June 19, 2000 12:00 PM

England’s 16th-century Hampton Court Palace boasts magnificent gardens, an impressive blend of Tudor and Baroque architecture—and, say many, a posse of spooks haunting its stately halls. For more than a century, visitors and staff at the former residence of King Henry VIII have reported eerie knocks and voices, taps on the shoulder and unearthly apparitions. Most chilling of all, the screaming ghost of young Catherine Howard is said to roam the hall outside the chapel where hubby Henry—suspecting infidelity—ignored her cries for mercy. In 1542 he had her head chopped off at the Tower of London.

Faced with such pesky guests, who ya gonna call? Richard Wiseman, that’s who. The 33-year-old magician turned academic has become Britain’s leading ghostbuster, finding scientific explanations for supernatural claims. Armed with two carloads of scientific equipment and plenty of skepticism, the unassuming University of Hertfordshire professor and five researchers recently spent a week looking for evidence of Howard’s ghost. “This is the first time a royal palace has allowed anything like this,” says Wiseman. “What we are bringing to it is a scientific element—we are not having mediums walk through saying, ‘Oh, I can sense the spirits.’ ”

Wiseman asked visitors to fill out questionnaires reporting any odd physical sensations—a strange chill, for example—they experienced on a palace tour. Meanwhile, his researchers monitored six hot spots with gadgets to measure electromagnetic activity, heat and light levels. “Some people are very sensitive to changes in electromagnetic activity,” says Wiseman, who spent three nights with a thermal imager and video equipment in the gallery where Howard has reportedly been spotted. “Those changes could produce all the things associated with ghosts: the odd smells, the strange taste in the mouth, blobs of color in peripheral vision.”

The inspiration for the experiment, which took place during the 460th anniversary of Howard’s arrival at the palace as Henry’s fifth bride, came from palace staffers’ own otherworldly experiences. Says Ian Franklin, 39, a watchman who has compiled a scrapbook of spooky sightings on the premises: “Everyone has a story.” Including Dennis McGuinnes, 60, the palace’s director, who has lived there for the past seven years. He says he has been visited by a ghostly woman in blue in his apartment—the former reception room of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. (Some believe that the woman is Catherine’s maid.) “Once I began to be open about what I’ve seen,” said McGuinnes, “a lot of people came out of the woodwork.” (A Buckingham Palace spokesman declined to comment on the Hampton Court Palace ghost hunt.)

The one person, it seems, who isn’t spooked is the palace-appointed ghost-chaser himself. “I don’t find ghost stories particularly interesting,” says Wiseman with a laugh. “But the way in which ghost stories impact upon people’s experiences does interest me.”

Wiseman’s connection to spine-chilling tales was developed as the magic-obsessed second son of Ron, 68, an engineer, and Brenda, 66, a homemaker. After a stint as a professional magician, his passion for figuring out illusions led the Londoner to get a doctorate in parapsychology from the University of Edinburgh, the city where his girlfriend, Caroline Watt, 37, also a parapsychologist, lives.

So what did Wiseman find at Hampton Court? That more than one-third of visitors reported odd experiences, for one thing. “I have been massively surprised by their frequency and intensity,” he says. “People said, ‘I felt sick when I turned the corner’ or ‘The hairs on my arms stood up.’ I don’t think they made these things up.” What’s more, a video recorder placed in the haunted gallery by Wiseman’s team mysteriously stopped working, only to start up again once it was carried outside—and later gave up the ghost altogether.

A physicist’s analysis of the hard data won’t be completed for a month or so. For now, Wiseman theorizes that hidden doors might cause odd drafts (which would explain visitors’ sudden chills) and that a gallery wall with a high metal content might produce variations in electromagnetic activity and provoke a reaction in visitors. But no amount of science will convince some believers. “At the end of the day,” 15-year palace warden Vince James says flatly, “a ghost is a ghost.”

Shirley Brady

Eileen Finan in London

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