TRCH The Merry Widow

Paranormal Activity in Nottingham: Haunted Antiques, Thrill Engineers and a Creepy Door in Mapperley

6 October 18 words: LP Mills
illustrations: Barend Harris

As with all good ghost stories, it happened on a dark and stormy night in Mapperley. Actually, the weather on the night of Friday 6 June 2018 was fairly standard for that time of year; balmy, with a light breeze rustling through the detritus of shopping receipts and discarded plastic carrier bags from the nearby Aldi. However, in this otherwise unassuming neighbourhood in central Nottingham, something truly strange was afoot; something that would go on to blur the lines between fact and fiction, education and entertainment, and perhaps even the living and the dead.

On Friday 6 June 2018, paranormal investigators from UK Ghost Hunts, an event organiser based just outside of Broxtowe, discovered a mysterious hidden door in the abandoned Majestic Cinema, Mapperley. The door, which was uncovered behind a fake wall in the upper levels of the building, looks to be a fairly standard piece of infrastructure. It is around two metres in height and barred shut. There are a few scuff marks and visible fingerprints on the surface of the door, and the apparent years of neglect have dusted the door in a coat of cobwebs. However, despite the seeming mundanity of the discovery, the door is beset by an intangible aura of creeping dread.

“The reaction of the group is divided,” says Christopher Charles, the paranormal investigator who discovered the door. “Half of us feel fine around the door and want to open it, while the other half said that the door makes them feel uneasy and sick.”

The discovery was made during one of the group’s routine “vigils” in which members of the UK Ghost Hunt team explore the building in search of the paranormal.  “We were standing in the attic room […] when the thought got in my head that there should be another attic,” Chris tells me. After some searching, he came across what appeared to be a hollow, plaster wall and, upon taking a hammer to it, found that there was indeed something behind it. “It was fantastic, like being an adventurer stumbling across an ancient land.”

There is some mystery as to what the door is, and why it’s been barred. “We can’t find any information on it at all,” Chris says, and this coupled with the sense of unease felt by some investigators has lead many to believe that something sinister lurks behind it.

The discovery has made headlines over the last few months, and the Twittersphere has been ablaze with speculation. Many commenters have urged the team to bust the door open and reveal whatever mysteries it conceals, while others have stated that in doing so the investigators are taking their lives into their own hands. I myself first learned of the door when a friend told me in breathless tones that a “spooky door” had been discovered a mere ten-minute walk away from my home.

However, as with any mystery, this case may not be quite so clear-cut as it seems. While UK Ghost Hunts is, on the face of it, an investigative organisation with a distinctly scientific methodology behind it – “We’re not mediums,” to quote Chris – it cannot be denied that UK Ghost Hunts and its contemporaries are also part of Nottingham’s long-standing industry of paranormal entertainment.

Despite the seeming mundanity of the discovery, the door is beset by an intangible aura of creeping dread

“There’s something very exciting about facing this other form of existence,” says Dr. Brendan Walker; more commonly known by his stage-name Dr. Brendan Dare. “There is an element of risk, of spiritual jeopardy, in the paranormal that is very intriguing, and it allows us to explore human mortality and morbidity.”

I first found references to Dr. Walker during my initial Googling around paranormal investigations in and around Nottingham. A self-described Thrill Engineer, Walker specialises in the quantification of human experiences, with a specific interest in the thrilling or horrifying. In 2010, Walker conducted an experiment that touched upon the public’s fascination with the paranormal. He assembled a team of four paranormal investigators and had them conduct a vigil in what was, at the time, the basement of Lee Rosy’s Tearoom. The experiment was to be broadcast live to the nearby Broadway Cinema a-la the 1992 BBC mockumentary Ghostwatch, and would involve live edits of footage captured using infrared and low-visibility cameras. The catch? Lee Rosy’s was never haunted.

“In essence I designed a ghost,” Brendan tells me over the phone. In order to get the entity – which he named “The Sobbing Boy” – legitimised by the National Paranormal Society, he devised fake newspaper clippings and websites to build a myth that seemingly stretched back decades. When it finally came to the night of the experiment, a séance was conducted and the paranormal investigators – who had been seeded with information regarding the ghost by Brendan and the production team – claimed to make contact with the fictional entity.

“When I debriefed them, one of the investigators claimed that often a ghostly apparition, who are quite cheeky by nature, will adopt elements of a story so as to trick the medium in question,” Brendan tells me. “In effect they have a strategy designed to debunk the debunkers.”

One might think that Brendan himself is sceptical of the paranormal, but he is in fact a believer. “There were many unexplainable things that occurred in my childhood home. Strange, unseen presences, plates ending up smashed without explanation. It really does come down to faith.”

It is hard to deny the current zeitgeist of the macabre that is sweeping pop culture at the moment. As proven by Brendan’s experiments and the popularity of UK Ghost Hunts’ programming, the paranormal is the subject of fascination for many thrill-seeking culture junkies. Of particular interest is the trend for many of these events and institutions to be rooted in what amounts to the scientific method, as best encapsulated by the recently-opened Haunted Antiques Paranormal Research Centre in Hinckley, Leicestershire.

“My original idea for Haunted Antiques was to record our evenings at the antique centre then edit and produce a series of highlight videos,” says Neil Packer, founder of the research centre which opened its doors in March of 2018. “It was in this format that our first two evenings were done, and I have produced two videos based on our first two nights: The Boy in the Photograph and the Bronze African Statue.”

Following the success of the first two videos, Neil was able to open a combined research facility and haunted museum that focuses on supposedly supernatural artefacts and objects. Donated by interested antiquarians, many of the objects kept at the centre have been cited as the focal point around which unexplained phenomena have occurred, and the centre has received support from local mediums, ghost hunters and parapsychologists. Described as the culmination of a childhood dream, some ghost-hunting equipment and a desire to find the truth, the research centre takes a very different approach to many of the paranormal investigation and entertainment venues across the county. Rather than leaning into the more horror-tinged elements of paranormal research, Neil wishes for his investigations to be subject to stringent rules. “We’re not going to see ghosts if we’re all sitting in the dark! These sessions are not about fear or screaming.”

I began researching this article as a sceptic, and in truth that position has not changed. Regardless of one’s personal beliefs about the supernatural, however, there is a definite place for paranormal investigation as a form of entertainment. Perhaps it offers us a way to challenge the fleetingness of existence, as Dr. Walker suggests, or perhaps by investigating the unknown we are able to escape the drudgery of simply knowing stuff. Either way, with the Majestic Cinema now having opened as a museum of the paranormal, it looks like ghost hunting is set to haunt us for some time.

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