‘I first came across Peter Underwood by chance on my seventh birthday. We were in the middle of a snow storm and the wind grew so strong at one point that the whole family bundled into the rickety old newsagent and toyshop next to the bridge for shelter.

‘On a rotating book stand were these fantastic books with such wild images and worrying titles, that I was hypnotised; A Host of Hauntings, Into the Occult, Ghosts of Wales and Ghosts of many other areas. Without knowing it back then, the seeds were being planted for the books I would write in the future.’

‘Many years later, I was fortunate to become the editor of a magazine that interviewed authors and I suggested I interview the great man himself.

‘I still distinctly recall picking up the phone on the designated day and time.

Alan Williams, ‘Foreword’ to the republished edition of
Ghosts of Hampshire & the Isle of Wight

Writers’ Monthly Interview

January 1997

[Alan Williams]: Peter Underwood is one of the world’s most renowned parapsychologists and prolific authors on the subject of ghosts and the supernatural. 

[Peter Underwood]: “I was only a child when I saw my father’s spirit but certainly, even in those early days, it opened my eyes to the possibility that there was something else. When I started investigating seriously, I don’t think I was trying to prove the existence of spirits to anyone else, I was more intrigued by it, and was looking to find answers for myself.

“New cases come to me mainly through letters. I get a tremendous amount of mail. People write and invite me to come to their homes because they suspect something unusual or claim to be haunted. But generally nine tenths of those are subjective, but some are very interesting.”

As doctor’s get swamped at social occasions with people’s ailments, Underwood is also besieged with people’s grizzly tales.

[PU]: “I try to keep a low profile when I’m out because otherwise people tend to come up and tell you their stories wherever you go. When people realise that you have an interest in ghosts, they come up to you and start a conversation by saying ‘Ghosts? You don’t believe in ghosts do you?’ And then I say, ‘Well you know, until you’ve experienced it, you really don’t know. And the more I study it, the more I think it is real’. Then they say ‘Really. Well I…,’ and launch into telling you about their own experiences.

“You really can’t blame people for thinking you’re a bit nuts if they haven’t experienced something themselves. You can’t prove it to them because when it comes down to it, personal experience is the only one that counts. People ask me to prove it to them but I wouldn’t dream of it. What I do say, if they are sufficiently interested, is to look at the evidence. There is so much.”

In his Guide to Ghosts and Haunted Places (1996), Underwood recounts visiting a home where phantom music is played. During his visit, he hears the music and becomes suspicious. He searches the room for speakers and eventually discovers buttons that trigger the music in other rooms.

[PU]: “I don’t get angry with people who set up hauntings as a hoax, but it’s quite rare that I will fall for them. When I first meet someone we have a very in-depth chat and very often, you can tell within ten minutes if a case isn’t real. And then you say that it was a pleasure meeting them but you do have a rather busy day and leave. If they personally are getting some fun out of it, that’s no problem.”

Another example was when Underwood was asked to investigate a poltergeist haunting in a family home. The focus of the haunting seemed to surround the young teenage daughter and a potted plant that kept moving around the house.

Suspicious, Underwood drilled a small hole in the plant pot and filled it with fine sand. He also smeared doors with substances that would dye hands purple on contact. In particular, he paid attention to bedroom doors, which were locked from the outside, and the plant pot.

The following morning the plant had been moved, and a trail of sand showed its path. However, the bedroom doors remained untouched. But on inspection, the daughter’s feet and hands showed traces of sand and the purple dye. She had been climbing out of her window each night and letting herself in through the front door.

[PU]: “Undoubtedly a lot of hauntings are purely for publicity purposes. Though I remember a time when if a pub or castle was haunted no one would go there. Today of course, people go to them in crowds.

“I have to admit that I rarely get nervous about spending nights at houses that are haunted. I don’t just sit and wait, usually I’m with a number of people and there are machines that need to be set up and monitored. So I’m pretty busy all through the night. I’ve jumped through hearing noises a few times but more often than not, you witness nothing. Even when you do, your main concern is getting it recorded, so you are more concerned with the machinery than actually watching the event yourself. And a lot of times, of course, it does not register on film, which is another great disappointment.”

“We do have video film and we do have recordings of strange phenomena but it really doesn’t mean anything to people if they were not there to witness it in person. People will hear footsteps and think - so what, but because I was there, I knew no one was in that corridor.”

The technology that accompanies an investigation is far from unsophisticated and varies depending on the type of haunting reported. A typical haunting will require the following; cameras with slow, regular, fast and infra-red films, another camera for time exposure facilities, a Polaroid camera, notebooks, graph paper, pens of various colours, sound recording apparatus, including normal, miniature and very sensitive, extending leads, thermometers (again regular, maximum/minimum and thermographs [an instrument that produces a trace or image representing a record of the varying temperature or infrared radiation over an area or during a period of time]), torches, batteries and spare bulbs, measuring tapes, black cotton, colour adhesive tape, gummed and self adhesive (to seal rooms, doorways and windows), tie-on luggage labels, mirrors, candles, matches, screws, nails, panel pins, a hammer, luminous paint, a strain gauge (to measure the force necessary to close or open doors and windows), a spring balance (to measure the weight of obstacles that are moved by paranormal means) and containers to collect suspicious material. This is just for a standard haunting.

[PU]: “There are various audio-tapes that claim to be proof of hauntings but the trouble with tapes is that everything on them can be discredited. I remember once listening to a tape recording made by someone else inside Borley Church and all of those sounds could be replicated by closing doors or walking or moving objects.

“One of the most common phenomena is that ghosts do make a room or certain parts of a room cold. This always registers on thermometers. The reason for this is down to the shifts in energy.”

Cold spots appear to be a constant in the changing world of psychic phenomenon, but over the ages, mediums have allegedly produced ectoplasm, project voices and even conjured spirits into rooms. But these fashions in mediumship, tended to change when electricity, lights and video cameras were introduced.

[PU]: “I have been in a room where a medium has allegedly produced ectoplasm. The medium was tied to a chair in the middle of the rather dimly lit room and globules of the substance began to pour from his mouth, reaching down to his lap. People claimed to see faces in it etc. But, you know, the ectoplasm has disappeared back into the body by the time the lights are switched on and no one is allowed to go close, so you never get to examine it or get a closer look.

“I have also been present at around six exorcisms and to be quite honest, I don’t see how the idea behind exorcism makes it work. Exorcism is the power of a force of good, over a force of evil. Well I’ve never felt that there is anything evil about ghosts.”

“What I have found in the cases of exorcisms that I have been involved in, is that the individuals become effected and not the ghost. They tend to believe the ghost has gone because the house has been exorcised. Rarely have we ever actually noticed the disappearance of the ghost. The people in the house who still see and hear the phenomenon try to find other explanations, appeasing themselves by saying, ‘Well it can’t be a ghost because the house has been exorcised’. But the events go on and on until they realise that it actually never went away at all, and that things are exactly the same. I can’t deny that some exorcisms have had a positive effect, but generally they tend to support the individuals emotionally.”

“People can often see ghosts because they have an intense emotional need to see them. If they have lost someone then they are already halfway there. They already have a strong link. Undoubtedly the support of the church does help a great number of people when they have lost someone and are emotional, but I’m not sure if it’s necessary to bring in an exorcist.”

“Even though I have visited hundreds of places and regions to compile my books, I still find it enormously enjoyable. The research and the investigation side to writing a book is the fun part - the actual writing is the hard part, but I still thoroughly enjoy writing them. It’s also interesting meeting people who read my work. And now, of course, I’m getting to the age where I’m getting letters from people who say that they have been interested in my books all their lives and remember reading them as children.”

Alan Williams is the author of The Blackheath Séance Parlour (2013).