The Phantom of the Orpheum (a wild ghoul chase)

What contemporary myths suggest is that it takes more than just folklore and wishful thinking to engender anything resembling a ‘belief’ in the existence of the manifestly unreal. It also takes a good media PR stunt

The Ghost Squad Malta team
The Ghost Squad Malta team

As a child I was fascinated by cryptozoology. Not, mind you, that I knew what the word meant. I was altogether too taken up with stories about the Loch Ness Monster, Ogopogo, the Yeti, the Sasquatch and the Mapinguari of the Amazon jungle to ever bother with such terms as ‘pseudoscience’.

But of all the superstitions and childish fancies I have since irretrievably lost, this one (unlike the monsters under the bed, whom I do not miss in the slightest) is the only one I remember with any fondness. I certainly no longer ‘believe’ in the existence of any of those mythical creatures… but yes, part of me does still want them to be, if not vindicated, at least explained in a way that satisfies this irrational craving for the unreal.

There is, however, a small snag. Not one of those myths is supported by even a jot of reliable evidence. And in some cases, there isn’t even a valid reason to believe in the existence of anything at all.

The myth of the Loch Ness Monster, for instance, was artificially created in 1934 by a photograph we now know, with absolute certainty, to have been a hoax. Prior to that date, the creature was literally the stuff of legend: it was featured in the chronicles of St Colombus, written at roughly the same time – and in much the same spirit - as Beowulf.

There it would have remained, too, were it not for the publication (in the Daily Mail, which is of course a paragon of quality journalism) of the celebrated ‘surgeon’s photo’, which not only ‘proved’ Nessie’s existence, but also gave the creature its recognisable long neck and humped back… thus giving birth to the ‘new’ myth that Nessie was a surviving Plesiosaur that somehow avoided extinction 65 million years ago.

Even without the later discovery, in 1975, that the monster in the photo was actually a toy dinosaur affixed to a toy submarine, we know enough about plesiosaurs to know that they were actually gregarious, surface-breathing reptiles. If there was a colony of plesiosaurs in Loch Ness, they would be as familiar an example of the Scottish fauna as The Famous Grouse. And if there was only one, it would have to be at least 65 million years old…

Much the same applies to the Yeti. All indigenous peoples of the Himalayan region share a myth about a large ape-like creature inhabiting the wilder parts of central Asia. But the ‘Abominable Snowman’ craze only took hold of worldwide popular imagination in 1951, when British mountaineer Eric Shipton photographed a large and mysterious humanoid footprint on an Everest expedition.

It doesn’t help much to know is that Shipton was also a notorious practical joker in his own right, and that ‘footprints in the snow’ are among the easiest articles of cryptozoological evidence to fake. Yet this is roughly the extent of the modern Yeti myth. There is not a single known photograph that even claims to be of a living specimen. Only an assortment of eye-witness accounts, most of which could just as easily be explained by encounters with bears (more than one species to choose from) or langurs, which actually ARE apelike creatures inhabiting the Himalayas and have also evolved a tendency to hop around on their hind legs in the snow. You know, just to deceive all those pesky British mountaineers...

In any case, what both these contemporary myths suggest is that it takes more than just folklore and wishful thinking to engender anything resembling a ‘belief’ in the existence of the manifestly unreal. It also takes a good media PR stunt.

Naturally, we do not have our own equivalent culture of cryptids here in Malta. Lake monsters are slightly hard to believe in, where what passes for a ‘lake’ is actually a reservoir that dries up to cracked and blistered mud for almost half the year. Wild, apelike hominids are perhaps occasionally observed in Buskett but only when there is a protest by hunters at the enforced closure of an autumn hunting season. Like so many other things, cryptozoology is a pseudoscientific luxury we are simply too small to afford.

So instead, we have compensated with a seemingly insatiable appetite for the purely supernatural. Ghosts. The Evil Eye. Fortune Tellers. Demonic possession. Marian apparitions. The Phantom Pothole Digger (for whose existence, unlike the others, there is a mountain of irrefutable evidence) and so on.

All of which very conveniently does not require any natural habitat or topographical feature that our country does not possess and, more significantly, leaves nothing in the way of physical evidence – footprints, excreta, tufts of fur in the undergrowth, etc. – that can be investigated.

And just like the cryptid business, it also takes a good media PR stunt to get this particular show on the road. So this week, The Times carried an article about five young men (though no ages were actually specified) who have formed their very own crack ghost-busting outfit, complete with an electro-magnetic field meter but not, curiously, an Ectoplasm Disintegrator, or a Dweeb’s vacuum trap, or even a Dimensional Compensator. Sort of makes you wonder what they’d do with a ghost if they actually encountered one…

In any case, I can’t deny that such fascinations are entirely understandable. I even admire their energy and zeal. But given our planet’s long history of pseudoscientific nonsense gaining entirely undeserved credence and recognition through unquestioning media exposure…. well, it sort of reminded me of the Shipton footprint, the Nessie photo, and the man in the gorilla outfit in northern California in 1967. I’m left with the feeling that it’s not so much ‘ghosts’ that need to be busted here, but myths.

Let’s start with the video. A man named Emmanuel Cortis starts out by telling us that his team “investigates paranormal activities”.

“We go to places that are haunted…”

Whoah, hang on there, my fine ghostbusting friend. I was under the impression that you were in the investigation business. So how do you already know that a place is ‘haunted’ before you’ve even conducted the investigation? Isn’t that precisely what you’re supposed to be in the business of finding out?

Still, this is entirely consistent with the other example of pseudoscience mentioned above. Like believers in Nessie or the Sasquatch, investigators of the paranormal tend to be already convinced of the veracity of the phenomena they are supposed to be verifying. As a result, they often tend to overlook any explanations that do not actually require any suspension of disbelief at all.

Just to illustrate this point, another member of this ghost-busting team will later tell us that “according to research I have carried out… I can confirm that the spirit world is just as real as the physical world we inhabit.” Naively, I half expected him to tell us a little about this research or at least, for the interviewing journalist to ask him to produce it but no. We are expected to simply take his word for it that he – alone of all the hundreds of millions of people who have tried to do the same thing in the past – has personally unlocked the key to the secrets of the universe. He’ll just keep that secret to himself for the time being, that’s all.

But back to Mr Cortis, who seems to be the chief inquisitor in this wild ghoul chase.

“We have the apparatus,” he goes on, “and if we find the place is really haunted, we call a medium or an exorcist…”

Hmm. OK, we’ve already had a look at your ‘apparatus’. It consists of a gauge that detects changes in the electromagnetic field. I was unaware that we know enough about the nature of the spirit world to conclude that it can be reliably detected through electromagnetic fluctuations. For all we know about ghosts, they might just as easily be detected using a dehumidifier. But considering that the earth’s electromagnetic field is affected all the time by a wide variety of entirely natural phenomena: light, for instance, which is itself electro-magnetic radiation, static electricity, or indeed any A/C or D/C current in the vicinity, which would include every single household appliance in a half-mile radius. How in the spirit world can anyone conclude that the EMF fluctuations picked up on one particular meter are caused by visitors from beyond the grave, and not by the microwave or satellite television next door?

Yet for all this, armed with this nothing more than a device for detecting electromagnetic radiation such as radio waves, ultraviolet rays, X-rays and so on, our intrepid ghost busters have confirmed that the Orpheum Theatre in Gzira is haunted. And if my ears served me correctly, it must be haunted by the ghost of Woody Woodpecker. Because only a Looney Tunes character could possibly come up with a classic comic laugh – ‘ha ha ha!’ – of the kind we get to hear as ‘evidence’ of the phantom of the Orpheum’ in that video.

And that is about the only discernible trace of a human voice (suspiciously metallic in tone, but at least intelligible) anywhere to be heard in the recording. The word that was subtitled ‘help’ in that video sounded more like a pin dropping on a stainless steel surface. The word ‘Le’ sounded like a static bloop of the kind an amplifier makes when you suddenly pull out the jack.  

Hardly surprising, then, that Woody Woodpecker – or his ghost, for that matter – would laugh loud and long to see this presented, not just as evidence of a possible haunting, but as conclusive proof. But still, let’s go along with it now. If nothing else, it’s good fun.

So we’ve not only conclusively proved the existence of the spirit world, but we’ve even got ourselves a chance to talk to a few of its inhabitants, too. So what do we ask? What question would a journalist ask a ghost from beyond the grave?

Let’s see now: “How did you die?” would be a good start. Might help later confirm whether they did, in fact, die. “What’s it like to be dead?” would be quite interesting, too. “How do you manage to talk at all, seeing as your vocal chords are probably being eaten by maggots as we speak?” – wait, no, that might be considered rude – how about: “Can you confirm whether there is a heaven or hell? I have a bet riding on the answer. Which one are you in, anyway? And do you need a special membership card for the VVIP area…?”

There is literally no end to the amount of interesting questions you could ask a dead person if you just had the chance. So what did these paranormal investigators ask?

“How many are there of you?”

Ooh, that’s a tough question to pose a stiff. People have been dying since… let’s see now… around the beginning of the human race. Did you expect the first ghost you encountered to run off and do quick a head (sorry, skull) count? Or did you just mean how many ghosts are there in the room right now?

In the latter case, I would have thought one was enough, if you wanted to prove a haunting. But wait, we’d already proven that before even starting out, didn’t we? We already know there’s a ghost - there HAS to be a ghost, otherwise why would we even be here? –so who knows, maybe there are others…

Well, if that’s the way you’re going to investigate the paranormal, you can rest assured that ‘ghosts’ will invariably start popping up literally everywhere you look. And all you’d need to ‘prove’ it are a few random bleeps and bloops generated on a sonic screwdriver, and maybe a gullible and lazy media to take the bait. 

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