Some years ago, when I still lived in London, I was sent on a short business trip to Wales. Just before leaving for the train station I opened up a browser window and typed in the hotel’s name for directions.
“Black Boy Inn haunted,” Google offered. “Black Boy Inn ghosts. Black Boy Inn most haunted places in britain.”
In addition to that name—yes, it’s a very weird one, and we’re going to get to that—the modest guest house was also known for being home to at least three distinct spirits: a nun who roamed the halls, a man who frequented the bar area, and a disembodied voice of a wailing child who calmed when called to. The ghosts manifested in a number of ways—mists, bangs, voices in empty rooms. One guest reported a choking feeling when alone on a hotel staircase.
I went to the hotel website. On a page marked “History,” after a long explanation of the hotel’s name and various owners since its 1522 founding, was this:
For those with an interest in archaeology, there is a continuous programme of archaeological digs being carried out within the town walls by the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust.
Another interesting feature of the Black Boy Inn is the reported presence of the ghost of a nun seen passing through the Inn to the nunnery, which at one time was at the rear of the Inn.
There is no definition of “interesting” in which an archaeological dig outranks a resident member of the undead. I took to Twitter for advice on how to proceed. A woman I did not know replied immediately to say that I should change hotels.
“It’s not like they didn’t know,” she wrote, with an authority suggesting experience in either hotel management or paranormal law. “They were banking on you not knowing. Yes it wasn’t in the brochure, reservation is VOID.”
My position on ghosts is as follows: I believe that many well-intentioned people have had sensory experiences they cannot account for, and that nearly all of these phenomena have explanations rooted in the physical world. I think “ghost” is a great catchall for any inexplicable thing a person sees while drunk, high, or near bodies of water at night. Also, I once spent a very enjoyable afternoon watching a Lifetime marathon of Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead, a now-defunct reality show about an expatriate British medium with asymmetrical haircuts who snuck up on pedestrians in Los Angeles to inform them their late mother was shopping beside them.
I did not change my hotel reservation. It was the most affordable place in town, for reasons now clear, and “because it might be haunted” did not seem a wise reason to lobby my employers for a larger travel budget.
It was probably more surprising that I hadn’t encountered this problem before. Britain is crazy haunted. King Henry VIII reportedly still trundles around Windsor Castle moaning about the ulcers on his legs. A ghost reputed to be Europe’s most violent poltergeist lives in an unassuming brick house in Yorkshire. The Black Boy Inn doesn’t even make most lists of the most haunted hotels in Wales. If all these reports are to be believed, the British Isles are a paranormal version of the Hotel California, where people check out all the time but never really leave.
On the appointed morning I took a train from London’s Euston to Chester and from Chester a train to Bangor, Wales. In Bangor I caught a bus to Caernarfon, got off near the 900-year-old stone walls, and went looking for the Black Boy Inn.
What’s in a name
About that name. It didn’t strike me as terribly odd when I booked. Half the pubs in Britain seem called the Green Man or the Swan’s Face or some other odd name that ends up being about either the Restoration or horses. The hotel’s website—the same one that tries to redirect visitors’ attention from strangling ghosts to archaeology—offers competing origin stories. It could be a reference to the navigational buoy that used to bob in the River Seiont in the inn’s early days, or to a nickname for Charles II dating from the inn’s days as a meeting point for Royalists during the Civil War, or to a dark-skinned youth who had once appeared in the port. Only when I got there did I realize which explanation the owners have settled on: The hotel’s logo is the face of a young black man.
Though tourists have complained about the name for close to a decade now, the landlord refuses to change it, a decision that has some local support. “They should never change it because it is part of the heritage of this town and I have drunk there for more than 30 years,” a Welsh newspaper quoted one local as saying in 2008, in a spectacularly unconvincing argument for keeping an offensive name.
I was looking at this logo while the receptionist swiped my card, talked about breakfast times and restaurant hours, and asked if I had any questions.
I did. Was this place haunted?
“Ummm,” she said. “I don’t know. Some people say they see things. It’s like, do you want it to be haunted, or not?”
The woman in Room 7
I left my bag at the front desk and went out with my notebook into a town of nearly 10,000 people. Caernarfon is a stronghold of the nationalist party Plaid Cymru (pronounced: “Plied Camry”) and I was supposed to be writing about Welsh nationalism. Mostly I kept asking everyone about ghosts.
“People do hear sounds—knocks, doors opening,” local historian Emrys Jones told me over a pint in the hotel bar. “There are quite a few ghosts in Caernarfon. You’re not in Room 7, are you?” Room 7, apparently, was home to a lady in a long, light blue dress. The nun, perhaps? A socially conscious ghost silently protesting the hotel name?
Jones was matter-of-fact about the hauntings at Black Boy Inn, more so than I wanted him to be. I wanted him to tell me outlandish tales of the supernatural with a winking grin, the way some older Brits do when putting on American tourists. But in his telling, the spirits were just another part of the neighborhood, as integral to its identity as the ancient walls and the peeling, abandoned storefronts in the center.
Those run-down buildings may also have been a source of their inhabitants’ creepy feelings. In her wonderfully entertaining investigation of the paranormal, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, journalist Mary Roach found that reports of strange sounds, sensations, and ghostly apparitions cluster in places with unusually high levels of electromagnetic fields, or EMF. Earthly problems like ungrounded wires and overloaded sockets can give rise to electromagnetic overloads that can cause strange, sensorial perceptions: visions, sounds, intense fear, a sense of being watched.
The faulty-wiring hypothesis would explain the prevalence of reported hauntings in Britain, a country that combines aging, outdated infrastructure with a decidedly relaxed approach to building maintenance. For months after leaving the UK, I continued to receive emails from the management company of my former London office building, where it appears structurally impossible for the internet, elevators, and plumbing to all be functioning at once.
But a person who suspects that a dead man haunts his local pub probably can’t be deterred by an explanation as mundane as a fuse box. To skeptics, EMF causes disruptions that our brains perceive as ghosts. To believers, ghosts give rise to EMF.
So why do we still believe?
Visitors from another time would likely be more terrified of our world than we are of them. Even in tiny Caernarfon, modern life has reached a level of convenience that borders on the magical. Walk into a room and lights turn on by themselves. Lift a key card to the hotel door, and a deadbolt snaps back as if pulled by an unseen hand.
The human brain is wired to discern patterns and narratives in random events, to perceive faces in abstract images, and we are easily primed. Telling guests that a hotel is haunted itself inspires more haunting reports. Roach notes that the peak of the British Victorians’ obsession with spiritualism, séances, and the otherworldly coincided with the widespread adoption of electricity.
“The generation that so readily embraced spiritualism,” she writes, “was the same generation that had been asked to accept such seeming witchery as electricity, telegraphy, radio waves, and telephonic communications—disembodied voices mysteriously traveling through space and emerging from a ‘receiver’ hundreds of miles distant. . . . Viewed in this context, the one unfathomable phenomenon must have seemed no more unbelievable than the other.”
Maybe the sheer depth of history in Britain incubates the ghosts in our imaginations. Maybe to some people, unseen beings are less frightening than the prospect that there is no world on the other side from which we might one day return to poke fun at the living. Maybe we feel less like temporary interlopers along the Roman roads leading to medieval walls encircling Regency-era high streets, if we can convince ourselves that we are just one of several lifetimes living concurrently alongside one another.
That night, a different clerk led me out of the inn’s thick-walled main building to a newer block of rooms in the back. Room 7 and its incorporeal occupant were in the older house. The lady in blue would have to cross a parking lot to get to me. This was comforting.
Business travel as usual
I would like to describe here a life-altering encounter with a messenger from another world. There wasn’t one. I got in bed, ate a Crunchie bar, watched a re-run of The Millionaire Matchmaker, and fell asleep. I returned to London without having seen a single ghost. I don’t think there were any, and if there were maybe they saw I was tired and decided to leave me alone.
A few days later, back in my apartment, I plugged my camera into a laptop and scrolled through photos I’d taken as visual notes in the thick-walled inn.
And there they were.
To the lay person, orbs are the blob-like spots on photographs caused by dust reflections on the camera lens, frequently a hallmark of amateur photographers. In the more credulous corners of the paranormal Internet, they are undeniable photographic evidence of ghosts.
Green orbs indicate the presence of a human spirit, a website with lots of pop-up ads informed me. The ones in my photos were a soft jade color. They hovered in a dark and narrow hallway, near a sign pointing to the reception desk. They hugged the wall, as if trying to let others pass, polite and slightly apologetic, even from the beyond.