Haunted Houses: an investigation
Do you believe in ghosts?
While you mull this question, let me tell you a ghost story.
It starts with a family contacting a local authority because their 14-year-old daughter’s bedroom seemed cold and strange noises were heard in the room. The daughter was so scared by what she was hearing that she started to sleep on the floor in her parents’ room. The stress of the experience mounted to the point that two members of the family were prescribed tranquillisers and developed stress-related psoriasis.
A priest had visited the home in Fareham and confirmed he could feel a presence in the house - in particular, in the girl’s bedroom. The priest carried out an exorcism but the family did not feel it had helped. The teenage daughter was so terrified she was on the verge of moving in with her grandparents. Support was provided from the family doctor and the council housing department even agreed to help the family with a priority move if it would help. Fortunately the family found another tenant to swap homes with and were able to move out within a few weeks. The family that moved into the property has not reported any problems.
Though all hallows’ eve may have just passed, this story is not a Halloween wind-up. It is taken from a log entry from the tenancy service department of Fareham Council, in Hampshire, obtained by Inside Housing under the Freedom of Information Act. It is also not a one-off. FOI requests to all councils in England and a survey of 100 housing associations reveal many more.
Sheffield Council alone has experienced an astonishing 47 separate, unrelated reports of ghosts or hauntings in its homes since 2003. Broxtowe Council has received two reports of hauntings in its properties over the past decade; phone logs reveal that just last year a tenant complained he had been experiencing ‘paranormal activity’ at his property, where boxes had been ‘flying around the room’.
Similarly, Bromsgrove District and Redditch Borough Council had a property exorcised in January 2007 after a mother believed her child had been possessed. And the list goes on. Mid Devon Council has received two reports of hauntings, arm’s-length management organisation Hounslow Homes has received three, Whitefriars Housing Association has had two, and Six Town Housing has also had two. There are more: in fact, Inside Housing has uncovered 73 separate instances in which tenants have claimed their homes are haunted (see table below). The scary part? These reports come from just 16 social landlords. Three organisations even reported that their own offices and buildings are allegedly haunted. (see box below for Nick’s encounter)
The true scale of alleged hauntings in social housing is likely to be far larger. Responding to the FOI requests for information on hauntings, the vast majority of councils said the information was not available because either it had not been recorded, or there was no relevant complaint category in their computer systems. Others cited data protection of tenants’ personal details and the prohibitive costs involved in finding the information. As a result, just eight councils and arm’s-length management organisations produce details of haunting-related complaints. Similarly, of the 100 associations surveyed, just 15 responded - eight of which had received reports of paranormal activity.
It is likely then, that tenant complaints about paranormal activity are in fact widespread across the hundreds of councils unable to produce data, the 85 associations that declined to respond to the survey, and the hundreds of others that were not asked. So, with this in mind, are landlords dismissing these complaints off-hand, or choosing to entertain the existence of ghosts?
As it turns out, councils and housing associations have dealt with these complaints very seriously indeed. Inside Housing’s investigation reveals that social landlords have frequently contacted exorcists and spiritual mediums, in some cases moved people up the housing list, and even transferred tenants into alternative accommodation to deal with the problem.
None of the 15 housing association respondents had a policy for dealing with complaints of paranormal activity. Yet, without exception, all said they would deal with tenants’ concerns about ghosts sympathetically and seriously. In nine cases spiritual mediums or exorcists had been called to visit properties. And six said they would consider transferring - or in several cases had transferred - tenants into new properties.
One such example was when a tenant of Wales and West Housing reported that a ghost army of Roman soldiers had marched across the living room of his home in Brecon, south Wales. This was just one of a series of troubling ‘supernatural’ complaints. Shortly after, a friend visiting the property complained she had seen black dust fall on her arm and was then ‘bitten on the arm by the ghostly spirit of a girl dressed in a hessian garment’.
Wales and West sent site supervisor Brian Pritchard to investigate. His report stated: ‘All of a sudden it looked like a ripple appeared on the right-hand corner of one of the beds and kids started to run over them.’
Similar incidents were reported in other surrounding Wales and West properties. A medium visited at the tenant’s request and claimed to sense the ghosts of 250 families were ‘trapped in limbo’. It later emerged the site on which the homes were built was a former Roman slave camp. The family was later transferred to another home for health reasons - and no problems have been reported in the property since.
Similarly, when a tenant of 66,000-home Circle asked to be re-housed because of an alleged haunting it was treated as ‘a very serious and delicate matter’. Why? Because ‘the customer involved was badly affected by the experience’.
‘The customer was dealt with sensitively and taken seriously, as we would with all customer concerns - I understand an exorcism was offered,’ a spokesperson says. ‘The customer in question found alternative housing in the end. I am told it later turned out that someone had previously committed suicide in the property.’
Even landlords that have not received reports of the paranormal say they would take complaints of this nature seriously and investigate the underlying cause. Several say they would also consider moving tenants. Orbit Group says it ‘may facilitate a transfer or a management move if the issue was unresolvable and it was causing distress’. Similarly, 12,000-home Contour Homes says it would investigate complaints, potentially using recording equipment, and ‘if there was no possible resolution other than moving the tenant, this would be considered’.
So, why do landlords take complaints about ghosts so seriously?
For a start, as charitable organisations, housing associations must be more sympathetic than other businesses with regard to religious beliefs. And while entertaining the existence of ghosts might not be religion-related, a sizeable proportion of the population is spooked. A YouGov Global poll of 2,400 people in 2011 by psychologist professor Richard Wiseman found that around 25 per cent of the UK’s population believes in ghosts.
Perhaps more significantly, though, complaints of hauntings and paranormal activity could be a product of social landlords’ sometimes vulnerable customer base. Tenants reporting hauntings could be mentally ill, victims of drug and or alcohol abuse, or just reacting to high-stress situations, all of which require sensitive handling.
A few years ago, Tony Brandon, a revenue officer at 14,000-home Thames Valley Housing, had to deal with a tenant complaining that a shadowy presence was attempting to violate her.
‘The lady I dealt with had quite severe mental health issues and was very reclusive,’ says Mr Brandon. ‘Her religious beliefs were also strong. She felt that a neighbour was trying to rape her spiritually. She claimed he was sending his “shadow” - his ghost - down [to her flat] to rape her. Any form of rape is clearly upsetting, and she was convinced this was going on, so she was very distressed.’
Mr Brandon got in touch with the local priest and asked him to bless the property. ‘I thought that if she felt protected that would help,’ he adds. ‘I wanted her to engage with other religious people to help her with the reclusion. She is still reclusive, but I think it did help.’
Curo Group has also been faced with a mentally ill tenant who believed she was being haunted by two relatives. The woman was so scared that she occasionally slept rough rather than stay in her house - but would refuse all offers of counselling. Faced with this kind of harrowing situation and its very real consequences for the tenants concerned it is hard to imagine not taking a complaint - however apparently far-fetched - seriously.
On a separate occasion, however, 12,000-home Curo was faced with another tenant who was neither obviously mentally ill, nor especially religious. Nonetheless, he was adamant an ‘angry spirit’ had been throwing plates and ashtrays around the property. A housing officer, who does not wish to be named, says the tenant claimed another spirit regularly walked through the walls when he was trying to watch Match of the Day.
‘He refused to use the upstairs of the house because of “other more evil spirits” that were haunting the first floor. In response I went to the house and spent two hours with him including time upstairs on my own in the property. I did not experience anything other than the house being cold. I did not attribute this to anything paranormal as the heating was not on.’
The tenant could not show any evidence of the incidents and refused the offer of approaching a church or a local medium and transferred out of the property soon after. A spokesperson for Curo says the only cost has been housing officers’ time.
But time is money. No organisation was able to calculate how much investigating these cases has cost them. However, Redbridge Council said dealing with the two complaints it has received in the past 10 years used around 50 hours of staff time. That could certainly add up for the taxpayer.
So, with ever increasing pressure on housing, how should landlords work out whether citing ‘ghosts’ is a genuine complaint or an elaborate ploy to get a new property?
‘It’s difficult - especially as sometimes people use things to put pressure on landlords to get priority for a move,’ says Phil Oliver, a senior communications advisor at Gentoo Group, who spent 10 years as the 29,000-home organisation’s chief lettings officer and encountered around four alleged hauntings.
‘Sometimes people will use these links to medical conditions to get up the (transfer) list - a doctor’s letter can make all the difference. With paranormal activity, it is obviously very difficult for a tenant to provide evidence or quantify the problem.’
Of course, landlords do also have to consider the possibility that tenants’ homes could actually be haunted. Documents from Sheffield Council reveal that in January 2008, a housing officer was so scared by what she witnessed at a private sector one-bedroom flat that she fled the property. The officer had visited a tenant - a mother with two children - who had asked to move into a council house due to an ‘overcrowding priority’ - but on arrival it emerged there were also more sinister reasons for her desire to leave the flat. She claimed the family had been woken in the night ‘by something strangling’ them and that something had ‘pulled her hair’ and ‘lifted her off the bed’. She also claimed to hear voices and banging and see ghosts of children, an Afro-Caribbean man and an old man with a beard. The family said they were so scared they had decided to move into a hotel.
The officer’s report to the council states that while discussing the family’s options she experienced ‘a tapping sensation on her shoulder’ and heard ‘voices and whispering’ coming from the lounge. She also heard loud banging and the room became icy cold. The officer then witnessed ‘a thick rope hanging in mid-air in the doorway [to the living room]’ which then ‘dropped to the floor’. The officer asked to go into the kitchen as she was too frightened to continue with the visit. But in the kitchen she could still hear the whispering and banging and there ‘was a horrible feeling of foreboding’. The officer left the property and the family packed their bags and followed soon after. The tenant was later awarded a council house.
So, do you believe in ghosts? Because, even if you don’t take the existence of paranormal activity seriously, it is likely your employer does.
My paranormal encounter at the North Hertfordshire Homes office
Not only do most organisations treat the paranormal with an open mind, but several even report ghostly goings on at their own buildings. Lambeth says that Lambeth Town Hall is allegedly haunted, while according to local folk law, One Housing Group’s Arlington centre, in Camden which is a combination of accommodation for homeless people, local facilities and a conference centre, is also haunted.
Circle Group and North Hertfordshire Homes even have offices which staff claim are haunted.
Indeed, this very piece is being written from a housing association’s haunted meeting room. Specifically, I am sitting in the Salisbury room of North Hertfordshire Homes Georgian office in Baldock. The office – previously the home of Mary Graves, the mistress of Lord Salisbury – was been long-rumoured to be haunted before North Hertfordshire Homes moved into the refurbished property in 2005. However, some years ago, local medium John Aitkin visited the property and said he sensed four ghostly presences. These were an 18 year old serving girl called Elisabeth, a house keeper called Isobel, a small child called William and Mary Graves herself.
Curious staff have since held a sleep in, and occasionally reporting ‘weird sensations’ and witnessing the image of a woman by the window. As a result, one colleague has even moved desks. Mostly, though, talk of ghosts provokes jovial skepticism.
Typing alone at the board table, the wind howls outside causing the windows fidget against the shutters, and brittle Autumn leaves to tinker against the aging panes. There are no visions, flying objects, changes of temperature or strange presences. It is actually quite cosy. But nonetheless, it is easy to see how the building, with its alcoves, cellars and staircases could set the mind racing alone at night.
Indeed, the cleaners, who occupy the building alone at night were the first to report things going bump in the night. Steve Foulds, building technician at North Hertfordshire Homes, shows me the cleaners’ log of complains which reveals over series of dates in September 2006 ‘a chair spun round twice’, ‘the apparition of a young girl who smiled and then vanished’, hoovers turned off and on and the disabled toilet locking itself.
‘I thought they were real characters [a husband and wife cleaning duo],’ recalls Mr Foulds. ‘They were certainly very sincere in their belief that is what they saw – and sometimes I bump into them in the street and they ask if there have been further instances. Personally, I think it is a very warm, welcoming place to work.’