Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The ghost in the machine

In the news today is a story about a theme park in Thorpe, Surrey County, England, which is being altered because the site is haunted.

The Storm Surge, a twenty-meter-tall water slide, was scheduled to be built at the site, until workers began reporting feelings of sudden chills, feelings of being watched, and glimpses of what appeared to be a headless monk.

A paranormal investigation company was called in, and they used the latest in scientific investigative equipment -- Ouija boards, crystals, and Polaroid cameras -- and they came to the conclusion, "Yup.  It's haunted, all right."  Furthermore, they found out that the site of the water slide was near a place called "The Monk's Walk" (*cue scary music*), which is a path that went from now-ruined Chertsey Abbey to Thorpe Church.  Apparently the site was also a burial ground back in pre-Conquest times.

Well, with that kind of psychic convergence, what could the theme park owners do?  At great expense, they relocated the ride.

Myself, I would have called in the kids from Scooby-Doo.  They would have run around investigating in the Mystery Machine, gotten scared a bunch of times, said "Ruh roh" and "Yoinks" a lot, creating uproarious laughter in the laugh-track, and in the end the headless monk would have been the foreman of the work crew with a sheet over his head, who was using hidden wires and pulleys to float through the air.  He would have had some lame reason for staging the whole thing, and would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those darned kids.

Or, maybe, just maybe, there's a rational explanation for the whole thing.

Vic Tandy, an engineer working at a medical manufacturing firm in the British Midlands, is not the sort of person you'd expect would believe in the paranormal.  He is a rational, scientific type, educated at Coventry University, and no one was more shocked than he was when, while working late one night, he saw a ghost.

He'd been sitting at his desk that evening, feeling progressively more uneasy.  He was certain he was being watched.  He kept turning around, sure that someone would be there.  And then... someone was.  He turned around, and watched as a gray form materialized near the wall, floated across the room, and disappeared.  "The hair was standing up on the back of my neck," Tandy reported.  "I was terrified."

Some days later, he came to work during off hours because of one of his hobbies -- fencing.  He wanted to use some of the equipment to make some adjustments to a fencing foil.  He clamped the foil in a vise at his desk.

And that was when he noticed something weird -- the tip of the foil was vibrating.  When he touched the foil, he could feel the vibrations pulsing through the metal.  And he began to feel the sensation of chill, the feeling of being watched again.

But this time, he had a hypothesis.  He had heard that subsonic vibrations can induce hallucinations in people -- in one famous case, there was an office building with a "haunted photocopier room" in which many people had reported paranormal goings-on.  In that case, the culprit was vibrations from a furnace fan.  So Tandy began to look around, and found a large, newly installed exhaust fan that was running.  He switched the fan off.

Instantaneously, the foil stopped vibrating -- and the terrifying feelings vanished.

Why subsonic vibrations have the effects they do on the human brain is poorly understood, but it's been demonstrated over and over.  You can take the most rationalistic, skeptical individual in the world, and place him or her in a room with a standing subsonic wave, and (s)he will see ghosts.  Imagine the results if you did that to someone who already believed in ghosts!

So, before relocating the water slide, it might have benefited the owners of the theme park to hire someone who owned audio equipment capable of detecting subsonic frequencies.  I'd bet cold cash that one of the other carnival rides had a motor that was emitting high-amplitude subsonic sound waves.  Damp down those waves, and chances are, you could rename "The Monk's Walk" "Water Slide Way."

1 comment:

  1. Has it really been demonstrated that low frequency sound causes ghost sightings? Actually no - for example neurologist Dr Jason Braithwaite discussed this in depth here on UK Skeptics -

    For a peer reviewed article see Braithwaite, J. and Townsend, M. (2006). Good vibrations: The case for a specific effect of infrasound in instances of anomalous experience has yet to be empirically demonstrated. Journal for the Society for Psychical Research. 70a. pp211-224.

    There is a recent good overview by Steve Parsons here -

    This was very much received wisdom among many sceptics early last decade, but now is generally considered to be a blind alley as far as I can make out.

    Hope of interest
    cj x