The great thing about the late 1980’s was that everything was marketable – even the afterlife.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a magician like Doctor Strange, using spells from ancient tomes to prise open the locks of nature. But the 1980’s revealed that the true magicians were the accountants – their ancient grimoires were ledger books, the mystic incantations were Ponzi schemes. Instead of fracturing reality with a Steve Ditko special effect, the true sleight of hand was a leveraged buyout. In days gone by it took a fraudulent medium with cheesecloth and floating tambourines to relieve the credulous of their cash. By the 1980’s, all that was needed was an investment promoter with a video presentation and slick prospectus.

But it took my pal, Mickey Cavicci to bring the two together with Para-Psych Investigations. His electroplated tongue convinced investors that there was a hungry market out there waiting to be serviced. On the hamburger level of the supernatural was the equivalent of Pay Day loan customers, willing to enter into a financial commitment to satisfy a deep-rooted need. Moving up to the smaller, but more financially rewarding core of Berni Inn customers, were those who in later years would divert their disposable income to nailbars, Botox injections or cosmetic dental work. And then there was ultimate goal of some company or educational establishment willing to squander its resources on a search for the afterlife.

Considerable thought was put into our office. We ensure our doorway was not too intimidating for the Hamburger clientele, but not too ‘common’ for the Berni Inn crowd. Ceiling to floor curtains over the window – thin enough to let the light in, but opaque enough to create an aura of mystery and confidentiality. Subdued purple mood lighting in the corners, pre-fitted strip lights overhead. Contemporary desk and chairs on hire, and a state-of-the-art Amstrad word processor providing a reassuring note of modernity to offset the gothic photographs on the wall.

The business strategy was to aim for a 40% clear-up rate for the sake of credibility. Reassure both the clearly deluded Hamburger customer and the neurotic Berni Inn client as quickly as possible, getting them out of door on a cloud of conviviality so that they could go out and spread the word about our unbiased service as quickly as possible. It was a bit like seduction ; only the customers who knew what they were letting themselves in for would be strung out into a long-term relationship.

As far as “haunted houses” went, I soon found that it paid to sub-contract to an experience builder. Every building has a life-cycle. Or as J.E. Gordon put it, “All structures will be broken or destroyed in the end – just as all people will die in the end. It is the purpose of medicine and engineering to postpone these occurrences for a decent interval.”* Far too often the inhabitants give the building the equivalent of plastic surgery but neglect the structure. The ancient reproach and laments sensed by the dwellers of haunted houses were often the result of the decaying soul of the building. A quick survey by an experienced builder would often identify the source of the discontent.
* J.E.Gordon, Structures (Penguin 1978) page 324

I’ve laid this all out in pretty cold-blooded terms. You’re probably coming up with objections and there’s probably nothing I didn’t say to myself over the three years until the bubble burst. There were, and probably still are, a lot of people who want to believe there is something on the other side of the door. How far was I helping them? How far was I exploiting them? I some ways, I was no different from a bookie, responding to a need. But then the limit of a bookie’s interaction was taking money off people over a counter – I was having to interact with them on a deeper level, trying to read what they really wanted out of our service before deciding whether to consign them to the 40% clear up quota or string them out for longer. And, I forgot to mention that Mickey employed a team of telesales girls from his other activities to field any phone enquiries and promise them the universe.

The case that really sticks in my mind is one of the first. It ended up being part of the 40% clear-up cases, but that was nothing to do with me.
Mickey was excited because It looked like it might be the big one. A chemical plant up north was having trouble in one of its new labs. People were feeling disturbed and had even started seeing things. It had been low key so far, but the management wanted to clamp down while it was still summer. They didn’t want hysteria to spread into the dark winter afternoons.

I drove over with Bronco, our tame builder, the next Saturday. It was a dull overcast day, and although there were only maintenance shifts in the plant, there was still a constant howl of processes in the background. The important thing is that no-one was working in the pre-fabricated buildings that held the haunted lab, so we could do our checks in secret. We were met by the production manager who was clearly under orders to get this problem sorted, whatever he might have thought about our competence. “One thing you can be sure of. It’s nothing to do with chemicals from the plant. The lab windows are sealed and we’ve done belt-and-braces checks for that kind of thing.” Even so ,this was the 1980’s, so the health and safety induction went as far as the instruction to run in the same direction as everyone else if an alarm went off.

As Bronco ran his checks over the main structure of the lab, I applied my limited knowledge to the office section where most of the sightings had been reported. It was stuffy because the windows had to be sealed shut, and even with the primitive air conditioning going full blast, I became aware of a sense of oppression. As if I wasn’t alone.

Towards twelve, Bronco moved into the office area and after a couple of minutes I could tell he’d found something. With a look of sly satisfaction, he looked at his watch and said he was going to drive into town and fetch some fish and chips. I knew it was pointless trying to ask him what he’d found. He preferred to let me spend a good half-hour trying to guess the answer so that his expertise would be unchallenged when he whipped the silk scarf away to reveal the rabbit. I reminded Bronco that the production manager had said we could eat free at the staff canteen, but Bronco pointed out that if we did that we wouldn’t be able to claim the expenses back.

Even so, I was feeling both chilled and sweaty and still had the sense of being observed. I certainly didn’t fancy staying in the lab on my own, so as Bronco drove off, I stopped outside the prefabricated buildings to get a bit of what passed for fresh air. As I traced the yellow lines marking the “safe pavement”, I turned the corner and spotted something incongruous. Behind the metal pipelines and beneath a cooling tower, there was a small Victorian manor house. I couldn’t help stepping over the yellow lines, onto the pitted tarmac to get a closer look. It was an old house with no sign of life. The only sound was the drone of the factory. I got the feeling I was being watched, but couldn’t see any faces in the uncurtained windows.

Suddenly, I glanced behind me. There was a worker in overalls and hard hat, his eyes fixed on me. I was embarrassed to realise I’d been caught breaking the rules, walking in the process area, but he didn’t seem too bothered. I tried to excuse my breach by babbling on about how remarkable the sight of the building was.

He laughed and explained the “big house” was used as offices. It had once been the home of the local Earl. The story went that the post war Labour government had done a compulsory purchase on the surrounding land to build the much-needed chemical plant. Although others said the Earl’s family were absentee landlords down in London by then, and had squeezed a good price out of the company for the house. But if the government had expected the chemical firm to eradicate this last trace of the aristocracy, they had mis-judged the executives who thought the “big house” would make a fine setting for their offices. It had been that way for 30 or 40 years but now the management consultants eviscerating the company had decided it was better to flatten the house and use the space to expand production facilities. So now it just stood empty, condemned, awaiting the bulldozers.

When Bronco returned, he explained his theory over pie and chips. He put his spirit level against the wall of the office space. The bubble trembled slightly. There was some kind of vibration coming from the air conditioning. It was an effect that had first been noticed in the 1970’s – infrasound (or low frequency noise as I believe we have to call it today) – too low to hear, but generating feelings of unease and hallucinations.

It was likely the fan in the air conditioning unit had been thrown off its centre of gravity. A build up of dust could do it. Of course, it was just a theory. The scientific approach would be to test it with specialised equipment. And we knew Micky would want to spin this out into an exhaustive and expensive investigation. We met the production manager in the foyer. As we walked toward the door, I spotted a framed black and white photo of the “big house” under the pipelines.

Thinking to start laying the groundwork, I nodded to the photo and said, “Most people would expect the root of the problem to be in there.” The production manager pulled open the door, “Just as well we dropped it then.”

As we stepped out onto the yellow-lined pavement, I tried to process what he’d said. We turned the corner and I saw that he was right. There was nothing ahead except the pipelines, cooling towers, and a two-tone expanse of tarmac, darker and fresher in the distance where something had once stood.