This is a draft of a magazine article, written in early 2014 and never published. I just came across it on my computer so decided to place it here instead of wasting it.
Strange Occurrences formed in Wellington, New Zealand, late in 2005, as a result of a heavy duty coffee drinking session I had with good friend Mark Marriott. The group name probably came out of that session – I can’t remember – but we liked that it was less predictable than Wellington Paranormal or whatever. To be honest, the four of us (including my partner (now wife) Denise and another friend, Karen, both press-ganged in) weren’t that serious about real paranormal investigation when we first started the group. We put up a web page that sat there for the best part of a year while we had meetings in strange locations and talked (mostly) about paranormal stuff, always over tea and biscuits. We at least had quite a lot of knowledge about photography, with Karen being a keen photographer and both Mark and me being seasoned pro photographers; knowledge we put to good use by offering reasonably well-informed opinions on paranormal photos that people emailed in. (This remains a specialty area for Strange Occurrences, and photography has remained my full time occupation since the mid 1980s.) But as far as real paranormal investigation goes, we knew only as much as we’d seen on TV, on shows such as TAPS and Most Haunted. I guess most paranormal groups formed as a result of watching those and similar shows, wanting to emulate them to some extent, so we were no different.
“We were watching TV late one night and there was an episode of the The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) Ghost Hunters showing. Fiction aside, I’d never heard of paranormal investigation before seeing this show, and my immediate response was, ‘Hey, we can do that!’ I think Denise may have groaned, but I was too overwhelmed with enthusiasm to notice.”
- From “Spooked – Exploring the Paranormal in New Zealand” by Jo Davy and James Gilberd, published by Random House NZ, 2011
At the time, there wasn’t a lot happening in the paranormal scene in New Zealand. There was only one existing group in the country (Spooks Paranormal, based in Christchurch) and they dissolved about the same time we began to actively investigate, so we never got to meet them. We had the field to ourselves for a short time, and the resulting media attention from late 2006 forced us to lift our game quickly.
The group grew slowly over the next six years, and now consists of ten team members. We have so far had only one person leave Strange Occurrences, so the membership has been very stable. We’re all friends and the group is quite social. The growth of the group has led to making friends with people from different walks of life that we wouldn’t have otherwise met. Jo and Helen are both scientists, and British. Rob is a professional scuba diver (and now an accomplished photographer as well), Patrick an airport security officer. The last two to join are a hospital ER doctor from the US, Scott, and a recent university graduate in psychology, Jayne - our youngest team member. The age range of the group is 24-54 and we all live in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington.
A string of publicity including major newspaper coverage, national radio and national network television news slots, led to a major book publisher approaching me in 2010 to commission a book on the paranormal in New Zealand. “We’ve been following you guys in the media and we’re interested in what you do.” Luckily we had a real writer in the group; Jo Davy. (Not content with a mere Ph.D in marine biology, she had recently completed a masters degree in fiction writing.) When I rang and told her that Random House had just called to ask if we could write a book for them, she was over the moon, to say the least. So was I, since I couldn’t have done it without Jo’s input and guidance.
The book was completed while Jo was both pregnant and overseas, so Skype came in handy. We also did a research and investigation trip through Canterbury and Otago, in the South Island, during which Jo was jetlagged from flying direct from the US to Dunedin, feeling sick, and still pregnant. The book Spooked rolled off the press a few days after baby Alice was born.
The paranormal scene in NZ is still relatively small, and it appeared to peak a year or so ago. Nationwide, there were a dozen groups operating then, including some that did not run websites but maintained Facebook pages. At the start of 2014 this figure has since shrunk to eight active or semi-active groups (some rather less than semi-active, perhaps). With the oldest buildings being a century and a half or so, and combined with the difficulty of getting permission to investigate larger sites, and also because New Zealanders tend to be reticent, low key and publicity shy, Strange Occurrences is not exactly busy every weekend. Part of this is due to our positioning, and the public perception that we are one of the more skeptical groups. Although we have a range of beliefs in the team, we do lean towards the skeptical and scientific side. This means that people who are already convinced that they have a ghost in their home or workplace and are already strong believers in things paranormal will most likely not call us. They may not want to be offered rational, natural explanations for what they are convinced are paranormal goings on. We would more often hear from people who have experienced strange things that they’re unable to explain, and who don’t really want to have a ghost. Rather than remove the ghost by spiritual means (or psychological methods, depending on how you view it), we seek to explain the events by rational methods.
But we are not always able to do this. It is fairly usual for us to visit a site and be able to explain some things while remaining at a loss as to the cause of other things, all of which leaves open the possibility of paranormal phenomena, however unlikely they may actually be. And we would love, like everyone else in this field, to not only experience but also record what we think is a genuine paranormal phenomenon, preferably a ghost! We haven’t achieved this yet (otherwise you’d be hearing about us via the Nobel Prize website, rather than here ;-), but we have had the bejesus scared out of us a few times.
One such occasion was in 2010, the first time we investigated Wellington’s old Fever Hospital, a then disused complex on the slopes of Mount Victoria, above Wellington Hospital in Newtown. The hospital was completed in 1919 in order to get the TB cases up out of the hubbub (such as it was in 1919) and into the fresher air and sunlight. It was decommissioned in the early 1980s and for a time was used as a music school. Many of the students and a few of the tutors hated being there at night, swearing the place was haunted. A common occurrence was doors slamming for no apparent reason. One reported ghost was named Sister Slipper, supposedly a matron who was overly protective of the female nurses under her charge, but she is most likely a myth.
The investigation, which included a contingent from the then-active Phoen-X Paranormal – good friends and frequent allies on investigations – had been long and uneventful, and by 1.30am most had lost interest and left for the night. Rob, Patrick and I remained, mainly because we had to wait for the security guard to show up and lock the buildings. So we were upstairs in the Nurses’ Home, sitting round in the glassed-in verandah chatting about cars or something inane – not ghosts – when there was a mighty bang from downstairs. We felt it through the floor, and we stared at each other for a few seconds before going down to find out the cause. We expected to find some trespasser wandering round, as security on this quiet, disused site up in the bush was always a problem for the City Council. We found no one, and our DV Infra-red camera system would later show there was no human beings other than we three present at the time. (We had two cameras covering the ground floor main room and corridor, and a third looking down the stairs, making it near impossible for someone to move through the ground floor undetected, even if they knew the cameras were there.) We checked for other causes. The place was a building site, with renovation work already begun, and all the downstairs internal doors were off their hinges and stacked against the walls. A door could easily have fallen over. But no. We tracked the noise to the door we’d been using for egress. It had been windy earlier, but the nor’wester had dropped to nothing and the faintest hint of a southerly breeze was present. Not enough to slam a door, we thought, so Patrick closed and fastened the latch behind us as we went out to patrol the grounds, still expecting to find our trespasser.
“This is hopeless,” I said. “Let’s leave this running and go and check out the main building again.” Which we did, relieved to get out of the Nurses’ Home. It really felt like we three males were not at all welcome in there.
It’d long gone 2am when Rob said he had to get home to his pregnant wife. Patrick and I did one last check of the complex, including what we believed to be the old morgue downstairs – anything but go back in the Nurses’ Home. It wasn’t until the two security guards drove up a bit after 3am that we went back in there. That was with the company of the two guards, and just long enough to pack up our DVD system. “Thanks guys, we’re outta here.” We managed to leave the remote control behind in our haste.
We investigated the Fever Hospital on two later occasions, but the Nurses’ Home was unfortunately off limits both times due to it being a hazardous construction site. Both times we heard strange sounds in the main wings late at night, after most of the team had left. It sounded like intruders in the building, and we armed ourselves with large torches and camera tripods to go and check. Negative (thankfully). The thumping noises remained unexplained. One of the times, when the security guard turned up he said he was surprised we were still here. “Most people say they’re going to stay late but they’ve taken off by the time we get here. Scared off, eh.” He told us that when he’d been there the previous evening he’d heard loud noises, and on another occasion had heard something he described as, “The sound of something metal and very heavy, like a car engine, being dragged across the floor.”
The Fever Hospital has only just been taken over by the SPCA, which is what the ongoing renovations have been for. They began moving in just before Christmas 2013. We wonder how the dogs are going to react to being there at night. We are hopeful of a final investigation of the Nurses’ Home early in 2014, before it also becomes occupied by the SPCA.
Paranormal photographs - free analysis service
With regard to photographs that may show paranormal phenomena, we are very happy to offer an opinion on them. It is helpful if you sent the original photo file from camera (if it’s digital), or if it’s on film, a good quality scan and as much technical information about the camera settings and photographic situation as you can muster.
With the digital files, we like to look at the Exif data, which is a small packet of information that most cameras append to the image file. It tells what the camera settings were, the date and time (according to the camera’s clock, at least), and other technical information that is always helpful in establishing what might be happening in the photograph. We always treat submitted photographs as confidential, and respect the owner’s copyright. Photos are usually circulated within our group for various opinions, but we never publish them without express permission of their owners. Sometimes, publication of a photograph has solved a great riddle, though. One of the best is described here: http://strangeoccurrencesparanormal.weebly.com/uncategorised.html
We never would’ve figured this one out without posting it on the US forum Paranexus, from which we received the extraordinary answer.
James Gilberd, 2014. (Posted here 1st October 2015.)
is a blog by James Gilberd - leader and co-founder of Strange Occurrences. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Strange Occurrences team.
James Gilberd is an amateur paranormalist, writer and musician, and a professional photographer, living in Wellington, New Zealand.