THE sound of footsteps echo in the darkness when you know you’re supposed to be alone and you just can’t shake that uncomfortable feeling that someone – or something – is watching. Suddenly there’s an unexplained draft and the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Just as it is for detective Fox Mulder, from the hit television show The X Files, it is incidents like these that Edinburgh University scientist Dr Caroline Watt finds irresistible.
As a parapsychologist – the profession that gained worldwide attention in the 1984 movie hit Ghostbusters – Caroline has the somewhat unusual vocation of being an investigator of paranormal belief and psychic ability.
But from her ordinary-looking office in George Square Caroline is quick to point out that she doesn’t have a Ghostbusting backpack to help her with her studies.
“Don’t believe what you see in the movies because nobody has ever invented a ghost detector,” laughs the cheerful 45-year-old. “If there was such a thing then we could go round and say ‘there’s a ghost’ and we can’t do that.
“But what we can do is look at some of the factors that influence people’s experiences, so things like temperature, drafts, lighting levels, the area of the room and electromagnetic activity.”
Together with MSc student Brandon Masullo, the mother-of-two will today embark upon an experiment at the supposedly haunted Mary King’s Close.
As part of Ghostfest – the annual Edinburgh celebration of all things spooky – over the next week the researchers hope to study the reactions of more than 700 people as they tour the creepy underground lane.
Prior to the public visit, Caroline, of Haymarket, and Brandon will take electromagnetic readings to determine how charged the environment is in each room.
They are keen to see if more people report “picking up on something” when they are in a highly charged room.
“It’s a psychology experiment in a realistic and fantastic location,” explains Caroline.
“Psychologists normally do research in a sterile lab but we are conducting a study in a real world setting, looking at a psychology of ghost experiences.”
During her 20-year career as a parapsychologist, Caroline has developed a particular interest in Extrasensory Perception (ESP), otherwise known as telepathy.
The world-renowned scientist has conducted experiments which indicate that people can pick up on the thoughts of others when they are being “sent” mental images by someone in another room.
Caroline, who has had more than 50 research papers published, has also conducted research studies into psychokinesis and discovered that a subject’s reactions may be linked to someone else thinking good thoughts about them.
It is arthritis sufferers who may benefit from Caroline’s latest study to determine how effective remote healing is.
Healers claim they can alleviate or cure ailments simply by touching a photo of the patient and Caroline and her team hope they can establish evidence of paranormal activity.
But while Caroline is fearless about discovering more about the paranormal, the Ghostbusters motto “I ain’t afraid of no ghost” certainly didn’t apply when she was faced with what might have been the real thing.
While alone at Mary King’s Close, prior to a reconstruction of a Victorian sance at the Science Festival, Caroline heard footsteps.
When no one materialised, and she established she was definitely alone, Caroline – who admits to watching horror films from behind a cushion – was more than a little rattled.
“It just made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck,” she recalls. “In terms of unexplained experiences that would be right up there.”
So is she a believer then? “I believe in science,” she laughs. “I would say I have probably become more sceptical over time but I am still on the fence. What I have learned is that the quality of the research is very good, probably better than mainstream psychology because you’ve got to bend over backwards to think of normal explanations and rule them out.
Resources are, of course, the big stumbling block, with parapsychology departments reliant on private finance. This means that Caroline and her colleagues are just scratching the surface and far from any meaningful explanations for paranormal experiences.
It was in 1986 that Caroline joined the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University and, given that there’s rarely a dull moment and such a lot of ground still to cover, Caroline is happy to keep looking for answers.
The department was also the place where she fell in love with Richard Wiseman, the renowned psychology professor and TV host.
Although he is also a parapsychologist, Caroline admits that Richard is much more sceptical than she is and describes him as Dana Scully to her Fox Mulder.
“We have lots of conversations where he tells me what I’m saying is rubbish and I have to defend it.
“It’s interesting because some parapsychologists are quite hostile towards my partner. People are quite defensive, probably because they feel under threat.”
But while Caroline is generally open about her work, the paranormal is not a subject she enjoys discussing at dinner parties.
Once people know what she does, the evening becomes dominated by ghost stories and guests don’t take too kindly to Caroline’s reasoned explanations.
Not even her two children, Douglas, 14, and Cameron, 12 are tuned into what Caroline’s work involves. “They just think it’s cool that mummy’s a scientist and I don’t give them all the details. In a lot of ways I’m just like any other person marking exam papers – it’s not exciting from their point of view.”
Despite the slow progress of the work, Caroline believes it’s a field she’ll continue to be fascinated by for years to come.
“It’s such an interesting area to work in,” she says. “There’s so much psychology involved in paranormal experiences. If you do a poll, you would find about 50 per cent of people believe in some form of paranormal phenomena and half of these had some kind of experience. It’s not rare so therefore it’s fair game and interesting to psychologists.
“While some psychologists had an experience that’s provoked their curiosity, it was more my background in psychology that provoked an interest. I thought it would be fun – and it has been.”
For more information about Ghostfest or to take part in the Mary King’s Close experiment visit www.marykingsghostfest.com.
DEPARTMENT’S CONTROVERSIAL BENEFACTOR
THE parapsychology department at Edinburgh University was established in 1985 after the controversial writer Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia bequeathed their entire estate to establish a chair of parapsychology at a British university.
Arthur, suffering from Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia, and Cynthia, his apparently healthy third wife, both committed suicide in 1983.
The chair came to Edinburgh and Koestler’s bequest of around 1 million was invested by Edinburgh University and continues to assure the future of the parapsychology unit.
Dr Caroline Watt was one of the founding members of the department.
In his biography of Koestler David Cesarani claimed Koestler had beaten and raped several women, including film director Jill Craigie.
Craigie backed up the claims and the resulting protests led to the removal of a bronze bust of Koestler from public display at the university.