Books reviewed by SPR reviewers

McCorristine, Shane
Tom Ruffles
The history of the ghost is one of sad decline. Before the Reformation it had a place in the order of things which was relatively unproblematic, returning from Purgatory and interacting with the living to make requests, give advice, and generally carry on unfinished business. Ghosts had some substance to them, a purpose in death, but their successors acquired a certain diffidence. Modern ghosts are rootless and insubstantial (one might say bloodless), decentred from involvement with the living to that strange half-life in which we can never be sure whether they are ‘out there’ or ‘in here’.
Protestantism increased the distance between living and dead by discarding Purgatory, which made the origin of ghosts problematic. If it was unlikely that they would forsake Heaven to linger on earth, that left only one place from which they could originate, hence a tendency to identify ghost-seeing with evil spirits. Unfortunately for the new world view, scepticism about ghosts was not far removed from scepticism concerning the soul’s immortality, and could even constitute a bridgehead for atheism, but the obligation to interrogate the phenomenon more closely than hitherto laid the foundation for an evidence-based approach to ghosts.
The problem of the ghost’s status could be resolved by internalising the experience as an erroneous percept.  Hence the evolution of the idea of ghost-seeing as a form of dreaming while awake. Ghosts were no long objective beings but products of the mind, a by-product caused when it was not fully engaged with reality.  The inability to distinguish between objective and subjective allowed these “spectral illusions” to become incorporated into a medical model as pathological. The problem with pathologising ghost seeing, though, was that so many normal-seeming people appeared to experience them.  In the popular imagination they maintained their solidity, and this ambiguity has provided a rich source of inspiration for novelists dealing with the fantastic (in Todorovian terms) ever since.
As an example of this elusiveness, McCorristine notes the importance of Catherine Crowe’s 1848 The Night Side of Nature in the development of serious attempts to develop a framework for understanding ghosts, because of her insistence that they should be examined seriously as phenomena in themselves rather than as an outcropping of theological doctrine, while at the same time mixing fact and fiction. This “factionality trap”, in which the ghost account was never definitively assigned to one or the other, was already a problem in Crowe’s time.  McCorristine cites Daniel Defoe’s ‘A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs Veal’ as an example of a factional ghost story, and notes subsequent debates over whether Defoe believed (or even wrote) it, and whether it was designed merely as a marketing device. This problem of interpretation still challenges psychical researchers.
The ghost as objective entity was questioned by sceptical writers who asked how an incorporeal entity could wear clothes, an ability which suggested that ghosts were in fact products of the seer. How far such hallucinations corresponded to external reality was open to question. McCorristine shows how such a seemingly trivial issue of how ghosts were clothed became an important point in how they were assessed by critics, Spiritualists and, as usual somewhere in the middle, psychical researchers. Faced with a spectrum of opinion, the Society for Psychical Research fought hard to create a constituency for its findings that was “neither sceptical nor superstitious”, as Myers put it.
While ranging across over a century and a half, the bulk of the narrative deals with the early history of the SPR, and this period has been subjected to close reading. The work on thought-transference/telepathy is examined in depth because it was used as an underpinning mechanism for a variety of phenomena, including ghosts, in the attempt to achieve a “grand synthesis”. Such efforts are indicated clearly by the title of Frank Podmore’s 1909 book Telepathic Hallucinations: The New View of Ghosts. Part of Spectres of the Self is devoted to the accounts collected and categorised by the SPR in its ‘heroic’ phase between its inception and the beginning of the twentieth century. It was astonishingly productive not only in collecting material but also in seeking to incorporate it into a theoretical framework, ploughing a distinctive furrow and moving away from the Christian perspective which informed earlier narratives. It tried to draw that elusive boundary between fact and fiction, and provide criteria for handling the ‘evidential residue’.
The SPR’s efforts are situated in the context of changing attitudes towards religion and the hereafter, and developments in communications technology. By examining the critical response which followed the publication of Phantasms of the Living (1886), the SPR’s major achievement in this period, McCorristine is able to trace the fault lines dividing psychical researchers from the strengthening currents of academic psychology which considered such concepts to be pseudo-scientific. He then traces the shift in emphasis, after Edmund Gurney’s death two years later, from phantasms of the living to those of the dead, in order for Myers to accommodate his evolving thinking on human survival.
McCorristine seems pessimistic that this melee of competing views will ever be resolved, with advocates of rival positions concerning the aetiology of ghosts locked in perpetual combat, each unable to convince the other. The modern ghost hunter, weighed down with meters and recorders, will not welcome his characterisation of ghosts as a “soporific psychic reality”, and will take issue with the suggestion that labelling ghosts as projections of the subjective mind allows all shades of opinion, from sceptic to believer, to consider seeing a ghost as “real, truthful and authentic”. The ghost is not as easily disposed of as that.
The author has drawn on a wide range of sources and produced a useful analysis of a period of huge ferment in the ways ghosts were understood. Despite the subtitle indicating that the book is specifically about England, it actually ranges more widely, taking in Kant, Schopenhauer, debates in French psychiatry, and Prussian Christoph Freiderich Nicolai’s paper ‘A Memoir on the Appearance of Spectres or Phantoms Occasioned by Disease, with Psychological Remarks’, which is included as an appendix in the English translation which appeared in 1803.
Spectres of the Self provides a useful commentary on Owen Davies’s magnificent five-volume set Ghosts: A Social History. It has to be said that while crammed with useful insights into ghost culture in the modern period, it is often densely written and hard work to unpick. One minor annoyance from an SPR perspective is the acknowledgement to the Syndics of Cambridge University Library for permission to quote from the SPR’s archives when this permission is not in the Syndics’ gift. However, as a well-constructed example of the welcome burgeoning of academic literature dealing with historical aspects of psychical research, this book will assist anyone who puzzles seriously over ghosts and their veridicality.
Spectres of the Self. Cambridge University Press, July 2010. ISBN: 9780521747967 (p/b) ISBN: 9780521767989 (h/b)
Holder, Geoff
Tom Ruffles
The prolific Geoff Holder, who has written widely on the paranormal, mostly in connection with Scotland, does something slightly different in his latest book by drawing together a range of supernatural lore relating to the ill-fated Jacobites. Taking this thematic approach allows him to create a useful gazetteer for those interested in the supernatural, Jacobite history, and the fractious relations which have often prevailed between England and Scotland.
The book is divided into several sections. The first is a succinct but clear exposition of the historical context – the political, religious, and social divisions which generated so much strife – including a useful timeline. This part provides a foundation to understand the people and beliefs involved in the somewhat complicated narrative of Jacobitism. The second looks at how the supernatural was viewed and interpreted in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. This covers such matters as omens, prodigies and prophecy, and how they played a role in propaganda and the shaping of events (often becoming self-fulfilling); how the monarch’s effectiveness at employing the King’s Touch, being God-given, came to be seen as a criterion for assessing legitimacy; second sight; witchcraft and magic; fairies; and of course ghosts.
These two sections form the framework for understanding the third, which is the location guide. This is divided into Scotland, England and Ireland, and Scotland and England are further sub-divided into regions for Scotland and counties for England. Naturally most pages are devoted to Scotland. Site entries follow a standard format: the date when it became significant, where it is, including a map reference and the postcode to assist GPS users, what there is to see today, visitor information, what happened there, and of course the weird stories, including Jacobite ghosts. As not every location associated with the Jacobites has such stories attached to it, this is not a complete guide that movement (though it does include all the major battles), only the stranger bits of it.
The volume concludes with a bibliography and an index which makes searching the book easy. The whole is liberally sprinkled with illustrations, many taken by the author, showing that he put his boots on to do his research rather than sitting at his desk with a pile of tourist brochures. As a package this scores well compared to many regional volumes which do not allow someone trying to use them as field guides to locate information easily. It is also worth stressing that although Holder’s background is in the paranormal, he is very good on the personalities, and describes battles very clearly.
Some of the stories will be familiar from other collections, but Holder has taken a novel approach in focusing on the life and times of the Jacobites, and produced an extremely worthwhile guide as a result.  The text is well written, though the language is sometimes informal veering into slang. What he has achieved is to write a book that will appeal to fans of the paranormal as much as to those who enjoy visiting battlefields or historic houses, while injecting some serious history in a palatable form which manages to combine a quizzical eye for folly with compassion for the suffering such folly causes. Whatever one’s opinion of the folklore and strangeness he recounts, the general reader will close the book knowing a bit more about this tragic period than when he or she opened it.
The Jacobites and the Supernatural. Amberley Publishing, October 2010. ISBN 9781848685888
Wood, Alan C.
Tom Ruffles
Military Ghosts, by Alan C Wood, Amberley Press, 2010.
A field of human activity like warfare, in which sudden and violent death is a commonplace, might be expected to throw up large quantities of ghosts, assuming that they correlate with extremes of human emotion. Such seems to be the case judging by Alan Wood’s book – not to be confused with Ken and Sharon Hudnall’s 2007 book of the same name – on ghosts relating to armed forces and combat through the ages.
Wood writes with authority as he is not just someone who has been interested in the paranormal for over sixty years, but served in the RAF from the late 1940s, before joining the police for the rest of his working life. He covers dozens of ghost stories from a broad period of history, some familiar, others less so, and including personal experiences of both a ghost and a poltergeist. There is a good sprinkling of Scottish cases to reflect the author’s roots.
The book is logically structured, dealing separately with ghosts and legends relating to the three services. It is mostly devoted to British personnel, but Wood does stray overseas, notably including a few cases from the United States. All sorts are here, from benign spirits to evil presences, from ghosts that have personality to ones that seem to be only an echo of past events. Along the way Wood recounts stories of great bravery and endeavour, great cruelty, and unspeakable suffering.
Entries are generally short, with little attempt at analysis. For example, the Sir George Tryon and Camperdown story is recounted, but there is no mention of the analysis to which Melvyn Harris subjected it in Sorry, You’ve Been Duped. Similarly the Edgehill and Souter Fell ghost army stories have been closely scrutinised by Peter McCue and Alan Gauld in the SPR’s Journal, but their findings are not reflected in Wood’s book. But to be fair, such gazetteers are not designed to be academic texts and what it lacks in depth it makes up in breadth.
Wood has included useful appendices containing locations of haunted airfields (ordered alphabetically), a bibliography – oddly not including Bruce Barrymore Halpenny’s extensive Ghost Stations series which contains many of the same cases – and lists of haunted locations in the UK (ordered by county) and abroad (ordered by country). The latter two are useful but unfortunately do not key into the text with page numbers, which necessitates some hunting to find the passage to which the item refers.
Military ghosts are popular as they combine topics of deep interest to many, indeed obsession for some (and Amberley publishes widely in both subjects).  Even though there is much more to be said, this is a chunky book containing a large number of stories told in an engaging style, and is a worthy edition to the ghosthunter’s, military buff’s or just plain tourist’s bookshelf.
Military Ghosts. Amberley, October 2010. ISBN 9781445601717
Halliday, Robert and Murdie, Alan
Tom Ruffles
Cambridge Ghosts, by Robert Halliday and Alan Murdie
As well as being one of the most fascinating cities in Britain, Cambridge, according to Robert Halliday and Alan Murdie, is one of the most haunted. That is not surprising given somewhere so old and imbued with history, and the authors have produced an enjoyable popular tour of its spooky side.
This is an updated and extensively rewritten version of the authors’ The Cambridge Ghost Book, published in 2000. They have also restructured it: the original listed each location alphabetically on the contents page whereas this edition categorises them according to whether the featured ghosts are in colleges, found in city centre premises, are out in the “suburbs”, or are wider afield in the district. This is a useful method of organisation, particularly if used on a walk, but the drawback is that it is not possible to find a particular site at a glance without searching the entire section. Perhaps the next edition could combine the same general structure with a separate index.
The authors have been busy collecting stories in the last ten years, and there are some additions to those in the original edition.   The major change is a new section listing places of interest outside Cambridge but within easy striking distance, such as The Old Vicarage at Grantchester, Madingley Hall, Sawston Hall and that staple the Old Ferry Boat at Holywell. The last was investigated – and the myth inadvertently created – by the late Tony Cornell (Cambridge graduate and life-long resident), to whom the authors have dedicated the book.
As well as the places they discuss personalities, notably M R James and T C Lethbridge. Cambridge is of course firmly linked to the Society for Psychical Research, and the authors have made use of the Society’s archives which are housed at Cambridge University Library. They consider the early SPR and those of its major figures who were associated with the university, and particularly Trinity College.
They also cover the origins of the Ghost Club (which is still in existence) at Trinity in 1851. I would dispute the assertion that the Ghost Club is the oldest continuously running paranormal research society in the world, and I say this diffidently given Alan Murdie’s long association with the Club. I would argue that its history over the last 160 years is one of several organisations with the same name, and that the honour of world’s longest continuously running research society should go to the SPR. A minor error is the spelling of Frederick Warrick’s name (as in the Perrott-Warrick fund). Perhaps by now he, wherever he is, is used to it being spelled ‘Warwick’.
One other notable difference between this volume and its predecessor is that the very attractive line drawings have been replaced by photographs. The result is that Cambridge Ghosts is more extensively illustrated, but perhaps at the expense of atmosphere. The text though is clearly and entertainingly written, and this is an attractive and informative guidebook for resident and visitor alike.
Cambridge Ghosts. Arima Publishing, September 2010. ISBN-13: 978-1845494537
Underwood, Peter
Tom Ruffles
Anyone expecting to read an account of precisely what led Peter Underwood to resign his life presidency of the Ghost Club, or to enjoy watching him settle old scores (if any exist), will be disappointed. This brief account of the Ghost Club - or Clubs, as it has gone through a number of separate manifestations during its existence, each one generally having a tenuous connection to its successor - has little to say about the split that led to the formation of the Ghost Club Society, but rather concentrates on Underwood’s presidency of the Ghost Club, a reign which lasted over thirty years.
The history begins with the obscure origins of the Ghost Society (or Cambridge Ghost Club) in 1851, and the formation of the Ghost Club in 1862. It is unlikely that Edmund Gurney (b 1847) or Arthur Balfour (b 1848) were members of the original 1851 society, as Underwood claims. That the 1862 version attracted attention is indicated, as Underwood notes, by George Cruikshank’s dedication to the Ghost Club of his book A Discovery Concerning Ghosts, published the following year, though Underwood doesn’t add that Cruikshank was probably being sarcastic. More space is devoted to the 1882-1936 incarnation as the records have survived, but perhaps the section on its members and activities could have been expanded further.
More too could surely have been said about the Harry Price years (1938-47). One gets the feeling that Underwood’s interest in the earlier days is slight compared to when the Club was under his guidance. His main focus is what he terms the “third revival“, the period from 1954-93.
Underwood became president in 1960, and ran the organisation with huge energy, attracting a large number of celebrity supporters, the sort of thing the SPR was good at in its early days. I have to declare an interest here as I applied to join the invitation-only organisation (as it was before the organisation relaxed its rules following Underwood’s departure), and was rejected. I can see I missed some tremendous meetings addressed by a who’s who of the paranormal world.
This is actually a revised, expanded and much more professionally produced version of a booklet Underwood produced in 2000, under the slightly different title “The Ghost Club Society - A History” (White House Publications; the cover carries the title “A Short History of the Ghost Club Society”).
The change of title is significant because Peter Underwood resigned the life presidency of the Ghost Club in 1993 and became life president of the new Ghost Club Society. The original title was misleading as the booklet was about the history of the Ghost Club up to 1993, not the new Ghost Club Society which began in that year.
For this version the word ‘Society’ has been omitted from the title, which makes it more accurate, as it is still a history of the Ghost Club ending in 1993. The new title allows Underwood to avoid the anomalous situation of describing individuals as members of the Ghost Club Society before it was actually formed, which he had in the first edition. Unfortunately Underwood’s website still proclaims (or at least does at the time of writing) that he is “Life President, Ghost Club Society (founded 1851)”, which of course it wasn‘t.
The ending of the new booklet is substantially different to the old. In the original edition, Underwood merely says that “1993 saw the emergence of the present ‘GHOST CLUB SOCIETY’ with myself as Life President”, with no reference at all to the Ghost Club from which the new organisation split, and no indication why the Society was formed.
The new edition does now acknowledge that the Ghost Club continued, and Underwood says that he resigned as its president after receiving negative comments, though he did not leave the Club itself. The Ghost Club Society was formed in competition, but Underwood gives a misleading impression when he says that “For a while both clubs staggered along”, which suggests that neither now exists.
The Ghost Club Society appears to be defunct (as long ago as 2005, according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, third edition, 2007; she also gives more of the background to the efforts to revive the Club after Harry Price’s death, which Underwood leaves out). However, the Ghost Club continues to thrive, with a full programme of activities.
It is also surely incorrect to refer to the “third revival” as occurring between 1954 and 1993”, as if the Ghost Club changed character at that point. The Club retained its character after Underwood left, and is still the same organisation as reconstituted in 1954. The entry should read “1954 to date”.
Throughout their respective histories there has been an overlap in the membership of the Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR is featured a number of times, but whereas many potted histories of the Society focus on the Cambridge connection and omit the role played by William Barrett and Edmund Dawson Rogers in its formation, Underwood goes the other way and excludes Sidgwick, Myers and Gurney from its foundation altogether, implying that the SPR began solely as a Spiritualist organisation.
The booklet is only 43 pages, which seems rather perfunctory for a history stretching back nearly 160 years, even if information about the early period is in short supply. The poor-quality illustrations of the first edition have been replaced with much better quality ones mostly taken from the author’s collection, and there is an excellent index. This brief survey will be of use to anyone interested in the history of the several associations that have been called “The Ghost Club”, but the definitive account, including its evolution since 1993, remains to be written.
The Ghost Club, Limbury Press, October 2010. ISBN 978-0-9565228-1-8
Jonas Elrod and Chloe Crespi (a documentary film)
Tom Ruffles
Apparently just an ordinary thirty-something with a peculiar haircut, Jonas Elrod was living a mundane life in New York City. His background was in commercial and music videos and several years ago he was in San Francisco working on a film. One day in his hotel room the temperature suddenly fell for no discernible reason, and he found that he could see strange clouds, patterns, swirls of light – and spirits, which were able to communicate with him. After this he found that he could regularly see paranormal phenomena such as spirits, demons and angels, people’s auras, colours and orbs.
Back in New York he found that he was still able to see them. Naturally confused by what was happening to him, and apprehensive about other people’s likely response, he kept it quiet, even though the beings were urging him to publicise their existence. What brought him out of the closet was meeting his girlfriend, Mara, as he felt he had to tell her. She was sceptical but agreed to support Jonas as he explored what it all meant. This exploration forms the basis of Wake Up. Jonas travels to meet people who might be able to assist him in his efforts to understand, while Mara encourages him to evaluate what is of worth and what is nonsense.
The film begins with statistics about belief in paranormal phenomena in the US, showing how widespread it is. Jonas had not previously considered himself to be spiritual, he tells us, hence his profound surprise at what had happened. His first step is to rule out physiological possibilities, to which end he has an MRI scan and psychiatric evaluation. These establish that he has no brain abnormalities, neither is he schizophrenic. He is not, according to a psychiatric opinion, suffering from delusional thinking.
The question he is left with is: if these things that he can see but which are invisible to others are real, then what are they? To try to answer it he spends two years travelling the United States seeking answers from various people in the enlightenment business, such as a Sufi mystic, an acupuncturist, a medium channelling a 35,000 year old Atlantean (yes, it’s J Z Knight!), a Buddhist, native Americans and sundry parapsychologists.
His first stop is his childhood home at Douglasville, Georgia, where in a rather stilted scene at the dinner table he informs his bemused but supportive parents of his weird experiences. Curiously, given his declaration that he had not been particularly spiritual, his mother tells us that as a child he was a keen churchgoer, and his uncle had been a minister. While in town he attends his local Baptist church and speaks to the pastor.
From there Jonas goes on a whirl of travelling in order to meet anyone who might help.  To begin with he is nervous, but he grows in confidence as the film progresses. His persona is that of the ordinary chap confronted by extraordinary phenomena. He does not see himself as unique, and significantly he is is very uncomfortable and disengaged at Knights’s establishment outside Seattle, Ramtha‘s School of Spiritual Enlightenment, perhaps not liking her particularly showy style. Not coincidentally this is the funniest sequence in the film. The school seems to be doing very well, with large numbers of students present when Jonas visits. He tries blindfold archery, but is not very good at it. He is told that he is thinking too much, and the instructor claims you create your reality as you are your own God, and cannot be prevented from finding your goal (which begs the question why bother to look). But Jonas’s scepticism is apparent as he acknowledges that part of him does not want to join the spiritual club.
This reluctance is also indicated when back home he tries spiritual cleansing to evict spirits, complaining about the “shit I’m going through”. He is clearly ambivalent about what is happening to him. He says that he is uncomfortable and wants to be free of entities, yet at the same time he considers it a gift.
Rather more interesting than Ramtha is the London-born Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, who lives in California. He posits that the rational mind has created a veil between us and the spirit world, and he is interested in Jonas as Jonas seems to have penetrated that veil. Vaughan-Lee does though challenge Jonas’s statements that he is interested in spiritual growth, asking exactly what that means. Vaughan-Lee agrees that it is scary when parameters change, and growth is about moving out from ego to divine nature, saying “yes” to the mystery of life. Jonas finds him fluent but somewhat obscure, a fair assessment.
Still on the mystical path, he and Mara meet Joan Halifax, a Buddhist monk at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who works with the dying. It turns out that Mara has the same name as the man who tempted the Buddha, who asks him what makes him think he can achieve enlightenment. Mara cries, seeing herself as a possible barrier to Jonas’s progress.
Abdi Assadi, an accupuncturist/healer, says that he has had similar encounters to Jonas himself, though he does not give details. He tries to give Jonas perspective, seeing an alternative reality which he considers a magical thing and a positive aspect to one‘s life. He stresses the importance of focussing on human relationships, which he considers true spirituality.
Jonas’s one overseas trip is to Rome, to meet someone who says that he is able to photograph the energy released when one meditates. Umberto di Grazia, described as a researcher/medium, achieves very odd results, photographing Jonas meditating and then manipulating the images, though we are not told how the software he uses affects the results.
Turning from explorations of mysticism to parapsychology, Stephan Schwartz of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory discusses interconnectedness, non-local consciousness and the Akashic database. Schwartz says of Jonas’s story that it is an interesting experience on the path – but it is not the path. In similar terms, at the University of Arizona Gary Schwartz says that we create energy which moves through space so we are interconnected with everybody else through the energy we generate. We are both antennae and receivers; information is all there for us to process.
Jonas has chosen his parapsychologists carefully, because Roger Nelson, discussing the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton, also stresses connectedness. His research, using Random Event Generators dotted around the world, has found a mind/matter connection which carries information, in a “resonant wave”. When our minds focus on, or even sometimes before, a significant event, our group consciousness reduces the variability of the REG data. Throughout, mystics and parapsychologists are interweaved to imply their equivalence.
His search reaching a climax, Jonas goes on a vision quest at Skokomish Nation, Washington. He tries a sweat lodge and we then see him sitting in a small circle in the rain, surrounded by four hundred little packets of tobacco which he has painstakingly constructed (albeit with Mara’s help). The process is designed to allow you to open up to your inner self, and to God. Jonas doesn’t look as if he is open to God, seeming to be more likely to suffer exposure than reach enlightenment, but you admire him for trying.
Yet afterwards, weathered and rough looking, he is elated, focusing on the spiritual aspect of his ordeal. He says that he had a great time there. More to the point, he has reached a spiritual resolution, even if it is not particularly profound: “all pointers point in the same direction”; all religions point to the same thing, the path you are on being less important than being on a path. He has reached some kind of peace with himself. It is an upbeat climax to his journey, though his final attitude to the spirits he presumably still sees in his daily life is unclear.
The film cuts to Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, who says that we cannot escape the fact that we are all connected, the world is one. It then cuts to Stephan Schwartz, saying much the same. Others in turn echo their sentiments. It is typical of the genre (originating probably in LeShan’s Clairvoyant Reality) to find a similarity between the ideas of those with a spiritual or mystical perspective, and those pursing scientific approaches to the paranormal. The implication is that all ways of reaching spiritual truth are equivalent, and that mystical and scientific approaches can be reconciled into an overarching Truth.
From a psychical research viewpoint, the problem is that Jonas is not tested in any way (did any of the parapsychologists featured offer?) and we have to take his word for it that he really does see what he says he does. The focus is not whether the entities are veridical, but about his spiritual journey. It will therefore only satisfy those interested in the stages of his search, and anyone who wants to know whether the beings exist or are only in Jonas’s mind will be disappointed.
The viewer, of any persuasion, will probably be left asking: “Why him?” These do not seem to be common abilities - the opening statistics talk about widespread beliefs, not experiences - and one does wonder why they should be bestowed on this particular young man who had not been in a prior situation nor undergone any training that would facilitate psychic communication. In the end the viewer is none the wiser. Because there is no way to verify Jonas’s claims, we have no way to assess his sincerity. For all we know, he could just be playing a role to make a documentary. When he is pressed to describe what he can ‘see’ in a clinical setting, he becomes inarticulate and unconvincing. Considering that the whole venture is kick-started by Jonas’s ability, we are told very little about what he actually sees.
Wake Up was co-directed by Jonas with Chloe Crespi and was edited from about 400 hours of footage. It had its premiere in early 2009 and is now coming out on DVD from Beyond Words, who also distributed The Secret (Norman Vincent Peale repackaged) and What the Bleep Do We Know. It is low budget with a simple, unfussy presentation, generally eschewing the gimmickry that (among other things) so marred What the Bleep. While it clearly shares a similarity to those films, in its structure as a road movie documenting one person’s search for an underlying reality, the film it most closely resembles is Something Unknown is Doing We Don’t Know What. A number of Wake Up interviewees will be familiar from the earlier films, and there is nothing in the views expressed or evidence provided that is new.
There are some interesting names in the credits. Jonas and Crespi clearly tapped into the parapsychology community for help, with name-checks for such well-known figures as Julie Beischel, Larry Dossey, Dean Radin and Marilyn Schlitz, among others. Rather more surprisingly is a credit for James Randi, though one would be surprised if he thought of the project as anything other than ‘woo’, to use the trendy sceptical term.
The film is the edited record of Jonas’s learning process as he examines and comes to terms with his ability. But of course the title is telling us that this is not just an account of his journey; it should be ours as well. It is giving us a command - in the nicest way - to wake up from our spiritual sleep, as Jonas himself has done, or perhaps more accurately is doing. Having carried out his own puzzled investigation, he becomes a guide should we decide to set out on ours. There is more to reality than we are normally aware of, he is saying, and Wake Up sets out to help us make the effort necessary to expand our horizons.
Unfortunately you get the impression that while the spiritual paths chosen by the people Jonas meets may work well for them, they are very narrow paths that would not suit large numbers of people, many of them without the dedication (or in some cases the financial resources) necessary to follow where Jonas has led. Crucially, what is missing is the critical analysis to enable the viewer who seeks to explore possibilities to work out what is of value from what is banal nonsense. If we want to follow Jonas, fine, but it is still not clear what his qualifications are to be our guide, and whether his map is leading to sunny uplands or round in circles.
Brown, Elizabeth
Tom Ruffles
Dowsing: The Ultimate Guide for the 21st Century, Elizabeth Brown, Hay House, 2010.
Dowsing tends to conjure up the image of an old boy with purple teeth, trousers up under his armpits secured by belt and braces, a hazel twig in his hands striding the fields while spouting bits of weather lore. For anyone expecting Jethro, Elizabeth Brown’s book will come as something of a surprise. She occupies the terrain where the spirituality end of parapsychology meets the New Age, with much talk of tapping into a quantum field of information and Akashic records, the sort of book which is happy to mingle Max Planck, Dean Radin and Deepak Chopra.
Brown has long experience of the subject and writes clearly and engagingly. She sketches in the historical background, particularly the vexed relationship with the Roman Catholic church, and notes some significant dowsers. The instructions on how to dowse are surprisingly brief for a 300-page book, but are easy to follow and should encourage anyone with an interest to pick up their dowsing tools and have a go (actually, even the tool can be dispensed with by experienced dowsers, instead using their bodies in ‘device-less dowsing’). It is not something that only a few people can do; anyone is able to do it, but to achieve expertise requires experience and commitment, becoming attuned to what the rods are saying, asking the right questions, interpreting the answers, and learning to achieve the necessary degree of emotional detachment.
The scope of dowsing has certainly enlarged since Jethro’s day. Where at one time it was solely used to find water, precious metals and the like, it is now used to help with physical and emotional difficulties to optimise physical and mental health in a stressful and polluted world. By structuring questions in an unambiguous manner, dowsing assists on a practical everyday level. It can check pesticides in supermarket foodstuffs, identify imbalances in body chemistry and tell you if you are living a healthy lifestyle. In fact, as long as it is used in the right way, it can assist with any aspect of modern living, even though it does not always give the right answer (Brown self-deprecatingly acknowledges, with examples, her failures at trying to locate objects). It can even assist us to communicate with discarnate entities and enable us to connect with subtle energies far beyond the limited range of our senses. A by-product of dowsing appears to indicate that the universe is actually, contrary to appearances, essentially a benevolent place willing to assist us if we approach it in the right way.
Don’t think you can pick up this skill overnight. It takes effort, and failures can be attributed to the novice’s attitude, or failure to ask the proper questions in the right way. Nor is dowsing particularly amenable to testing, as the stresses of being assessed, plus the negativity of sceptics, can block the dowser’s abilities and produce results at chance levels. Sceptics also have a habit of employing inexperienced amateurs for tests, so increasing the likelihood of failure. This is unfortunate as we are left with anecdotal evidence which will convince many but not provide any kind of rigorous scientific evidence. That this matters can be seen by the recent scandal over the production of anti-explosive devices which were effectively dowsing rods and were dismissed by the US government as “bogus”. While perhaps it was not the device that was ineffective but the users, the consequences of failure were still unacceptably high.
There is a long-standing criticism that dowsers are not tapping into any kind of intangible information network but are responding to intuition and environmental cues. Significantly, one of Brown’s star dowsers, George Applegate, is also an engineer and geologist, and applies this knowledge in conjunction with his dowsing expertise. However, if the evidence Brown presents is accurate, then dowsing can be used in situations, such as map dowsing, where such cues cannot be picked up, and tapping into holographic reality is the more likely answer.
Whatever one’s opinion of the explanatory mechanisms provided by Brown, her book is very readable, and may encourage further research. If that leads to some means of subjecting dowsing to controlled tests then it will have served a valuable purpose, whether dowsing really works in the way described here, or whether success is due to intuition mixed with luck, selective memory, wishful thinking, and all the other ways in which we can fool ourselves to interpret an outcome in a satisfactory way.
Dowsing, Hay House, June 2010. ISBN-13: 978-1848502208
Grossman, Wendy M and French, Christopher C (eds.)
Tom Ruffles
Why Statues Weep: The best of The Skeptic, ed Wendy M Grossman and Christopher C French, The Philosophy Press, 2010.
The Philosophy Press has brought out this anthology, compiled by its founding and current editors, to celebrate twenty-one years of The Skeptic. Or that is what the introduction and back cover imply. As the magazine was first published in 1987, Why Statues Weep has clearly been a while in the making. Leaving aside the reason for bringing us this collection now, if any were needed, it is an entertaining read that showcases a selection of articles typical of the magazine in that they vary in quality but rarely outstay their welcome.
After a tub-thumping foreword by Simon Hoggart, in which he employs the tactic of stirring in a load of phenomena, from spoon bending, the Loch Ness Monster, fake mediums, UFOs, crop circles, telepathy, astrology.... and damning everything that might be anomalous by association, there is a gentler introduction by the magazine’s founder Wendy Grossman. One curious omission is that she gives the impression that the magazine was always called The Skeptic, whereas it was The British and Irish Skeptic until issue IV.2 (March/April 1990), to use the magazine’s own rather eccentric early numbering style which is employed throughout the book even though the magazine had dropped the Roman numerals by the end of Volume 4.
Articles are divided into nine sections, each with a short introduction by Grossman (Chris French’s duties seem to have been somewhat lighter than his fellow editor’s). As the sub-titles suggest – ‘There must be something in it’, ‘Favourite popular myths’, ‘What ever happened to...?’, ‘Beyond a joke’, ‘Faking it’, ‘Science and antiscience’, ‘Skeptics speak’, ‘State of the art’ and ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ – these are pretty much interchangeable, and more specific headings might have been a better method of guiding the reader. The articles, almost forty in number, range widely as might be expected.   Weeping statues only turn up in the introduction oddly, are mentioned briefly, and it’s more a case of ‘How Statues Weep’.
The contributors range from the obscure to the ubiquitous, including (without saying where they fall on that continuum) Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman, Chris French, Kevin McClure, Ray Hyman, Tony Youens, Martin S Kottmeyer, David Langford, David Hambling, Paul Chambers and David Clarke. Some authors seem to have made the single contribution to scepticism before moving on to other things. The topics covered are what might be expected: using phoney psychic abilities to con the gullible and desperate; Nostradamus; Carlos Castaneda; pop science stupidities (such as the “we only use 10% of our brain capacity” myth); UFOs; the idea of secret powers in martial arts, and so on. Underpinning these specific subjects are various discussions of the tools of critical thinking. There are celebrity appearances by Stephen Fry, Paul Daniels (in interviews) and John Diamond.
A few particularly interesting articles are worth picking out.  David Berman’s analysis of the 1879 visions at Knock draws on original documents to outline the anti-Protestant context of the events. Lewis Jones profiles that “Scourge of the Godmen” Basava Premanand, interviewing the famed guru buster when he visited London in 1992.   I was amused to see Jones describe him as “a man of modest means” and a couple of lines later say that he had to give away 90 acres of land to raise 2 million rupees in order to get close to Sathya Sai Baba. (After Premanand’s death in 2009 Sai Baba suggested that Premanand’s stance against psychic abilities might not have been quite as firm as he had made out, a sadly common fate for deceased sceptics.) Past Skeptic editor Steve Donnelly interviews the always interesting Joe Nickell on the Shroud of Turin.
Turning to medical matters, Peter May scrutinises an alleged miracle cure to show that far more was going on than appeared to be the case judged only on the basis of the pro-healing video that resulted. Richard Wiseman accompanies Psychic News editor Tim Haigh (one of the best that now-defunct newspaper ever had) to see a demonstration of psychic surgery and gives a gruesome account of what he saw, which seemed to involve real incisions. The one amusing thing in the episode was Wiseman pretending to be a Psychic News journalist to get to see the action. I wonder what the response would have been if he had told them he was representing The Skeptic
Gerald Woerlee’s examination of the Pam Reynolds case is valuable, though perhaps more for his description of the procedures than the explanation he gives for this much-discussed NDE episode. Also on NDEs, Sue Blackmore, who has three articles in the anthology, recounts her unhappiness with the documentary The Day I died, a programme which has achieved minor cult status despite her profound dislike of it. Seeing her rip into quantum coherence in the microtubules is a joy. Many of the articles in Why Statues Weep would not seem out of place in Fortean Times, and there is a degree of overlap in tone as well as content which suggests that many sceptics and those they see as the opposition are not quite as polarised as some of the more strident on either side would like to think.
Criticisms are few. Each article has a brief introduction by Grossman which gives the volume and issue number but not date of publication. It would have been useful to have that information, and easy to provide. A number of the articles had appeared elsewhere before their inclusion in the magazine, and relying on material now published for the third time implies that the choice of decent original work was restricted, which I am sure was not the case. One particularly irritating moment was when Nick Rose discussed research he and Sue Blackmore had done on sleep paralysis funded by the “Perrot-Warwick fellowship”. If you are going to take money left by Frank Perrott and Frederick Warrick the least you can do is spell their names correctly.
Something I missed was examples of the annotated period illustrations provided by Hilary Evans for the magazine’s inside cover. Instead we get just a few cartoons, those of Donald Rooum’s entertaining (and I always think very poignant) ‘Sprite’ blurrily reproduced. Additional artwork would have broken up the text and made the book more visually attractive. The magazine’s current incarnation is glossier than it used to be, perhaps not unrelated to the fact that it is published by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. But this anthology provides a whiff of nostalgia for the functional ambience of the early issues. Perhaps at some point these could be supplied in full either online or perhaps as a CD, so that newcomers can appreciate the range of material in the back catalogue in broader terms than Why Statues Weep allows. Either way, happy 21st (or 23rd by now), and here’s to the magazine’s silver anniversary – an opportunity for another collection? – and beyond.
Why Statues Weep, The Philosophy Press, April 2010. ISBN-13: 978-0953761128
Simmons, Ian (ed)
Tom Ruffles

Electricity of the Mind: The Anomalist no 14, edited by Ian Simmons. Anomalist Books, 2010.
Editor Ian Simmons has chosen a wide range of articles (appropriately fourteen in number) for Issue 14 of the Anomalist, and it will surely provoke the same kind of pleasurable expectation that is aroused on opening a new issue of Fortean Times (FT). It has to be said that Simmons has put together a mixed bag, but the success rate is high, and even those readers whose primary interest is psychical research will find enough to keep them interested, and may find their horizons expanded.
There are two stand-out papers here, one by Theo Paijmans, the other by Mike Jay. Paijmans writes excellent articles for FT, mining the recently available wealth of old newspapers made available through the wonders of digitisation. Here he gives us more of the same, with some fine examples of how searching newspaper runs digitally can assist in uncovering stories. A major benefit of this is the ability to check huge quantities of text quickly, throwing up variants of the same story in different publications. Where authors, including Charles Fort, have relied on perhaps a single source for a story, there might be many versions, and Paijmans gives a number of examples. By examining newspapers from different areas he can show how stories were disseminated across a wide geographical range sometimes over a long period of time.
Paijmans notes that not all newspapers have been digitised, so it may still be necessary to consult the paper record (or increasingly these days a microfilm reader). But while using keywords to interrogate a database is much faster and brings a wide range of related stories from different newspapers within reach, there are a couple of issues that Paijmans does not acknowledge. The first is that particular keywords may miss a story if it was phrased in a different way. If journalists cribbed from each other, they were likely to use similar words, but that was not necessarily the case.
On a related point, researchers today might miss interesting stories because they themselves use different categories, and hence do not use the appropriate keywords. The search is only as good as the keywords used, and things could be missed that a diligent search of the hard copy would throw up; there is still a place for serendipity in this technological age. Paijmans acknowledges the problem when he wonders how the modern researcher would have started had Fort not blazed a trail and done so much categorisation. But that throws up the issue of what might have been missed. Anomalies not yet categorised might still be there, not noticed by the search engine as it chugs through the 1s and 0s.
More significantly perhaps, as digital access becomes the norm, is the separation of reader from the physical text that came off the press. There is a pleasure in handling old newsprint, a connection it gives to the first readers, which a computer cannot replicate. But more important is the danger that stories will be ripped from their original setting, becoming an abstraction for the researcher that the original audiences would not recognise as they skipped from story to story. Researchers may be able to find significant stories faster than someone leafing through endless volumes in an archive, but they lose something too. One is not a replacement for the other, they are complementary activities.
The always reliable Mike Jay looks at Coleridge, though the subtitle is a little optimistic; “The psychic investigations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge”, as he was mostly investigating himself, in true Romantic fashion. The epigram which opens the essay really sums this approach up. A lady asks Coleridge if he believes in ghosts, to which he replies, “No, madam! I have seen far too many myself.” Jay unpicks this sub-Oscar Wilde paradox and highlights how Coleridge’s introspection led him to a psychology of ghosts which has lessons for paranormal investigators today. He had had a singular experience at Valetta in which, coming to from a doze, he saw a man who had left the room some time before, sitting across the table from him. He realised eventually that his imagination, (aided by a heady combination of drugs and alcohol, Jay surmises) had interacted with elements of the environment, such as a flask of port and the chair opposite, to produce the illusion. What he ‘saw’ was a synthesis of external and internal factors.
Rejecting the term ‘supernatural’, Coleridge instead coined ‘supersensual’ to describe, without arriving at a final verdict on them, experiences which contravened our laws of perception, rather than the contravention of the laws of nature indicated by the use of ‘supernatural’. Coleridge pursued his speculations in an essay on Martin Luther, in which he identifies the origin of Luther’s vision of the Devil in his radical change of diet while in prison. Rather like Scrooge’s verdict on his own spectral encounter, there was rather more of gravy than of grave about it.
Jay concludes that Coleridge, being poised to elaborate a new psychology, then drew back, perhaps because he found it beyond his capabilities, though he incorporated these insights into his wider literary theories. The main point was that imagination was not mechanical but was fluid, capable of synthesis and recombination. The issue that this raises, and which Jay does not address, is how far this reach of the imagination affects eyewitness testimony in psychical research, and the extent that a field investigator (or desk researcher like Paijmans) can take someone’s word for it that they experienced something in the way stated. As Coleridge indicated, experiences are a complex admixture of reality and imagination, so is it ever possible to reach beyond the witness’s subjective experience with any certainty?
Technology might help to answer that question, and Bryan Williams, Annalisa Ventola and Mike Wilson provide two linked articles collectively entitled ‘A Primer for Paranormal Enthusiasts’. The first deals with magnetic fields and the second with temperature, and together they outline the strengths and weaknesses of instrumentation in measuring the environment where a haunting is supposed to have occurred, how such measurements might relate to hauntings, and give tips on how to interpret findings. The tips are particularly useful and should help investigators who take such readings to ensure that they are doing so in the most efficient manner. There is an excellent bibliography.
Dwight Whalen recounts the sort of event that should become more familiar as newspapers are digitised and scoured, a strange image seen in the sky at a place called Hetlerville, in Pennsylvania, USA (a place I’m surprised the residents didn’t rename in 1941, just in case outsiders misheard) which occurred in the summer of 1914. As Paijmans found with the accounts he examined, the story had spread, in this case to the Niagara Falls Journal, where Whalen found it by chance. Hetlerville locals saw strange scenes in the sky; Harry Hudleston saw an amazing sight – “an immense house filled with children dressed in white with a black band on the arm of each... the children came out of the house in columns of two, dividing at the door...” Coleridge would have been impressed. A neighbour also saw something, “like a picture thrown on the screen”.
These visions appeared in other places nearby as well, but the curious thing is that when Whalen recently asked someone who had grown up in Hetlerville if the story is recalled there today, she said she had never heard about it before. This makes it most unlike the story with which is shares some similarities: The Angel of Mons. At the time, the Hetlerville visions were put down to a searchlight belonging to a carnival, or the misinterpretation of a star, but the article considers other possibilities such as temperature inversion, or anxiety at the prospect of the Great War. Whalen attempts a symbolic interpretation of the images described which may or may not have some validity, but as he concludes, what happened in that small area of Pennsylvania almost a hundred years ago is now beyond reach of conclusive explanation.
Ulrich Magin explores the little-known (to say the least) Earth Mysteries topic of ‘out-of-place volcanoes’. While only three European countries – Iceland, Greece and Italy – boast volcanoes, there are stories of volcanoes from many more regions where there is just no evidence that such activity ever took place. Magin has collected a number of these, from places where you might think there have been volcanoes in the recent past, such as Norway and Switzerland, because of their mountains, or Russia, because it is so big, to others where the proposition seems ridiculous, not least all the British countries.
Some of the examples seem borderline. Looking at England, there is an account of an earthquake in the twelfth century during which “huge fires burst out of rifts in the earth”, and one in the eighteenth in which cliffs in Dorset began to smoke and then burn at intervals for several months. It’s hardly Mount Etna. On the other hand, a couple of eruptions which allegedly occurred in Ireland, one in Sligo and one in Antrim, were supposed to have killed large numbers of people and animals, and the latter was claimed to have destroyed an entire village.
Magin unsurprisingly concludes that the term out-of-place volcano covers a range of phenomena. These range from misinterpretation of natural phenomena, providing useful case studies in the limits of eyewitness testimony, to hoaxes, or the transposition of real volcanoes onto more familiar locations by hack journalists. The last of these links nicely with Paijmans’s article, and is a common problem with older sources, distinguishing the sincere from the fanciful. Unfortunately the term volcano conjures up a specific image, so perhaps further work is needed to categorise the examples presented by Magin, and others which are surely buried in the literature, in finer detail.
Cameron Matthew Blount considers two cultures in Peru, the Moché and the Nazca and amazingly gets through an entire article concerning the latter without mentioning Erich von Däniken.   His warning that it is unwise to interpret any artwork that does not appear to fit with what is already known as ‘mythological’ as the default is well taken, as he gives examples of images which appeared to be non-realistic but which later turned out to be representational. Unfortunately though, by referring to the “Nazca Astronaut”, the implication is that this figure may well represent a figure which really dressed like that.
He does not actually say “alien visitors”, but it seems difficult to see what else he might have in mind. Rather like von Däniken he downplays the creativity of these early peoples; Blount thinks it likely that they did not have the time or resources to create “complex and abstract mythology”, and nothing to gain by doing so, a dubious assertion, but one that leaves open the possibility that as the “Astronaut”, an astonishingly loaded term to use in this context, if not mythological, must be something else. One wonders why his title mentions the Moché but not the Nazca.
Other articles range just as widely as these. Patrick J Gyger studies witch trials in Fribourg, Switzerland, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, using a collection of cases entitled Livres noirs.  Aeolus Kephas compares Carlos Castaneda and Whitley Strieber, the link (apart from the accusations of hoaxing) being their acting as a conduit between mysterious entities with esoteric knowledge and the mundane world, that and continuing to write after they have passed their sell-by dates. The major difference seems to be that Castaneda possessed a sense of humour which Strieber lacks, and which Kephas rightly links to a sense of self-importance. Their tragedy, he concludes, may have been that because they wrote so much, they were not themselves able to assimilate the lessons they conveyed to others. And they could not find acceptance in either camp.
That John F Caddy presents a strange thesis is intimated by his title – ‘An Exercise in Transdimensional Zoology: Speculating on the Origin of the Chakras’, which includes his thoughts on the ability to time travel and move between dimensions. You see a lot of this sort of thing on the internet. One question I would like to ask Mr Caddy (apart from exactly what variety of scientist he is, which he does not specify) is why, if our ancestors’ attainment of an upright posture is related to the crown chakra being closer to the sky, and thus more specialised for “ethereal communications”, did they bother to come down from the trees, which are closer still?
Chris Payne presents complicated mathematics to try to determine whether, if thylacines have survived in small numbers, when their population might have become large enough for us to rediscover them, or conversely when it might be safe to assume that the species is extinct. Apparently, if one hasn’t turned up by the mid-2030s, we can be pretty sure it never will. Gary Lachman, also a name well known to readers of FT, contributes a frankly bizarre piece which consists of the footnotes from a book which were excised at the insistence of the publisher. Waste not want not, he has gathered them up and published them as a standalone article.   They read like ... well, like a bunch of footnotes, or ideas for articles, undercooked nuggets. I’m sure that Lachman will make something interesting of them in due course, but the reader of an article expects some structure to it. The effect reminded me of Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms, and that is not necessarily a compliment.
Mark Pilkington, yet another FT regular, contributes an article on crop circles which continues his attempts to place the phenomenon within its cultural context. Pilkington presents a possible scenario: genuine anomalies inspire artists (ie Doug Bower and Dave Chorley) to create their own interpretations, which then grow into the phenomenon we know today (ie ostension in action), before showing how the situation is not that straightforward. His example is a shape first illustrated in Robert Plot’s 1686 The Natural History of Staffordshire (FT264, July 2010, contains an article by Paijmans on precursors of the modern phenomenon, again showing the value of online sources, which also refers to Plot.) Plot included a shape, a circle with a square inside it, which then turned up in the science fiction film Phase IV in 1973, predating Doug and Dave’s initial interest in circles by several years. While Pilkington concedes that it is unlikely they were aware of Plot’s book, he wonders if they (or their successors) may have seen the film, which then fed into their work, though as he points out, it begs the question why Doug and Dave did not borrow more from the film. I have to say that the square-in-a-circle reminds me of the end of a radiator key, which while unknown to Professor Plot, would presumably have been familiar to at least some of the makers of Phase IV, so perhaps the shape was borrowed, consciously or not, by a member of the production team fretting about whether his or her system needed bleeding.
Richard Wiseman provides a rather touching account of a magic trick he was shown by his grandfather at the age of 8, which sparked his interest in the subject, and the psychology of deception more widely. He describes an experiment in which he and his associates mounted a Victorian-style séance to investigate possible methods used by fraudulent mediums. By controlling the phenomena, in total darkness, they could compare what participants thought had happened to what really happened. I participated in one of these at a Fortean UnConvention, and it was remarkable how many people were fooled. At one point a stooge kept shouting that the table (marked by luminous dots) was rising, and while I could tell it wasn’t, knowing how it all worked, many of those present really thought it was levitating. Not only do many participants at these events misperceive what has happened, largely based on prior attitudes to the paranormal, but some also report other “spooky effects” such as a mysterious presence, shivers, or sense of energy flowing through them. Coleridge would be nodding his head sagely.
Following a page on psychologist Joseph Jastrow, who surely deserves far more space, Wiseman concludes by recounting his search for a film that was described in an article by Alfred Binet in 1894. He had collaborated with Georges Demenÿ (not Demeny, as Wiseman has it) in producing a rapid succession of photographs (chronophotographs) of magician Raynaly doing a very brief card trick. Three brief sequences were located in Paris, and by making digital copies, Wiseman was able to recreate one of these performances, just a few seconds long. The cover blurb says that Wiseman “recounts his discovery” which oversells it because it suggests the films were lost until Wiseman’s sleuthing unearthed them, but archivist Laurent Mannoni for one knew where they were.
The final article by Tim Cridland (also known as Zamora the Torture King) purports to show us the “real” James Randi, a much more complex man than his strident criticisms of the paranormal might suggest. In press before Randi’s announcement that he is gay, nevertheless Cridland’s article does a good job in excavating Randall Zwinge’s various activities, and shows how his accounts of them have varied over the years as he reinvents his persona and rewrites his history and motivations, showing him to be a master of spin in the process.
Cridland’s account of Randi’s early life is particularly valuable in peering behind the image, highlighting how he was able to tour in a psychic act, or write an astrology column, yet later, rather than be embarrassed when charged with hypocrisy, recast such jobs as a kind of social experiment. Randi’s relationship with Geller is covered, though there is no mention of cereal boxes, nor Randi’s departure from CSICOP. Cridland feels that examining Randi’s career is reasonable, given the way that Randi has himself subjected others to similar scrutiny. But more, it is reasonable because, Cridland argues, Randi promotes a “socio/spiritual viewpoint” and is willing to distort the truth for “the cause”, a cause that puts personal gain above the truth.   As far as I am aware, Randi’s response is still awaited.
While Electricity of the Mind is generally entertaining, one minor criticism is the reprinting of articles which have already appeared in other places. Chris Payne’s article was first published in Mathematics Today (where it surely belongs, at least in this form; it should have been rewritten for a more general audience before Simmons accepted it).  Mike Jay’s article, with the footnotes that are omitted here, is not only included on his website, but previously appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 2006, though this outing does not mention either earlier incarnation. Aeolus Kephas’s piece is freely available on his website, dated 2008. While it is good that such generally high-quality material reaches a wider readership than might otherwise see it, one wonders if there is a scarcity of good original articles to fill the pages of The Anomalist. It would surprise me if there were.

Electricity of the Mind. Anomalist Books, March 2010. ISBN: 978-1933665399
Broughall, Tony, edited Adams, Paul
Melvyn Willin

This compendium of haunted locations in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire was originally written in 1978, but only published in an updated form in 2010 after Paul Adams believed that it should be made available to the general public. It is clearly presented with an excellent index, a ‘phenomena’ index and brief bibliography. The illustrations consist of photographs of some of the locations. As both a member of the Ghost Club and the Society for Psychical Research Tony has had a long history of investigating haunted sites and especially in the two counties researched here and one other location (Edlesborough) just over the border in Buckinghamshire.
There are far too many places to mention all of them by name, but some are treated to quite detailed investigations and notably Chicksands Priory, The Fox & Duck, Therfield and several locations in Luton, the author’s home town. Having lived in Luton a few years ago I was particularly interested in the latter and learned of a number of sites that I could have visited if I had known about them at the time. The Hertfordshire section was of even more interest to me as a Herts. born and bred resident (St Albans) who has conducted a number of investigations there myself. St Albans is particularly well served with a special description of the allegedly haunted Salisbury Hall.
Tony’s style of writing is both informative and clear. He provides plenty of evidence and quotes eye-witness accounts when possible. As to conclusions he wisely often leaves them to the reader and certainly does not try to dictate what we should believe from the facts presented.
I thoroughly recommend this book and would especially advise readers who live in or near Hertfordshire or Bedfordshire to purchase a very reasonably priced guide.

Two Haunted Counties, Limbury Press, Luton, Beds., 2010. 156 pp. (paper) £8. 99. Illustrated (black and white). ISBN 978-0-9565228-0-1
Ritson, Darren W.
Tom Ruffles

After writing about paranormal Newcastle and the North-East, Darren W Ritson throws his net wider still to encompass the entire North of England.  This is a substantial book, though the author acknowledges he can only skim the surface, and he writes about his passion with an engaging style.

The book is clearly laid out, with separate chapters on different locations, some based on secondary sources, others containing cases which Ritson has investigated personally.  The format is a travel guide, working from the east (Newcastle upon Tyne) to the west (Chester) with a miscellaneous chapter rounding up various properties, and another on screaming skulls.  He is a native of Newcastle, and his enthusiasm for the area is infectious.  After Newcastle he considers North Tyneside, where he now lives, and includes extracts from the SPR’s Journal from December 1892 on ‘The Haunted House at Willington’.

He devotes a chapter to the South Shields Poltergeist, beginning with an emotional outpouring which indicates just how hurtful he has found the personal attacks on his and co-author Mike Hallowell’s probity.  This sense of anger continues in the chapter on Preston Hall Museum, Stockton on Tees, where he and Hallowell gave a talk on the case.  The brief overview is a useful taster for their book The South Shields Poltergeist: One Family’s Fight Against an Invisible Intruder, subject of a review by Alan Murdie in the April 2010 issue of the SPR’s Journal.

Other places visited include sites in County Durham, Berwick upon Tweed, Yorkshire and Lancashire.  The choice is selective, and as is the case with this type of volume, many of the stories he recounts are not subjected to close scrutiny.  There is too some repetition from his earlier books which is surprising given the number of properties he might have included.  But Ritson is a genial companion as he travels about the region.  Peppered among the ghost stories are autobiographical snippets, including the startling information that in his younger days he was a dancer on a television show.

These Amberley books are all of a uniform, and reasonable, price.  Ritson’s is very good value at 202 pages, but it is apparent that one way of holding down the costs, apart from failing to provide an index in any of these books, is by skimping on copy editing.  A quick read-through of the manuscript would have ironed out the grammatical errors.  But it’s a rattling read, with plenty of name checks for the SPR.


Amberley Publishing, January 2010. ISBN 9781848682771
Cameron, Janet
Tom Ruffles
Unlike other contributors to Amberley’s Paranormal Someplace list, Janet Cameron is not a spontaneous case investigator, but rather is a retired lecturer in creative writing. As a Hove resident she clearly has a wide-ranging knowledge of the area, but her background highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. On the plus side, it is very well written and full of interesting information. But not having previous experience of psychical research – her main interest seems to be true crime – there are no first-hand case reports. Instead there is a heavy reliance on a cut and paste job using the newspaper morgue, supplemented by a few personal interviews. The brief introduction ’What is a Ghost?’ is theoretically eclectic, and it is clear it was not written by someone who has studied the subject in depth. The book, however, is still a useful ghost gazeteer, with a liberal sprinkling of local history for added interest.
Cameron faces the usual problem of a book like this: how to organise the contents, given the choice between a thematic and geographical division. She has chosen a hybrid approach, looking at pubs, hotels and shops grouped together, but also devoting entire chapters to specific places. She starts with a look at haunted pubs organised alphabetically, but the lack of an index leads to the usual problem for the user of not being able to find all the establishments in a particular place at a glance. This type of collection would benefit from either being divided into walks (as is for example the Cheltenham book in the series) or having an index which categorises the places mentioned on a geographic basis.
While the coverage of Brighton and its environs is broad, Cameron has missed a few snippets of interest. For example, the brief section on St Ann’s Well Gardens mentions that George Albert Smith ran it for a period and had a film studio there. It does not, however, say that he was closely connected with the SPR, engaging in telepathy experiments as its main hypnotist, and was also the secretary to Edmund Gurney, the SPR’s Honorary Secretary, who died in Brighton’s Royal Albion Hotel in June1888 (the Royal Albion is mentioned in connection with Sir Harry Preston, whose ghost is reckoned to linger there).
Nor does she cover the supposedly haunted house which Smith and his wife occupied in Brighton for thirteen months in 1888 and 1889. Her account of Will Erwood, who gave ‘clairvoyance’ demonstrations at the Royal Pavilion in 1933, might also have included Smith’s 1894 description of the Baldwins’ Somnomancy (mind-reading ) act at Brighton, which was accomplished by the use of pieces of soft mill-board containing hidden carbon paper handed out for selected audience members to write on. Judging by the description culled from the Brighton and Hove Herald, Erwood was using the one-ahead method supplemented by cold reading.
As one would expect from a teacher of creative writing, Cameron has done a good job checking her copy. There are a couple of errors that I spotted though. The article on spiritual healer Ray Brown was in the Argus dated 14 Aug 2000, not 14 March. A section is devoted to ‘Chevalier’ Taylor, but he was an oculist, not an occultist. The main drawback to the book is the brevity of its chapters. In addition to Brighton and Hove, they cover Portslade, Rottingdean, Newhaven, Seaford, Shoreham, Southwick, Steyning, and the Devil’s Dyke - all in 127 pages. Not much is dealt with in depth, but Paranormal Brighton and Hove is enjoyable, and will increase the reader’s knowledge of the area.
Amberley Publishing, November 2009. ISBN 9781848687165
Rosney, Mark, Bethell, Bob, Robinson, Jebby
Tom Ruffles

Mark Rosney, Rob Bethell and Jebby Robinson are collectively Para-Projects, a group active in the North-West of England. They have put together an informative and entertaining book aimed at those who have little or no experience of investigating spontaneous cases. 

The book clearly sets out guidelines for those would like to have a go, taking them through the stages of a typical project. But first they look at the investigator, listing the attributes necessary to undertake the activity in a professional manner. They consider the key characteristics to include: objectivity, not having preconceptions; problem-solving skills; calmness; patience, and a sense of humour. Above all, they stress the necessity to keep an open mind. They also include tips on safety, which can be all too easily forgotten in the excitement of following up a case.
There is an excellent section on kit, everything from cameras, audio recorders and torches, to EMF meters, CCTV cameras and weather stations, describing in detail different models, both digital and analogue, and giving the authors’ choices of what is adequate and what is best for a particular purpose, bearing in mind technical issues and budgetary constraints. Examples are given throughout the text of how these can be used in the context of particular types of investigation.
Of crucial importance is the stress on the life-cycle of a case, from initial contact to publishing a report. This is all common sense, but not necessarily something that a new group would consider carefully. A fair amount of space is devoted to interviewing skills and data gathering, with lists of questions to assist in making sure that this stage is as complete as possible. The following chapters are devoted to different types of investigation. They follow a similar format, with a quick historical overview of a topic, a consideration of different theories, and advice on how to investigate it.
Naturally the first and longest of these is devoted to ghosts, and after a few pages on historical aspects and a rundown of different theories, ranging through life after death, ‘stone tapes’, time anomalies and infrasound, and throwing in poltergeists to boot, they provide an overview of how to carry out an investigation. They stress the importance of background research, and suggest sources of information. For those cases where a vigil is deemed of value, they give pointers on how to do it in the most efficient manner, and describe a number of ways to utilise equipment and personnel. This material is based on practical field experience, and would be read with profit by any novices contemplating trying their hand at a ghost hunt.
The meaty chapter on ghosts is followed by a number of others looking at areas a group might tackle. A short one on Electronic Voice Phenomena/Instrumental Trans-Communication can only be considered a taster, needing amplification from other more specialised sources of information, and the authors do acknowledge that information on sound analysis is beyond the book’s scope. One on cryptozoology should get the budding animal tracker started.
More comprehensive, and of increasing importance given the explosion in ownership of digital cameras and the volumes of images produced by them, is the chapter on photographic anomalies. Again there is a brief history, followed by a categorisation of anomalies divided into: fakes; faults; misidentifications and misperceptions (with an explanation of how orbs are produced by the technology); and what are described as “genuine anomalies”, though that rather assumes that there will not at some point be a normal explanation for them.
That these issues can be complex is indicated by a discussion of the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, described in the text as “Probably the most famous of all the ghost photographs that has (sic) ever been taken.” The authors mention that there was an independent witness to the development of the negative to guard against fraud, which on the surface sounds like strong support for a paranormal interpretation.  But Mr Jones, the said witness, was not present when the negative was being developed, he only saw it in the hypo bath (ie being fixed) after it had been developed by Captain Provand, and there was opportunity for fraud beforehand. The lesson here is not to take oft-repeated stories at face value.
There is a section on the use of EXIF data, which is invaluable for understanding the technical details of an exposure, and a quick look at some of the commoner effects which are incorrectly described as paranormal but which have normal explanations. The chapter ends with some images that Para-Projects have not been able to explain and suggest might have a paranormal origin.
The last type of investigation covered is of UFOs, and again there is practical advice on interviewing witnesses and eliciting as much information as possible, doing desk research and running a sky watch. They are particularly good on online sources to help identify things seen in the sky. A brief final section looks at the conclusion of an investigation, whether of ghosts, animals or UFOs, discussing the importance of writing up findings and issues around making them available. An appendix has examples of reporting forms that groups can use to log information in an organised way.
On the whole this is an excellent book by individuals who write from experience. There are some quibbles though. The historical overviews are so sketchy that they could have been dispensed with, and suggestions for further reading, on both the historical perspective and a fuller theoretical discussion, given instead. The examples of questions to ask witnesses could have been expanded. There are extremely detailed checklists used by groups in circulation, and the inclusion of a set here would have been helpful. The role of water in an imprinting process that might explain ghost sightings, by it having a memory, is implausible. The statement, “It has been found that if you place anything in water, eg a chemical compound, and then dilute the mixture to an extent that not even a single molecule of the chemical remains, the water continues to behave as though the chemical is still present”, is describing homeopathy, and is rather more contentious than this claim suggests. The authors mention Stephen Volk’s 1992 Ghostwatch and say that to see it “digging” on the internet is required. In fact the British Film Institute issued it on DVD in 2002.
With a small amount of effort the book could have been improved, but given the quantity of information provided, and the reasonable price, beginning investigators (and those more advanced as well) will find this practical guide an asset. Para-Projects' website ( has some examples of reports of their own cases, and these supplement the book, showing how the authors themselves go about it.
Amberley Books, November 2009. ISBN 9781848682344
Andrews, Ross
Chris Romer
Paranormal Cheltenham is a recent volume in Amberley Publishing’s collection of local ghost books. As the title suggests it deals with the town of Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, and also covers the adjoining village of Prestbury, one of the claimants for the title of ‘England’s most haunted village’, competing with Pluckley in Kent for the honour. 
The book is organised into five ghost walks, of varying length. Each is illustrated by crudely drawn maps, and one of the great weaknesses of the book is that these maps do not have any street names on them, and unless one is familiar with the town it may be easy to become lost while searching for a specific location. Church Lane for example is a narrow alley that runs down the side of St.Gregory’s Church and the Shaftesbury Hall apartments; this reviewer has lived in Cheltenham for twenty years and did not know its name, recognising the alley in question by the apparitional experience reported in the book rather than by the map or name! 
This is a great shame, because the walks are well thought-out, and the author Ross Andrews has constructed them to take in most of the ‘sights’ of the town as well as the locales of the haunting. While taking second place to the ghost stories the book is peppered with interesting snippets of history incorporated with a deft hand. However this is not a local history book; one would look in vain for the fascinating history of Pittville as a proposed second town in the Chelt valley, or such Cheltenham notables as Francis Close or his critic Lord Tennyson.
The first ghost walk should take forty minutes to an hour at a leisurely pace, and takes the reader around the town centre. It could be combined with a shopping trip for those whose partners prefer non-psychical research pursuits. (No times are given for any of the walks, or parking instructions – a grievous fault in a book of walks, far less so in a book primarily about ghosts.)  The second walk takes in some parts of Cheltenham of great charm and character, but well off the usual visitors’ route. It includes the Suffolks, Tivoli, and what locals refer to as the “Antiques Quarter” owing to the number of little shops dedicated to that trade. At perhaps an hour and a half this is a more strenuous walk.   Again the third walk takes one through Pittville, around the park, the lake and some truly beautiful Georgian buildings. Curiously there is no mention of the Gustav Holst museum, despite occasional claims of haunting there, and the obvious interest of the location to visitors to the town. 
This walk includes an interesting summary of the famous “Cheltenham Ghost”, summarising the story in to a little over three pages. The ghost is the Morton Case of SPR Proceedings Vol. 8, and the subject of W. Abdy Collins book The Cheltenham Ghost. Andrews fails to note that the property where the haunting occurred is today a Housing Association block of flats, whose residents would probably rather not be troubled by ghosthunters. However, it is worth noting that the grounds of St. Anne’s, where the supposed ghost of Imogen Swinhoe was seen, is now a sleepy little road of bungalows, and there is no harm in looking I suppose. The sad story of a dead dog attributed to the ghost and a couple of recent sightings bring the story up to date, but there are curious omissions, such as the supposed sightings of ‘Imogen’ in the 1950’s in a building on the other side of the road, or some other stories mentioned by Andrew Mackenzie in his account. Even more curious, given Mr Andrew’s personal involvement in psychical research is the absence of any reference to G. W. Lambert’s theories concerning the case, or Peter Underwood’s interesting critique.
The book includes two Prestbury village ghost walks; the former is largely the well-known story of the village that one can see on various websites, but the second, which takes the walker out of the village and some distance in to the countryside, has some interesting new accounts.
 The ghost stories are interesting, many drawn from the author’s circle of friends and acquaintances, others from the researches of local ghost group of which he is Chairman, PARASOC (Myers Society for Psychical Research). Some of the stories are recognisable from local author Bob Meredith’s little 1982 book Cheltenham: Town of Shadows, and a small number appear to derive from earlier Gloucestershire groups such as the Cheltenham Psychical Research Group. One of the more interesting aspects of this as an example of the “local ghosts” genre is how many of the stories and locations were investigated at the time of the alleged events. However the book does not concentrate on establishing the evidential value of the cases covered, and readers interested in further research should turn instead to the case reports at, as the author notes.
The book concludes with a chapter of ghost stories located outside of the walks, a number of PARASOC investigations and a final chapter on ‘How To Hunt Ghosts’ which makes the whole enterprise sounds like a hi-tech safari for gadget fans, as it is very much focussed on equipment and its usage in paranormal research. I was surprised at this; the author illustrates well in the rest of the book his understanding of the importance of interviewing witnesses, research, and attempting to understand the experience and its context and importance to the percipient.   The book provides a perfect example of the kind of useful research that can be conducted without a single ‘vigil’ or EMF meter in sight, yet somehow Andrews seems to overlook it in this chapter, despite it being an important strand of PARASOC’s research.
One new technique is described, called “Sensory Mapping”: asking people to designate which areas of a building they feel are “odd” or “spooky” before they are informed of the percipient’s experiences. Loosely modelled on Getrude Schmeidler’s ‘Quantitative Investigation of a Haunted House’, this method has given interesting results, the interpretation of which remains open, and is referenced many times in the book. More on this and similar research methodologies would have made this an even better book.
As it is this is an excellent local ghost book, written with dry with and at times painful humour, it entertains but does not scare. The author’s experience and knowledge shines through, and it is a superb example of what a local ghost book can be. Recommended, even to those who are not residents of the town.
Amberley Books, December 2009. ISBN 9781848686304
Renée Scheltema (Director)
Tom Ruffles

Renée Scheltema, an experienced Cape Town-based filmmaker, was stimulated to begin a personal quest by three separate events occurring in quick succession. Her daughter experienced a dream which appeared to be precognitive; she felt compelled to phone her father, and discovered that he had had a serious accident; and she witnessed a demonstration of spoon bending which intrigued her, even though she concluded that it probably involved sleight of hand. She thought about these incidents, trying to make sense of them, and wondered how she might distinguish between tricks and truth, what is psychic and what is fraudulent, and how strong the evidence for paranormal claims might be. Those musings resulted in this film, nine years in the making and edited from over 100 hours of footage.

She had studied at University of California, Davis, so Charles Tart, Professor Emeritus there and now at The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, was a natural starting point. He stresses the necessity to look for the scientific basis of the transpersonal, and provides a structure for the film. He argues that “there are hundreds of experiments demonstrating the reality of psychic experiences. The ones that are acknowledged by any reasonable criteria of science I call ‘The Big Five’.” The five are: telepathy, clairvoyance or remote viewing, precognition, psychokinesis (PK), and psychic healing.

Scheltema goes through the Big Five, talking to people and gathering evidence both experimental and anecdotal. Her examples are well-chosen, if selective, and all of her interviewees perform well on camera, though the parapsychologists have to simplify to make their work understandable to a lay audience. Covering such a broad area in 105 minutes inevitably entails a broad brush and a fair turn of speed, and this is a film which repays a second viewing to pick up details lost through information overload the first time.
Tart pops up throughout the film, as do some of her other interviewees. Contributors who are well known in the parapsychology field include Hal Puthoff, Gary Schwartz, Dean Radin, Rupert Sheldrake (interviewed in a side trip to London), Stephan Schwartz, Roger Nelson and Larry Dossey. Scheltema also collects anecdotes from individuals such as astronaut Edgar Mitchell, psychic detective Nancy Myer, and healers Erik Pearl and Catherine Yunt. She shows footage of John of God in Brazil, demonstrating his eye-watering technique which involves pushing forceps a very long way up his patient’s nose.
Scheltema often uses her twisted spoon as a conversation opener to see what her interviewees say. Most express interest, but caution, not surprising given metal bending’s chequered history, and a surprising amount of the film is devoted to the topic. A bullish Gary Schwartz says that many people do it “as a trick, but let’s eliminate the tricksters.” How precisely do you do that though? The spoon bender who intrigued – but did not entirely convince – Scheltema gave her a demonstration in her kitchen, which she filmed, but she does not comment on the fact that before he bends the spoon he reaches into the left pocket of his jacket while standing at an angle with that side obscured, palms something which is in his hand while manipulating the spoon, and drops it back into his jacket pocket at the end. Schwartz talked about “communing with the atoms” to make the metal bend using only mental influence, but mechanical assistance seems a more reliable method.
On the other hand, while footage of one of Jack Houck’s spoon bending parties does not seem to show anything in particular except the application of brute force, Radin recounts a story in which he was sitting opposite someone attempting to bend a spoon, gently stroking one himself at the same time, and without realising it his spoon bent. We are shown the evidence pinned to his wall, yet he is sceptical about such large-scale effects and points out the problem of carrying out such tests under strictly controlled conditions. Houck on the other hand thinks that spoon bending is about 90% PK, with no explanation how he arrived at this figure.
A major pleasure of the film is seeing parapsychologists at close quarters. Radin shows his presentiment research in which people react to the emotional content of an image…before it is presented, and also his remote staring set-up. An fMRI experiment examining brain functions of receivers during telepathy tests, in which flashing lights are shown to senders, finds correlations with particular areas of the visual cortex which become active. A telephone experiment Sheldrake did with the Nolan Sisters (uncredited) is shown, with one waiting for a call and saying which sibling is ringing her before answering. (Sheldrake is still doing this work, supported by the Perrott-Warrick fund, and at the time of writing is seeking ten helpers to assist, to be paid £100 each on completion of the tests.) Puthoff describes remote viewing and discusses work done with Ingo Swann and Pat Price.  
Apart from spoons, PK research uses electronic RNGs in which the task is to shift their output from a random state to something less so. Roger Nelson discusses the Global Consciousness Project, funded through the Institue of Noetic Sciences. This employs a network of Random Event Generators around the world, and results seem to indicate that human consciousness interacts with them to reduce the variability of their output. An important event, such as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, or 9/11, a big religious festival or a natural catastrophe, anything which causes huge numbers of people to attend to it, correlates with changes in the REG data. Even more intriguingly, the effect on 9/11 began about 4-5 hours before the aeroplanes struck, linking to Radin’s work on presentiment. Nelson concludes that we are all connected to each other and with the environment in a network of non-local information. He also speaks movingly about the impact of 9/11 on Princeton University.
The interconnectedness is not just between humans but also between humans and animals. We hear about Sheldrake’s work with Pam Smart’s photogenic dog Jaytee (again uncredited), split-screen time-coded footage showing the dog heading for the door to wait for her at the moment she thinks about returning home. At a hospice we see Oscar the cat who can intuit when terminally ill dementia patients are close to death, and will curl up with them a few hours beforehand until the end. Turning to healing, Dossey discusses the power of prayer, adding that music and mental imagery have been found equally effective, all in randomised, double-blind, controlled experiments. It is acknowledged that with humans, the placebo effect is a problem in assessing healing, but in experiments with non-human organisms belief is not an issue, and in such studies, positive results are still obtained. The survival rate for cut leaves is remarkable when given healing, compared to control leaves, and it would seem that Reiki works on stressed rats.
Psychic detective Nancy Myer is less convincing. She supplies an anecdote about finding a child but there is no corroboration of this from the police. Asked if she could say where Osama Bin Laden is, she refuses on the grounds that answering that question on tape could get her killed. Stephan Schwartz, who recounts a remarkable story of how psychic archaeology was used to locate the foundations of a building in a huge expanse of desert in Egypt, also organised a group of remote viewers who accurately identified the place where Saddam Hussein would be found in hiding and how he would look when captured. Yet, again, when asked if his stars could find Bin Laden, Schwartz does not jump up and say “yeah, let’s do it!” but seems fairly cool towards the suggestion, merely saying that it would be a good idea “if the CIA were soliciting input.” What seems to be an easy way to demonstrate the reality of remote viewing – and the CIA would surely be grateful for accurate information given their lack of success to date – is not taken up for some unspecified reason.
Despite a positive attitude by the participants towards their objects of study, there are contradictions which Scheltema doesn’t attempt to tease out. Gary Schwartz talks in terms of the body as an antenna for electromagnetic signals: “energy becomes plausible when you think of the human body in terms of electronics and electromagnetic fields.” He is talking at that point about healing, and this mechanism might be plausible where healer and patient are in close proximity. Yet he also refers to distant healing working in the same way, which seems unlikely; we had been told by Puthoff that remote viewing is not affected by distance, and Radin’s remote staring work uses a shielded room, which suggests that whatever the eventual explanation for the phenomena, it will surely not be in terms of conventional electronics. Radin notes that the effects obtained in laboratory experiments are weaker than those that appear to occur outside it, which raises the question why, and what it says about the more dramatic anecdotes we are given.
There is much talk from a number of the participants about quantum connection, non-locality and entanglement as a possible explanatory mechanism for psi. References to quantum fluctuations and energy pervading space are frequent, and there is a confused moment in which Scheltema’s voice-over talks about eating photons, accompanied by shots of a canteen. Puthoff describes remote viewing in terms of vacuum, or zero point energy, that might connect everything. A general view seems to be that consciousness is interconnected through quantum non-locality. However, Tart sounds a warning that it is too easy to use quantum theory as an explanatory catch-all. It is often invoked in a way that is more poetic than substantive, he indicates, but it is not poetry.
In general though, while there may be disagreements about how effects occur, there is more consensus about their reality. The film’s title is taken from a 1927 quote by English physicist Sir Arthur Eddington, born the year the SPR was founded, commenting on Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Dossey has it stencilled on the underside of the staircase in his splendid house. The allusion is a curious one because interviewees exhibit a general lack of uncertainty about the phenomena they study.
A criticism of the film is that only proponents are interviewed, with no sceptical voices putting forward contrary views, and no time given to debating the experiments shown. A good example is the footage of John of God. A general practitioner who had witnessed his unorthodox techniques at first hand announces herself baffled by his methods, but Joe Nickell, who has investigated JoG in more depth, would have been able to supply a different view. Sheldrakes’s work with Jaytee was subjected to fierce criticism, and though Sheldrake fended this off, there is no sense in the film that the work with “animals who know when their owners are coming home” has been controversial. The speed at which the film moves rushes the viewer along, but one comes away wishing to hear a more rounded debate.
Something Unknown is a fascinating introduction to the work of parapsychologists, and those parts in which the metaphysical speculation is underpinned by empirical research, are the most persuasive. Interviews with non-scientists are less so, especially as the film has a New Age wash (the film was commissioned by Babeth M VanLoo and the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation in the Netherlands; VanLoo is the BBF’s Programming Director); an unsubstantiated anecdote by Arielle Ford, Deepak Chopra’s sometime publicist does not feel out of place. The film is billed in its trailer as “a spiritual journey into the science behind psychic phenomena” - that aspect might be received less sympathetically by those who would be prepared to consider only work done on sound scientific principles.
The thrust of the film is that psychic abilities are real, are a mix of energy and information, consciousness can transcend the limitations of space/time, and everything is interconnected. Scheltema’s conclusions at the end of her journey are that “the paranormal actually seems normal” and that the findings of parapsychologists are challenging reductionist materialism. One certainly wonders where coincidence ends and interconectedness begins when one day Puthoff can tell Scheltema about an aeroplane that crashed in Zaire when Jimmy Carter was president, and was located by remote viewers, and Jimmy Carter boards Scheltema’s aeroplane the following day (with video footage of Carter glad-handing fellow passengers to prove it). The further conclusion, that science and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, despite Tart’s claim that research is building bridges between the two, is one that some viewers may not feel is warranted from the evidence shown.
One wants to agree with Nelson when he says that whatever one’s attitude to the evidence, “intentions matter. What we want actually makes the world a little different.” One might add though, “just as long as the intentions are good, Roger.”
Something Unknown has already garnered a great deal of critical praise: it won a Jury Award at the Arizona Film Festival and has been an official selection at the Berlin Documentary Festival, the Los Angeles Feel Good Film Festival, the Spirit Quest Film Festival in Pennsylvania, and the Santa Fe Film Festival. Paul Verhoeven lent his name and appears as associate producer which should help to get it exposure. It is a useful primer for people who don’t have much familiarity with the topics though Scheltema covers a huge amount of ground, and such a person will come away with only a sketchy idea of the experimental results that underpin the claims made. Hopefully they will be motivated to take a deeper look at the evidence for themselves.

Information about the film is available on its website,

Documentary directed by Renée Scheltema, 2009