It’s that time of year when ghosts and ghouls come out to play, and haunted properties are ten a penny.

But are they really just an entertaining part of Halloween, or is there more to this than meets the eye?

Belief in the paranormal is a contentious issue, with sceptics scathing of those who give it credence. But who’s right, and why does it inspire such debate?

A terror of ghost affects most children, but that fear isn’t exclusive to the young. The idea of ghosts has been around for millennia, with countless stories taking on the status of folklore.

Many ancient cultures were preoccupied with the afterlife, burying their dead with their earthly belongings – well, it’s one way of avoiding inheritance tax! Death is a certainty, but what comes after is anything but.

And with the media fuelling our fear of the unknown, our fascination hasn’t waned over time.

A strange afternoon

Chapter House Street in York. Photograph © Allan Harris on Flickr
I was inspired to write paranormal fiction after moving to York.

It’s a far cry from my former life (I have an archaeological background, which led to work in Pompeii and the British Museum), but with so many properties claiming to be haunted, York is the perfect setting for ghost hunter Porter Biggleswade.

Dubbed ‘the Shadow Reader’ for her ability to see ghosts, Porter lives above a crystal shop on the infamous Shambles. I can’t attest to seeing ghosts like Porter, but I did have a strange experience not long after moving here.

It took place on Chapter House Street, one cold December afternoon.

Having spent the morning working on my series, I ventured out to clear my head. I was strolling past the Treasurer’s House when the temperature suddenly dropped. It was fleeting, but long enough to unnerve me.

I didn’t see anything, but I could have sworn someone walked through me. I certainly didn’t linger for fear of it happening again.

Scientific struggle

Does a legion of ghosts haunt Treasurer’s House?
My science background prompts me to try and rationalise what happened that day. Perhaps I was jumpier than usual, having spent weeks researching hauntings for my books.

Harry Martindale’s chilling encounter with a league of ghostly Romans was fresh in my mind, and I could have easily fallen foul to my imagination.

Or maybe it was a natural phenomenon, infrasound, or a rise in the electromagnetic field, which some argue can induce a sense of unease.

Whatever the cause, I’ve since walked that stretch without mishap, even though the memory continues to unnerve. The fact that I can’t explain it is what unsettles me the most.

York residents have also given me ideas for my books. I was enjoying a cheeky glass of vino in town when I fell into conversation with a local.

He told me about Margaret Clitherow, who was executed for hosting illegal services in the attic of her husband’s shop. The man claimed that Margaret haunts the Shambles, having encountered her one morning on his way to buy a paper.

Hallucination, exaggeration, or simply the beer talking, the teller was certainly convinced by his own story.

Maybe it was embellished for my benefit, but whatever the truth, Margaret now features in my books. Porter regularly sees her ghostly neighbour tormenting York’s tourists. Well, there’s nothing wrong with artistic licence!

Trapped energy of the dead?

There are all manner of ghostly tales in York

Ghost-hunting groups worldwide use an arsenal of equipment to document paranormal phenomena. Controversy surrounds their endeavours, however, because the paranormal doesn’t fall within the confines of recognised science.

But while you can’t study ghosts under test conditions, you could create a standardised methodology. If everyone was using the same critical procedures, perhaps ghost-hunting would be taken more seriously.

While we don’t currently know what a ghost really is, we might in the future. Numerous beliefs have been demystified over time, including the one where people thought the earth was flat!

Trapped energy of the dead or natural phenomena, either way my experience on Chapter House Street unnerved me, and left me rather less sceptical. ‘There’s nothing normal about the paranormal,’ as Porter would say, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying to understand why.

Perhaps ghosts aren’t just for Halloween, after all.