Let's start by asking a psychologists that question; an hypothetical one that is. I would imagine his or her's response to be (and I'm no expert) something akin to, "elicit preconceptions -mmm! Would you like to unpack that a little more?" Okay, here goes. I can best describe it as the ‘feelings’ some people claim to experience when told a location they are about to enter is either reputedly haunted, or there has been an unpleasant incident therein. Would my hypothetical psychologist, having been given this example respond, “had these same people you describe not been privy to such ghostly tales or the like, would they still experience these ‘feelings' you describe? I very much doubt it.” My hypothetical psychologist may well have a point.
There are many people, especially 'sensitive’ people who firmly believe some locations can, and do, retain a residue, an atmosphere, an imprint, a certain 'something'. Some even claim to be in the presence of spirits in such places.
How many times have you walked into a room and thought to yourself, this is a happy place, I could spend time here and conversely, this is an sad place, I would like to leave now please? What makes some people decide what is good and what is bad about a place, bearing in mind and in all likelihood they had never been there before, know nothing of its history, and yet they sense something is not quite right.
I have a theory. When some people enter a strange room for the first time (I will use a room as an example in this case) they are immediately bombarded by its visuals. Many will immediately take in its décor, its smell, how well it’s lit, how it’s furnished and subconsciously assess and compare it with their own tastes. If it doesn’t meet with their expectations, then the result is all too often, “I don’t like this place, it doesn’t feel right“, when in actual fact, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the room that a lick of paint and some decorative imagination and thought from that very same individual would almost certainly put right. This spontaneous mental assessment tends to colour some peoples perceptions and can project negative feelings about a room which others would find perfectly amenable.
This explanation may go someway to rationalize the feelings of dislike and apprehension some get about a place. Feelings which are based on nothing more than first impressions, gained from their own personal tastes and nothing more. It is a fact that many property vendors go to great lengths to ensure their homes have the correct ambiance. Little tricks are used to great effect, for example, the smell of ground coffee, baked bread and the subtle fragrance of fresh flowers are often a sure-fire winner to help create a welcoming, friendly ambiance for a prospective buyer. It is an inherent trait in most of us too present our homes as somewhere where we enjoy living and hope others will find comfortable and cordial. We strive, well some of us do, to create that all important 'first impression'.
Consider that special welcome you get from your local village pub. Its roaring log fire, low oak beams, the smell of wholesome cooking wafting in from the kitchen, fine ales and wine to savour but most importantly, the ambiance generated by the friendly locals and hearty landlord and landlady. Surely there is no mystery attached to a buildings ambiance, it is in essence its people that generate its atmosphere, certainly in a pub and certainly in mine. It's the living that create a comfortable inviting welcome not its décor, though it has to be said there are shabby pubs. It is the locals at my village pub with their banter and laughter and that special welcome that makes you want to go back again and again. If you, like me, have been to pubs, or anywhere else for that matter which are the exact opposite to the one I have just described, would you want to go back? Of course not! "Had a bad feeling about the place you know - bloody unfriendly!“
What I‘m trying to say, if you haven't already guessed, is that I think that sometimes folk have preconceptions about certain places, occasionally negative ones. Take the churchyard for example - eerie places churchyards, especially at night and under a pale misty moon. I should have been home 30 minutes ago, family will be worried. I know, I'll take the shortcut, I ain't scared. So brave old you take the shortcut, a shortcut which will lead you through the churchyard, which means passing countless graves. Your pace is brisk as you hurry through this garden of the dead, your senses alert for the faintest of sounds, acutely aware that at any second icy skeletal fingers will reach up from beneath the damp, cold earth to grab at your ankles, but they never do, do they and you arrive home to a welcome; "Where have you been, we've been worried?" Then comes the hug.
If that wasn’t bad enough, consider the old derelict house just down the street, the doors and ground floor windows all boarded up now, but you can still get in if you know where to look. They say it’s haunted you know, only the foolhardy go there after dark, in the night. The garden has succumbed to an army of marauding weeds which have chocked the life from once pretty flowerbeds and invaded the once meticulously manicured lawn. Inside, a layer of dust covers everything like a thick grey shroud. Long abandoned cobwebs hang from every corner, their weavers now just shrivelled husks, a brief life spent in endless construction. The first floor window frames, now rotten and splitting, most of the windows have been smashed by the neighbourhood kids, leaving jagged shards which still cling precariously and menacingly to splintered frames - nobody bothers, nobody cares. There is a smell too, sweet and sickly, cloying, tis the smell of death, the result of a decomposing rodent which had crawled under the floorboards to seek a place of solitude in which to expire. “Got a bad feeling about this place dude!” Now why is that I wonder...
I am of the opinion that places don’t harbour grudges or ugliness or evil. I feel sure it's an awareness of a locations history that can, and often does, ignite the imagination which may, in some, elicit preconceptions.
Some places have a tragic legacy, simply because of what took place there, whether it be a battle, an accident, or some other dreadful incident. Roundway Down (see sidebar) near Devizes was the scene of a bloody Civil War battle that claimed the lives of many men and horses in 1643. Today, there are still those who claim to have heard the cry of men and the whinny of horses as they fall in battle. This may well be true but then again, could this not be the product of a fanciful imagination - a preconception?