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Muncaster Paranormal Conference 2009

The UK-Skeptics 2009 conference at Muncaster Castle was held over the weekend of 19 September and I must say was very enjoyable. Bearing in mind that Muncaster is a long drive from the nearest motorway and public transport on a Sunday is rarer than a living Woolly Mammoth, it did make an amazing backdrop for the conference and allowed the delegates to relax, take in the fantastic scenery and take full advantage of the hospitality of the Pennington family who live at the castle which is still, first and foremost a family home.

I arrived early on the Saturday morning after having missed the welcome drinks and social evening the night before. Unable to find a registration table I had to wait until someone with a card board box stuffed with delegate packs wandered past. This seemed typical of the relaxed approach of the conference, though it was not helpful when trying to explain to other delegates where they register “Urm, there was a man with a card board box wandering around earlier”.

I settled near the back and was joined by Martin and Narissa two local enthusiasts I had worked with on a few cases around the South Lakes area. After a short welcome by Peter Frost-Pennington, Dr Jason Braithwaite gave a talk on the ‘Haunted Brain’. Jason is a Senior Research Fellow at the Behavioural Brain Sciences Centre at the University of Birmingham and a good friend of mine. His talk began with explaining how our brains lie to us on a daily basis and that hallucination/delusion is a common occurrence even for those considered to be psychologically healthy and the implications of this for parapsychology.

Jason went on to mention some elements of the Muncaster case and the ‘Haunted Magnetic Bed’ which has been the subject of some of his peer reviewed articles. At this point he mentioned my involvement and showed graphs of the electromagnetic fields he had exposed me to in one of his experiments. It was strange to note that when he introduced me as “the one at the back looking like a serial killer” everyone seemed to know who he meant and stared at me. I was however dressed like Travis Bickle (DeNiro) in Taxi Driver, so well done Dr Braithwaite for noticing. It does however raise the question of what is a suitable outfit for a paranormal conference?

Dr Wendy Cousins, a psychologist and university lecturer was the second speaker with an interesting talk entitled ‘Just Sex, Lies & Séances?’ An interesting look at the frauds of Victorian spiritualism including Florence Cook and Katie King. However the title was misleading as it only dealt with lies and séances.

About this point I realized I did not have my camera, hence no actual pictures of the conference.

David Wilde is a PhD candidate at Manchester University and gave his talk on NDE’s and OBE’s after lunch. That is he gave his talk after a lunch break, not a talk on NDE’s related to having lunch. David described a number of interesting case studies looking at the individuals who had the experiences, there lives, relationships and beliefs before their NDE/OBE and how these changed afterwards.

Dr Chris Roe, senior lecturer in psychology from Northampton University was next with a great talk on research developments in parapsychology.

Professor Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology Department at Goldsmiths and Editor of the UK version of The Skeptic magazine was the keynote speaker and followed Chris Roe’s talk. Chris French is a fantastic and amusing speaker and gave his talk on the ‘The Psychology of Anomalous Experiences’. He talked about such topics as ‘cold reading’ and the ‘Barnum Effect’ where people can hear a very general statement but think it is talking specifically about themselves, memory distortion and gave a fascinating look at the psychology of alien abductions and sleep paralysis.

Arriving back at the car I realized, too late that my camera was on the passenger seat…doh!!

Unfortunately I could not attend the second day of the conference or the Saturday night Evening Gala Dinner which would have been a great opportunity to socialize with the speakers and delegates further, which is something I really regret. However I was due to drive down to Glastonbury on Sunday morning so I had no option. Sunday’s line up included:

Dr Christine Mohr, lecturer on Neuropsychiatry at Bristol University gave a talk on ‘The Neuroscience of OBEs’ which supports the opinion that out-of-body experiences are generated in the brain.

Dr Karen Douglas, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent gave a talk on ‘The Social Psychology of Conspiracy Beliefs’, looking at how conspiracy theories influence attitudes about significant world events.

Nick Pope then gave a talk on ‘The Ministry of Defence X-Files’. Nick used to work for the Ministry of Defence where his duties included investigating UFO’s. His talk looked at the involvement of the Ministry of Defence in the UFO field, investigation methodology and a look at some cases investigated by the MoD.

Dr John Walliss was due to be the last speaker with a talk entitled ‘Between the Worlds: Mediumship in the 21st Century’. John is Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Religion at Liverpool Hope University.

Peter Frost-Pennington then gave a talk entitled ‘Living in Britain’s Most Haunted Castle. Definitely Strange, But Is It True?’ Peter is again a great speaker and no doubt his anecdotes about living in the castle, interactions with pubic and the ghosts would have been very amusing. It’s a shame I missed it.

Whether by accident or design I found that each talk managed to add background information to support the following speakers, so as the day progressed you found that you already had a good understanding of the basics and the speakers could delve into the more interesting aspects of their subjects without losing anyone.

One of the attendees summed the conference up fairly well. He stated that a lot of conferences are just full of famous people slapping each other on the back and telling each other how clever they are, whereas at the Muncaster Conference you had actual researchers, discussing their research and possible future projects in a friendly, social atmosphere.

To finish off I would heartily recommend any of the speakers if you ever have a chance to listen to them and of course a visit to Muncaster Castle is always worthwhile. I thoroughly enjoyed the day of the conference I attended and would like to thank UK Skeptics, Jason Braithwaite and of course Peter Frost-Pennington for arranging it all.

Ian Topham
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Ian Topham
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Re: Muncaster Paranormal Conference 2009

I have been reminded that Dr Cousins's talk did cover the empowerment that Victorian women would have found in spiritualism.  The dubious relationship between Cook & Crookes.  The dubious relationship between Crawford and Goligher and there was a mention of a foot-fetish and an interest in inspecting underwear.   Therefore the title 'Just Sex, Lies & Séances?' was totally justified.  That put me in my place :).



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