The case of Abigail Grayson wasn’t the only strange occurrence to happen in my first month as a PhD student. I alluded to this incident in my last statement about Abigail the first night when she’d appeared outside the office wanting me to follow. Before I could reach the door Strother stopped me, a strange woman at his side. They’d both come from the other entrance to the building. It was after midnight, and I’d thought I was alone. I think his sudden appearance frightened me more than the ghosts had. If he thought it was strange to see me there at that time of night his facial expression never gave anything away. He said that he needed my assistance.
Following Strother through the building at nearly 1 in the morning was like a nightmare about purgatory. It was dark, gloomy, and I was still dazed from my encounter with Abigail’s ghost. It was also quite early in the morning, and believe it or not I didn’t make a habit of sleeping at the office. My head began to twinge with fatigue, and it was hard to concentrate when the woman Strother had appeared with started a conversation.
She apologised for the lateness of the hour, but said that Strother had been most insistent on getting her to come to the university. There was nothing special about her. That sounds meaner out loud. All I mean is that there were no giant tattoos, no visible scars, and no chakra bracelets. She had long brown hair that was braided into a loose plait, a heart shaped face, and round green eyes. That’s what I remember, at least. She didn’t look that much different from someone you’d get stuck behind in a supermarket queue doing the weekly shop. She introduced herself as Sandra Oakes, and then paused for a brief second, as if expecting me to recognise her. When I didn’t, she explained, with more than a hint of pride, that she was a medium by profession.
My relationship with self-proclaimed mediums has always been…fraught. You could say its snobbery, but in all my years none of the professional mediums and psychics I’ve ever met have been genuine. The more different you are, the more you pretend to be normal. That’s not to say I’ve never met anyone else like me, but I can count them on one hand. That’s my opinion now, but back then I didn’t have much life experience. I was sceptical of people like Sandra Oakes, but I was more hopeful that they would turn out to be genuine because it’d mean I wasn’t alone.
She began to tell me that she’d been conducting a late-night séance when Strother had approached her and asked her to join his study. They’d both come into the building so she could sign a consent form and book an appointment for when she would do a reading. Just after she had said her goodbyes to Strother she turned to me and said:
“It was nice to meet you, Miss McIlwraith.”
I know, it’s a very benign statement, but what made it weird was that neither I nor Strother had ever told her my surname. It was just a wee niggle, a tiny loose thread. But the thing about loose threads is that they have the potential to cause everything else to unravel. Her wee display had my curiosity piqued.
She came back a few days later for her reading. This wasn’t a reading in the traditional sense, as in someone sits across the table from her and she falls into a trance trying to communicate with the deceased. Oh no, this was science, and there were rules. I don’t remember it all, some of it was complicated, and don’t forget I wasn’t there as a psychologist.
Sandra came in at about 10 in the morning and was shown to one of the interview rooms we had. Strother showed her in and explained to her what was going to happen. The interview rooms all had two-way mirrors so you could observe whoever was inside. Exactly like the kind you see on police dramas. The novelty at being in such a room quickly wore off. It was dark, compact and incredibly stuffy when you spent more than half an hour inside. Strother had invited me to watch Sandra’s first sessions. In his words, I needed to know where the data came from to better understand it. I watched as he began to stick bits of plastic to her scalp, what he called nodes. This was an electroencephalogram or EEG. It was attached to a machine that recorded electrical activity in the brain.
I was struck at how Strother spoke to Sandra. To me, and the rest of our team, he was harsh, brusque to the point of condescending, but with her he was polite. He tempered his accent into what I can only call scientific English until the Yorkshire lilt disappeared completely. He was patient and answered all of her questions calmly. Whenever we asked him anything he’d usually answer, unhelpfully, with another question. When he was finished, he left her in the room and came to join me behind the two-way mirror. Just as he left a young man, in his mid to late twenties, entered. I’d never seen him before, but I just assumed he was one of the sitters. The man gave Sandra a first name, and that was it, he said nothing for the next 30 minutes.
Strother quietly explained to me that the man sitting in with her wasn’t a part of the study, he was a research assistant working for a different team in the department. The generally accepted way to test mediumship is to never have them meet the sitters. Because Strother and I had already met Sandra, we couldn’t meet the sitters who were having a reading with her. Ken and Steph had selected them from the pool of controls they’d recruited in the first few weeks of the study, and they hadn’t been allowed to meet Sandra.
When I asked why, he told me that it negates the results being down to cold reading, fishing, unconscious transfer of information, and even telepathy. You heard that right, telepathy. Because Sandra never met the controls, she couldn’t conduct a cold reading on them to discern information that could be related to the deceased person they wished to contact. Because Strother and I hadn’t met the controls it meant we couldn’t inadvertently let something slip to Sandra about them. The names she was given were the first names of the deceased that the controls had lost.
I can’t go into detail about the EEG. Analysing those were never part of my PhD. I saw them a few times during my time there, but I never understood what they meant. Lord knows what’s happened to them now. They’re not amongst the files I kept.
The entire session was recorded and later transcribed. Statements were extracted and given to the controls on whom Sandra had done the reading. They’d then have to rate how accurate she’d been, and how specific it was to their circumstances. The general theory about mediums was that they said general statements that had a high probability of meaning something to their client. It’s quite similar to the Barnum effect. This is a phenomenon usually connected with horoscopes or fortune tellers, where the practitioner claiming to have a paranormal gift says vague statements that their victim perceives to be about them, but are in fact so general as to be applicable to many others. Exactly like a weekly horoscope. Obviously, it’s a bit different with someone claiming to be a medium receiving messages from deceased loved ones, but the psychology behind them both is very similar. Most of it comes down to the victim placing meaning in vague statements out of a sense of desperation, and how ready they are to believe in the supernatural.
In the case of mediumship, phony mediumship anyway, any more specific statements tend to come from cold readings, which were impossible in the experiments we conducted. Whilst Sandra sat in one room, the controls sat in another at the opposite end of the corridor, listening to music, and supervised by Ken and Steph. They never crossed paths with Sandra.
She contributed a total of 4 readings to the study. There was a break between the first and second where she could relax, have a drink, and gather her thoughts. I was still behind the two-way glass, watching her the same way I would an animal at the zoo, when the glass of water she was drinking stopped halfway to her mouth. She looked directly at the mirror, straight at me, as though she knew I was there.
Your father, Robert, says he misses you very much, Sarah, she said.
I thought my heart was going to stop. It’s like the feeling you get when you’ve been caught watching a couple fight in public. She couldn’t have known I was there, yet there was such certainty in her gaze as it pierced through the glass.
I rarely spoke about my Dad back then. The wound was still raw, even after four years. He died from cancer when I was in my last year of school. I didn’t talk about it because I didn’t want to be the girl who’d lost her Dad so young. I didn’t want their pity. No one on the research team knew about my loss, so how did Sandra? I just added it to the growing number of questions I had about the medium.
Strother came back in just as the second proxy sitter entered and gave Sandra a name.
Don’t be rattled by what she said, he warned me.
I stared at him, confused. I hadn’t thought he’d heard her for a start, but how could he tell me not to be rattled? A woman I didn’t know was speaking about a Dad who she couldn’t possibly know I’d lost. I told him he wouldn’t be saying that if she’d been speaking to him. He paused a moment, pensive. He asked me if I believed she was genuine. I hesitated. If he’d asked me earlier that week it would have been a firm denial, but after my few encounters with Sandra I was torn. How had she known my surname? I didn’t have any ID on me at the time, and Strother had only addressed me by my first name, which is common as hell. How had she known my Dad was dead? I hadn’t told anyone, and it wasn’t something I went around talking about. She’d even known his name!
Alright, I was rattled, but you’d be too if you were there. Strother’s calm infuriated me as much as his superior attitude did. He told me not to feel too bad that I’d been duped by her since she was a professional con artist. In what would become the first of frequent outbursts, I demanded that he tell me how she knew so much of my personal information. He swivelled around in his chair and gauged me, like a pensioner does the weather when they want to put a wash on.
Figure it out, he said.
I don’t think you know how she did it either, I retorted like a petulant child.
It wasn’t my finest hour, I’ll admit, but everyone’s guilty of impatience. Strother wasn’t one for getting drawn into arguments that he didn’t start himself so we spent the rest of the session in silence.
It must’ve been about a week later when I was cleaning the data that I noticed the results. Everyone involved in the study was given a unique identifier so we wouldn’t know who the results were from when we looked at them. It’s a common practice used to prevent bias affecting the results. I wasn’t supposed to know which result came from Sandra, but it was obvious in the early stages when she was one of the few mediums we’d managed to recruit. She had received high scores for accuracy from the sitters when they’d rated her statements. They weren’t perfect, there was no 100%, but it was enough to surprise me. It occurred to me then that perhaps the way I saw ghosts wasn’t necessarily the only way. I still wanted Sandra to be genuine but I was grasping at straws. As I’ve mentioned before I’d never met anyone else like me, and when I was younger, at that strange age where you’re an adult but don’t feel like one, I was just looking for somewhere to belong. If Sandra could communicate with the dead like I could, then perhaps she could answer all of the questions I had. It’d also meant that Strother had been wrong.
A few days later I arrived at the university a little earlier than normal, so early the cleaners hadn’t finished. Not wishing to disturb them I took a different way to the office. At the bottom of the stairs was a board of staff members and students. There were neat rows of faces, variously frowning and smiling at the camera, names and qualifications on a small label beneath. I must’ve seen it dozens of times, but something caught my eye. Namely, the addition of my own face at the bottom beside the other students in the department. It hadn’t been there the last time I’d walked past. Then I began to think. These stairs were at the back of the building, where Strother and Sandra had come from that night. Could she have seen the board, and then simply matched my face to the name?
On my journey to the office my mind kept churning through the information. You can do a lot with a name. That’s why we’d only given Sandra the first name of the deceased she was supposed to contact. She had my full one. As soon as I logged into my computer, I searched for myself on Google. I kept my social media accounts private so it wouldn’t have been them, I hoped. I scrolled down the page, looking past the profiles of the handful of other Sarah McIlwraith’s in the world, when I came to an obituary archive from a newspaper. It was my Dad’s.
Had what she did in the interview room been a show, and I’d been dragged naively in? Were her words just a shot in the dark, intended to lure me into her lies? I remembered her results; accurate but not perfect. Perhaps there were different levels of clarity with the dead, or perhaps it was all or nothing. Sandra Oakes wouldn’t be the one to tell me because somehow I just knew, like Strother did, that she was a fake.
The disappointment was eclipsed by the realisation I’d have to apologise to Strother for what I’d said. If I was hoping to avoid him then my disappointment only increased when he came into the office an hour later looking for Steph. I told him I’d been wrong about Sandra and asked him if he’d known she was a fake from the beginning. He shrugged, a recurring habit throughout our time working together and said he hadn’t known, but recruitment had been slow and he’d seen an advertisement for her séance. I realised at his answer that unlike me, Strother went into these things assuming none of it existed. He had the luxury of relying on science, and his own experience. That was his faith, his God. It was sometimes strange talking to him, especially about the veracity of mediums, psychics, and other paranormal phenomena. He was so adamant that they didn’t exist, and yet there I was, standing next to him, seeing the things he wanted to disprove. It was always a strange concoction, and I wish I could tell you it got easier, but you know it didn’t.
I phoned Alice Strother a few days ago. Thankfully she remembered me from the funeral. We arranged for me to visit the house this morning so I could look through what he’d left about his work. What was meant to be a few hours of looking turned into an entire day buried in paperwork, laptops, and files. I had no idea he was involved in so many pieces of research.
I didn’t get through all of it, but did find the files on our study amongst the chaos. They didn’t tell me anything I hadn’t already found out. In all of the paperwork he had there was no mention of who funded out study. Alice came in and helped me with the password on his laptop. It certainly made me wish I was a better programmer. I asked her if she remembered anything he might’ve said regarding the study, even just in passing. She repeated that he refused to speak about it, then reluctantly she voiced her own theory. In her view there had been an important reason why Strother had stood back and watched his career burn, especially considering how important his work had been to him.
Alice left me to peruse the laptop after she heard her mother returning from her knitting club at the local church. I’ll give it to Strother, he was meticulous when it came to file organisation, everything was named and dated so there was no confusion or endlessly trying to translate what obscure file names meant. Despite all of that there was nothing of use on either of his laptops.
In a last ditch attempt to find something I began to look through his emails, even his personal account, which proved no more illuminating. Then it occurred to me that he may have met up with them. That’s how funding usually worked, regular updates and outputs to prove you haven’t just spent the money on an expensive coffee machine. There were meetings with the head of the psychology department, with all of us, with Ken and I, with Steph, slots blanked out for testing subjects. There was one thing that caught my eye.
Every week there was an appointment on a Wednesday at 1pm. What was conspicuous was that there was only a set of initials in the heading. Everything else used full names. I looked back 2 years and it was always there. What was better was that there was an address of a café that wasn’t far from the university. It was small, a tiny thread, but you know where I stand on threads.
They’re closed tomorrow but I’ll go at the weekend. I know it’s unlikely anyone who worked there 15 years ago will still be there, but I have to try.