Long Can is an award-winning, seventeenth century, Grade II listed building, set on the outskirts of Halifax, West Yorkshire.
With its mullioned windows and fine stone façade, it looks every bit the traditional English manor, but as we drove towards it, up a steep hill and along a country lane, at the dead of night, I couldn’t help thinking of the Marston House in Salem’s Lot.
My friend Chris, whose business partner had converted Long Can into a pub, had arranged for us to spend an evening there on a ghost hunt, as research for my new book – my next international worst-seller – and had made only one condition: that we experiment with a Ouija board.
‘I’m not playing Ouija!’
‘Don’t be such a wuss!’
‘I’m having nothing to do with it!’
‘Let me get this straight. You’re prepared to spend nights in haunted houses, hunting for ghosts and spirits – which, incidentally, don’t exist – and yet you don’t want to communicate with them?’
When Chris put it like that, I could see his point. What was the point of ghost hunting, armed to the tootsies with cameras and tape-recorders, if I wilfully avoided Ouija – the most commonly acknowledged form of communication between mankind and the spirit world?
But I had a question for him.
‘Bearing in mind that you don’t believe in the supernatural, what would you do if the Ouija board worked?’
Chris thought about this.
‘Then I would have to revise my ideas,’ he said.
So here I was, sacrificing my safe and comfortable existence to invasion by otherworldly forces. Dark denizens from distant dimensions could merrily strut their phantom foxtrot into my home, my mind, my very soul. A veritable legion of spirits, spooks and the entire cast of Rent-a-Ghost would follow me home and I would be forever goaded by ghosts, hounded by hauntings and plagued by poltergeists. And all these spiritual shenanigans just to afford Chris the opportunity to ‘revise’ his ideas. I didn’t like the sound of this at all.
Like everyone else, I had heard bad things about Ouija.
Even cynics, who scoff at the supernatural and giggle at ghosts, will turn deathly silent at its mere mention. Their hoots of derision will quickly die away, as they cross themselves like devout worshippers and refuse even to discuss it. Ouija is far from a board game, they will argue. It is snakes and ladders for devils and demons.
Recently, I had accompanied a paranormal research group to a haunted pub, which was ‘licensed to serve spirits’ (yawn), and we had all sat round a table with our fingers on a glass, encircled by letters from the alphabet, together with cards marked ‘Y’ and ‘N’ for Yes and No.
This was termed Glass Divination – a method of spiritual communication – employed by many research groups. And I can’t recall anyone quaking like a jackhammer at the mere thought of it.
But how is this different from Ouija? As far as I can see, they are exactly the same.
How come Glass Divination is viewed as an acceptable paranormal experiment, while Ouija attracts evil beyond belief, inviting The Twilight Zone to set up camp in your lounge and Satan to build a bunk-house in your brain?
None of this made any kind of sense to me – or Chris.
He related how he had played Ouija at his own home with a couple of friends – and the glass had moved.
‘A-ha!’ I cried triumphantly.
‘A-ha nothing,’ replied Chris. ‘My mate was pushing it. You could tell. Besides, if there are evil spirits in my house, then they’ve been very quiet. Nothing weird has happened. If they were hurling my bed around the room, then I must have slept right through it, ’cos I didn’t feel a thing.’
Despite my objections, Chris had argued me out of the ring, like a linguistic Mike Tyson. So I had no choice but to agree.
I had originally heard of Long Can, many full moons ago, while researching for my first book. Webster’s Brewery, who used to own the building and used it as their visitor’s centre, suggested I contact the catering manageress, who had reported some spooky happenings.
Sarah Thornton told me how she had heard a door open on the floor above, followed by the sound of footsteps, but when she investigated, there was no one there. A waitress had seen the image of a grey lady vanishing through the floorboards, and a cleaner had been tapped on the shoulder in the toilets while she was alone.
I had suggested that we invite a psychic to the house but Chris said we would be better without them. There is little more frustrating than a psychic saying they can sense a presence, when nobody else can see or sense anything. We wanted an impartial investigation without psychics, dowsing rods or a book of spells in sight.
Long Can was originally two cottages designed by local clothier James Murgatroyd, but was later converted into one large building. Now, it had now been entirely renovated, since Websters moved out, but there was still no furniture other than two chairs and a small table. And this was what worried me the most. For these are the furnishings of Ouija.
Once we had figured out which key fitted which door, we entered the main room. Leaving our equipment there, we set about stalking the house from top to bottom, unlocking further doors and switching on lights as we went, to get a feel for the place.
For all his scepticism – no doubt partly fuelled by our ghost-free night at Chingle Hall, in Lancashire, (Britain’s most haunted) nine years previously – I admired the extent to which Chris had prepared for the vigil. He had printed out all the letters of the alphabet, all cut-out neatly onto squared paper, together with two larger squares with the words Yes and No printed on them.
Chris surmised that if he was wrong, if there were such things as ghosts, and they wanted to communicate, to relate a message from the other side, to warn us to leave Long Can immediately, with our tails (firmly intact) between our legs, never to return, or even – I hoped – give us the next winning Lotto numbers, then we would need a proper surface, to enable the glass to glide with ease.
Chris wanted nothing – absolutely nothing – to stand in the way of supernatural communication. And then, if still nothing happened, it would confirm his view that all this Ouija stuff was a load of supernatural stinkers.
My thoughts turned to my writing.
‘If nothing ghostly happens, this will make a very short chapter,’ I said.
‘Nothing ghostly is going to happen wherever you go, so it’s going to be a very short book.’
We each leaned forwards, placing fingers on the upturned glass, in the centre of the makeshift Ouija board, and took it in turns to utter the immortal line ‘Is Anybody There?’ punctuated by expectant pauses of anticipation.
‘Is There Anybody There?’
‘Is There Anybody There?’
After about fifteen minutes of this – and we had given any resident spirit the most blatant opportunity to get in touch – we brought the session to an end and packed up ready to go.
As we locked the outer door, and made our way to the car, we each cast an instinctive (hopeful?) look to the darkened windows, expecting to see someone or something that shouldn’t be there, but there was nothing but transparent glass reflecting the shadowy interior.
As we drove back home, Chris nodded in satisfaction. He had now spent two nights ghost-hunting. One playing the ’evil’ board game Ouija, and one in the most haunted house in England. And – as he expected – nothing had happened.
Stinkers had won hands down.