Academics on the hunt for spooky stories

Is your workplace built on an ancient burial ground, or is there a part of the stationery cupboard that has always been a degree or two colder than the rest of the building, sending chills up your spine?

October 31, 2012

It may seem more likely at Halloween, but such stories are more commonplace than many people think - and they could be stretching staff relationships and having a detrimental impact on productivity.

Researchers from the University of Essex and Bradford University School of Management are looking for people willing to speak about unusual or unexplained occurrences at their work, such as strange noises, moving objects, or disembodied voices.

In one example already encountered, an accountant avoids part of the office because it is rumoured to be the site of a murder.

In another, a chef refuses to venture into certain parts of his workplace because of "phantom footsteps".

Kathleen Riach, from the Essex Business School, said that although the research project focused on a "curious topic", there were serious reasons behind it.

"By exploring the supernatural at work we might better understand the wider implications for how people experience work," she said.

"Using the supernatural as an extreme example of the emotional experience of work may help to uncover how employees behave or react when faced with something that falls outside formal organisational practices or does not fit with their expectations or assumptions."

However, paranormal goings on are not always cause for alarm, Dr Riach explained.

"Not only is paranormal tourism on the increase, but organisational cultures benefit from the stories and tales that people tell and retell within their companies when people join. It may be that exploring these storytelling cultures surrounding the uncanny reveals one way that people socialise and bond within the workplace."

Fellow researcher Simon Kelly conceded that although he and Dr Riach consider themselves skeptics, they are open to the idea of paranormal activity.

"I'm not sure I fully believe in the possibility of ghosts," he said. "But if such stories are meaningful to people, then they will have meaningful effects on them. We are very serious about finding out how company folklore, and unexplained events, impact on people's activities and relationships at work."

Meanwhile, in another Halloween-linked higher education tale, two "psychics" have failed a scientific test at Goldsmiths, University of London, designed to prove the existence of psychic abilities.

In the experiment, professional mediums Patricia Putt and Kim Whitton sat before five female volunteers, who were required to remain silent and hidden behind a screen. The psychics were asked to write notes relating to the individual women, and would have passed the test if all five participating women identified themselves from the notes.

Both mediums agreed that the experiment was a fair and unbiased test of their abilities, but neither managed to score more than one out of five.

The test was organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society and designed by Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths.

chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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