As a young boy growing up in the small Northern Ireland town of Comber, County Down, during the 70s, Stephen Mercer spent his time playing in the fields and rivers around his estate. Stephen liked to explore, and he’d heard intriguing stories about a rundown farmhouse. So one day, he pulled on his wellies and sneaked out, arriving at the spooky old ruin just as it was growing dark.
Discovering the doorway open, he crept in and stepped into what appeared to be the kitchen. He looked around him, taking in the back door, and another internal one with a big old-fashioned doorknob.
And then he stopped in his tracks.
Frozen to the spot Stephen stared in terror as the knob began to turn slowly. As he was about to run the door floor open and threw him back several feet. Scrabbling up off the floor Stephen looked into the room and saw...nothing.
There was nobody there who could have opened the door, and the room, which he worked out was most likely a larder, was completely sealed. No holes for wind to blow the door open, and no windows to serve as an escape route for a prankster. The only other explanation was a supernatural one. Stephen ran home as fast as his shaking legs could carry him.
As scary as it was, this experience opened another door for Stephen. One to a fascination with the occult and all things paranormal. Stephen became an avid reader on the subject, subscribing to monthly book clubs to gain knowledge on other-worldly facts, soaking up stories about everything from witchcraft to the Druids and spiritualism.
Later, as Stephen grew up and work and social life took over, this hobby took a backseat. But following a move to the UK in the early 90s his childhood adventure and the knowledge it sparked was revived when he was working as a press officer for the Grand Theatre Blackpool. He began to hear tales about resident ghosts and came up with the idea of creating “Grand Ghost Tours” to raise funds for the Sam Lee Appeal in aid of restoration work.
This led to the ever-inquisitive Stephen exploring further afield around the Fylde to add more ghostly locations to his tours, including the North Pier Theatre, Fleetwood’s North Euston Hotel and Blackpool Zoo - which is built on the site of an airfield where Wellington Bombers were assembled during World War II.
But the biggest venue he kept hearing supernatural stories about was the Winter Gardens and his subsequent investigations resulted in him conducting tours there for several years.
Now Stephen is back, resplendent in his customary Victorian costume, and his Ghost Hunts and Tours are best-selling events. Stephen takes guests on either a two-hour tour, or a five to six-hour ghost hunt using special investigative equipment, taking in either the Opera House, the Spanish Suite or the Empress Ballroom/Pavilion Theatre.
Although spoilers are strictly forbidden, not least because this prevents a true investigation, Stephen does give away a few teasers. For example there have been many reported sightings of a little boy alone in the Empress Ballroom, and the old projectionist has been spotted in the Opera House’s original projector room. Meanwhile staff have heard footsteps following them whilst locking up the Spanish Suite late at night.
“I’ve been told so many stories over the years,” said Stephen, “but I don’t just take people’s word for it. I will do my research and delve deeply. I spend time trying to get to the bottom of things. Are they paranormal or just regular sights or sounds? When I’ve heard the same story 20 or 30 times from people who don’t know each other, those are the stories I pass on to guests. Then I let them investigate for themselves with an open mind. Why would that happen? Could it be a shadow? If something looks like the outline of a figure is it just light reflecting through a window? Not everything that goes bump in the night is a ghost.”
Stephen was never able to explain his childhood adventure, but it’s certainly taken him on plenty more journeys into the unknown with his company Supernatural Events. Has he ever experienced a ghostly presence himself in the Winter Gardens?
“I’ve experienced something in all of the locations I take people to. We can’t persuade the ghosts to come and play just because we’re there. But there have been hunts with 25 people when every single one has experienced something separately and independently in the same location, and we’ve only found out when they’ve all been brought back together. That’s what makes it fun and exciting.”
Hot off the press is that a new venue is being added to the Winter Gardens ghost events calendar – the Olympia Exhibition Hall. Designed by Andrew Mazzei to resemble a Moorish village, the hall opened in June 1930 and originally included a dome, which was removed after World War II. The hall was used to teach Morse code during the war, then for a funfair, before becoming an indoor adventure playground - Professor Peabody’s Playplace - in the 1980s. Today it’s used as venue for exhibitions and trade shows.
Can Stephen give anything away about what, or who, ghost hunters might find there?
“All I can say is there is a balcony, and what is experienced by most people takes place on that balcony.”
New 2020 dates to be released very soon!