The intrepid ghost-hunters creep warily through the crumbling crenulations of the ruined tower, shadows from their torches dancing like dark flame over the rough-hewn, weather-beaten bricks. They stopped suddenly, peering into the drear, gloomy depths of the lower chamber at the narrow sliver of moonlight invading their domain through the narrow window bole, beyond.

This, they were sure, had been a place of intrigue, of secret meetings and talk of violent deeds. The blood of one investigator chilled as the image of a man standing by the mirror seemed to impress itself upon her mind’s eye: he was wearing woollen trousers and a short dark jacket – a uniform? - his long hair tied back from his face as he knelt by the window, his musket – at the ready. A guard, dedicated to the duty of his watch, ever mindful of danger lurking beyond the safety of his walls. Yes. There had been many soldiers here. Power and passion had played their part, she was sure, in impressing threir persistent personal essence upon this lonely place. The ghost-hunters’ guide nodded knowledgeably, for the psychic spoke truth – and one of her colleagues had reported similarly soldierly impressions only a few minutes before her arrival.

Well, duh!

Reading through accounts of vigils undertaken by modern paranormal investigators, it is a mistake, I find, to read too much into such uncannily ‘accurate’ observations. . Yes, it is certainly true that Stirling Castle’s Elphinstone Tower was, at various points during its history, home to soldiers stationed within that fortress, and had been used as a store for gunpowder and munitions; officers quartered here would have plotted their campaigns and discussed tactics – most notably during the Cromwellian and Jacobite sieges of 1651 and 1746; the spectral soldier’s dark woollen garb sounds not unlike an artillery pelisse of the era. That two teams of investigators should report roughly similar impressions is interesting – who knows, possibly even significant – but, how surprising is it, really. A tower in a castle, surely, could be assumed to be a defensive structure, that’s what towers and castles were fundamentally for, after all, and someone with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the history of Scotland – or Britain - during the 17th- and 18th-centuries might subtly and subconsciously layer associations and significances onto even the most mundane impression. Ah, you say, but what of little details like the ghostly gunman’s distinctive costume? Ever seen an episode of ‘Sharpe’ or watched ‘Kidnapped’? The vast majority of us may not feel we know a great deal about specific historical details of particular periods, but we all absorb far more than we think from afternoon telly, re-runs and even re-runs of ‘Blackadder’ - even if that knowledge is restricted to the popularity of pantaloons Pie Shops in Regency Britain.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the ghost-hunters were ‘faking it’. Not for a second. Having read their reports – and those of other like-minded sensitives – I have no doubt whatever that they are utterly sincere. Simply that the imaginative impressions they created may have been influenced the way they subconsciously ‘read’ their environment, grafting layers of meaning onto their environment.

I do it myself.

In reading the only account of a vigil which I found to be utterly without merit – the psychics in a haunted historic pub not far from the Castle occupying themselves with what I can only describe as parlour tricks, inviting the spirt-children they claimed were present to make their Electromagnetic Frequency Pulse meters ‘spike’, or sit on other investigators’ knees to see if it made them cold (of course it would, as the simple suggestion of temperature change will precondition them to the perception that that change would occur – that’s basic psychology) – I found myself grafting my own knowledge onto a number of the psychics’ comments.

One sensed that soldiers had been in the building? Really – a garrison town? Surely not. Soldiers lying on the floor? Drunken soldiers – not that uncommon, really, with the Castle close by. Soldiers speaking French, though? Ah…well…that’s different…Bonnie Prince Charlie’s army, who held siege to the Castle in January 1746, included a great many French (and Irish) soldiers. They disastrously positioned guns on the roof of the Burgh Workhouse, and on the exposed promontory of the Gowan Hill, so close that the Chevalier Gordon noted that the Redcoats could ‘see even the buckles on our artillerymen’s shoes’. The Jacobites ruled the streets by bloody ‘truck and drum’, seizing whatever buildings they thought would give them advantage. Could thirsty troops resist a tactically tempting tavern? This pub, after all, was one of the nearest buildings to the hill, and might have barracked them, or been used to tend the sick and wounded after Major-General Blakeny called for Mirabel De Gordon to….


See? I’m leapfrogging. My assumptions and associations – from an informed, culturally contextual, location-specific and historically aware perspective – are far, far worse than those I presumed the first ghosthunters I mentioned to be guilty of. Random details are sifted and filtered and the most tenuous connections made by my mind because – random as they are – they kinda sorta make sense. The mind makes order out of chaos. It creates patterns and where none exist we assume that they do.

We crow-bar our preconceived ideas and ideals into places they really were never meant to fit….only poke and prod them out again when the received wisdom of the ages changes. Many thought (and still think) Darwin a dangerous nutter. Others, conditioned by contemporary educational mores, think his Creationist critics are the merry mentalists. Majority perception and prejudice are as changeable as fashion. Maybe the Tower investigator did see a spectral sniper, and it’s the taint of my own semi-scientific rationalist mindset that makes me sceptical of the subjective truth of her experience. Or not. Are her sensations delusions, assumptions, subconscious perceptions or of phenomena we don’t yet understand.


Originally published on GeekPlanet.Com's 'Hangman's Joke' column.

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