This Friday night is a little different. I am gathered round a ouija board, the air temperature has dropped and as horrified screams emanate from downstairs, a nail mysteriously drops by my feet. Netflix and a takeaway this is not.
In fact, I’m in a creaky, old house in South London, where punters pay up to £60 to take part in a ghost hunt hosted by events firm Haunted Happenings.
Sure, the idea of spending your Friday night walking around a haunted mansion, desperately trying to contact the dead, might seem a tad crazy, but for some people this creates an adrenaline rush unlike any other. “In the past, poltergeists have grabbed me by the shoulder,” Paul, a middle-aged ghost hunter, excitedly tells me. “I’ve done this up and down the country. The atmosphere of these nights just hits you.”
The “haunted house” is in fact Charlton House, a Jacobean mansion in Greenwich that was built in 1607 and later used as a hospital during World War I. Some believe it is haunted by the ghost of womaniser Sir William Langhorne, who lived there from 1680 up until his death in 1715 at the age of 85. In the last year of his life, he married 17-year-old Mary Aston, but passed away before they were able to have any children. Local legend has it that Langhorne stalks the mansion acting aggressively towards female guests, angry, apparently, that no woman was ever able to provide him with an heir.
I’m joined by around 30 guests. During an introduction speech, one of the three organisers warns us: “It takes a while to get going. Tonight is all about your energy and what you put into it!” We stand in a circle holding hands, as the organisers attempt a séance. In the middle of the circle are two K2 metres, which are said to flash green when a spirit is close. There’s also a torch.
One of the organisers attempts to bring a spirit into the circle, asking it to turn on the torch in order to alert us to its presence. When the K2 finally flashes green and the torch lights up, there are audible gasps among the crowd. One woman whispers to her friend “I told you there was something in here!” Another man literally shakes with fear. I’m not concerned by the presence of meeting Casper, but rather two of the organisers. They stand in the centre of the circle and are the only two people in the room not holding hands. Could one of them be clicking a remote control, which they’ve hidden away in the palm of their hands or in a pocket? Equally, it’s dark and maybe I’m just looking for a logical explanation because I’m actually petrified.
Me and my friend, Andy, move downstairs to the cellar– an area we’re assured is full of “unusual activity” – keen to quiz the ghost of Big Will on his retroactive misogyny. It’s hard to tell if the cellar’s chilly atmosphere of dread is authentic or due to bad central heating, but I am guessing it’s the latter. It’s damp, dark, creaky and there’s a room stuffed with creepy children’s toys. I ask for a spirit to show itself and we instantly hear a knock from one of the cupboards. Andy screams like a baby. Is this our first truly legit sign of supernatural activity? Perhaps, but equally it could have come from the room above, where people are tucking into free Jaffa cakes provided by organisers.
But, back to the ouija board. And yes, I’ve seen enough horror movies to know this is a bad idea but in the spirit of the event decide to play along regardless. We’re told not to put any pressure on the planchette, but everybody appears to be pushing it forcefully. One of the male organisers walks in just as our ouija board enthusiastically spells out the words: ‘I AM THE DEVIL’. “I can see there’s a lot of activity in here!” he says. I guess you could call it that…
We suddenly hear screams coming from downstairs and rush off to investigate. Apparently one of the other group’s ouija boards flipped over by itself, prompting several of the ghost hunters to go into meltdown. One woman, who is in her early twenties, tells me in the breakout area: “I didn’t believe before, but I’m telling you it just took off all by itself!” I can’t stop thinking about what we were told earlier: “Tonight is all about what you put into it!”
Whether this is all just a cynical ruse to make money out of exploiting people’s fears and grief (throughout the night, we’re told by organisers that spirits of loved ones could be in attendance too), or a legitimate investigation into paranormal activity – well that’s for each attendee to decide. For me, Charlton House didn’t quite live up to the hype. But for people such as Paul, who wears his ghost hunter t-shirt with pride, the thrill of potentially encountering a grey lady or demonic entity is well worth staying up until 3am for. These nights provide him with access to a community of like-minded individuals. He’s made friends and has had experiences he’ll never forget.