It was a solemn undertaking.
Around 400 members of the public trooped around the haunted gallery of Hampton Court Palace, quizzically testing the air to see if they could sense the restless spirit of Catherine Howard.
Her screams, it is said, can be heard on the dark English winter nights, echoing across time from the moment she tried to break free of house arrest, accused of pre-marital infidelity, certain of her fate. She hoped to find Henry VIII and reason with him: secure her head on her shoulders for a while longer. But knowing what we now know about Henry it was the slimmest of chances.
It was Dr Richard Wiseman of Hertfordshire University who staged the exercise – more than a decade ago, now, in 2001- to test whether the dramatic falls in temperature in the gallery were real or imagined. To probe people’s feelings of uneasiness and find reasons for them.
Thermal imaging cameras were installed, and the visitors asked whether they felt a ‘presence’.
A few visitors obligingly saw apparitions and felt temperature drops, but the psychologists were able to explain every one away.
At 6am, though, there was an unexplained event.
The cameras picked up a figure. It was unmistakable. And it was moving purposefully about the gallery with a familiarity which was unnerving.
The pulses of the researchers raced. Was this it, at last? Proof, finally, that ghosts exist?
And then the figure drifted over to the cupboard and got out the vacuum cleaner.
I’m sure I need say no more.
Proof of ghosts; ghosts and proof. We have been trying to validate the supernatural for a very long time now. If we really did catch a proper ghost on camera: would we accept it?
When I was working in a haunted mansion, years ago, I heard a story which involved one of the most haunted parts of the house, the studio theatre which used to be a nursery: the scene of a tragic fire in which two children were killed.
One night, as the house was about to be closed up, two staff did a final check of all the CCTV cameras. And there, outside the studio theatre, pacing up and down in a strangely disjointed way, was a man.
One, a manager, feared this might be someone who had had a couple of pints too many. Keep an eye on the cameras, she said to the lady at the box office. I’ll go and sort him out.
But when she got there, there was no one there. She turned to the camera and radioed down to her colleague: where’s he gone?
Yet the colleague, downstairs, could still see him. He was pacing up and down with that strange jerky gait, in precisely the same place as the manager, who was clearly unable to see the apparition.
It’s a tale. But this folklore that cameras can pick up things we do not see: it persists.
Tomorrow, we head to Hampton Court Palace.
And I shall be looking carefully, not at the haunted gallery, but at a set of double doors near the Clock Tower Square, the grand main entrance to the palace, usually thronged with visitors.
The story goes that some time in October 2003, for three consecutive days, staff were called to check a double fire door near the opening exhibition.
It was swinging wide open.
The first day the cameras showed the doors fly outwards, with nothing to show what had caused it.
The same happened on the third day, with the doors slamming shut immediately afterwards.
But the second day: that was a different matter.
There are many that wander that palace in period dress. But the Palace cameras picked up no-one entering or leaving the vicinity around that time. According to the security cameras, this place was deserted.
Yet it must be staged.