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Ghosts or suggestibility?

Ghosts? Or the power of suggestion?

Staying in a 500 year old cottage in a remote corner of East Devon resulted in one of the most disturbing episodes of my life. Whether this was the product of the supernatural, or of suggestibility, is something that will never be clear to me.

Out of courtesy to the current owners, who let rooms out at this property, I’m not going to name the house or the exaction location. They’re aware of what happened, and so if they choose to make it a ghost-hunting destination, so be it!

A family home

Growing up, I wasn’t particularly close to my maternal grand-mother, and for most of the time that I knew her, she lived near me in Blackwater. I only got to know her earlier life through my genealogy, and even then she wasn’t central to my research – which was principally focussed on my family name.

At some point I became aware that my grandparents had owned an old cottage on the Devon/ Somerset border, and I knew the name of the house. Googling the name and location, I discovered that it was available for B&B, and wanting to get to know the area better, and understand a part of my grandparents life that was new to me, we booked to stay for a couple of nights.

The house was located near a brook, alongside which was a man-made trout pond – which was purportedly so that the monks could keep fish for their consumption. There had also been a monastery in the grounds of the property, and some evidence of this can still be seen. Depending on what you read, or believe, monks may have been buried in the grounds.

What is documented is that there used to be a sanitorium in the grounds – though the records describe this as “a lunatic asylum” and “a mental institution”. The older ways of describing the sanitorium conjure up images of a range of people being treated very poorly for having a range of “conditions” that merited care and not incarceration. This view is exacerbated by records that reference “chains attached to large stone blocks”. These could be for innocent purposes, or equally for restraint.

Historical episodes

When my intention to stay was discussed with my Uncle, who had spent a lot of time there as a youngster, he recalled a vivid account of a dream-like event that he experienced on multiple occasions. He would look out of his bedroom window, and would see a black carriage being drawn across the lawn at high speed. The carriage would veer to the right, race up the drive, and then disappear out of sight over the bridge. In addition this, my Aunt, who had equally spent a lot of time there as a youngster (albeit several years old than my uncle), said in unambiguous terms that she “hated the house”, and frequently felt that “she was not alone in the room” – most notably the one that we would be staying in. While we could have taken our English Springer with us, we chose not to – in case she sensed something unusual in the property. This decision was part practical, and part a reflection of thinking “what if…”
Devon Haunted House


In the days running up to our stay, and on the day itself, I received a series of jokes and “warnings” from my Uncle – all accompanied by ghost emojis. They were entertaining enough, and I forwarded them on to Jen – hoping to wind her up. I was impervious to them, and far from being spooked myself, took them as a bit of banter.

The house didn’t disappoint. It’s over 500 years old, with walls several feet thick, and oozes history and mystery from its pores. We were shown to our room, which used to be my grandparents, and where we would stay for two nights. Above the bed was a truck, or crook frame – which was reportedly from a Spanish galleon, and that was several hundred years old. You’re not going to take a large piece of wood from a ship that’s still sailing, so what history did this hold?

The night

We went out for dinner, and I had two pints of beer and a steak. Not much to drink, and nothing spicy.

We turned in for the night. I tongue-in-cheek wished Jen “good luck”, and without a second thought closed my eyes and went to sleep.

At some point later, and with the room in total darkness, I woke – having been roused by a dog barking. I was immediately aware of something in the room with me. Straining into the darkness to see, I could see nothing. I could feel a presence, and I could feel it approaching me – unseen. It was in front of me. Around me. Approaching me. Close to me. Enveloping me. And then through me. I lay rigid with fear – not knowing what to do.

I then became aware of what felt like unseen hands on my shoulders – my right shoulder being further forward than my left. And then I was being shaken by my shoulders.

The shaking subsided, and I lay in the pitch black – my arms by my side. I didn’t want to move. I’m not sure that I could move.

The room was airless and hot, and Jen had thrown the covers off her. I was fully under the covers, and was shivering and clammy. My heart was racing.

The sensation of an unknown and unseen presence returned. I could have called out, but I didn’t. I could have woken Jen, but I didn’t. I could have turned a light on, but I didn’t.

I struggle to describe the emotional feelings I was experiencing. Fear. Powerlessness. Panic. Almost a sense of grief. The last point echoes how I have felt in the past when starting to take Sertraline – a sense of crushing and unimaginable grief, hollowness, and hopelessness.

I might originally have been in a sleep state – in effect possibly having a nightmare. By now, I am as certain as I can be that I was now fully awake – my eyes wide open, and hating every moment. Nothing in my life comes close to how I felt at this point – nor how much I wanted it to end.

Then there was a noise in the room to my left. I nearly screamed. I looked at my watch, noting the time (01:15). The sense of something being present in the room continued, and I hoped with all of my life that this was as bad as it would get – and that I wouldn’t see anything, or be subject to harm.

After an unknown amount of time, I managed to get to sleep. I have no idea whether it was 60 seconds or 10 minutes later.

The next day

When we woke, Jen asked me how the night had been. I started to tell her, and it was clear that she thought I was winding her up. In time I managed to persuade her that No, I wasn’t winding her up, and that I’d experienced something truly terrifying the night before. Something that I never, ever wanted to experience again.

Through the day, including when we were sitting by the beach at Lyme Regis, I could “feel” the experience and terror return to me. I could feel it.

Talking to the owners of the property later, it transpired that they’d let their dogs out into the garden at about 1am, and the dogs had barked. They’d then come to bed, and the staircase was immediately behind our room. This would explain two aspects of what I experienced, but not the sensations and experience.

Looking to better understand what had happened, I looked at my Apple Health. I rarely wear my Apple Watch while asleep, but on this occasion I had. I checked my heart rate for the time before, during, and after the episode. There was nothing – not a flicker of change.
Haunted room in Devon

The second night

We went out for dinner on the second evening, and I made a point of drinking for drinking sake – having 4 pints of reasonably strong beer. I’ve rarely drunk for drink sake, but this was one of those rare occasions.

We returned to the property, got ready for bed, and turned the light out. Instantly, and with Jen’s hand still on my shoulder for reassurance, most of the feelings and sensations from the previous night returned. I categorically was fully awake. With the exception of the feeling of having hands on my shoulders, it was a carbon copy of the night before.

Again, I said and did nothing. Why not? I have no idea.

I lay there almost praying for the episode to pass. After an unknown time, I managed to get to sleep, and the rest of the night was thankfully uneventful.

Since the episode

I’ve described the episode to various people. Most start by questioning it, then making light of it. I don’t and can’t go along with it being “spooky and funny”. It’s too real for me.

I’ve reflected lots. I wasn’t subject to stress or anxiety in my life, and I wasn’t on medication of any sort. Did I believe that the property was “haunted?” Given that 2 people have experienced feelings at the property, and given the history of the land, there’s no doubt in my mind that events could have taken place there that led to restless souls.

I believe I can separate dreams from reality. Most dreams for me are transient, and almost immediately lost by the following day – though some have stayed in my memory for years. This event lives on in me 4 months later – as clear as day.

Through life, I’ve had nightmares and have sleep-walked – though not recently, and not related to this. I can recall sleep-walking and nightmares from my childhood to this day, and I know how they “feel”.

When my Mum was ill with cancer I was under immense stress, was drinking and smoking heavily, and was on medication. One day as I was leaving the hospital where she was an in-patient, I “saw her” walking through a hospital when she was terminally ill in bed. I realised my mistake, and attributed this to the effects of sleep, drinking, medication, and experiencing acute stress.

Several years later, when I was suffering from no such influences, I saw her again – for several minutes. She was sitting on the sofa next to my father, wearing a red jacket and grey pleated skirt – items that she used to wear while she was alive. She had a disapproving expression, and she was looking directly and unflinchingly at me. In his conversation with me, and while I could see Mum, my father told me that he had met someone else. The thing is, I could see Mum long before Dad got to the point of telling me about his new “friend”. My father provided a context or prompt for my Mum to “appear”, but up to that point, I’d never had any belief in “ghosts”.

Real or imagined?

The risk in writing this article is that I’m viewed as a nut job. I’m happy to talk about my mental health challenges, and I accept that some people will understand, while some people will judge. This topic is in the same category as far as I’m concerned.

Do I believe in the supernatural/ paranormal? Based on my experiences – I guess, yes, I do.

Can I explain or rationalise them? Categorically not. I’m not going to even try. This isn’t about science.

Does science/ human-kind have an explanation for everything that we experience? Categorically not.

Do I believe that when we die, our bodies decompose, and the electrical signals and chemicals that make us “us” cease to be? Yes.

So, surely what I saw was the product of my brain? You’d have to think so, yes.

Was I simply suggestible, and experiencing something that my brain had conjured up? Had I not seen my Mum in the circumstances that I did, then I’d argue that this is was what happened – I simply made it up. But I did see my Mum. I will go to my grave knowing that I saw my Mum some 5+ years after she passed away.

I won’t go seeking similar experiences thanks very much…