The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill director Kevin Gates tells how childhood adventures lead him to make a film about his hometown’s haunted church ruins
Thanks for talking to us today. First off, great film. I like to think of it as an entertaining “Most Haunted” with nice, interesting people and some genuine shocks. Did you take any inspiration from reality spook shows?
I’m thrilled you enjoyed the film. The inspiration for The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill was mainly from the BBC’s Ghost Watch from 1992 that I’d seen as a teenager and the idea of doing something that seemed like a genuine documentary. But it had to be something unique and therefore 90% of what you see is completely real and that was the hook – real location, real witnesses and a real investigation. I remember when Most Haunted first came out and I loved the concept, but was quite disappointed with the execution. I totally understand that something has to happen in the show, but the lengths some of the participants go to in some episodes takes the viewer out of the atmosphere of the setting. I want to be creeped out when I watch these shows like I was when I saw Ghost Watch.
Do you have any favourite ghost reality shows? What do you like about them?
The first few series of Ghost Hunters are absolutely superb. I love the fact that these two ordinary plumbers go out to disprove hauntings and often end up uncovering things they can’t understand. It reminds me a bit of what happened to our security team up at Clophill Church.
Clophill church is quite legendary but not many people know about it. How did you come across the church and its stories of evil spirits and satanic rituals?
I’ve lived local to Clophill for many years and grew up hearing stories about supernatural goings-on up at the church in years gone by. This was pre-internet so it was difficult to find material on the site and find out what really happened up there. Like most teenagers in the county, we drove up to Clophill on a cold night in 1990 not knowing much about the place and I remember the silhouette of the ruin in the rain and the overgrown graveyard. It was very eerie and I didn’t go back again for many years until I took some photographs in the daytime and had a proper wander round the site. I thought it was such a fantastic setting and how no-one had done a film on Clophill. It took a while for me to find the right approach and the most important thing was to try to capture something of Clophill’s unique atmosphere.
Old St Mary’s was and still is largely (and incorrectly) known for being a church that faces the wrong way. Although evidence for ghostly sightings is fairly limited despite photographs and witness testimonies, the stories of black magic are true. It all stemmed from an incident in March 1963, some believe on the full moon night of March 10, when a clandestine group went up to the site and attempted to break into a number of tombs – eventually managing to crowbar the lid off of the table-top vault of Jenny Humberstone, an apothecary’s wife who had died in 1770, aged 22. Her skull and bones were then taken into the ruined church, arranged in a circle on a makeshift altar, a cockerel was sacrificed and strange symbols scrawled onto the walls. Many believed it was a Black Mass, but on closer inspection was an attempt at Necromancy. It was a big story in the press over the following weeks and led to numerous copycat incidents at Clophill and across the UK. The incidents of graveyard desecration at Clophill didn’t really stop until the late 1970s when the council decided to bury the graves under many tonnes of earth.
What kind of research did you do for the film?
I spent a lot of time at the local archives scouring through local newspaper stories from the 1960s when all of the black magic incidents took place. From there I managed to track down a number of witnesses who were still alive and willing to talk about their experiences. This formed the backbone of the story, along with more recent witness accounts of ghostly encounters. I found so many stories connected with Clophill and other incidents of witchcraft in the county that I ended up putting them into a book that will be out following the film and sets up a lot of further backstory and mythology connected with old St Mary’s. The book is also called The Paranormal Diaries: Clophill.
Do you believe in the paranormal? Have you seen a ghost?
I’m open minded, but I’ve yet to see a ghost myself. However, close friends of mine have recounted seeing things and I know they wouldn’t make these things up. Two of the documentary team – Craig and Criselda – recount a story in the film about an incident in Spain that they cannot explain. It’s one of those things where if you have an experience it might change your whole outlook on life, but at the same time life goes on as normal whether there are ghosts around or not. The closest I’ve ever come – and this has happened a few times – is sleep paralysis. Every time I’ve experienced this I’ve had the silhouetted figure coming into the room and had that desperate struggle to try and move before it gets too close. The figure has never got to me and I do wonder what would happen if it did.
It’s very difficult to work out where fiction starts and reality ends. Clophill is fake documentary, but for the life of me, there are only a couple of scenes that don’t seem completely genuine. Have you had much feedback on that aspect of the film.
Clophill is for the most part a truthful documentary. Only around 10% is fake and you might be surprised just how much material in the film is real – without giving too many spoilers the discovery of the snake and the birds screeching in the tower were all genuine as were the the reactions of the security team and the Luton Paranormal Society and many other incidents. There were lots of what I would describe as happy accidents during filming. Mike and I also didn’t let anyone on the crew know that we were going to introduce fictional elements and we kept this a secret right up until the last night of the shoot when we brought in these scenes. I then went back and shot additional scenes at different locations to heighten what we’d captured during the weekend. Of these scenes I was very conscious that nothing should stray too far from the legend and be too far removed from reality. The feedback has been great and the audiences are having a lot of fun guessing what’s real and what isn’t.
You’ve got lots of eyewitness accounts in it, some quite gripping and compelling, and some, what I assume are real-life investigators. This must have given you a much different film had you used just actors.
The eye-witnesses and experts really added authenticity and depth to the backstory. If we’d used actors it wouldn’t have worked nearly so well and you wouldn’t have that same feeling knowing these witnesses were telling the truth as far as they remember. There’s a fantastic film called Lake Mungo which uses a similar approach, but is wholly fictitious and uses actors. Much of the running time of that film is taken up with talking heads, but the acting is pulled off really well. But at the same time you don’t have that whole depth of knowing what you’re watching is real.
What was it like filming at Clophill – where the residents welcoming?
Clophill is a wonderful village and the residents we spoke to were happy to talk about the stories associated with the old church. I appreciate the problems the village has had in the past with Satanic groups using the site in the 1960s and 70s and much like other remote places it has been a magnet for vandalism. But the majority of people who travel to the ruin do so out of curiosity and fascination. As some of the locals told us, most who visit the site are harmless. I was up there at Halloween 2010 and although the police block off the path this night each year, there was a friendly atmosphere and the police were even escorting some of the younger people around so they would be safe. Visiting the church is almost a rite of passage in Bedfordshire. Those who visit the old ruin should just make sure they respect the site and the residents who live nearby.
Did anything spooky happen while you were filming at night?
There were a number of sightings of figures and hearing of strange sounds coming from the bushes that were nothing to do with anything we had set up. The Luton Paranormal Society also observed this and felt cold shivers during the séance. Our security team were literally freaking out and in tears after seeing shadowy figures moving across the churchyard. There’s an interesting story that didn’t make it into the film. There’s a legend at Clophill of a grave that will tell you the date of your own death. One of the producers came up to visit the shoot one night – it was his birthday and was wandering around the graveyard in the dark and tripped over a gravestone, falling flat on his back. As he dusted himself down he looked up at the grave and it said “died aged 34.” It was his 34th birthday. It shook him up, but fortunately for him the legend turned out to be false as he made it to 35!
Ghost stories tend to have a nice little wrap-up at the end – ie. the mystery is solved and the spirit is sent into the light – but Clophill doesn’t do that, its ending leaves many questions unanswered. Why did you go for this?
Although there are definite consequences from what happened during the weekend, I wanted to leave it open for a few reasons. The thing with Clophill is no-one found out who the desecrators of Jenny Humberstone’s grave were and I wanted to reflect this somewhat with the scenes featuring the coven. I’ve since spoken to a number of people, including a woman from Luton who believed her father (who is still alive) was responsible. He was a nasty piece of work and used to go up there with others in the early 1960s dressed in Nazi uniforms and dug up graves in an attempt to raise the dead. Another witness from Baldock told me he was backpacking in India on the Ganges in 1966 and met another of the group. He claimed to be the High Priest who carried out the rite and was a very dangerous man, who threatened and stole from a number of backpackers before disappearing. I find the mystery of Clophill fascinating and for me it had to partially remain that way. The story does leave things open for a follow up, but it won’t involve Clophill.
I understand that you are now going to do The Paranormal Diaries: Mothman – tell us about that.
It’s set at another location that is for the most part completely unknown. It’s exciting to discover new supernatural sites that are unexplored, as you feel like you are treading new ground. The place is known locally as Bluebell Wood near Luton, not far from the M1 motorway and that has a link to the Clophill black magic of 1963 with a grisly event of animal mutilation. I started researching the location and found a story about a Mothman sighting from the same wood from 1979. There was also a Black Shuck encounter from 1986 recounted to me by an ex-soldier. The wood has a history of occult groups using it, but none of the witnesses to the aforementioned events are related and they’re all much older now and maintain what they saw was real. There are tunnels nearby as well that have strange stories connected to them and the site is directly on a ley line, so it’s intriguing. It’s about getting the right approach to Mothman though without just repeating the formula of Clophill. It is true to say we’ll be spending a lot of time camping out in the woods though, so it should be a lot of fun.
Thanks for talking to us and I look forward to seeing Mothman – it sounds great!