Holly Stevens and yours truly in the United Kingdom, May 2009.
When I was a kid, maybe ten or eleven, I read a short story in which a young boy and girl wander into an old cemetery at night. They decide to play a game of hide-and-seek and the boy makes the mistake of walking around the church in a counter-clockwise direction as he searches for a hiding place. Because the church had been cursed this caused him to become invisible, as if he had run into a portal and shifted out of phase with the universe or something like that. The only way he could get back to our plane of existence was by walking around the church in a clockwise direction which would reverse the effect. As I recall, the boy eventually figured it out and escaped from the trap, but not before both he and the girl were frightened out of their minds. Little did I know that three decades later I would find myself at a church in England where the truth would prove stranger than childhood fiction.
In order to broaden the international sales appeal of the television series Ghost Cases that I produced, directed, wrote and hosted in 2008-09, I decided that we would film four episodes outside of Canada. Our first choice was Louisiana, and we had the locations and the trip booked, but we were turned away at the airport by US Customs, apparently because they don’t like any competition for the dire ghost shows produced in the United States. Or perhaps they had read my Facebook postings critical of American foreign policy. They didn’t really give us a reason.
Fortunately, I had met a good bloke named Dave Sadler when we were both speakers at a paranormal conference in Altrincham, England, a couple of years before. At the time Dave had made the mistake of telling me that if I ever needed any help from “across the pond” all I had to do was give him a call. With our American trip now a non-starter I definitely needed help, so I rang him up. He was more than happy to work with us, and two months later, largely thanks to his research and connections, we landed in England to film the four foreign episodes.
Dave picked my Ghost Cases co-host Holly Stevens and me up at the airport, drove us back to our hotel in Congleton (a town about a half an hour south of Manchester), and introduced us to his fellow investigators from a group known as the Unknown Phenomena Investigation Association (UPIA). This somewhat motley but serious-minded crew included Steve Mera, an experienced investigator who would join Dave, Holly and I for all four episodes.
Thus began a week of all around strange happenings, the likes of which Holly and I had not quite run into before. Our first stop was the White Hart Hotel in Uttoxeter, a location where a number of supposedly paranormal happenings had occurred, including the voice of a small child in the basement and a demon-haunted bedroom. Dave was very skeptical – he thought that the hotel manager might be pulling a fast one in order to make a few bucks by billing the location for haunted tours. However, during our evening at the hotel a room that we had locked off and left a camera running in was found to have a substance that was subsequently confirmed to be blood spattered on a shower curtain. No-one had entered the room.
Then the manager took Holly and I down to the basement to conduct a “séance” in an attempt to contact the little girl that people had reported hearing. I thought the exercise was a bit daft so I excused myself shortly after we began, but Holly stuck it out. Nothing happened and after about half an hour she and the manager called it quits. Holly, however, had left her tape recorder running, and unbeknownst to any of us at the time it picked up what appeared to be the sound of a little girl crying out “no” just after Holly can be heard saying to the manager that it was time to head back upstairs. Our second location was another old inn, the Lion & Swan in Congleton, where we were also staying for the duration of our time in the area. One of the stories about the Tudor-era location was that a painting stored in the basement was supposedly cursed – if anyone touched it, someone close to that person would die. This story sounded impressive – and more than a bit dangerous – until I actually saw the painting, which was a cheap 60s knock-off of a half-clothed woman.
Dave Sadler and yours truly in the basement of the Lion & Swan.
As Holly, Steve, and Paul Reeves (another member of the UPIA) investigated other areas of the inn, Dave and I set ourselves up in the basement with “Caroline” (the name we gave to the woman in the painting). Not taking things seriously, we mocked the story of the curse, and then I reached over, paused for dramatic effect, and grabbed the painting. After a moment I handed it over to Dave. We had a good laugh and then continued with filming our part of the investigation. Nothing happened in the basement and the entire evening passed uneventfully overall.
When I wandered into the inn’s dining room the next morning for breakfast, however, I was surprised to see that Reeves, who had been quite excited about coming with us to the next location, was not present. Dave and Steve, who both looked more than a bit shaken, explained to me that Paul’s father had died suddenly the night before.
As Steve wandered off to tell Holly, Dave pulled me aside.
“Do you think…” he asked, and then his voice trailed off.
“No,” I answered. “Absolutely not.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Pure coincidence.”
“Right,” I replied.
Despite our dismissal, neither of us seemed completely certain of ourselves as we joined the rest of the team in the dining room. After we finished breakfast we made our way out into the English countryside to our third location near the small village of Shocklach close to the Welsh border. At the end of a lane which ran off a deserted country road we found St. Edith’s, a small Norman church built in the 12th century, which makes it one of the oldest ecclesiastical buildings in Cheshire. Dave had been to the church dozens of times while Steve was visiting it for the first time.
As we walked around the grounds Dave recounted some of the strange things that he had experienced there over the years. He started with a story that involved a little girl who seemed to move through time by running around the church, which immediately caught my attention.
“A friend and I came to the site a few years ago,” he explained. “It was his first time, and he brought his young daughter with him. We wanted to talk about some things away from the prying ears of the child so we walked to the rear of the church. He lit a cigarette, took a drag of it, and asked her to go play. She ran to the opposite side of the church, and then as she went around one corner she automatically appeared around the corner closest to us, straightaway in an instant. I’m probably talking, for an eight year-old child to run that distance, about thirty seconds.” Dave followed up the “time slip” story with one about audio anomalies. He told us about how numerous visitors, including other members of the UPIA on a previous investigation, had heard the sound of horse’s hooves on cobblestone and the neighing of the horses, despite the fact that there are no horses anywhere near the church and certainly no road that would sound like cobblestones. When Holly asked him what he thought might have caused the noises, he offered the following theory: “There’s a report from the 1800s of funeral processions coming to the church. At the time, obviously, it wasn’t hearses but horse-drawn funeral carriages coming down the road.”
After our walk through of the site I got the crew ready, set up the lights that we would need later in the evening, and then Holly, Dave, Steve and I began our investigation. As the sun began to set we split up and wandered through different areas of the large cemetery surrounding the church. Within a matter of minutes Steve saw Holly standing next to the church, where she looked out of sorts.
“Clear as anything,” she told him when he went over to check on her, “I heard… I heard the horse’s hooves.”
“You heard the horse’s hooves?” he asked.
“I heard the horse’s hooves,” she repeated. “I thought that was laughable because we had heard so much about them, but it was so clear, and so distinct, and so close.”
She was laughing, but it was laughter to cover her nervousness. She looked over at Steve, who was examining the surroundings, and said, “It’s very disconcerting to hear something that’s not there.” All that he could do was nod in agreement.
The sun tucked itself beyond the horizon shortly afterwards, at which point things proceeded to get even weirder. I had parked myself on a bench tucked up against the front of the church where I sat scanning the night sky. There was no-one else anywhere near me. My co-producer Dale Stevens and the two-man camera crew were at the other end of the grounds filming an interview with Dave, and Holly and Steve were out by the car checking the monitors. And then I saw something really strange.
St. Edith's church, Shocklach, UK.
“So here’s the crazy thing,” I told my cameraman. “I wasn’t going to say anything, because I’m the skeptical member of the team, but I’ve been talking with Dale and he and I have seen the exact same thing at different times and in different places. Trained as a lawyer, as an historian, what I want is confirmation and now I have it. What Dale described, and what I’ve seen, I would describe it almost in a science fiction sense as if a door opened and a shape formed. It was totally black and surrounded by the night sky, which was slightly illuminated by the moon and a town off in the distance. As soon as it was there it was gone, maybe two or three seconds afterwards. What makes it really weird is that it appeared exactly over the spot where I was standing two hours ago, filming a segment where I was discussing Holly’s experience. The way my mind works, it was like a trans-dimensional door opening or something, full of blackness, as if the sky was totally blacked out.”
Dale and I seeing the black void in the sky at different times and in different places set off a rapid-fire succession of anomalous events. First, the batteries in our sound-man’s equipment completely ran out of juice despite the fact that he had just put brand new ones in the equipment twenty minutes before. Steve also experienced battery drains on his flashlight; he had to change them four times that night.
Then Steve reported seeing some unusual moving lights behind the church. “I was actually situated in the back of the church,” he told me, “along with an infra-red camera, and I saw this light appear across a tomb. So I went around the corner of the church to look for somebody and I couldn’t see anybody there, so when I actually brought it to your attention, trying to rationalize the experience, I thought that maybe somebody further down in the lower graveyard may have been flashing a light around and maybe somehow it had caught a reflection and strayed up to the top end of the church where I was.”
We accounted for everyone’s whereabouts at the time, and established that none of us could have been responsible for the lights. Despite Steve’s initial attempts to rationalize his experience in the same way that I had tried to rationalize the black void he remained genuinely puzzled.
“We couldn’t replicate it, so I can only presume that it was something unusual,” he concluded.
It was at this point that I told Holly I had also heard the horse’s hooves earlier in the evening in a different part of the cemetery. As with the black void in the sky I think I was going through my own process of trying to rationalize it, and when I realized that I couldn’t come up with an explanation I decided to tell her.
“Are you serious?” she asked me with a mixture of anger, relief and curiosity. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I started to explain off-camera, in a sort of stream-of-consciousness way, when I suddenly stopped talking and looked directly at her.
“Did you hear that?” we asked each other, at almost the exact same time.
It was the horse’s hooves again, and this time we both heard them for five or six seconds.
None of our cameras or audio recorders picked up anything anomalous that night. But those of us who were there all know that we saw and heard things that were genuinely out of the ordinary.
As Holly put it, “What happened to us that night at the church? I still don’t know. But we all saw and heard things that we can’t explain – it’s almost as if the whole night, something was playing with us.”
I still haven’t been able to come up with an explanation for the events that occurred that night at St. Edith’s church, or the previous evenings at the White Hart and the Lion & Swan, but I can tell you one thing – once the weirdness started to happen in Shocklach I made sure that every time I walked around the church I went in a clockwise direction.