Haunted prisons and pubs are fascinating and the subject of tonight’s Paranormal Podcast with the prolific author Richard Estep.
You can find his latest book, Spirits Behind Bars, at Amazon: https://amzn.to/3TkCBrG
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RICHARD ESTEP: You have all of these strong human emotions bottled up inside a relatively concentrated area.
JIM HAROLD: That’s Richard Estep, and today we’re talking about spirits behind bars.
This is the Paranormal Podcast with Jim Harold.
JIM HAROLD: Welcome to the Paranormal Podcast. I am Jim Harold. So glad to be with you. There’s certain guests that you love to have back time after time after time just because they’re such good guests, and they’re just so accomplished – and such a person is Richard Estep.
He has – I’ve got to ask him how many books he has now, but he has had a slew of books over the last 10 or 15 years on the paranormal, and he always does it and he does it so well. His most recent is Spirits Behind Bars: The Haunting of Shepton Mallet Prison and the Skirrid Inn. It is part of his “Investigating the Haunted” series, and we are so glad to have him back on the show. Richard, welcome, and how many books is it up to now?
RICHARD ESTEP: Good morning, Jim. We’re at around 30. I always lose track myself, to tell you the truth.
JIM HAROLD: Wow. You’re gunning for Nick Redfern, aren’t you? [laughs]
RICHARD ESTEP: I don’t think anyone can touch Nick and his prolific output, but Nick is a great guy.
JIM HAROLD: He is.
RICHARD ESTEP: In fact, I owe Nick for the introduction to my current publisher, Visible Ink Press. That man is prolific.
JIM HAROLD: Well, you’re both amazing and both two of my favorite guests. So good to speak with you again.
RICHARD ESTEP: Thank you.
JIM HAROLD: Spirits Behind Bars: The Haunting of Shepton Mallet Prison and the Skirrid Inn. We were talking a little bit before; can you tell us about the premise a little bit? I understand Shepton Mallet Prison has a Hollywood tie-in.
RICHARD ESTEP: It does. The book was born from the fact that, of course, we just had COVID, so for two years we didn’t do anything in the way of travel. Being a transplanted Englishman who makes his home in Colorado, I was getting homesick. I may have a new adopted home, but I still miss the UK. So once it was relatively safe to travel again, I wanted to go do some English haunts. I should say British because Shepton Mallet Prison is in England, and Skirrid Inn is in Wales.
I was able to secure both of those locations with the help of a fellow investigator and friend, M.J. Dixon, and we decided that we would do four nights in Shepton Mallet Prison and three nights in Skirrid Inn. That Hollywood connection you were talking about – I love old buildings, Jim. Old buildings have history and character, and when you find those two things, you often find ghosts.
Shepton Mallet goes back to 1625. It closed down about 10 years ago, but they did use to execute people there by hanging. There are in fact seven British civilians buried within the walls of the prison. But in the 1940s, the prison was turned over to the U.S. Army and it was used to house their most serious offenders, because every army has them. During wartime especially, the bigger the army is, the more people come in that shouldn’t be in uniform.
If you ever saw that movie The Dirty Dozen with Lee Marvin – great classic war movie – when he goes to assemble his squad of prisoners for their suicide mission, he goes to the prison where they’re executing these men, and that’s based very much on Shepton Mallet Prison. The U.S. government executed more men at Shepton Mallet during this two-year period than the British civilian government did over centuries.
JIM HAROLD: Wow. I don’t know what that says for us, but wow.
RICHARD ESTEP: I think it’s appropriate because something I learned writing this book – in order to be executed by the military, the crimes were almost always murder and/or rape. They weren’t being executed for minor infractions. And this was a time when every man was needed to go serve. It’s not like they did this lightly.
JIM HAROLD: Right. People forget – it was a life-or-death war. In other words, the survival of the UK, the survival of the U.S., the survival of the free world was basically at stake. It wasn’t a war where you could just walk away and still have the homeland secure. This was for the homeland, whether it was the UK, and eventually it would’ve spread to the homeland of the U.S. Of course, we had Pearl Harbor. But my point is that this was a zero sum game, the Second World War. It was a fight to the finish.
RICHARD ESTEP: It was. That being said, going back to other wars, execution has traditionally been used as a means of keeping discipline. Being something of a student of the Napoleonic wars myself, and also the U.S. Civil War, there are many cases on record of soldiers being hanged for looting because of the effect it had on the civilian populace. Many of the crimes for which these GIs were executed were conducted against British civilians, primarily women. It’s the whole deterrent factor. When you’re an army that’s essentially a visitor in another country, you want to be seen to be controlling your miscreants.
JIM HAROLD: Yeah, that is understandable. If they’re victimizing and pillaging the folks who live there, that’s pretty despicable.
RICHARD ESTEP: Yeah. I wondered where they buried these men – and it was not within the walls of the prison. In France, in one of the war cemeteries, there is a private, not accessible to the public plot, and they have 80-something men buried in there. Each grave bears a number, not a name. The men that were buried were all executed U.S. military servicemen, and they’re in uniform but they were stripped of every badge of rank, every insignia, any awards that they had. Just the plain uniform, and without a headstone that bore their name. Each of them now, in death, has just a number, and it’s known by several names, such as the Black Plot. Essentially, it’s the graveyard of shame for America’s military.
JIM HAROLD: With a prison, when you go to a place like a haunted prison and there’s reports of ghosts, how do you go about verifying that? Do you do your own investigation? Do you rely solely on historical reports? Do you do a combination? You go, “I’m going to go to X place” – and I know we’ve talked about things like haunted hospitals and so forth in the past – how do you approach? What’s your process?
RICHARD ESTEP: I’m someone that is very much about digging into the historical archives before I go, if possible. One thing that I found very eye-catching about Shepton Mallet was that the British Home Office, no less, the British government, had been forced to conduct an investigation 60 years ago now into prison officers’ complaints that parts of the prison were haunted – and they were haunted by a lady in a white dress that was seen moving through the cell blocks, usually at night.
Knowing correction officers, whether they’re male or female, these are usually not people that are easy to scare, by definition. That comes with the territory, right? And they were concerned enough, some of them felt very uncomfortable in certain parts of that prison at night. So the Home Office sent an investigator to look into the claims of the prison being haunted, which is an extraordinary thing for the government to even admit.
JIM HAROLD: Yeah, that is pretty remarkable that they would even come to the point of doing that. Now, a woman in white; was there ever any idea historically who that could’ve been? Usually a prison like this, you would generally associate with men, I would think.
RICHARD ESTEP: Actually, it was a mixed prison. Back in the very early days of the 1600s, you had a mixed population in Shepton Mallet. But coming forward through the centuries – it’s hard to believe, I know, but suffragettes were imprisoned at Shepton Mallet. These ladies who were very bravely fighting for women’s right to vote, for women’s suffrage, were in prison there for what was at the time the crime of protesting and demanding rights. So actually, there are parts of the prison that have seen female prisoners down through the years, absolutely.
JIM HAROLD: When you’re dealing with something like this, is your feeling that these ghosts are simply replays, residual? Or do you think there’s a sentient piece to this? Or do you think it’s a mix?
RICHARD ESTEP: I think it’s a mix, Jim. I’ll give you a god example. Some of the EVPs we got – and of course, I’m sure your listeners of your show are very familiar with EVPs, the idea that you can record audio and voices will turn up that do not belong there or were not heard at the time. Some of the EVPs were very suggestive that either prisoners or prison officers were still reliving their daily routine.
I tend to err on the side of that being a form of natural recording with a mechanism we don’t yet understand and can’t explain. But then there were other things going on where it seemed more interactive, it seemed more intelligent. We would get answers to questions. So I think a mixture. And that’s true with many extremely active paranormal locations. You tend to get that mix.
JIM HAROLD: Why do you think ghosts – and we’re talking about the sentient ones, because the residual ones, you kind of explained that; you said it’s some kind of natural mechanism we don’t understand. But the sentient ones – why do you think they haunt a place like this prison? Why would they want to be there? You would think if you were in prison, you would want to be free. So why would they want to stay?
RICHARD ESTEP: One thing I would love to point out is that we tend to assume that when there’s an interactive haunting, they are staying there, that they’re permanently in residence, that it’s haunted at three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in 1992 and it’s similarly haunted 50 years later at midnight on a Friday. Whereas I think there’s possibly – a good analogy for us to use would be that sometimes they seem to be able to drop in, in the same way that you’re able to take a trip and go back to your hometown when you feel like it, but you’re not always there.
So I don’t know that they’re always in residence, but for some individuals in the prison system – and this remains true today – they’re lifers. This becomes the only structure and security and comfort they’ve known. I think Shawshank Redemption shows that really well with the story of – I forget the prisoner’s name. Was it Beeks?
JIM HAROLD: That sounds familiar, but it’s been a long time since I saw that movie.
RICHARD ESTEP: But if you recall, there was the gentleman that was so institutionalized, he tried everything he could to not be released at the end. The prison was the only home that he knew. Once that stability and security is gone, the outside world is a big scary place. So I do wonder if, for some of the inmates, Shepton Mallet wasn’t the closest thing to a home they ever had. As for prison officers, I think as difficult a job as that is, there are those that love doing the job and feel comfortable. I don’t know that I would say at home, but would definitely want to drop back in and see how the old place is doing.
JIM HAROLD: In terms of the prison, what are the plans for the prison? Is it going to maintain some kind of historical landmark? Where is it now?
RICHARD ESTEP: That’s a great question. It’s in a kind of limbo. It’s privately owned. As to whether it will be redeveloped, I hope not. I do hope it stands as a testament, a living historical testament, if you will, to the British prison system. But I don’t know that there are plans to do much of anything with it. You can tour Shepton Mallet, and I highly recommend it. You can rent the place to spend an evening there yourself. And the guides that will chaperone you are very knowledgeable about all aspects of the prison’s history.
My hope for it, Jim, is that it continues on as a living history lesson, and I will also say that if you spend some time inside, it will deter you from wanting to ever actually go to prison. [laughs]
JIM HAROLD: [laughs] Scared straight, so to speak.
RICHARD ESTEP: Yeah, hopefully so. But if nothing else, it is a fascinating window into how things were. Also, it’s used quite often as a TV and movie filming set. There was recently a TV series about the serial killer Dennis Nilsen called Des, and he was played by the Doctor Who actor David Tennant.
JIM HAROLD: Great actor.
RICHARD ESTEP: Yeah, terrific actor. Now appearing in Good Omens, of course. They have set aside and they blocked off what they call the “Des cell.” The killer Dennis Nilsen was never in Shepton Mallet, but they did shoot his jail scenes in the prison, and the cell in which David Tennant portrayed him has been left exactly as it was on the last day of shooting. So there’s a little bit of Hollywood connectivity there, too. And movies like Paddington 2 have been shot there, and various other films as well.
JIM HAROLD: What kinds of things do people experience when they go there? How do the ghosts show themselves? What are some examples?
RICHARD ESTEP: The people I talked to at the most depth were the people that do the tours, the guides, because they are there constantly, and they’re there at night. I’m not one of those people that believes you get more paranormal activity at night, but I do think it’s easier to notice because the world is quieter. Everything’s more still.
It’s interesting; a number of them have been growled at and hissed at, which is a little bit concerning. And there have been a couple instances of bruises and scratches. But I’ve also heard many accounts of the spirits appearing to be playful. One of them told me rather ruefully that they appear to have taken her car keys and wouldn’t give them back for several weeks. Things of that nature.
Phantom footsteps are very common at Shepton Mallet as well. Disembodied voices. I’m always a little wary with cold spots and things like that at a place like this because you’re looking at essentially a big, cold, stone brick building, and you’ve got some temperature variances there that are only to be expected. But yeah, disembodied voices, touches, playful antics. I don’t know of anyone – unlike the prison officer whose testimony was recorded by the official government investigation; this gentleman described himself as being attacked, like physically pushed and held down. I haven’t heard of anything like that happening there in recent years. Which is a relief.
JIM HAROLD: When we get back, Richard, I want to talk about this idea of stuck souls and going to the light, and if any of that applies to these haunted places. We’re talking about Richard’s latest book, Spirits Behind Bars: The Haunting of Shepton Mallet Prison and the Skirrid Inn, and we’ll be back right after this.
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JIM HAROLD: We’re back on the Paranormal Podcast. Our guest is Richard Estep, and we are talking about his latest book, Spirits Behind Bars: The Haunting of Shepton Mallet Prison and the Skirrid Inn. Now, Richard, when we talk about these sentient ghosts, whether we’re talking about this prison – and we’re going to get to the Skirrid Inn in a little bit – but regardless of where we’re talking about, here’s something that bugs me.
I like to think – and sometimes when you look at the news and you look at life, and I know in your profession, you see some tough stuff – I like to think ultimately, the universe is a just place. In other words, if you have a hard time in life and you try to be a good person, but things didn’t work out, somewhere you get a reward. And maybe if you weren’t so good, like really bad, like Hitler, maybe you get something else. I’d like to think at the end, things balance out. That’s my hope, at least.
I’ve heard many paranormal investigators and researchers over the years talking about “stuck souls” and “sending them to the light,” and I’ve got to say, when we talk about ghosts, this is the thing that bothers me the most. I would hate to think that someone is “stuck.” As you were saying before, a lot of these prisoners might come back because it’s actually someplace they ended up enjoying. They visit it. That’s fine. But I hate the idea that someone would be stuck. Even if they were a criminal, you would like to think that they can move on to the next phase.
So first of all, do you buy into that idea of stuck souls and the idea that it’s a paranormal investigator’s job to “send them to the light”?
RICHARD ESTEP: Let me preface my answer, Jim, with the caveat that I never tell people what to believe; I just, when I’m asked, tell people what I believe. I think a lot of this depends on your belief system. I know a number of mediums that absolutely believe in this concept and say that they can help souls cross over and things of that nature. I don’t think it’s part of anybody’s job to do that, least of all a paranormal investigator’s. There are some mediums who say they feel compelled to do it. That’s entirely up to them.
My suspicion – I do like your idea that the universe is a fundamentally just place. I more subscribe to the late great author Terry Pratchett’s view that there’s no justice; there’s just us. He put it so eloquently. But things do tend to balance out in life, correct? Sometimes the wheel takes some time to turn, but it always turns. So my suspicion is that there is no way to force a spirit to go on anywhere, but possibly we could perhaps show them the way or help them out.
I think that when it comes to stuck spirits – I’ve heard of some accounts of this – it may simply be that they need time to adjust before they do move on. I don’t know that they are literally trapped on this plane and cannot get out without help. I don’t know that that’s the case. But in life, we do know people – and perhaps you’ve been one; I know that I have – where you’re stuck in a rut. You’re trapped not in a literal sense, but whether you are trapped in a job you can’t stand or a set of personal circumstances that are toxic, you can be trapped, and it can feel very hellish. And then sometimes the right person will come along and show some care and concern, and then you are no longer trapped.
I suspect that if it is a thing, it’s more of the latter than a literal “There is the bright shining light over there; go to it.”
JIM HAROLD: So the prison, as you step back from it and look back at it from a distance, what do you feel is unique about it? We talked about some of the themes, but what makes it different than some of the other places you’ve been?
RICHARD ESTEP: Not least 400 years of living history. You and I have talked in the past about haunted hospitals, Jim, and I’ve said that hospitals tend to be haunted because they’re essentially all of life’s drama on one fairly small stage – life, death, joy, love, hate, pain, grief, suffering. I think prisons are very much the same way. You have all of these strong human emotions bottled up inside a relatively concentrated area.
When you go to a place like Shepton Mallet that’s been in operation for centuries, how much raw energy do you have there? How much grief, joy, aggression, all that kind of stuff has permeated that environment and can perhaps be tapped into today?
I also see the fact that each prisoner there, and each prison officer and every member of staff, every one is a life with a unique story to be told. There were undoubtedly those that were unjustly accused and convicted. There were undoubtedly those that absolutely deserved to be there. Each one is a life with its various shades of grey. So I find the idea of walking those halls and learning about those men and women to be immensely appealing and fascinating.
JIM HAROLD: Now, on to the next place. We have the Skirrid Inn. Aside from having a very cool name, the Skirrid Inn – it even sounds scary, the Skirrid Inn; it sounds like a rough place. [laughs] Kind of fun. Tell us about the Skirrid Inn and why you decided to include that in this book.
RICHARD ESTEP: Absolutely. Very much not a rough place, despite the name.
JIM HAROLD: Oh, okay.
RICHARD ESTEP: The name comes because of a beautiful old tradition. The Skirrid Inn is just across the border with England into Wales. It’s believed to be Wales’s oldest inn, if not the entire United Kingdom’s, although there are several inns that also make that claim and the truth is we’ll never know. But certainly an inn has stood on this site for around a thousand years, which is just staggering, isn’t it?
JIM HAROLD: Yes, that is amazing. Just the history amazes me.
RICHARD ESTEP: Yeah. Every pub in Britain has a pub sign. It’s usually a painted image which fits the pub’s name. In the Skirrid’s case, it is a mountain being struck by a bolt of lightning and splitting apart. The story is if you stand there, you can actually see the mountain on the horizon. It’s not that far off. The story goes that when Christ was crucified on the cross, at that exact moment, a bolt of lighting came down from the sky and struck the mountain and split it. That’s how the Skirrid got its name and how they’ve taken the mythology of the local mountain and made it their own.
You walk inside, and Jim, it’s like going back in time. It’s terrific. Imagine the old wooden beams and the wood paneling. There’s this beautiful old wooden bar. It was actually sitting at that bar that I hit on the name for the book, which is of course a play on words. You have spirits behind bars that serve alcohol at the Skirrid Inn, and you have spirits behind very literal bars, iron bars, at Shepton Mallet.
Walking around the Skirrid, one of the things that strikes you first is that there is a fairly narrow but very tall staircase at the center of the building. Hanging from a beam is a hangman’s noose. Something you don’t generally see in a pub.
JIM HAROLD: No.
RICHARD ESTEP: The story behind it, which I believe is apocryphal, is that we had the hanging judge, Judge Jeffries, you notoriously was a hardliner and was very much in favor of executing those that he found guilty in his court. Well, Judge Jeffries worked directly for the king, and in the aftermath of one of our bloodier attempted revolutions in the UK, Judge Jeffries went on a hanging spree and executed a great number of people. The ones that got off lightly were actually shipped off to the colonies. [laughs] But the majority of them were executed.
And just as an aside, Jeffries kind of became a victim of his own actions because when the king was deposed, he became the least popular man in England, as you would expect. He put on a disguise and tried to flee the country, was getting onto a ship, and was recognized by one of the men that he had sentenced to deportation. So Jeffries ended his life in the Tower of London, which I thought was a wonderfully cyclical story.
But the reason the noose is there is its claim to local legend and lore: that Judge Jeffries used the second floor of the Skirrid Inn as his courtroom, and that once you were found guilty at his assizes, you would be taken onto the staircase to the upper floor at the Skirrid Inn, the hangman would put the noose around your neck, and over the side you would go. You would be hanged on the staircase at the inn.
JIM HAROLD: Ooh. Wow, rough crowd. [laughs]
RICHARD ESTEP: Yeah. But very convenient for everyone that had gathered as part of the judicial process so that you could then go and have a drink at the bar. [laughs]
JIM HAROLD: Well, am I right – wasn’t execution a spectator sport back in the day?
RICHARD ESTEP: Absolutely it was. They used to execute people in public, and then finally they would create – Shepton Mallet has one, an execution chamber that’s inside the walls to keep the public eye away.
But I was unable to find any evidence to support the fact that Judge Jeffries was actually truly at the Skirrid Inn. He certainly was in the area, though, and I do believe that if hangings had taken place at his behest, they would not have happened on this grand old wooden staircase; they would have built a gallows outside in what is now the parking lot behind the Skirrid Inn, and they would’ve executed people there. But it’s a wonderful story, and there are many accounts of people experiencing what they believe to be the judge’s own personal hangman prowling the hallways of the inn.
JIM HAROLD: There’s a story in the book that I saw that I thought was so remarkable, about choking. I don’t want to ruin it; can you tell us a little bit about that story? I thought that was wild.
RICHARD ESTEP: Absolutely. The inn’s haunting is well-documented. I’m not the first to write about the Skirrid Inn. My own idols, people like Peter Underwood and Guy Lyon Playfair, just to name two examples, have written about the inn being haunted in the past.
One of them documented that a lady was sitting at the bar, minding her own business, when all of a sudden she felt a choking, burning sensation around her neck as if someone had slipped an invisible noose over her head and tightened it. She left the inn at high speed and would not come back, understandably. That was some time ago, though, Jim. We’re talking about 40-something years ago.
More recently, there was a patron to the inn who came downstairs in a state of some distress. Had been in the bathtub and cried out that “She tried to drown me!” That’s very interesting. She, not he, had tried to drown them in the bathtub. So there are some concerning reports from the inn, but I would emphasize that much of its history and haunting seems to me to be very pleasant.
JIM HAROLD: That’s what I was going to ask you. It seems to me – and again, I’m not an investigator; I don’t claim to be an investigator. I’m just a guy who sits comfortably behind the mic and asks questions. I guess it’s the coward’s way out. But the point being that from everything I’ve gleaned from talking to investigators and experts and authors such as yourself, the vast majority of hauntings, or at least the majority seem to be relatively innocuous or sometimes playful. And the more negative side of things is a much smaller percentage.
I think especially today with the TV shows and everything, people want to say, “It’s a demon, it’s a demon, it’s a demon!” But that really doesn’t seem to be the case. But from your standpoint, do we have anything ever to fear from ghosts or spirits?
RICHARD ESTEP: You’ve hit the nail on the head there, Jim. The truth is that scary sells. I cannot imagine the Travel Channel or Discovery Plus on Netflix commissioning a documentary called “Nice Hauntings.” Maybe somebody should because I’d love to watch it. I began doing this in the mid-1990s and I went to a lot of British stately homes and private residences, ordinary homes, and the ghosts were friendly and welcome. “Oh, that’s just Ted. He lived in this house a hundred years ago, he died downstairs, and he likes to open doors.” That kind of thing. Unfortunately, with the preponderance of paranormal TV that likes to make everything terrifying, that’s the direction that public perception has gone.
Do I think we have anything to fear from ghosts? Rarely. There are those cases – they are out there – in which people have been harmed, in which people have had effects that were quite frightening. But I think as a good rule of thumb, you should treat ghosts like you would treat any stranger on the street. Don’t swagger, don’t provoke, don’t bellow. I didn’t walk into Shepton Mallet Prison throwing my weight around because I wouldn’t do that on a real prison cellblock. It would be a great way to get shanked. Why would I do that just because the people on the cellblock are no longer among the living?
I think if you’re respectful, if you’re careful, if you’re polite and courteous, then the vast majority of the time, there’s nothing to be afraid of other than fear itself, to borrow a phrase. There is that subset of cases in which you definitely have reason to be a little afraid.
JIM HAROLD: An excellent discussion with Richard Estep. We are talking about his new book, Spirits Behind Bars: The Haunting of Shepton Mallet Prison and the Skirrid Inn, and we’ll be back right after this.
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JIM HAROLD: They’re not just great shirts, but there’s also a gamification aspect to it, right?
JIM HAMILTON: Yes, there is. It was designed to be more than just a shirt. Both our paranormal and our National Park tees come with a content card. The card further explains the theme and it has a web address printed on it for you to visit. The web address is secured with a password which can only be found hidden in the design of the shirt. If you can successfully unlock the website, you’ll find our monthly challenge. And if you can correctly solve our challenge, you’ll be entered into a drawing for free ParaBox merchandise.
JIM HAROLD: So Jim, where can people get ParaBox?
JIM HAMILTON: Jim, if your listeners want to head on over to our website, paraboxmonthly.com/jim, they can receive a promo code for 25% off, and that discount code is good for either our paranormal tees or our National Park tees.
JIM HAROLD: So now it’s time to get ParaBox. Just go to paraboxmonthly.com/jim. That’s paraboxmonthly.com/jim, and get that deal for 25% off a ParaBox monthly subscription. I highly recommend it. Thanks, ParaBox! (No purchase necessary to be entered into their monthly drawing. Details at paraboxmonthly.com.)
Follow Jim on Twitter and Instagram @TheJimHarold and join our virtual Campfire Facebook group at VirtualCampfireGroup.com. Now, back to the Paranormal Podcast.
JIM HAROLD: We’re back on the Paranormal Podcast for our final segment with Richard Estep, one of the most prolific paranormal authors out there – authors on the paranormal; I won’t call him paranormal himself. But we’re so glad to have him on the show to talk about this book and ghost-y things in general. By the time this airs, Halloween will be over; however, it’s always Halloween for us here at the Spooky Studio, and I assume that’s probably the same for Richard. We have people who come and say, “It’s Halloween time!” and they forget on November 1st, but we’re always in it.
Richard, I wanted to touch on something that really hit the nail on the head for me that you said: spooky sells are scary sells. I do a show called Campfire where people call in with their true stories or their reports of things that they say have happened to them. It could be ghosts, it could be things outside of the ghost-y area, UFOs, cryptids, whatever, but most of it is hauntings, those kinds of things. I think that show, while it’s very popular, suffers from honesty, and I’ll explain what I mean.
Certainly when I’m doing the shows – let’s say we have nine to ten stories every show. I will emphasize the scariest one because, again, that’s what gets people’s attention. But I would say a decent percentage of those stories, many of those stories are like, “Yeah, I’ve got a haunting, and it’s not bad at all.” I do think sometimes people scare themselves, but there’s a decent amount of positive stories on that show. I think it hurts the popularity of the show – even though it’s popular, it could be more popular if I just went, “Hey, make it more scary. We’re only going to put the scary stuff in.”
But I made the editorial decision when we started that show that I was going to take the stories as they come, whatever they come in, and I wasn’t going to edit them, I wasn’t going to change them; I was going to be true to the experiences. And I’m glad I did that.
RICHARD ESTEP: Yeah, I think that’s a great approach. I wrote a series of books called “Haunted Healthcare” about solo medical providers and patients who’ve experienced their own brushes with the paranormal, and my favorite story by far involved my friend Kyle, who was a young man who was dealing with terminal cancer, and the experiences he had during his treatment. So there are a number of very positive stories there.
When you talk to end-of-life care providers, palliative care nurses and physicians, many of them have some very uplifting, moving stories. But I also need people to actually read the book if they’re going to read those stories, so I’m guilty – and I will freely admit to it – of putting rather scary covers on my books. Because if you don’t, the book will languish, nobody will pick it up, and those wonderful experiences will not be shared and will be consigned to the Hades of Amazon’s lowest book chart.
JIM HAROLD: It’s true.
RICHARD ESTEP: Yeah, it is, unfortunately. I think the paranormal field is locked in this vicious cycle of the scarier something is, the more popular it is. So you will see certainly TV shows do this – naming no names, but it’s almost as if it’s a constant challenge to find the next scarier, even scarier thing. How many times do you see somebody say on social media or do you see an ad for a show where they’ll say something like, “This is the most intense, terrifying location we’ve ever investigated”… since last week. That’s implied, right? Every week is the scariest and the most intense and the most terrifying, and it doesn’t work that way. It really doesn’t.
So if the paranormal field – I wish we could have some kind of a reset. I wish we could have some method of saying, “There’s so much to this, more than the dark and the negative and the terrifying.” I mean, that stuff has its place, especially around Halloween.
JIM HAROLD: Right.
RICHARD ESTEP: And it does occur, especially around this time of year. People want those kind of scary stories. But there is a lot of positivity, a lot of uplifting and genuinely moving material that goes unseen and unappreciated because it isn’t scary.
JIM HAROLD: And maybe that’s why the TV networks haven’t called me, I don’t know. But that’s okay. I like doing my own thing and in my own way, so we’ll just keep doing it. But that’s so true, and to me, the supernatural is a continuum. It’s very much an extension of everyday life, and you see it in your work as a paramedic. You probably see some fantastic stories of people being kind and helping their fellow man and woman and doing everything they can when there’s a horrible situation – and then you also see the gunshot wound victim for someone who decided to rob somebody for $20.
And it’s the same way on the other side, I think. There’s good, and – some people don’t believe I this – I believe there’s evil. I think it’s a continuum on both sides. It’s not all spooky-scary and it’s not all awful.
RICHARD ESTEP: I agree with you. I do teach EMTs and paramedics in their initial training, and when somebody first gets into emergency medicine, thanks primarily to TV and Hollywood, there is this belief that you’ll be saving people, snatching them from the jaws of death on every shift. The reality is that paramedics spend I think 90% of the time training for 10% of the calls. Those high-acuity calls, somewhere between 6% and 10% of them really are life and death. The remaining 90% are things like you’re taking Grandma or Grandpa for dialysis and then back home.
Now, that’s no less important, but it’s just not glamorous. There are many shifts I work on an ambulance where the most important thing I achieve is I calmed somebody who was frightened. I held their hand, quite literally, and helped them understand, “Hey, it’s going to be okay. We’re going to take care of you.” That is every bit as important as pushing on somebody’s chest to try to bring them back, but it is not as recognized.
I think if you’re going to have a long career in medicine, you need to learn to appreciate the importance of those simple human gestures. And in the paranormal field, the longer we’re in this, I think we should do a better job of appreciating the bright spots, the joy, the positivity over the darkness and the negative.
JIM HAROLD: I agree. Now, back to the Skirrid Inn. When you go in the place – I had an experience; I was telling you I was in England last – not last year, 2019. It’s already been three years. I can’t believe it. I don’t know if it was the Boors Inn or something like that I went into. We went to several pubs. But this one, it was all stone, there was this huge fireplace right in the middle there, and it dated from, I don’t know, some ridiculous date like the 1400-1500s, 1300s. I was just amazed. Whatever it was, it was a long time ago.
I didn’t feel a haunting, but I just felt like – and we talked a little bit about it offline – I felt like I could feel the generations before. I could feel the people before. It was just so neat. I’m sitting here, having a beer at a place where some guy did the same thing several hundred years ago. It just blew my mind.
What was the sense of the Skirrid Inn? What were your feelings about it?
RICHARD ESTEP: It’s really important to remember, Jim, that in Britain certainly, for generations, for millennia, the local inn, the local public house, call it what you will, was the center of the community. This is where you gathered on a very regular basis. This is how you got your news from your neighbors. This is how you laughed and cried. This is where you went to wakes. This is where you celebrated babies being born. This is where you talked about rumors that there was a great war coming and you might get called to serve. The pub was the center of all British life.
To an extent, it remains so today, but thanks to COVID and current economic crisis, pubs are closing their days at a shocking rate. We’re losing more than a pub a day, permanently. So you very much hit the nail on the head when you had that sense that generations of men and women sat in the same place you did, enjoyed a drink or two of whatever their favorite choice was, and they just shared with their friends, neighbors, loved ones. I truly do believe that that almost wears a groove, if you will, on the place. It feels comfortable. It feels like you’re slipping into a routine that’s right and natural. Does that make any sense?
JIM HAROLD: Yeah, absolutely.
RICHARD ESTEP: It seems like every pub in Britain has to have two things: a dog and a ghost. It ought to be an ordinance that you need those two things to be a pub. [laughs] I think that every pub has a ghost story, and it is almost never a haunted pub because something terrible and tragic happened there. It’s usually the guy or lady that spent 40 years of their life quietly sipping a pint in the corner and just enjoying being there. It was the center of their world.
The Skirrid Inn, there is a graveyard and a church literally a stone’s throw next door. You go in there, and the name of that inn is on some of the gravestones. There was Francis Price, who worked at the Skirrid Inn. These people, it was the center of their world. And certainly back then, the vast majority of the English population lived and died within 30 miles of wherever it was they were born. I think you look at that tremendous weight of history, and it’s tangible. You can feel it when you go in and sit down and drink.
JIM HAROLD: Is there a case – I love these kinds of stories. Before, we talked about the prison with the choking and the strangling. No, we talked about here with the strangling and the choking. But is there something on the lighter side, the funny side? Maybe one or more mischievous ghosts you could tell us a little anecdote about?
RICHARD ESTEP: Very much so. One of the things that left me with a lot of egg on my face at the Skirrid Inn was that one of the resident spirits was a lady who lived in the area and worked at the inn. In fact, there was supposedly more than one. I had asked for the most active room, which was Room 1 at the top of the stairs. We would investigate through the night till the wee small hours and have a big English breakfast and then sleep the day away, get up in the late afternoon, and go do it all over again.
This one particular afternoon, I have the room all to myself; I’m the only resident. I get out of bed. There’s no shower, but there’s a bath, so I’m going to go clean up and get ready to start my day. I have no clothes on, not a stitch of clothing at all. To get to the bathroom, you actually have to go down the small private staircase. The bathroom is almost on the next floor down. I left my phone by the side of the bed.
I go downstairs to the bathroom, go to the sink, and I start the tap running because it takes a moment for the hot water to turn up. It literally takes a minute. And my phone starts ringing. Being someone that hates a ringing phone, I can’t leave it unanswered. I jump back upstairs and answer the call. It’s my insurance company from Colorado trying to sell me something. So I deal with that. It takes me all of 30 seconds to say, “No, thank you.” I hang up, I go back downstairs. The tap has been switched off.
Taps turning themselves on are a fairly common occurrence at the Skirrid Inn. Taps switching themselves off is a little bit harder to explain. You can always make the argument that you maybe left the tap partially open if it turns itself on. For a tap to actually turn itself off tightly – I’ve never heard of that happening before. So I looked around, as naked as the day that I’m born. There’s nobody there, and I thought, that’s decidedly strange. I continue washing up, move on.
That night, we are doing some work with a talking board. My friends, being the people they are, decide to try to figure out the identity of the person who had turned off the tap. If the board is to be believed, it was a young lady who had lived and died in the area and worked at the Skirrid Inn. Said that she was the one that turned off the tap. I just couldn’t help myself; I said, “Does that mean that you saw me naked?” And the planchette slid across the board to “Yes.” Now I’m crimson, because we were actually webcasting this session over the internet as well.
JIM HAROLD: Oh boy. [laughs]
RICHARD ESTEP: In for a penny, in for a pound, as we say in Britain, so I said, “Does this mean that I should keep my clothes on for the rest of the stay?” And the board spelled out my name; then it went to “F,” and then it went to “U,” and I’m burying my head in my hands like, we’re going to have to pull the stream here. I don’t like this. What’s this word going to be? And fortunately, it spelled out the word “FUNNY.” So apparently I look funny when I have no clothes on, or – I like to think she meant I’m funny when I’m making those kinds of references.
It was very embarrassing and very amusing, but best of all, for me, I don’t have a good non-paranormal explanation as for how that tap firmly switched itself off.
JIM HAROLD: That’s something else. And it’s nice when you can have your own story. That’s a nice thing.
RICHARD ESTEP: It is. I like to think it was a brush with a very friendly spirit.
JIM HAROLD: Well, great places, great discussion, great book. Everybody should check it out: Spirits Behind Bars: The Haunting of Shepton Mallet Prison and the Skirrid Inn. Richard, where can people find the book and all of your books and more information about everything you do? Because you’re so prolific, I might look up and you’ll have another book out.
RICHARD ESTEP: Absolutely. My next book is about the Revolutionary War and the haunting of Fort Mifflin. It’ll be out for Christmas.
JIM HAROLD: Cool.
RICHARD ESTEP: You can find me online at richardestep.net. You can find my books in brick-and-mortar bookstores or the ubiquitous online book retailers. And you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Patreon.
JIM HAROLD: Thank you for joining us today. It is always a pleasure, and I hope that everybody checks out Spirits Behind Bars. Thanks again, Richard.
RICHARD ESTEP: Thank you, Jim.
JIM HAROLD: Richard is always fantastic, and we’re so glad to have spent some time with him today. We’re very thankful, and we’re thankful for you. If you like what we do, please make sure that you follow on the podcast app of your choice. Also, if you could rate and review and share with a friend, that would be most appreciated too.
We’ll talk to you next time. Have a great week, everybody, and as always, stay safe and stay spooky. Bye-bye.
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