.
RPGs are generally pretty good at recognising this principle but advice often centres more upon how to avoid fucking up than how to do this really well. For example, it’s really useful to be clear and not to contradict yourself when describing a space or an encounter but accuracy is more about avoiding disagreement than inspiring people to be creative. Historically, RPGs have tried to move beyond the basics of not fucking up by providing GMs with huge slabs of purple prose to read out at the table but given the fact that not every RPG-writer is skilled stylist and few GMs know how to deliver monologues, this approach seldom pays dividends. At this point, huge slabs of purple prose are more likely to be a sign of poor writing than anything else. As a result, rather than drowning my players in sensuous detail, I try to fill my worlds with details designed to spark their imagination. For example, I once described a village priest as a red-head with an explosive temper and the group’s resulting obsession with the (relatively minor) NPC nearly derailed my entire campaign. Don’t bludgeon your players with detail; give them the tools with which to be imaginative.
You can see this skill at work when a ghost-hunter uses the time it takes to walk from the central hub to their chosen space either by telling stories about their previous hunts or by sharing historical details about the location. If you provide the group with a load of evocative details about their location, they will not only be in a head-space that makes them more receptive to atmosphere, they will also have some tools to play with when trying to communicate with spirits. I saw this in action on the last ghost-hunt I attended at an old military fort. The room we were stood in was positively dripping with old anti-aircraft signage and the first spirit we contacted was a supposed Polish airman despite the fact that there had never been any airmen stationed at that particular fort. A sceptic and a cynic might argue that this proves that ghost-hunting is bullshit and while I think it’s pretty clear that the polish airman was invented out of whole cloth, it is interesting to see what a well-primed imagination can summon forth.
Thirdly, learn to control your crowd. One of the unfortunate realities of ghost-hunting in the UK is that many people seem to treat it as a kind of weirdly secular spiritual practice. What this means in practice is that every ghost-hunt will include true believers and a lot of those true believers will be special snowflakes who try to make themselves the centre of attention. I remember once going to a ghost-hunt in Cornwall and one group of people informed us in terms so serious as to be almost threatening that the ghosts were refusing to talk to anyone but them. At a more recent hunt, one member of the group I was in insisted upon turning every single session into an extended rambling conversation with her dead father. The father’s supposed attempts at conversation were not particularly meaningful and seldom amounted to more than a series of non-specific sentence fragments but they did (on no less than three occasions) shove a ghost out of the way and, in so doing, effectively shut everyone else out of the group.
This type of spotlight-hogging behaviour will be very familiar to most GMs and I spent my last ghost-hunt very conscious of the fact that the woman with the dead father was engaging in the kind of selfish, narcissistic wrecking behaviour that most GMs would feel compelled to deal with. The group leader could have ended the Ouija board session, they could have checked with other group-leaders to see if there was a problem and they could definitely have read the room and noticed that everyone was visibly sick of this woman’s dead father but a lack of leadership and a lack of group-running skills meant that one person was able to hog the limelight and effectively shut everyone else out of participating in the hunt.
One of the most valuable things to come across from my reading of James D’Amato’s The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is the idea of that good RPG sessions do not flow directly from such things as individualistic activities as knowing how to play your character or being able to run the adventure. Instead, successful RPG sessions require some degree of management at the level of who gets what attention and when. Good players are not those who merely shine when the spotlight is focused on them, they’re people who know when to relinquish the mic and also when to support other people’s attempts at being creative. A Good GM is someone who is mindful of the way that focus flows from player to player and allows everyone to participate as they wish and have their moment to shine. Ghost-hunters are habitually bad at allowing the selfish to take-over group sessions and they are also terrible at encouraging people to participate as most attempts at encouragement often involve putting people on the spot rather than empowering them to step in and contribute when they feel ready and inspired.