Previous weirdness at Thorpe Park: the Haunted Funfair, Part 2 – and the strange case of the Ideomotor Effect, Explanation that Never Was?

OK, it seems I have missed all this, till Dave Goulden mentioned it on Facebook, and I googled.  Thorpe Park was previously in the news with a paranormal story, in October 2009, just in time for Halloween – but if it was a publicity thing, it was an odd one. I have taken the story from The Sun‘s account, so let’s have a look at exactly what they had to say —

Ouija Believe It


Published: 15 Oct 2009

SPOOKED bosses at a theme park have suspended six members of staff and called in an exorcist after a late night seance on their top horror ride sparked a string of ghostly happenings.

Now at the time this was written SAW was I assume quite new. The date October 15th 2009 made this seem a very transparent publicity attempt.  I did not start blogging on Polterwotsit till March 2010, so I missed this one at the time.

The workers at Thorpe Parke carried out a Ouija board session on the horror themed rollercoaster SAW – The Ride after the opening night of their creepy Halloween themed “Fright Nights”. The group chose the park’s newest ride, which boasts gruesome features mimicking the sinister torture scenarios from the grisly film SAW, as the scariest place in the park to hold it.

There is nothing particularly unlikely about this scenario. I’m sure plenty of bored employees have done Ouija boards – though I do wonder, because you are not likely to do this during the day, access to the ride at night would presumably be controlled, and I would have thought very limited to technicians, cleaners and security – but would they really all manage to slink off and hold a Ouija board session on a ride. Maybe…

But bosses didn’t see the funny side when they heard staff had tried to communicate with the spirit world through a talking board which has been blamed for subsequent paranormal going-ons.

Well before we get side tracked in to a huge discussion of Ouija boards, I will note the strong belief among many that playing with them somehow opens up “doors to the other side”. “Do not call up that which ye can to put down” as Lovecraft wrote in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and evangelical Christians and many spiritualists alike seem to decry the dangers of messing with these things – be it “demons” or “lower astral entities”, it is generally agreed that they are “messengers of deception”.  My sceptic friends generally don’t like Ouija boards either – seeing them as banal children’s games, and at best a waste of money. Still there must be some people who like them, and I guess one day I will have to think through how they are supposed to work, and overcome my utter distaste for them.  I may as well talk about it now I guess…

The first question is how is a Ouija board works.  (I assume it is capitalised as a proper noun – the inventor is said to have taken the French “oui” and German “ja” to create the name, and the boards have long been popularly marketed as toys, despite their spooky connotations – it is currently still subject to a trademark by Parker Bros. If you don’t know the history, the Wikipedia article is excellent. So how does it work? well as any sceptic will tell you – by ideomotor effect. This sounds dead scientific and impressive, till you learn it is an astonishing example of circular reasoning and sceptics promoting utter bullshit by either ignorance or deliberate sense of mischief.  Why do I say this? Because the term was devised as a term for the unconscious muscular actions said to explain the motion of a Ouija board. When we mention the ideomotor effect we are not putting forward some established principle found in every physiology book, but a term that simply describes the phenomena. 🙂 In short, I can find little in the way of a scientific literature on the ideomotor effect: everyone knows it is real and important, apart from it seems people who actually study the nervous system?

Now maybe it is in some way linked to mirror neurons, or similar. However an immense red flag is raised for me by the fact that while Faraday, a great chemist and physicist wrote a lot on how this explained table tipping back in the 1850’s, I can find bugger all modern evidence outside of sceptics sites. I suspect the ideomotor effect, invoked to explain dowsing, Ouija and table tipping is a great sceptical myth – just speculation, but very few people are ever ready to question received sceptical wisdom, because debunks make us feel we have answers?

Still, certainly we know we have an unconscious part of the nervous system — the autonomic nervous system. However as I recall these systems connect to the spine, not the brain. We probably need something more like a reflex reaction like catching a dropped tea cup, which I’m guessing involves the CNS? Well I know too little to speculate: what I do know is that you can demonstrate some kind of unconscious muscular action like the “ideomotor” effect by getting people to hold a pendulum on a thread, and then telling them which way it will rotate.  Usually with a room full of people most people will find the pendulum moving correctly — I assume this is down to some kind of subliminal twitching, but actually I can’t even prove that. So go on chaps, find a mechanism for the effect, it must be there.

Anyway, the idea that the sitters unconsciously push the glass seems pretty uncontroversial, even if not as straightforward as it initially sounds. (Building a table with pressure pads and a pc that models applied forces in real time would not be too hard I guess?) So I’m happy to call it the “ideomotor effect” for now, but I really want to know more about the physiology underlying it, and have some kind of proposed mechanism before invoking the term that sounds clever but is really just “you are unconsciously pushing the glass” in fancy language. How do I know the glass is moved by the sitters, not spirits?  Well I don’t, but the fact that the glass needs people to touch it to move  makes me think it is moving because of the people.

Now no one is really denying this; that’s what the word “medium” means, a means of transmission, is it not? (Though it was used in the Spiritualist sense before it’s modern sense – the term “broadcast medium” for example is I believe an analogy drawn form the spirit mediums, not vice versa?) So I guess in theory the mediums, or sitter’s brains pick up the messages, and then as everyone agrees (even if I think we have to describe the physiological mechanism yet and stop hiding behind pseudo-scientific terms) said sitters unconsciously push the glass or planchette or whatever.

So now we have stopped worrying about how the glass moves: it moves because of impulses unconsciously generated by the group of people with fingers on it, according to both sceptics and believers. They are pushing the glass, whether they realise it or not; but that fact does not reduce the “paranormality” of the phenomena. What is important is not the board, not the glass, but the content of the message delivered. It does not matter if my postman chain smokes, beats his wife and drinks like a fish if all I am interested in is the content of the letter from the company I have applied to a job for.

If the message delivered is nonsense, then we can disregard the whole phenomena, unless we are interested like Breton and some early Surrealists in exploring our “unconscious minds”. (The problems with that term can wait for another article).  If however the content of the message was correct, verifiable, and unknown to any person present at that time, and demonstrably so, that is a veridical communication, we might well have strong evidence for some kind of paranormality. If such communications exist I would still not take advice form an invisible entity communicating through a piece of wood, and I don’t think my distaste for Ouija boards would lessen,  but I would accept the evidence for paranormality.

In fact my real reason for disliking and avoiding Ouija boards is because they seem to upset, scare and cause issues for some people, and I have no wish to harm anyone. The danger about writing about them is that people often think “hey i’ll go try that” – please don’t. Even if they are utter nonsense, many impressionable people have badly upset themselves by the myths surrounding them, and ended up scared and upset. We have contemporary cinema to do that 🙂

Oh yes, Thorpe Park…

A Thorpe Park insider said: “Guests started to report an extreme drop in temperature when they walked into the ride building where the seance was held and others unusual happenings.

I’m guessing it’s dark, and possibly air conditioned. maybe the ride pushes air round. I don’t know if we need a spooky reason for this?

“Lights started to go on and off with no explanation and the special effects would start up even after being switched off and there were reports of footsteps with nobody there.

The ride was new, and I guess there could be parts of the ride where lights and sounds were triggered by motion sensors, and other perfectly sensible explanations doubtless abound. Footsteps can be all kinds of things, but I won’t speculate as I have not seen the ride.

“Doors could be heard banging and it was then news of the Ouija board session came out and the members of staff responsible have been spoken to and suspended from work.”

Doors banging hardly constitutes proof of occult activity likely to impress an Employment Tribunal, and i wonder what possible grounds one can suspend workers for here? Do their contracts forbid necromancy?

Thorpe Park in Surrey has now called in Rev Lionel Fanthorpe, the UK’s leading authority on the unexplained, who is currently examining the ride for evidence of paranormal activity. He says if he finds any signs of spirits “crossing over from the other side” he will carry out an exorcism. Rev Fanthorpe said: “Many people believe that the Ouija board is just a game but its power should never be underestimated as it may be a very dangerous tool if not used properly.”

I must admit, while I have a great respect for the Reverend, my mind boggled at the idea of how to use a Ouija board improperly – perhaps to spank goats in leather underwear or something?  Equally I struggled to think of a proper use, I think one could serve cheese on it, or use it to level up a wonky table?  Still I agree in spirit.

“It opens a gateway to another dimension and when people who are not experienced spiritualists play with Ouija boards, mischievous entities can get through as may have happened here.”

Experienced spiritualists are immune? I know have a vision of a Ouija board playing the Prodigy at me – “I’ll take your brain to another dimension”

“If there is something causing fear and bewilderment at Thorpe Park then I will take care of it and if deemed necessary I will carry out an exorcism to remove any mishievous spirits”. The source added: “It was a pretty strange sight to see a priest walking around Saw – The Ride holding a bible in one hand and a crucifix in the other – he looked like a part of the attraction!”

A Thorpe Park spokesman said: “On the evening of Monday October 12 an unauthorised Ouija Board session was conducted by six employees at SAW – The Ride after we closed to the public. We take staff and guest feedback very seriously and for this reason we called in Rev Lionel Fanthorpe, a leading paranormal expert, to help us investigate reports that have arisen from this situation.

“The ride has not been closed down and the Halloween Fright Nights are continuing as normal.”

Saw – The Ride cost £13.5million and opened in March this year and is a custom Euro-Fighter roller coaster that takes riders round a horror themed track at speeds of 55mph experiencing nearly 5g forces.

So this morning I thought there may be something to the story of the monk; today, I see that this story clearly just in time for Halloween 2009 seems to have no direct connection, but, um…  I will await further developments.

And have now added a third part here.

cj x


Filed under Poltergeist Cases

3 responses to “Previous weirdness at Thorpe Park: the Haunted Funfair, Part 2 – and the strange case of the Ideomotor Effect, Explanation that Never Was?

  1. JG

    Regarding ouija: I’ve never done it but I’ve heard that if you blindfold people using a ouija board and then move the letters around, you always get nonsense messages.

    • baldrick69

      Yes, the blindfold ouija experiment is usually enough to have to a spiritualist squirming for an answer.

      It also seems to be a contradiction that you need a physical hand to move the glass, yet spiritualists seem keen to attribute the movement of inanimate objects to spirits without the assistance of a physical hand.

  2. baldrick69

    You’re right cj, you can’t call it the ideomotor effect, it’s too much of a deliberate movement. I prefer to call it collaborative wishful thinking.

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