Smells like Halloween spirit: hunting for spooks in a ‘haunted’ old hall

I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m not even on the fence about it. So, whose idea was it to spend a Saturday night hunting ghouls in an empty, cold building, shouting questions into the dark expecting a response, instead of having a pint of Guinness in town? Well, it was mine, writes Nick Gascoyne.

For some reason, one that I’m still trying to justify, £26 left my pocket that day to hunt ghosts for four hours until midnight, at the supposedly haunted Gresley Old Hall in Swadlincote, Derbyshire. That’s roughly 6.8 pints of the black stuff.  

After being de-sensitised to horrifically overused movie jump scares, I felt it was important to remind my body of its fight or flight mechanism. So, to maximise my chances of encountering a ghost, or tricking my brain at the very least, I wanted to give the whole superstitious thing a fair shot and approach the paranormal investigation with an open mind. There are only two ways this can end I thought. I’m going to see a ghost that’ll hitch a ride with me home or I’m left wanting to poke my eyes out and bathe in acid after being subjected to a lifetime dose of cringe.

The tour begins in a briefing room full of a mixed bag of 30-odd individuals. Some were ghost-hunting veterans, and the rest were what the staff liked to call ‘ghost bait’ – apparently, spirits are more social around newbies. If the briefing have any context as as to why this building was so haunted, I didn’t hear it. I didn’t even know how old the building was until I googled it: ‘Constructed in 1734, replacing the original hall built in 1556’. Imagine the stories the walls could tell. Surely people have died here. Possibly murdered. Instead, they expect us to assume it’s haunted because it looks like it is. 

The tour consists of three vigils in the attic, the dove room and a child’s room. Each room is equipped with a pair of investigators who guide you through the various activities used for contacting the dead. Completely unaware of what many of these methods involved, I made sure to volunteer for every single one. There are ample opportunities to get involved, or if you are afraid to contact the other side, you can just stand to the side and watch. Table tipping, human pendulum and dowsing rods to name a few.  

Is there anyone there? Apart from Nick, that is?

We kicked off our hunt using a must-have of any rookie paranormal investigator – the Ouija board. Only towards the end of the night the planchette finally moved. On three separate occasions, we were all arched over a knee-high table, awkwardly hovering our fingers over the board until our legs became numb, just for it to move once. To the letter K. Then nothing.  

The last thing you want in a ghost walk is for there to be no ghosts. Sceptic or not, that’s why you’re there. With this in mind, it started to become increasingly obvious that any bump in the night was instantly attributed to the paranormal. Even if ghosts were to blame, it’ll be very hard to convince anyone of it due to the number of people congregating and moving around this small, sectioned part of Gresley Old Hall and the noise associated with it.   

This raises doubt about the authenticity of it all. The Ghost Hunters Tours staff would be chasing any lead they could get their hands on. I became suspicious of everyone in our group, especially the young couple who seemed to eat it all up, with one of them going as far as to cry in the mirror after witnessing an old lady spirit in the reflection.  

They say another ghost that walks these derelict corridors is an old man, and also a paedophile according to the medium who spoke with him that night. Not wanting to disappoint, I took my turn in the child’s room holding the dowsing rods, and the rest of the group formed a circle around me. The medium asked if that ghost, in particular, was here. Eight excruciating seconds of silence was all it took before I caved in and regrettably moved the rods to yes.  

That’s it. I’m in for the long haul. But the reaction from the medium surprised me and somewhat disturbed me. In an enthusiastic and oddly dominatrix tone, she began interrogating the ghost: “You dirty old pedo. You like little kids, don’t you? You filthy old man.” What was I to do now? And to make it worse, due to concentrating entirely on moving these rods, I was too weak to hold back the growing urge to pass wind. It filled the room and was quickly spotted by the other members. I dodged judgment as the group decided the spirit was the culprit. “Is that you? Go have a bath you smelly old man. You stink,” the medium said. I was done. Get me out of here. 

I left Gresley Old Hall the same way I entered – a non-believer in the supernatural. If anything, this experience made me more convinced that I was right. I can’t even see the fence anymore. And for those still on it, and wanting to pick a side, a ghost hunting outing will be as convincing as Shamima Begum. If you’re a spiritualist, you would disregard whatever this article had to say and purchase a ticket anyway. And you should. You will experience paranormal activity, I’m sure. The experience is catered for you and will only do what it did for me in upholding our preconceived biases.