Sunday, 19 October 2008

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Britain is a country steeped in a rich and violent history. In the past 500 years it has seen ritual burnings of civilians for following the wrong religion, a King who beheaded two of his wives because he found the procedure of divorce a tad tiresome, a Civil War over the issue of whether Britain should be a republic state, the rise and fall of a worldwide Empire, and two World Wars with Germany that resulted in over 110 million deaths, most of them civilian. Even now Britain is heavily involved in efforts to stabilize Iraq as well as continuing to send troops to Afghanistan. In short it would appear that we Brits simply enjoy conflict.

It's not surprising then that stories of ghosts are common in Britain. Pretty much every castle that's still standing has a spook or two linked to it. From Henry VIII in Windsor Castle to the legs of, erm, someone walking around Dover Castle (Gee Note: To be fair it is very difficult to identify somebody just by their legs), the number of spirit sightings linked with Castles every year is staggering.

It turns out though, it's not just Castles that are breeding grounds for the corporeally challenged. Stories of hauntings in anything from Bed and Breakfast joints to Priories litter the British landscape. In fact, one suspects that if we travelled to every town, to every hamlet, and to every village within these quaint little shores we would likely find a ghost story in each and every one.

Ghosts have had a large impact on British culture. William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer Britain has ever produced, was positively nuts about ghouls and such. To the point that he featured them in pivotal moments in Julius Ceaser, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Richard III to name but a few. Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, possibly his most widely recognised work, is in some ways nothing more than a ghost story with a heart warming ending. Even in today's modern media, one of the most popular home grown cable television shows is “Most Haunted”, in which a team of mediums and psychics spend a night in a supposedly haunted location freaking out whenever the building creaks.

And so it's very rare that sightings of ghosts are reported in the UK's Media. For a start such sightings are ten a penny, and none of them supply any evidence outside of eye witness statements. So unless they are doing a piece along the lines of “This person is as nutty as bunch of bananas wearing sunglasses, and here's why” newspapers and current affairs programmes tend to stay away from them, leaving them to specialist “Paranormal” programmes undoubtedly narrated by the British equivalent of Jonathan Frakes. (Gee Note: I've been trying to think of the British equivalent of Jonathan Frakes for three hours now. So far I've come up with nothing. Which either means that Jonathan Frakes is unique, or we in Britain simply don't make enough Sci Fi television. )

But in the middle of 1997 when it was rumoured that a Dean at Cambridge University was contemplating hiring an exorcist to rid them of a ghostly presence, the entire media circus came to town.

Peterhouse is the oldest college in Cambridge University, founded in 1284 by a Medieval bishop named Hugh de Balsham. It is, with exception of some other colleges that have a restricted membership, also it's smallest college with only around three hundred students. Which all in all sounds like the perfect place for a body less spirit to hang around.

And as it turns out in April of 1997 two butlers (Gee Note: For those who didn't know, Cambridge is rather posh.) were cleaning in the Combination Room, which dates to the 13th Century and uses wood panelling for the walls. They were half way through the chores when they were shocked to see a figure moving slowly across the room before disappearing by the Morris fireplace.

Interestingly in the neighbouring churchyard of Little St. Mary's lies the body of Francis Dawes. Dawes, a bursar at the college in the 18th Century, is believed to have committed suicide after overseeing the fraudulent election of a master to the college named Barnes, who made life miserable for the bursar. His body was discovered by the Morris fireplace.

Now, because butlers are pretty much slaves dressed up to look like penguins, no one paid much attention to the story. But then, in October the same year, the senior bursar Andrew Murison reported that he had been in the Combination Room one night when it suddenly became very cold. Placing his hand on the heating pipes he found them to be hot to the touch, and as usual the fire was blazing away, but the room itself remained at what felt like a low temperature. Then, according to Murison, the pipes began to screech like a strangled parrot and a dark figure appeared at the back corner of the room. Murison, being a sensible Cambridge chap, immediately got the hell out of there. He was quoted as saying :

“It's not the sort of thing that bursars like to talk about too much because we're supposed to be the sort of chaps who have our feet on the ground, and people might think I'm a complete fruitcake”.

See? I told you he was a sensible chap.

Anyway as soon as the story was reported in the papers, Dr. Ward was besieged by phone calls and letters by white witches, druids, fakirs, and mediums. Some babbled incessantly offered to perform an exorcism, others advised him to leave “the spirit alone”. Ward, a Professor of Theology by trade (Gee Note: Which surely meant he would have been qualified to deal with an exorcism himself right? One would have thought the mediums and so on would have “sensed” that and saved themselves the time of offering their services) believed the two butlers and the bursar but decided to hold off on an exorcism and adopted a “Well let's just see what happens shall we?” approach.

And, it turns out, nothing else did happen.

No more sightings of the ghost have been reported since then. Not a dark moving figure, not a change in temperature, not a pottery class with Demi Moore. Nothing.

Life carried on, as it always does. The media lost interest. Dr. Ward moved on to the University of Manchester. And the name Francis Dawes disappeared off everybody's lips.

And so the ghost of Peterhouse remains a bit of a curio. It's more than likely that it was simply a case of what psychologists term “the power of suggestion”. Undoubtedly it fits the bill as far as Murison's account goes. Obviously mindful of the two butler's story, and presumably hyper aware of any changes in the environment around him, a shadow cast by the fire could explain the “dark man” in the corner of the room.

But what of the two butler's themselves? Well in all honesty, I'm not even sure how reliable the reports of their sightings are. I've yet to find an article that quotes or names either of them directly. So everything we know about what they saw is delivered via a third party. Call me cynical, but the temptation to embellish their account must be huge.

And so it appears that Peterhouse is unlikely to be home to a wandering ghost after all. They'll just have to settle for the consolation prize of being home to the country's best and brightest students.

Tough break.


Naveed said...

"It's more than likely that it was simply a case of what psychologists term “the power of suggestion”. "

I can't tell you the number of times I've been spooked because of that. Especially when I was at my grandparents who had lots of antiques. Antiques can make things creepy.

Scumbag Sam said...

I love a good ghost story! :) especially when the witness is a stand up chap/chapette! haha. Are they true? who knows!I kinda wish they ALL are... but I would be terrified all the same.

As for halloween, I don't think its too soon for the costume. I think a lot of people would do it though.. still, its a good look! and green hair dye comes out after about 3 washes anyway.. I'm sure... don't quote me on that though!

Ah, devil vs. Jesus. Brilliant! That would have been so funny to see!! :)

Jae said...

"to the legs of, erm, someone walking around Dover Castle (Gee Note: To be fair it is very difficult to identify somebody just by their legs)"

Difficult to identify? I think not... it was obviously Anne Boleyn!!! ;)

Good post, oh Cambridge folks! What are they like!