Has your toddler ever pointed to the empty space next to you and told you that someone is there? Anna Moore hears the tales that really will send shivers down your spine.
Rachael Rogers was putting her four-year-old son Thomas to bed when he began talking about a ‘man in his room’. Rachael was a single mum – she and Thomas lived alone – and as far as she could see, they were the only two people present, but her son was insistent, pointing at the empty spot beside her. ‘He’s there, standing next to you, look!’
‘Thomas had always been quite shy and reserved and I thought this was an “imaginary friend”,’ says Rachael, 41, a successful lawyer with her own Berkshire consultancy McKenzie Legal. ‘I played it down and said the man was coming out of the room with me to have a cup of tea so that Thomas could go to sleep. I remember calling my mum and joking, “Thomas sees dead people!’”
But it didn’t end there. Thomas continued to talk about the man who sometimes visited and played with his toys, always describing him the same – even drawing pictures of him. ‘This man had a mainly bald head and wore very thick-rimmed glasses,’ says Rachael. ‘Thomas wasn’t scared of him and there was no sense of threat. He’d say that the man had been to visit and I’d say, “Did he, darling? That’s nice!”’
A couple of years later, she and Thomas were at Rachael’s father’s house looking at old photos because Rachael was researching the family tree. She was showing her father a picture she’d found of her paternal grandmother standing beside her second husband, someone Rachael had barely known and had no photos of at home. Thomas immediately became animated. ‘Mum, that’s the man!’ he cried. ‘The man who used to come and play in my room!’ He matched Thomas’s description perfectly – bald with thick-rimmed glasses. Then Thomas pointed at his wife, Rachael’s grandmother, who had died when Rachael was four. ‘And that lady came to our old flat and stayed with you when you had the car crash,’ he added.
‘When Thomas was 20 months old, we’d been in a very serious car crash and I could have died,’ says Rachael. ‘Thomas told me that this lady – my dead grandmother – had looked after me. He was absolutely certain. I was shocked; the hairs on my neck were on end. I have to be honest – I do believe he saw what he said and that he has a gift. It was just too much of a coincidence and there’s no other explanation.’
The idea of the psychic child is many centuries old. In 1620, William Perry, a 12-year-old who claimed to be possessed, caused thousands to flock to his sleepy Staffordshire village. (He eventually admitted he was faking it, though not before the poor woman next door had been arrested for witchcraft.) Now it’s a growth area. In the US, there are summer camps and workshops where ‘highly sensitive kids’ can develop their ‘intuition’, ‘spiritual gifts’ and ‘energetic awareness’. The hit US TV show Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal followed ‘spiritually gifted children’ as they talked to ghosts, predicted disasters and attempted to find missing people. Endless YouTube videos offer up similar child-related spooks. One of the most spine-tingling focuses on Cameron, a boy from Glasgow, who has remembered a former life on the remote Hebridean island of Barra ever since he has been able to talk. His level of detail is phenomenal – the white house with the secret path to the beach, the black and white dog, the family name – all of which turn out to be true when Cameron and his mum finally take a trip there.
All this interest is set against the backdrop of a surge in so-called ‘magical thinking’. It’s no longer taboo to dabble in the paranormal. Robbie Williams has claimed that he used to talk to dead people as a child. Meghan consults a psychic, while Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop is turning crystals and cosmic flow into must-have items. Gigi Hadid, Jessica Alba, Demi Lovato and Keanu Reeves all say they encountered ghosts as children.
Children, it’s popularly believed, can lead us to this other realm because they still have a foot in both our world and the spirit world. According to many spiritualists, they (like animals) are purer than adults, more primeval, with no cultural filters: they haven’t yet been told what to think or see. This is why they so often surprise us with their intuition – sensing when we’re sad or worried, or knowing that we’re sick or even pregnant before we’ve announced it.
Emma Salter, 36, a council worker from Hull, believes her daughter Hermione was born with psychic powers. ‘As a baby, she was happy to be alone,’ says Emma. ‘She’d never cry. She’d lie in her cot, looking in a corner, cooing.’ As she began to talk, Hermione would tell Emma about friends in her bedroom – the first was a boy under the bed, wrapped in bandages – which Emma assumed were dreams or imagination.
However, when Hermione was three, before she’d started school, Emma took her to a Victorian school museum. ‘She became so excited,’ Emma remembers. ‘She told me this was like her “old classroom” and explained to me what everything was, lifting the desk and telling me this was where she kept her slate and pencil. There is no way she would have known what a slate was. She told me her teacher had a funny cap and a long cloak and carried a stick. In another part of the museum, she told me what a mangle was and when we came to what looked to me like a big drum with a stick in it, she explained that this was where her mother used to wash the clothes. She recognised everything. By the time we left that museum, I thought, “Yes, my daughter can see things and remember things.” I just believed her.’
Now a teenager, Hermione no longer displays any psychic gifts but the family do believe her powers once saved her life. ‘One morning, she’d had a nightmare about two scary men that really upset her,’ says Emma. ‘She kept crying. She even told her nursery teachers about it.’
That evening, Hermione was staying at her auntie’s house – Emma’s sister – and the kitchen ceiling collapsed. ‘By that I mean the whole ceiling, not a few bits and pieces,’ says Emma. ‘Hermione had been coming downstairs, about to go in there, when she’d seen the two men from her dream outside the kitchen, frightening her away. The next night, she saw them again in her dream and they were smiling, wearing white dresses and they weren’t scary any more. They told her they’d been there to keep her safe.’
Claire Waters, a homeopath who lives in rural Hampshire, has been so bewildered by what she believes to be her daughter’s psychic gifts that she has recently written a book about her journey, Raising Faith.
‘My daughter Faith had always been a wise soul, quite reserved, always calm,’ says Claire, 44, ‘but her psychic gifts came out of the blue. My husband is still on the fence – he’s a scientific person and doesn’t believe he has seen anything that is set-in-stone proof – but I’ve no doubt that Faith can see spirits around her. She never revelled in the attention of it, she didn’t even think it was that interesting – it was just normal for her. As a mother, you know when your child is telling the truth.’
Faith first told Claire about her ‘spirit visitors’ when she was four – though it’s worth noting that it was in answer to Claire’s direct question. Claire had been to see a medium who told her that her daughter was ‘all seeing, all knowing’. (Claire remembers it as a ‘bizarre and awkward conversation’ and when the medium mentioned her daughter, Claire began to regret going to see her.) However, she couldn’t shake the medium’s words from her mind, so one day, while Faith was playing alone on the floor of her bedroom, Claire plucked up the courage to ask her daughter if she could see other people.
‘She didn’t look interested or stop what she was doing,’ remembers Claire. ‘She just said yes and carried on playing. I asked if there were people in the room now. She answered yes and I asked who. She shrugged and said, “Lots of people.” She also told me that my grandad – who had died – read her bedtime stories. I asked if he looked the same and she said, “Yes, but his hair is darker.” This was normal for her – not something she thought was a big deal.’
Over the next seven years, Faith opened up to Claire about her spirit visitors, and Claire’s book is filled with ‘spooky details’. When the family moved into a new house, their dog would frequently focus on full alert as if watching something invisible. When she asked Faith, her daughter laughed and said they’d inherited two spirit cats. Claire also says that from time to time, she became aware of a strong smell of antiseptic in random places, like the car. ‘Faith told me it was someone I’d worked with in a former life during the war and that she was wearing a nurse’s uniform with a green cross on it. I said I’d only ever known nurses with a red cross but Faith was quite sure this one was green.’ (In fact, there was a women’s volunteer ambulance corps, also known as the green cross corps, during the First World War.) Faith is 15 now and rarely speaks about spirit visitors or psychic matters. ‘She’s still wise, super diligent, very reserved. She wants to be a normal teenage girl,’ says Claire. ‘She thinks I’m the weird one.’
Deborah Hyde, cultural anthropologist and editor-in-chief of The Skeptic magazine, is unconvinced. ‘Children have had imaginary friends for ever,’ she says. ‘I had one and I also remember doing it for attention. You can usually put these cases into categories. There’s outright pranking from the child, and sometimes attention by proxy for the adult. Adults have agendas that might be invisible to children and if you dig deep enough, you can usually see adults picking up the story and taking it along as a way of getting their own message out into the world.’
Hyde gives the example of the notorious 1977 Enfield poltergeist, the subject of books, documentaries, films and TV dramas. The haunting of a modest council house in Enfield, North London – loud noises, moving furniture and thrown toys – centred on two sisters, Margaret and Janet, 13 and 11, who also appeared to levitate. The events made headlines and attracted parapsychologists who claimed to have witnessed the strange events for themselves and became heavily involved in the children’s lives. Although as adults, the sisters have admitted to faking ‘two per cent’ of the phenomena, they largely stand by their story – while also avoiding media attention.
‘First of all, there were many people who visited and weren’t convinced,’ says Hyde, ‘but their voices are rarely heard and the mother didn’t like people coming unless they were believers. Those girls were intelligent, frustrated and unhappy – their father had left home and that was unusual in the 70s. I think that what probably started as adolescents mucking about then brought in some lovely, supportive male figures and there was too much at stake to stop. I’ve met Janet as an adult – she was extremely shy and very nice. I feel sorry for her.’
Usually these cases, somewhere along the line, suit an adult’s narrative, often that their own child is special. Hyde points to the new-age phenomenon of ‘indigo children’, who are supposed to possess supernatural traits and whose typical qualities include resistance to authority and being seen as strange. Critics argue that parents have chosen this label when in fact their children are displaying classic signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism or mental illness.
Is this enough to explain all the spooky sixth-sense moments that mums such as Rachael Rogers may witness with their child, then play down and file away? Whatever your beliefs, even the Spiritualists’ National Union recommends that ‘playing it down’ and ‘filing it away’ is exactly what you should do. ‘Children say they can see things – it might be genuine, they might be making it up or they might have parents putting them under pressure,’ says minister Steven Upton. ‘It’s impossible to know, but children’s minds are incredibly impressionable and you can create false memories just through the way you question them, so it’s a very dangerous area.’
According to Upton, if your child seems to exhibit psychic knowledge, keep it light, make sure they’re not frightened and move on. ‘When they’re adults, they can decide for themselves if this is something they want to develop,’ he says. ‘Until then, let children be children.’