Will Storr vs. the Supernatural (2013): Will Storr

★★★

One Man’s Search for the Truth about Ghosts

What’s your take on ghosts? Believer, undecided or sceptic? I lean towards the sceptic point of view, although I know very sensible people who believe they’ve seen ghosts. I don’t discount the possibility of there being some kind of scientific explanation, like those suggested at one point in this book, but in the cold light of day I can’t admit to ever having seen anything abnormal myself. That’s despite the fact I am the most over-imaginative, jumpiest and wimpiest of creatures – I spent much of Stranger Things Season 3 hiding behind a cushion – and that I spent a large part of my teenage years hanging around in an ancient graveyard after dark (I was a bell-ringer; practise nights were obligatory). But I don’t have all the answers and that’s why I bought this book when it was on offer. It does indeed prove to be an intriguing journey, which explores various aspects of the paranormal and – more fascinating still – brings you into the company of (forgive me) some very odd people and profoundly weird events. Whether you’re convert or cynic, you might end up leaving the light on…

Will Storr starts out as a sceptic. Despite his good Catholic upbringing, he has lost his faith and he starts out on his paranormal journey as a bit of a joke. Hoping to turn it into an article for Loaded magazine, he spends a few days with Lou Gentile, an American demonologist. It was meant to be a comic look at an American eccentric, but Storr finds himself deeply unsettled by the things he experiences in Gentile’s company. Stuff happens that he can’t explain and which really does seem to have some kind of paranormal origin. Worse still, he doesn’t believe he’s being hoaxed. He’s convinced that Gentile, and the people whose ‘afflicted’ houses they visit, genuinely believe that what’s happening is the work of spirits. What if they’re right? That’s sobering stuff. If ghosts exist, that – reasons Storr – suggests the existence of an afterlife. If the afterlife exists, it follows that all the heaven-and-hell business might be real too. And that, concludes Storr, is enough to make a man think twice about the way he’s living his life. He needs to find out more, to probe deeper into the world of the so-called paranormal – just in case. And to do that, he’s going to need some help.

Storr gamely signs up to join paranormal investigators and ghost-hunting groups. He visits old priories at night, tries dowsing and takes tips on personal protection from a druid named Stephen. He attends a seance at a former RAF base and experiments with a Ouija board on the site of a plague pit in Clapham Woods near Worthing, which also, incidentally, may or may not be the headquarters of a powerful Satanist secret society. He borrows a philosopher from the Royal Philosophical Society, to talk about the soul and the body. He spends the night in a famously haunted room in a Cornish pub, and interviews two people at the very heart of the Enfield Poltergeist case, one of the most notorious and extensively documented cases of ghostly activity in the UK. And he visits a psychiatrist who specialises in delusions of paranormal activity. At every turn, he is just what you’d want your guide to be like: open-minded, rarely judgemental, but not ready to believe absolutely everything that’s put in front of him (an overly dramatic roaring ‘trance medium’ and a popular TV paranormal show both leave him cold).

Does Storr end up reevaluating his scepticism? Well, that’s for you to find out when you read this. Have I ended up reevaluating mine? Hard to say. Storr definitely experiences some odd things, but in the fortunate position of a mere reader – who hasn’t experienced any of it for herself – it’s very difficult to decide. From an outsider’s perspective, Storr opens himself up to ‘experiencing’ things: he goes to places with groups devoted to finding ghosts, who psych one another up and are ready to find paranormal causes everywhere. And why is it, after all, that ghosts only manifest themselves at night, when people are naturally disposed to jump at shadows? Yet things certainly do seem to happen to him that can’t be explained through normal causes. And could there be some merit in the links that Storr makes between ‘ghostly’ activity and quantum theories of time as a non-linear, overlapping process – or even between string theory and its extra dimensions that human senses can’t normally recognise? Again, I don’t know. I’d love to sit down with a physicist and hear them explain it to me – in fact I’d love to hear all these theories explained by sober, objective, non-involved people. Because the overriding feeling is that many of Storr’s contacts have a vested interest in ghosts being real, and so – being sceptical again – I can’t help wondering if, even if only subconsciously, they leap to the explanations that say what they want to hear?

Earlier I said that ‘in the cold light of day’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything abnormal. The only time I’ve seen anything remotely unsettling was at university, in the middle of the night – woken in my room in the quad of an Oxford college, all shadows and Gothic pinnacles. I heard a slapping noise and looked out the window – my room faced one of the College towers. The slapping noise, I can now rationalise, was nothing more than the rope of the College flag banging against the flagpole. But that doesn’t explain the fact that I swear I saw a tall black figure in a cloak standing on top of the tower. Next day, someone else also claimed to have seen it. But we were students. It was the middle of the night. Our imaginations were overstimulated and many things, when half-asleep and in the darkness, might look like a standing figure. Maybe someone was playing a prank in their Scholar’s gown? Certainly, I never saw anything again. But you can bet that it took me a very long time to fall back to sleep that night…

Thus, an entertaining and unsettling look at the world of the paranormal, but not a book that’s going to make any major contribution to the debate either way – for the simple reason that there is no way to prove anything. Whatever you believe, I suspect you’ll find supporting evidence here – whether you feel that there are paranormal forces trying to interact with our world, or whether you think that everyone involved in Storr’s journey is either a charlatan or deluded (I must stress that he himself is scrupulously open and fair towards almost all of them)… I think I probably still lean towards the latter, although I don’t believe that these people are malicious at all. I’m sure they believe in what they saw, and that in some cases there probably is some weird energy or magnetism causing havoc with our brain-waves. Perhaps it’s inevitable that there are no firm answers, but this is an engaging trip into the world of those who feel that anything might – just might – be possible. (I surely needn’t add that, despite my scepticism, you won’t find me going to spend the night in ‘haunted’ houses any time soon. I’m way too suggestible for that!)

Now, of course, it’s your turn to share your scary stories…

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