Castles are imprinted in our imaginations from a young age. They start off as places of wonder and fairy tale, yet curiously, as we age, we associate them more with violence and horror – especially when it comes to horrifying tales of the supernatural.
Real evidence of paranormal activity is hard to come by – if not impossible. A finite amount of money and a hefty dose of scepticism in science means such research is left to amateur groups that are not peer reviewed and whose findings are considered scientifically unreliable.
One-off sightings can be very easy to discredit as hallucinations. However, multiple sightings where more than one person has experienced the same thing are a different story. Broadly speaking, such sightings might be broken down into two groups:
- Where multiple people sight the same thing at the same time
- Where several unconnected people have sighted the same thing at different times
Mass hysteria is readily put forward as an explanation for such phenomena, and there is a plethora of sociological and psychological research out there to back this claim up. Such explanations, however, do not necessary disprove the wealth of unexplainable phenomena that appears to regularly take place at certain locations in the world.
Regardless of whether you’re a stone cold believer in the supernatural or a firm and unyielding sceptic, you cannot deny that there is something about castles that make them perfect settings for paranormal sightings, events and experiences. So why might that be?
1. The Stone Tape Theory
During the 1970s, a new idea was put forward to challenge preconceived notions regarding paranormal sightings and to explain why certain environments – especially castles – are more prone to such stories and occurrences. It became known as the Stone Tape Theory.
The basic thesis states that images and sounds are stored within the fabric of a room or building in much the same way that sound is stored within the grooves of a vinyl record. The more emotionally charged the image or sound, the more likely it is to be stored. The theory argues that people of a certain sensitivity are unwillingly able to ‘play’ this information back. This might explain why, in a large group, some people will witness an event whilst the rest are oblivious. It would also explain why unconnected groups of people are able to see the same event in the same detail – they’re basically playing the same record back.
A central tenant of the theory is that ghosts are not spirits of deceased individuals but rather non-interactive recordings that can be studied and, perhaps, played at will. Believers in the paranormal point out that this does nothing to address incidents where ghosts have been reported to interact with people and their surroundings. Sceptics, meanwhile, have written off this theory as a failed attempt at scientific rationalisation.
The Stone Tape Theory has many adjoining theories, such as Universal Memory. One of the first to make a case for residual emotions leading to hauntings was Thomas Charles Lethbridge in his 1961 book Ghost and Ghoul. This was later popularised in a 1972 BBC horror entitled The Stone Tape, from which the eponymous theory gets its name.
You can take the whole idea one step further and argue that durable material like stone would make for a much better ‘fabric’ for storing and trapping such data. This would explain why peculiar disturbances and sightings are so readily found at castles; they have the right makeup and have been home to enough ambitious individuals, murderers, soldiers, victims and prisoners to retain ‘emotional residue’. Wouldn’t this also explain why supposed paranormal activity so often depicts or derives from historical or personal incidents?
Here’s a final thought that makes Stone Tape such an attractive idea: the physical structures of ancient buildings like castles change over time. Walls are knocked through, stairwells are removed and entire levels are demolished and replaced. If the theory has any merit, might this explain why such sightings commonly show people that walk through solid matter? In essence, if you are just watching back an event from hundreds of years ago, the person you are watching will be operating within the building as they knew it – the doors and walls they walk through didn’t exist in their time.
2. Someone Told You
We like to think of ourselves and fairly independent, strong-willed creatures that make our own decisions. Sadly, as any modern marketer will you, we’re fairly easy to mislead; most of us are sheep that can’t even realise when it’s our own wool being pulled over our eyes. The simple fact is that some people are more likely to believe they have seen or witnessed paranormal events if they’re told they might see or witness paranormal events beforehand – and castles are breeding grounds for such powers of persuasion.
In one classic study by Houran and Lange, 22 subjects individually visited five areas of a performance theatre and were asked to notice the environment. 11 subjects in an informed condition were instructed that the location was haunted, while 11 in the control condition were told that the building was simply under renovation. As you would have thought, those that were told the former reported more intense experience feelings during their tour. The idea of potential paranormal activity had been planted in their heads and they had, subconsciously, let it grow.
Let’s look at Hampton Court Palace. Okay, it’s not a castle per se, but it’s close enough. Nowadays the palace is a popular historical attraction, playing host to more than half a million visitors each year. It is also considered one of the most haunted buildings in Britain. A grey lady, a woman in blue and even a phantom dog are said to roam its grounds. The palace’s most famous spirit, however, is said to be of Catherine Howard. Another unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, Howard was said to have been dragged through the corridors of the palace screaming for mercy before her execution – a colourful story for visitors, if nothing else. Within generations of this event, sightings of Howard plagued the site, along with reports of unexplainable noises.
These events culminated in 2003 when CCTV captured a ‘figure’ opening and closing doors at the palace. The news made the front pages of tabloids, which, in itself, is a scathing indictment of early 21th century Britain. People were so ready to believe it was Howard, and why wouldn’t they? In a battle of persuasion, what hope do sceptics have against centuries of hearsay, whispers and rumours.
To quote one neuroscientist:
How we experience our surroundings is a complex simulation of our mind that leaves a lot of space for interpretation and quirks.
The next time you’re walking through a dense urban area, consider this fact: architecture can trigger physical, physiological and psychological changes. It is only in modern human history that the majority of people have migrated into urban areas and started spending less time outside. Studies have shown that buildings can impact a person’s health – and maybe mess with their heads.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the people who made medieval fortresses like castles knew what they were doing. They were ingenious stone masons and their designs reflect their ingenuity, down to the smallest details. For example, if you’ve ever spent a lot of time visiting castles, you’ll know that climbing a spiralling stairwell takes a fair bit of concentration. This is intentional; the stairs are often designed to be uneven, with no uniform height from top to bottom.
The reason for this is simple: people defending a castle would learn which steps were tricky long before they were attacked, giving them a massive advantage in repelling invaders who would have to keep one eye on the floor to prevent themselves from tripping. Things like doors and objects mysteriously moving could simply be because they rest on floors that are ever so slightly uneven – to the point that your untrained eye would barely be able to notice. Sans any noticeable breeze, is it any wonder people immediately blame the supernatural?
There’s something even weirder too – have you ever heard of infrasound? Humans can’t hear this low-frequency sound but our bodies can still detect it. Naturally, it can be caused by calamities like earthquakes or a predator’s roar, which then trigger feelings of fear and anxiety. From an evolutionary point of view, it’s pretty useful. Could this also cause us to see ghosts and experience paranormal events? Research conducted by Vic Tandy, a lecturer at Coventry University in the ‘90s, suggests this could be the case. Tandy was even able to duplicate ghost sightings in a laboratory by utilising infrasound.
Castles can be noisy places. Any castle you or I can go and visit today will have been conserved to stop it falling apart. New brick and mortar will have been laid on top of that from yesteryear and modern piping joined to that which is centuries old. Such a mishmash of material contracts, expands and moves around under the constant pressure of hundreds of tourists and staff. This could easily create enough background noise that installs feelings of nervousness and dread – Tandy was affected in his lab by a silent fan after all, so it doesn’t take much.
Whether these stone fortresses are trapping emotions like some cognitive gulag or whether our highly-evolved minds aren’t actually that highly-evolved, one thing remains clear: if people want to experience horror, they will experience it. That is, in itself, quite endearing.