/ 31 October 2022

Things that go bump in the night: The paranormal in South Africa

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Nearly 75 000 people across South Africa have joined the Facebook group of Paranormal South Africa which is a platform for people who report or read about paranormal events. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

For many around the world, Halloween, which falls on the last day of October, simply means scary costumes, trick-or-treating and cut-out pumpkins. 

For some, October 31 is the eve of All Saints’ Day when the borders between the living and the dead disappear, allowing the spirits and souls of the dead to return to Earth. 

But encounters with spirits and souls, some argue, are not confined to Halloween. 

The pursuit of the paranormal — which refers to phenomena outside normal scientific understanding — in South Africa has grown over the last two decades, says para-psychologist Mark Rose-Christie, who is also a magician and illusionist. 

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, and access to equipment, such as cameras and ghost detectors, have enabled more people to report what they claim to be paranormal activities. 

Facebook group Paranormal South Africa acts as a platform for nearly 75 000 members who report or read about paranormal events across the country. The Upsidedown is a local paranormal investigation team, Rose-Christie told the Mail & Guardian. Another team has recently set up shop in Durban. 

Sightings of paranormal activities around the globe have always been around, because the dead have always been around, he says. Intertwined with history, the paranormal can be linked across cultures, centuries and ethnicities. 

Rose-Christie references Khoisan drawings, which he says show signs of the spiritual world. He also points to the lightning bird, impundulu, which  forms part of Zulu and Xhosa folklore and is associated with witchcraft. 

Parapsychology, the science of the paranormal, is complex. Rose-Christie, an academically trained sociologist and psychologist, says there are various types of ghosts one can encounter, as well as paranormal phenomena, which can be scientifically explained.

Ghosts can be described as replay, interactive, crisis or single, although the term “replay ghost” is disputed as it is in fact a “residual apparition”, he says. A residual apparition is usually an emotional or traumatic event in someone’s past which replays itself in the present. 

While the reasons for paranormal events sometimes evade science, there are physical effects that can be explained. One of these is recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK), which is generated by emotional stress. 

More common with girls, RSPK, or a poltergeist phenomena, has nothing to do with spirits and witchcraft but occurs when individuals are under emotional strain  — usually adolescents who are not coping well with puberty. 

Poltergeist phenomena are said to be a result of the individual’s mental energy spilling into the environment causing, for example, objects to move or a knocking sound. This phenomenon stops when the affected person overcomes their stress or is taken to a therapist. 

“To properly investigate the paranormal, one has to be a detective (with a knowledge of science), a magician (to detect hoaxes) and a degreed psychologist (in order to tell the difference between hallucinations and real psi phenomena),” says Rose-Christie, quoting globally-acclaimed British para-psychologist Peter Underwood. 

Ahead of Halloween on Monday, the Mail & Guardian joined one of seven nationwide Mystery Ghost Jaunts hosted by Mystery Ghost Productions in Cape Town on Saturday.

Mystery Ghost Productions was started in 2001 by Rose-Christie and has run for more than two decades. Leading the tour in Cape Town was a confidant of Rose-Christie, who introduced himself as Charon — Ferryman of the Dead — from Greek mythology. 

During the four-hour night tour, Cape Town’s history — going back to the 1700s Dutch East India Company — came to life. 

At the Castle of Good Hope, built between 1666 and 1679, you might find Lady Anne Barnard’s ghost attending a lavish ball in one of the rooms, where she is still believed to be dancing today. 

At the castle’s entrance, the bell rope was tightly fastened around a hook to prevent it from ringing. It is said a soldier committed suicide with the rope hundreds of years ago and the bell rings on its own to this day. 

Passing the Good Hope Seminary School, you might see a woman dressed in grey walking on the premises. Some believe it is the ghost of Daisy de Melker, who went to school there. De Melker was hanged in 1932 after poisoning and killing her son. Although never found guilty, she was also accused of poisoning two husbands. 

With its graveyard at the front, Groote Schuur Hospital is not spared from alleged paranormal activity. It is believed that a ghost haunts the eerie underground tunnels that run below the hospital. Many staff avoid using the tunnels, day and night, due to White Eyes, an interactive ghost, who chases her victims with an old iron-lung machine. 

Other sites where the paranormal have been recorded include the old slave lodge which is today a cultural history museum, the Prestwich Memorial and the Arena Theatre. 

Ghosts are not confined to Cape Town, of course. 

Paranormal sightings have been made at places like the Old Gaol in Heidelberg and Kempton Park Hospital in Gauteng, as well as the Old Jail in Philippolis in the Free State.