I've had a request for a piece answering the question: how did you get into the paranormal? Also, as leader of the Strange Occurrences team and the person who does the website, it would seem reasonable and hopefully not too big-headed to have a profile page on the site somewhere. So here goes.
James Douglas Gilberd, b.1963, Wellington. Lives in Wellington with his wife, artist Denise Durkin, and cat Leo. Occupation: self-employed photographer. Owns and runs Photospace Gallery. Education: Onslow College 1977-81, Wellington Polytechnic (Cert. Professional Photography 1987) Victoria University (Bachelor of Design, photography major, 1997). Other main hobby: music, specifically, playing drums in various bands during most years since 1980. First band: Condemned Sector, current band Kosmo-0 More info: photospace.co.nz
Paranormal, pre Strange Occurrences
I've always had the bug, loving TV programmes like Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World and being interested in TV psychic Uri Geller and mentalist The Amazing Kreskin in the 1970s. I saw the movies about Bigfoot and several Von Daniken ones, and was fairly skeptical about all of the above even as a kid. The first serious book on the paranormal I read was Lyall Watson's 'Supernature'. This seemed at the time to be a valid sort of blending of science and the mysterious, and I guess I still regard paranormal phenomena from that general perspective.
In my teens and twenties, I had a few personal experiences that made me think there was something to this ESP thing. It was so long ago I can't describe the events accurately, but one or two people close to me at the time were as astonished as I was by them. Trouble with this kind of thing happening at around that age is you start to worry about your own mental health, so I kept things mostly to myself. But I knew I wasn't alone in these matters; many people experience things they can't understand or explain, and some of those things can't adequately be explained by the various stock responses of hard skeptics of the paranormal. (Disclosure: I am a paid-up member of New Zealand Skeptics. It's annoying and disappointing that skeptics are so misunderstood, especially among those in the paranormal community; but they largely bring it on themselves. I hold that the skeptical approach is valid and important in investigating the paranormal, but many would disagree.)
The first unexplained experience I had that I was prepared to talk and write about was also shared by then partner, now wife, Denise. Frankly, it scared the absolute crap out of both of us. The incident occurred in a Whanganui hotel room during the first hours of 1997, at about 1.30am. We had not heard of paranormal investigation at the time, and not being religious, we knew of no one to discuss this experience with. I've since studied the paranormal, particularly ghost-like experiences, in great breadth and depth, including books by the world's leading skeptics, yet still, nothing quite explains this shared experience.
Rather than reiterate it here, you could read - for free - the prologue of the book I co-authored with fellow Strange Occurrences team member Dr Jo Davy - 'Spooked - Exploring the paranormal in New Zealand'. Then, if you feel like it, buy a print or Kindle version of the book and continue reading.
Prologue - Strange Beginnings
Strange Occurrences, 2005-present
To be honest, Strange Occurrences was not conceived as a serious paranormal investigation group, but more as a kind of living installation artwork! This sounds a bit pretentious and disingenuous, but Mark Marriott and I were too far into an espresso binge to be bothered about things like that. We press-ganged Denise and Karen into the fold, made up pseudonyms based on old family names, put up a website and began to collect together equipment that could conceivably be used for paranormal investigation. This kept us amused and distracted for almost a year, or at least until the Dominion Post discovered us and ran a major feature about our group. So we needed to look legit, pronto. We'd had a few enquiries up till then, mostly about photographs, and we'd run a couple of investigations that could best be described as training exercises. But after the feature we started to get attention, from the public and from other, more recently-formed paranormal investigation teams wanting to work with us.
Of those, Phoen-X Paranormal Research & Investigation, based in Palmerston North and led by Clinton Lawson, proved to be great allies, and with the benefit of Clinton's nose for finding investigations we were privileged to visit and investigate many fantastic locations in the lower half of North Island. Along with our own investigations around Wellington, this three-year period from 2007-2009 was when we 'cut our teeth' in the field of paranormal investigation.
Disappointingly, there was also quite a lot of rivalry in the field, as in most countries where paranormal investigation is a popular hobby. I think the interest was largely driven by the successful TV shows of the time; TAPS, Most Haunted, then Ghost Adventures, Ghost Hunters International, et al. People emulated this stuff, including the less savory aspects of it. Phoen-X became a casualty of foul play by others, which ended a rich period for us all. We met many new friends through our association with Clinton's team of paranormal investigators, and our own team grew in both number and experience during this time.
Afterwards, the Strange Occurrences team continued to enjoy media attention, probably more than we deserved. Following a 24-hour investigation of the Wellington Town Hall, which made TV news, I received a phone call from a commissioning editor at Random House (now Penguin Random House) NZ. "We've been following your activities in the media for some time now, and we'd like you to write a book for us." I said, "Uh, yeah, OK" and then phoned Jo Davy, the 'proper writer' in the team. Working on the book was great fun - a 'career highlight'. We also had a paid-for trip down the South Island to get some geographical spread into our locations for the book. Visiting the Vulcan Hotel was a highlight, as was the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch. (This was just a week before the terrible 2011 earthquake.)
Another 'career highlight' led from the publication of Spooked: Alex Cayas, organiser of Paracon Australia, invited me to be a speaker at the inaugural 2014 conference in Maitland, Sydney. This was a total blast, and it was great to meet American professionals Robert Murch, Jeff Belanger and Ben Hansen. I also spoke at the 2015 Paracon at Katoomba, NSW.
Now, from my perspective, the heyday of paranormal investigation in New Zealand is over. There are still quite a few investigation teams in the country (see Links), but from what I can gather most of them are inactive. Haunted Auckland is clearly the most active group, and some others are still doing the occasional investigation, but public interest in ghosts and hauntings has diminished significantly in the last couple of years. So what are we doing these days?
Well, my paranormal time is mostly spent analysing and giving opinions on photographs and videos sent in via email by people from all over the world. I find this fascinating work, and I'm able to combine my knowledge of photography (a subject in which I think I can legitimately claim some actual expertise) with my interest in the paranormal (I've read a lot, and have some practical experience of investigation, but I claim no expertise at all). Some examples are here on this site, as well as elsewhere in this blog - see Blog Index.
Also, I've been enjoying myself greatly writing novels set in the world of paranormal investigation. Edwin J. Smith - Paranormal Investigator is finished, proudly self-published and out in the world: it's available in print and Kindle versions. I'm currently working on the sequel, but haven't thought of the title yet. There's some background info on the novels I'd like to talk about, but it can wait for its own blog.
What's next? Since it's nearly impossible to get access to investigate public buildings in Wellington these days (for which I blame, in no particular order, earthquake hysteria, OSH, and general risk-averseness), we may turn our attention to other aspects of the paranormal besides ghosts. The work of the Society for Psychical Research during the later 19th and early 20th centuries, during which they studied and investigated mediums, is an area of personal interest for me. This book by Deborah Blum is about the best read on it that I know of.
Maybe it's about time someone did a bit of follow-up research, as there are a lot of people now operating as psychic healers, spiritual mediums, and in associated fields. I'd be really interested to find out if there are individuals out there with genuine psychic abilities.
To be continued.
James Gilberd, 15th January, 2018.
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.