Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
We often hear how psychic detectives have passed valuable information about a case to the police, or how they were brought in when one became too difficult for conventional techniques to solve. Judging by their own claims, they have had some remarkable successes. Edward Olshaker’s idea was different: take a set of real-life mysteries, present them to a group of psychic detectives, each working in isolation, and see what happens. It’s a great idea, but it shows some of the problems of gaining information by such unorthodox means.
In Witnesses to the Unsolved, first published in 2005 and now updated, half a dozen psychic detectives (not all of whom regard themselves as mediums, hence the sub-title) gave readings to Olshaker. These were Bertie Marie Catchings, Robert Cracknell, Janet Cyford, Betty Muench, Nancy E Myer and Philip Solomon. Olshaker himself is not active more broadly in psychical research, but is a freelance journalist writing about historical issues and current affairs. Before we get going, Colin Wilson, author of the 1984 The Psychic Detectives, supplies a foreword, as he did for Cracknell’s autobiography The Lonely Sense, also published by Anomalist Books.
Olshaker asked his team to look afresh at the mysteries surrounding Bill Clinton’s boyhood friend and White House staffer Vincent Foster; US Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown; Kurt Cobain; activists attempting to determine the truth about US servicemen left behind in Vietnam; the deaths of environmental campaigners; the deaths of actress Mercedes McCambridge’s son John Markle and his family; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr; and the disappearances of the CIA’s William Colby and John Paisley. The examples he has selected have an American focus, and some are much better known than others. A lot of the political speculations thrown up in the readings involve convoluted conspiracies, which means that for a non-US reader some of the detail can seem obscure and complicated.
Olshaker, as a journalist, is good on the background to each case study, and he could undoubtedly have written a fascinating narrative minus the paranormal speculations. But he is vague on the protocols he employed with the psychic detectives, how much information they were given, or what opportunities they had for research before he asked for their impressions. Thus discussing grunge musician Kristen Pfaff who died only two months after Kurt Cobain, he says that he took a photograph of Kristen and description of the case when he visited Janet Cyford, although she did not know in advance he was going to ask about Kristen’s death on that day.
A number of times he quotes from readings where he is asked for information. On Kristen: “‘Do you know whether she had a boyfriend?’ Cyford asked. ‘Because she’s talking about a young man there…’”, and a page later: “‘How many years to we go back with this?’ ‘1994,’ I replied.” So there were opportunities for fishing, and perhaps more cold reading occurred than he realised. This does not rule out the possibility that the readings were supplying genuine information, but such vagueness about the process weakens the impact.
Leaving aside these problems, for those inclined to take psychic detectives at their own estimations, this may prove a disappointing read. One always hopes that they can warm up cold cases, prodding an official re-examination, but while these ones come up with some interesting speculations that may be proved true in time, there is little here that has been verified since 2005 as adding to or altering current knowledge. Wilson refers to it as “investigative journalism“, but the psychic detectives do not offer proof, and no breakthroughs have been made by the police as a result of their findings so far.
In particular, it frustrating that no-one says “yes, so-and-so did it”, or provides conclusive information on previously unknown suspects, even though the verdicts of the psychic detectives are often some distance from the accepted versions of events. One can understand that the psychic detectives and Olshaker might be wary of libel writs, but the chapter on Markle, for example, casts definite suspicion on colleagues at his firm – Stephens, Incorporated – to the extent that if the nefarious activities alleged did happen there, a fairly small pool of suspects were involved. Naming the guilty would spare the innocent.
Yet concrete information that would allow a police breakthrough is always tantalisingly out of reach. Why is this? Added to the difficulties of transmission and reception of information by either side, which leads to differences of interpretation by the various psychic detectives, we are told that those in the beyond are not interested in revenge, but rather there is a “universal law that allows the wrongdoers to exercise their free will to make amends on their own”, hence a reluctance amounting to distaste by those passed over in discussing the identities of malefactors.
One can understand that earthly concerns might seem of little consequence considering the magnitude of the changes that have happened to them, but while those who have died may be unconcerned with earthly notions of justice, there is a regrettable indifference to the suffering of those left behind who need closure to move on with their lives. Historically the departed have not been so indifferent, and one wonders why they have changed their attitude to justice, relying instead on karma to restore the balance. With such restrictions on the quality of intelligence imposed by those in the Afterlife, you wonder what use psychics are for crime detection, over and above perhaps to locate missing people and bodies.
Quite often there was agreement between the psychic detectives, but as these were not controlled tests, it is impossible to know whether their readings were paranormal in origin or extrapolations from the information given which ran along similar lines. It would certainly be interesting to see a rigorous experiment in which psychic detectives applied their abilities to real-life problems with no such ambiguity surrounding the outcomes. Despite this drawback, Olshaker has made a fascinating attempt to apply psychic abilities to some intractable mysteries of recent years, and has definitely highlighted very strange goings-on, whatever the explanation. He and his collaborators are to be applauded for their efforts, and this book should be read by anybody interested in psychic detection.
Timed to coincide with the centenary of W T Stead’s death on the Titanic, W Sydney Robinson’s biography tells the story of his complex life and career as a self-promoting editor and investigative journalist. Stead was energetic and prolific, packing an astonishing amount into his life, and this is an entertaining and lively, though by no means definitive, portrait.
William Thomas Stead was born in Northumberland in1849. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Stead was moulded by this non-conformist background. He felt that he had a moral purpose in life, and combined devout belief in a very personal God (always referring to Him as the “Senior Partner”) with indignation about injustice and a sense of personal mission to rectify it. This reformist zeal mixed ambition with a thick skin and no sense of personal embarrassment. Robinson brings out his eccentricities: as a child he was nicknamed “Queer Bill” as he was careless of dress and had a habit of running anywhere. He was, by his own account, considered “daft”, and he retained odd habits throughout his life. Yet he was taken seriously by monarchs and politicians, ready to overlook his personal defects.
In his early years he was extremely successful, thanks to his energy and supreme self-confidence, famously elevating himself above the Prince of Wales in claiming to have “the best position in the Empire”. He began on Darlington’s Northern Echo, of which he was editor at 22, and even in London, running the Pall Mall Gazette, had the air of an outsider. As a newspaperman he was innovative, for example running the first 24-point headline, using sub-headings and maps, and promoting, though not creating, the newspaper interview (for which Stead relied on his memory, dictating the conversations afterwards).
As a result of these innovations and a willingness to take risks, the Gazette achieved an extraordinary influence. Stead was a muckraker, certainly, but there was a lot of muck to rake. Yet his own boots were not pristine. He could be unscrupulous with the truth, ready to distort the facts to serve his purposes. Stead is the perfect antidote to any notion that today’s scumbag tabloid journalists have somehow regressed from some higher standard to which their forebears adhered. Opportunistic and often cavalier with details, he was flamboyant, but gauche and frequently naive in dealings with power-brokers. He often over-estimated his capabilities as a key player, as much manipulated as manipulator.
He considered that ends justified the means, if they were his of course, but he was a loose cannon, frequently a cause of despair even to his sympathisers. Sometimes he was a clear force for good, such as his 1876 exposé of Turkish atrocities against the Bulgarians, his fulminations against urban poverty, or the campaign for world peace that permitted him extensive foreign travel. Often, the outcome was more ambiguous. Like his mentor William Gladstone, he was obsessed with prostitution, and he is most famous (apart from the manner of his dying) for his 1885 exposure of child prostitution to expedite the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, by conspiring to purchase a 13-year old girl.
‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ highlighted in the most sensational way possible a very real social evil, while simultaneously exploiting and terrifying the girl and thoughtlessly creating chaos which led to several imprisonments, including his own. And apart from the boom in the Pall Mall Gazette’s circulation he achieved, the results were mixed. The age of consent was raised from 13 to 16, so while the means were dubious, the ends were of enduring value to subsequent generations of young girls; while an unintended consequence was the criminalisation of male homosexuality for the next 80 years. Thus it can be difficult to determine the overall value of a moral crusade, even if Stead always regarded himself as a martyr to the cause, to the extent of annually marking the anniversary of his conviction by proudly wearing his prison uniform (it has always struck me as odd that he was allowed to keep it, and one wonders if he had a duplicate run up afterwards).
Whatever the verdict, the ‘Maiden Tribute’ campaign was the high point of his authority, after which the muckraking among the private lives of the rich and famous took precedence. It is easy to accuse him of hypocrisy, campaigning about loose morals in others while not possessing particularly tight ones himself. Perhaps more charitably, however, he could be characterised as a man of principle, who, possessing profound religious beliefs, was only too aware of his original sin, and therefore his excusable, if lamentable, failure to adhere to those principles.
Always ready to flout public opinion to make a point, he was brave in his opinions, however unpopular, for example his quixotic support for the enemy during the Second Boer War, though to indicate his inconsistency, this came after a close, and lucrative, relationship with arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Unfortunately his journalistic ambition often outran his political and business sense. As he grew older and more eccentric he lost his touch, and with it his powers of persuasion, even when his judgements were sound. Eventually he became a figure of fun in the industry. His death on the Titanic stopped the slide of his reputation before he could damage it further, while making him part of one of the biggest stories of the century.
From a psychical research point of view, Stead’s chief interest is his Spiritualism, and alas this is one area which Robinson treats rather lightly – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the focus on journalism indicated by his title. There are, however, some references, and these can be set in the context of his character as drawn by Robinson, so the book is still useful to those whose primary interest is in Stead’s extensive involvement in the paranormal.
His outrageous flirtatiousness, present from youth, eventually morphed into a serious obsession with attractive young women, and Robinson refers to the “nubile staff” employed during his later years on the Review of Reviews, with hardly any other men in the office. This, Robinson feels, linked to his interest in Spiritualism as his young acolytes competed for his attentions by demonstrating their psychic abilities, and persuading him that he possessed them as well. They clearly imposed on him financially, so there may be some truth to this, his desire to associate with attractive females allowing them to play on his gullibility. Marie Belloc said of him that he was a “credulous man, inclined to believe anything he was told”, to which Robinson appends, “– at least by a woman.”
Julia’s Bureau, a messaging service linking this world with the next which opened in early 1909, naturally gave him the opportunity to associate with women on intimate terms. But Robinson sees the motivation for its inauguration not only in Stead’s fascination with the deceased journalist Julia Ames, the ostensible promoter of the scheme from the Other Side, but also in the death of his son Willie in December 1907. Robinson also thinks that Stead’s interest in automatic writing gave him the means to express repressed emotions, and perhaps, less persuasively, betrayed symptoms of schizophrenia (though a case could be made that Stead's general behaviour exhibited symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome).
Of Stead’s children, apart from Willie there is not much sign. Robinson says that the children “rebelled against him”, which is a considerable surprise given the warm, affectionate tone of his daughter Estelle’s hagiographic My Father: Personal and Spiritual Reminiscences (a good source of information on Stead’s automatic writing and on Julia’s Bureau), a book which Robertson has used as a key source.
Ada Goodrich Freer features heavily in his section on Stead’s Spiritualistic interests, though Robinson relies on Trevor Hall’s unsympathetic biography for his background. He does give some information on their business arrangement in setting up Borderland, the first issue of which was dated July 1893. Goodrich Freer was appointed co-editor on a salary of £200, and a promise that she would be given full ownership from 1900 (“once all initial risks and expenditure had been made by Stead”, Robinson acidly remarks). As the magazine expired in 1897, the transfer never took place.
Apparently there was some gossip at the office that they were having an affair, which is why Goodrich Freer insisted that Borderland should have its own office in Pall Mall (rented at considerable expense) rather than share the one used by the Review of Reviews. Intriguingly, a footnote adds that when Frederic Whyte was preparing his biography of Stead (1925), Estelle told him that “it would mean a great deal to my mother” if he were to omit any reference to Goodrich Freer. She had taken the same line herself in My Father, which has no mention of the adventuress. It is unclear whether the two actually had an affair – it seems unlikely – and similar ambiguity surrounds Stead’s close relationship with Annie Besant, trade unionist and later prominent Theosophist.
With its pacey narrative, Robinson gives a clear overview of Stead’s career and the forces that motivated him, and Muckraker will assist those who may have wondered why this Stead who went down on the Titanic was so noteworthy. There is much more to say, though, especially about his Spiritualism, which was such a significant element of his life. For all his flaws, it says something for Stead’s personality and achievements that he is remembered today, which is more than can be said for most other Victorian members of the Fourth Estate, and his name will live on after today’s hacks have filed their last copy.
Cambridgeshire’s paranormal heritage
Cambridgeshire has had a number of ghost books devoted to it, as well as appearing in many national gazetteers. For those visiting the county, the following volumes may be of interest. I have given fuller information on a couple of recent titles.
Having written Paranormal Hertfordshire and Paranormal Bedfordshire for Amberley, Damien O’Dell tackles Cambridgeshire in the same series, and he has packed a lot of information into his sparsely-illustrated pages. About a third of the book actually deals with Cambridge itself. The first chapter looks at Marshall’s, a major Cambridge employer and a location O’Dell has thoroughly investigated. The colleges are present and correct, of course – Jesus, Girton, Sidney Sussex, Emmanuel, Corpus Christi and Peterhouse.
Some of this will be familiar from previous efforts, but additionally O’Dell has had the benefit of being able to use cases collected by the Cambridge Paranormal Research Society (CPRS), in particular describing their investigation of the BBC radio studio in Hills Road. Other town locations are included, the best known of which is probably Abbey House, which was investigated by the late Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld of the Society for Psychical Research (the Buddhists who now own it have occasional open days, and a visit is highly recommended, though no investigations are allowed). O’Dell pays generous tribute to the SPR, which has roots in Cambridge, and in particular to Cornell, one of the Society’s best-known investigators of spontaneous phenomena.
Moving out of Cambridge, other sections cover the Huntingdon area; Ely (including Oliver Cromwell of course, who is also mentioned earlier as his head is buried at Sidney Sussex); the Fens; South Cambridgeshire, including Duxford and Linton, the latter the childhood home of Matthew Manning; and Peterborough, in addition to many other locations across the county. Peterborough has quite a long section, including a report of a 2003 CPRS vigil at its museum.
Some frequently asked questions are answered, and there is a glossary and information on investigation techniques. This is a well-written and useful guide, of particular use to those who venture outside the environs of Cambridge itself to explore the county’s fascinatingly varied geography.
O’Dell refers to Stuart Orme when discussing the Peterborough museum as Orme works there and participated in the CPRS investigation which O‘Dell describes in some detail. Orme has his own book on the city out, Haunted Peterborough, published by The History Press. This might not appear at first sight to be a promising destination for the ghost aficionado, and Orme himself meets head-on the charge that Peterborough doesn’t have a lot going for it. In fact, as he points out, it is very historic, with far more than the shopping centre (though the inclusion of a useful sketch map shows the extent to which Queensgate dominates), and with enough spooklore to be able to support a ghost walk, which Orme devised. Having said that, the book is well under 100 well-illustrated pages, and some of those are taken up by an afterword on ‘What is a ghost?’, a decent bibliography and (a very rare but welcome inclusion in this type of volume) an index.
As the Peterborough Museum is billed as the city’s most haunted building, quite a lot of space is devoted to it, though there is only a brief reference to the CPRS investigation; O‘Dell covers it much more fully. Other chapters deal with the cathedral, the city centre, the railway, military ghosts, and the ‘Greater Peterborough’ area. The author’s background means that he has interwoven a great deal of local history into his ghost narratives and like O’Dell he writes in a crisp unadorned style. If you ever thought that Peterborough was only good for shopping, this book will put you right.
Other Cambridgeshire titles
Some other relevant publications focusing on Cambridgeshire include the following:
Daniel Codd’s Mysterious Cambridgeshire (2010) covers a variety of ghostly, folkloric, and more generally Fortean material. Similarly broad in scope is Polly Howat’s Ghosts and Legends of Cambridgeshire (1998). Cambridge itself has been well served by paranormal guidebooks. The best of these, Robert Halliday and Alan Murdie’s Cambridge Ghosts, has gone through two editions and is written by a local historian and paranormal expert respectively. Rupert Matthews has produced a pamphlet, Haunted Cambridge, (1994). Geoff Yeates looks at one aspect of the city in his Cambridge College Ghosts: A Gathering of Ghosts, Ghouls and Strange Goings-On (also 1994). David Curry’s The Men That Never Clocked Off: Ghost Stories from Cambridge Airport (2004) is cited in O’Dell‘s chapter on Marshall‘s, but is worth a look in its own right.
Elsewhere in the county, Margaret Haynes has produced a second edition of Haunted Ely (2003), originally written in collaboration with Vivienne Doughty in 1996. A D Cornell’s Investigating the Paranormal (2002) is not just about Cambridgeshire, but many of the cases Tony investigated are located there.
There are a couple of DVDs worth checking out. Tales of the Supernatural (2008) is a compilation of historical films with an East Anglian bias, and there are a couple of Cambridgeshire stories on it. Tony Cornell is shown at Hannath Hall, near Wisbech, and the assistant butler at Peterhouse is interviewed, talking about a ghost in the Combination Room. Both of these are included in O’Dell’s book. Richard Felix has produced a DVD of Ghosts of Cambridgeshire (2008).
One of my favourite non-Holmes short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is his 1913 ‘The Horror of the Heights’, which features jellyfish-like creatures living in the upper atmosphere. It is easy to think that the sky comprises a habitat with its own ecology, and Neil Arnold shows that it indeed forms a separate continent; one that, on the evidence he presents, is largely terra incognita. The Big Sky, as Kate Bush put it.
Arnold seems to have been impressed by Conan Doyle’s story too, as he mentions it in connection with actual flying ‘jellyfish’ that have really been reported from time to time. These are merely one kind of the more outré inhabitants of a realm that is chock-full of Fortean weirdness. Naturally UFOs, whatever they may be, loom large, with Arnold’s first British example dating from 1783, but in addition he provides a good sampling of high strangeness in our skies.
There is much on phantom airships, of which many were reported in British skies prior to the First World War. Phenomena such as ball lightning, lights in the sky and mystery hums, vie with falls of frogs, fish, and all sorts of odd stuff (including – yuk – faeces) dropping on bemused witnesses. There are naturally phantom aircraft and airmen, though despite the book’s title you only need an association with the sky to be included, you don’t have to be airborne at the time of the sighting, as witness the famous stories of a deceased Freddy Jackson turning up in a group photograph at RAF Cranwell, and David McConnell appearing to his roommate at Scampton after he had fatally crashed in fog. There are aerial armies and battles, and sundry mothmen, owlmen, bat-winged monkey-birds, winged snakes, horses (!), and beasts for which no name has been coined.
Naturally with such a broad title the sky’s the limit, so Arnold has had to be selective and has, on the whole, done a good job. I would take issue with the statement that while orbs are to be considered artefacts of digital photography, “Ghost hunters disagree and claim that orbs signify the presence of a spirit...” Many ghost hunters (though they may not approve of that term, and call themselves something else) are among the most vocal in dismissing orbs as merely photographic, rather than paranormal, anomalies. Not all ghost investigators are credulous.
Also, there is not much consideration of the role hoaxing plays, for example in sightings of the airships and the Brentford Griffin, and probably a lot else here. However, there have been suggestions that the Griffin, while started as a hoax, effectively took on a life of its own, and Arnold talks about tulpas, phenomena which begin as creatures of the imagination but then attain reality. Maybe so, but you could of course talk equally about contagion, cued misperception and bandwagon-jumping jokers. The maxim “You’ve got to believe it before you can see it”, as the annoyingly fey child tells Ted Danson in Loch Ness, is unreliable science.
This volume is one of a series of Shadows in the ... from The History Press, the others featuring churches, railways, and canals and waterways. Unsurprisingly its breadth means that depth has been sacrificed. Some topics are relatively less well covered elsewhere, but Shadows in the Sky will not replace Bruce Barrymore Halpenny’s classic Ghost Stations series (Halpenny receives a single mention, and is referred to as Halfpenny, but he must get that a lot), and it will not satisfy the reader whose primary interest is in UFOs.
Sadly, our troposphere is somewhat duller now than in days of yore, when dragons could be seen disporting themselves over London and the home counties (if only maps nowadays had “Here be dragons” marked on them, and there were instructions for avoiding them on Sat Nav!). Even so, the best advice seems to be: keep watching the skies, but be prepared to take evasive action.
PS Shortly after posting this review, the August 2012 Fortean Times arrived. The cover story is ‘The Sky is Alive’, by Scott Deschaine. His thesis is that the skies are a habitat in the same way that the oceans are, indeed, land, sea and sky are part of a single system. He argues that UFOs and other unexplained aerial phenomena might actually be misidentifications of living creatures, and that the appearance and behaviour of many of them share similarities with those of marine invertebrates.
The issue’s editorial column, entitled ‘Giant jellyfish from outer space!’, is devoted to the article, and as well as discussing the history of such speculation back to Charles Fort (somewhat undermining the cover’s bold headline: “Could UFOs be living creatures? A new theory of aerial phenomena”), talks of the atmosphere as a “Super-Sargasso Sea”. Naturally it refers to Conan Doyle’s story.
Darren W Ritson and Michael J Hallowell, authors of The South Shields Poltergeist and The Haunting of Willington Mill, as well as many other books on paranormal themes written separately, join forces once again to present their researches into haunted pubs in the north east of England, of which there are a great many (actually this is a reissue of the authors’ 2009 Ghost Taverns: An Illustrated Gazetteer of the North East). Pubs as a social setting have traditionally been a natural venue for storytelling, and this collection shows how varied, and yet often how similar, those stories can be.
Before getting to the haunted taverns, there are musings on the history of drinking and smoking (the two activities until recently heavily intertwined), a list of pubs and brewers in South Shields in 1834, and another of pubs in Jarrow in 1900. The gazetteer contains short entries interspersed with longer ones, some of the latter recounting investigations with local ghost-hunting groups at significant venues. A number of the pubs have appeared in Hallowell’s Ales and Spirits and Ritson’s Ghost Hunter and In Search of Ghosts, but are updated here. Normally such guides are well illustrated, but this volume has almost no photographs, apart from a small selection on a single page. This is fine though, as it allows more space for text.
Each entry is graded with a rating from 1 to 10 as an estimate of how significant the establishment is, not as a pub per se, but as a haunted site. The authors acknowledge that the criteria are flexible and subjective; however, the grades are not of course based on how haunted the place is, but how haunted it is claimed to be, that is, whether there is a good story with perhaps some grounding in reality – though with ghost narratives it is hard to tell the point at which truth ends and fiction begins. This is particularly so with commercial establishments, where there is often a suspicion that exaggeration and even invention is at work to attract punters (to be fair there are a couple of pubs in the book which have been given pseudonyms, so they can’t be accused of overegging their paranormal puddings).
Ritson and Hallowell know their stuff, but as so often with this type of book, little help is given to the reader who wants to employ it as a field guide. Premises are listed in alphabetical order, irrespective of location, so if you want to check which ones are in a given area, you are obliged to thumb through the lot. It would have helped to have had them grouped geographically, or at least provide an index with locations included.
As with Ritson and Hallowell’s other works, this is very readable, though with a frequent waggish reaching after ‘stylish writing’: books aren’t “books” when they can be “tomes”, and drinks are frequently “beverages” which are “ingested”. To be French is, naturellement, to be “of Gallic extraction”, etc etc. Sometimes their tongue-in-cheek prose leads them astray. “Roman legionnaires” is what happens when the authorities in the Italian capital don’t keep their water tanks clean; it’s Roman legionaries.* Mike’s brain structure appears to be peculiar: for him, the association between pubs and ghosts (to be precise, “the relationship between drinking establishments and denizens of the netherworld”) grew naturally, without him noticing, in his cerebellum. I think perhaps they mean in his cerebrum.
The authors certainly know how to amuse. They say of the South Shields Police Club that “the bar was popular, but so too were the toilets, for obvious reasons”. I think they are saying that drinking a lot requires frequent visits to the lavatory, but there could be other – equally obvious – reasons for the toilets being popular. The agog reader is left wondering exactly what a Saturday night at the South Shields Police Club looks like. One pub does a cracking “stake and ale pie”, which could be handy if vampires drop by while in the middle of dinner (or partaking of one’s repast, as Darren and Mike might put it).
Despite the eccentric use of language, if you ever have cause to go drinking in the area, this is a useful handbook to take with you. It is jammed with information which combines affection for the area with enthusiastic first-hand enquiry. The result is a deep knowledge both of alcohol, and the local boozers which have an interesting story attached.
Over the centuries the number of pubs in England has declined, and the trend has accelerated in recent years. At the same time the character of many of the survivors has altered, a bland homogenised uniformity often taking over from the homely spit and sawdust of the past, as landlords and landladies are replaced by managers employed by chains. But many pubs with character still exist, and there is no doubt that ghost stories will continue to emerge, especially while publicans find that they help to attract customers.
Given the amount of on-the-spot research carried out, it seems unlikely that the authors will make a great deal of profit from their tome, but on the other hand presumably they are in the enviable position of being able to offset their expenses against tax. Subsidised eating and drinking sounds rather attractive, and Ritson and Hallowell are to be applauded for finding such an elegant way to combine business and pleasure.
*To be fair to Darren and Mike, shortly after I wrote this review I heard Jack Dee on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue also refer to "Roman legionnaires". It must be infectious. Even though Shelley used the term “legionaires” in relation to the Roman legions, it seems poor style.
Prolific veteran researcher Peter Underwood has once more drawn on his files to compile a volume devoted Ireland’s ghostly lore north and south of the border. The bulk of the entries are, broken down into standard categories, which makes it easy to take in the salient details at a glance. Thus we have: the site’s location; its history in a couple of sentences; people associated with it; the manifestations; the possible identity of the ghost(s); frequency of sightings; and witnesses, plus any evidence for the sightings.
Entries are in alphabetical order, without a separate index or geographical breakdown. Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have not been distinguished. This system requires flipping through to see of a place is there or not, and with somewhere like Dublin, which is well represented, the visitor is going to have to do a lot of thumbing to see whether a particular site is represented.
As is typical of Underwood’s books, the emphasis is on castles, stately homes, and stories of antiquity, and his named witnesses are frequently drawn from the upper echelons of society. This is definitely ghost hunting as part of the heritage industry. Conversely he tends to avoid recent goings-on in council houses. It cannot be said that he provides a rounded picture of the paranormal, but it is an attractive one.
A large proportion of the accounts have come from correspondents and earlier compilations rather than personal visits (Underwood’s lack of direct involvement is indicated by the photographs, nearly all of which are drawn from libraries and the two national tourist boards rather than from his personal collection). There is a selection of further reading but no sources are listed for the individual entries, so they cannot be followed up.
Underwood has drawn together a wide-ranging sample of Ireland’s ghostly presences in a well-produced and well-written volume. Even if you don’t see anything paranormal on your travels in Ireland, you will certainly encounter some superb landscapes and architecture, and as ever, Peter Underwood is an enjoyable companion with a fund of anecdotes to enhance the experience.
The Merritton Tunnel, more dramatically known as the Blue Ghost Tunnel (BGT), is in the Niagara region of Southern Ontario. It is often considered to be the most haunted place in Canada, and a considerable volume of myth and folklore has grown up around it. Thanks to its reputation, enormous crowds have visited expecting paranormal activity, and the consequent necessity to separate facts from spurious accretions renders serious investigation difficult.
John Savoie has been researching the location for many years. He traces its history from working tunnel through disuse to fame as a paranormal hot-spot, documenting the sad physical decline, natural decay abetted by vandalism; it is now considered a dangerous structure, one end is flooded and it has been fenced off. It’s a complicated story, but the inclusion of a large number of photographs and maps helps to orient the reader unfamiliar with the saga or the topography.
The single-track tunnel, built to pass under a canal, opened in 1881 and closed in 1915, superseded by a double-track swing-bridge. It was first investigated as a haunted site in the 1970s, but its reputation grew enormously from 1999, after a paranormal investigator coined the ‘Blue Ghost’ tag as a result of witnessing a “blue, fog-like apparition” – possibly his breath. Despite a lack of experience (he was a teenager), he made bold claims for paranormal activity via the internet, which spread the BGT’s reputation much further and faster than would have happened in the old days, demonstrating the speed with which memes can circulate and mutate with very little in the way of decent evidence to support them. We can see the narrative developing, and have a record of it.
What really seems to have made the BGT what it is today is an appearance on a paranormal TV show called Creepy Canada. This boomed the location as “700 ft of Hell on Earth!” so it is not surprising that it attracted a certain set with fixed expectations. Interest after the broadcast increased enormously via social networking sites, making the tunnel a victim of its own success. Visiting the tunnel, which belongs to the Seaway Authority, necessitates trespassing, but this did not deter thrill-seekers. How much serious psychical research went on is unclear and it became a magnet for partying youths as well as paranormal investigators possessing varying degrees of competence and contact with reality.
Not having much in the way of direct links to a paranormal aetiology itself, various tragedies in the area became associated with the tunnel, even if not directly related to it, creating a metaphorical black hole which sucked in those events to augment its reputation. Added to such speculations were wild assertions that were patently overoptimistic, and occasionally faked. Some ghost hunters were interested primarily in personal aggrandisement, preferring to focus more on potential media deals than in seeking the truth.
The BGT is thus a microcosm of all that is best and worst, but mostly worst, in paranormal research. Savoie evaluates the various accounts that have accumulated around the BGT, considers whether there might be any truth in them, and looks at possible explanations for people’s experiences. Apart perhaps from some dotting and crossing, it is unlikely that much of substance will be added to his study. Clearly at some point the tunnel is going to collapse, but even then one suspects that the location will continue to exert a fascination, and attract further unreliable tales.
Victorian Spiritualists saw a parallel between long-distance communication of a terrestrial kind and that with a realm even farther away, as witness the many references to the “spiritual telegraph” in the literature of the period. Similarly, as Joel Edmondson puts it in The Uncanny Ear: Film and Telepathy, “The telephone’s disembodiment of the human sense organs is here an analogy for the uncanny forms of transmission studied by nineteenth-century psychical research.”
As that implies, despite most of us using it every day, the telephone is inherently mysterious. It rings, you pick it up ... and take on trust the person at the other end. Most of the time our assumptions are correct, but there is an element of uncertainty, and telephony’s ambiguities, the paradox that the person with whom we are communicating is simultaneously present and not-present, can play on fears about lack of knowledge, and therefore control, as exploited by films like Phone and One Missed Call. If the person we are speaking to is disembodied anyway, how can we be sure they are alive? On the evidence presented here, it would seem that quite often they aren’t.
Scott Rogo and Raymond Bayless published examples of calls involving the deceased in their 1979 book, self-explanatorily entitled Phone Calls from the Dead, and now Cal Cooper has extended their work with new examples and further analysis. He gives some biographical details of Rogo and Bayless, then traces the history of research into anomalous communication utilising the telephone. In some cases calls were spontaneously received, in others, researchers built equipment – psychic telephones – which they hoped would facilitate contact with the beyond.
Cooper next analyses anomalous calls, dividing them into five types, only three of which involve calls from the dead: ‘simple’; ‘prolonged’; ‘answer’ (a living person makes the call to someone, not realising they are dead, and the phone is answered); ‘mixed’ (combining aspects of ‘simple’ and ‘prolonged’); and ‘intention’ (a living person intends to make a call, doesn’t, and then finds that the intended recipient claims to have received it after all. So who rang?). Bringing the phenomenon up to date are voicemail messages from the dead which, though rare, have been documented, and text messages, easy to fake these days as they can be sent anonymously from websites with no metadata attached.
As well as analysing the accounts, Cooper has to defend Rogo and Bayless from charges that their work was not scientific because it was based on anecdotes. These could be seen as possessing strength through numbers, but the sceptical response is that numerous poor cases are no more convincing than one. Yet Rogo and Bayless brought to light a phenomenon that many people considered genuine, whatever the interpretation, and Cooper notes that they received letters after publication thanking them for highlighting something the writers thought that they alone had experienced. Something is going on, and it requires exploration.
In that spirit, after providing examples of the different types, Cooper discusses various possible explanations for these calls, including non-paranormal ones such as technical faults, misinterpretation, hoaxes, dreams and hallucinations. These are all possibilities; however, it is difficult to attribute a lengthy telephone call with someone who has died to hallucination, especially when there are witnesses.
Even if calls are paranormal in nature, Cooper speculates, they do not necessarily involve contact with the dead. They could be the result of psychokinesis by the bereaved, making the instrument ring while in a highly-charged emotional state, and hallucinating the subsequent conversation. This PK suggestion leads into a discussion of individuals affecting electrical systems (though the Rosenheim poltergeist case, in which many calls were made to the speaking clock, is not mentioned). Information not known to the living party could be acquired through clairvoyance or by telepathy with the living – the Super-ESP problem.
Finally, in line with Rogo and Bayless’s approach, Cooper seeks the opinions of three experts, the late John Randall, James Beichler, and John Palmer, the last a commentator for Rogo and Bayless’s findings as well. While unable to supply any answers, they all agree that the subject is an important one and worth investigation. Cooper urges researchers to keep an open mind when judging cases.
Anomalous phone calls definitely do not fit neatly into one category, and more work needs to be done in teasing out the differences, finding additional examples, and exploring causes. There will be a variety of explanations, but some of these could shed light on the human condition, pre- and perhaps post-mortem. With that end in mind, Cooper has performed a valuable service in reinvigorating a neglected field.
The life and death of RMS Titanic has spawned a publishing industry, tapping into a fascination that shows no sign of abating a hundred years after ship and iceberg came into such disastrous contact. Michael Tymn, author of The Articulate Dead and The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens after We Die, has, as the titles of his previous books might suggest, taken a different slant to the typical narrative about the ship’s brief history. As he says, it is about death and the dying, of both the ship and her passengers, but, more importantly, it is about what came next, and what it might all mean.
After giving some details about the ship and a timeline of her fateful voyage, Tymn examines the continuing fascination, why we still remember when worse maritime disasters have been forgotten. Naturally the 1997 film has played a role in maintaining interest, but there is something mythic about the Titanic which blends grand themes of technology and overconfidence brought low with more intimate themes of compassion, heroism and stoicism that address ideals now seemingly rarer in our own age. It is emblematic of a world that seemed safe, secure and prosperous, but which was to collapse in August 1914. The Titanic is a metaphor for that world of complacent self-assurance which was really so vulnerable, and so soon to end. The sinking resonates because it shows how fragile our supposed certainties are.
Tymn presents pen-portraits of a number of those on board, both those who lived and those who died, which provide a thumbnail sketch of the ship’s social composition. He describes the last hours and the various ways in which the passengers behaved – generally well in the circumstances. The most significant person who died that night for Tymn is William T Stead, the English journalist, editor, and campaigner for both social change and Spiritualism. In one way and another, much of the book revolves around him.
Some familiar literary oddities about the ship are rehearsed, such as Stead’s 1892 From the Old World to the New; or, A Christmas Story of the World’s Fair, 1893, which features a real vessel called the Majestic. In the story it is captained by Edward J Smith, who really did captain the Majestic, but after its publication, and then even more strangely was captain of the Titanic. To add to the coincidences, the Majestic sinks after hitting an iceberg in the north Atlantic (one wonders if the two men chatted about Stead‘s book at the captain‘s table as they steamed across the north Atlantic). Also well known are the parallels between the Titanic and Morgan Robertson’s story ‘The Wreck of the Titan‘.
Tymn samples the stories told of passengers booked on the Titanic who cancelled because of bad omens or otherwise foresaw the disaster, and adds cases of similar premonitions with other ships which were duly lost. One of the examples from the Titanic, a premonitory dream which J Connon (not Cannon) Middleton had two nights running, is taken from the SPR’s Journal of June 1912. Tymn quotes extensively from Middleton’s letter to the SPR, but the editing suggests that Middleton cancelled his booking as a direct result of his dreams, and that a business conflict gave him a ready excuse for something he wanted to do anyway, whereas a sentence omitted in Tymn’s extract shows clearly that Middleton cancelled his ticket because of a cable from America suggesting he postpone sailing for a few days.
Then we move on to the collision and its aftermath, as Tymn examines both telepathic messages received from those in crisis, and messages from individuals who had lost their lives which were received by mediums, telling of their new existence. Naturally, given his background as a vigorous promoter of Spiritualism, Stead’s involvement with the movement is scrutinised. A journalist, Julia Ames, had interviewed him, and after her death in 1891 he had begun receiving messages from her through automatic writing. Many of the messages were collected in Letters from Julia, and selections are included here.
Stead himself appeared at séances after the sinking, as did John Jacob Astor IV, and there are accounts of séances supplying details of what it was like to pass over when the ship sank, and how different life experiences affected the manner in which the victims reacted to their changed circumstances. (One survivor says that he saw Stead and Astor clinging to a raft together until succumbing to hypothermia, though Tymn adheres to the version which has Stead struck on the head by a funnel on deck.) Stead’s post-mortem appearances suggested that, because he had studied the evidence provided by Spiritualism during his life, he was able to move on more easily than others on the ship, the wealthy finding that earthly attachment to possessions hindered their transition.
This is not the first work about the paranormal aspects of the Titanic, in fact it is quite a well-worked area. To add to Tymn’s bibliography are Ian Stevenson‘s two papers in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, ‘A review and analysis of paranormal experiences connected with the sinking of the Titanic’ in 1960, and ‘Seven more paranormal experiences associated with the sinking of the Titanic’ in 1965; Rustie Brown’s The Titanic: The Psychic and the Sea (1981); Martin Gardner’s edited collection The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold? (1986); George Behe’s Titanic: Psychic Forewarnings of a Tragedy (1989); John Wilson Foster’s ‘The Titanic Disaster: Stead, Ships and the Supernatural’, in The Titanic in Myth and Memory: Representations in Visual and Literary Culture (2004); and Bertrand Meheust’s Histoires Paranormales du Titanic, 2006. Robertson’s story was reprinted with commentary by Stevenson as The Wreck of The Titan: or, Futility; Paranormal Experiences Connected With the Sinking of the Titanic (1974). Fortean Times, May 2012, has an article by Carol Fenlon on paranormal aspects of the Titanic with the trivialising title ‘That Sinking Feeling’, relying heavily on Behe.
However, as the title suggests, Tymn’s book is not just about the Titanic, or even about Stead. The messages conveyed by those who lost their lives on the ship transcend this one tragic incident and, for Tymn, teach universal truths about the afterlife. He draws out similarities between the instances of paranormal cognition and mediumistic communication arising from the loss of the Titanic and similar examples in the wider literature of psychical research, and finishes with some observations on Spiritualism’s fluctuating fortunes. He is confident that mediumship, including the evidence from communications by those who died as a result of the sinking of the Titanic, demonstrates convincingly the lesson of our survival of bodily death.
Phantom Gramophone, part of The Miracle Factory, have produced a CD of radio programmes featuring Joseph Dunninger (1892-1975), who billed himself as the “Master Mentalist” and “The Master Mind”. In all there are sixteen digitally restored tracks in mp3 format, twelve a selection of Dunninger’s own shows from 1944. plus four others in which he makes a guest appearance. The result is more than seven hours of vintage radio.
Dunninger was a New Yorker, though you would not guess it from his refined tones. He appeared to be able to read the thoughts of his audience, achieving astonishing results with only a pad of paper and pencil as props. He said that he received mental impressions, and when he had identified the relevant person in the audience, he was able to tell them more about what they are thinking.
Typically he would throw out letters of the alphabet, a number or name and ask who was thinking about it, then when a person volunteered that it was his or her thought, he would give them other specific information such as names, addresses, bank note and social security serial numbers. He not only told one woman that a relative was a POW in Germany, but the name of the camp and his prison number (though she had to tell him it was her nephew). He stressed the need to be cooperative, otherwise, he claimed, there were no limitations on the information that he could obtain, talking of “tuning-in” to thoughts, and he claimed about 90% accuracy. It is worth remembering that these recordings were not post-edited to leave out misses and only include hits, so it is easy to see that this estimate is about right.
His performance was astonishing, and unlike many magic practitioners of the past, his secrets have remained secure. This was not a two-person act, like the Piddingtons; he stated that he did not use assistants or confederates, and offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he had secret help, a sum that was never claimed. Shows were broadcast from different cities, so it is hard to see how he could employ extensive local knowledge. One would still like to have seen the front of his pad as he sat on stage, though. He would say that any 3-year old could do what he did – with 30 years’ practice.
Some of his technique seemed to be cold reading, and there may have been social pressure to agree with what he said when he asked if a person was thinking of something, but that does not explain the quantity and range of information that he produced with which individuals concurred, many of whom clearly were not bothered about pleasing Dunninger by agreeing with him, and who occasionally told him he was wrong. He was able to divine statements written by Hollywood film stars, individuals not likely to be overawed by him, with an impressive degree of accuracy, so this is more than people conforming to social pressure.
He was quick to turn ‘misses’ to his advantage. For example, he told a woman the number of a bank note number in her possession, and when she said that the number he had given - 634 - was wrong, he promptly asked who in the audience was thinking of 634, without asking the first woman what her number was. Dunninger claimed that as the other individual was thinking of the number at the same time, it made it difficult for Dunninger to receive the correct one. He quite often complained that the thoughts of others were interfering with those of a particular subject on whom he was concentrating. He needed to “tune out” interfering strong thoughts from others, and these he said accounted for errors.
The procedure with audience members was fairly standard, however it was done, but he was ingenious in thinking up variations on the theme. He always had a panel of judges, generally a combination of celebrities and local worthies, and they were often involved in his “Brain-Buster“ experiments, as he called them, which showcased his talents. For example, one “Double Brain-Buster” required the judges to leave the room separately, and each to think of a four-digit number. Dunninger gave the studio audience and listeners a large number while the judges were out of earshot. They came back , he correctly told them the numbers they were each thinking of, and when added up, the sum came to the number he had given the audience, and which was written on a blackboard on stage.
There was more, however, as if that were not remarkable enough (the “double” part): on this occasion the well-known country music singer Roy Acuff was a judge, and Dunninger asked him, using the Chicago telephone directory (the largest in the US), to find the page number, column and entry corresponding to the figures of the total number, a procedure reminiscent of the Spiritualist book tests. Dunninger was able to give the name, address and phone number of the subscriber listed at that point. On another show judges formulated a murder mystery in and Dunninger worked out the murderer while the judges thought of the name.
A curious variation was the “Mental lie detector”. The subject was asked to concentrate on a false name, and Dunninger said he would be able to distinguish the conscious, which was trying to deceive him, and the subconscious, which cannot lie, reading the mind rather than the thought. Thus one subject was thinking of the incorrect date of his mother’s birthday, and Dunninger told him which was the date of which he was thinking, and which was the actual date on which she was born (though he seemed to have trouble determining which was which until told, which might reduce the value of his technique as a lie detector).
He would also encourage participation by the listeners at home by giving them a “projection”, for example he would “project” mentally the name of a woman’s military service, or the name of a character from Gone With the Wind, and listeners, given a multiple choice, would write in with what they thought Dunninger’s selection would be. The answer would be given on the next show. For a New York broadcast, 3,000 letters that had been sent in by listeners within a 100 mile radius of New York City were on stage. The judges chose two letters and concentrated on them. Dunninger was able to read the contents from across the stage, including the names of the writers. He could certainly think on his feet: in one show, guests told jokes to which he gave the punch line, with hardly a pause.
He could be topical, such as using the massively popular Gone With the Wind (appropriately the answer to that projection was announced in Atlanta, Georgia). Similarly he did a long-distance “mental miracle” suggested by Dick Powell, based on Rene Clair’s film It Happened Tomorrow. The editor of the New York Daily Mirror thought of a headline for the next day’s paper while studio guest Dorothy Kilgallen was on the telephone to him, but with him only thinking of headline, not telling her what it was. Dunninger wrote it down, and then the editor told Kilgallen the headline. It matched Dunninger‘s text.
In addition to Dunninger’s shows, the CD includes a number in which he himself made guest appearances. The earliest pieces are an interview given when Dunninger was visiting Norfolk, Virginia, and an anecdote broadcast on a show called We the People, both stated to be from 1940. The interview by Gene Abrams on WLOW Radio in Norfolk is sadly incomplete, but features Dunninger describing an interesting test which bears a resemblance to the sorts of ‘muscle reading’ exhibitions put on by Stuart Cumberland (subject of another Miracle Factory disc), though there is no indication that Dunninger used the muscle reading technique.
In this test, a newspaper was hidden by the mayor and city manager somewhere in Norfolk. Dunninger attempted to read their thoughts and locate the paper. He decided that they had hidden it at police headquarters so they all went there and he was able to tell them what the combination of the safe was, and retrieve the paper from it. Unfortunately he confessed to not being able to locate a missing husband, saying he was not a fortune teller, and stating somewhat irrelevantly that he could read thoughts but not predict the future. That inability would seem to include reading the thoughts of the missing husband.
The We the People item is not an interview but a story which sounds fictitious. It features a couple staying in a shack in the Adirondacks that belonged to the husband’s family but which had been empty since his father‘s death a decade before. In the way of these things, the place had acquired a reputation for being haunted. On cue, dad’s old guitar, hanging on the wall, started making strumming sounds in the night, stopping when the light went on. After a week of baffled nocturnal disturbance, they called in Dunninger who, apparently happy to visit the Adirondacks, quickly discovered what the hapless couple had failed to spot, that there were giant moths in the guitar which struck the steel strings as they flew about in the dark. Dunninger claimed, probably with much exaggeration, that he had investigated “hundreds” of haunted houses, and never found one that did not have a simple natural explanation.
He finished his contribution to the show by saying that he had codes with Houdini, Edison and Howard Thurston, but none had managed to communicate after death. As chairman of the Universal Council for Psychic Research, he said that he offered $10,000 to anyone who could demonstrate physical psychic or spiritualistic abilities that Dunninger was unable to explain or duplicate by natural or scientific means. This offer, he said, he had made for twelve years. He may not have been as close a friend of Houdini’s as he claimed, but he saw himself in the same anti-Spiritualist mould.
The other two appearances date from 1944. There is a short interview with Bill Stern, in The Bill Stern Colgate Sports Newsreel , in which he claims, somewhat improbably, to be a motor racing fan. The final item on the CD is a brief guest spot on The Lucky Strike Program starring Jack Benny. It takes a while before Benny gets to Dunninger, but he is very funny in the meantime. The encounter is based on Dunninger’s act, but is scripted.
As well as providing a liberal helping of Dunninger, the recordings are a window into a vanished age. Kem-Tone paint sponsored some of the shows, and was endlessly (and tediously) plugged, with Dunninger’s sidekick regularly stopping proceedings to supply rambling endorsements. It seems strange nowadays to hear tobacco products so shamelessly advertised, as done on the Jack Benny show, but more positively Dunninger included patriotic messages to help the war effort. In addition to the relentless messages from the sponsors, there were often songs to eke out the running time of the show, and add variety to the Dunninger formula.
Why is Dunninger of interest to psychical research? Assuming with some confidence that this was not real telepathy (ever the showman, he was happy to foster ambiguity about whether he could read thoughts paranormally), there seems to be little point in studying a stage act for insights into possible real telepathic processes. However, Dunninger demonstrates just how impressive a highly skilled but non-paranormal ‘thought reader’ can be. If he is able to achieve results like this, he becomes a benchmark against which other psychic claimants have to be measured, whatever the strengths of their performances. Tests have to be made in rigorously controlled conditions because it is always possible that a less scrupulous version of Dunninger might come along to try to trick researchers. The unwary could be easily, but falsely, persuaded that they had witnessed a demonstration of real psychic powers.
The radio show, which began in September 1943, was cancelled in December 1944 as audiences tired of the format and listening figures fell. Dunninger moved to television in the 1950s and 60s, until Parkinson’s disease curtailed his remarkable career. This is only a selection of his broadcasts, though the most complete available, and seems to have been taken from long playing records (of variable quality). The Miracle Factory have produced an excellent compilation of rare recordings, but it would have benefited from some contextual information (Barry Wiley who helped to compile the Stuart Cumberland CD for The Miracle Factory, has an informative article on Dunninger‘s pre-television career, ‘Psychic Radio: Dunninger the Mentalist‘ in History Magazine, Vol.10, No.6, August-Sept, 2009, p.47). But never mind, you can hear for yourself that Dunninger was a master mentalist. Listening to this fascinating collection, you really will be amazed.
Further details of the CD can be found at www.miraclefactory.net.
Timereel Studios compile DVDs using archive footage to tap into the nostalgia history market, and their list includes a couple of paranormally-themed discs, Tales of the Supernatural and Haunted London. Based in Norwich, they have strong links with the East Anglian Film Archive, the final resting place of Anglia Television’s recordings, hence Tales of the Supernatural has a distinctly East of England flavour (it was originally released as Ghosts of East Anglia).
The segments are linked by host Dick Glover – who bears a passing resemblance, probably coincidental, to veteran ghost investigator Peter Underwood – sitting in a cosy study with a crackling fire. The films he introduces include a wide range of individuals recorded by Anglia Television since it began operation in 1959 who had had brushes with what they considered the paranormal, plus the odd sceptic. An early example is an interview recorded in Sheringham in 1961 in which a witness describes a Black Shuck encounter thirty years before. This film is available on the East Anglian Film Archive website and, confusingly, according to their record the name of the witness was Leslie Goodwin, but on the DVD it is given as Tom Starling.
Films become more frequent as the years progress. In Fakenham in 1975, for example, a mother and daughter found that their house had a sinister atmosphere, the mother was attacked by a force that tried to strangle her with her crucifix, and both they and their next-door neighbour saw apparitions. The King’s Head at Diss the following year was the scene of a ghost with which the landlord’s young daughter communicated. Her parents attributed it to her imagination, until the landlord himself saw a green hazy ghost. They were all remarkably unfazed by their experiences. A feisty George Davey at Halesworth in 1982 awoke to see what he thought was an intruder in his bedroom. George grabbed the shotgun kept conveniently near his bed, doubtless for such emergencies in crime-ridden Halesworth, and challenged the figure, whereupon it vanished, leaving its shoes and socks for a moment before they followed after.
Borley is the subject of a very brief 1960s featurette, but the details are sketchy and include nothing substantial. Another well-known case, from 1966, is that of the photograph Gordon Carroll took in the parish church of St Mary’s, Woodford, in July 1964, showing a figure apparently kneeling before the high altar. Unfortunately the impact of the colour slide is lost in a black and white film, and Carroll himself is not interviewed.
There are some recent interviews describing strange experiences, the dates of which are not given and which were presumably filmed for the DVD, such as the lady near Norwich whose house was built on the site of an old burial ground and who woke one night to find the heads and shoulders of three men staring down at her for several seconds before disappearing. Another concerns Peter Yaxley, who was walking on the flats near Stiffkey (mispronounced on the film as “Stiff-key” whereas it is actually “Stukey”) when he spotted a figure in the distance walking a large dog. Uncannily, the figures left no traces in the damp sand. Locals thought the sighting matched the recently deceased ‘Jack’, but it would be nice to think Mr Yaxley saw the shade of Stiffkey’s “prostitutes’ padre” Harold Davidson, taking Black Shuck for a run.
In another section, a more standard-issue clergyman than Davidson pops up to confuse the viewer with a diatribe indiscriminately blasting mediumship, séances, witchcraft, the occult and black magic as aspects of Satan’s snare. A rather more sensible-sounding cleric, Fr Paul Maddison, describes seeing an oven light itself, and a kettle boil while disconnected. Cambridge does not feature much, surprising given its rich paranormal history, but there is a 1997 Anglia News interview with the assistant butler at Peterhouse who said he and a colleague had seen a ghostly figure in the Combination Room, and the interviewer noted that knockings had been heard there.
There are many similar films of people telling their stories and they form an interesting collage, but for SPR members, the most intriguing parts are probably those featuring the late Tony Cornell, a hugely experienced investigator and the author with Alan Gauld of the classic Poltergeists (1979). Tony features in two segments, one the investigation of Hannath Hall, near Wisbech, the other Morley Hall, near Wymondham. Tony and Alan wrote an article on Hannath Hall in the September 1960 issue of the SPR’s Journal: ‘A Fenland Poltergeist’.
Morley Hall figures extensively in the longest section on the DVD, in a documentary called The Unknown which Anglia Television transmitted on 24 August 1964. Tony Cornell acted as advisor and was asked to demonstrate a typical spontaneous case investigation. The atmospheric Morley Hall, a large sixteenth-century building which was being restored, was chosen by the television company for the purpose. Tony is prominent, and there is a rather lovely sequence in which he is shown walking around the labyrinthine building. It’s all about as far from the histrionics of Most Haunted as you can get.
The Morley Hall investigation has achieved some fame, because this is the recording which caused several viewers to contact the station to say that when Tony was being interviewed, they could see a hooded monk behind him. The interview was broadcast again, and more people wrote in to say that they could see the figure. Cornell and Gauld wrote the story up in the March 1969 Journal, as ‘A “Ghost” on Television’, concluding that the shape was an illusion caused by the pattern of markings on the background stonework. Tony also covered the monk ‘sighting’ at Morley Hall in his 2002 book Investigating the Paranormal. Unfortunately this sequel to Tony’s interview is not mentioned on the DVD.
In addition to the archival content there are dramatic reconstructions, such as the Hannath Hall story, the legend of Brother Pacificus who is said to haunt Ranworth Broad, and the account of the police constable who in November 1956 heard a bell tolling in a church. When he went to investigate found the church empty but the rope swinging. This was tenuously thought to link to the death of the owner of nearby Foulden Hall on the same date ten years before. Another police-related film recorded a visit to Haverhill police station, presumably in the 1970s, when a heavy cell door slammed on its own, and a typewriter was heard operating in the middle of the night when that floor was unoccupied.
Tales of the Supernatural is a fascinating record for anyone interested in ghost stories, or interested in seeing a bygone age and what it did with its hairstyles and wallpaper. People are certainly far more comfortable on camera now than they used to be, and some of the earlier interviews are notably stilted (though Tony Cornell always comes over as very relaxed). In terms of spontaneous case investigation, the kit may be more complicated nowadays, but the essential elements – intelligence and empathy – are the same today as they were fifty years ago.
But while it makes enjoyable viewing for those wanting to wander down memory lane, it does have drawbacks for anyone wishing to use the DVD for research purposes, the major one being that there is inadequate signposting between different archive films – it is not always clear where they begin and end – and between archive films and sequences shot for the DVD. There is also trimming of footage. The Leslie Goodwin/Tom Starling interview on the disc is missing the first shot; admittedly this is just him hoeing his garden, but it casts doubt on the integrity of the rest. According to Cornell and Gauld’s ‘A “Ghost” on Television’ article, The Unknown ran for half an hour (probably slightly less with advertisements), but the length on the DVD is a mere 18 minutes, and cuts off abruptly at the end of the interview with Tony. One has to wonder what has been edited out of the films.
The linking commentary usually, though not always, provides the year a film was made, but no further information, so notes setting out the dates of transmission, and for short magazine items, the programmes in which they first appeared, would have made the package even more useful. Despite these flaws, it is good to see old films retrieved from the vaults. Anglia Television is to be applauded for not discarding them, and Timereel Studios for making them available to a wide audience. There must be more of a similar nature sitting in regional collections, and further DVDs on the theme from around the country would be welcome, perhaps compiled with a closer eye on the integrity of the source material.
Geoff Holder is one of the most interesting authors of paranormal guidebooks, combining as he does a deep knowledge of the subject and sensitivity to the historical context with an engaging writing style. He is unusual in that he is as much concerned to clear away myths and folklore (or “fakelore”) that accumulate round some factual kernel – or sometimes no substance at all – as he is to try to establish a paranormal aspect to a story. As a result, some long-lasting and no doubt cherished local legends are subjected to a critical analysis and found wanting. There is a great deal of historical background to the city included in passing, and as with the best gazetteers, you learn a lot about the place’s history while reading about its ghosts, whether they are convincing or not.
He has found a substantial number of accounts by combing newspaper archives, journals and websites, a quantity all the more surprising given that Holder himself points out that Dundee has been generally ignored by earlier writers. As well as presenting historical cases, he includes modern ones resulting from an appeal for people to tell him their experiences, some of which were rather unpleasant for the experients. It turns out that the city has a lively spooky history, and its exposure is long overdue.
Some of Dundee’s ghosts are standard-issue. For example, it has a wide selection of White Ladies, with a Black Lady for contrast, and some ‘hot spots’ linked to historical figures. More unusual are the ghost stories associated with the two famous ships which reside in Dundee, Discovery and Unicorn. The former is most closely associated with Captain Scott, but Holder rightly points out how difficult it is to determine an origin for paranormal reports, and how a link with a famous person can be spurious given the number of candidates for a ghost. Other highlights include a Spring Heeled Jack panic in 1883 and the paranormal heritage of the Tay Bridge disaster. The book concludes with a couple of descriptions of ‘fetches’, or doubles, taken from W T Stead’s Real Ghost Stories.
You would expect to see such material in this type of book, but Holder goes deeper and mulls on the problem of distinguishing what is ‘out there’ from what is ‘in here’, the extent to which people’s brains may be creating the experience, and he discusses various interpretations of ghosts, not all of which support the survival hypothesis. “Neuroscience is now the cutting edge of paranormal research” is not the sort of sentence one often reads in regional ghost guides, and it leads neatly in to a discussion of the work of Dundee psychiatrist James McHarg as set out in papers in the SPR‘s Journal.
McHarg identified two separate issues that bedevil any psychical researcher: apparent psi phenomena which turn out to be subjective and not paranormal, for example those claimed by schizophrenics or individuals experiencing hallucinations; and a smaller category, in McHarg’s estimation, of genuine psi phenomena arising from mental distress (but which might of course be misconstrued as subjective and not paranormal). This discussion should make the reader interested in the nature of ghosts want to look up McHarg’s papers in the SPR’s publications.
While open to the possibility that some experiences recounted are genuinely paranormal, Holder is keen to provide a normal explanation where the facts as known seem to warrant it, more so than some similar guides which uncritically present stories with no attempt to dig underneath to find out what might have happened. He is not a debunker, however, and if there is some aspect that defies explanation, he is happy to say so. That makes him a sceptic in the true sense of the term.
History Press’s production values are always good, and Holder has included a couple of maps, a list of places open to visitors, with access information, a very extensive bibliography, and an index, making this an excellent package. The book is well illustrated, mostly by the author’s own photographs, though sadly it turns out that one haunted corridor looks much like another. Haunted Dundee is a companion to Holder’s 2000 Paranormal Dundee, which had a broad Fortean remit, whereas the new book focuses more on ghosts. Each is fairly short, but together they provide a detailed ecology of weirdness that should satisfy the most demanding Dundonian.
Lorn Macintyre, who gave the opening talk to the SPR’s 2011 conference in Edinburgh on Pitmilly House, has produced a pamphlet containing information about this large residence and the strange occurrences that were said to have taken place there in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is a useful supplementary background source for anyone interested in this enigmatic case, but unfortunately it has not drawn on the file held in the Society for Psychical Research’s archives which contains much relevant information that has never been published. The case was initially investigated by Lord Charles Hope, and the extensive, if barely legible, notes he sent to the SPR’s Research Officer, C V C Herbert in 1940 are a key resource for anyone delving into the Pitmilly affair.
Pitmilly House, which stood between St Andrews and Kingsbarns in Fife (tel. Boarhills 30), had long been in the Monypenny family, but their declining fortunes obliged them to let it to tenants, including the rakish Sir William Gordon Cumming and his unhappy American heiress wife Florence. It was bought in 1930 by Captain John Arthur Jeffrey. He and his wife Alison had two children, Thomas Ivan, born in 1915, and Mary Elizabeth, born in1924. At the time the poltergeist outbreak became publicised, the family was living in the house together with a couple of elderly female servants (Hope is vague about the help as he discounted their involvement), a Swiss governess and a Danish daughter-in-law, Vibeke (or Vebike, Hope cannot make up his mind). Thomas was in the forces and mostly away from home at the time.
The large number of poltergeist-like phenomena which occurred in the house during the Jeffrey years, were recounted by Ivan (as Thomas called himself) in a programme on the brand-new Radio 4 in 1967. The first, when he was “comparatively young”, was a piece of coal which appeared on the table in the middle of dinner. According to Hope’s notes, the phenomena started in about 1936 (escalating in late 1939), but Ivan was 21 in 1936, so if Ivan’s memory is accurate, events began earlier. When on leave during the war he saw a Chinese bronze ornament sail across the hallway and hit him in his “tum-tum”, as he quaintly put it. Other events he recalled included valuable ornaments discovered upset or broken, pictures falling off the walls, items falling off mantelpieces, and things disappearing that failed to return. A wardrobe crashed to the floor, hot coals appeared in random places and set fire to curtains. Fires started in several different places at the same time. Visiting psychics also experienced phenomena and an “exorcism” carried out by a visiting clergyman had no effect.
In March 1940 an extensive fire broke out, affecting some twenty rooms, and the claim settled by the insurers was later used as evidence that the insurers had recognised poltergeist activity. Phenomena were not though confined to the family. From 1942 to 1946 the house was requisitioned, and soldiers had odd experiences, not least seeing the ghost of Captain Jeffrey, who had died in July 1941. By now word was getting out and an article appeared in the American Weekly in the US in July 1942 entitled ‘No Rest in the Mansion’. While not named, this was clearly about Pitmilly House. Yet there seemed to be no long-established history of paranormal occurrences because Charlton Monypenny, the previous owner, was contacted by the press and claimed in ambiguous terms that “since my grandfather went there no-one has seen or heard anything except fancy on the part of someone”. That may mean that there were suggestions of strange happenings that were attributed by the sceptical Monypennys to imagination. Even if there were, they would not have been on the scale of those reported during the Jeffrey period.
James Herries, a Spiritualist and reporter on The Scotsman, wrote an article for Psychic Science, published in the October 1942 number, in which he referred only to “a Scottish mansion house”. He had visited Pitmilly House on 19 March 1940, staying overnight and adds the details that there were a couple of affable dogs in the house. He conducted interviews, and while he gives a useful overview of events, Hope in his notes calls him “very gullible”. Herries held a séance with a Glaswegian direct voice medium, Mrs McCallum. There were some strange voices, but no other results.
Hope visited the house on 28 April 1940, but before this he had had discussed Pitmilly extensively with the Jeffrey family lawyer, Gilbert Hole, of Gillespie and Paterson in Edinburgh. Hole was acting for the family in the insurance claim and had himself witnessed events, including vases in mid-air, which had scared him. Herries’s article also refers to “an Edinburgh professional man” who had given him information, and this is Hole because both Hope and Herries recount a story (Herries without naming his informant) in which Hole was sitting in an armchair with an ashtray containing several used matches, and when he looked down he found that these were arranged along the arm of the chair.
As a result of Hope’s lengthy account, Herbert asked W H Salter, the SPR’s Hon Secretary, if it would be worth going to Pitmilly House himself, as Hope was keen for him to make the trip. Salter thought it would be, if Herbert could be there at the same time as Hope (despite wartime conditions Hope employed a chauffeur, who did a bit of sleuthing for his boss on the side), but there is no further correspondence on the matter so it looks as though Herbert never made it.
Harry Price devotes a chapter to the case in his 1945 book Poltergeist over England. To maintain confidentiality he calls it “Poltergeist Manor”, which gives Macintyre his subtitle, though the way Price phrases it suggests that the sobriquet was coined earlier (it is not used by either Hope or Herries). Price refers to a “professional man”, who had given him full reports, the first in 1940, and this again is Hole, as the matchstick story is reused, with the information that prior to the matches being arranged on the arm, Hole had been thrown to the floor with the chair on top; presumably he had picked up any fallen matches so would have known that they were in the ashtray when he sat back down. Hope’s less dramatic version is that at some point prior to the lined-up matches incident, Hole had been sitting talking to a policeman when he was pushed over. For a solicitor, Hole seems to have been astonishingly indiscreet, and one has to wonder if he egged things on in order to be at the centre of attention.
Price too lists an extensive range of phenomena. Incidents included furniture sliding around by itself; ewers of water in bedrooms constantly emptied onto the beds; heavy fire-irons rattling themselves and when tied up managing to jump apart, leaving the string knotless; a heavy wardrobe tilting at an angle of forty-five degrees but not falling over, in defiance of gravity (presumably on the occasion Ivan Jeffrey recounted, gravity won); and a heavy bronze vase which once shot through the open front doorway “at an incredible speed“, changed direction through ninety degrees, and came to rest in the garden, all in front of witnesses. If this was the object that hit Ivan in his “tum-tum” and it was going at any speed, he would have known about it as according to Price the vase weighed about 15lbs. There were numerous fires, but conversely on one occasion the owner thought he saw a fire on his bedroom carpet yet after beating it out found no trace of damage. ‘Exorcisms’, to use Price’s term, were conducted unsuccessfully by both Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy (the latter according to Herries an Episcopalian who merely held “some kind of service”). Price said at the end of the chapter that he hoped to be able to follow up the case personally, and Macintyre suspects that the result would have made a companion piece to The Most Haunted House in England, as The Most Haunted House in Scotland. Macintyre speculates that it may have been Price who leaked the story to American Weekly. Price was certainly aware of the article as he cited it in a footnote.
The Jeffrey family sold the house and it became an hotel in 1947. It was finally demolished in 1967-8, at the time of Ivan’s broadcast. The Monypenny and Jeffrey families and their relatives and friends had a stock of stories from the house’s heyday, like the bishop who came to conduct an ‘exorcism’ on a cold day sitting in front of the fire and having his hat leap from his lap into the flames. A woman dressed in green was seen in and around the house. One particularly bizarre story had a pair of gloves being held up to a fire, as if filled by invisible hands. The same witness, walking down the stairs, saw the portraits lift on their chains and rotate. During the period of the hotel, bottles of sealed alcohol mysteriously emptied, the seals left intact.
The house was referred to by G W (not F W, as Macintyre has it) Lambert in a 1964 paper in the SPR’s Journal, ‘Scottish Haunts and Poltergeists II’, calling it “Pitmillie” (which he probably took from Hope’s notes, which also refer to “Pitmillie”) and noting its proximity to the Ochil fault. He links the bulk of phenomena at the house to the sorts of effects that occur with earthquakes, there having been a number of them locally in the period 1936-40, the very years in which events at the house were at their height. Lambert famously proposed hydraulic pressure caused by underground water action as a mechanism for poltergeists and was here seeking another type of natural explanation, though rotating paintings and levitating gloves would have been beyond its scope.
Macintyre notes that Frank Harvey Junior’s 1947 play The Poltergeist and the 1948 film based on it, Things Happen at Night, have their origin in Pitmilly House (the film was not a Hollywood production as Macintyre states, but was made at Twickenham). The film acknowledges Price in a preamble: “The characters and incidents in this film are entirely fictional, although all persons interested in poltergeist phenomena must necessarily be indebted to Mr Harry Price for his research work in that field.” Coals feature extensively in the film, something particularly associated with Pitmilly House, and an insurance investigator is a major character. A psychical researcher, presumably a version of Price, is the most authoritative person present, directing the investigation. Events at ‘Hilton Grange’ in the film, largely played for laughs (supposedly), go beyond even the most outlandish aspects of Pitmilly, culminating in the sight of Alfred Drayton discharging buckshot at flying vases, of which there seem to be an unfeasibly large number on the premises. (This was not Drayton’s only brush with the paranormal, having been a guest at The Halfway House in 1944, an establishment kept by ghosts) There is a poltergeist focus at Hilton Grange, a school-age daughter based on Mary, though despite the uniform she looks as if she probably left her school days behind a good few years earlier.
There has been surprisingly little written about Pitmilly House since the 1940s. Apart from Lambert’s mention in JSPR, Alan Gauld and A D Cornell include it in the appendix to their 1979 book Poltergeists, as Case 429, but do not discuss it. Sadly, it seems unlikely that a complete explanation for Pitmilly House will ever emerge at this late stage. Eyewitnesses attested to remarkable events, but are now beyond further interrogation.
Herries was convinced that the poltergeist was genuinely paranormal, with an intelligence behind it. Hope’s verdict was much more tentative, and was essentially ‘open’. He did not think there was collusion, yet no one person seems to have been present during all of the events. Hope thought the “easiest” solution was that Captain Jeffrey began it, and Vibeke was frightened, then realising he was responsible, when he was away she also faked events to get even, which frightened him in turn. Surprisingly, given that he was supposed to have witnessed paranormal events, Hole told Hope that he thought that Captain Jeffrey had faked some. Presumably Hole would have told Herries and Price the same thing, but neither mentions it as it would not have suited the ‘genuine poltergeist’ narrative.
However, even this, Hope thought, was not satisfactory, and a scenario to cover all of the phenomena would require at least one more participant, or self-deception by large numbers of people. Hope adds the titbit that Mrs Jeffrey was not positively disposed towards her husband, who drank heavily. Captain Jeffrey had seen ghosts in a previous house and his wife considered him to be psychic. On the other hand, Hope speculated that Mrs Jeffrey might be a focus, torn between duty to husband and a desire to be away from him. There certainly seem to have been a lot of emotions swirling around, perhaps including Vibeke’s for her largely absent husband.
Macintyre wonders if Mary was responsible as the poltergeist focus, and she was an obvious suspect given her age. Price certainly saw a parallel with the Amherst Mystery, which featured fires, though Mary at Pitmilly House was never as obvious a focus as Esther Cox was at Amherst. Price also mentions a maidservant at Pitmilly who seemed to be associated with some of the outbreaks of fires, but this may relate to Vibeke, who was accused by a fireman. Some of the events occurred when Mrs Jeffrey, Vibeke and Mary were living in the Dower House, away from the main building, but Hope states that the poltergeist had followed them, and they were reporting activity there as well. That hints at possible fraud by at least one of them, and Hope had both of the younger women in mind as possible fakers though he also more charitably thought that they might be so “nervy” in the Dower House that they were misinterpreting normal occurrences as “supernormal”.
Ivan does not seem to have been regarded suspiciously at all, and was in France when things were particularly bad. Even so, one would expect a bit more precision for such a significant event like coal appearing suddenly on the dinner table than that he was merely “comparatively young”, if it had actually happened. He may have been covering for his wife by suggesting that phenomena had occurred before he met her.
Although Price claimed that all of the descriptions of activity in his book were contained in signed witness statements in his possession, Macintyre notes that there appears to be no sign of these in Price’s methodically preserved archives. Items have certainly disappeared from the Harry Price Library over the years, but one wonders if the reason for the lack of documentation is that Price eventually came to the conclusion, given the florid nature of the communications from Hole, that despite the numerous signed statements, he had been hoaxed. He did not visit the house himself, though as he died in March 1948 perhaps he simply never had the opportunity. Presumably then all of the statements in his possession were gathered by Hole on his behalf, and perhaps he concluded that his initial trust in his contact’s probity was misplaced. His categorising of the house as “Poltergeist Manor” was certainly premature.
The reports gathered by Hope, Herries and Price seem to suggest some paranormal element, but once a narrative gets going, it is easy to misinterpret innocent events as paranormal, and later reports could have been stimulated by the place’s reputation, or there could have been opportunistic mischief-making. As far as someone giving the story to the American Weekly is concerned, its article appeared on 12 July 1942, but Price refers to stories in the British press about the insurance pay-out earlier than that – the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail carried the story on 8 April 1942, and .it appeared in other papers as well, so it is possible that the American Weekly picked up the story from one of those, though that begs the question who leaked the story to the British press. Or, rather than Price give the story to the American Weekly, as Macintyre suggests, it could have been Hole, who seems to have been willing to tell anybody about it; the story was certainly common knowledge in the area.
There has been a great deal of confusion over the insurance claim, how much damage was done, how much was claimed, how much was paid out, and what it signified. Hope put the cost of damage at some £600 and wondered if the family would make an insurance claim as this might prompt the police to investigate it as arson. Hole it would seem was, ironically, concerned that a lawsuit might involve unwelcome publicity, but considered that a failure to claim might be tantamount to a confession of arson. In the event a claim was made, and Price stated that the insurance claim was settled for £400, reduced from a whopping £800.
However, an article in Psychic News, dated 16 December 1967, was published to coincide with the demolition of the house. It said that Herries had stated in a lecture that £400 of damage had been done (indeed the figure given in the Psychic Science article), and this had generally been assumed to be the amount of the claim. In the event, according to Psychic News, the claim was for only £50, which may have meant that the insurers did not bother to look into the matter too closely.
Price considered payment an acknowledgement by the insurers that poltergeists existed, as it was conceding that the fires were not started accidentally, but were not started by the occupants either. Without seeing the insurance report, though, it is impossible to know what the insurer paid out for, and why, leaving us with hearsay as to the grounds for payment. That the company could not assign a cause, if that is what happened, did not entail endorsement of a paranormal agency. All that the payment signified was that the insurers did not consider the family responsible, because they would have instituted an arson investigation if they had. As so often, Price overstated the situation.
It would be interesting to learn if the insurer’s report still exists so that these questions can be settled. As such loose threads suggest, there is still some mileage in this fascinating old case, even if ultimate explanation is elusive. Discussion of the poltergeist activity actually takes up only a very small part of Lorn Macintyre’s well-illustrated 26-page booklet , but he brings together some details about the house and its various occupants, and gives a name to Poltergeist Manor for readers of Price‘s rather ill-titled Poltergeist Over England.
Archives of the Society for Psychical Research, Poltergeist file P4, 1940/1967.
‘Fife’s Fiery Ghost’, Psychic News, 16 December 1967.
Gauld, Alan and Cornell, A D. Poltergeists, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979.
Herries, J W. ‘Poltergeist in a Scottish Mansion house’, Psychic Science, Vol. 21, No. 3, October 1942, pp.88-92.
Lambert, G W. ‘Scottish Haunts and Poltergeists II’, JSPR Vol. 42, March 1964, pp.223-7.
Price, Harry. Poltergeist Over England: Three Centuries of Mischievous Ghosts, London: Country Life, 1945.
Erich Goode is a sociologist who retired in 2003 from the University of Maryland’s Department of Criminology. The Paranormal is a revised version of his 2000 book Paranormal Beliefs: A Sociological Introduction, a vintage reflected in the date of many of the references. It does not aim to supply answers about the reality of paranormal phenomena, but rather to examine why people believe the things they do. Goode discusses how such beliefs arise and are maintained, despite a culture which prizes scientific rationalism. His analysis has a United States focus, though he does use survey data from other countries. In any case, the points can usually be extrapolated to other western societies to an extent, though he points out that the US is atypical of western societies in the depth of its religious devotion.
The first part of the book describes the popularity of paranormal beliefs, how these differ from the standard scientific approach to handling evidence, and why they are worth studying. He also examines how scientists reason, how this differs from everyday ‘common sense’, and how they employ the criterion of falsifiability in a way that many paranormal adherents do not. He considers paranormal beliefs to be “deviant” as they contravene the predominant epistemological view, but they are psychologically normal (or at least not abnormal).
Part 2 examines a variety of “belief systems”: astrology and psychic predictions, including Nostradamus; creationism; parapsychology, and ufology. Part 3 looks at how the paranormal is embedded in society, religion, the media, and political and social life. The final chapter is a brief overview of how paranormal beliefs satisfy personal needs in a way that science does not, and how they make sense in terms of our misplaced reliance on faulty common sense. These ideas can form a network that needs to be examined holistically; they may seem strange to the majority, such as belief in abduction, but appear logically consistent to the claimant, in this example correlating with a belief in far-reaching government conspiracies.
Goode has a flexible definition of the paranormal and it includes a collection of subjects which few are likely to endorse in its entirety. He distinguishes between paranormalism and pseudoscience, the latter still contrary to general scientific thinking, but not paranormal, such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. In principle they could exist, but the evidence is sketchy (much like parapsychology, some would argue, showing how slippery these definitions can be). More doctrinaire sceptics are often quick to dismiss the lot (often accompanied by the derisive cry of ‘woo’) with no further thought, but on the other hand, just as sceptics often fail to distinguish the fine detail of what can loosely be termed paranormal and fringe beliefs, so often also are sceptics seen as cut from the same cloth, when there is an assortment of attitudes within scepticism as well. Goode provides a handy table to distinguish types of paranormal belief, and to help sceptic-spotters identify their quarry in turn. Goode himself is a moderate constructionist, considering that analysing who believes in paranormal claims, and why, is more important than assessing those claims’ validity; that is, refuting paranormal claims is not his primary goal.
He sees scientists as homogeneous, as on the whole they tend to share the same world view. This causes him a problem when assessing the work of parapsychologists, who adopt the same methodological approach as their mainstream colleagues, despite Goode’s opinion that their research is almost certainly flawed, and he does tend to treat it as a separate category to many of the subjects he scrutinises. At one point Goode argues that a “radical revision of contemporary science would be necessary if [creationism], parapsychology, astrology, and the extraterrestrial origin of UFOs were valid”. Apart from lumping in disparate subjects with undoubtedly different degrees of plausibility (for example, creationism would seem to have no scientific merit – and only gets so much coverage here because of its prominence in the US – whereas parapsychology at least allows for meaningful argument), a response might well be: “and your point is?”, because one is put in mind of the timidity Rupert Sheldrake ascribes to contemporary science in The Science Delusion. A bit of radical re-visioning might do scientists some good. It could be argued that they have, or should have, better things to do, but there is the risk of a Type-II error in missing something important that could have benefits for us as a species.
Unsurprisingly, however, Goode finds that in general “the paranormal” does not conform to scientific canons of evidence. He acknowledges that people will have anomalous experiences, but their interpretations go beyond what is justified. They are likely to see cause and effect at play in what sceptics dismiss as chance occurrences, and are subject to a range of well-known cognitive biases. He intersperses the chapters with first-hand accounts taken from a student essay assignment which show how individuals’ beliefs operate as part of a network of assumptions about how the world operates. They may be coherent, at least as far as the holder is concerned, but still erroneous.
While Good makes it clear that he holds a sceptical viewpoint, this is not the debunking tract that might be expected from Prometheus. He does though spend a lot of time arguing that a sociological study of the paranormal is important, which he may not have felt obliged to do for another publisher. He is not dismissive entirely of paranormal claims, and while he covers the usual psychological explanations for belief in the paranormal, he leaves some room for the possibility, however faint he sees it, that the paranormal could be valid. In fact, he is surprisingly critical of the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry (though still calling it CSICOP, which it hasn’t been since 2006), using terms like “self-righteousness” and “sanctimoniousness” in connection with Skeptical Inquirer.
This is a thoroughly readable and insightful book, but despite his subtitle he does not demonstrate convincingly why paranormal belief matters, other than to the person holding it. His conclusion is that as such beliefs meet personal needs, and provide a handy way to interpret the world, science will have a difficult job in showing the convinced that they are wrong. People often use a two-tier system in tandem, he argues, depending on the situation: paranormal-based strategies when the situation is fuzzy and the outcome uncertain, but more conventional methods when clear-cut decisions are required. If something seems to work, then even if the sceptic can convincingly demonstrate that it is wrong there will be no incentive to discard it. Goode seems rather pessimistic about the chances of science, and scepticism, to roll back the tide and build a rational utopia in which no longer do newspapers print astrology columns and idiotic school boards try to adopt Intelligent Design textbooks. The notes may change, but the song remains the same.
A review of Volker Anding's film, with supplementary material, can be found on Scribd: