The following article was originally published in Borderlands Issue 9 (2007).
Muncaster’s Ghosts – the science and the fiction
By Marty Young
Muncaster Castle is regarded as one of the most haunted buildings in England.
Located east of Ravenglass in Cumbria, England, the castle is currently home to three generations of Pennington’s, whose family have owned the land since it was first granted to Alan de Penitone in 1208. In 1464, Sir John Pennington gave shelter to King Henry VI after the Battle of Hexham, and the King left behind his drinking bowl in gratitude, saying that as long as it remained unbroken the Pennington’s would live and prosper in the castle. The bowl is still intact and is now known as the ‘Luck of Muncaster’.
Surrounded by 77 acres of woodland gardens in a 1,800 acre-estate, Muncaster Castle has spectacular views over the Eskdale Valley and the Lakeland fells beyond. In the sixteenth century, Thomas Skelton, the ‘Last Fool of Muncaster,’ would sit under the old Spanish Chestnut tree that now grows tall and gnarled out front of the castle and provide directions to travelers trying to cross the Esk river. The only safe passage back then was by the shallow fords, but if Tom didn’t like the look of the travelers or if they were rude to him, he would direct them into the quicksand where they would die learning better manners.
Skelton later reportedly cut off the head of a Joiner using a hammer and chisel after learning the man was a rival for a lover’s hand. It is said that the footsteps often heard at night following people up the castle’s stairs or across the grounds are those of the Joiner.
But this headless specter is not the only ghost at Muncaster.
From amongst the darkened trees overhanging the road by the main gate, a woman in a white flowing dress appears briefly before slipping back into the darkness. Seen from the corner of the eye, the ghostly figure can perhaps be dismissed as an illusion caused by car headlights casting strange shadows amongst the twisted branches.
Besides, what would a woman in a long white dress be doing here at night?
But on other occasions, the same woman has been seen by both driver and passenger as she hurries across the narrow road, her stark expression caught in the headlights. Sometimes, this mysterious lady is standing there in the middle of the road as a car comes around the bend; there is no time to react and she is struck down. But no driver ever remembers feeling the bang of a collision; there is just that heart-wrenching second of horror before she and all trace of her are gone.
The woman is Mary Bragg and she was hanged near the main gate in 1805. She has reportedly been seen outside Muncaster Castle for at least the past 60 years.
There was a second phantom pedestrian, a male, who had also been seen near the front gates of the castle. However, that particular ‘ghost’ was explained away once the branches overhanging the road were cut back and the sightings stopped.
The same explanation doesn’t explain Mary though because sightings of her continue. And neither do other possible theories such as marsh mist from the nearby river shifting and drifting on the wind, or driver fatigue. No rational explanation successfully–and completely—solves the mystery of the lady in white, particularly when both driver and passenger report detail that is often identical to other sightings.
There are other ghosts too, drifting eternally through the old building, their wails echoing with the owls; Muncaster holds a reputation for being rich with paranormal experiences.
But paranormal isn’t a word cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jason Braithwaite from the Behavioural Brain Sciences Centre at Birmingham University would use. He is more likely to say that further research is required to solve the puzzle.
Dr. Braithwaite is a skeptic, a scientist looking for scientific reasoning to the phenomena of the paranormal. In prior parapsychological work, he has debunked ‘hauntings’ by proving the ghostly sights and sounds were caused by such things as simple, natural processes like mine shafts flooding with tidal water, restless dogs or faulty house wiring.
On the 29-30th of March 2006, Dr. Braithwaite ran a two-day course on ‘Parapsychology and Investigating Haunted Houses’ at Muncaster Castle for twenty international students, including myself. The course discussed the science behind the phenomena of ghosts by explaining scientific theories, brain and cognitive function and unbiased investigative techniques. It was not a midnight séance where participants held hands to chat with old Tom the Fool, but rather an extensive and genuine scientific investigation of the paranormal.
According to Dr. Braithwaite, the majority of ‘paranormal’ research is based around descriptions, theories without any scientific foundation (eg, the ‘haunted’ house was built on the site of an ancient monastery, and the ghostly activity is therefore likely to be related to the spirit of a monk or an abbot). Such descriptions offer nothing conclusive, but instead take one controversial idea (eg, ghosts) and add it to another (eg, religion). In this situation, science is moved aside for faith.
Explanations, however, provide a theory for the phenomena via a testable mechanism (eg, electromagnetic fields cause hallucinations and ghostly sounds that can be mistaken for paranormal activity). They explain the what, how and why of a specific phenomena through scientific investigation and solid facts.
The underlining hypothesis in Dr. Braithwaite’s research is that if ghosts really do exist and can be seen and heard by humans, then they can be recorded. If they are instead internal experiences (eg, hallucinations) then neurophysiological and/or cognitive experiments should be able to determine the nature of the experience. Either way, it should be possible to gather conclusive, scientific proof of a ‘paranormal’ event.
Sometimes, there are simple and natural explanations for the so-called supernatural.
In one case Dr. Braithwaite investigated, a couple came to him claiming their house was haunted by what they thought was a poltergeist. Objects were being moved and strange sights and sounds experienced by both husband and wife. After a series of investigations, Dr. Braithwaite discovered that beneath the house was an old mine shaft that flooded periodically in relation to the tide. At high tide, the influx of water compressed the air in the shaft, forcing it upwards to creak and groan its way out through the house. The unstable ground also caused the house to sway slightly, causing items to move or fall over and doors to open and close seemingly of their own accord. Dr. Braithwaite’s team witnessed themselves one door swinging closed as a second opened to portray the illusion of someone walking through the house.
Other times, the ‘paranormal’ has a more complex (though still quite normal) explanation.
“Certain people have a neurophysiological instability that makes them more susceptive to perceiving apparitions than other people,” says Dr. Braithwaite. “For example, low-frequency complex magnetic fields can influence the brains of susceptible people to perceive strange events, such that they experience hallucinations or feelings like they are not alone, a ‘sensed presence’ feeling.”
A case study examined during the course involved a lady who had recently moved into a new house only to experience ghostly visions and frightening sounds each night when she lay down to sleep. The phenomena grew so bad that she was close to admitting herself to a psychiatric hospital. Dr. Braithwaite and his colleagues conducted a number of extensive investigations and discovered that the house was poorly wired and barely earthed, and the alarm clock sitting on the bedside table next to her bed also faulty. The resulting electromagnetic fields were causing strong migraines with aura (hallucinations), which was the source of the lady’s ghostly visitations. As soon as the wiring was fixed, her problems immediately stopped.
The human brain can be led astray quite easily. Evidence shows that some people are more inclined to see meaning in randomness or coincidence than are other people, and more likely to associate a paranormal cause in such situations. This is one of the fundamental problems in the field of parapsychology; faith often wins out over science. The belief that a passed loved one is trying to communicate means so much more than hallucinations caused by magnetic fields. Consider optical illusions; you know those horizontal lines are the same size (the Ponzo illusion) or that there really is no white triangle (Kanizsa triangle), but it is easy to believe otherwise and continue to see the illusion.
One common idea is that ghosts are imprints, impressions and/or recordings—usually of intense emotional experiences—that are made in the atmosphere (eg, in the fabric of a house) and played back from time to time. This is called the ‘stone tape theory,’ and while it has received a lot of attention, it is based on a flawed assumption; that stone, brick or wood has the capacity to record images and sounds, and can then play the recordings back at specific times. The notion provides a good description for explaining the ghostly sights witnessed, and even why a ghost seems to pass through a wall (the house might have been renovated since the event, and the ghost is actually passing through where a doorway used to be), but it is not an explanation; it does not explain how this might be possible. No geologist or physicist would be prepared to support this idea. If stone, brick, wood etc really did have the capacity to record and play back, the commercial aspects alone would be almost unlimited.
However, while this theory is currently unsupported by scientific proof, it is wise to remember that ‘plate tectonics,’ the idea of the Earth’s crust being made up of giant moving plates as first suggested by Benjamin Franklin in 1782, was not accepted as scientific fact until the 1960’s.
People used to scoff at the idea of a round Earth orbiting the sun, too.
Another idea that has seen recent support is infrasound: paranormal experiences can be due to inaudible low amplitude and low frequency (eg, less than 20Hz) sound waves. It is believed that such waves can stimulate the brain and make the eye vibrate, thereby causing hallucinations and uneasy feelings. While it is possible for infrasound to cause anxious feelings like the unease associated with thinking someone else is in the room with you, Dr. Braithwaite does not believe infrasound can cause hallucinations at the amplitudes and frequencies suggested.
“There is no convincing evidence to explain how inaudible sound can stimulate the brain to cause hallucinations at such frequencies. To make the eye vibrate enough would require audible sound, you would hear it as a low thrumming noise. But again, that doesn’t mean it is impossible, just that it still needs to be proved.”
As Dr. Braithwaite explains, “Scientific research does indicate that people genuinely do experience strange happenings; however, strange does not necessarily mean paranormal. The lack of evidence does not confirm or disprove the existence of ghosts; it simply means we have to do more research to understand what is going on.”
Dr Braithwaite has been researching the ghostly experiences at Muncaster Castle for 15 years now and he is convinced of only one thing; there is enough anecdotal and scientific evidence to suggest that something strange is indeed going on there.
Two days after the course, we were given the opportunity to take part in one of Dr Braithwaite’s ongoing scientific research projects through an overnight vigil at Muncaster Castle. And this was what I had traveled around the world for; the course was worth the journey alone but now I would be spending a night in a haunted castle! Better still, in the oldest part of the castle, where many of the ghostly encounters have taken place!
I would have the opportunity to judge for myself—with my own scientific background—whether Muncaster really was haunted.
There were sixteen of us taking part in the investigation and we were divided into three teams, with each team equipped with geomagnetic and electromagnetic field recorders, temperature and relative humidity thermometers, video and digital cameras, and Geiger counters (intensified magnetic fields can induce radiation).
Current scientific theory suggests that there is something about environmental factors specific to a ‘haunted’ location that distinguishes it from a normal location, such as anomalies in the electromagnetic field, temperature and humidity variations, even increased electrical activity caused by thunderstorms. If this theory is correct, then it should be possible to record these environmental changes and tie them in with strange experiences.
The castle was divided into 3 zones on 3 separate levels, and each team took it in turn to patrol and record physical variations in each zone for 45 minutes before returning to the briefing room to quickly review and discuss what had been recorded, before heading off to the next zone.
Muncaster Castle is over 800 years old with over 150 rooms. Suits of armour stand guard in darkened corners. Portraits of past Pennington’s look down upon the dimly lit library, which itself contains tombs of leather bound books centuries old.
At night, Muncaster is an unsettling place; the creaks and groans no longer sound so natural, while the huge rooms are too full of shadows to let you feel comfortable.
It is too easy to believe the castle is haunted.
Many reported paranormal experiences at Muncaster have occurred in the Tapestry Room, a somewhat sombre room with 17th Century wall hangings, Georgian furniture and a huge Elizabethan fireplace with devil head ornaments—the room creates an anxious feeling in those who enter. Family guests who used to stay there would rarely spend a second night after seeing a black, featureless figure walk in or out of the room or even awake to find that shape standing over them. Guests have also reported hearing children crying and even a lady singing to a sick child (the room used to be a nursery a long time ago). The door handle would frequently rattle in the middle of the night as though someone was trying to get in. And sometimes they would get in, with the door slowly creaking open only to slam shut again soon after.
During the vigil, members of one team were located within the Tapestry Room to record variations in environmental conditions when the door suddenly slammed shut.
The door handle then started to rattle, and this lasted for several seconds. The silence that soon followed was as ominous as the violence before, and the team sat there, unable to move, waiting for one of Muncaster’s legends to appear…
But nothing else happened in the Tapestry Room that night.
Their instruments had detected subtle shifts in air pressure and temperature that coincided with the slamming door, and whilst a draft is the likely explanation (or even subsidence, for which there is evidence in other rooms in the castle), it was impossible to convince the team of that; they were in the Tapestry Room, the room from which so many ghostly stories have come. Nothing that happened in that room could have a simple and natural explanation.
Dr. Braithwaite’s research has revealed a large and unusual magnetic field in the castle, particularly associated with the huge ornate four-poster bed in the Tapestry Room. The bed has a base made out of chain mail, and the magnetic field is strong enough to throw a compass off North by almost 90 degrees. Muncaster Castle also experiences strong pulses of electromagnetic waves of a man-made origin every 8 seconds or multiples thereof; these pulses do not occur every night, nor do they occur constantly when they are happening. Dr. Braithwaite has so far been unable to locate their source, but he is sure the magnetic fields are fundamentally related to many of the strange experiences recorded in this room—although not the moving door and its rattling handle.
With evidence showing that prolonged exposure to low-frequency complex magnetic fields can cause some people to hallucinate and hear sounds, it is no wonder guests hoping for a good night’s sleep in the Tapestry Room would greet the morning looking haggard and tense. Several people on the vigil complained of strong headaches after being in the room for only a few minutes, while the batteries in many digital cameras quickly went flat and photos repeatedly came out blurred (that in itself was a source of consternation amongst some of the more timid members of our vigil). My own digital camera, fully charged to begin with, went flat after less than twenty minutes in that room.
While the Tapestry Room was oppressive and even a little foreboding, I experienced nothing as thrilling as a slamming door or the ghostly wails of children during my time there. Nothing that forced me to question my faith in science.
The one thing that did become clear though was how easily setting can influence logic. If a door slams shut at home, I’m far more confident that it was the wind.
The Red Corridor is a long and narrow passageway with dark mahogany wall panels and muted tapestries, dark red carpet lining its length, and dim lighting filling it with shadows—the corridor is a creepy place at night. Ghostly footsteps, those of the headless Joiner, have been heard there in the past, following a family member or guest as they made their way to the stairwell at one end or as they retired to one of the many rooms coming off the corridor.
On our ghost hunting night, a participant in a different team to mine headed along the Red Corridor towards the majestic King’s Room. The night had fallen quiet since the initial excitement in the Tapestry Room, but as he went to open the King’s door, the handle turned of its own accord.
Many of us heard his reaction.
Again, the rational explanation is that the door had not been securely closed and only clicked in place as the man reached for it. A perfectly logical explanation at home, but it is much harder to rationalize in a ‘haunted’ castle in the middle of the night, a centuries old castle full of odd noises and deep shadows filled with spectral stories.
Like any good investigator, a lot of detail was withheld from us so as not to pre-empt our experiences—no doubt a crime unit would do likewise when hunting a repeat offender to prevent copycats or to determine useful information from the ‘slush pile.’ The turning door handle was one such occurrence; Patrick Gordon-Duff Pennington, who has lived in the castle since 1983, has experienced the phenomena on many occasions when he has been sure the door has been securely closed.
As I sat in the hallway outside the King’s Room later that night, listening to the faint whispers of the other members of my team discussing fluctuations in the electromagnetic field further up the corridor, I held my breath in expectation. Surely now, right here in this supposedly haunted corridor would be the moment I had wanted, the thrill I’d dreamed about on the long flight over from Australia. I waited for the footsteps, for the door handle to turn, the door to creep open…
But it wasn’t to be and I was forced to conclude that the turning handle my companion had witnessed had a physical—and quite natural—explanation; a lonesome draft, subsidence, the result of age on an ancient building, perhaps all three acting together to close the door properly, with a touch of coincidence.
Although I moved onto the next zone feeling a little let down by the lack of outright confrontation thus far, the fact that I was here doing this, hunting ghosts in a castle, was enough to keep me excited.
The Library is a forty foot high octagonal room with an amazing collection of more than 6,000 archaic books, furniture dating from the sixteenth century and numerous portraits of past Pennington’s hung up high near the domed ceiling; it is a room that demands you to lower your voice.
At 12:42pm that night as I was recording temperature and humidity variations, one of the guide ropes permanently set up to direct the public to a viewing point on one of the castle tours started swaying as though someone had brushed past it.
There was one other person in the room with me, a lady from France, but neither of us had been near the rope. My French companion was petrified and her panic undoubtedly fueled my own reactions because yes, I caught my breath and yes, I broke out immediately in goosebumps.
Our instruments had also detected a slight decrease in temperature at that moment, a difference of several degrees.
The stanchions holding the rope were unstable and it is likely that they—or the rope—were merely settling in the cold night, but the incident made me uneasy (and exhilarated!). I am a scientist by trade and generally not prone to supernatural beliefs, but I remained edgy after that.
It could have been a draft, others were telling me, but I wasn’t convinced.
The watching portraits near the gloomy ceiling did not help, either. In the silence of that library you could almost hear them whispering about you, wondering when you would flee.
The vigil lasted until 6am, when we retired to the Guard Room (a massively domed room with paneled walls) to rest until the front doors were opened at half seven. While no one saw the featureless figure in the Tapestry Room or heard the crying children, and no one was followed down the Red Corridor by ghostly footsteps, enough happened to keep us all alert until dawn.
The castle is a different place at night, regardless of your beliefs.
While the concepts taught during the two-day course and applied during the vigil sought to highlight the difference between the science and the fiction of the paranormal, and how difficult it is to remained unbiased despite the setting, Dr. Braithwaite is the first to admit that not everything can be explained by current scientific theories. There are still a lot of unanswered questions and strange experiences with no rational, satisfactory explanations—particularly at Muncaster Castle.
Dr. Braithwaite has a wealth of eye witness accounts and testimonies from more than a decade of research, none of which have been published outside of peer-reviewed scientific journals and then only as they relate to specific investigations (don’t believe everything you read on the net). While he believes the strange sights and sounds, the creepy feeling that slides up your spine in particular rooms and the sensation of being watched and followed are phenomena likely caused by the strong electromagnetic fields and general anxiety that comes from being in an 800 year old castle with owls who-whooing outside the windows, he is the first to admit that he doesn’t have all of the answers. There are things going on that continue to defy explanation.
Consider once more Mary Bragg, murdered in 1805 and buried beneath a large tree near the main gate by the carpark, a tree that was reportedly cursed after her death and when finally cut down by the castle groundsman (the only man willing to do so), it bled with warm blood.
“The blood was probably from a bat nesting inside the tree,” says Dr Braithwaite with a shrug, before pausing to regard us all with his penetrating stare. “But as for Mary herself, the case remains open. Too many witnesses have reported detail that is almost identical, detail we have purposely kept from the public.”
As I left the castle that morning to begin the long trek home, I cast my scientific eyes over the old place one last time and wondered about its stories and what I had experienced.
Was Muncaster haunted?
I was glad I was asking myself that question during the day, because I wasn’t sure what my answer might’ve been had it been night…
For more information on Muncaster Castle, visit: http://www.muncaster.co.uk/