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The Afterlife Investigations: Has Science Proved the Afterlife? DVD

From the official website: Narrated by Britains leading investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre, this award-winning documentary presents four never before seen scientific investigations into life after death.  The Scole Experiment:  For five years a group of researchers and mediums witnessed more phenomena than in any other experiment in the history of the paranormal, including recorded conversations with the dead, written messages on sealed film, video of spirit faces appearing and even spirit forms materializing. The Electronic Voice Phenomenon: Can the dead speak to the living via electronic devices like radios and tape recorders? Scientists investigating Italy's most famous medium, think so. Also famed psychic, Allison Dubois, the inspiration for the hit TV show Medium is put to the test. As our cameras roll, can she contact a leading Scole researcher who tragically died during the production of this film? These experiments may finally convince you there is life after death.

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First Author: 
Tim Coleman (director)
Reviewed for SPR by: 
Tom Ruffles
SPR Review: 

The Scole experiment continues to be of enormous interest since sittings terminated in 1998.  To add to the books, articles, presentations and blog posts comes Tim Coleman’s professionally-produced film which, while not just about Scole, does make it the focus.  Most valuably, the film incorporates some of the material generated by the Scole group.  They assiduously documented the phenomena generated in their collaboration with a spirit team.  There were a vast number of these; according to the group’s reckoning more than in any other experiment in the history of the paranormal.

All four of the primary living participants – Robin and Sandra Foy and mediums Diana and Alan Bennett – were interviewed by Coleman, and the points they and other interviewees make are illustrated by original recordings, supplemented by reconstructions, clearly labelled, to indicate what the experiences would have been like for the sitters.  The Afterlife Investigations has clearly been a long time in the making as there is footage taken within the cellar where the bulk of the activity occurred, and the Foys have not lived there for some time.  There are two short extras on the DVD: contributions from some of the interviewees on what the afterlife might be like, and what appears to be a deleted scene on direct voice at Scole.

The viewer certainly gets a flavour of what participants witnessed during the five years the group sat.  There were temperature changes and breezes.  Intelligent-seeming lights flashed around the room, bouncing on and seeming to go through the table, touching sitters on request and even seeming to enter them.  There were patches of light forming human faces, a disembodied hand and other materialisations.  There were levitations of objects.  Amazing images were recorded on 35mm film, faces, glyphs, diagrams, verses, texts in various languages.  Some eighty apports were received, a good selection of which are displayed in the film.  The best had to be the postcard with the caption, “If living please write, if dead don’t bother” which indicates a sense of humour on someone’s part.

In addition to the spectacular light shows and images, there were a thousand hours of spirit communication.  The personalities coming through were consistent, sometimes answering questions before they had been asked.  Tapes in a recorder with the microphone removed still captured voices and there were other voices which emanated from different parts of the room, referred to as ‘extended voice’.  Sadly there is a gulf between the sometimes astonishing visual products and the general dullness of the verbal communications.  The culmination of the work was ‘Project Alice’, an experiment using a video camera and mirrors angled to so that it recorded its own viewfinder.  The set-up produced amazing images, including faces, colours, otherworldly scenes, and what seemed to be some kind of ’inter-dimensional doorway’, none of which could be explained by it being simple feedback of the camera’s own output.

In a welcome spirit of openness many outsiders were invited to sessions, some of whom are interviewed for the film.  In addition to sittings in Norfolk, the group went overseas, to the Continent, Ireland and the United States.  The implication is that the larger the number of sitters, the harder it would have been for fraud to occur.  Naturally much time is devoted to the investigation by senior members of the Society for Psychical Research, and there are interviews with Montague Keen and David Fontana, with archive footage of the third SPR investigator, Arthur Ellison, who died in 2000.  There is an interview with Rupert Sheldrake, who attended a sitting and was impressed by what he saw.  Fontana is clear about Scole, that it is paradigm-changing.  He believed that when you had sittings as successful as those at Scole, you saw “miracles”, inexplicable by the normal laws of science.

Miracle is a word also used by Ellison of one rather startling display during which a crystal, illuminated internally by the spirit team, levitated and settled in a Pyrex bowl.  Ellison was invited to pick it up, which he did.  He was then asked to try again and found that his fingers went through it.  When asked for the third time, he was once more able to pick it up.  Robin Foy explains that this was designed as a metaphor for our lives, the earthly body giving way to the incorporeal, only our essence remaining when the physical is removed.  Keen added that Arthur was close to the bowl with his head over it to prevent a hand or mechanical device reaching in.  It is at such points as these that possible scenarios for fraud are stretched their utmost - assuming of course that the witnesses were accurately describing what was happening, rather than what they thought was happening.

In answer to the question why the production of such a mass of material was deemed necessary, Keen explains that put together it comprises a complex puzzle which makes the case stronger, as the more difficult it is to solve, the less easily can it be attributed to the Scole group.  He always emphasised the ‘bundle of sticks’ argument, that is, pieces of evidence were stronger when combined than they would be taken in isolation.  This though seems a double-edged method when assessing controversial data.  While the enormous range of events at Scole could be taken as mutually reinforcing, on the grounds that to fake them in front of large numbers of independent witnesses without being caught would tax the resources of the faker beyond breaking point, the critic can retort that a bundle of nonsense is still nonsense.  It is clear that the amount of effort required to decipher a puzzle is unlikely to be equivalent to the effort required to compile it, given access to obscure sources by the compiler.

The obvious issue of whether there was fraud at Scole is mentioned, in particular the issue of séances being held in the pitch dark and the reluctance of the team on the other side to allow infrared.  This was asked for, particularly by Keen, but the sitters were told it would interfere with the energy.  The insistence on total darkness is obviously the fatal flaw for some critics, but the commentary suggests that criticisms were satisfactorily overcome by the strength of the controls.  Appeals to the scientific credentials of the SPR investigators are bolstered by saying that the SPR has long experience of exposing fake mediums, and its investigators are not easily fooled.  One likes to think that this is so, but there are no guarantees.  The three main SPR investigators saw themselves as guests, and while they searched the cellar, and never found anything suspicious, they never searched the mediums themselves, a distinct weakness in the investigation.

Chris French is wheeled on for an opinion but he merely gives his standard statement that the evidence for life after death is not strong, and he does not tackle Scole specifically.  He did not attend any sittings there and was not involved in the debates when the Report was published so he can hardly count as an informed critic (though to be fair he is balanced by parapsychologist Charles Tart talking about quantum connections with psi, and Tart did not visit either).  French’s unwitting role is to indicate that opposing views to the genuineness of Scole are not strong, but actually Coleman was asking the wrong critic.  It is a feature of this case that the scrutiny given to it by the sceptics has been thin indeed, presumably because they had already made up their minds without having to bother with it (Sue Blackmore and Richard Wiseman, who were invited but didn‘t make the trip certainly appear to have done so).  Instead it was SPR members who engaged industriously with the evidence, finding alternative explanations.

The film’s commentary slips over such opposing views by saying that there have been discussions of how individual events might have been faked, but that the principal investigators were still convinced they were genuine.  Fontana is bullish about fraud, saying to the critics that if they think if something was faked, then they should duplicate it (and not hypothetically from an armchair, as so often happens).  Keen says that the images on film had either been projected by spirits in some way we cannot recognise, or they were all fakes.  He plumps for the former but it is curious that he does not admit the possibility of the sort of mixed phenomena that investigators thought they saw in Eusapia Palladino‘s mediumship, genuine and fake together.  There is a brief discussion of whether the phenomena could be attributed to action by the minds of the living participants rather than discarnate entities, but the conclusion is that on a balance of probabilities, given that micro-PK effects tend to be very small, they were more likely to be caused by spirits.

There were some omissions in the film.  Given the numbers visiting the Scolehole over the years, more of them could have been interviewed.  There is a reunion of sitters who attended sessions in California, but nothing similar was done for the more numerous Norfolk participants.  No dissenting first-hand witnesses are included, though there were certainly some.  The film does not allude to the material compiled by critics (Donald West, Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell) at the back of the SPR‘s Scole Report.  Much is made of a supposedly tamper-proof wooden box constructed to hold film securely, but there is no reference to the controversy over whether it was amenable to opening, and if it could be so under controlled conditions.  Instructions for building a machine for facilitating communications, the diagram of which was put on film, was found to have Edison’s initials, but the film does not say that when Ellison tried to build it, it did not work.

Sheldrake, Fontana and Robin Foy talk about lights going through objects and bodies.  LEDs, which Sheldrake suggests, and promptly dismisses, as an obvious candidate for these, would not be able to do that (though West had agreed that a demonstration by Cornell using an LED resembled what he had seen when he attended a sitting), but it does raise the question how one can be so sure in the dark, despite the protestations from the principal SPR investigators that the darkness sharpened their other senses.

The most obvious omission is an explanation for the cessation of the sittings, which will play havoc with anyone’s boggle threshold.  This involved entities from the future, who were attracted to the energies being generated at Scole, interfering with the laws of time and space by creating an “interdimensional time wave pattern“ which violated the “Cosmic and Interdimensional laws relating to time and space”, thereby severing contact with the spirit team.  Naturally this brought the experiment to an abrupt end, on 6 November 1998.  It is understandable why Coleman should think this would confuse the viewer, but he has left a significant element out of the story.

In addition to Scole, the film interweaves three other strands: the long-running work being done in Italy by Marcello Bacci, a bereaved mother‘s use of EVP to contact her son, and an attempt by a medium to contact Monty Keen, who died during the making of the film.  Bacci uses Direct Radio Voice, voices that come through vintage valve radio sets and can hold conversations with sitters.  These voices are fairly distinct, unlike many EVP recordings, though responses in English seem to have a bit of an Italian accent.  It has been found that Bacci can still get results with his equipment in a Faraday cage, and switched off with the tube removed.  Irrespective of how it is done, he clearly has a devoted following.

The film follows a visit by the Foys to see Bacci in action.  Robin asks to speak to Manu, the major control of the Scole spirit team.  They receive a response from Manu, and Harry Oldfield for the Scole Group is able to ask some questions which satisfy the participants.  A brief glimpse of a Bacci séance in Italy is in total darkness but is recorded using a “nightshot camera”, ie using infrared.  If only the spirits at Scole had been so accommodating, one inevitably thinks.  Fontana is probably right in saying in his letter in the SPR‘s Journal, October 2010, that even this would not have satisfied hard-core sceptics, but it would have ruled out some of the more obvious hypotheses revolving around fraud which rush to fill an explanatory vacuum.  In Italy the infrared captures a table rising into the air after the film-makers had been asked to turn the camera off.  Apports, in this case flowers, are shown arriving, or at least landing at the sitters’ feet.

The other strands are dealt with more quickly.  A distraught Vicky Talbot uses EVP to receive messages from her son who died twenty years earlier.  Celebrity medium Allison DuBois is tested at the University of Arizona attempting to contact the discarnate Keen, who died in January 2004.  Despite being optically blurred, one of the Arizona researchers is clearly Gary Schwartz, so this took place before he and DuBois fell out in 2005.  He is shown sitting with a colleague a few feet behind DuBois while she gives her reading.  Schwartz had known Monty and was aware how he had died, and his significant movements in his chair - he leans forward eagerly when DuBois is making statements pertinent to the circumstances of Keen’s death - could provide assistance.  It is surprising that a researcher with Schwartz’s experience should use such a poorly-controlled set-up.

This is a frustrating film to assess. On the one hand, because Tim Coleman had the cooperation of the Scole group and the surviving SPR investigators, and was able to interview some of the visitors, he has produced a succinct condensation of what occurred in several hundred séances over five years, and a welcome opportunity to see some of the recordings made by the group.  On the other, there is no real sense of the critiques to which Scole has been subjected, and the newcomer to the subject could easily go away believing that any counter-arguments to the survival interpretation have been safely dispatched as having been fully assessed and found wanting by Keen, Fontana and Ellison.

The situation is more complicated than can be indicated in a ninety-minute documentary, and the subtitle - “The definitive investigation into life after death” - is somewhat exaggerated.  But for anyone interested in the evidence for survival, and in particular physical mediumship, this is highly recommended, even if by itself it is unlikely to shift already-held opinions.  Scole will put most outside observers such as myself, who never visited and now have to assess the products second hand, in a quandary: impossible to accept all of it, difficult to reject some of it.  It is possible that we will never come to a definitive conclusion over what happened in that Norfolk cellar, but for anyone willing to make the effort to tackle the case’s complexities, this film will have a worthy place alongside the SPR’s Scole Report and Robin Foy’s impressively detailed blow by blow account in his Witnessing the Impossible.

Reference Information: 
The Afterlife Investigations, 2010, NTSC, 86 minutes. Written, produced and directed by Tim Coleman