New Ghost Stories Q&A 2 | Interview & research tecnniques
Each New Ghost Story is created using hours of witness interviews and extensive background research.
In this second Q&A, I’m focusing on the work I do with subjects and how I fact check and scrutinise their accounts.
Why do you think people want to be interviewed for New Ghost Stories?
There’s no single reason, but often people just want to get things off their chest. Most of us are natural sharers. And with traumatic events, sharing is even more important; it’s part of the healing process. But if you’re afraid to tell anyone what happened, you’re denied that opportunity.
So there’s definitely a closure aspect. I think subjects like the idea of a confidential confession. They want their side of the story to get out somehow.
There’s also a small category who like the infamy and attention – they’re excited to get their story in a book and will want to boast to others. Although the confidentiality agreement stays in place regardless.
How do you decide which people to interview?
As I mentioned last time, there has to be a real story. There’s just not much to write about if someone has simply caught a glimpse of a ghostly figure.
If someone contacts me with something more expansive, I’ll ask them to write a summary of their experiences, around 300 words. I’ll also provide them with full details of what the whole process is going to entail – multiple interviews, producing corroborative evidence, and an investigation of their claims.
I mention the process because people are often put off by the amount of work required, so I often don’t hear back. Those who do return a summary, I’ll likely choose to interview.
Do you interview subjects in person?
I will try to meet people face to face; it helps build a rapport, which is essential if a subject finds the conversation difficult and needs reassurance. I also get to see their body language, which is invaluable in getting a sense of who they are and whether I can rely them.
Sometimes it’s not possible, but I won’t pursue a case without at least a phone or Skype call. Written accounts are useful – especially to check against – but I need to ask questions in real time so I can assess the responses.
How do you make sure subjects are telling the truth?
Because I get multiple verbal or written accounts from each subject, I’m able to compare notes and see if their story changes between each telling. I can then make further enquiries based on any discrepancies.
Small discrepancies are understandable, but larger diversions will sound alarm bells. Exaggeration is an obvious thing that’s called out by this process. If details become distorted, it’s clear the subject isn’t reliable. If the story isn’t consistent and I’m not able to confirm details through corroborating evidence, I’ll bring the case to a close.
How much research do you do yourself?
I want to stress-test the subject’s account. Ideally I’ll visit the locations where it took place, see if their account makes sense in terms of geography and the timeline of events - how long’s it take to get from A to B; can you see that location from this location, etc.
I’ll pretty much check any detail of their account that I can, that can include examining train timetables, bank transactions, weather reports... anything that will help me have more confidence in their statements.
Do you interview other witnesses?
Sometimes, but it can present challenges. Subjects typically don’t confide their experiences to others for obvious reasons. Sometimes more than one living person is involved, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll want to open up or talk to me.
There are conflicts and tragedy at the heart of many of these stories. In some cases people have been accused of crimes, in others they’ve confessed to crimes (Case 246 Prince of Foxes comes to mind). It’s contradictory on the one hand to offer confidentiality, yet on the other, put subjects at risk by stoking old conflicts and risking revealing damaging information.
I therefore only interview witnesses who the subject agrees it’s appropriate for me to contact. This does mean stories are biased towards one person’s perspective, but I’ve always been clear that each case is one person’s account only.
Couldn’t someone still get around your method and trick you?
It’s possible someone could go to the trouble of memorising a story, basing it around real locations and working out the logistics correctly. They could put together a fake paper trail of evidence and put on a really good performance when we speak. But that’d be a lot of work for little reward.
There’s no payment for stories and no credits offered. And there’s no guarantee I’ll publish the story anyway. Someone would have to be very determined. No doubt there’s a ‘debunker’ somewhere who’ll try one day. I shall looked forward to the challenge.
Do you publish any story you can’t find a hole in – even the outlandish ones?
For the most part, yes. If the subject takes it seriously and invests the time to go through the process, I will usually publish.
There are wild stories in the archive – Glass Eye and Master of Spiders stand out. But as I’ve said before, it matters less to me that the story itself is true, only that the subject honestly believes that it’s true.
Do you stay in touch with your interviewees?
I think most are sick of hearing from me by the end! This isn’t really intended to be an ongoing dialogue.
I let people read the story I’ve created from their accounts to see if they have any comments, and I’ll consider those before publishing. Mostly (but not always) we part on good terms afterwards.
That said, recently a couple of old cases have had new developments which I may follow up in future stories. So watch this space…