Waking the dead

Armed with motion detectors, dark-vision cameras and electromagnetic monitors, the Paranormal Research Organisation is Britain's most dedicated 'ghostbusting' outfit. Matthew Sweet joined its top operatives for a spooky showdown on Bodmin Moor
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It's a perfect night for bothering the dead. The mist is thick over Bodmin Moor. Rain is streaking the cobbled courtyard of Jamaica Inn, where Daphne du Maurier once tethered her horse and listened to tales of Cornish smugglers. The wind is rattling the stanchions of the inn sign.

It's a perfect night for bothering the dead. The mist is thick over Bodmin Moor. Rain is streaking the cobbled courtyard of Jamaica Inn, where Daphne du Maurier once tethered her horse and listened to tales of Cornish smugglers. The wind is rattling the stanchions of the inn sign.

I'm holed up in the restaurant, waiting for my dinner and reflecting on the words of the taxi driver who dropped me off. "I've seen the Beast of the Moor," he rumbled. "She lives over at Tor Farm. Accused me of ripping her off. Gave me a right earful." People round these parts are attuned to such things.

My scampi and chips brings another portent of a good night's ghost-hunting ahead. Is that a gobbet of ectoplasm beside my marrowfat peas? "No, mate," says a fellow diner, with whom I've shared my suspicions. "That's tartare sauce."

The comments in the guest book at Jamaica Inn are not simply paeans to the fluffiness of the towels. Patrons have noted sudden temperature drops and odd knocking noises in the night - for which they have expressed extravagant thanks. One couple has left an account of a nocturnal vigil with a video camera, which they recorded little flecks of light whipping over the furniture. They were dizzy with gratitude.

The only sniffy remarks have been left by guests who remained undisturbed by the tormented souls of 18th-century stable-boys. "NO GHOSTS," one reads, in large, affronted capitals, as if they thought this might be grounds for a refund.

The clock is inching towards 9pm: the time of my appointment with a group of men and women who, when the rest of us are whisking up our Horlicks, are readying motion-detectors, electromagnetic field (EMF) monitors and dark-vision cameras for a night in pursuit of all things Fortean. If there's something strange, who ya gonna call? The Paranormal Research Organisation - if you live in the ITV Westcountry region, that is.

The PRO is a serious group, dedicated to "professional and authoritative research into ghosts and other strange and supernatural phenomena". The Rev Lionel Fanthorpe, the crop-haired Anglican priest with a passion for vampire monkeys and frog-spewing clouds, is a member.

The Royal Navy takes the outfit very seriously indeed: in March, the top brass of Devonport Naval Base in Plymouth invited them in to stake out their Hangman's Cell, a relic of Napoleonic times. In a two-night investigation, PRO members recorded electromagnetic fluctuations and a blossoming of "light anomalies" - particularly when the team spoke in French or struck up a chorus of the "Marseillaise".

By 9.30pm, 11 PRO members have materialised in the snug bar. With myself and the photographer, that makes 13, but nobody seems worried. The president, Ian Addicoat, resplendent in beard and Matrix-style leather trenchcoat, introduces me to Cherie Mitchell, a driving instructor from St Ives, who will co-ordinate the night's activities.

Cherie, clipboard in hand, maps out the plan for the next 10 hours. We will divide into three groups, and each spend half an hour in three "active areas" on the ground floor of the building. At midnight, we will reconvene in the bar, after which our investigations will be confined to bedrooms three and six on the first floor.

Our group, led by Ian, will first investigate the generator room. Here, it is said, a party headed by Yvette Fielding, the former Blue Peter presenter who now presents a paranormal show on cable TV, once saw something so nasty that one of her crew ran yelping into the courtyard.

I'm not surprised; the place is a gloomy technocophagus of dynamos and fuse-boxes and dials, with a roof propped up by a rickety wooden stake. A slack-jawed human skeleton (plastic, I assume) slumps in the corner. Close by is something infinitely more eerie - a wigless and partially disarticulated shop-window mannequin with lurid Judith Chalmers eye-shadow.

The team gets to work. Tony Watson, the PRO's booking manager - who once photographed a UFO over his house - snaps away with his digital camera, hoping to capture visual phenomena beyond the range of the human eye. Stuart Andrews sweeps the room with an EMF meter, but quickly realises that all the electrical gubbins will stop him finding anything useful. Instead, he chunters into a tape recorder and scans the walls with his laser thermometer; a little red dot bounces across the mouldering plasterwork and cobwebbed rafters. Will Brunning, an endoscopy technician in a coat as long and crunchy as Ian's, mutters under his breath and observes the responses of his copper dowsing rods. Ian follows with a clipboard, taking notes.

Will's rods are soon clacking away like knitting needles. "There's a male presence," he says, and begins whispering through the alphabet to determine its name. "L - O - G - G - O - N," he says. "Strange name," remarks Ian, committing it to his clipboard. "Any chance of a date of death?" "Eighteenth century," says Will, as if reading a gas meter. "And it was a suicide. Poison." Then he scrunches up his mouth; there is, he says, a second presence muscling in. Another male. Ian asks if this entity is happy to be here. "No," Will says. Might he do something to let us know he's here? "Yes."

Stuart reports a temperature drop. "That happened at Trelawne Manor," notes Tony. "We saw two figures, side on. One was wearing a cream-coloured garment, one was in green, and the one in green was subservient to the other."

At Stuart's suggestion, we turn out the lights and stand in silence, waiting for an object to be hurled through the darkness, or a figure in a tricorn hat to loom over our heads. Nothing can be heard but the creak of leather trenchcoats.

We repeat the process in the kitchen. In a spot between the oven and a shelf bowing under the weight of scone mix, Will detects the presence of two women, and our second suicide victim of the night. Then, in a former lavatory used as a log store, he sniffs out something even more sinister.

"It's a hostile force," he intones. "He doesn't want us in here. He died in this room. More than one person attacked him. He was killed in a brawl." The lights are switched off - which isn't good, as this is the only room we've visited that has an axe lying on the floor.

We rejoin our colleagues in bedroom three. The smokers nip out to the courtyard, sandwiches are brought out, and a cheerful lady named Rita Ratcliffe-Marshall passes round a bag of chocolate macaroons. Stuart says he's captured an image of something peculiar in the generator room, and shows me the footage on the playback screen on his night-vision camcorder. On the display, everyone's eyes shimmer like the Midwich Cuckoos, and a small fleck of light can clearly be seen tumbling from the ceiling to the floor, travelling down my shirt on the way. Could this not be the laser thermometer? No: this, Stuart says, is an orb.

I ask for an explanation. Clifford Mitchell, a building surveyor and Cherie's husband, offers one: orbs are moving points of light that paranormal investigators often pick up on digital recording equipment. He believes them to be the spirits of the dead trying to manifest in the material world. Camcorders, it seems, see dead people.

Cherie reorganises the groups. Clifford, Rita, Ian, Tony, Stuart and I head for bedroom six, where the floorboards creak as if they're auditioning for Mutiny on the Bounty. We form a circle around the four-poster bed and link hands. Stuart leads the séance: "We don't mean you any harm," he assures the ether. "If you need to take energy from the circle to show yourself to us, we give it willingly."

Perhaps this happens, because soon everyone except Tony and me seems to be suffering from the oopizootics. "There's something behind me," reports Rita. Cherie's got a headache, Stuart's feeling cold, Cherie shivers. I'm holding her hand, and it isn't exactly toasty. "I'm getting the name Madeleine," raps Ian. Rita begins to sob. "She's so scared," she exclaims. "She's being chased. She's so frightened."

There is, it seems, a second presence in the room: a man committing some violent act upon Madeleine. Rita and Cherie report the feeling of someone bearing down on them from behind. To my surprise, Ian challenges this new character to a fight. "Come on, big man," he taunts. "You're a coward and a bully. Come and have a go with me."

Within this circle, a little Gainsborough melodrama is being generated; a story involving a serving girl, a man in high leather boots and a horsewhip. I'm imagining them as James Mason and Margaret Lockwood when Rita suddenly shrieks with laughter, which is, frankly, unnerving. Clifford looses a ferocious, tarry cough. "I feel a tickle in my throat," he says. "I know what you're trying to do, but I can't control it." Then he too is making threats: "When I pass over, I'll track you down. You can't intimidate me, because at the end of the day, you're just a spirit."

Rita falls strangely silent, head hanging. Ian asks her if she's all right. No reply. He asks again. Silence. We break the circle and turn on the lights. Rita springs back to life with a shudder, and joins in a discussion of the events. "It felt like having the mumps," Cherie says. "I couldn't speak. The words wouldn't come out. But I don't want voices coming through me. That's a step too far." Tony agrees: "You don't know what they're capable of, or what their intention is."

It's almost 6am. We return to bedroom three, where Rita presses me to her last macaroon, and tells me how her father claimed to have seen six cowled monks process through a wall in an Austrian hotel.

Stuart's wife Becky, an optician by trade, tells the tale of a man in Plymouth whose living room was plagued by a fishy odour that no amount of Fabreze could cover. I wonder whether this was one of these spousal revenge cases, in which a vicious ex sews tiger prawns into the hems of the curtains - but Becky reveals that the house was built on the site of an old pathway once used by the city's fishermen. On her own stairway, she adds, there's a smell like Copydex, which persists through redecoration and the fitting of a new carpet.

Dawn is breaking over Bodmin Moor, and the Paranormal Research Organisation is packing up its dowsing rods and camcorders. Quite what I've actually witnessed, I'm not sure - but the members are satisfied that a good night's work has been done. "I've never felt anything quite like that before," says Stuart, on his way out. "But if anyone told me about it, I'd think they were making it up."

I've an hour to kill before my taxi arrives, so I sit blearily in the lobby, feeling rather like some partially-materialised spirit. The receptionist takes pity and makes me a cup of coffee. I ask if he's ever felt a supernatural presence on the premises. Of course he has; a silvery face once manifested above his bed. He hates locking up at night because he always feels there's something looming over his shoulder. Val, a cook who's worked here for 40 years, has been on Discovery Channel talking about things she's heard going bump in the night.

As I knock back the last of my coffee, three men lumber down the staircase, lugging heavy suitcases. They settle their bill, and the receptionist asks them if they have enjoyed their stay at the inn. "Yeah," one replies. "Apart from all the noises in the night. Doors slamming. People talking. I hardly slept a wink." Something supernatural, perhaps? "No," he says: "It was those sodding ghost-hunters."