I am standing in a pitch-dark vault somewhere under London Bridge with my friend Ellie, around ten strangers, and a spiritual medium – trying to commune with the dead.
“If there are any spirit people present,” intones the medium. “Please give us a sign that you are there. Can you make a noise, or affect us in some way? Can you touch one of us?” What? Fuck. Alarm shoots through me.
“I don’t want to be touched by a ghost,” I whisper to Ellie. I didn’t sign up to be touched. I signed up for an overnight ghost hunt with a UK “paranormal events” company, presumably cashing in on the Most Haunted phenomenon, just because I wanted the experience.
And, I’ll be honest, they won my initial respect by placing a giant bowl of Twixes by the entrance, but they risk losing me with this ghost-touching business.
“I want a ghost to PUNCH me in the FACE,” Ellie hisses back. “At least that way I’ll know they exist.”
It’s so dark and close in here, I can’t tell if my eyes are closed or open. Did something just brush my face? Suddenly there’s a CLANGGG behind me and the entire room has a collective coronary.
“Is that a spirit presence?” The medium calls, quick as a flash. “Is that one of the apparitions seen here during the day? Or are you one of the children that people hear sometimes? Is that it? Are you a little kiddy?”
“Actually, that was me,” an adult male voice announces, sheepishly. “I tripped.” “There’s nothing in here now,” the medium tells us after a few moments, and we all file out into the main area, where there is light and warmth and tea, and the Twix bowl has magically refilled itself.
During the day these semi-finished, cave-like vaults serve as a gruesome, London Dungeon-style tourist experience – with actors dressed as Jack the Ripper and plague-ridden mannequins strewn about the place.
There are roughly thirty of us civilians here, swaddled in fleeces and sensible trousers with plenty of give, ready to be freaked out.
The events team splits us into three groups, with each group going off to hold a vigil (which the events team insist on pronouncing ‘vid-jewel’) before returning for tea and Twixes.
My group holds its next vigil by a row of severed, blood-spattered mannequin heads hanging from the ceiling. They smell of poster paints, and are lumpy and disturbing in the torchlight. “Is there anybody here?” One woman calls out, tremulously, then again implores the disembodied to move things or (ugh) touch us.
Then nothing happens. Then more nothing happens. Then I begin to feel sleepy. Then Ellie says “Dude, what’s that?” At first I’m annoyed because I just did a reeeeeally subtle fart and I was sure she wouldn’t notice, but then I follow her gaze.
All the suspended mannequin heads are bobbing in the breeze, but one of them is jerking around in a sort of forward-down-back-up box motion – as though someone is holding it. Ellie and I point it out to one of the women in our group who has made it a point to let everyone know that she’s psychic. She assures us it’s just the wind. The head stops jerking and moves normally.
At this point Ellie and I decide to a) stuff as many Twixes as we can in our pockets and b) split from our group and make our own way round. In one room three people – one of them a woman from the events team – are resting their fingers on an upturned glass that’s racing in wide circles across a table-top.
Although I’m not convinced it’s supernaturally driven, it’s making the scariest fucking noise I have ever heard – like the last person on Earth roller-blading on slate in a wind tunnel. “This one’s a feisty one!” The events woman calls over, perkily, as Ellie and I retire to the back of the room where some other civilians are milling about quietly.
“Are you a male spirit?” She’s a boisterous-looking woman with short hair and a gruff smoker’s voice. “The male ones don’t tend to like me,” she adds, confidentially. “Do you not like me, then?” The glass stops circling and makes jagged, zigzag movements.
“See, I knew it,” the woman smirks. “Are you a bad one, then? Do you like to hurt the women?” The glass zigzags again. “Yeah, he does. The words ‘you bitch’ have just come into my mind there, and I’m not even a psychic.”
That’s when I realise that Ellie and I are alone here at the back of the room. The ‘civilians’ we saw milling around beside us – I got the impression of a man and a woman; later Ellie says she thought it was two women – have just… gone. But to get out they would have had to squeeze past us. Did we not notice that? Were they ghosts?
Ellie and I make two more rounds of the building, but dawn’s approaching and the place is blanketed in silence. We are alone on this level – exhausted, cold, and hopped up on sugary tea.
“You know when people say ‘I felt him looking at me’?” Ellie says. “I don’t get that.”
“Oh my god, neither do I!” I reply. “I can’t FEEL someone looking at me. I think I might be as psychic as a potato.”
“I’m not sure I believe in ghosts. At least, I don’t believe you can get them to move glasses by shouting at them.”
“Yeah,” I say. “If ghosts exist at all, I think they like quiet.”
Just then, I hear – very, very clearly, for a second or two – a woman sobbing, loudly. Then the lights come on and someone calls us from downstairs. It’s time to leave.
Do you believe in ghosts? Spook Robyn on Twitter @orbyn.