Talk to some people about ghosts and the afterlife and they will think you have a screw loose but there are many who believe the supernatural world is frighteningly real. Neil Hudson met a team of ghost-hunters from Leeds.
It’s the kind of telephone call the fictional characters from the film Ghostbusters had to deal with but for Leeds mum-of-three Julie Staniland, it’s what she does in her spare time.
While other people knit or collect stamps as their hobby, she hunts ghosts. And if you ask her nicely, she will even bring her team to you.
The former care worker-turned-paranormal investigator formed Spookseekers Paranormal in 2009 after her self-confessed obsession with the TV show Most Haunted.
Since then she has conducted dozens of night time vigils in all manner of dark and mysterious places in Leeds and further afield.
She is sometimes even invited to conduct investigations in private homes, which is what she and her team did on Saturday, after a Pudsey resident contacted them, following a number of unexplained incidents there, including objects being moved and strange presences being felt.
Julie, who works as a receptionist, explained: “We were asked by a lady to go to her house and conduct an investigation, we had to go at a specific time because she wanted everyone else out of the house.
“I formed Spookseekers in 2009. I was what is known as a ‘super-fan’ of the TV series Most Haunted – I loved the show and I even accompanied them on an investigation in Portsmouth.
“For me, it’s always been the sense of the unknown and the fact you get to go to all these different places and see them after everyone else has left. When we are all sitting there in the dark, it’s just amazing.”
Julie somehow manages to find time for her paranormal investigations despite having family and work commitments.
She said: “It is tiring, because we only start our investigations at about 9pm and go through to about 4am but to be honest, it’s such a thrill when we are doing it, I don’t think about the tiredness.
“It’s a non-profit business, so whenever we charge for people who want to accompany us, it’s to cover the costs of what we have to pay for hiring the venue.
“We have been to some great places in Leeds and all over the country. In Leeds, we have carried out investigations inside Bramley Baths, Armley Mills Museum, Rodley Social Club, Leeds Central Library and the Abbey pub down Pollard Lane – we even get called in by some people to do investigations in their private houses – we did one in Pudsey – that was a woman who has had things happen in her house and she wanted us to go in and see what we would find.”
Julie and the team use a variety of modern technology and more rudimentary methods.
They use ouija boards, conduct seances and set voice and video recorders going – some of the videos and sound recordings are available to view on their website.
So, has she ever seen a ghost?
“I’ve experienced a lot of things during my time doing this but one thing which I think is important for our group is that some of the members are quite sceptical, my husband, Roger, being one of them. I think that’s important because it means that if something does happen, a noise or something like that, and we might think it’s something unexplained, the sceptics can come in and say, ‘no, that was caused by such-and-such.’
“I remember being on one investigation and we had these two burly men with us, who came along almost for a laugh and they went down into the basement of this building and moments later they came running out screaming – there were doors banging shut and no-one could explain it, we even thought there might be an intruder in the building and in the end a search-dog was brought in but no-one was found.”
Julie said it was her experience as a care worker, dealing with elderly people on a daily basis, which confirmed her belief in an afterlife.
She said: “From working in care, I have seen people who have been in pain and suffering and then all of a sudden they just get this completely relaxed look on their faces, as though they have reached out to something and then they just go.
“I think the idea of an afterlife puts people’s minds at ease, they take comfort from it – this world is not just all there is and it would be great to get some sort of scientific proof of that and that’s what we hope to do.”
Music teacher David Wall, 21, joined the group a few years ago and said people had believed in spirits throughout the ages.
“I’m a Catholic and when you look at the Catholic faith, it talks about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
“People have always believed in ghosts, I think part of that is to do with fear – the thought that when this life is over, everything just ends and that’s it – people don’t like that idea. That’s where religion comes from.
“It’s what my mother used to call the turnip picker’s theory – if you were a turnip picker and all you did was pick turnips and then you just died, what would be the point?
“But if you believe that when you died you will go to heaven, then there’s a point.
“If you go back even beyond the Catholic faith, to the native American Indians, who believed spirits ran things and the Greeks believed in Gods upon high controlling things.
“If you think about people and their memories, no-one can say a memory exists in a physical form, so what is it? When the physical form dies, what happens to the memory? It could be something that’s left behind in a place or another person, an attachment.
“I have always lived in houses which were haunted. Lights would turn on and off, doors would open and things would get moved.
“Although I believe in ghosts, I approach this from a scientific point of view – I would love to be able to capture some proof they exist and that is what we hope to do.
“We employ a number of techniques – we use things called ‘trigger objects’, which can be things like a child’s toy car, or something else that will move easily. If we suspect something is in the room, we will place the object down and draw around it and then see if it moves.
“We also have electric equipment to read electromagnetic signals, thermometers, video recorders and crystals, as some people believe they have an energy which allows spirits to appear more easily.”
Leeds is awash with ghost stories.
In 2008, Leeds mother Colette Shires published Who’s There, a moving account of a Leeds haunting, which began when she was 10-years-old in 1958 and lasted more than four decades, despite her family moving house several times and which included reports of bumping into ghostly bodies and the sudden, mysterious collapse of her house in 1976.
In his book, Haunted Leeds, author and tourist guide Kenneth Goor, charts a course around the city, visiting many of the places thought to be haunted.
Among them are places like Leeds City Varieties, where several ghosts have been reported, not least of which was a man wearing clothing from the early 1900s, spotted in the Upper Circle, who promptly disappeared through a wall at a point where it was later discovered a set of double-doors once existed.
The Leeds Library, situated on Commercial Street in the very heart of the city, where the ghost of former librarian Mr Vincent Thomas Sternberg is said to have been spotted on numerous occasions.
The old librarian was appointed in 1857 and died in his office in 1880.
His replacement, John Y W Macalister, gave this arresting account in 1884:-
“...As my lamp illuminated this passage, I saw, apparently at the further end of it, a man’s face. I instantly thought a thief had got in... I turned back to my room and took a revolver from the safe and... made my way along the passage, which had a corner...
“Here I saw no-one but the room was large and encumbered with bookcases.
“I called out loudly... more with the hope of attracting a passing policeman... Then I saw a face, looking round one of the bookshelves. I say ‘looking’ but it had an odd appearance, as if the body were in the bookcase. It was pallid and hairless and the orbits of the eyes were deep.
“I advanced forwards and as I did so, I saw an old man with high shoulders. He seemed to rotate out of the end of the bookcase and with his back towards me and with a shuffling gait, walked rather quickly from the bookcase to the door of the lavatory, which opened from the library and had no other access.
“I followed him in at once and to my extreme surprise found no-one there... the window locked. Completely mystified, I looked in the cupboard under the basin. By the time I left the library, I had missed my train.”
“The next morning, when I mentioned this to a member of the committee, he said: ‘Why, that’s old Sternberg.’”