Today we continue our interview series by talking to Penny Griffiths, a historian who investigates the paranormal. If you or your organisation would like to be interviewed, then please leave a comment below, or contact our page via our Facebook or Twitter.
Penny, second from right, with her first book ‘My Haunted History‘.
Hi Penny, thanks for speaking to us! Tell us a bit about yourself – what exactly do you do?
Well, I have been called a Paranormal Historian in the past, but I would describe myself as a historian who likes to investigate the paranormal. This interest led me to be offered a slot on a podcast station called Parasearch Radio nearly three years ago and ever since then, I have written, produced and presented my own show called Haunted Histories. On the back of that, I started writing blogs for the Parasearch website, which then led to me being asked to write for Haunted Magazine – I have a regular feature called “not so ‘orrible histories”. My podcast covers a whole number of subjects but primarily, my role is as a historian trying to either corroborate the paranormal experiences people have had with historical fact or the opposite, explain how some stories that are treated as verbatim, are actually events that have been the victim of Chinese whispers and have been exaggerated or altered to the point of being dramatic and untrue.
A year ago in January, I released my first book “My Haunted History” as so many people had said that I should do a book version of my podcast, writing in the history and then my experiences and seeing how they linked. My goal was not to write a book to tell people how to be a paranormal investigator – there are people who do that far better than me– or to write an in depth historical research piece on the ten locations I covered, but to encourage those people who had never considered history as being interesting to learn more and conversely, those who thought the paranormal was a load of hokum to see that it is not all about chanting and demonic possessions
When I’m not doing that, I have a day job as a Financial Adviser – it pays for the history obsession – plus being a mum and wife.
Sounds like you’re busy! How did you get into history and particularly the paranormal side of it?
I genuinely cannot remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by both of those subjects. As a child, my sister and I were always taken to various museums, castles and other historical venues by our parents and once I learned that it was actually interesting, I began to embrace it. It was probably when I was in secondary school that I fell in love with history as a subject which was thanks to my late teacher Mr Hancock, who really helped me embrace my interest in it and allowed me to dig for further information and more importantly, question what we were being told rather than just accept it unequivocally. I think one can learn so much from looking at what has happened before as it goes a long way to explain how we behave now. My other reason for it may be just plain nosiness, as I am intrigued to read about social history and the personal impact on the average person living through these things.
The paranormal has always held a place in my heart, I used to see things I couldn’t explain as a young child and when I was about 10 years old, my sister and I saw something called a light anomaly in an old barn that left us speechless. The only thing I could compare it to would be Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, it genuinely had the weirdest flight path I had ever seen, was glowing bright white and was not a reflection from outside or an insect.
When I realised about 10 years ago that there was a definite link between history and paranormal experiences, I began to try to combine the two more and more. My “career” for want of a better word though really took off when the podcast was offered to me and for that, I thank the guys at Parasearch (Kerry, Paul and Richard) more than they know.
Penny with her kit in Bodmin, exploring one of her cases.
So how do you go about researching the paranormal side of things for your podcasts, posts, books, etc – is it easy to find material?
The first thing I do is type the subject matter in on Google – seriously – and then make notes of anything interesting that comes up in the search. It’s intriguing what you find just by using that simple tool. The next stage is to dig down and separate the fact from fiction and that’s when hours upon hours of reading newspaper articles, research documents from graduates and the such like and even looking at census records comes in. I tend not to research the paranormal side as much as the historical.
For example, there was an account recently that I had been told of regarding a “witch” who was haunting a pub in Stoke on Trent. So in preparation for the podcast I was doing on the premises, I decided to search for this woman and find if there was any logical reason why she would frequent this venue. What I found was a copy of her last will & testament which indicated very strongly that she was not a witch, but actually a lady of means. Finding some very old newspaper articles from the time (mid 1700s) it transpired that it was more likely that she had been ostracised from the community by the resident Vicar as she had refused to help fund his drinking habit, that coupled with the fact that she had severe facial deformities made it easy for him to spread rumours about her and ruin her reputation. Whether my findings will stop people believing that they have encountered her in the pub I have no idea, but hopefully they will not go there already believing that she is ready to scare them.
Whilst there is so much about the paranormal we do not know, and we cannot confirm 100% of anything, there is such a thing as logic, and that would tell me that if this woman was not a drinker, had not been arrested or tried in the Inn, and did not live in it, why would she choose there out of all places?. When I looked further into how the story of her haunting the pub came to be, it was a T.V. show that had started perpetuating the myth, then it is a case of Chinese whispers.
My favourite thing though is going into a local Records Office or Museum and getting to look through the old documents though, I genuinely get a thrill second to none when I am handling 100 year old paperwork, looking for that one nugget of information that is going to bring the whole puzzle together.
It certainly all sounds so interesting! What is your favourite story that you’ve investigated – unlike the “witch”, were there any paranormal stories that seemed to ring eerily true?
Quite a lot if the truth be told, I have been lucky enough to spend the night in some amazing places. One that springs to mind immediately is Drakelow Tunnels near Kidderminster. This was built as a shadow factory during World War II for the engine manufacturer Rover, who was based in nearby Coventry and had lost quite a lot of their manufacturing capacity due to the many raids that the City suffered. This complex has something in the region of 3 and a half miles of tunnels, some of which are large enough to drive a double-decker bus through and I have experienced some fascinating things down there, but one really stuck with me.
I knew that when they had been constructing it, that they had been beset with problems, in fact, one of the tunnels had collapsed and killed three of the workers, burying them alive. What I was not aware of was which particular section it was. There is no light down there, and being in the middle of a large hill (Drakelow translates as “Dragons Mound” more or less) you are totally enclosed which makes it a bit discombobulating. We were standing in this particular stretch, when three of us started to experience a tightness in our chests and feeling like we were gasping for air all at the same time. I checked that none of us had breathing difficulties, asthma or anything that would give rise to it, top tip, always look for the plausible before assuming it is paranormal. Plus the attack seemed to stop once we left the area and I thought nothing more of it until I checked where it had happened, that correlated that with where the tunnel collapse had been, it was in exactly the same area as the three men had been crushed.
I have to research a new place or subject every week for my podcast and I think I can genuinely say, I love doing every single one. My speciality – and it is a standing joke – is that I can always find something historical or factual that the guest did not know, fortunately I am so well known for it now that people come on my show fully expecting that to happen.
A picture from Penny’s visit to Drakelow Tunnels.
That must have been a really eerie experience. So, turning to your writing – what is the trickiest thing about writing your books? What is the most fun aspect of it?
The trickiest thing is writing both sides in a way that will appeal to the other, so the history to a paranormal enthusiast and the paranormal to a cynic or a historian. Saying that, it is also difficult to make sure you explain any jargon that we use, especially with the book I will be releasing in early 2020 “A Haunted Experiment” as that will look at experiments that are common with investigators and digging down into their background and evolution. To give you an example, we tend to say “E.V.P.” a lot and expect someone to understand what that is, even if I tell someone that it stands for Electronic Voice Phenomenon, you still may not be any the wiser, so I have to really break it down without being patronising. For the record, it is believed to be spirit communication that is caught on devices like a digital recorder and that you cannot hear at the time it is said.
I also have to be careful when digging into the history of say, an airfield, not to go off on too much of a tangent with mission details and the suchlike which the majority of people would not be interested in unless they had purchased the book specifically for that chapter. That is not to say though that I don’t include bits like that, but I try to write them in an open way that appeals to a more general audience. Another thing that I absolutely hate having to do is proof read my work, I am a typical Leo and very impatient and once it is finished I just want it out there!.
I do have a lot of fun though, and the research is the part I enjoy the most, finding facts and working out how to fit the jigsaw pieces together to make a story from it is really enjoyable to me. The biggest compliment I find anyone can pay is to drop me a message and ask a question about something I have written. That may sound strange, but it indicates that they have read it and the writing has caused them to think, which is what I am always aiming to do.
Not strange at all, completely understandable! Do you have any tips for anyone who wants to get into the field?
Becoming a Paranormal Historian is something anyone can do, there is no requirement to have studied history at university – in fact, I failed History A Level – but you need to be happy to spend hours reading and researching. You build more knowledge and background to events every time you are given a new project so you are always learning. As for being a Paranormal Investigator, get out there and just do it, you do not need to spend hundreds of pounds on equipment, I started with nothing but me and a notebook to write things down in. There are so many groups around now that you can go along with to a public paranormal night and get a basic idea of what it is like, and if you enjoy it, find out what aspect of it you wish to expand upon. The other thing I would recommend is to network and find people whose work you admire. I have found that nearly all the Paranormal historians are happy to share ideas and methods with each other, and this is a great way to expand your knowledge. If you want to write? Just do it, my goal is to write something every day, whether it is a blog, a magazine article, part of a book or even a presentation that I will be doing. The ability to write is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the easier it gets and the less intimidating it seems.
A huge thank you to Penny for speaking to us, I have found it absolutely fascinating to learn about her field of history, and I hope you have too! Don’t forget to check out her book, My Haunted History, and keep an eye out for her second book coming in 2020, A Haunted Experiment.
Once again, if you would be interested in being interviewed – it doesn’t matter what aspect of history you are involved in! – we would love to hear from you, and you can contact us via our Facebook or Twitter below.
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