Legend has it that the ghost of Lady Isabella Shaw wanders the corridors of Ballygally Castle in County Antrim searching for her lost child. The castle is now a hotel, and Halloween is peak time for visits by fun-loving sceptics and true believers alike – attracted by the tale of the distraught 17th century aristocrat. Soon after giving birth, Isabella’s evil husband is said to have snatched the baby and locked her in a room at the top of the castle tower – from where she mysteriously fell to her death.
Just how credible is this story? Ever the objective journalist, my mission to separate fact from fiction starts as I somewhat breathlessly ascend, stair upon stair, ever upwards to the turret’s aptly named ‘Ghost Room’, in the company of hotel general manager, Scott Weatherup. At the top there is an old wooden door bearing a modern health and safety sign – ‘Caution Mind the Step’. The door hangs open, tempting us to enter the room where Lady Isabella apparently spent her final days.
Inside, the small room is sparsely furnished with a simple bed and chair. Scott points to the window from where Isabella is variously said to have jumped, or been pushed.
But it isn’t the visual evidence which immediately grabs my attention: it is the incredibly cold temperature. Scott remarks: “On a hot summer’s day the rooms even below this, which have the exact same walls, are roasting, really really hot, humid and this room will be freezing. This room is never warm, never.”
Judith Stephens has lived next door to the castle for 35 years. She recalls visiting the tower with her mother Bella, whom she describes as psychic, on one memorable Halloween day: “As Bella approached the Ghost Room, she said ‘It’s getting colder, it’s getting really cold’, and as we walked into the room you could literally feel the temperature drop.”
Other ‘evidence’ of paranormal activity at Ballygally Castle are the many accounts, over the years, of unexplained noises. Judith says she’s been told by staff of guests complaining of the sound of the clinking of glasses and laughter coming from the hotel’s function room late at night: “So, the Night Porter, or whoever was on duty, has gone to investigate … he or she can hear the noise outside but as soon as they open the door, complete silence and there’s nobody in the room at all.”
The sounds of more than one ghost, then – keeping Lady Isabella Shaw company? “Some of the paranormal groups have said there are two or three (ghosts),” Scott tells me. “A couple of people have picked up the front door, so whether that’s somebody trying to come in or somebody going out or somebody guarding the door, who knows?”
He also informs me of unexplained goings on in the function room: “There’s been conferences in (there) where they’ve been sitting and their glasses are upside down when they’ve come back from lunch. Cutlery, when set for a wedding has been found crossed over… The doors have moved open when no one else has been in the room and even when the doors have been locked.”
Scott adds that guests staying in the older part of the building have talked of water glasses and hair dryers moving in the night. He says the hotel’s association with ghosts dictates guests’ choice of accommodation: some request the furthest bedroom away from the haunted tower; others want to be as near as possible to it. They include a growing number of paranormal groups who work throughout the night with ghost-detecting machines.
These groups, says Scott, detect orbs – unexplained, free-floating lights which they believe are evidence of ghosts. He adds that just two weeks ago a guest took a video in the middle of the night of orbs which the guest believed was a ghost: “They did show us on the phone – there was something definitely moving about – now whether you choose to believe that or not…who knows?”
Who knows indeed? As I leave Ballygally Castle, I ponder what my brief foray into the world of unexplained phenomena has revealed: Plenty of stories of low temperatures, widespread noises, orbs, and moving glasses, cutlery and hair dryers – but no clear proof of a ghostly cause. Nevertheless, one thing’s for certain: the entertainment value has been magnificent – particularly as it’s Halloween.