Read Online - Viva Brighton

science festival
Ghost Busting
Paranormal expert Caroline Watt
Nonsense and Sensibility
“I’m not some sort of ghostbuster,”
Why we interpret such experiences
Dr Caroline Watt explains, with
as paranormal is one of the questions
the patience of one who has
that fascinates Watt. Some of us, she
They do like to put some real emotion in the
explained this many times before.
believes, are predisposed to such
storyline. But if they get an audience suggestion like
“I run experiments in ‘haunted’
thoughts; “People who are sensitive,
Godzilla vs MegaDarcy, or Snakes On A Horse-
locations, but not because I assume
neurotic, suggestible, those who get
Drawn Carriage, it’s hardly going to be a weepy.
paranormal phenomena exist.
really absorbed in a task or a movie –
And yes, they do their best to keep it authentically
What interests me is why people
these are all characteristics associated
early-19th-century, but it’s not easy if they’re given a
feel they have had a paranormal
with paranormal experience.” Others
title like My Mobile Phone’s Broken, or The Tumblr
may choose to believe: “Personally,
of Mr Darcy.
For more than 30 years Watt has
I’m with Richard Dawkins on this
Though actually, the toughest titles are the vague,
been dedicated to the niche field
one, and think science and nature is
earnest ones, like An Air of Frivolity, or Dancing and
Parris thinks, as she was irreverent, mischievous, and
of parapsychology - the scientific
wonderful enough in its own right.
Dastardliness. I imagine they much prefer the funny
“had a really witty streak.” As well as being witty, her
investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences.
But some people prefer to think that there’s more
suggestions, like Northanger Rabbi.
novels always have an interesting cast of characters,
She is based at Edinburgh University’s Koestler
to life than meets the eye. I suppose it makes things
Austentatious are a comedy-improv group whose af-
and are dialogue-heavy, Parris says, a style which is
Unit, the country’s foremost – indeed, only – para-
seem more interesting.”
fectionate spoof of Jane Austen involves improvising
well suited for improv. “There’s usually a romance,
psychology research centre, where her colleagues
A few years ago, she and her partner Richard
a new Austen novel at every performance. Everyone
which is fun. Also, I think nearly every book is an
include a former magician who is ‘an authority
Wiseman (the couple met when the renowned
in the audience is given a piece of paper before the
examination of society - that’s something we try and
on the history of deception’ and a philosopher
psychology professor was a postgraduate at the
show, and asked to suggest a title. All these ideas are
do,” as well as getting in “emotional content”.
interested in the possibility that we can predict the
Koestler unit) launched The Signs of Ghosts, an
put into a hat. Two are pulled out and read aloud,
“We’ve had beautiful, heartbreaking love stories,
future. Watt’s own specialisms include the study of
online project that invited people to submit their
for a laugh. The third one to come out becomes the
genuinely unexpected plot twists. The boy doesn’t
precognitive dream experiences and of telepathy.
‘unexplained’ pictures of ghostly images on tree
basis of the show.
always get the girl. Sometimes they live, sometimes
Her interest is fired by intellectual curiosity rather
trunks, in pieces of toast – you get the idea. Many
When the group started, co-founder Rachel Parris
they die. It’s perhaps slightly more dramatic than
than personal experience. The only ‘paranormal’
of the ‘faces’ were recognisable only to the photog-
says, they had each read a few Austen novels, “and
Austen, actually, because we don’t feel like we
experiences Watt can attest to are the result of
rapher. “But they were adamant that this was proof
thought we’d just plough on, quite arrogantly, for
need to be hemmed in by what would genuinely
scientific experiments she has engineered herself.
of a ghost.” We’re programmed to see patterns and
the first few months. But then we found we were
happen in Hertfordshire, and we get suggestions
Even in favourite ghosthunter locations such as
signs where they don’t really exist, she explains.
sort of holding back on stage because we didn’t
like Austen in Space, or Darcy and the Sharks. So
Hampton Court Palace, research led her to con-
The phenomenon even has a name – pareidolia.
know quite enough about it. Then we had quite a
more dramatic things happen, but no matter what
clude that any spooky experiences were more likely
As part of this month’s Brighton Science Festival,
few properly geeky Austen research nights.
the situation is, whether it’s in a zoo, or a swimming
the result of environmental factors than anything
Watt is hosting a show that promises to dig a little
“And we’ve had to swot up a bit on what the man-
pool, or in space, we still try and keep Austen-type
supernatural. “We asked people to tell us about
deeper into this subject and ‘reveal the truth’ about
ners were, who would bow, who would curtsey, what
characters at the heart of it.”
their emotions and mood that day and measured
dowsing, telepathy and other supposedly paranor-
a Duke would say to a lady, what a lady would say
Of course, they have no idea what their show at The
Old Market will be about, but there’s a good chance
physical factors such as temperature, humidity and
mal experiences through hands-on tests and experi-
to a servant, etc. Actually, once you get the feeling
electromagnetic activity in different rooms to see
ments. “I hope people will come away with new
of the language, it’s really fun to do: you just have to
it will involve Austen’s most famous character.
if there was any correlation with the places people
knowledge and, if they’re believers, thinking a little
be quite polite, and every so often throw a metaphor
“We get Darcy suggested a lot. Darcy Does Dallas,
felt uneasy. Although people weren’t aware of it,
more critically about what they believe.” NM
in there.”
Double 0 Darcy, that kind of thing…” Steve Ramsey
their ‘paranormal’ experiences were generally a
The Science of the Paranormal, 7.30pm and 9.30pm
Austen probably would have approved of their work,
Austentatious, Fri 20, TOM, 8pm, £14/£12
response to environmental variables.”
on Feb 26 at Otherplace at The Basement.