Ghost Hunters: Haunted Ballroom.

So the haunting at the church hall had been going on for, like, 30 years? Surely the place should be stuffed with ghost hunters and their equipment.

There's a lot of talk about modern ideas of consciousness. This is something I haven't read up about. But you can't help thinking that things can't have come on in quite the positive way that the scientists in this programme insist - otherwise surely we'd have made some sort of considerable breakthrough by now and it'd be generally known. I need to do some reading.

Also mentioned is the Stone Tape Theory. It's an oldie but a goodie. It's so tempting. But again, this programme was made 20 years ago and what progress has been made with it. One imagines, precisely none, unfortunately. And I suppose that's because it's just not in a form that's scientifically plausible or testable. I've signed up to a course run by Edinburgh University this autumn, and I imagine it'll be discussing the methods that parapsychologists use. But it won't be touching on anything so wacky. I imagine it'll be adaptations of methodology currently used in psychology and social sciences, and relying on statistics. What else can you do, when ghosts refuse to appear on demand? 

Narrator: Stories of ghosts or hauntings, spirits from another world, call them what you will, tend to be associated with the emotions of fear and dread. Perhaps that’s inevitable. But it’s by no means always the case. In this program we look at the other end of the spectrum. Two stories of hauntings that seem to arise as a result not of pain, but of pleasure – the intense emotional attachment to a place where there has been great happiness.

Rita Cole, Dance Instructor: I never ever believed in ghosts. In fact I used to scoff at people who did. I used to think, you know, it’s odd, I just can’t understand it at all. No such thing. And it took a lot for me to understand how and why it happens. But now, I wouldn’t scoff at anyone, because it does happen.

Dennis Cole, Dance Instructor: Well, it’s just a fact that I cannot disregard what has happened. What I’ve heard and what I’ve seen. So now I can only believe that there must be something other than we humans!

Rita: Just before Miss MacPherson retired, she said to me ‘You know Rita, I will never ever leave this place’. And you know I don’t think she ever will. And I hope she never does!

Narrator: This story of love from beyond the grave comes from the city of York. This church is right in the heart of the city. And in the church hall here Mary MacPherson, known to everybody as Mary Mac, ran a very happy and very popular school of ballroom dancing.

Rita: Miss MacPherson was a very strong personality, a very strong character. Brilliant dancer, brilliant dance technician, a wonderful lady in general. Had her idiosyncracies! But at the time I had a great admiration for her. For her work and for her as a person. She was very direct, and very very forthright, strong. But immaculate in appearance. I never saw her with a hair out of place. Her clothes were always very expensive tastes.

Narrator: Rita and Dennis Cole had been persuaded by Mary to take over the running of the school. And it may be it was with some prescience, as within a year she died of a brain tumour. But it seems she was determined to keep her word never to leave the place. Because immediately after her death, strange things began to happen.

Rita: I started dancing, or I took over the studio in 1964, and slightly after that when I started hearing sounds after Miss MacPherson died. And I heard the counting of the coins first, when I was waiting for a pupil to arrive. And all of a sudden I heard this noise, with heavy coinage being banged onto this desk. Counted up and banged onto the desk. And  I walked across the room, and the nearer I got to the desk the louder the sound became. But when I reached the desk it stopped. So I walked back and it started again. So I didn’t dare tell anybody about this and I kept it very much to myself. And then my mother, she came down one day and she had the same experience. And she came home, rather looking aghast, and I said ‘what’s wrong?’ and she said ‘I was at the studio and I heard this strange noise.’ I said ‘Was it the counting of money?’ She said yes it was  - and banged into piles? She said yes. So and you’ve also heard it? I said, yes I have. She said, and you never told no-one? I said no, I didn’t tell anyone, I thought they’d think I was crazy!

Dennis: One evening when we were teaching, footsteps came up the corridor, came into the cloakroom, and the couple I was taking – we were waiting for them, whoever it was, coming into the hall. And the gentleman I was taking, of the couple I was taking, said ‘Oh I think she must be shy.’ And I went to the cloakroom to see this female – because it was the sound of high heels – and erm, of course there was just no-one there. I couldn’t disregard that, and nor could the couples that were in there at the time.

Rita: We started hearing footsteps coming down the corridor, and then we’d hear the door open. And we have a metal coat rail, and we’d hear the metal hangers being taken off and replaced. And we’d go and see who it was, and there was never anyone there. We went out into the street to see if the feet were outside, and we were getting the kind of echo coming up the corridor, but we didn’t, there was just no-one there at all. We had two young ladies, very very young ladies, early teens, about 12,13, and one evening they came to me one evening for a drink – they wanted a squash or a coke, so I served them with it, gave them their change. They went to sit down to drink their coke, and had a sip out of the coke and my husband said to them – now it’s time you two got up and had a dance! You see. So they put their drinks down, and they put the change that I’d given them down, and they got up to dance. And all of a sudden the change flew up into the air and landed onto the floor, and Sally-Ann – she was a lovely little girl, always brushing her hair – so her hairbrush always was with her, and her hairbrush shot up under the chair too! So they came howling into the kitchen to me and said, Oh, Rita! And they told me what had happened, you see. And I said well, Are you frightened of the money?! And they said, We don’t want it. Well I’ll change it for you, I’ll give you another ten pence each! So I did, I swapped it over for them. But nothing I could do about the hair brush! So she took it to church the next morning and had it blessed!

Narrator: So extraordinary things have happened in the church hall. How do we know that it is Mary Mac who is responsible? Well there have been a number of sightings of the old lady going about her business. Remarkably, whenever that has happened, people have smelt Mary Mac’s perfume, the scent of carnations about the place.

Rita: A lady, one evening I had her for a lesson, and then she used to come back to a class afterwards. And she came back for her class afterwards, and she said to me, ‘Who was that old lady you had for a lesson after me?’ Old lady? I said, I didn’t have an old lady after you. She said ‘You did, I passed her in the corridor and she gave me a very funny look.’ And I said, no, I’m sorry, it was my coffee break, I didn’t have anyone. So I said, describe this lady to me, please. So she says,’she was a smallish lady, very smart, very immaculate, a blueish rinse in her hair, and she had a creamy fluffy blouse and a navy blue suit on, are you sure you didn’t see her?’ I said, I’m positive. I said if I were to show you a picture, a group picture, could you have picked that lady out for me? Now this girl, she was a stranger to York, she’d come to work in York with the bank, and this was years after Miss MacPherson had died. So I produced a photograph which was taken in London at Grosvenor House, and the girl immediately went to the lady who had the dancing school before me, which was Miss MacPherson.

Narrator: Eventually the story of the haunted ballroom reached the ears of John Mitchell, who then was researching a book on the ghosts of York. John is a highly experienced paranormal investigator.

John Mitchell: I think that this is one of the most remarkable cases that was collected, because of the characters of the witnesses. I have known them now for over twenty years, they have never altered their story. They have nothing to gain and a great deal to lose if they came out into the public eye, and I just believe in them.

Narrator: So what is happening in the church hall at St Mary’s? It does seem that Mary MacPherson loved the place and her life here so much that in some strange way she has maintained a connection with it. Some element of her personality, down to the detail of the perfume she used, seems to have survived her death.

John Mitchell: There is certainly personality after death – what form of life it is I don’t know. I mean, obviously if we accept the story of the couple going out and being able to describe what she was wearing and the scent of carnations, then obviously Mary Mac is still wearing the sort of clothes she was wearing when she was part of the school in the physical life.

Narrator: The question of consciousness is still a very murky area. Our general understanding is that our consciousness, our vital sense of self, resides within our brains and when the brain dies so does our consciousness. But many mainstream scientists are now asking whether that can possibly be the whole story, as there are so many cases where despite the absence of the working brain, so to speak, through the use of anaesthetics, for example, the mind still continues to operate. This raises the distinct possibility that even after the dissolution of the brain, in death, some part of our personality could go on functioning.

Ralph Noyes, Science Writer: I think there is a mass of evidence for the continuation of consciousness after the dissolution of the particular gubbins we happen to be lodged in for the time being in this three-dimensional place. Erm, I can’t say that I’m utterly convinced. I think that different interpretations could be placed on the material which has come through. But there’s a pretty strong indication that we continue, consciousness continues, personality continues. If I had to bet on it, I’d bet on it. I’d give it odds.

Brian Josephson, Nobel Laureate in Physics: The assumption that scientists usually make is that the mind is just the brain. On the other hand I feel that the evidence from psychical research suggests that while it is certainly influenced by the brain, it is something more than the brain. For example, experiments where people appear to be able to view what’s going on at a distance, as if they were there, rather suggest that the mind has some extension and part of it at any rate can travel about. So the brain may just be a computer that the mind can use.

Peter Fenwick, Consultant Neuro-psychiatrist:  The old science is breaking down at the edges. The evidence is accumulating that you have now to take into account the fact that mind can act outside the brain. And that then opens the whole question of entities going on after death, of there being some imprint on this world caused by people who have lived. And we just have to take these questions now as real scientific questions, and generate the appropriate theories to explain them.

John Mitchell: And  I think that if it is Miss MacPherson she is keeping a very friendly eye on the place. She’s not a frightening character, I think she seems rather benevolent. She just likes to look in occasionally and see that all is well. But of course she had to make her self known somehow. Perhaps the rattling of the coathangers, the counting of the money – obviously she’s a Yorkshire ghost if she’s interested in the money still! – and these were her way of drawing attention to herself.

Rita: Miss MacPherson loved the dancing world. She loved it and I don’t think she ever wants to go away from us. She’s happy with the people, she’s happy just circulating. I’m sure that’s it.

Narrator: Just across the Pennines from the city of York is the equally historic city of Lancaster. And in the centre of Lancaster is the Grand Theatre, one of the oldest theatres in the country – it goes back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. It has a very long history of paranormal activity. In her prime the great actress Sarah Siddons played here. Tonight the star billing goes to Al Jolson.

Steve King: Here at the Grand in Lancaster, which is over two hundred years old now, I had a strange feeling. I mean there are ghosts, there have got to be ghosts in a theatre that old. But I had a strange feeling when I was doing the Jolson, I got a cold shiver as though somebody had walked over my grave, sort of thing. And I don’t know, I just felt there was something there at that particular moment. And if it’s the ghost of the theatre, who might be haggling with Al Jolson… I could see a fight starting [laughs].

Narrator: The experience described by Al Jolson (or Steve King to give him his real name) is by no means uncommon. Over the years many members of the audience, as well as players on the stage have described unusual, inexplicable experiences. Many of them, strangely, talk of apparitions that seem to float in the air, well above the existing floor level. At first hearing, that seems to make them stranger than ever. But as it happens there is a very practical explanation.

Ray Langley, Civil Engineer: The old building is different to what it is now. The pit floor was at a higher level. And of course the circle, you had the Georgian type boxes along the sides and the back. So of course, if there was anybody haunting, you might say, they would be walking along the old level.

Tosa Laurence, Lancaster Footlights: The time that I had an experience was when I was working on a costume play. And to see the effect as it was on the stage I walked through the auditorium to about half way up the aisle, and turned round, and saw a lady of indeterminate age who was walking between me and the stage. And I said ‘What are you doing there?’ And at that moment she faded. It wasn’t like a puff of smoke, she faded like an old photograph fades, until there was nothing there. I found it very upsetting and I have not spoken to anybody about it except one member of the Footlights. We were doing the Taming of the Shrew at the time and this lady was certainly dressed in a period-type costume, but of the wrong period! And this is why she struck me as being in the way, and I was annoyed, and my tone must have been very annoyed. There was one other thing. I later realised that she wasn’t walking on the floor. She was neither at the height of the stage, nor at the height of the auditorium, it was somewhere in between. But I was concentrating on the costume rather than anything else.

Narrator: Melanie Warren is a very well-known paranormal investigator. She’s taken great interest in the goings-on at the Grand.

Melanie Warren: Tosa’s evidence impressed me because it matches several other stories that I’ve heard. In the 1950s Pat Phoenix, who was an actress, was working here. She saw a similar person, and she disappeared in much the same way as Tosa described. And also Myra Jackson, who saw a woman on the stage. It seems to be the same woman that everybody’s seeing. I think Tosa’s testimony impresses me because she is such a strong lady in herself. And she really is not keen on talking about the experience that she had. She only came on the programme and talked about it because she was convinced that she saw something, even though she can’t explain it.

Tosa Laurence: I have personally never had any experience of ghosts. I can’t say that I believe in ghosts. I know this was something that I may have imagined because it was so fleeting. But no I’m not that sort of person. I’m extremely realistic really!

Narrator: As we mentioned, in her heyday the famous 18th century actress Sarah Siddons played at the Grand. She came to Lancaster at least partly because her brother in law ran the theatre. Legend has it that her spirit remains to haunt the place. We called in a very experienced psychic medium, Joan Norton, to see if she might establish contact with anything that might be historically verified.  We gave her no warning of where she was going.

Joan Norton: But I feel particularly drawn to behind me, to that corner over there. Strong vibrations. Over here a different feeling again. Er I feel as though something’s coming down on me here.

Narrator: Well Joan didn’t make contact with Sarah Siddons. But there seems to be some connection with the theatre’s distant history.

Melanie Warren: She’s come up with a few bits of evidence that fit the facts. She mentioned, for example, that she got the feeling of a fire here. Now this entire theatre, the interior of it was completely destroyed, and much of the roof went as well, when there was a fire here at the end of the last century, and the place has been completely rebuilt. She also said she felt that there was something below the theatre, downstairs. She wasn’t to know that in its original form there were dwelling houses actually underneath the theatre. She also said that her strongest feeling was on the left side of the stage.

Joan Norton: The names very significantly attached to the theatre are Walter and Alexander.

Melanie Warren: She came up with one name Walter, and a very brief look through the history has shown that there was a Walter. She said that Walter was connected with the running of the building. There was a Walter. Edmund Sharp took over the building in 1843. He worked wonders for the building. He died in 1877 and he passed on the building to his two sons and another gentleman called Walter. This was in 1877. Again it’s the Victorian era we’re looking at. All the evidence that’s coming in seems to suggest that whatever is going on here dates from the Victorian era.

Narrator: Theatres of course everywhere have a long tradition of connection with the paranormal. The life of these buildings is suffused with emotion and passion and high drama, as the actors strut and fret their lives upon the stage. It isn’t difficult to believe that here if anywhere the very fabric of the building absorbs some of the emotion that is expended down the years. It is classical stone tape theory.

Leslie Ryan, Lancaster Footlights: This is a theatre, emotion is high. I reckon a lot of it must dissipate into the vastness behind you!

Archie Roy, Prof. of Astronomy: One theory of haunts is one which may be called for want of a better phrase, the stone tape theory, where you have to postulate that in the case of a typical haunt some very emotion laden scene, or one very important scene from the point of view of the humans that took part in it – has somehow become registered on the environment. Not necessarily within a house, maybe even outside. And that it looks, it’s almost like a psychic video that has been created. And someone who comes along who is sensitive enough to act as a psychic video player will play that tape, and see the figures or perhaps even hear voices or hear sounds. And it is nothing to do with the people who originally were there, they are no longer there, it is simply a record.

Melanie Warren: I am not convinced that ghosts are the spirits of dead people. I tend to think that they’re more likely to be recordings on the atmosphere, or emotions trapped in the fabric of the building. It’s a very difficult theory to explain, but that’s the simplest we can come to it.

Leslie Ryan: It often happens after we’ve done a costume play or we’re re-enacting something in period, that the appearances get intensified.

Narrator: Well Al Jolson could scarcely be described as costume drama perhaps. But it isn’t hard to imagine the ringing tones of this old tin pan alley number seeping into the bricks and mortar, and adding another layer to the emotional fabric of the grand old theatre.