Last year I was researching my new novel, The Feast Of All Souls, in which ghost-hunter John Revell investigates his ex-lover Alice Collier’s apparently haunted house.
I decided very early on John shouldn’t be one of the usual paranormal ‘experts’, but a hard-headed skeptic, for whom every mystery had a boringly mundane solution.
Someone, ideally, who didn’t believe in the supernatural at all.
Someone like Hayley Stevens.
When Stevens began ghost-hunting, she was an ardent believer; over a decade later, she is an atheist and humanist who doesn’t believe in the paranormal. She was exactly the kind of investigator I wanted John to be.
“I understand and respect that ghosts and monsters aren’t everybody’s cup of tea,” Stevens says. “I just wish that others would understand that those of a skeptical nature that spend time assessing such claims and reports aren’t wasting time. Research into ghosts and monsters is still very relevant [because] belief in ghosts and monsters is still very real. Not because people are stupid, but because people experience things on a regular basis that they have no experience or knowledge of.
“I often describe paranormal cases that I research as jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing. You can look at the incomplete picture and hazard a guess as to what it probably is – but if you sieve through the information that comes with the case you start to find the missing pieces of the puzzle, and more often than not you can put the missing pieces in place and see the bigger picture.”
Radio 4 recently rebroadcast an interview with Stevens by Selina Scott. Despite her stressing her skeptical approach and her attitude towards the paranormal, it provoked a host of derisive Tweets, such as: ‘Oooo a real-life ghost buster. #MyArse More likely a ghost-bullshit buster. @selinascotts should really know better! #JFC’ and ‘A “professional ghostbuster” with Selina Scott. “Light bulbs blow from time to time” so it must be a ghost. Do they charge VAT?’
“I didn’t state it was a ghost, but that doesn’t stop people from taking the piss,” Stevens sighs.
It must often seem a thankless task. Why, then, does she continues to investigate?
“I’ve had a couple of experiences that could almost convince me something paranormal exists,” she says. “These keep me thinking and on my toes, and it is so frustrating that I can’t work out either way what the hell happened. They’re why I still investigate and remain open minded.”
Alongside science and skepticism, Stevens also considers an ethical code to be essential. Investigators, for instance, shouldn’t work with anyone bereaved in the previous six months: “Grief can make a person extremely emotionally vulnerable. Only professionals with specialist training in coping with grief and depression should work with those who have experienced such a recent loss.”
The same caution applies to working with children, or the statutorily vulnerable: adults with mental health issues or learning difficulties, the elderly or frail. But even adults outside these categories can be harmed by an investigator’s ill-considered actions.
A few years ago, Stevens was asked to conduct an educational investigation at a ‘haunted’ Bristol pub. “The idea was that I’d lead the investigation and walk people through the pseudo-scientific methods of ghost hunting – including using a ouija board. As we sat around the table conducting a faux ouija board session a member of staff that lived in the pub walked in, saw the board and started to panic. I didn’t know people lived on the premises – or thought to ask the organisers of the event about such things – and as a result one resident got very scared and I’m pretty sure that would have had a knock on effect.” The incident made Stevens far more focused on the ethics of her work. “There isn’t a standard code of ethics, and that’s the big problem in the community.”
“I very rarely get involved in cases involving people within their homes,” she says when I ask how she’d approach a case like Alice Collier’s. “It’s an ethical minefield. If I was in John’s shoes, though, I might – but still explain to them that they can ask for the investigation to end at any time.”
That, of course, raised the question of what form such an investigation would take – and of what would actually convince a hardened rationalist that they’d genuinely encountered something supernatural? For the answers, you’ll have to wait for Part Two of this interview…