Towards the Unknown: Memoir of a Psychical Researcher, by Erlendur Haraldsson

Reviewed by Nemo C. Mörck

I never had the opportunity of getting to know Prof. Erlendur Haraldsson (1931-2020). I only heard him lecture twice at Gothenburg University, in Sweden, and I met him briefly. He struck me as a very polite and careful man. After one of his lectures, a student asked him “what do you believe?” I no longer recall his exact words, but he replied that it varies. By then he was around eighty years old and had seen and experienced so much, both as a journalist and as a psychical researcher. In Towards the Unknown: Memoir of a Psychical Researcher, he shares his life story and relates mysterious and mystical experiences that he had. I am not going to share those here.

It seems fair to say that Erlendur was a precocious child. At about fifteen, he read The Secret Path, by Paul Brunton, and A History of Western Philosophy, truly a hefty book, by Bertrand Russell,. He also became a vegetarian. Erlendur left Iceland, his homeland, to study philosophy at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. There he met the Danish mystic Martinus, whose books he had already studied! In 1958, he went on to study philosophy at the University of Freiburg, in Germany. There he also attended lectures of the psychical researcher Hans Bender. A few years later he got to know Bender.

Erlendur jumps ahead in time to the year 1969. That year, in Germany, he completed his final degree in psychology (diploma in psychology). He had corresponded with the well-known parapsychologist J.B. Rhine and accepted an invitation to work at the Institute for Parapsychology. (According to an index to Rhine’s correspondence he and Erlendur corresponded 1960-1961 and 1969-1973). Erlendur shared some personal thoughts about Rhine elsewhere (Rao, 1982, pp. 165-166), but in this book he just remarks that “I got along well with Rhine (not all did) and his interesting wife, Louisa” (p. 7). 

At the Institute for Parapsychology he conducted an experiment involving a random event generator (Haraldsson, 1970): “I also played around with the random event generator and achieved a result beyond chance. I did as well as the best performers in the experiment” (p. 9). This makes one wonder about the potential influence of experimenter psi. In passing, Erlendur notes that psi is “... a tricky thing: fleeting, highly unpredictable and difficult to catch” (p. 10). 

The memoir derives from a more complete biography, only published in Icelandic, and I think that shows occasionally. For example, I had not realized that Erlendur had been married until he mentions that he and his wife Helga moved to Charlottesville in Virginia (USA). Robert van de Castle had encouraged Erlendur and Helga to apply for an internship in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia – they did and were accepted. At the University of Virginia, Erlendur became friends with Ian Stevenson and later followed in his footsteps, investigating children who remember previous lives. Erlendur also covers his work with Karlis Osis (Haraldsson & Osis, 1977) and the medium Hafsteinn Björnsson

In 1973 he first met the guru Sai Baba in India. Erlendur recalls: “He reminded me more of Napoleon than a spiritual leader. Nevertheless, he was a charming man and he had a peculiar way of getting people under his influence and surprising them” (p. 60). This is not mentioned in Towards the Unknown, but some years later, in 1981, Erlendur was interviewed by Göran Brusewitz (in Sökaren) and was asked to comment on what Martin Johnson (1980) had written. Johnson, known for his sceptical stance, found it surprising that Erlendur had even considered the possibility that Sai Baba was not just a fraud. At the time Erlendur found Johnson’s comments very amusing. However, when Johnson (1982), in passing, remarked that he found it impossible to understand Erlendur’s uncritical attitude to Sai Baba, Erlendur wrote a response and asked Johnson to provide evidence (Haraldsson, 1982). If Johnson replied, he did so in private. 

The first time I heard Erlendur lecture he spoke about Emanuel Swedenborg’s clairvoyant vision of a fire in 1759. Swedenborg was, allegedly, in Gothenburg and able to follow the fire’s progress in Stockholm. This is mentioned in a letter by Immanuel Kant. However, no contemporary account of what Swedenborg said has been uncovered and not for lack of trying (Broad, 1953, pp. 147-155; Dingwall, 1948/1962; Haraldsson & Gerding, 2010). Erlendur enlisted the help of parapsychologists, Adrian Parker and Göran Brusewitz, and others in Sweden, but could not verify the account. It must have been a frustrating experience for all involved. 

Much more could be written about Erlendur, his research, and his book. However, James Matlock has contributed an extensive biographical entry to the Psi Encyclopedia. In addition, the Magazine of the SPR (2021, issue 2) featured several articles about Erlendur in tribute to his life in parapsychology. In an autobiographical sketch (Haraldsson, 2013) Erlendur wrote that he felt that he had good luck in his life, and I also got this impression when I read Towards the Unknown. However, people were also lucky to know him. Besides it was not just thanks to luck that Erlendur is fondly remembered for his contributions to psychical research. He had an inner drive to get things done and truly lived a rich life. I am happy to recommend this short memoir, which includes a foreword by Leslie Kean and an afterword by Carlos Alvarado.

Broad, C. D. (1953). Religion, philosophy and psychical research. Harcourt, Brace & Company
Dingwall, E. J. (1962). Very peculiar people. University Books. Original work published 1948.
Johnson, M. (1980). Parapsykologi. Zindermans.
Johnson, M. (1982). Att vara professor i parapsykologi. En dag i mitt arbete. Sökaren, 3-4, 22-25, 31.
Haraldsson, E. (1970). Subject selection in a machine precognition test. Journal of Parapsychology, 34, 182-191.
Haraldsson, E. (1982). Martin Johnson, ge belägg för ditt påstående att jag är okritisk! Sökaren, 10, 22.
Haraldsson, E. (2013). The question of appearance and reality. In R. Pilkington (Ed.). Men and women of parapsychology, personal reflections. Esprit, volume 2 (pp. 162-173). Anomalist Books.
Haraldsson, E., & Gerding, J. L. F. (2010). Fire in Copenhagen and Stockholm Indridason’s and Swedenborg’s “remote viewing” experiences. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 24, 425–436.
Osis, K., & Haraldsson, E. (2012). At the hour of death: A new look at evidence for life after death (rev. Ed.). White Crow Books. Original work published 1977.
Rao, K. R. (Ed.) (1982). J.B. Rhine: On the frontiers of science. McFarland.