Uncanny: Danny Robins Reveals New Findings About The Haunting Of Room 611 At Alanbrooke Hall In Belfast
In the fifth episode of Danny Robins new podcast series, 'Uncanny', he reopens the first case in the series, a tale of evil lurking at the now-demolished Alanbrooke Hall in Belfast.
In episode one, Danny brought listeners of the podcast the intriguing tale of Ken, who experienced apparitions and poltergeist activity while living in room 611 of the tower block in the 1980s.
Now Danny explores new historical information, talks to additional witnesses who have come forward and examines possible theories that could explain the haunting.
The fifth episode starts with a little more from Ken, Danny's witness who he interviewed in the first episode. Ken explains why he wanted to tell his story on the podcast, "I thought maybe if it happened to others, then someone else would contact you and say okay, I was in these halls of residence two years before, or one year after, and this is what happened to me and in that particular room."
That's exactly what has happened. Danny said, "the idea was that every episode was a beginning, that you would hear somebody telling me the story of a strange encounter that might be paranormal and that definitely changed their lives, and then I would throw it over to you to the hive mind to see if we could solve that mystery together. I had no idea if that would work, but then we told Ken's story in case one and things went crazy."
Hypnagogic Hallucinations & Sleep Paralysis
In the first episode we heard Ken describe a sinister apparition in his room and the feeling of evil he experienced alongside this while living in Alanbrooke Hall, which provided student accommodation for Queen's University. His roommate, James, had a disturbing vision of a young man's face. Ken also experienced a terrifying incident when he heard violent banging on his door.
The first theory Danny explores is one we touched on in our review of episode one, the fact that a fairly common sleep condition could be responsible for a lot of what Ken experienced, from the vision of the apparition through to the banging door.
The theory was touched upon by Caroline Watt, a professor of parapsychology at Edinburgh University, in the first episode. Caroline thought that the apparition might have been a hypnagogic hallucination. She described this as, "that kind of imagery that you experience on the borderlands between being asleep and waking. You can hear loud sounds and noises, you can see things, you can feel a presence, feel fear."
These sort of hallucinations are very common when our bodies suddenly snap out of sleep. It often involves sufferers waking in the night to find they are frozen in their beds, a phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. This experience often includes hallucinations - commonly a dark shadowy figure, and hearing loud noises. To make things worse, sufferers feel totally awake throughout the entire episode.
On Ken's first night, we know he was in bed. Hypnagogic hallucinations often occur as you are drifting off to sleep. He witnessed a dark figure, which again ticks a box, and he reported hearing a loud sound like white noise. The types of sounds often reported in this half dream-like state include humming, hissing, static, zapping and buzzing noises - another box ticked.
In this episode, Danny tells us "John Myhill and Tiina Vanhatupa from Finland told me how they'd seen figures in their rooms after experiencing sleep paralysis." Danny says, "I've experienced this myself, it is terrifying and these hallucinations, they can be sounds as well as images. So some of you are wondering if the banging on the door that Ken experienced on the second night could also be explained in that way."
But does this theory hold any weight? On the night Ken witnessed the dark figure he was in bed trying to sleep, but on the night of the banging on the door he was in bed reading, so it seems less likely that the sounds might have been sleep related, but the reality is that it is very possible that Ken could have drifted off to sleep and experienced an auditory hallucination.
Alanbrooke Hall was demolished in 2001, so it's not possible to carry out a paranormal investigation of room 611, so Danny has to rely on first-hand accounts. Luckily, after the case aired at the start of the series, Danny has been contacted by several new witnesses, including Claire Lagan who said a friend of hers lived on the sixth floor and that she was too scared to go over and visit him.
Another witness who came forward was Gary Foster, who is a virologist who studied at Queen's and was a student warden at Alanbrooke Hall. He stayed in a top-floor flat in the tower block when the other students had gone home for the summer. Danny spoke to Gary on the podcast, Gary told him, "it was in the summer of 1988 during that first long vacation, that some weird stuff started to happen."
Gary said, "I suddenly heard the lifts going and I was supposedly in this 10 storey tower block on my own, and I went and did a round on each floor to see if there was anybody in the building, and there was absolutely nothing, but this happened a few more times where I could hear the lifts coming up."
This new information corroborates a key bit of Ken's story. Ken had said that the lift came to his floor seemingly of its own accord just before he witnessed the banging on his door. But that wasn't all Gary experienced, he continues, "one night coming back, I noticed that there were some corridor lights on a particular floor. These had been completely dark as I'd left." He admits, his first thought was that someone must be getting into the building and switching them on, but no one had a key except him.
After this happened a few times, Gary formulated a plan, "a good friend of mine came up with this trick that he'd seen in some sort of James Bond movie, of putting a small bit of tape across the door - the only way in and out of the whole tower block - to check whether someone had come in or not. So one night we came back the tape had not been broken, but the lights have been switched on." This was a time before automatic sensors, or even timers.
Although Danny had deemed Gary to be a credible witness, should we really take everything here as fact? Yes, Gary was supposed to be the only person in the building over the summer but was he really the only one with a key? With hundreds of students living there for months, could one have retained a key? What about maintenance staff making repairs ready for the new term or cleaners? Isn't this more likely than the spirit of a dead person turning the lights on?
How about Gary's claim that there was only one way in and out of the building, is this really likely in the case of a ten storey tower block?
Gary told the podcast host that he also experienced weird behaviour with the internal telephones, "each floor had a phone in its communal kitchen, but they could only ring internally. You'd clearly hear it in the middle of the night down on another floor. I'd go down, but before I could get there to pick it up, it would stop. Now you'd think there's maybe someone messing around in the other halls ringing across, but there was no students around the other halls."
On another occasion, Gary was sitting at his desk while the rest of the building was empty. He said, "all of a sudden, every single light in the flat began to grow brighter and I'm not joking, brighter than the sun. The main lights on the ceiling blazed to the point where you couldn't look at them."
He described how other electrical items such as stereos started physically moving, before everything "popped". Gary said, "the microwave went ping, the desk lamps blew, the light bulbs blew - broken glass flying everywhere." An electrician who subsequently visited told the student that there was no evidence of a power surge anywhere else in the buildings, "whatever had happened had only hit my flat."
Perhaps the most disturbing thing Gary experienced seemed incredibly threatening. "It was a hot day and I had my main window in my flat wide open," Gary remembers, "as I walked across the living room floor towards this wide open window, I seemed to trip over something and as I move forward, I ended up completely hanging out the window." After recoiling back from the window, Gary looked to see what he could possibly have tripped over and there was nothing there.
This story, is strikingly similar to something Ken told us, that he'd learnt from the building's cleaner. She'd told him that a student once fell to their death from the window of room 611. Ken has said, "someone had fallen out of the window. It was thought to be suicide, but there were rumours circulating at the time that the person was pushed."
Danny then gave us an update on the cleaner's story of the three alleged deaths in room 611. He said, "we have asked the university for records of any deaths there and drawn a blank, but we do think that we have a lead on the identity of one of the students that she mentioned. More on that later."
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Psycho-Toxic Building Syndrome
At this point in episode five, Danny wants to discuss the environmental factors that could be affecting Alanbrooke Hall. This is something else that was touched upon in episode one. Caroline Watt had suggested that low frequency sounds or electromagnetic radiation could be the cause. She'd told Danny, "I think there's one possibility, that there's something in the environment that is affecting the people in the room such as electromagnetic activity or infrasound. We know that low frequency sounds in the environment can create emotions in people, a sense of presence and sometimes a sense of fear as well."
She speculates that the lift's movement could be a source of infrasound, a very low frequency sound below the human range of hearing. It's not paranormal in nature, but these low frequency vibrations can cause people to have experiences similar to those associated with the paranormal.
Infrasound has been put forward as a possible cause for feelings of discomfort, disorientation, or panic, as well as having an increased heart rate and blood pressure. In extreme cases infrasound has been linked to feelings of depression, a general feeling of unease, as well as visions like apparitions.
Although infrasound might explain some alleged ghostly activity, it's normally pretty unlikely that the right combination of the required factors are present to produce it. This means that it can't be used to explain all paranormal cases, but in rare situations it might.
One listener thinks that Alanbrooke might be one such place where the conditions are just right. Danny updated us, "Dave Field is an engineer and he's also a guitarist and he says, the steel ropes that pull the lift up and down are like giant bass guitar strings. On a guitar string at exactly half the length of the string, you get harmonics, and he believes room 611 would be half way up the lift ropes. So he's wondering if that vibration, those noises, could in any way explain the banging on Ken's door."
Although room 611 is situated near the lift, the idea suggested by Caroline that electromagnetism could be causing a haunting is unlikely. The theory of any connection between haunting experiences and electromagnetism was put to bed in 2009 by psychologist Chris French and his colleagues from Goldsmiths College in London. The researchers invited volunteers into a haunted house they created by hiding electromagnets behind the walls. The magnetic fields had absolutely no effect on whether or not people reported a strange experience.
To talk more about the psychological affects of Alanbrooke, Danny spoke to Sydney-based professor, Jan Golembiewski, one of the world's leading researchers in architectural design psychology.
Jan told Danny, "there is this rather difficult elevator, which clearly made some ultrasonic noises of some kind. Not only can those ultrasonic noises affect people's brains, they also can do things like change the controls of the old fashioned remote TVs, and those would have changed channels and even turned it on and off, just because of the sounds that were being emitted by the elevator. So, that could explain some of the paranormal experiences."
This is an interesting theory. Jan is talking about ultrasound, which is high-pitched noise, rather than low frequency infrasound. It is true that bursts of ultrasound can change brain activity and even interfere with 1970s ultrasonic-controlled televisions. But again, unfortunately no one will ever be able to establish whether Alanbrooke's lift generated ultrasonic tones, because it no longer exists.
Jan says that the term "sick building syndrome" is a real thing, but in the case of Alanbrooke Hall said, "I'd be using a term which is psycho-toxic building syndrome. These particular buildings were really cheaply done. They're really horrible places actually. So, if you come from a comfortable home, it might feel quite foreign to you and quite aggressive. The lack of sound insulation will amplify your fears, the floors are concrete, which creates a drumming sound, but also the walls are exposed brick, very reverberant."
Built On An Ancient Indian Burial Ground?
Okay, Alanbrooke Hall might not have been built on a burial ground... well, we don't think it was, but the land it was built on does have a grim past. Where the tower stood in Queen's Elms Village, was this site of a sandpit. A listener named Nancy Bottomly had dug out some old newspaper cuttings which she'd sent to Danny and it turns out that back in the mid-1800s this sandpit claimed the lives of several people.
Danny told us, "we've got a cutting here from the Belfast Newsletter, 26th of June 1849, and it's about how the bodies of a soldier and his wife were found in the sandpit. It was believed that during a heavy shower of rain, they took shelter and the bank gave away. It says, 'the ill-fated couple were found closely locked together. The young wife sitting on her dead husband's knee. Heartbreakingly they had been married at 12 o'clock the day before.' So, they were two of several victims the sandpit claimed." Danny adds, "there's a range of articles here about young men sinking to their deaths on separate occasions."
After the first episode we were lead to think that the figure that Ken's roommate, James, saw was the vision of a fellow student. In episode one we were told, "he was a young guy, he would have been about the same age as us."
But Danny now questions whether the face could have been that of one of the men who tragically died on the site of Alanbrooke 150 years earlier. Danny asks, "could one of them be the figure in Ken's room? I feel like we keep coming back to that figure."
Danny then brought in another new witness, a man named Billy who stayed in room 611 in 1982, the year after Ken. Billy is a former RAF pilot, who now flies commercial airliners, making him an equally as reliable witness as Ken. In 1982, Billy was studying engineering and he found himself sharing room 611 with a law student named Bill.
Billy shared his unique experience of the room with Danny. He said, "we were having events that would happen in the middle of the night when you woke up feeling so cold you can see your breath, accompanied by seeing this man in the corner of the room."
Danny points out that Billy's testimony also bear some of the hallmarks of sleep related experiences, the hypnagogic state that Caroline Watt had talked about. He said, "you cannot help be struck by that virtually identical similarity with Ken's experience one year apart."
Also likening his experience to the former inhabitant of the room, Billy said, "I mean, I think how Ken described it you know, it was this feeling of utter despair. I would just lie in there in a sheer states of terror. I'd probably experienced this about half a dozen times. And to be honest, I didn't even share this with Bill because I think that might have freaked him out."
Billy then tells Danny how the activity escalated as objects started to move. He said, "I would get a textbook from the shelf and I'd open up on a page. I'll be writing notes, I'd go back towards the textbook and it's not there, and then it'd be back on the shelf." According to Billy this sort of thing happened regularly, with things like mugs and cutlery moving around. Both Billy and Bill swore to each other that they weren't responsible for moving things around, plus Billy said, "it would happen when I was in the room on my own, which was a bit more difficult to explain."
On one occasion, Billy had the rare experience of actually seeing an object move. He recalled, "I was sitting at the desk one day, looking out and it was pitch black and something caught my eye outside, basically shooting right to left and at the same time from inside the room I head this bang. So I turned around. Immediately to my left, I just saw this book striking the side of the wardrobe and just falling the ground. So I went over and I could see that the gap and the shelf where it had come from and it's only then that I realised that what I'd seen through the window was actually the reflection of this book flying across the room."
While Billy's experiences in the room are interesting, they're also quite telling in places. Danny explained, "this throws up the unreliability of witness testimony, because when Ken described what Billy had told him about the room he talked about flying cutlery, and shared nightmares. But as you've heard from Billy's story, the cutlery moving was much less dramatic and when I asked about the nightmares, Billy said that he and Bill did have shared dreams, but they were actually quite mundane."
Danny adds, "it's interesting certain details of Ken's story that perhaps have been misremembered or have grown in the telling but there is so much here that confirms what he told us as well, and similarities that Ken himself was not even aware of."
The final revelation from Billy was another similarity to Ken's story. Billy said, "Bill and I were in the room together and then we're aware all of a sudden that there was somebody at the door, well when I say there was somebody at the door, the door was being hammered, by five or six people hammering at the same time." When the pair opened the door, just like in Ken's case, they found no one there.
Danny ends the episode with the promise that he'll be returning to the case of Alanbrooke Hall in a future episode. He said, "we now have multiple witnesses simultaneously seeing the figure in room 611. So much information has come in this episode, this is not our last trip to Alanbrooke Hall."
He added, "we will return soon with a new lead on one of the deaths connected to the room and we have another major witness still to come." All this is coming up in a new instalment of 'Uncanny'. All episodes so far are available on BBC Sounds now and will also be broadcast on Saturday nights at 11:30pm on Radio 4 from October 23.
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