Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
NB The SPR does not possess corporate views. All opinions expressed are the reviewer’s, not the Society’s.
Craig Weiler is well-known from his blog The Weiler Psi and he has brought together his thoughts on the state of scepticism and the ways in which it attempts to control the public discourse over topics it deems to be pseudoscience (acting as arbiters of what falls into that category). He uses as his main pegs two controversies: the long-simmering one over the distortions injected into Wikipedia pages that deal with psi-related matters; and the one which occurred when the TED organisation found itself in hot water for trying to drop from its website videos by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock after some critical voices raised questions about their scientific validity, a hasty and ill-thought out series of acts that showed it to be unprepared for the resulting backlash.
As well as these more obvious manifestations of the friction between the two sides Weiler covers some examples of what he considers to be sound parapsychological research - Ganzfeld, Sheldrake’s staring studies and RNG studies. On the other side he considers in depth the flaws of the Randi Million Dollar Challenge, an analysis which refutes those sceptics who wonder aloud why, if psychic abilities exist, nobody has claimed the money. He also looks at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the website The Skeptic’s Dictionary (actually more an encyclopaedia), the last a good example of the sort of one-sided account that the uninitiated can unfortunately assume to be authoritative when putting a term into a search engine. In giving these examples, plus others which exhibit the seamier side of scepticism, he paints a picture of distortion, evasion, cherry-picking, ignorance of the subject being criticised and frequently extreme contempt for the subject and its defenders. He also shows how efficient organisation allows pseudo-sceptics to use these resources so that they feed off each other, thereby creating a spurious sense of authority.
In the case of Wikipedia he shows how they have a lock on pages they consider pseudo-scientific, which they will maintain against any efforts to improve them by trying to include other perspectives. (As a basic example the Wikipedia page for Sheldrake currently begins: ‘Alfred Rupert Sheldrake is an English author, lecturer, and researcher in the field of parapsychology known for advocating his pseudoscientific “morphic resonance” concept.’ Try removing the word ‘pseudoscientific’ and see how long you wait before it is changed back.) Even worse, editors whose methods are considered unsound will find themselves first frustrated as they try to make edits, then characterised as trolls, and then blocked, their complaints dismissed as manufactured.
Weiler even had the surreal experience when trying his hand at editing of being accused of stealing the identity of the ‘real’ Craig Weiler and trying to make him ‘look bad’! Experts find themselves on a level playing field with non-specialist editors, their expertise considered to be no more valid (you can check out the examples by looking in the index under ‘nincompoops’). I feel sympathy because I too have had personal experience of the frustrations of dealing with Wikipedia, when C J Romer and I tried to improve the SPR page and found ourselves dealing with an anonymous editor who reversed every alteration we made. The aim seemed to be to maintain the page in an uninformative state, and despite a great deal of effort by us our opponent won by being more obsessive than we had the patience to be.
The TED fiasco showed how things can so easily get out of hand but it points, Weiler feels, to a changed landscape in the conflict. The TED administrators who caved in to critics and removed the talks that Sheldrake and Hancock had given at TEDxWhitechapel must have thought that the controversy would somehow resolve itself, or else when they did eventually intervene they would have approached it with greater subtlety instead of just charging in without assessing the implications of their actions. Even when the assumption that there would be no come-back was proved wrong and their critics kept up the pressure, they thought that simply quarantining the talks on the TED website, away from the ‘proper’ videos, would solve their difficulty. Instead they were wrong-footed at every step, and their lack of confidence in their position is clear from their silence when both Sheldrake and Hancock offered to debate with either TED boss Chris Anderson or the anonymous science board behind whom TED executives were hiding when trying to manage the crisis. Weiler provides a useful summary of the lengthy, convoluted and often ill-tempered debate that occurred mostly on web discussion boards and which one had to have a particular interest in to follow with any degree of energy.
However, TED’s shabby treatment of Sheldrake and Hancock wasn’t the end of it. Weiler climaxes the book with an account of the last-minute withdrawal of TED’s support for a TEDxWestHollywood event called ‘Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm’, an act even worse than the Whitechapel debacle. Sheldrake and Hancock weren’t put to any loss (in fact their reputations probably benefited), whereas after a year of discussions and preparation the organisers of the Hollywood event were informed that they could not use the name a mere two weeks before it took place because TED had concerns about some of the speakers who ‘didn’t meet their guidelines’. The resulting loss of sponsorship would have left the organiser Suzanne Taylor seriously out of pocket. Weiler reprints email exchanges between TED and Taylor which show that they thought she would just go away, whereas she held out for some compensation, and the show went ahead. Once more TED comes out of it very badly. One might usefully modify its proud boast - ‘ideas worth spreading’ to ‘as long as they don’t frighten the horses’. As a result of these scandals the TED brand was tainted and in the eyes of many has not fully recovered.
This is all useful information but when Weiler is being particularly combative his passion can run away with him: it isn’t helpful to say of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia that ‘much of what they do is fairly evil’, whatever one thinks of their approach. There is also scope for misunderstanding. He is talking throughout about pseudo-sceptics rather than the moderate sceptics who adhere to what scepticism should be, i.e. an open-minded and impartial enquiry. Unfortunately for brevity he usually simply refers to his target pseudo-sceptics simply as sceptics, and it may come to seem to the inattentive reader that he is lumping together all varieties of scepticism. Those not aware of the shades within that term might think that Weiler is treating them all equally as members of an unreasonable group out to put parapsychology down as an assault on reason. He is on safer ground when he refers to ideologues, those who consider that they do not need to look at any evidence that might be contrary to their views because they already know it is rubbish, as this encompasses a narrow, but disproportionately influential, section of sceptical opinion.
Weiler is probably over-optimistic about the prospects for a collapse of pseudo-scepticism. The positions are as polarised as ever, and it may be quite some time before any kind of consensus is achieved. In the meantime the same rhetorical tricks will be used to demean anyone considered to be purveying ‘woo’, and marginalise their arguments. Both sides are stuck in an ingroup/outgroup perspective in which it is easy to see those on the other side of the fence as sharing more characteristics than possessing ones that differentiate them. Such a situation is not conducive to balanced discussion.
An obvious question is, if those nasty pseudo-sceptics are so good at this, why aren’t the other side? Why moan about the unfairness, why not do something? One answer is that parapsychologists spend time doing parapsychology rather than editing Wikipedia pages, so the ideologues have greater leisure that they use to ensure they remain in control. There may also be personality variables at work which make them more efficient at repetitive tasks. In any case, there are moves to side-step the problem by setting up channels of information immune to this type of interference. One that is already running is WISE, the World Institute for Scientific Exploration, which is producing what it calls a WISEWiki, an alternative to Wikipedia that will use vetted contributors rather than allow a free-for-all. The SPR has a similar encyclopaedia idea on the drawing board, but with invited contributions.
Such resources will act as a more reliable counterpoint to what is currently available, though it is hard to see how they will ever beat Wikipedia in the search engine rankings and reach a large number of readers. Even so, the future is looking more promising for those who would like to see evidence stand on its own, rather than be filtered through biased lenses. While we wait for these initiatives to bear fruit, Weiler’s book is a valuable exposé which shows that what the casual browser might think is ideologically-neutral scientific information is anything but. In order to take full advantage of the links with which the book is crammed, it is one that is best read in its e-version.
Born in 1920, Dr Lawrence LeShan has had a long and very distinguished career in psychology and parapsychology especially with regard to research into psychic healing, psychic readings and mediumship. He holds a PhD in Human Development from the University of Chicago, and worked as a clinical and research psychologist for over 50 years, including six years as a psychologist in the US Army. He has authored over 150 papers and written 20 books on a wide range of topics including psychotherapy, parapsychology, meditation, medicine, mind-body medicine in the treatment of cancer and the psychology of Nazi racial philosophy. I can still remember reading The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist (1974, reissued as Clairvoyant Reality in 1980) with total fascination.
With his mind as sharp as ever, LeShan has distilled his inquiry into the different ways that we interpret the world and how adoption of this or that interpretation as a World Picture determines the boundaries of what type of event(s) or experience(s) we consider to be possible or impossible. Each World Picture determines the ‘boggle threshold’ of believability in what is possible, beyond which point each of us will say ‘No matter what you present to me as evidence for claimed event X or experience Y it just could not have happened as described. There must be some other explanation because the universe just doesn’t work like that.’ What LeShan has proposed is that in the same way that the botanist Linnaeus created a taxonomy of living things by dividing them first into Kingdoms of Animal and Vegetable and then, for animals, into Realms of animals with backbones and animals without backbones, and then into genera and specie subdivisions, so a taxonomy of World Pictures can be drawn up, each representing a particular interpretation of reality that allows different degrees of freedom as to the possible. Each of us may adopt a different World Picture and therefore different boundaries of the possible, according to personal circumstance at the time such as danger, or an everyday acceptance of a World Picture advocated by our particular society as the correct norm for all ‘right thinking people’.
What he has proposed is that there are two fundamentally different Kingdoms of interpretative World Pictures distinguished by what he terms the observables appropriate to them. I will use italics to help distinguish between them with a brief summary according to my understanding.
KINGDOMS ONE (K1) and TWO (K2).
K1. QUANTITATIVE. This is the world picture of consensual external reality shared by science and practical commonsense concerning anything that can be detected, defined and measured using equations and formulae. It consists of quantifiable observables. K1 is centered upon an objective universe that exists in its own right and is therefore independent of ourselves as observers. In K1 an observable is real only if it has a quantifiable effect on other quantifiable entities. It deals with what, where, when, who and how. In K1 claims for the existence of psi and the possibility that subjective intention can have an objective effect are rejected as impossible in principle so impossible in practice. For K1 a quantifiable attic has an independent reality but a non-quantifiable ghost said to dwell within it has not.
K2, NON-QUANTITATIVE. This is the non-quantitative world picture of mental reality, the components of which are not physically detectable so are not physically measurable and therefore not amenable to equations and formulae. K2 is the world picture of a subjective universe that is separate and different from the consensual external universe consisting of non-quantifiable observables such as self, love, hate, imagination, morals, ethics ,images, thoughts, desires and emotions whether of humans, animals or other types of being. In K2 an entity is real if it can be conceived as in a claim that there is a ghost in the attic. In this reality a ghost or apparition can assume equal status with K1 objectivity. K1 deals with why?
These two Kingdoms can then be divided into two Realms each:
K1i. QUANTITATIVE DISCRETE as in separate objects such as mountains, houses, cars, planets, stars together with shape, size and distance.
K1ii. QUANTITATIVE CONTINUOUS as in hydrodynamics, weather patterns, electromagnetic fields, space and gravity. Also as in gas pressure where pressure, temperature and volume cannot be separated and measured independent of each other as they are mutually interactive.
The realms of K1i and K1ii are the realms of external reality as determined by our sensory systems together with observational extensions supplied by scientific equipment from electron microscopes to radio telescopes. In this world cause-and-effect, or its quantum equivalent of statistical probability of change, reign supreme. The underlying logic in K1 is induction from the observed particular to the general. An apple falling from the tree is a particular example of a general gravitational attraction between bodies that applies equally to all bodies across the universe according to mass and distance apart. In inductive logic the general remains conditional subject to modification as particular observations change. To use LeShan’s analogy, enjoying three or more excellent meals in restaurant X implies the generality that X is a consistently excellent restaurant. One poor meal revises that generality to X usually being an excellent restaurant and more poor meals revises that generality further to ‘We never go there now’.
K2i. NON-QUANTITATIVE DISCRETE as in individual selves and fictional characters in novels and plays, and in myths, sagas and fairy tales where each character is instantly recognisable because of their fixed characters and behaviour within the whole story of which they part. All such beings are separate observables. In fairytales stepmothers are wicked because that is what stepmothers are. First born Princes and Princesses find love and live ever after while Third born Princes go on quests because (apparently) that is what Third born Princes do. In K2i Nazi philosophy white Aryans were (and are) pure human beings whereas Jews were subhuman because that is what Jews were (and are). The same status of sub humanity applied (and applies) to gypsies and Slavs who could no more be decent human beings than, as LeShan observes, the Wicked Witch could change character and open a women’s refuge. In K2i individuals can demonstrate psi abilities such as telepathy, clairvoyance and precognition.
K2ii. NON-QUANTATIVE CONTINUOUS as in the flow of emotions, memories, thoughts and in transcendental states of Cosmic Consciousness, Satori, Nirvana where individual minds merge into the continuous Oneness of One Mind in which, as LeShan says, you are no longer your brother’s keeper but are as one with him. K2i and K2ii World Pictures often interpret the world from a mythic viewpoint.
In K2 the logic is deductive from a given general which is held to remain true despite particulars running counter to it. If the chosen general is a monotheistic Almighty God then the lucky survivor of a disaster will thank God for personally ensuring his or her survival but the priest will exonerate that same God from any blame concerning the unlucky non survivors because ‘He/She works in mysterious ways’. God still remains Almighty. K2 deals not with K1 ‘how to’ practicalities, as in catching and eating food, but the ‘why to’ of using K1 because, in this case, we need to eat to stay alive. K2 often deals with questions ‘why’ through the language of symbolism where flag and country are as one.
In a peacetime World Picture of K1 and K2 all agree that we are as one with another despite holding different viewpoints and values and being different nationalities and sexes. Concepts of Good and Evil are open to interpretation, tomorrow will be very much like today, representative committees are set up and K1 practicalities chosen to implement recommendations for the common good. If war breaks out then for both sets of combatants the World Picture of K2 will change completely as each side now redefines itself as representing Good (us) and Evil (them), invokes God to fight on our side to help defeat them, and agree that tomorrow will be very different from today depending upon who wins. In K2 peacetime killing another person of whatever nationality, race or creed is a crime, but in K2 war time killing as many of the enemy as possible, whether members of their armed forces or the women and children who obviously support them is not a crime. In fact, not killing them when you have the opportunity to do so might become a punishable offence. Each opposing K2 now employs every K1 means at its disposal in its attempt to defeat the other.
LeShan quotes as an example of an irreconcilable clash between K1 realities and K2 realities the occasion when Ehud Barak, then prime Minister of Israel, attempted during the 2000 Camp David Summit held under President Bill Clinton to end the blood-stained years of Palestinian-Israeli conflict by offering to return large tracts of conquered land to the Palestinians in exchange for an agreement for peaceful cooperation. On behalf of the Palestinians Yasser Arafat rejected the offer and hostilities such as suicide bombings, rocket attacks and mass stone throwing was renewed. As LeShan interprets their respective taxonomic positions, Israel was using the World Picture of K1 in which it was willing to give up a large area of land as a reasonable basis for K1 type negotiations and expected the Palestinians to respond in the same way, whereas Yasser Arafat was using a K2 World Picture of absolutism in which the Israelis, by definition, were treacherous, evil and would never give up anything unless weakened by war. Therefore their offer should be rejected in favour of inflicting more death and destruction, thus weakening them further and maybe even destroying Israel completely. Each was speaking past each other using different World Pictures without even realising it. LeShan says that it is much more difficult to move from a K2 World Picture of mythic absolutism where the other side are ‘terrorists’ or whatever, to a K1 World Picture, but the latter may more easily understand the former and find a way out by proposing that both sides should combine to help a neutral entity in desperate need, such as starving children, which may then lead to a relaxing of a K2 mythical absolute. I am not so sure that this proposal would be as K1-neutral as it sounds. For those with an absolute K2 World Picture, surviving children of opposite nationalities or faiths would represent a future threat.
LeShan describes at a personal level how a person may adopt realities implicit in different World Pictures as appropriate to a particular situation. When Mr Smith is running his engineering business K1 is his World Picture in which solutions are quantitative and it is no use wishing to God or anyone else that the steel rods delivered this morning were stronger because even divine wishing won’t make them so. At home he reads that there is a local epidemic of encephalitis amongst 4 year olds and hears his daughter suddenly crying upstairs. As he races upstairs he converts from K1 to a K2i World Picture in which he prays to God and is willing to make any bargain with Him to save his daughter because, unlike strengthening steel rods, this is something that God really can do. He finds that his daughter has had a bad dream so he comforts her, saying that she will be alright because they are together in a universe where love is all and nothing bad can happen to them, whereas in K1 he knows they will both die no matter what they do. Later that evening he goes dancing with his wife; on this evening something very special happens and he moves into a K2ii state of reality in which he, his wife, the music and the dance all become as one with no beginning and no end as everything flows together.
As LeShan points out, how consciousness is defined and explained depends upon which World Picture, and therefore which observables, has been chosen to examine it. From a K1i neuroscience perspective consciousness is a phenomenon that is generated by synaptic activity within the brain, is localised within the brain and dies with the brain, so consciousness differs in degree but not in kind. From a K2i perspective consciousness is an entity that can be correlated with brain activity but exists in its own space, has totally different properties, and may continue to exist after brain death. It is different in kind not degree. In a K1i into a K2ii perspective each individual consciousness may be analogous to a holographic pixel in the screen of a universal Mind (my interpretation here, not LeShan’s). In this book LeShan offers a huge amount of reasoning and examples to support this taxonomic approach which, as he says, is a work in progress, and I do recommend it as a very stimulating read.
An odd title that might put one in mind of the film Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, or Beetlejuice’s Handbook for the Recently Deceased, or the Spiritualist literature which describes conditions in Summerland. But as the subtitle suggests, and the Introduction points out, despite the title’s flippancy the contents are serious, and Tricia Robertson lucidly presents evidence for psychical phenomena drawn both from her own personal experience and from the wider literature. Robertson is a Vice-President and past President of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research who has been investigating the paranormal for the best part of thirty years, both alone and in company with the late Professor Archie Roy, so she has a wide range of material upon which to call.
The book is aimed at the general public and those new to the field, but experienced researchers will find it of interest as well. It is divided into chapters covering: apparitions; poltergeist activity; mixed ghost/poltergeist cases; mediumship; drop-in communicators; reincarnation and healing, the last focusing on Nina Knowland and Gary Mannion. Each chapter is short and written in an accessible style. A number of the cases are famous – Enfield and the R101 for example – and some which she investigated have since become well known; but a few taken from Robertson’s case files will be new to most readers.
One that has been publicised with which she was involved with Archie Roy was that of ‘Captain Bob’, in which an airline captain, Robert Hambleton-Jones, arrived at Glasgow airport as a passenger from an overseas trip and spotted an old flying colleague, ‘Jack’, whom he had not seen for some months. The two chatted before Jack said he had to go and dashed to the end of a check-in line. The following day Bob saw an obituary for Jack and learned that he had died in Edinburgh two days before, aged only 38. Even odder, at about the same time that the two spoke at the airport, the body of an airline pilot was in the airport, being transferred from Edinburgh to be taken to Jack’s home town. Another case that has attracted a lot of interest is an instance of possible reincarnation, in which a young Glaswegian boy, Cameron Macaulay, said that he recalled a previous life on Barra, an island in the Outer Hebrides. The media attention the case has achieved includes a documentary which took him (back) to Barra. While some of Cameron’s statements about his alleged previous life could not be verified, others were.
The chapter on mediumship throws up the issue of how little we can rely on a common-sense view of the limits of the possible when evaluating extraordinary claims. In the section giving examples of the work of medium Gordon Smith, Robertson says:
‘I have also heard him inform people that they have a newspaper cutting in a handbag or wallet with a photograph of a specific person in the cutting. Often he also provides the date of the newspaper cutting and the recipient has to check to see if that is correct.’
That is certainly a remarkable feat, but no more so than the performances of mentalist Joseph Dunninger, and he was adamant that he did not possess paranormal ability or utilise confederates. It must be added that sceptics, as Robertson notes in a list of the objections that they make to paranormal claims, will dismiss a medium with ‘A magician could do the same’, but simply because what Smith did might resemble what Dunninger did, one cannot assume that they employed the same methods, and derived their information from the same source. What it does mean is that one cannot assume that because a medium can produce precise and startling information it has to have a paranormal source, when one cannot easily say what the limits to obtaining it by normal means are.
There is a surprising omission in the book. Robertson was involved in PRISM, Psychical Research Involving Selected Mediums, which operated from 1994-2008. It involved some of the biggest names in psychical research in their time: Roy of course, but also Arthur Ellison, Maurice Grosse, David Fontana, Ralph Noyes and Montague Keen. This association is barely mentioned, as is the work that Robertson carried out with Roy which they reported in three articles in the SPR’s Journal. They investigated twenty-seven mediums over a period of five years, examining the mediums’ statements statistically to see if they had provided information specific to sitters, or if it could apply to anyone. This mammoth undertaking would have been worth a much lengthier discussion. It is also worth pointing out that the Maxwell Park case, which was investigated in part by Archie Roy, did not actually take place in Maxwell Park in south Glasgow, but at Balornock on the far side of the city. Roy had muddied the waters in A Sense of Something Strange (1990) by omitting to mention that Maxwell Park was a pseudonym, and this mislocation was perpetuated in the literature until corrected by Geoff Holder in his Poltergeist over Scotland.
These minor caveats aside, the book contains case studies which show that such experiences are commoner than one might suppose. Robertson has examined them with a great deal of empathy, describing ordinary people coping in strange situations. At a time when psychical research seems in danger of losing its way, she has shown that useful investigations can still be done and valuable data collected.
Shirley Hitchings has collaborated with James Clark, an established author of south London ghost guides, to provide an account of what looked like poltergeist phenomena in her Battersea home in the 1950s and 60s. They have been fortunate in having the case files that a dedicated researcher, Harold Chibbett, gathered throughout the period of activity. Chibbett’s papers have been supplemented by notes made by the family at the time, and Shirley’s own recollections.
At the beginning of 1956 the downstairs at No 63 Wycliffe Road Battersea, a rented property, was occupied by Walter (Wally) Hitchens, 47, who worked as a tube driver; his wife Catherine (Kitty), 51, who was disabled by chronic arthritis, and their daughter Shirley, just turned 15. Upstairs lived Wally’s mother Ethel, 73, a retired nurse and midwife, plus a 20-something relative, ‘Mark’ (the only pseudonym of the participants). It was an extended family, with Wally’s two sisters living in the same road, which was in an unremarkable working-class neighbourhood. Ethel was a dominant matriarch, Walter by contrast seems to have been rather unassertive. The downstairs setup was unusual because even though Shirley was 15, she still shared her parents’ bedroom, the door of which was locked at night because of a fear of Shirley sleepwalking. This inevitably meant that she had little privacy.
The strange events began innocuously in January 1956: Shirley found a key on her bed that nobody in the family recognised, and which did not fit any lock in the house. This was shortly followed by tapping sounds which seemed to be connected to Shirley, but which she did not appear to be causing herself, followed by objects found moved to a different place. These low-level events might have petered out if ignored but Wally talked about it at work, which led to an offer to visit by a fellow train driver who was also a part-time medium. They held a séance at which the medium admitted he could not make contact with any entities, but afterwards the taps and bangs steadily got worse. The noises started following Shirley to work, forcing her to leave the job. Someone had the idea of trying to communicate with whatever was making the knocking sounds and they received replies which indicated an intelligence.
Soon after, the goings-on started attracting public attention (an attempted ‘exorcism’ by the medium at which the police turned up didn’t help), and coverage by the local media. The entity was christened Donald, and Donald became a dominant element in the house for some years (another claiming to be James Dean manifested for a while). As usually happens with these things, media interest waned, but investigation was taken up by Chibbett who gained the family’s trust and remarkably stayed with the story until the end, even writing a book that he was never able to get published.
Messages developed from taps to written correspondence. ‘Donald’ eventually identified himself as Louis-Charles, the short-lived Louis XVII, around whom rumours swirled that he had escaped captivity during the French Revolution, rather than dying a prisoner at the age of 10 as the official records had claimed. Donald said that he had drowned while en route to exile in England, a fate of which history was unaware. The patrician Donald took control of the house, even sending out Christmas cards. Enormous efforts were made to keep him sweet in case he created problems for the family, which regularly included the threat of arson.
Meanwhile ‘Chibb’, as Donald called him, made heroic efforts attempting to square the impossible task of verifying Donald’s statements. The problem, interpreting Donald’s hilariously garbled Franglais, was that he kept changing his story, and tying himself up in contradictions. Chibbett must be given enormous credit for sticking with the business despite all its frustrations, even though it seems likely that by giving it so much attention he was assisting in its perpetuation.
‘Donald’ does not hang together as a credible personality and the most likely choices seem to divide between a drop-in communicator having a laugh or a living individual taking bits of information from encyclopaedias and TV and radio programmes and cobbling it all together, throwing whatever came to hand into the mix, and being evasive or silent when attempts were made to pin the claims down. On balance it feels like someone with a smattering of historical knowledge was trying to play a part. Crude it may have been, but it served its purpose. However, by the time Shirley married, in 1965, Donald’s presence was waning. She left her parents’ house, and in 1967 left London. Donald, no longer serving any purpose, gradually disappeared, and had gone for good by 1968.
Shirley comes across as a glamour-struck family girl, not particularly well educated, immature, rather sheltered and socially naive, with cultural aspirations but lacking the motivation to persevere with them. Instead she found herself shuttled into tedious low-skilled jobs in which she had no interest. Born on 18 December 1940, by January 1956 she had already left school, so without taking any qualifications, and was working as a dress cutter in the alterations department of a store in the West End. This rather mechanical work may have been stifling to someone who had artistic aspirations.
What emerges is how Donald’s demands work to Shirley’s advantage. Through his offices she is able to move out of her parents’ room into one of her own (and sleep walking isn’t a problem); she is prevented from taking jobs that she doesn’t want to do, but instead is given carte blanche to stay at home dressing dolls, justified as expressing an interest in costumes; at his ‘suggestion’ she is given money for clothes and make-up and is able to adopt a more fashionable hairstyle. In short she is able to lead a leisurely life in marked contrast to most other girls of her age and class. She even gets to appear on BBC television. People visit and pay attention to her, and Donald takes a keen interest in the welfare of young men who might be of interest also to a teenage girl, notably the actor Jeremy Spenser who is an obsession of Donald’s. Donald is able to make negative remarks about Shirley’s family, and especially her grandmother – who was particularly victimised by the phenomena to the extent that she moved out for a spell – that Shirley might have thought but could not say openly.
Generally Donald acted as a proxy to ensure that household affairs were ordered for her convenience. He even dictated when the family went to bed. Remarkably Shirley’s parents went along with it for a quiet life, though Ethel evidently had her own suspicions. Her relationship with Shirley was poor, to the extent that on 9 July 1957 the old lady tried to hit her granddaughter with her stick as she suspected the teenager of stealing 5/- from her. The result was a row between Ethel and Kitty, presumably Kitty defending Shirley. Ethel’s room was then turned upside down twice, on 13 and 24 July, and one has to wonder whether her death from a stroke on 27 July was a direct result of the stress.
Chibbett concluded that Donald was a spirit, not a hoax or some manifestation of Shirley’s subconscious. Andrew Green, a much better known psychical researcher than Chibbett, visited and made himself unpopular by focusing on Shirley’s mental state, presumably not telling the family what they wanted to hear, but also by giving the impression to Wally and Kitty that he looked down on the family for being working class. His conclusion was that the raps and knocks were externalised creations of Shirley’s psyche, in tandem with Donald’s historical scenario as her fantasising (which would explain its lack of coherence), and that the letters and notes were written by her in a dissociated state. That is claiming a lot for Shirley’s subconscious powers, and even Green was mystified by hearing knocks coming from locations some feet from where he and Shirley were standing.
And it is true that while Shirley was the focus, there seems to have been a general view that she could not have hoaxed all of the phenomena. Even so it is possible that she hoaxed some, despite her protestations to the contrary, while other events, particularly after she moved out, were ordinary everyday occurrences which were misinterpreted by family and visitors. In the chaotic atmosphere that Donald’s presence was creating it would not have been surprising if others jumped to unwarranted conclusions. Or it is possible that Shirley had some help. An obvious candidate is Kitty, who may have experienced a lack of fulfilment, frustrated by her disability and made unhappy by her fall into poverty as a girl, with a domineering mother-in-law upstairs and sister-in-laws down the road to outnumber her. Hoaxing some of the events may have acted as much of a release for her as for her daughter. This is all supposition, but has more plausibility than the reality of Donald as ‘he’ presented himself.
James Clark must have felt somewhat constrained in what he could say by having Shirley as co-author, but he has done a clear job setting out the narrative. He does not, and cannot at this remove, reach any definitive conclusions, but he does set out the possibilities, from Donald as a discarnate entity or entities, either of Louis-Charles or a drop-in communicator, to Green’s idea of the poltergeist as a psychokinetic creation of Shirley’s subconscious, to fraud (the last naturally dealt with somewhat cautiously). The result is a fascinating case study, though one has to wonder why Shirley, who owns the files upon which the book is based, agreed to it being written. An epilogue refers to her disinclination to rake the matter up in later years after she and her husband left London, so one has to wonder what has changed to cause her to want the matter raked over now.
As is the way of such cases one can never say for sure what went on in 63 Wycliffe Road for a decade, and it may be a massive injustice to point the finger at Shirley, but, using that handy razor, it seems more likely that she was actively – and consciously – involved in perpetuating the situation that brought misery and massive inconvenience to her relatives than that Donald was the surviving consciousness of a member of the French royal family.
Clark has painted a picture of a maturing teenager living in a tense, overprotective, family at what was a rather dreary time to be growing up in south London, in a cold decaying and soon-to-be-demolished house, in which the best room was kept unoccupied for the occasional visitor, a period of conflict between the strict mores of the past and their loosening with the growth of youth culture in the late 1950s. It was a pivotal moment in society, and one likely to create friction in a traditional household where opportunities for a bit of fun were limited. What was a girl to do?
2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the London Underground (the Metropolitan Railway Company opened the Metropolitan Line between Paddington and Farringdon Street on 10th January 1863), so it is apposite that Polar Media has reissued the documentary ‘Ghosts on the Underground’, first broadcast on Channel 5 in 2005. Beautifully shot, it captures the eerie quality that arises from the disjuncture between the Tube’s image of utilitarian busyness and its eeriness when deserted. Ezra Pound may have been thinking of the Paris Metro, but his words are even more relevant to London:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.
In this alienated, atomised, world we are all apparitions to each other. With its tracking shots along deserted corridors, roaming ticket halls and escalators as well as the places the public never sees, the film amply demonstrates the network’s uncanniness. Think what it must be like for the employees who look after the deserted stations and track at night. It takes a strong nerve to go alone into tunnels, with no-one else – at least no-one living – around.
According to the stories presented here, there seem to be three main sources of ghosts in the Underground: those of workers killed in its construction and maintenance; those whose remains, long buried, were disturbed during excavations; and those of passengers, some murdered, some suicides, some the victims of accidents. The film, soothingly narrated by Paul McGann, takes us on a tour of a few of these stories, recounted by those to whom they occurred. They are down to earth Londoners, not it would seem given to flights of fancy, who struggle to understand what happened. Given the limited time available to the filmmakers, and the emphasis on including eyewitness accounts, this has to be a small proportion of all the anecdotal evidence available, but it is a useful sample.
Experiences have ranged from a sense of presence, hearing footsteps, and seeing the evidence of invisible feet sinking into ballast in front of the witness’s eyes (but would cindery ballast hold the imprint of a footstep?), to seeing apparitions and even chatting with them on occasion. In one peculiar instance, an employee investigating a report that someone was on the platform at night, when the station was closed, failed to see anything unusual even though his colleague in the control room said there was a person standing next to him on the platform, visible on his CCTV monitor. Occasionally corroboration is supplied by different individuals, unknown to each other, filing similar reports, thereby strengthening their evidential value.
One of most unnerving experiences, which was auditory, happened to an employee who was in his office when he heard what he took to be children crying followed by screams and sounds of general mayhem, lasting for 10-15 minutes. This was at Bethnal Green, which had been the site of the 1943 disaster in which 173 people, mostly women and children, were killed on the staircase, the largest loss of civilian lives in a single incident during the war. Customers are not immune as witnesses: passengers on the Bakerloo have reported seeing a person sitting beside them reflected in the window opposite, though the seat next to them is vacant.
As well as first-hand experiences by employees past and present, there were contributions by two well known researchers, both sadly no longer with us. The main one was Vic Tandy, who died in July 2005 (the same month as the 7 July Islamist bombings in London, three out of four of which were detonated aboard tube trains). Tandy appeared at several points discussing infrasound, the theory that very low-frequency sounds, below the level of human hearing, can generate a range of physiological effects that may be misinterpreted as paranormal. (For more on Tandy’s work on infrasound see Tandy V. & Lawrence, T. (1998). ‘The Ghost in the Machine’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 62, 360-364; Tandy, V. (2000), ‘Something in the Cellar’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 64, 129-140.)
While infrasound remains a possible factor in generating emotional states that may then lead to a particular interpretation, it is clear that such an explanation cannot account for the full extent of phenomena described in the documentary, and raises the question why, if infrasound is ubiquitous in the system, sightings are not more common. Inhibition in coming forward with a story cannot be the sole explanation. Tandy also shows that at Bethnal Green loud voices from the street can carry into the station, perhaps explaining the experience reported there, but as recounted, it seemed to be of an entirely different order to hearing a distant ruckus in the street.
The other investigator interviewed was Maurice Grosse, who died in 2006. He was on discussing the ‘Bruno Hauptmann’ photograph. The figure in the electric chair which appears in a family snapshot taken in a carriage in 1983 corresponds to a photograph of a waxwork at Madame Tussauds of Bruno Hauptmann, who was convicted of the murder of Charles’ Lindbergh’s son, though with the addition of sparks coming from the hands to symbolise the act of electrocution. The photographer, Karen Collett, was interviewed, as was an expert from what was then the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, now the National Media Museum. He examined the 110-format negative and ruled out tampering with the image.
Maurice used to show this one regularly in his slide shows of anomalous photographs. It always looked like a poster seen through the window, though one remarkably well lined up inside the window frame, which argued against an accidental conjunction. Yet Madame Tussauds say they have no knowledge of such a poster and nobody has produced a copy since. The biggest question remains unanswered – if one were to expend time and effort on a hoax, why create one which looks exactly like a poster seen through the window? Given these uncertainties over the image’s status and meaning, while one can see why the filmmakers wanted to include a tangible piece of evidence, rather than rely on eyewitness statements, this is not really strong support for the thesis that the Underground is haunted.
Since 1863 the network has grown enormously, and continues to evolve, in a sense a giant organism pulsing beneath the feet of Londoners (it is a mark of our preoccupation with this subterranean aspect that we easily forget how much of it is actually above ground). It is no accident that two horror films set there (Death Line and Creep) are effective chillers; not forgetting the role Hobbs End tube station played in Quatermass and the Pit. The London Underground is an amalgam of the strange and the prosaic which is always ready to surprise.
According to the documentary, ghost reports are increasing, a phenomenon it suggests is linked to the number of bodies disturbed during construction work. It concludes that the Underground may be ‘possibly one of the most haunted places in the world.’ It certainly has the power to evoke strong emotions, and these are long-lasting, in one’s own lifetime and perhaps beyond. Travelling on the system shields one from the stimulations of ordinary life, perhaps creating the conditions required to perceive ghosts around us, or alternatively allowing the imagination freer rein than it enjoys in the workaday world above. Mind the gap.
Given that Amberley Publishing and the History Press are both covering the country with their paranormal guides, it is not surprising that they frequently issue books on the same areas. Those on Staffordshire in their Paranormal and Haunted series respectively were published just a few months apart and offer a useful opportunity to make a comparison.
Anthony Poulton-Smith’s Paranormal Staffordshire (Amberley) appeared in 2011. It is the longer of the two and takes a straightforward geographical A-Z approach, which means that it is easy to navigate. Poulton-Smith is a general author on local subjects, and although he has previously written paranormal books about the Cotswolds and the Black Country, he does not appear to have specialised knowledge; as an indication, Sir Oliver Lodge’s name crops up, but while it is mentioned right at the end of his various accomplishments that he wrote about ‘life after death’, his long involvement with the Society for Psychical Research (including its presidency), surely relevant in this context, is not referred to.
The contents are the usual mix of folklore and anecdotes culled from previous books and newspapers, with what appears to be the odd recent case drawn to his attention by an appeal for stories. He includes an intriguing experience he himself had in the 1990s, involving a phantom coach and horses going at an impossible speed where no road has ever been. One curiosity: he notes the frequency with which pubs appear in his stories, and also churchyards. He speculates that this is because these are common meeting-places after sunset. Pubs maybe, as they are definitely common meeting places after sunset – but churchyards? One glaring error: Lady Jane Grey was executed in 1554, not 1654. And he takes the ‘Green Stone’ questing nonsense (subject of a couple of books by Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman) more seriously than it deserves. Overall it’s well written and enjoyable, containing just the sort of unverified stories you expect from this type of collection.
Philip Solomon’s Haunted Staffordshire (History Press) was published in 2012 and is a lot thinner than the Amberley volume. Solomon is the “agony uncle” for the Wolverhampton Express & Star, if that is a recommendation, and more pertinently he has hands-on experience of paranormal investigation with local ghost-hunting groups. He also has a number of paranormal writing credits, including one with Hans Holzer, so he has some prior familiarity with the subject. Instead of plunging straight in, he provides a little background on his view of ghosts, and a brief, too brief to be useful, overview of the county’s history. Like the Amberley book the stories are arranged in alphabetical order by place, but there is a paucity of sources here as well.
Both books are well illustrated, though Solomon’s pictures feature himself more than is necessary to complement the text, giving a sense of padding. Each volume concludes with a brief list of relevant books, and newspapers that cover the county (The History Press published Paranormal Stoke-on-Trent, by Matt Hicks and Terri Setterington in 2009, but it appears in neither bibliography; it’s a competitive field).
Naturally there is a lot of overlap in the contents, though some stories appear in only one. A completist might therefore want both, but as sources are rarely provided in either, they are useful only for the casual reader, and anybody with a serious interest in Staffordshire‘s paranormal heritage will quickly note their limitations. They are the same price so if only buying one, the deciding factor would be the range of accounts and the amount of detail supplied. Despite his relative lack of experience of the subject, Poulton-Smith’s effort is more substantial in every way, so of the two Amberley’s Paranormal Staffordshire is the one I would recommend, though with reservations.
The subtitle of this slim volume, referring to it as a ‘personal discovery’, is an accurate description of its contents. In six chapters, with notes which constitute the book’s bibliography, the author recounts in some detail his personal, subjective experience and exploration of meaningful dreams, healing and the question of life after death. The book has no index, but since it is focused on the personal rather than the general, this is not a drawback.
As we learn in the “Prologue,” the author’s goal is to interpret his dreams in his own terms, in order to achieve better understanding of himself and the courses of action available to him. It is useful to bear this in mind when moving on to the next chapter, on “Precognitive Dreaming”, since the approach is rather different from what a psychical researcher would expect when coming across the term “precognitive” (i.e., identifying and corroborating objective facts corresponding to the dream). For example, dreams reveal to the author where he is going wrong with his gluten-free diet and help him find a solution – something not unusual when one is preoccupied with a subject. Interpreting dreams symbolically (the dreams often involve games of hockey, an important aspect of the author’s life) helps him to predict or change the outcomes in actual situations. The connections made on a subjective level, although effective for the experient, do not easily translate into objective evidence. However, to be fair, the author’s primary aim is to help others explore their inner world rather than provide evidence for the paranormal.
The chapter on “Remote Healing” describes a system of healing strategies aimed at transcending the “morphic field” of the disease by using imagination. Results are positive but measured only in subjective terms, and although the author does conduct a controlled experiment where participants are sometimes led to think they are being remotely healed when they are not, no claims are made as to the objective validity of such healing beyond the personally experienced therapeutic benefits. There are, however, detailed accounts of qualitative subjective responses and methodology for diagnosis, with emphasis on the use of cognitive processing and altered states. Everything takes place in the imagination, with emphasis on “commitment with which I imagine things” (p.51) being crucial in “resonating” with the target.
The author also describes in some detail his own serious health crisis, which involves interpreting symbolic dreams, coming up with coping strategies and receiving help from healers. There is no resolution to the problem, and there is awareness that many dreams may simply reflect one’s fears and desires and not reality, but the story draws attention “to the ways in which dreams can help a person through a stressful time of life” (p. 84) – whatever that might be.
In the penultimate chapter, “Talking to Dead People,” we are given an account of a case where words relevant to current situations spontaneously appear on a computer screen; this is followed by a description of the author’s own inconclusive experiments in instrumental transcommunication, and his work with a medium resulting in what might have been contact with a dead friend. There is also a brief reference to the work of the late Ian Stevenson and past life regression. The author’s own experience of the latter with his students and himself could be, as he acknowledges, a projection of personal issues, but this might still have therapeutic value even if it is of doubtful value as evidence for survival (which, for other reasons, the author regards as likely).
This is a brief and very personal account, with some less than mainstream views (e.g., positing “astral goons” who can have a negative influence if allowed into one’s psyche, p. 99) and scant reference to the literature of the subject. It is brave of the author to reveal much of his inner self, and the book is positive in its belief in the efficacy of intention and ability to override physical circumstances, without being dogmatic. However, the call for more research, made in the “Epilogue,” is somewhat misplaced in view of the lack of the book’s wider perspective, and might leave the reader new to the field unaware of the substantial body of information about the “extraordinary nature of reality,” much of it objective, collected over more than a hundred years, not least by the SPR.
Purbeck is a Dorset peninsula of great beauty, and Swanage resident David Leadbetter has combed the area to find accounts of its unexplained side. His title suggests an entry in Amberley’s well-established Paranormal Somewhereshire series, but Paranormal Purbeck has been produced by the independent publisher Roving Press. They are based at Frampton, the other side of Dorchester, and concentrate on books of local interest (including one on Dorset’s alien big cats written by Merrily Harpur). The production values are higher than for many similar books from bigger publishers: the first surprise is that the illustrations are in full colour, as pictures are usually black and white. Further, it has been carefully proof read, which is not always the case, and there is an index, a lack I have complained about in the past in similar offerings. So full marks to Roving Press for the overall package.
The content on the other hand will be familiar to those who have read similar regional guides because reported phenomena tend to be stable across places. The chapters are a mixture of those focusing on specific locations, and on types of event. We begin with activity in Studland, Swanage and Langton Matravers (the last not a cad in a Victorian melodrama) before moving on to Corfe Castle and Wareham. The third chapter concentrates on a single building, the Royal Oak in Swanage, which is notable for the richness of events reported there. The following chapters deal with Near-Death Experiences, time-related phenomena (precognition, synchronicity, time-slips), and the final chapter contains general reflections.
There are some historical accounts, and some supplied second-hand, but the majority were told to Leadbetter by the experient. A number of these personal stories are rather thin, either with little detail or a probable normal explanation, but others are more detailed, making them a valuable contribution to the database of cases. The first two chapters contain the usual mix of hauntings and poltergeists, and will be of most relevance to tourists wanting to add some spooky locations to their itinerary. Of course interviewees often wish to remain anonymous, or ask for their place of residence to be omitted except perhaps in general terms, and the significant proportion of these anonymised narratives reduces the book’s value as a guidebook. The Royal Oak on the other hand gets a whopping 23 pages, and Leadbetter has done a thorough job in recording accounts of staff and customers. By contrast the NDE chapter is short, and while there is always a local connection, it has a miscellaneous feel, covering also out-of-body and vague medically-related experiences. The chapter on time and synchronicity includes a couple of ‘small world’ coincidences which, while they are surprising to the experient, are not particularly unusual, and it is doubtful that they have any significance.
The concluding chapter draws out commonalities among the various topics Leadbetter has recorded, and he uses the work G N M Tyrrell did for the SPR in analyzing and categorising types of apparitions to examine the ones in his own collection. He looks at scientific correlates, asks whether animals possess any paranormal abilities, and concludes with speculations on what paranormal phenomena might mean for the future of the human race. There are no surprises here, but primary accounts are always worth collecting as they may assist some future Tyrrell to discern patterns that will enable a better understanding of what exactly is going on. On an everyday level, Paranormal Purbeck is an entertaining read which will be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. Hopefully Roving Press will produce further books which do a similar job for other parts of Dorset, and perhaps further afield.
Brian Clegg, who has previously written a large number of popular science books, is the latest in a long line of physicists to write about parapsychology. His aim has been to open-mindedly “... examine the evidence, consider possible physical mechanisms, and come up with an educated view ...” of the subject (p. 7). However, the initial acknowledgements indicate that the book had not been read by anyone familiar with the parapsychology literature prior to publication, and that has allowed him to unintentionally introduce and repeat errors. That said, the book is easy to read and serves as a reminder of past criticism. I will not comment on the sections concerning physics as I am not a physicist.
Evidence suggestive of survival after bodily death and poltergeists does not interest Clegg. Instead he has tried to focus on phenomena that, in his opinion, might have a physical explanation. In passing, contemporary mediums are however dismissed as cold readers.
Clegg reminds the reader of the wellknown telepathy tests of George A. Smith and Douglas Blackburn, and relies on Blackburn's confession (reprinted in Kurtz, 1985), forgets to mention Smith's denial of trickery, and claims that neither of the men was a stage magician. The magic historian Milbourne Christopher's (1970) account does however make it quite clear that they were mentalists. Needless to say, their contemporary Washington Irving Bishop was not as Clegg claims one of the first mind readers, although he was one of the better-known performers who relied on muscle-reading.
He turns to J. B. Rhine's experiments and makes several erroneous statements: for example he claims that Rhine coined the term psi and confuses problems with some ESP card sets (reviewed by Medhurst, 1969) with the original ESP cards. When commenting on Rhine's experiments he relies on the first edition of C. E. M. Hansel's (1966) book and appears to be unaware of both the later editions of it (i.e. Hansel, 1980; 1989) and the exchanges they provoked.
Relying on Martin Gardner's criticism (reprinted in Gardner, 1981), he comments on Charles Tart's attempts to enhance psi by providing feedback. Clegg also briefly comments on the Maimonides Medical Center dream ESP studies, but his main “criticism” seems to be that since pictures can generate a wide variety of associations, the hits can appear to be more impressive than they really are. Needless to say Clegg finds it easy to criticise mathematician/physicist John Taylor's (1975) tests of metal-bending, but appears to be unaware of Taylor's (1980) attitude change. Uri Geller is also a subject of Clegg's attention, and while discussing the tests with him at Stanford Research Institute (Targ & Puthoff, 1974) he relies on the magician James Randi's (1975) book. Clegg relies on the first edition rather than the revised edition (i.e. Randi, 1982).
In short Clegg presents a hodgepodge. Though readable, the text is quite often influenced by the wellknown sceptics Hansel, Gardner and Randi – none of them notable as reliable sources – and the responses to their criticisms are generally not properly acknowledged. Perhaps it is inappropriate to give away the ending, but Clegg concludes that “... the existing experiments have demonstrated nothing more than coincidence, artifacts of the experimental design, misunderstanding, and fraud” (p. 276). Personally I do not believe that Clegg knows enough about parapsychology to arrive at any conclusion, but he is scheluded to participate in a panel debate “Has Parapsychology Achieved Anything?“ later this year at the Seriously Strange conference, 7-8 September.
Christopher, M. (1970). ESP, seers & psychics. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Gardner, M. (1981). Science, good, bad and bogus. New York: Prometheus books.
Hansel, C. E. M. (1966). ESP. A scientific evaluation. New York: Scribner's.
Hansel, C. E. M. (1980). ESP and parapsychology. New York: Prometheus books.
Hansel, C. E. M. (1989). The search for psychic power. New York: Prometheus books.
Kurtz, P. (ed.) (1985). A skeptic's handbook of parapsychology. New York: Prometheus Books.
Medhurst, R. G. (1969). Note on the 'ESP' cards designed in the parapsychology laboratory, Duke univeristy. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 45, 81-85.
Randi, J. (1975). The Magic of Uri Geller. New York: Ballantine Books.
Randi, J. (1982). The Truth about Uri Geller. New York: Prometheus Books.
Targ, R., & Puthoff, H. E. (1974). Information transfer under conditions of sensory shielding. Nature, 251, 602-607.
Taylor, J. G. (1975). Superminds. New York: Warner Books.
Taylor, J. G. (1980). Science and the supernatural. New York: Dutton.
The Life After Death Project, Written, Produced and Directed by Paul Davids
The great science fiction entrepreneur Forrest J Ackerman was known as “Mr. Sci-Fi” (among other affectionate soubriquets), not only because he had coined the term ‘sci-fi’ in 1953, but because of his achievements as editor, writer, collector and promoter in the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Most importantly, he was founder-editor in 1958 of the influential magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, editing nearly 200 issues, but his other contributions were many, not least co-creating the comic book character Vampirella and giving Ray Bradbury a start by acting as his agent (Ackerman had less success as literary agent for Ed Wood of Plan 9 From Outer Space fame). He seemed to know everybody, and was loved by them in return. He conducted tours of his 18- room “Ackermansion” on Glendower in Los Angeles which, along with three garages, was stuffed full of his astonishing collection of memorabilia. He was a showman of the first order, convivial and approachable, and he was widely mourned when he died in December 2008, aged 92.
During his lifetime Ackerman, an atheist, was dismissive of the paranormal. That included the idea of life after death, though he did say that should he be wrong he would try to “drop a line” to those left behind. Even so, it was something of a surprise when his friends and collaborators started to receive hints that something of Ackerman had survived the transition. One of these was Paul Davids. Davids had known him since the age of 14, in 1964, and Ackerman had been one of his mentors. Davids’ film The Sci-Fi Boys was partly about Ackerman, so it was not unreasonable that if Ackerman were attempting to reassure friends of his continued existence, Davids would be one of his choices.
As a filmmaker, Davids was quick to begin making a record when it seemed that his old friend might be trying to get in touch, and as he realised that others were being affected, he decided to compile a documentary which assembled the evidence and discussed its implications. The result is an entertaining and informative film, made over a four year period, documenting the strange occurrences following Forry’s death that led a group of friends and associates to believe that he was communicating in an oblique but meaningful way. It is all circumstantial, but the accumulation of details builds up a picture of a personality, in much the same way as the SPR’s cross-correspondences do: small details in isolation which are, when combined, greater than the sum of their parts.
On 18 March, 2009, not long after Ackerman’s death, something very odd happened to Davids. While staying alone at his holiday home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he began printing out a 24-page log of various business meetings and phone calls while he went out. On his return he picked the sheets up from the printer, placed them on his bed, and left the room. The ink on the sheets was obviously dry. When he returned five minutes later, there was an unusual ink mark, still moist, on the top page obliterating four words in a single line: “Spoke to Joe Amodei.” The mark’s neatness appeared to indicate intentionality. What is more, it was not uniform. “Spoke to” could be discerned, but “Joe Amodie” was completely obscured; Davids had to check the line on his computer. Nothing could have leaked onto the page, he was sure that the document was untouched when he left it on the bed, and such an obvious mark would have been noticeable when he picked it up from the printer. Curiously, for such a significant action, the name Joe Amodei, who is a film producer, meant little to Davids. They had spoken once about a deal that had not taken place, but otherwise did not know each other. What could it mean?
Davids took the page to experts for advice. Jay Siegel, who is the chairman of the chemistry department at the University of Indiana, and John Allison, a chemistry professor at The College of New Jersey, both examined the mysterious mark, but could come up with no explanation for how it might have appeared on the paper. After hundreds of hours in the lab they were unable to recreate its precise appearance. They deduced that the agent blacking out the words was the same as that of the printer ink, but contained silver not present in the printer ink. A solvent of some kind had been used to spread ink, and add more than had been on the page to start with, but how, and by whom?
The anomalies extended to those involved in the tests. Dr. Allison had been experimenting with various methods trying to recreate the ink mark and had put a batch of pages with his tests on a chair in his dining room, tucked under his briefcase. When he came back into the room to pick up his things, prior to collecting Davids who was visiting his lab, he found the sheets on the floor, further out than gravity alone would have taken them. This was like Davids’ paper episode, with no draught, animal or person around to have done it. Such anecdotes by themselves might not seem particularly convincing to people sceptical of a survival explanation, but it was the first instance of a growing body of incidents that seemed to indicate that Forry was using whatever means were at his disposal to demonstrate that he had survived death.
The day after the mark appeared, Davids arranged for a psychic to visit. She checked the electro-magnetic fields in the house and found something unusual around a Zimbabwean ceremonial mask that stood in a case just outside the bedroom in which the document was marked. In the film Davids is shown moving an EMF meter around the case, and the needle is going off the scale. Somewhat unnerved, he moved the mask out of the house, but he mused that Ackerman had a collection of masks, and this was an artefact he would have enjoyed. To add to the weirdness, the person who had given him the mask, an inveterate traveller, had a collection of slides of all his journeys, and he discovered that the ones relating to the African trip during which he had acquired the mask had mysteriously disappeared from their neatly stored carousel. No other box had been touched, and the missing slides have never reappeared.
So far so strange, but there was more. A week and a half before the ink mark appeared, on 7 March, 2009, a memorial arranged by Joe Moe, who had been Ackerman‘s personal assistant and carer, was held at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater. A documentary made by two Canadian filmmakers, Mike MacDonald and Ian Johnston, Famous Monster: Forrest J Ackerman, was shown that evening. Davids spoke at the tribute, and the pair told him afterwards that they had just had some peculiar experiences. While in town they had a spare day so they had visited Ackerman’s final resting place in Forest Lawns and MacDonald, perhaps not in the best of taste, knocked on it, asking if anyone was home, the sort of joke that Forry would have enjoyed. They didn’t receive a reply, but returned to the room they were sharing in Hollywood to find their computers doing peculiar things.
MacDonald’s Facebook page required him to insert a random security captcha in order to proceed. The code that he had to retype? “Ackerman 000”, and the first letter was initialised. As they were absorbing this and saying some of the things that might have come up onscreen, one of them said “Ackerman dead”, whereupon Johnston’s computer, supposedly in sleep mode, suddenly yelled "Oh my God, no way!" This was the voice of an animated character on YouTube, but he did not have YouTube open on his computer at the time. It seemed to be a comment, echoing their thoughts, on what had just happened with Facebook. What made it even odder was that Johnston had a photograph of Ackerman aged about four and a half on his computer which he had uploaded when working on the documentary, an age appropriate to the childish voice which said “Oh my God, no way!” The computer events were within 30 seconds of each other, less than an hour after MacDonald knocked on Ackerman’s tomb.
They told Davids about this on 8 March, ten days before the mark appeared, so Davids started to wonder if there was a pattern, and if so, was it one that was originating in a discarnate Ackerman. The significance of the blacked-out line was still not apparent. It was only when speaking to Joe Moe to find out about Ackerman’s editing practices that he realised that “Joe Moe” was contained in “Joe Amodei”. Ackerman had loved puns, using them extensively in his writing, and this was precisely the sort of wordplay that he would have enjoyed. Was this the reason why that line alone had been affected, Ackerman literally “dropping him a line”? As if in confirmation, Moe then told Davids that a few days after the memorial, he had had a vivid dream in which Ackerman had appeared to him and praised the gathering, calling it the “9th wonder of the World” (King Kong of course being the 8th). So it would seem that Ackerman contacted Joe in his dream and then Davids, to tell him, “Spoke to Joe Moe.” Davids later found that when editing, Ackerman often deleted sentences in exactly the same way as on his paper.
The film recounts a number of similarly small but significant manifestations, often involving paper and print, appropriate for someone who had been as involved with publishing as Ackerman had been. For example, two years before Ackerman’s death he autographed a an issue of Famous Monsters for Davids, who after his death realised that the signature was above a line that reads: “The invisible ink men strike again”, a phrase, appearing nowhere else in the entire run of the magazine, one that Davids had associated with the mark over “Spoke to Joe Amodei.”
Davids wrote an article for Fate magazine, ‘The Strange Case of Forrest J Ackerman’, and despite careful proofreading a reference to the blanked-out words on Davids’ paper was somehow inserted, twice, garbling the text. The editor of the magazine could not account for the glitch. Just before a trip to New Mexico, Davids printed out a letter and placed it on the dining room table while he went to get an envelope. When he returned a blank sheet of stationery had replaced his letter. He considered that he could have absentmindedly filed the letter, so he reprinted it. When he walked back into the dining room, there was his original letter, but no blank sheet.
It must have felt like someone was playing with him, and perhaps they were, and with others too. After the auction of Ackerman’s possessions, a ring given to him by Bela Lugosi, who had worn it when playing Dracula, was sent on tour. Mike MacDonald, who had rapped on the tomb, left his house in Halifax and walked a few hundred yards. To his astonishment he spotted the ring in a gallery window, where it was on display for just one day. It had travelled 4,000 miles from Los Angeles, and of all the places it could have gone to it turned up round the corner from his home. It may have been chance, but it felt significant.
It wasn’t only those who were directly connected to Forry and the investigation who were involved. Davids visited the house that had been the Ackermansion, now extensively remodelled. Its two tenants claimed that the house was haunted. One, a singer, told him that often when she put music on her stand and left the room, she would come back to find it on the floor. Again, draughts and animals were ruled out. It echoed Davids’ and Allison’s experiences and was exactly the sort of action someone might carry out to attract attention. Also, the shadows of what looked like a man had been seen at night on the wall of what had been Ackerman’s office when there was nobody else around.
The film opens out from a discussion of Ackerman, and a number of experts are brought in to discuss the issues raised. These include the ubiquitous Gary Schwartz of the University of Arizona’s Laboratory For Advances in Consciousness and Health, Claude Swanson and R Leo Sprinkle; and on the opposing team, Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society and editor of its Skeptic magazine, who discusses humans‘ tendency to impose meaning on randomness, and less usefully tells us that if the paranormal is proved, it isn‘t the paranormal any more, QED. Also included are the late Richard Matheson, author of What Dreams May Come and Somewhere in Time and a friend of Ackerman’s; Whitley Strieber, author of Communion (Anne Strieber is an executive producer of the film along with Paul Davids‘ wife Hollace); Dannion Brinkley, survivor of three near-death experiences; and Mark Macy who researches Electronic Voice Phenomena. During Macy's interview two cameras were filming him, when the image broke up on both as he was talking about electromagnetic energies surrounding equipment. Davids has readings with three mediums who give remarkably accurate portraits of Ackerman’s character and interests. There is also archival footage of Ackerman himself, which shows a lively waggish personality, and demonstrates that the sorts of instances of ostensible communication detailed in the film are just the sort he might employ.
Can all these instances be explained away, and if they can‘t, must we conclude that Forrest J Ackerman is transmitting evidence for the continuation of his personality? We are assured in the opening sequence that “The events in this film are true. The mysteries and anomalies have not been contrived or invented in any way. There were many unexplained occurrences as the cameras were actually filming.” Despite this assurance, the mark on the paper could be a hoax, either by Davids who wanted material for a film, or by someone on him. These cannot be ruled out, though such a hoax on Davids appears to be so pointless and difficult to achieve as to be not worth considering, and much took place independently of Davids. Possibly he made the mark himself while in a fugue state, but given that he has not admitted to other acts of a similar nature that too seems unlikely. Even so, the mark could have a natural, as yet unexplained origin. The experiences of the Canadian filmmakers could be coincidences, as could those of other more peripheral participants, retrospectively appearing meaningful.
There could also be some element of cherry-picking. For example, Davids owns a painting of Ackerman, wearing the Lugosi ring, which was produced by L J Dopp in 2004, four years before Forry‘s death. It shows the clock behind him standing at two minutes to 12.00, the precise time he died (a version of the picture can be found on the DVD cover). Given enough material, there is a chance that things will be found that form a pattern. That is the line that Shermer would take. There is always the frustration of ambiguity about such communications, the wish for something irrefutable instead of hints, and as so often in survival research we haven’t got it.
The overwhelming point made throughout the film, though, is that the playful ’messages’ are consistent with the living Ackerman, and support the contention that he is behind them. Schwartz is shown with his ‘Silicon Photomultiplier System’ which demonstrates to his satisfaction that Ackerman is increasing the number of photons in a light-tight box to demonstrate his presence and ability to respond to Schwartz’s questions. Schwartz provides a good overview, dividing the evidence into four categories: physical phenomena (most notably the marked page); synchronicities, unusual pairings of events, the conjunction of which appear meaningful; from mediumship; and from instrumentation. While none on its own is conclusive, he argues, the four strands together are mutually reinforcing and point to the survival of consciousness. The problems is that psi proponents will want to take that approach, while sceptics will insist on taking each strand separately, on the grounds that the plural of anecdote is not data. It is thus unlikely that the film will change anyone’s mind, but it is an important contribution to our database of possible candidates for survival of bodily death.
The Life After Death Project (1 hr 46 minutes) was initially aired on the Syfy Channel in the US and is now available on DVD. As well as the film, the DVD includes 40 minutes of bonus features relating to Ackerman. Accompanying the first disc is a sequel, The Life After Death Project 2 – Personal Encounters (1 hr 41 minutes), which features personal accounts filmed for but not included in the main documentary. These are a wide range of individuals from all walks of life who in one way or another have had encounters with life after death. A 2-disc DVD including the two films and the extras was released on 16 July 2013.
PS After publication of my review Paul Davids asked me to append some comments, which I am happy to do:
“As God is my witness, I swear there is no hoax, no deception or exaggeration – only facts for the benefit of mankind and science. That is the motivation... I did not need "another film", and independent documentaries are generally not good investments of time or money. Also the scientists have testified they don't know how anyone could have created the ink obliteration when fully cognizant, so surely it could not have been created by me in a "fugue state." A final point: I was alone in the house, no one else was there, no person could have been physically there as an intruder."
Neil Arnold, author of another History Press title in their Shadows series, Shadows in the Sky: The Haunted Airways of Britain, has turned his attention to strange phenomena in, on, over and near the seas in this part of the world. His research has been extensive, and the book is packed with information which will be of interest to the psychical researcher, folklorist, cryptozoologist, and anyone with an interest in Forteana.
Chapters cover ghosts with a maritime link, particularly those of sailors; phantom ships; unidentified objects that appear to be connected to open water; mysterious lights; monsters; even mermaids, and general weirdness emanating from the briney. This is a broad range of topics and Arnold acknowledges that he can only give a taster of the material available, even though he restricts himself to the waters around Britain. Some stories are covered in depth, others are given just a few sentences. The result is a certain choppiness as we move quickly from one item to another.
While there is a general reading list at the end, sources for the accounts are usually not given, which is a shame as it would have been useful to have had the opportunity to look at these. How much trust one can place in the Tiswas Book of Ghastly Ghosts is a matter of speculation, and Elliott O’Donnell crops up occasionally with no sense that he is a most unreliable author.
This book complements Shadows in the Sky nicely as they are both concerned with the liminal, where the familiar shades off into things that we can only roughly chart, or not chart at all. As Arnold acknowledges, there are some undoubted fisherman’s yarns here and a few that were possibly invented by smugglers keen to deter casual visitors (you couldn’t do that nowadays because you would attract ghosthunters instead). Others may have some kernel of truth buried within, but have been stretched out of all proportion over the years. Yet there is often the feeling that sometimes truth itself is outlandish, and we would be unwise to reflexively dismiss a tale simply because it seems improbable to our limited understanding.
Seafarers are traditionally considered to be superstitious, and on this evidence they have good reason to be. The seas which surround us are profound indeed, and there are surely many surprises awaiting us as we continue to explore our planet’s watery depths. Who can tell what lies beneath?
Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884) is best known for her book with the snappy title Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. Interblended with Personal Narrative (E. W. Allen, 1882), and the plates from it, featuring sitters with sprit extras, have been frequently reproduced. The year before, Trübner had published a more general book by Houghton on her involvement in the Spiritualist movement, Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance. It had been labelled ‘First Series’, and E. W. Allen issued a further instalment alongside Chronicles. This ‘Second Series’, as Houghton termed it, of Evenings at Home has now been republished by Victorian Secrets. The editor, Sara Williams, has added an introduction, a chronology, basic bibliography, and a useful selection of articles by and about Houghton and her work from the contemporary press (including a review by H. P. Blavatsky of Chronicles that appeared in The Theosophist), as well as annotating the text. Williams adds some of the context necessary to understand how, despite Houghton’s rather sad and straightened circumstances, she could remain positive about her own life and the life to come.
Houghton was a spinster who lived in genteel poverty, with her mother until the latter’s death in 1869. That was a terrible year which also saw the deaths of Georgiana’s brother George and of her nephew Charlie, the son of her beloved sister Zillah who had died in 1851. What stands out in the chronology is the extent to which death touched her: of the ten Houghton siblings, seven predeceased Georgiana, and her interest in Spiritualism was sparked in 1859 by the possibility of mediumistic communication with Zillah. Her Spiritualism was always consonant with her strong Christian beliefs, and Biblical references are scattered throughout Evenings at Home. As Houghton, quoting herself in conversation, says, “…we both look to the Bible as the original evidence of Spiritualism and as still to be our landmark.” Mediumistic and scriptural communications were for her mutually reinforcing.
The second ‘series’ of Evenings at Home is a record of Houghton’s activities covering the years 1870–1881. It is a valuable source for understanding the Spiritualist movement during this period, though Houghton’s complete absence of critical insight into her experiences as a sitter in the séance room means that her accounts need to be treated with extreme caution. Spiritualism was a gregarious pursuit, and Houghton clearly enjoyed the status she had obtained within the movement. As well as the social aspect of séances, which included stopping for supper and a chat, she was ‘at home’ one afternoon each week, when she would receive like-minded visitors with whom she could discuss her brand of theology. She describes séances with friends such as Mrs Guppy of “aerial transit” fame, and by employing an autobiographical approach she is able to demonstrate how strongly her ardent Spiritualist beliefs provided a framework for her life.
While the second volume of Evenings at Home refers to spirit photography (and in particular her close association from 1872 with spirit photographer Frederick Hudson, the focus of Chronicles), it emphasises her earlier water colours painted under spirit influence. Their production was automatic, and Houghton disclaimed any conscious involvement in the content, which shifted from stylised fruits and flowers to pure abstraction, “sacred symbolism” as she calls it. A lengthy section is devoted to the exhibition of 155 of her paintings which she organised in 1871, at considerable financial cost. The exhibition, entitled Spirit Drawings in Water Colours, went on for four months at the New British Gallery in Old Bond Street in London. It was a mammoth undertaking for her, not only arranging the venue and catalogue, but framing the pictures for display, and removing them afterwards, a task she insisted on doing personally. She attended the gallery daily in order to discuss the pictures’ meanings and her method of production, to promote the doctrines of Spiritualism, and probably to have more company than would normally be the case in her domestic solitude. She describes some of these visitors, including the foolhardy Darwinist who attempted to convert her to evolution but whose “specious arguments … bothered me not for one moment.” Sadly, while many of her paintings were for sale, she only sold one, and her friends had to have a whip-round to help her out (her precarious financial position is a recurring theme).
The pictures would now be characterised as outsider art, or even abstract expressionism before its time, and the marked contrast of their style to prevailing notions of realism in Western art perhaps accounts for their lack of success during her lifetime. Yet as Rachel Oberter notes in her 2005 article on Houghton (‘Esoteric Art Confronting the Public Eye: the Abstract Spirit Drawings of Georgiana Houghton’ in the journal Victorian Studies, which reproduces some of the pictures, though unfortunately in black and white), Houghton’s watercolours in a sense were representational; she gave them specific titles, and for her the apparent randomness of line and colour represented a higher reality, interpreted through automatic writing by the spirit guides which had communicated the pictures to her.
Williams quotes the ever-optimistic Houghton as she muses in Evenings at Home on the future:
There have been three great epochs in my annals, divided into decades. In 1861, came the drawing mediumship, to open into all the rest.—In 1871, the exhibition of those ten years of work.—And now, in 1881, this most comprehensive labour of all! [i.e. Evenings at Home] — I cannot but speculate — what will the next decade evolve? what shall I do in 1891?
Sadly this tireless worker for Spirit did not live to see 1891, but she has left, in the watercolours, the photographs and the books, a window into the world as she saw it. Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance is a valuable document for anyone interested in the Spiritualist movement of the period, and, and it is good to see part of it back in print, with the addition of supplementary material. Renewed interest created by Victorian Secrets’ initiative may even stimulate further research into Houghton’s watercolours, and there is certainly scope for a full-colour book collecting together her surviving artworks and the automatic writing which accompanies them.
A bibliographic note on the Victorian Secrets edition: There are two versions of the Victorian Secrets edition of Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance. When first issued in 2013, the introduction did not refer to the fact that there had been two ‘series’ of Evenings at Home, with different contents, and that this was a reprint of the second. Williams’s ‘Note on the text’ (p.19) originally stated: ‘Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance was first published in London in 1881 by Trübner. In 1882 a second edition was issued by E. W. Allen of London to coincide with their publication of Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena.’ (There is a slight difference in the subtitles of the two series, though neither is included in the Victorian Secrets edition: The First Series is subtitled ‘Prefaced and welded together by a species of autobiography’; the Second has the slightly less cumbersome ‘Welded together by a species of autobiography’.)
Leslie Price drew attention to the confusion between ‘series’ and ‘edition’ in Psypioneer, March 2014, p.88, having himself been reminded by Dr Marco Pasi of the fact that a different volume had been published in 1881, and the 1882 book was not a second edition of it. Subsequently, Victorian Secrets added ‘Second Series’ to the title page of their edition, retaining the 2013 date, but adding ‘revised 2014’ to the colophon. Williams’s introduction was slightly amended (p.7) to note that this edition reprinted the second of the two series; and the ‘Note on the text’ was amended to read: ‘Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance (Second Series) was first published in London in 1882 by E. W. Allen of London to coincide with their publication of Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena.’ The covers of the two Victorian Secrets versions are identical.
Someone concerned with whether paranormal phenomena have any basis in reality might assume that a book devoted to hallucinations will have nothing to teach; after all, hallucinations are not what a psychical researcher wants to investigate. But if you can’t tell one from another, you have a problem. Oliver Sacks, the “Poet Laureate of Medicine” according to the New York Times, provides an accessible, if at times sketchy, overview of a complicated subject, and the implications for paranormal investigators are a cause for concern. If you think you see a ghost, how do you decide whether it is veridical or subjective? Hallucinations can affect all sense modalities, and while they run the gamut from realistic to outlandish, they can be remarkably convincing. They may have their origin in neurological damage, often of the temporal or parietal lobes, but others affect neurologically healthy individuals. Some types are extremely common. Sacks gives an example of hypnopompic imagery recounted to him by a Mr. Fish:
“The most typical one would involve me sitting up in bed and seeing a person – often an old lady – staring at me at some distance from the foot of my bed. (I imagine that such hallucinations are thought to be ghosts by some people - but not by me.) Other examples are seeing a foot-wide spider crawling up my wall; seeing fireworks; and seeing a little devil at the foot of my bed riding a bicycle in place.” (p.212)
Yes, seeing an old lady at the foot of the bed would be interpreted as a ghost by some, and it could be argued that Mr. Fish may have seen a ghost as well, but being of a sceptical bent chose to interpret the figure as a hallucination. The spider though gives one pause as it would be an unlikely resident of his bedroom (though Mr. Fish is an Australian so a foot-wide spider sounds plausible). The cycling devilette is doubtful too, and the fireworks definitely had no external reality, or he would have detected the residue afterwards. If the fireworks weren’t real, why should the old lady be?
‘Lynn O.’ had hallucinations as part of a narcoleptic syndrome. She told Sacks that she wished that she had received the narcolepsy diagnosis earlier, because previously she had interpreted her experiences as paranormal rather than as elements of a sleep disorder. Her assumption that they were paranormal, that is external to her, had delayed her in seeking “more constructive” (i.e. medical) help, but that help had allowed her to come to terms with her condition. As she wrote to Sacks, she had to reexamine those ‘paranormal’ experiences and readjust her view of the world: “It is like letting go of childhood or, rather, letting go of a mystical, almost magical view of the world. I must say, perhaps I am experiencing a touch of mourning.” (p.223) In other words, her earlier interpretation fulfilled a psychological need to make sense of her situation, albeit a maladaptive one. Alternatively, did a form of liquid cosh block her psychic receptivity? That remains a possibility.
Hallucinations are not restricted to ‘the external being experienced in here’; they can also involve the sense of ‘the internal being experienced out there’. It might be a reasonable assumption that an out-of-body experience linked to taking LSD or accompanying migraine or an epileptic seizure is subjective, but in some situations the default interpretation could be a paranormal one. OBEs can accompany narcolepsy and sleep paralysis, for example, and as the example of Lynn O. indicates, an experient might not be aware of their condition’s underlying pathology. ‘Jeanette B’, with a history of narcolepsy and sleep paralysis, experienced OBEs and admitted that she “found it very difficult to believe it was a hallucination.” (p.255) Moreover, the experiences became addictive to the point of her attempting to optimise the conditions required for them to occur, and refusing medication that she knew would have prevented them.
OBEs are also associated with near-death experiences, and Sacks deals with the latter as well in terms of hallucination caused by neurophysiological changes combined with stress arising from the extreme situation, though he passes over the subject in a couple of pages and does not engage with the extensive literature that has built up on it in recent years. But then he does not feel he has to, because it is straightforward to interpret. He notes a case where a surgeon was struck by lightning and had an NDE even though his heart had stopped for “little more than thirty or forty seconds.” (p.259) In an interview in Skeptical Inquirer (‘Oliver Sacks on Hallucinations’, May/June 2013), Sacks again refers to this case (though in the interview the cardiac arrest victim’s experience now occupies only “twenty or thirty seconds”). There he draws the conclusion that the surgeon’s “whole cosmic journey only occupied a matter of seconds”, which he uses to comment on the now-famous case documented by Eben Alexander in his recent book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife that the claim of the reality of such a paranormal experience based on its complexity cannot be sustained because “a few seconds of altered consciousness as one emerges from coma would be enough to give him such a state.” (SI, Vol. 37, Issue 3, p.52). We already know that hallucinations can feel intensely real. This would mean that any talk of a flat EEG, such as in the even more famous Pam Reynolds case, is irrelevant because the NDE occurs in a very brief period on emergence from the period when the brain is inactive, but can seem convincing to the point of changing the experient’s life.
Sacks briefly touches on the phenomenon of the bereaved experiencing the return of loved ones, though he sceptically examines these cases as aspects of “The Haunted Mind” rather than the haunted person, the ‘reappearance’ for him representing a compulsive return to the past during a time of emotionally-charged turmoil. These appearances can be so vivid that it is hard to believe that the deceased has not returned, and they are mostly, though not always, comforting. Unfortunately Sacks skims over this important phenomenon, and does not offer an adequate analysis of what might be happening. That they do not always occur in a context of intense grief is indicated by the account supplied by ‘Malonnie K’ who ‘saw’ her seventeen-year-old cat the day after it died while she was getting ready for work. The routine may have induced a mild altered state of consciousness which was a carrier for the longing she felt to have her pet back, but there is no suggestion that she was experiencing the sort of acute emotion that would be caused when a spouse dies. It is a puzzle why she hallucinated her cat, assuming it was a hallucination of course, while many people who have been married for a long time do not experience the return of their spouse after death (though it is possible that such incidents are under-reported, and some spouses doubtless are more relieved than devastated by their loss). The closest Sacks comes to an explanation is when he muses that “bereavement causes a sudden hole in one’s life, a hole which – somehow – must be filled. This presents a cognitive problem and a perceptual one as well as an emotional one, and a painful longing for reality to be otherwise.” (p.231) He seems to be saying that the brain is ‘filling in’ for the missing person in much the same way that it would fill in for an amputated limb which the amputee can still feel.
Unfortunately, experiences are not always benign. Sleep paralysis accompanied by hallucinations is surprisingly common, affecting perhaps a third to a half of the general population, and can be “vivid, elaborate, multimodal and terrifying” (p.226). The ‘Old Hag’ phenomenon is well known to psychical researchers, but for those suffering “the sense of terror and doom” it brings with it, it is easy to believe that they are being persecuted by a supernatural being against which they are literally powerless to act. That class of hallucination shows how difficult it can be to tell, while it is occurring, whether an experience is hallucinatory or has an objective reality when it seems so real. You might dismiss an event as a hypnagogic (ie when falling asleep) because it occurred with closed eyes, in the dark, but Sacks notes that hypnopompic hallucinations can be seen in bright illumination with open eyes, and seem solid. They can have a strong emotional impact, much as one might have if confronted with a ghost. Sacks considers this very point:
“Indeed, one must wonder to what degree the very idea of monsters, ghostly spirits, or phantoms originated with such hallucinations. One can easily imagine that, coupled with a personal or cultural disposition to believe in a disembodied spiritual realm, these hallucinations, though they have a real physiological basis, might reinforce a belief in the supernatural.” (p.215)
He briefly discusses Frederic Myers, one of the founders of the SPR, who coined the term ‘hypnopompic’. Sacks dismisses both Phantasms of the Living (of which Myers was a co-author) and Myers’ own Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death on the grounds that “one feels” the majority of the psychical experiences recounted in them are actually hallucinations arising from “states of bereavement, social isolation, or sensory deprivation, and above all in drowsy or trancelike states.” (p.216) One might want to discount Sacks’ verdict on the grounds that having a feeling is not providing evidence, but one feels in turn that he may have a point (even while somewhat sceptical that he has read both those lengthy works from end to end).
Given all the complications, think how hard it is for an investigator, interviewing a witness who claims to have had an anomalous experience, to get at the truth. The witness may well be supplying an honest account, not realising how easy it is for our brains to fool us into thinking that something is there when it isn’t. Sacks would argue that the lesson of Hallucinations is that you may think it is difficult to discriminate between an objective and subjective experience, but actually the experience is always subjective, the ghost never has an external reality. The standard answers in the psychical research literature revolve around reliance on shared experiences, or the transfer of veridical information, but this is a field beset with uncertainty. The witness may well have seen a ghost, but the investigator recording their story cannot rule out possible counter-explanations in terms of hallucination.
This then is a book that should be read by psychical researchers because they need to be aware of the many ways in which we can be tricked by our cognitive apparatus. It should not though be read uncritically. Sacks makes the somewhat sweeping statement that “Any consuming passion or threat may lead to hallucinations in which an idea and an intense emotion are embedded.” (p.231), but it cannot be that simple. His book is crammed with examples of hallucinations that could be construed as having a paranormal component, but this he refuses to countenance on the grounds that we are all susceptible to suggestion. He considers that if we believe a house can be haunted, even though naturally the proposition is “scoffed at by the rational mind” (p.250), and the belief is combined with emotional arousal in a setting of ambiguous stimuli, then hallucinations may result. That’s hauntings disposed of in under a page. Children’s imaginary friends? Hallucinations. One feels that he is not giving the matter much attention as he assumes that hallucination obviously has to be the correct conclusion. Towards the end he cites the hypothesis that the ‘feeling of presence’ is part of our biological inheritance, an evolutionary adaptation relating to threat that is controlled within the temporal lobe (p.291). It may well be, and one can see the advantages in such a mechanism. What might trigger this in someone who is sitting around, so not experiencing a sense of threat, when a ghost appears Sacks does not address, and one feels that there is likely to be more involved than the activation of a circuit in the temporal lobe. Whether a complete explanation should invoke the paranormal is another matter.
A separate review of Hallucinations by Robert A. Charman appeared in the July 2014 issue of the SPR’s Journal.
Parapsychology has a relatively small community devoted to it, and for anyone keen enough to pick up Rosemarie Pilkington’s collection of autobiographical accounts by some of its significant figures, many of the names will probably be familiar. But it is one thing to read a book or article by someone; it is another to read a first-person account of how they became interested, and what motivates and excites them, in something which, as more than one contributor notes, generates little income and less recognition.
It was therefore an excellent idea of Pilkington’s to gather reminiscences, focusing on older workers, while there was still time. Volume l was originally published in 1987, and reprinted by Anomalist Books in 2010. The criterion for inclusion was that those invited be over 65, consequently of the twelve figures in it only one is alive at this writing, showing how important it is to collect these memories before they disappear. The reprint brought the book to the attention of a new generation that had not been around in the 1980s, and indicated that there was scope for a sequel.
The increased size of Volume 2 is to be welcomed. It boasts an international roster, with twenty-one contributions, the bulk as before drawn from the United States, but the UK, Germany and Iceland represented as well. Only three women are included, which does reflect the gender split in times past, though it seems fair to say that the situation is gradually improving (despite which, until the loss of Professor Fontana in late 2010 there was a period when the SPR’s Council contained the same number of men called David as it did women, so there is some way to go).
Pilkington’s aim as before is to gather reminiscences and reflections from the older members of the parapsychological community. The oldest is Lawrence LeShan, born in 1920, the youngest, a chronological outlier, is Serena Roney-Dougal, born in 1951. The figures in the book have a wide range of backgrounds and interests, with a good balance between field and lab research. Sadly two (Williams Broad and Roll) died while the book was in production. Bill Roll was very frail and had trouble communicating, so although Pilkington interviewed him, she filled out his entry from other sources. LeShan was also interviewed.
The other nineteen were free to write what they wanted but were given a set of questions, to which they more or less adhered, in order to structure their responses. These were: what had prompted them to choose this pursuit?; what did they consider to be their most significant contribution?; what might they have done differently, and what changes occurred to their outlooks as a result of their work?; had they had any experiences that exceeded their boggle threshold?; and what would be their advice to young researchers contemplating such a career? Pilkington prefaces each entry with biographical details to introduce the author and Nancy L. Zingrone supplies a warm foreword in which she rightly says that “Autobiography makes the past immediate.”
The responses are wide-ranging. Some are short and anecdotal, others discuss the implications of the work in greater depth. The result is an informal primer covering many of the developments in the subject over the past fifty years. Each entry contains plenty of references, selected bibliographies and website information to allow further investigation of the issues.
Some names crop up frequently, notably J. B. Rhine (it is nice to see his and Louisa Rhine’s daughter Sally Rhine Feather included here, carrying on the family business), and the accounts show how influential he was, though not always in a positive way it has to be said. LeShan comes up more than once. So does Bob Morris, who had an enormous effect on the growth of parapsychology through the Koestler Chair, one sadly dissipated since his untimely death. The SPR is cited a number of times as an organisation that helped to stimulate awareness, and the importance of the Parapsychological Association is stressed, as well as other organisations like the Rhine Research Center and the Parapsychology Foundation.
As one might expect from so eclectic a bunch, there is a wide diversity of views and approaches. If this were a church, it would be a broad one, though with an underpinning sense of the mysteries of consciousness and of the universe. The Americans stand out by their frequent references to Eastern spiritual thought, which is not surprising given the age profile, many reaching maturity in the liberal ‘60s, and one suspects more past drug taking (purely for academic purposes you understand) than is admitted to. There is much talk of ‘non locality’, and the influence of developments in physics is apparent. There is also a tendency to stress process- rather than proof-oriented research, acknowledging that further proof is not going to persuade anyone not convinced by what has already accumulated, and that the emphasis should be on how the thing works, whatever that thing happens to be, not whether it does.
The variety of experiences and topics raised will inspire anybody thinking of a career in this area, as well as making it a useful primer for those just wanting to learn more about the subject and the men and women who have shaped it (though always bearing in mind that there are no critical voices to contradict the claims, and that these are by definition the success stories, those who stayed the course). Even if you know some of the individuals and their publications, you can always learn something new that will surprise and entertain.
Pilkington asked what advice the contributors would give to aspiring entrants, but the warnings will doubtless be treated lightly. My guess is that confirmation bias will operate, warnings will be ignored, and only the desirable aspects absorbed. There is talk of lousy pay and prospects, but it becomes clear as one reads that with a bit of ingenuity, and yes, some luck, it is possible to make a living, and an enjoyable one, while pursuing your passion.
The enthusiasm shines through, and anyone considering embarking on a similar path will find these personal stories encouraging, though with a dose of realism injected into the aspirations. It’s a shame that such a project had not been considered earlier because so much history is lost as people die. There are others who will have reached the correct vintage in a few years’ time, and it is to be hoped that we will have the pleasure of a further instalment of Esprit which asks them the same questions, with perhaps fewer Americans and a larger proportion drawn from other parts of the world. Also, I can think of a few elder statespersons missing from Volume 2. I suspect some were asked, but declined, and I hope they reconsider for a third.
A similar enterprise, A History of Psychology in Autobiography, the first volume of which appeared as long ago as 1930, has been very successful (and doubtless inspirational), and it would be good to see Men and Women of Parapsychology achieve similar longevity as it tracks those who make a significant contribution to the subject, and who well deserve to have their achievements noted.
It seems odd that nobody had thought of the idea before, but surprisingly Geoff Holder is the first person to compile a history of Scottish poltergeists. The title is intended to echo Harry Price’s 1945 classic Poltergeist over England (though as Holder notes, Price does include a classic Scottish example, Pitmilly House).
The cases are numbered – there are 134 in total – and arranged chronologically, from the 1630s to early 2012. Each century is assigned a chapter, except the twentieth which, because of the number of cases it contains, has been covered in three. Each chapter is prefaced by a line drawing of Scotland, labelled with the case numbers, so it is easy to see the distribution during that period.
Holder follows a standard format: location; date and duration, where this can be established; a description of alleged phenomena; sources used; the context, which might be the religious, social or physical environment within which the event(s) occurred; and interpretation, both what the participants thought was happening, where this is available, and Holder’s own thoughts.
There is a short introduction on the nature of poltergeists, their relationship with hauntings, and some statistics extracted from his collection on where they manifest. As might be expected, since the Second World War there has been a decline in rural incidents and an increase in urban ones, and the rural ones stand out because of the amount of burning peat that often seems to be involved.
Holder has also broken them down by type of phenomenon into 37 categories, though this is not going to be precise considering the vagueness of some of the reports. Even so, it shows that objects and furniture moved in almost 72% of cases and there were noises in almost 66%, both a long way ahead of other types of phenomena. Clear hoaxing was found in only about 5%, though this is probably an underestimate. The book concludes with a lengthy bibliography and an index.
A lot of work has gone into assessing the reliability of witnesses and comparing versions, and casting quite often complicated accounts into a comprehensible narrative. Some cases are obscure, available only in specialist or antiquarian publications. Others are better known, for example Ballechin House, Pitmilly House, and Sauchie in 1960-1. The section on the Mackenzie poltergeist shows how the story as promoted is inextricably linked to commercial ghost tours and “supernatural branding”, denting its evidential value.
The Maxwell Park case, a kind of proto-Enfield which was investigated in part by the late Archie Roy, turns out not to have been in Maxwell Park in south Glasgow at all, but on the other side of the city at Balornock. Roy said in A Sense of Something Strange (1990) that he had changed the names of those involved (excluding the investigators) but he did not say that Maxwell Park was also a pseudonym. Fortunately Holder has corrected the record, and gives a succinct overview of a complicated case.
Not all of the entries are entirely about Scotland. The ordeal of Scot Carole Compton (“The nanny they called a witch”) is included even though it occurred in Italy. Alexander Seton’s supposedly cursed Egyptian sacrum is also included, and there is a picture of Lady Zeyla Seton holding the bone, though it looks more like a bath sponge than the digestive biscuit her husband described it as resembling. Holder has looked into the business and suggests an identification for the tomb from which it was removed. The Seton affair, and Ardachie Lodge as well, are covered in Paul Adams and Eddie Brazil’s recent Extreme Hauntings, also from The History Press.
Space constraints have limited what can be said, and one gets the impression that Holder has strained the extent of what his publisher would allow in order to cram as much in as possible. It is surprising that the publisher chose a small format for the book, as a larger size, with more illustrations, would have been warranted by the subject matter, even if that entailed increasing the cover price.
There are a few typos scattered through the text, an unfortunate one stating that the unpublished notes on Pitmilly House in the SPR archives at Cambridge were written by family lawyer Gilbert Hole, whereas they were written by SPR investigator Lord Charles Hope. These are minor issues, and overall this is an excellent package relevant to anybody interested in poltergeists, not only those which occurred in Scotland. Holder employs his trademark humour and takes an open-minded, sympathetic, but critical view of the phenomena he describes, making this a useful, and long overdue, collection.
It is interesting to chart the ins and out, the changes and continuities, of the poltergeist’s evolution across the centuries (and Holder’s dataset seems to be typical of reports more generally), to see how embedded it is in the mores of a particular era. Default explanations have ranged from external forces, such as demons and witches, to internal ones in the shape of recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, though to our current eclecticism, a mix of geophysical, RSPK and survival interpretations on one side, with sceptical explanations subsumed under the umbrella of anomalistic psychology on the other.
Yet despite the plethora of suggestions we seem to be no nearer an explanation for this mystery. In fact an explanation may be receding, given the relentless shift from sober investigation to media sensationalism over the last half-century. It is easy to smile at the supposed naivety of our forebears (demons! witches!), but looking at the more recent entries in Holder’s book, one realises that we should not patronise those who went before, because we might well wonder what those who come after will in turn make of us.