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ASSAP History: 'Investigations'
by Val Hope

History Index

Back in 1989 Michael Bentine, in his role as our first president, encouraged us in our approach to investigations and saw ASSAP’s role as developing new standards for guiding the assessment of the effects of paranormal phenomena on observers. ASSAP’s main educational efforts are concentrated on training investigators to deal with all sorts of spontaneous anomalous cases. Since 1997 we have awarded the Michael Bentine Memorial Shield in Michael’s memory, and current NIC Bill Eyre was the first recipient of this award.

Investigators network

The first national network for ASSAP investigators was established by Jenny Randles in 1982, with nine regional coordinators to cover the country. She emphasized the need for investigators to keep in touch with the coordinators in order to avoid duplication of effort. Even in those early days cases passed on from the centre formed the minority, with most contacts coming from media stories or word of mouth. The first meeting of the coordinators was held in June 1982, when they discussed a standard report format, an archive of reports and the procedure for accrediting investigators. Depending on how many managed to attend ASSAP events, accredited investigators in the early years were sometimes able to get together for a forum between the training session and the AGM. Over the years some of the coordinators dropped out, leaving us with gaps in the network. These days everything is administered centrally by the NIC and deputy NIC, but AIs are encouraged to seek out their own cases.

Training the investigators

Members wishing to carry out investigations on behalf of ASSAP are required to attend the investigators training course, usually held annually. This course was launched in 1989 with the aim of ensuring a common standard in interviewing, investigation and reporting, with respect and confidentiality for witnesses guaranteed. A video was made of the first London event, but the quality was too poor for it to be copied and sent out. And so the tutors, rather than cassette tapes, were sent to the regions instead, with the second course being held in Birmingham.

The training material has been refined between each event, with a changing mixture of presenters, talks, demonstrations and exercises. Venues eventually became more fixed, making it possible to combine the day with a training vigil during the night. After several years at Charlton House, London, in the 1990s, the trainers again began taking the course to the regions. Belgrave Hall, on Terry Hewitt’s local patch in Leicester, was a favourite for a while, but the availability of affordable alternative venues continued to be a problem.

Financing the event is not the only concern. The move away from Charlton House and Belgrave Hall meant that the trainers were less familiar with a site’s case history and often saw the premises for the first time on the training day itself. And that, as a number of trainees pointed out to us, was not how we were telling them to run an investigation. The training vigil at the two favoured venues had been presented to trainees as the culmination of an investigation; appropriate equipment was demonstrated and deployed by the trainers, and the discipline needed for a well-run vigil was instilled in the trainees. However, having to visit new sites meant that we could not control enough of the variables to make the training aspect the focus of the vigil.

With the increase in popularity of 'fright nights' and televised 'investigations' set up as entertainment, it also became difficult to keep our participants 'naive'. So many stories circulate in the media, telling participants what they can expect to see or hear at any given venue. The cost of hiring venues for properly run investigations shot up because of the popularity of commercial events. We could not accept having to charge our members huge sums for a night’s training, and it was therefore decided, with effect from 2006, to divorce the basic training day from the training vigil. Our first Member Events Officer, Caroline Pick, set up a trial programme of regular vigils at a number of known sites, so that this part of the training could be done at any time during the year. The timetable and venues were posted on the website and in ASSAP News. Starting in 2007, these events will form part of the formal training of AIs, and the arrangement will be monitored to see if it takes us closer to our original plan again.

Observation skills have been a major focus of training days. For years the presenters staged a stand-up row or incident, then asked the audience to note down details on the participants’ appearance. We also used the same exercise during presentations at the UnConvention for a while. ASSAP members were just as poor as the UnCon audience at estimating height, age, duration of an incident and the colour and style of clothes, and their responses could easily be influenced by carefully worded leading questions. In 1996 Phil Walton and Paul Rogers demonstrated at Charlton House that what you saw wasn’t always what you got - an exercise with a blowtorch and an apparently burnt hand revealed how little the audience understood about physics.

Talking of torches, these also proved a problem for an American participant one year. They were listed among the equipment to bring along for the vigil, and she was flabbergasted. OK, Charlton House is old, but why would we need flaming bundles of resinous sticks? It was just a question of trans-Atlantic terminology - one of her friends explained she should take along ... a flashlight. And then she turned up and saw the blowtorch demonstration and wondered if she’d been right all along!

Time constraints during the regular training day mean that the basic course can only touch on aspects such as making contact with witnesses, witness confidentiality, interview techniques, planning an investigation, dealing with the media and the use of equipment. These matters are dealt with in greater detail in the course notes, and the website is constantly being expanded with additional training materials. Occasional one-off case-study days have been organized for accredited investigators, giving them an opportunity to network and exchange experiences with other trained investigators. In 1993 and 1995 two such days were run at Conway Hall, London. AIs also have the opportunity to discuss burning issues and read up on investigative techniques in the pages of their dedicated Bulletin.

National Investigations Coordinators (NICs)

In the beginning our successive National Investigations Coordinators came from a BUFORA background: firstly Jenny Randles, then the late Ken Phillips, who took over in 1985, and then Michael Lewis from 1989. Ken’s enthusiasm ensured that there was always an apparent UFO hotspot wherever he lived, but he didn’t restrict himself to UFOs. For a while he worked with Austrian researcher Alex Keul on the anamnesis project, which devised a detailed questionnaire for witness interviews to uncover what aspects might make them liable to experience an anomaly. In addition to allocating cases to AIs, Michael Lewis spent his period in office writing regular articles on fascinating cases for ASSAP News, including the case of the exploding tumbler in 1994. Michael was a highly active investigator himself and was a hard act to follow. He was succeeded by a number of officers who did not stay for long, but the NIC role is now ably filled by Bill Eyre, with Cherill Penton as his deputy.

Cases

The types of investigations our members cover have varied over the years, and AIs have had to show some flexibility. We have been called in by local councils to help with suspected poltergeist cases in residential properties, and by shop owners whose customers were at risk of being speared by flying pencils. Electronic equipment has turned itself on and off, phone bills have mysteriously soared, objects have apported or vanished into thin air, and faces have appeared on screens when the TV was reportedly switched off. Over at Dover, one of the castle’s huge internal doors was caught on video being violently shaken by an unseen force. For a while the owners insisted on a pseudonym, so we had to refer to it as Westport Castle, but then they decided in favour of publicity.

Cases for investigation have always been hard to come by. Some are reported to the NIC, whether by witnesses or by police, local authority or church contacts, but most have tended to be tracked down by active AIs on the basis of media reports of strange disturbances. Not all that long ago the average person reporting a weird event in their house would have been publicity-shy, but now it seems as if everyone wants one. The media frenzy makes it difficult to get to the bottom of what has been going on, with many cases already complicated by multiple interviews, ‘ghosthunters’ who introduce mediums at a very early stage and participants’ apparent desire for five minutes of fame. The waters have often been muddied before we get a look in. Although there have been public admissions that TV programmes popularizing investigations are meant as pure entertainment, the many spurious accounts featured in the media will have been enough to confuse many tales of strange goings-on at potential venues.
© Valerie Hope 2007