I'm Looking Through You
March 4, 2012 11:02 AM   Subscribe

I have been asked to respond to an alleged poltergeist in a school. I have been directed to not be dismissive of it.

After a hard week dealing with a bunch of other safety and environmental issues, I received this Friday afternoon email, which in part, read as follows:

I know this is going to sound crazy, but how do we go about requesting an evaluation for a number of Poltergeist sightings in [school name redacted]'s kitchen? Both food service staff and the custodian have reported multiple run ins with her over the past few years. Recently, the kitchen coordinator has reported that there has been things propped against the dry storage door blocking it shut, items thrown off shelves, and just today a produce tub was pushed off the serving counter and onto the floor. I know the staff was entertained by it in the beginning, but they are worried that something may get knocked down and become a safety concern.

Any advice or suggests would be helpful.

Also, one of the staff apparently saw a woman, with ringlets in her hair, red lipstick, and sort of a 20's style flapper dress in the cafeteria. When she rounded a corner to go in there, this person/apparition was gone. This school has been there for a long time, and I have never heard of anything like this at this school. (There was an apparent teenage ghost in a high school here, resulting from an early-sixties fatality there.)

In my job, I deal with safety and environmental stuff, including all of the regulatory compliance, but I tend to get called in when people are at a loss to figure out what the hell to do with this or that issue. Oh, and I oversee all of the pest control in my organization :-).

I took this to my immediate boss, and he directed me to use the utmost discretion and sensitivity.

So, tomorrow, I will talk to the people who have actually reported seeing this whatever. If their accounts match the email, then I am unsure what to do next. I have considered putting up a few hidden cameras (I would have to get the buy-off from the union, HR, God and Everybody for that) in order to see if anyone is pranking.

While I also considered sleeping there for a night, my level of being completely creeped out by this conflicts with my general non-belief in most things paranormal. I cannot see any endpoint other than to take down the accounts, and shrug my shoulders.

In my position, what would you do?
posted by Danf to Science & Nature (43 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe instead of hidden cameras, just put up cameras that everyone knows about. Then see if the "haunting" stops when the cameras are in place.
posted by amro at 11:08 AM on March 4, 2012 [22 favorites]

I'm of the same mind as you. I'm pretty rational, but it is kinda creepy.

I think you should really focus on the people who are reporting it, and be gentle. Take their statements earnestly, and ask them to be as specific as possible about what happened. Then ask them what they think you can do about it.

Go through and secure what you can. I'm sure loose stuff is a bad thing from a mortal safety perspective as well. Try to incorporate their suggestions into it.

Ceremony can play into it too. To get a local holy/spiritual person to come in and put the place to peace or explain what's going on might be a more valuable investment than any cameras might ever be.
posted by Mercaptan at 11:14 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you can swing it, definitely cameras in places where 'sightings' have been made, then you'll either verify that kids are playing pranks on the staff or have some really valuable footage ;) .

But leaving scepticism aside here, realistically what do they expect you to do about a ghost or poltergeist? If they are convinced that there is paranormal activity going on then, other than alerting the media, your only real choice is to source a priest or medium to perform an exorcism. I'd also advise keeping it quiet if that's the route you go down, if it is just kids playing pranks, hearing about an exorcism is only going to fuel rumours and encourage the pranksters.
posted by missmagenta at 11:18 AM on March 4, 2012

Acknowledge their experience, ask probing questions, and if it all lines up with what you've heard so far and there are still concerns... then form a committee. Seriously, this is exactly what they are for. Get everyone with supernatural concerns together and then do your damndest to make the whole topic as boring as humanly possible.

Ghosts spread because they are interesting to talk about, remove that and you've removed the problem.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:19 AM on March 4, 2012 [34 favorites]

FWIW, my guess is that the prankster who is knocking things over is the same person who saw the flapper. Some people just love to create drama; or perhaps this person told a stupid story and people believed it and now they feel like they have to keep things going so as to not let people down or something. Who knows. I'd think threat of cameras and/or some other form of surveillance should do the trick. But I'm not sure whether it's preferable to discuss the cameras with the staff (thus preventing them from dicking around) or not to discuss it (thus catching the perp in the act of knocking shit over, etc.).
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:22 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe instead of hidden cameras, just put up cameras that everyone knows about.

I agree. Think about it this way. There are two types of building alarms: Loud, high-pitched sirens, or silent alerts to law enforcement. When deciding between them, one criterion is to consider whether the building owner's priority is to stop the crime or to catch the criminals. The same thinking applies to your situation. Is your goal to solve the mystery, or to stop the ruckus?

If money is an issue, maybe you can bluff. Some establishments install fake cameras. Others just put up signs advertising a security system or cameras where there are none. And it sounds like your tactic may only need to be temporary.
posted by cribcage at 11:40 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates likely has it, this probably has a single source and your flapper witness is probably it. I don't think cameras would work as an effective deterrent, they could always be worked around, but hidden cameras would be so much worse. You don't really want to accuse anyone of anything, much less actually be proven right by catching them at whatever, do you? Imagine the gigantic pain in the ass that would be.

Defuse this by gently stabbing it in its interesting heart. Make a form, make it unnecessarily hard to fill out, give it an obtuse name, and make sure everyone involved knows they will never be read by anyone. This way you can even show your boss documentation of everything if it is ever needed. On second thought a committee of interested parties could backfire by providing a platform, if you do this make sure it is instead stacked with people who will be bored out of their minds.

Don't dismiss the experience, that will just produce hurt feelings and headaches, but do dismiss the importance. (If the events get scarier, and thus needing to be more important to you, then you know you have someone who is too unbalanced to be around children anyway and is worth the effort involved in removing)

Be creative, feel the power of the dark side, and crush the fun.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:41 AM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: We have the technology to put up cameras which will not be detected, and to monitor them. We do it outside frequently and catch a lot of vandals and wanna-be arsonists. It is the HR ramifications which are most vexing, with hidden cameras. But it is very easy for us to do.
posted by Danf at 11:51 AM on March 4, 2012

Look, not to be dismissive that this could be a prank, because it very well could be, when I was in art school we had similar goings on in our very old, historic women's dorm.

Do your due diligence in investigating then find a pastor or priest to come say some prayers if you don't come up with anything concrete. At the very least if this is just overactive imaginations going on it will comfort them, and if there is something paranormal going on, that should fix it, in my experience.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:04 PM on March 4, 2012

It seems to me cameras wouldn't help much. If it's pranksters, they'll presumably take it as validation and shift the pranking to unmonitored areas. If it's a sincere belief, well, poltergeists that don't show up on camera aren't much more of a stretch than poltergeists in the first place.

If you decide to have some sort of putting-ghosts-to-rest ceremony or ritual, there have been a number of AskMes along the lines of "I don't believe in ghosts, but I think my house is haunted" which elicited what I thought were good suggestions for getting people to feel more comfortable in a space.
posted by hattifattener at 12:08 PM on March 4, 2012

IANYL but it strikes me as a terrible idea to respond to a real health and safety concern with any notion it might have a supernatural cause. Someone gets injured and his lawyer, your workers comp and general liability insurers, and the government's workplace safety authorities will be merciless -- as well they should.
posted by MattD at 12:16 PM on March 4, 2012 [19 favorites]

Bringing in a priest or having some kind of ceremony should be a last resort. Firstly because it could backfire- you're an official, if you validate the 'ghost' by trying to have it exorcised then that will cement its existence in some kids minds.

And "Occupational Health and Safety Officer hires priest to perform exorcism in school" would be just the ticket on a slow news day.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 12:16 PM on March 4, 2012 [13 favorites]

Why not just do a ritual of some kind to banish the poltergeist? It's amazing how big an effect such a gesture (even if you see it as an empty one) can have on people's minds.
posted by hermitosis at 12:17 PM on March 4, 2012

Why not just do a ritual of some kind to banish the poltergeist?

I think the reason why not to do that is because, as MattD states, if you do a poltergeist removal ritual on Wednesday and on Thursday some jackanapes places a can of tomato sauce on the edge of a shelf and on Friday that can falls onto someone's head and causes a concussion then you have a problem and "well hey, we TRIED to get rid of the ghost like they do in the movies!" isn't going to help you much.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 12:24 PM on March 4, 2012

This is happening in a school? With school kids around?

I'd suggest making a big fuss about putting cameras up, making them nice and visible with lots of "CCTV in operation" signs around. It looks like you're doing something to your boss, and it also shows the "poltergeist" that it/they are going to get into trouble if they keep up with this kind of thing.

Also, try to find out when this poltergeist appeared. Was it soon after a new member of staff was taken on, by any chance?
posted by Solomon at 12:26 PM on March 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Make sure they write down everything they claim they saw - with dates, times, what they were doing that day, etc. Don't just do vague informational interviews. This is the part you need to take most seriously, because it's your best source of "real" information. For all you know, someone may out the person behind it all this way. Never underestimate how much someone can get away with when people think they have to stand up in a group setting to reveal that it's going on.

I am in favor of the "yo, people, check out the giant cameras now watching you" thing (versus secret recording,) mostly because there are other things you might end up catching, that aren't health-and-safety related, which will make your life harder than it needs to be (plus, there is trust you will never, ever get back if people discover they've been monitored without their knowledge.)

All HR, union, safety, and health concerns are 100% addressed by the "we told them we were putting up cameras and they stopped doing the Thing" scenario.

It might also help to have a staff meeting where you outline all the stuff you're doing - the interviews, maybe a survey of the staff (divided up by shift worked,) the cameras, etc. - and ask for feedback or additional suggestions. Come to the meeting having already done stuff, though - don't ask them to solve the problem, ask them if they have more ideas at this point. Hopefully, by the time you hold this meeting, no sightings/incidents will have taken place for a week or so, and people will be saying things like "could you take down the cameras" and "I really don't think we need another meeting like this."
posted by SMPA at 12:47 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Either visible cameras that cause the sightings to stop or hidden cameras that cause the prankster to be arrested in a visible manner (back-pranking!) both seem like decent ideas.

Also: "The bigger the lie, the more they want to believe" --Bunk
posted by rhizome at 1:19 PM on March 4, 2012

Do the cameras. Recall that you in your position are there to primarily help keep conditions safe vs. looking for someone to capture or deal with.

Looking for someone committing offenses requires they occur after the countermeasure is in place. Something a potential offender does not notice, mousetrap, hidden camera, silent security systems. Catch or record the offense that occurs is the main idea.

Looking to help keep conditions safe requires the countermeasure discourage the offending act from occurring. This is a concept from the idea behind the Panopticon. It is likely with this approach and very visible cameras the scenario SMPA describes could play out. Though there are criticisms of the concept via the lack of effectiveness of CCTV security systems, that is more an issue of the lack of proper usage of the system, vs. ineffectiveness of the concept.

Have fun. :)
posted by Bodrik at 1:22 PM on March 4, 2012

Where is the cafeteria/food prep area. At the school I work at the lithe. Shares a wall with the gym and the gym storage room. Stuff gets knocked around all the time simply from a day's worth of kids slamming equipment into the walls. Also, one of my immediate thoughts is that perhaps there is a poor lock on a door or window that allows kids to get in.
posted by Nightman at 1:41 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Non-hidden cameras will solve the problem without creating additional HR problems. The prankster will stop and everything will go back to normal. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, as they say.

Under no circumstances should you enlist the help of clergy. It's not just a PR disaster in the making, it's insensitive to people of other spiritual traditions and no spiritual tradition. You can't get an ecumenical enough clergy team together to represent all the belief communities represented in the school population, and of course the atheist and agnostic communities would be by definition not represented. So that is divisive.

One of the things people who believe in ghosts and apparitions give as a reason for why no video footage of same exists is that these entities are offended or devitalized by electronic monitoring. Out-in-the-open video cameras are deterrents to pranksters. Thus, the non-hidden cameras solve both problems at once (although only one problem is real).
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:44 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the openly displayed cameras are a better idea than hidden cameras for two reasons: one, it seems to be more important to end the shenanigans than to find a culprit; and two, the visible cameras are part of the PR message that you're taking steps to address the issue.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:46 PM on March 4, 2012

1. If I was a supernatural being that wanted to freak out a bunch of food service workers, I would do freaky supernatural things that were unmistakable for the work of a disgruntled food service worker. Leaning stuff against a door? Chucking stuff on the floor? Silly humans.

2. "Poltergeists" are like nonspecific stomach pains. They happen when people are unhappy and wish to be heard, yet fear they won't be seen as important enough to listen to.

3. You only need HR approval if your cameras are going to be real and hidden.

I think if you genuinely want to solve your boss's problem, you will go in there and talk to everyone, and find out who's happy and who's unhappy, and who gets along, and who doesn't like the shifts they're getting. Listen to everybody, and follow up on the things they say. Let them suggest solutions if they tell you about problems among the staff. You don't need to buy into any of the drama, just listen respectfully to everyone. It counts as pest control AND health and safety.
posted by Sallyfur at 1:50 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

See, the problem is that it is impossible to take that "alleged" adjective off the term "alleged poltergeist", you're never going to get to "real poltergeist" (which is the point at which the problem could be solved).

You can put up all the cameras you want, but unless you put up enough that there are NO blind spots, I guarantee that it is within those blinds spots that the next sighting will be.

I would ask for detailed written reports of all past and future "sightings", make the expectations very onerous in terms of the level of detail, ask that they be typed and signed.

You don't need to get rid of a poltergeist, you need to make it uncomfortable for the story tellers to lie.
posted by HuronBob at 2:07 PM on March 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

I think HuronBob makes a good point. There are two things happening: a) someone is moving shit around either out of laziness or as a prank, and b) people are imagining they are seeing a ghost.

Agree that requiring the preparation of very boring "sighting reports" will probably address b). The cameras are more for a), with some slight impact on b).
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:12 PM on March 4, 2012

And also seconding Sallyfur's point that the poltergeist sightings are likely to be a form of cathexis for some other anxiety or concern the staff members are having. So having a meeting or series of meetings to talk about staff concerns in general may also alleviate that stress.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:14 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

HuronBob has the right idea. I recommend calling them "Tentative Poltergeist Sighting" reports, and requiring cover sheets.
posted by nicwolff at 2:27 PM on March 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

This is the time to deploy the full force and majesty of the bureaucratic machine. Do you have standard forms that have to be filled out every time there's an accident, or to report unsafe working conditions, or harassment, or any of that OSHA and HR stuff? Bust 'em out (or crib some from a colleague in another school district and make them a new part of your system). I wouldn't do anything special for ghosts, just use the normal forms for accidents, hazardous conditions, etc.

These reports should require detailed descriptions of the incident/situation, and a signature and date. A copy goes into the employee's file, of course. Don't want to sign their name to a report? Sorry, can't take any action without the official paperwork on file. Regulations, y'know.

Obvious cameras will help, but the paperwork will take the fun out of pranking and de-glamorize the "ooh, supernatural!" events.

Just for fun, read some of (MeFi's own!) Charlie Stross's "Laundry" series, for tales of a harried civil servant whose does IT tech support and defends the world from occult horrors. All in a day's work.
posted by Quietgal at 2:55 PM on March 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the cameras, visible or not, are the best solution. if it's a prankster, it'll catch them (or some "ectoplasm" will show up on your tapes, which is very easy to fake. Not that there's real ectoplasm.), but the problem is that once there's the idea that there's a ghost, suddenly every propped broom that slides into a door handle and tub of greens put on a wet surface are the work of poltergeists. Human stupidity, I have no cure for.
posted by cmoj at 2:59 PM on March 4, 2012

Don't get a priest (or other religious official) to deal with it unless it's a Catholic (or whatever religious affiliation) school. That just seems like it would be many kinds of wrong.

The stuff propped against the door sounds like a person did it, and the apparition sounds like someone is either messing with you or disturbed. BUT things falling off shelves, etc. could be happening for a real reason, right? Like something is shaking the building, or wind is blowing through, or the floor isn't quite even? I suppose if nothing like that has ever happened before, and no changes have been made, then that's unlikely. But my first thought was to bring in one of those groups/individuals who investigate "paranormal" stuff but are actually pretty skeptical and try to rule out all the ghosty possibilities in favor of physical evidence like how the building is constructed, etc.* The people who think there's a poltergeist will get attention & feel comforted, there will be some "official" statement that there's no poltergeist, and if there's an obvious (real) safety problem with the kitchen or staff, it will be likely be discovered.

*These exist, right? I can swear I've seen them on TV.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:07 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a cheaper way to do surveillance of the workplace, and that's a policy of loudly announcing you will be doing random inspections, and then actually do a few.

"Tomorrow, at a random time between the hours of X and Y, I will personally inspect the items on this checklist. If anything is amiss, here are the consequences."

Do a few of these with real results and shazam, no more ghosts.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:17 PM on March 4, 2012

DestinationUnknown makes a good point. Since real hazards and safety are in your job description, I would inspect the dickens out of the kitchen to find any and all possible real safety conditions that you could have corrected. [You wouldn't want to ignore real hazards (spending your time on the poltergeist) and have an employee killed by a gallon can of tomatoes falling off a wobbly shelf, would you? Not good for the career, eh?]
posted by exphysicist345 at 3:29 PM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Depends how official you are in the hierarchy. The more official you are, the less leeway you have for unorthodox solutions.

Psychological tips:
Increase the lighting (extra wattage, change flickery fluorescents),
get an extra cleaning of the kitchen done,
change the normal cleaning products used, so that the room smells different, or /
add some 'lemon scent' to the cleaning products used
Get something in there painted
Add new posters
Block cold draughts

Anything subtle that people don't really notice, but still make them think 'Something has changed, and it is nicer!' will help, and make it feel like the atmosphere has 'changed' somehow, and therefore reduce the paranoia.

If it were me, I'd arrange for some kind of friendly ceremony (that downplays the drama, not up-plays it), to calm down the paranoid. The placebo cure, as it were. A priest is actually too dramatic, unless say, someone's catholic uncle, or hippy-wiccan cousin, just 'happens' to be visiting the kitchen, and offers up a few Hail Mary's etc.
If someone could unofficially get some 'purification floorwash' from a botanica or wiccan/pagan store, and then add it to the cleaning supplies 'as a joke', and have it known about, that'll sometimes help (seriously, they sell those things in aerosol cans. And yes, it is the aerosol part I find weird!).

But hey, I once encountered a small group of people at a festival who were having a very bad acid trip, because a scary lady had told them they were all cursed (a genuinely scary older lady with mental problems who knew they were tripping and wanted to freak them out).
I reassured them all that I was an expert in these things being a tree-hugging dirt-worshipper, got everyone to start clap to make really loud noises, like it was chinese new year, sprinkled some water on each of them, then got everyone to hold hands while we sang a nice chant and then told them ultra-confidence that they were all 100% ok now. Was it a bad thing to do? Well, it was the effective thing to do.
You probably wouldn't have that option in your kitchen.

Anyway, it is an HR issue, in that people generally start getting these freaked out feelings when there is something wrong a little wrong with the working environment, even just that it's fugly, and this is the way it comes out.

Oh, and this is obvious given it's a kitchen, but check for any gasleaks/unsafe chemicals being used, that'd cause people to be wiggy.
posted by Elysum at 3:45 PM on March 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Also came in to suggest checking the kitchen for elevated carbon monoxide levels. You may have a completely different OH&S issue that really does need dealing with.
posted by flabdablet at 5:08 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No natural gas used in this kitchen, FWIW. Just electric.
posted by Danf at 6:59 PM on March 4, 2012

While I admire the spirit (ha ha!) of psychological solutions such as exorcism, I think you should be quite cautious about any solutions involving religious or supernatral ritual. I guarantee you that if I were a taxpayer in that town, and found out that some Catholic or Wiccan priesrt was in the kitchen of the school doing rituals about a poltergeist, I would take that wide-open opportunity to become a very annoying and very public problem for the school. I bet somewhere in that town is a parent or taxpayer like me.

Count me in the "public camera" camp, and also endorsing the idea of sniffing around the kitchen to see what's going wrong. Folks too bored? Work too routine? Bad boss or scheduling?

And definitely take it as an opportunity to remove everything from the shelves, clean, fix anything broken, and restock. Maybe you can make a bunch of work for everyone out of it, by saying that you just want to make sure everything is 100% clean and up to code, and that means that after the end of lunch service everyone stays to pull all the boxes off the shelving, wipe down and sanitize, wash equipment and then replace everything. I used to have to do that periodically in our summer camp kitchen - with no threat of poltergeist - and I feel very sure that "Well, let's first CLEAN EVERYTHING thoroughly so that we can eliminate any other problems that might be contributing" is the school's first response, that complaints about this particular issue may wind down. I think this would be more effective, and more direct, than committees and forms.

Make it their problem, not yours. You don't have to be dismissive when doing this - in fact, being gravely serious about it, while not endorsing any supernatural nonsense, would help the mood.
posted by Miko at 7:13 PM on March 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

I would get a very decisive list of what the safety concerns are based on the staffs experiences to date and then implement mechanisms to reduce or stop those things from happening.

For example placing cabinets with latching doors in places of storage which are currently using open shelves (particularly overhead), also removing any items in the dry storage room that could be used to block doors from behind (or introducing sliding doors instead). Also discussing with the staff for changes to procedures, i.e. ensuring equipment is stored correctly and away at all times. They may want to introduce sensors such as 'motion lights' overhead of doors or places to increase their awareness of any movement of small items. Also increasing general security in the kitchen may help.

Finally, I would make sure the staff begin to keep a diary to record dates and times of all the instances of weirdness. This will help track and measure what is going on in the future so adequate steps can be taken.

Not sure on dealing with the paranormal issues specifically.
posted by Under the Sea at 7:31 PM on March 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

check the area for infrasound - low frequency vibrations that can affect people in weird ways.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:03 AM on March 5, 2012

Just agreeing with everyone not to address this in any "supernatural" way as this only works in sitcoms.

Announce that you'll be checking for carbon monoxide leaks, as such leaks are known to cause hallucinations.

Let everyone know you'll be filming the area for a few weeks in case this is the work of a prankster. Go ahead and use your "hidden" cameras so no one knows where they are pointed, but put up signs so it is not considered covert surveillance.

If possible, have everyone take a safety refresher course (don't prop stuff against doors; don't leave things on the edges of shelves/tables).

Be sure all future incidents are reported via the standard accident/incident form.

Stress that everything has an explanation and that you will work to find out if it is negligence/malevolence/environmental or a combination thereof.
posted by mikepop at 7:05 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

For the sake of the employees, you should entertain the supernatural reports, but not treat it like a root cause. When you first speak to them, don't make it "I'm responding to your concerns of a poltergeist," but rather "I'm responding to your reports of safety hazards."

The claims of things falling and doors becoming blocked justifies a full safety audit. Look for things like loose or unstable shelving, improper storage procedures, rodents, vibrations, etc.. Some things to consider:

-Does any machinery or equipment (dishwasher maybe?) cause the shelves to rattle?
-Consider what happens after hours too. Does a floor buffer in another hallway cause vibrations?
-Are operating procedures sufficient? Could an employee knock something off a counter when walking by (like with a mop?). If no one saw, would they fess up?

Performing the full audit, carefully document all findings, and implement necessary changes. If problems persist, only then would I entertain that it could be a prankster, and by then it should be easy to convince everyone that cameras are needed. Personally, I favor visible cameras, as hidden one really create more hassles than they solve.

I also second the improved lighting. From a safety standpoint, more light is always a good idea, and it could alleviate someones "there's a ghost in here" mindset.
posted by azathoth at 7:26 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Occam's razor says it's gonna be rats/mice/other pest. As far as the flapper.. .people have great imaginations.
posted by spicynuts at 8:43 AM on March 5, 2012

Oh, and just to be clear, I don't think I emphasised enough that when I said "I'd arrange for some kind of friendly ceremony", I would be extra-extra sneaky about it, and there's no way I'd allow it to happen in any kind of official capacity, or allow it to appear to be officially condoned in any way, because that would just feed the drama-mill.
And you are essentially dealing with high-school drama.

The music festival example was very extreme, and while a hilarious-in-retrospect anecdote, I wouldn't normally be doing anything that would feed into people believing in a mental crutch, but well, the whole group was on LSD (EVERYTHING was dramatic to them), hysterical, there was only one of me, and it was shaping up to be either doing that, or calling in security or the first aid team on all of them. I figured they'd write off most of the experience in the morning on the acid (because normally, just telling sober individuals they're cursed doesn't work).
Subsequent to that, I then spent time with one of them, reassuring and explaining to them that a dream/hallucination they'd had wasn't real, and repeatedly pointing out logical inconsistencies in the 'dream' until they felt reassured that it hadn't actually happened. Just different tools in the toolbox.

My temptation in this example though, would be that if I could make it appear unintentional or an accident, I'd be tempted to provide something that would slowly spread through gossip, and provide a satisfying 'conclusion' to the rumour mill.
But, it will genuinely die down on it's own, as long as something else doesn't hype up the drama. No, seriously - is it a high school? This kind of thing *always* happens at high schools.

And I'm not kidding about the lights and smell.
It's hard to feel 'haunted' in a place with bright warm lighting (seriously, replace cool fluorescents with warm fluorescents) and a friendly smell.

If you look into the New Age world of 'intuitive feng shui', 'space clearing' and 'room purifications', (ie people who [maybe?] treat this seriously), over half their work appears to be working as interior decorators to make places feel less creepy, and another third telling people that they can take down their valuable-artistic pictures of sad-clowns, and 'heirloom-sentimental' pictures of grumpy great-great-aunts etc.
I find it a good rule of thumb to translate people wigging about 'out-there' unknowns, as symptoms of something more down to earth, and then use a little applied psychology.

Wow, umm.
I'm really not as machiavellian as I sound?
(I've just been on bad-trip patrol more than a few times).
posted by Elysum at 1:09 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd strongly advise you against cameras, motion sensors, or anything of that sort. You are not a detective or a psychical researcher, and your job is not to 'explain' the phenomena but simply to stop them disturbing your staff.

I was involved in a similar case some years ago. The following piece of advice is spot-on, I think, and applies regardless of whether you take a rationalist or a supernaturalist view of the situation:

Those concerned should be encouraged to treat 'it' as harmless, and to discuss its activities without fear or malice and in as light-hearted a way as possible. It thrives on tension and fear, and shrivels when normal relations are uppermost.

(From the chapter on poltergeist phenomena in Michael Perry's Deliverance: Psychical Disturbances and Occult Involvement.)

Talk to your staff and listen to their concerns, without making them feel patronised. Be alert, obviously, to any safety issues, or any HR issues (e.g. collective stress or tension, or problems centred on one particular individual, including health problems or substance misuse), but above all give them the opportunity to express what's uppermost in their minds. If you leave them thinking 'there's a poltergeist on the loose but we're not allowed to talk about it', that may well make the problem worse.

The advice to 'deploy the full force and majesty of the bureaucratic machine', though well meant, seems entirely inappropriate in this situation, especially when you've been specifically told to use the utmost discretion and sensitivity. Bringing in a priest to say a blessing also seems inappropriate. If there is an underlying tension, or one individual playing tricks or 'acting out', then casting a spell or performing a ritual is unlikely to resolve the problem.

To quote Michael Perry again: 'There is usually a rhythmic pattern to this type of phenomenon. The effects start in a low key, build up to a climax, and then die away again. Usually things go on for only a few weeks before burning themselves out.' (Again this applies regardless of how you choose to explain it.) So the likelihood is that this will die away of its own accord, just as long as you treat it calmly and matter-of-factly and maybe even with a touch of humour.
posted by verstegan at 1:41 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Any hydrofracking in the school's region?
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:56 AM on March 6, 2012

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