Monday, 15 February 2010

Review of The Scole Experiment

This is an orphan book review, and I am fairly sure it has never been published. It was possibly written for a proposed resurrection of However Improbable, the magazine of the Anglia Paranormal Research Group. That though ceased publication in 1997, and this would have been written in 2000, shortly after the Solomons' book appeared, so it may have been intended for another outlet.

The Scole Experiment: Scientific Evidence for Life After Death

By Grant and Jane Solomon, in association with The Scole Experimental Group. Piatkus, 2000, £9.99.

The Scole phenomena have been floating around, originally confined to the pages of Psychic News, for some years. What makes them so interesting is that they were produced by a group concerned to resurrect the venerable but now largely discredited tradition of physical mediumship. To do so the four main participants met regularly in the cellar of Sandra and Robin Foy’s house in Scole, Norfolk. During a large number of séances, many attended by interested visitors, and a few held overseas, firm contact with the spirit world was apparently established and sensational phenomena produced, including weird lights, apports, pictures - some very beautiful - on roll film, images on videotape, and voices on audiotape.

The group seems to have had the worthy intention of showing that underneath the excesses and exposures of the Victorian period was a bedrock of genuine communication between the living and dead. Eventually three senior, and very sympathetic, investigators from the SPR, Monty Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana (the latter two past presidents), became interested, and before long Scole had received the accolade of a series in The Daily Mail and a somewhat tongue-in-cheek article in The Sunday Times magazine by Bryan Appleyard. The Solomons’ popular account brings together the varied evidence collected by the participants and gives a history of the sittings. The SPR investigators also produced a massive tome, published as a Proceedings, which covers the same terrain in exhaustive detail.

The Solomons came in towards the end of the enterprise (which lasted from 1993 to 1998), so most of the accounts they collected were hearsay. The reasons for the spirits deciding to finish the work were frankly barmy, involving experimenters from the future and energy vortices. This development occurred just as outside interest (and therefore public scrutiny) in the work of the group was increasing.

Unfortunately there were weaknesses in the procedures adopted. Like those of their forebears, séances were conducted in complete darkness, and the spirits were vehement in their resistance, for no sound reason, to requests for infra-red to be used to record proceedings. Granted the four movers were never caught cheating, but the controls were particularly rigorous, so there was scope for fraud, a fact upon which the subsequent controversy has hinged.

And apart from the physical evidence, fascinating as it is, little of worth was produced. In particular, there was supposed to be an entire team on the ‘other side’ conducting scientific work, but they do not seem to have come up with much, apart from Spiritualistic platitudes. And typically the team members were coy about providing hard and fast information about their pre-mortem selves.

References by the Solomons to the early SPR’s cross-correspondences, in which discarnate individuals communicated with different mediums with outwardly meaningless snippets, which were then combined into meaningful wholes, are irrelevant in the Scole context. There, snippets were sent to the same individuals by spirits for recombination, totally missing the point - the original experiments hinged on the mediums being far apart, and therefore unlikely to collude. If the mediums are in the same place, you have to assume that the discarnate communicators are separate and genuine entities for the ‘cross correspondences’ to make sense, the very fact you are using the completed messages to prove.

So what are we to make of Scole? The implicit assumption of the authors seems to be that essentially the participants were not bright enough to commit fraud, and did not gain financially; they were probably considerably out of pocket at the end of it all, after having spent hundreds of hours in their cellar. If this was fraud, the motive is difficult to ascertain, unless it was intellectual pleasure, such as arises from completing puzzles, or perhaps the desire to put one over on the ‘experts’. They have also gained a large amount of publicity, from this book, the subsequent SPR report, and the coverage in the national and specialised press.

Ultimately the Solomons have not made a convincing case that genuine paranormal events occurred in the Scole Hole. Simply because what happened is difficult to explain (if accounts are accurate), does not automatically mean that the paranormal case is proven. There is a gulf in between. Indeed, the SPR report’s appendices, written by critics, go some way to demolishing the case carefully built up by the Solomons. Perhaps the massive amounts of material collected should be seen as performance art, in the way that crop circles are clearly regarded by their (usually) anonymous practitioners, rather than as clear evidence for post-mortem survival.

This is actually a slightly updated paperback version - the original hardback was published in 1999. It mentions the spread of Scole-like circles, so perhaps more convincing material will be collected in time, including some genuine attempts at cross-correspondences. In the meantime, this is a reasonable canter through the evidence, but should be read in conjunction with the SPR report which deals with the phenomena in a more scholarly manner, and includes a debate between proponents and sceptics.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 3

The following items were found in a file with the title 'However Improbable 2:3', but as far as I am aware this issue never appeared, so this is the first time they have been published. The magazine was clearly in trouble as we were getting little feedback from members and it did not seem worth the effort - mainly Andy's - to produce it any more. We delayed the issue date (which was to have been Easter 1998) in the hope of obtaining more contributions, before abandoning the magazine. As a result, we switched from trying to be a mass-membership group, which was unwieldy and time-consuming, to a concentration on a core group of us conducting investigations of spontaneous cases.


Welcome to the latest However Improbable. We’re sorry for the delay - we hoped that this issue would appear at Easter, but time pressure and lack of contributions pushed it back.

The last issue of the magazine contained a long article by Vincent O’Neil (adopted son of Marianne Foyster) on Borley Rectory. We had been hoping to run further articles by Vincent, but he has informed us that he does not want any more to be used as he has been able to interest a publisher in his work. Good news for Vincent, but bad news for us. He asked us to mention his Web Site devoted to the Borley case, and his e-mail address. The Web Site I can thoroughly recommend, particularly for its annotated bibliography on Borley which is a model of its kind. If you want to see it, it can be found at Should you wish to e-mail Vincent, his address is

Instead of Vincent’s anticipated contribution we have reinstated the competition, but need more people to have a go to make it worthwhile. We are also including the second part of the horror film survival guide, the first part of which was in HI1:4 (and if you haven’t got that issue, it and its fellows are available for 40p each). We hope that you find this and the rest of the magazine interesting. Finally, the standing plea, remember we need readers to keep their eyes and ears open for possible cases for the group to investigate. Good (ghost) hunting!

From the Archives: No. 2

A handbill dated 24 October 1826 contains the story of one Mr. Hartt of Orford Hill, Norwich, who was persecuted by a literally “Hungry Ghost” for a fortnight. He did not see the spirit, but it made its presence known by making a din, exhorting the not surprisingly nervous gentleman to “Beware! Leave off your wicked life, Hartt! Read your Bible.” His neighbours, obviously brave souls, volunteered to sit up with him. This they did for several nights until the voice was heard again telling the blameless Hartt to read his Bible and abjure his allegedly wicked ways. Things then took an even odder turn. The neighbours proceeded to search the house but although they could not see anything, the voice seemed to follow them from room to room, this time demanding “Bread and butter - Ham, and bread and butter - Blow my guts, I am so hungry”. The origin of the ghostly voice could not be pinpointed, sometimes seeming to come from the walls, at other times the ceiling or floor.

Eventually the Mayor became involved, and he sent several policeman to conduct a more professional search, with instructions not to stop until they had uncovered the cause. Unfortunately they were stymied as well. Next a clergyman was called in, but he could not lay the ghost either, which despite its earlier piety now told the cleric to “go home, and not to come there praying”. A tailor decided that the voice came from someone hiding in the walls, so he marched in to do battle armed with a poker and proceeded to search the house, all the while being informed by the entity that his efforts were useless and that he should go home. When a box was thrown at him, his courage seems to have vanished and he heeded the advice.

Unfortunately this rattling yarn comes to a somewhat abrupt anticlimax, cleared up in the last three lines: “The author of the trick was at length discovered [How? When?] to be the servant girl, who possessed an extraordinary power of ventriloquism. She has since been taken into custody [On what charge - impersonating a ghost?], and no further noise has been heard by poor Mr Hartt.” It would be nice to know how this turned out, and if any explanation by the servant was recorded. Perhaps Mr Hartt was not quite as blameless as the handbill makes out, and she was getting revenge. Whatever the reason, she must have indeed been a first-rate ventriloquist to have fooled so many people - which makes one wonder how she could have done it. Why did nobody notice that the voice was only heard when she was present, and what business would she have had following the various investigators around the house anyway? There must be more to this than the author tells us. Perhaps she crept unseen into adjacent rooms and shouted through holes in the walls, a far-fetched scenario itself, or perhaps she was the fall-guy for a real spirit, who perpetrated a practical joke and got it blamed on the one person nobody would listen to...

Source: R.C. Finucane. Appearances of the Dead: A Cultural History of Ghosts. London, Junction, 1982, plate 5.

The True History of Pepper’s Ghost: A reprint of the 1890 edition of A True History of The Ghost and All About Metempsychosis. John Henry Pepper. The Projection Box, Facsimile series No. 2, 1996. £5.95. (Contact 66 Culverden road, London, SW12 9LS)

‘Professor’ Pepper (1821-1900) was part showman, part educationalist. He was a lecturer at and later director of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London, which was a major influence in disseminating scientific ideas in Victorian Britain. He also gave his name to an optical illusion, Pepper’s Ghost, dating from 1862. This is based on the effect which occurs when looking through a window at dimly lit scenery: One can see what is beyond the window, but also what is being reflected on it from behind the viewer. Pepper’s idea for theatrical presentation was to place a hidden stage below the level of the audience where a light source would throw an image of an actor dressed as the ghost up to an angled sheet of glass at the front of the main stage. The audience would see the reflection of the ‘ghost’ as well as the actors behind the glass, by careful stage direction appearing to interact.

The germ of the idea came from a Henry Dircks, whose formulation was not really practical - despite needing a purpose-built theatre the illusion would still only have been visible to a small number of patrons. The two joined forces to improve the idea, but they fell out and Dircks proceeded to snipe at his erstwhile collaborator, claiming that Pepper had cheated him. Pepper also had to contend with patent infringements, and his absorption in dealing with the legal aspects of the invention can be judged by the fulsome dedication of his book to his solicitor, Walter Hughes (incidentally, the copy owned by the famous psychical researcher Harry Price was the very one given by Pepper to Hughes).

By 1890 Pepper’s Ghost was old hat as a theatrical device (children, knowing that the sheet of glass was there, even if they could not see it, would throw wads of moistened paper which would stick to it), but ghost shows based on the idea continued as fairground attractions, which themselves provide a link with the first itinerant film exhibitions later in the decade. Pepper’s book is a full exposition of the trick and its subsequent history, quoting the original patent, correspondence and newspaper articles at length, along with a description of another illusion called Metempsychosis.

Mervyn Heard has added an introduction to this reprint, giving the background to ghost projection and outlining some of the additions to the basic technique made by others. He has included a useful bibliography for those interested in examining further this fascinating area. Pepper’s text is a faithful reproduction of the original except in one respect. For some reason the diagram on the frontispiece in the 1890 edition, pasted onto the cover in the new edition, has been redrawn. It is larger than the original, and arguably clearer, but the change is not explained in the introduction, and it could be argued that what is presented does not strictly speaking qualify as a facsimile.

It is still an interesting document, though, and well worth the money. A valuable companion piece would be Dircks’s wonderfully titled “The Ghost! As Produced in the Spectre Drama: Popularly Illustrating the Marvellous Optical Illusions Obtained by the Apparatus Called the Dircksian Phantasmagoria” of 1863, to which Pepper’s book is partly a belated riposte. Perhaps The Projection Box would consider a reprint of that, especially as Dircks is more approachable than Pepper’s rather pompous style.

Cinematic Hauntings. Gary J. And Susan Svehla (eds.). Midnight Marquee Press, Baltimore, MD., 1996. $20. Distributed in U.K. by Worldwide Media (£14.99).

If media representations of the paranormal and the accounts people give of their own experiences interact, then we have to take seriously paranormal cinema and television - especially as there is so much of the latter about. And, let’s face it, watching and reading about ghost films is fun. Surprisingly, however, the literature outside small circulation fan magazines is fairly sparse, ghost films usually subsumed under other genres such as romance, and of course horror. For that reason this well-illustrated book is very welcome, showing as it does how varied the cinematic afterlife can be.

Sixteen films are covered by a variety of American writers, and on the whole the quality of the contributions is high. It would be invidious to pick out individuals, so here goes. Probably the best chapters are those on Carnival of Souls, High Plains Drifter, Night of the Demon and The Haunting, the latter including interviews with some of those involved with the film. That on Outward Bound is good on its production history (though the later version, Between Two Worlds, is dismissed briefly) as is that on Portrait of Jennie. Ones not quite in the first rank include that on Blithe Spirit which rambles a little, and those on The Changeling, The Innocents, and The Legend of Hell House which lean heavily on descriptions of the plot. Lady in White’s examination is workmanlike but skims over this overrated film’s incoherences.

Criticisms are minor. An introduction would have been useful, setting the films chosen in context, though co-editor Gary J.Svehla broadens out his discussion of The Uninvited slightly to reflect on the function of ghost films. The chapters are in alphabetical rather than date order, so that a straight read through does not given any sense of the progression of the ghost film (and as credits are printed at the end of chapters it is necessary to flick through to find out the details of each film). One cannot complain about the U.S. bias I suppose, but it can cause niggles: Night of the Demon is listed under its US title Curse of the Demon. Dead of Night (alas only referred to in passing) is not a Hollywood film. Gary Don Rhodes, writing about the British censorship problems of Outward Bound, spells Surrey “Surray” (that’s just how its inhabitants pronounce it), and I am not convinced he knows what the initials L.C.C. stand for.

Inevitably one can quibble about the choices, which probably reflect the interests of the contributors. The writer on Night of the Demon apologises for including it in a book on cinematic ghosts, with reason, as it is not a ghost film. It is nice to see the inclusion of obscurer vintage material, such as Outward Bound and Supernatural (even if the author writing on the latter seems to spend much of his time showing what limited filmmakers the Halperins were and digresses into an examination of the later careers of the film’s participants), but some of the other films have a massive literature devoted to them, notably The Innocents and, especially, The Shining. These could have been dropped to make room for less well-explored films.

It would have been nice to see personal favourites like Truly Madly Deeply, The Ghost Goes West, Ghost Story (the 1982 one) and Ghost included, or the massive influence of the Ghostbusters films discussed. And Hong Kong has a strong tradition of ghost films which do not get the exposure they deserve in the West - indeed, it would have been good to see something on foreign-language as well as silent films. But given the inevitable trade-off between space limitations and the desire to deal with particular films in depth, the editors have put together a valuable contribution to the subject. Midnight Marquee Press, who publish extensively on horror films, are to be congratulated on a useful effort. Considering the number of worthy films which did not make the final cut, perhaps this will be the first of a series to concentrate on the cinematic medium.

The Mind of Edmund Gurney. Gordon Epperson. London, Associated University Presses, 1997. £26.50.

Although only 41 when he died in 1888, Edmund Gurney had already made a reputation for himself as a musicologist, philosopher (particularly in the areas of aesthetics and ethics) and psychical researcher. It is in the last of these fields that he is best known today, particularly his labours on behalf of The Society for Psychical Research, chiefly as its Joint Hon. Secretary and as co-author of the seminal Phantasms of the Living (1886), the significance of which cannot be underestimated. He also conducted experiments in hypnosis and investigated mediums.

Gordon Epperson, a musicologist himself, has written a short but concentrated intellectual biography of Gurney in an attempt to rehabilitate his somewhat faded reputation. Gurney’s achievements are explored in chapters devoted to each of his spheres of interest: His early life and studies in medicine and law, his musical researches culminating in his book The Power of Sound, work on hypnosis, philosophy and poetry, his friendship with William James, and of course his psychical research. A section deals with Trevor Hall’s snide innuendoes in his book The Strange Case of Edmund Gurney, convincingly dismissing Hall’s claim that Gurney committed suicide after discovering that his assistant, G. A. Smith, had cheated in telepathy experiments.

Due to its shortness, Epperson has had to skim over Gurney’s work, merely giving us a taster of his impressively various activities. He is good on rendering Gurney’s philosophical ideas into clear English, and outlining the intellectual milieu in which he moved, and the musical discussion is of course first-rate. There are weaknesses, however, probably due to Epperson’s lack of familiarity with psychical research. For example, there is little on Gurney’s activities in the field prior to the SPR’s foundation in 1882 - he was involved in scrutinising Spiritualism as early as 1874 - and there is no mention of the Creery and Guthrie cases, with which he was involved. To give a more rounded picture of Gurney’s labours, this book should be read in conjunction with Alan Gauld’s The Founders of Psychical Research.

Epperson’s main problem as a biographer is that Gurney was incredibly reticent about his personal life, and what we know about him as an individual comes almost entirely from the memoirs of others; the concentration on his mind as indicated in the title is more through necessity than choice. Despite this handicap, Epperson manages to bring him to life, to the extent that the main reaction upon finishing the book is to mourn the waste of a talent which had so much to offer.

Hamlyn History: Supernatural. Karen Farrington, London, Hamlyn, 1997, £18.99.

The dust jacket confidently asserts that “The truth lies within the pages of this book”, but the results do not fulfil the expectations raised that one is holding a scientific breakthrough in one’s hands. Beautifully illustrated though it is, the text has a jerky quality and reads rather like a Magic, Mysteries and Miracles television script (and is about as profound), presumably because it had to be pruned to fit the space around the pictures.

The book covers a considerable number of topics in its 192 large-format pages, including conventional psychical research, the Occult, earth mysteries, New Age and Fortean subjects. The author is not a specialist but does make a reasonable stab at the material, although it should be treated with care. She is sound on crop circles and psychic surgery, for example, but she can be too quick to take certain psychic practitioners’ claims at face value, despite a huge amount of contrary evidence in the literature. The definition of a poltergeist as “a boisterous, mischievous ghost” betrays the author’s lack of credentials, and I can’t let a couple of wrong dates go: Tutankhamun’s tomb was uncovered in 1922, not 1923, and Blavatsky formed the Theosophical Society in 1875, not 1951 - she died in 1891.

Perhaps it would be churlish to be too critical because the book never pretends to be a scholarly exposition (except perhaps on the dust jacket), though that doesn’t excuse sloppy research. I can’t work out who the target audience is because for the casual browser the price would be prohibitive. A subscription to Fortean Times would be better value for money.

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 2

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 2 - Autumn 1997

Putting the Chronic in Chronicles of the Paranormal

The July 1997 issue of science fiction magazine SFX carried an item about Ghostbusters star Dan Ackroyd, who hosts an American paranormal show yet to be seen on these shores called Psi-Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal. The allegedly true stories are based on files compiled by the Organisation for Scientific Investigation and Research, a U.S. group which aims to explore paranormal cases. Judging by a couple of examples of cases given in which the content had to be toned down as “too unbelievable” for viewers - the man who committed suicide by sticking an electric drill in his head 42 times and the woman who stabbed her husband to death with a wedge of Swiss cheese, changed to bludgeoning for, ah, credibility - the content is more Fortean than straight psychical research, despite the title. It transpires that Ackroyd’s family has been involved in psychical research for four generations, his great-grandfather being a member of The Society for Psychical Research, a background which inspired Ghostbusters as well as Psi-Factor. Sounds as if the new venture will provide a jolly reliable source of information, with I’m sure no thought of cashing in on the success of The X-Files.

Julie Milton and Richard Wiseman, Guidelines for Extrasensory Perception Research

University of Hertfordshire Press, Hatfield, 1997.

In an earlier issue of HI, I reviewed a booklet by Wiseman and Robert Morris, Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants. The success of that publication is demonstrated by its promotion to the first in “an important new series” of Guidelines for Parapsychological Research, with Wiseman, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, as editor. This booklet is the second in the series and is as valuable, if drier, than its predecessor.

The first chapter deals with definitions of ESP and the types of experiment that can be done to test those types of claim. Subsequent sections examine procedures, including choice of participants; randomness of targets; shielding the target before, during and after the experiment; and scoring, analysing and reporting results. There is a decent bibliography and a handy checklist to ensure that all areas of possible error are eliminated, but, like the earlier work, no index.

All this is crammed into 94 pages, with quite a lot of white space, so inevitably it tends to the schematic. Unlike other books on the market such as Are You Psychic? and How to Test Your Psychic Powers this is not a DIY manual for use by the novice with no scientific background. It is designed for researchers who already have an experimental grounding to allow them to make sure that their research efforts are rigorous and able to withstand sceptical scrutiny.

On those terms Milton and Wiseman have been successful. More on statistical procedures would have been useful, but that reservation aside, it is an admirably concise high-level overview of a major area of psychical research. For those who are contemplating laboratory work, or would like to subject journal reports to rigorous examination, this is an important addition to the literature.

Andrew MacKenzie, Adventures in Time: Encounters with the Past

The Athlone Press, London, 1997. £25.

To begin with, I must declare an interest. The first serious book I read on psychical research, and which fired my fascination with the subject, was MacKenzie’s Hauntings and Apparitions, published as part of a series to celebrate The Society for Psychical Research’s centenary in 1982. I am therefore biased in favour of anything from Mr MacKenzie’s pen.

His new book is also published in conjunction with the SPR and is the first of a new series entitled Studies in Psychical Research. Its subject is retrocognition, “the experiencing of the past in the present, whether in visionary form or, in very rare cases, being able to walk through an area and see it as it was in the past with features of the present day obliterated.” It is a much better definition than the vague one he quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary, which refers to “knowledge of the past supernaturally acquired”. This would also cover hypnotic regression, reincarnation, psychometry, even mediumship, subjects not dealt with in the present book.

Of the various cases presented, two stand out, one famous, the other investigated by the author and presented here for the first time. The first is the Versailles “Adventure” of Misses Moberly and Jourdain in 1901, the other occurring at Kersey in Suffolk in 1957, where three teenagers were possibly transported back to the village as it might have appeared in mediæval times. The Dieppe case of 1951 is given a chapter, as is a bizarre story from the SPR Journal of 1947 in which a man nearly fell over a cliff while walking through a landscape apparently no longer in existence. A number of more minor cases are included, some from the literature and others communicated to the author. These are balanced by a couple of examples of claims that a house had disappeared being due, upon closer investigation, to malobservation.

MacKenzie makes a strong claim for retrocognition, that it is the most controversial and puzzling of all psychic phenomena. Unfortunately I am not able to go that far with him. Precognition would seem to be a far more difficult area. While it is possible to conceive say a house somehow imprinting its existence on its surroundings so that it can be seen long after it has vanished, to have a similar vision of a thing or event not yet in existence, and which cannot be inferred from current conditions, is a harder notion to accept.

MacKenzie would be the first to agree that the theories so far suggested for retrocognition are unsatisfactory, and he introduces them diffidently. He does acknowledge the problem of complex hallucinations in certain instances but feels that this is not a satisfactory conclusion when veridical information is required during a timeslip experience. He also points out that similar attributes occur repeatedly during episodes, such as a feeling of depression and extreme quietness. These would indicate a real phenomenon rather than fabrications, which would exhibit no such patterns.

Backward causation from particle physics is a possible candidate for an explanation (the discussion on this is mercifully clear) but it is a massive extrapolation from sub-atomic to large-scale events. The idea of some kind of kink in space-time seems to be an appealing hypothesis, but MacKenzie points out that as some of these instances lasted for up to half an hour, it would be quite a substantial kink.

Unconvincing too is H.H. Price’s ‘imprinting’ theory whereby emotions can be left on a place, to be picked up by sensitive persons. Thus Jean Overton Fuller’s mother had become inconsolably sad when visiting Versailles, an occurrence MacKenzie associates with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette experiencing strong feelings on the eve of their executions. But this begs the question why these should have been the feelings picked up (presumably people had also been happy there at other times, or did the monarchs have some kind of prerogative when it came to laying down an emotional trace?).

Any place, especially one with a long history, will have a range of emotions associated with it, and if we were prey to these to any extent we would literally never be able to call our feelings our own. What happens if a building is demolished and another, perhaps with a totally different purpose, built in its place - Which would have priority? If this theory has any validity the question should not be why these occurrences are so rare, but rather why they are not happening more often.

Whatever the cause or causes of retrocognition, MacKenzie is totally correct when he argues that if the cases under consideration appear to clash with our notions of reality, they should not be dismissed, but rather we should ponder on our notions of reality. The literature on the subject is surprisingly sparse, and the book contains a request for further cases. If anyone has come across a timeslip happening either to themselves or somebody known to them they can send an account in via the SPR (and we would definitely be interested to know about it ourselves).

This is a fascinating and nicely produced volume. The major drawback, and one that will reduce its potential readership, is the price - £25 for a fairly slim book of some 165 pages. Hopefully Athlone will consider a paperback version soon, both so that it can be more widely read, and to rectify the inadvertently amusing misprint on page 86 where a house is said to stand back from the road “some 25 years”.

Note: The second volume in Athlone/SPR’s parapsychology series will be Tony Cornell’s Investigating the Paranormal: Spontaneous Cases and Other Related Phenomena. I understand it will be a kind of investigative autobiography dealing with three areas - Hauntings, Poltergeists and Mediumship. It is due to be published in the Autumn of 1997 at £35.

Spirit Hands: A Request for Information

In the last issue of HI (page 4) I mentioned the ‘spirit hands’ produced by Franek Kluski. These were alleged to have been produced by spirits materialising their hands in paraffin wax then dematerialising them, leaving an impression which could be filled with plaster. The problem with creating a fake is that it is difficult to see how a human hand (i.e. not capable of dematerialising) could be extracted if the fingers were crossed, as those casts produced by Kluski were. Moulds could be an answer, but would leave tell-tale lines, and carvings could not hope to reproduce the hand prints which plaster preserves. All in all, these hands would appear to be examples of “a permanent paranormal object” - assuming that they were not faked in some way.

So it was with interest that on a recent visit to London I went into The Trocadero and saw a stand at which people could have wax casts made of their hands. Apart from the different medium, the examples in the photographs on display looked remarkably like Kluski’s efforts, complete with twisted fingers. I would have loved to have had my own example made to see how it was done, but the stallholder was not present and the photos did not show the process in detail. It is possible that these wax hands have seams, but a cursory examination of the pictures did not reveal any. If any reader can tell me any more about this procedure I’d be interested.

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 1

However Improbable Vol 2 Issue 1 - Summer 1997

Materialization: Fact or Fiction?

This was the title of the Society for Psychical Research’s thirty-second Study Day in London on 26th April, ably organised by Mary Rose Barrington. These study days tend to act as a kind of index of what’s ‘sexy’ at the moment, according to the number of participants. By this reckoning materialization, the production of spirit forms during séances, and physical mediumship in general, are very sexy indeed as the room was packed. Among the participants was a large contingent of Spiritualists which meant that the discussion tended to be slanted in a particular direction, with the more sceptical keeping their heads down. An initial straw poll of how many believed materialisation was possible showed that nearly everybody thought that it was, with only one voting that it was impossible (‘undecideds’ were not counted). About eight people claimed to have seen it for themselves.

The pattern for these events is a series of talks, each followed by a brief discussion, with a more general discussion at the end of the afternoon. First off this time was Guy Lyon Playfair, best known probably for his book on the Enfield poltergeist. He gave a brief historical overview of the materialization phenomenon from its first recorded occurrence in 1852, mentioning some of the best known mediums and investigators. He did concede that there were fraudulent mediums, but clearly thought that many were genuine. He finished by saying that given the strength of the evidence it could not all be dismissed.

The next speaker was Zofia Weaver, talking about the famous Polish medium Franek Kluski. He was not a professional but had sat privately, with adverse consequences to his health, for groups of friends as well as researchers of the calibre of Richet and Geley- the implication being that he had no need to resort to fakery. He is best known for the moulds of ‘spirit hands’ produced at his séances, photographs of which were circulated. These were created by the hands being plunged into paraffin wax and then dematerialising, leaving the impression intact. Plaster could be poured into the cavity to preserve the impression. However they are formed, the results are very beautiful.

The first talk after lunch was to have been given by Alan Crossley on Helen Duncan, but he was ill so Mary Rose Barrington in the chair had to wing it for ninety minutes. We heard part of an interview given by Crossley to the BBC which outlined Helen Duncan’s career. This was followed by reminiscences of people who had sat with her, itself a testimony to the longevity of SPR members given that she died in 1956. Despite the awkward problem for her proponents of the incredibly unconvincing nature of the materialised forms, she had a surprising number of defenders. If some of the phenomena were fraudulent, they argued, some manifestly were not, in opposition to the sceptical line that if a medium is once detected in fraud, all of that person’s work must be discounted.

The final talk was given by the ever entertaining Tony Cornell, self-styled “naughty boy”. He incensed a number of the Spiritualists by recounting a few of his methods for testing mediums, not all of them involving being totally straight. Interestingly, he seemed to find more evidence of fraud than some of his fellow investigators. The general forum which closed the day allowed participants to recount personal experiences. Discussions then and at the end of each talk were not entirely uncritical of mediumship, at various points touching on the issue of expectation in the séance room (seeing what one wants to see), contradictory evidence on the alleged damage infra-red photography could do to a medium in trance, and the problem of the lack of a theoretical underpinning for materialization. Given the composition of the audience, though, it is unlikely that many views were changed.

This is a very abbreviated account of a fascinating event. There are two such Study Days per year, and are highly recommended (non-SPR members can attend for slightly more than the rate for members).

Remote Viewing Experiment

In the last issue of However Improbable I announced that a remote viewing experiment would be conducted on 9th February, and inviting readers to try to determine clairvoyantly where I would be between midday and 12.30. We had two responses, and the winning one is clear-cut.

One person said I was at Ely cathedral which is I’m afraid unequivocally wrong. The other attempt was more complex. It mentioned using feet rather than hands, heavy footwear, something circular and thin sticks in a tripod shape, a light wind, drizzle then heavy rain, going to a wooden single story building with somebody else, both being amused/surprised about something, and a large white cement building in the distance.

The problem with this type of uncontrolled test is that the description could apply to a large number of locations, but it does apply to the target quite well: the grounds at Sandringham, which I visited with my daughter. For the first fifteen minutes she played on the wooden structures then we walked along the public nature trail, and were doing so at half past. It was not raining but it had been and the ground was damp, so we both had stout footwear on. I did not use my hands much, mainly to operate my binoculars, though my daughter did. We went past a single story building, the cafeteria, which is wood-clad (this was well after the expiry of the half hour, but I had not been particularly precise in saying when the test period would finish). I cannot say that we were amused or surprised by anything in particular, though we were both enjoying our outing.

There is no mention of trees, of which there are many at Sandringham. I am not sure to what the circular shape and the tripod refer, we did not see a white cement building and the weather is wrong. On the whole though a creditable go. The winner is Mrs Brenda Lodge, who wins a copy of Crop Circle Communiqué.

Deliverance: Psychic Disturbance and Occult Involvement. Second edition. Edited by Michael Perry, SPCK, 1987, £12.99.

Though conjuring up memories of John Boorman’s film Deliverance, this handbook compiled by the Christian Deliverance Study Group (formerly the Christian Exorcism Group) is about even more disturbed individuals. The title has been carefully chosen to indicate that the book covers a wider area than just exorcism but is rather intended as a manual for practising clergy confronted with what appears to be some form of distressing psychic manifestation.

Chapters cover general advice on how ‘counsellors’ should act, followed by a detailed examination, with case histories, of poltergeists, ghosts, mediumship, cults, Satanism, abuse (Satanic and otherwise), New Age and charismatic Christian ‘casualties’, possession (distinguishing what the authors regard as real from imaginary) and only right at the end, exorcism. Appendices cover more technical material on exorcism and appropriate prayers for various situations.

Although there is clearly a Christian bias, much of the advice given is useful to any type of investigator. The emphasis on careful records, confidentiality, and ensuring that whatever is done is client-centred will be important whatever the investigator’s background. Decentring exorcism is especially helpful, showing that it should not be the method of first choice when say a simple blessing or counselling might be more appropriate. On the other hand the Christian investigator’s religious affiliation is constantly reiterated. Somebody faced with something unexplainable might well turn to the church in the absence of information on other bodies who might help. If people have been playing with ouija boards or tarot cards and the situation has got out of control, it might not be helpful to be asked to make a renunciation and turn to Christ. The same is true of the victims of cult manipulation. They might be more in need of dispassionate help than to be the subject of somebody else’s agenda.

The trouble is that Christians tend to specify what is unacceptable in a liberal (or should that be illiberal) manner. They conflate mediumship, witchcraft, Satanism and general New Age activities, some of which are harmless, others which are not. This dumping of disparate religious and alternative lifestyle activities into one catch-all can make an activity seem a problem when it isn’t, except to those who want to see it as such. In particular the authors subscribe to the Satanist conspiracy, seen most clearly in Satanic Child Abuse hysteria, for which evidence is flimsy.

Often those suffering from seemingly paranormal problems are comforted by the thought of clerical involvement, even if they are not practising Christians. For that reason, psychical researchers, whatever their own opinions, should welcome the help of the Church. But it must be borne in mind that cases have to be handled sensitively, and the presence of a dogmatic cleric could cause more problems than the original situation. This book is to be welcomed because it will help those within the Church to understand the issues involved. Non-Christian researchers too will find much of interest here, and will be able to discount the religious elements as their attitudes incline them.

From the Archives (No. 1)

This is the first in an occasional series in which we look at older cases of interest to readers in East Anglia. Many investigations are written up in specialist journals and then never heard of again. We thought it would be worth disinterring some of these, although as the following suggests, there could be a good reason for the neglect of some of these historical records.

Report on a Haunted House at Norwich: November 22nd, 1884. Journal of The Society for Psychical Research (Vol. 1, March 1885, pp313-317).

George Albert Smith (1864-1959) is today best known as a pioneer filmmaker, but before that he was an active member of the SPR in its early years, being a secretary to Edmund Gurney and assisting in telepathy experiments. At the end of 1884 he was dispatched to Norwich to investigate an alleged haunting there.

Briefly, Mr and Mrs X had returned from their honeymoon in September 1883 and taken possession of a semi-detached house. Some time later they began to hear strange noises though they could not say how long it had taken them to decide that they were unusual. When they were in their bedroom they would hear sounds of tramping emanating from the sitting room, a handle downstairs being tried and footsteps ascending the stairs.

As no cause could be found and the sounds continued, they decided that they were being haunted. This theory seemed to be confirmed when the husband saw an apparition while he was lying awake one night, his wife being asleep. At the first stroke of midnight by a city clock, an elderly gentleman appeared with a swishing sound at the end of the bed. He was aged about sixty and Mr X could see his features and dress clearly. He stood motionless, staring at Mr X, who stared back. On the final stroke the gent appeared to raise his arms and sink through the floor. Mr X did not mention this to his wife but she and the neighbours noticed a change in his behaviour. The sounds continued, and were heard by the servant too, although she could not be sure which were of supernatural origin and which were produced by the bronchial neighbour.

Four months after Mr X saw his apparition, Mrs X was in the sitting room at about 8.30pm with the servant and a little girl who had taken tea with her. Suddenly they all heard gasping, sighing and groaning sounds coming from an empty chair in the room. They were greatly affected, Mrs X getting a cramp, the little girl becoming ill in an unspecified manner, and the servant getting hysterical. On quitting the room they heard raps on the wall of the staircase. They left the house and took refuge with a friend. Mr X was out at work at the time, and got back to find the house closed up. He found out where his wife was and with difficulty persuaded her to go back home for the night. Walking past the spare bedroom, Mr X heard a woman whispering “Hark! The master of the house has returned; we must depart.” This was followed by footsteps then sobs and wails. They went to bed, although Mrs X had to get drunk to do so. As a result of these experiences the Xs quit the house the next day, although on three occasions Mr X and a few friends had watched it at night.

When Smith went to investigate the house had been empty for two months. He first questioned Mr X, Mrs X and the servant separately and found that their accounts tallied. This he judged to be caused by the story being discussed among themselves to such an extent that all discrepancies had been smoothed out and the narrative made more dramatic. As the phenomena had mostly occurred between 10 o’clock and midnight, Smith and Mr X visited the house between those hours. Smith was first struck by the smallness of the house and the proximity to the road. Any noises from outside could be heard plainly within, including those from next door. Other creaking sounds were of the sort to be heard if listened for in any house. The apparition he decided was probably a dream image, the sounds heard by Mrs X, the servant and the little girl were most likely sounds from the road which they construed as coming from inside due to their already suggestible state and the sentence Mr X had heard was probably the old lady next door wheezing, the misinterpretation caused by his natural excitability being exacerbated after hearing his wife’s story.

In short, Smith found nothing that could not be accounted for with a naturalistic explanation in terms of the personalities of the protagonists and the physical properties of the house. After some remarks critical of Mrs X in particular, he mentions that new tenants were due on 24th November 1884. They were aware but scornful of the allegations, and Smith concludes that “the development of the matter may be safely left in their hands.” As far as I am aware no further reports were produced, so it would seem that Mr and Mrs X were suffering from overactive imaginations.

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 4

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 4 - Winter 1996/Spring 1997


Welcome to the fourth However Improbable. We’ve now completed a year’s worth of issues, and this seems to be a good place to take stock of what we have achieved and where we go now. We began the magazine as means of communication among a widely dispersed membership, experience having shown that meetings were difficult for people to attend. Unfortunately feedback has not been as great as we had hoped. This could mean that people are happy with what they get, and that no news is good news. Or it could mean that they find it not relevant, or boring, and bin it. Or that they enjoy it as far as it goes, but would like to see changes made. We would appreciate any comments you have, and even more some solid contributions. It is often said that this is the most haunted land in the world, so there must be some story associated with every reader’s locale. If you are doing research, please share it with the group.

APRG has had a fair amount of exposure locally, but we have now had coverage in a national magazine, Uri Geller’s Encounters, Issue Three (January 1997). In 1995 we investigated a church in Lincolnshire (see However Improbable 01, Spring 1996) and an article appeared in The Society for Psychical Research’s magazine The Psi Researcher. This article was picked up by a journalist working on Encounters and appeared in a wider discussion of the work of the SPR, complete with a photograph of the church. Some of the Psi Researcher material was quoted without an acknowledgement of the source, and the conclusions were simplified somewhat, but it was nice to see us get credit for an investigation. Hopefully we will get other mentions in the media, so if readers do see us referred to, we would be grateful if they would let us know.

We still have some back issues of The Psi Researcher, price 40p each plus postage, and some facsimile copies of Harry Price’s Blue Book of instructions for investigators at Borley Rectory, at £1 each. Both are available from Andy Waters at the editorial address

The Enigma of Borley Rectory, Ivan Banks, Foulsham, Cippenham, Berkshire, 1996, £9.99.

Borley Rectory will be of interest to many of our members, not only because it is on our patch, but because though the house itself is long gone, the site and its stories still exert a fascination. Whether the rectory was “Britain’s most haunted house” is open to dispute, depending on one’s verdict on the evidence presented, but it is certainly fair to call it “Britain’s most famous allegedly true ghost case”, although that doesn’t have quite the same ring. It is a saga with the characteristics of a detective novel, and Ivan Banks has shown himself to be a thorough investigator of the facts, if more uncertain in his interpretation of them.

This is a book of two halves. In the first, Banks is a painstaking investigator, giving a physical description, complete with photographs, diagrams and elevations, so detailed that you can visualise the building clearly. The history of the house and its residents is also supplied in fine detail, although the structure is somewhat fractured by concentrating on the house and phenomena up to 1945 and then going back to discuss the various incumbents, beginning again at 1863.

The second part of the book is much more speculative, with a reliance on planchette session conducted in the 1920s and ‘30s, and a very long discussion of possible identities for the ghost nun which seems to have wandered in from a different book. The effort to pin down the story of a figure seen clinging to the window sill of the first floor Blue Room involves consideration of a story that didn’t even interest Harry Price, and ignores the fact that to cling to the sill would mean lying on top of the veranda canopy, hardly the most effective way to commit suicide.

This approach, with its long chains of hypotheses, reaches a nadir in unsupported speculation that Henry Bull fathered several illegitimate children, was involved in the murky death of a maid, Kate Boreham, whom he had made pregnant, and died of syphilis. A convoluted house of cards based on possible scenarios is then used to assert that “the death of Kate Boreham ... was the root of some of the psychic disturbances at Borley Rectory.”

It must be said in fairness that Banks is not always ready to plump for a paranormal explanation, deciding, for example, that the fire was probably arson committed for the insurance money. The assessment of Harry Price too is reasonable. Price must feature heavily in any account of Borley, and despite Banks’s valiant attempt to uncouple the history of the house from his personality, one’s final opinion on the events there will probably be coloured by the attitude held about his role in promoting the story, and whether he faked phenomena or not. Banks is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, but criticises him for the deficiencies of the investigation. This is a balanced view with which I am inclined to concur. The assertion that Price would have been physically incapable of trickery due to the severity of his heart condition (which carried him off in 1948) is less convincing.

On the whole though, Banks is sure that paranormal factors have been at work at Borley, to the extent that even the book’s editor seems to have felt uncomfortable, saying that “To some, the author’s ideas and his spiritual interpretations may not easily be acceptable” before going on to congratulate him for “sheer tenacity, persistence and dedication”. Tom Perrott, Chairman of the Ghost Club, who contributed the foreword, doesn’t seem to be persuaded either, and most readers will doubtless be of the same mind.

There are a few deficiencies in this book which can easily be rectified in a new edition, which I am sure interest will warrant. The proof-reading standard could be higher, and it seems wilful to have put the photograph of the famous ‘flying brick’ on page 123 and the enlargement of the brick itself on page 143. Why on earth were they not put side by side? The book would have been even better with a more comprehensive bibliography. Banks does say that so much has been published that to do it justice would take another book the same size as this one, but one page looks extremely paltry. Those who want to examine the literature in greater depth should try to access Vincent O’Neil (Marianne Foyster’s adopted son) World Wide Web site on the Internet (, which has a massive bibliography of books, magazine articles, even letters and film scripts.

Ivan Banks should be congratulated for the depth of his historical research, but the book needs to be read with care, and a sense of perspective maintained when grappling with the many arguments for which evidence is thin. The Enigma of Borley Rectory is not going to become the standard work which Banks probably hoped it would, but it will have to figure large in any subsequent research.

Black Dogs (again)

Black Dogs have been in the news once more. The Eastern Daily Press has been carrying a debate on the proposal by a local sculptor that Bungay should have a Black Dog statue in the town as a way to commemorate the Millennium. Opposition has come in the form of the vicar, who says that while he has no objection to the legend itself, he is against the idea of a statue on the grounds that the beast represents the Devil. “The town might as well put up a statue to someone with a trident, a forked tail and horns on his head” he was reported to have said, rather melodramatically. Instead he suggests that the money should be spent on either a pageant or an Easter Passion Play. Naturally the reverend has generated much controversy, given that the Black Dog motif is inextricably linked with the town, and that he seems to be implicitly insulting all those connected both to the town’s football club, The Black Dogs, and to the annual Black Dog Marathon. This is one fight with the forces of darkness (of the dog variety) he may lose.

The Society for Psychical Research

The Society for Psychical Research has recently announced a new category of membership, for members of local groups which are recognised by the SPR. It is possible to obtain the status of Associate Member for £25 p.a., reduced from £35, with the senior rate reduced from £23 to £18. Normally, at least three people from a group would need to apply, presumably to prevent an individual forming a Mickey Mouse group with a membership of one. There is an upper limit of 20 members, which probably wouldn’t present us with a problem, and only operates for two years, after which the standard rate would be applicable. If anyone would like to take advantage of this offer, please contact me as applications need to be countersigned.

Remote Viewing Competition

In the past couple of issues we have run a caption competition. We’ve got another one this time, but in addition we are going to have a go at a remote viewing (i.e. clairvoyance) experiment. This simply means that at a given time on a particular day, I shall go to a randomly determined location and stay for a period, doing a specific act while there. Your job, gentle reader, is to attempt to determine where I am, supplying as many details, in the form of notes and/or pictures, as possible. You may get the location with no trouble - “You are bungee jumping off the Telecom Tower”, for example, but possibly you will have a series of notes which do not seem to make sense as they stand. Don’t worry, because they will be judged by a panel, and the person who is closest overall will win a [whatever we’re giving away].

A word of warning. There may be a temptation to write as much as possible on the assumption that some of the elements will be hits by chance, though I’m sure none of our members would be so cynical. But it would do no good, because if the description is randomly composed, the amount of noise will increase too, and we will be looking at this as well as possible signals among it.

The day chosen for the experiment is Sunday 9th February, at 12.00 noon. I shall be in a randomly chosen, well within reason, location for at least thirty minutes.

Send your efforts to me at 74 Hall Lane, West Winch, Norfolk, PE33 OQF, by 22nd February and we will announce the winner in our next issue.

Haunted Ely, by Vivienne Doughty and Margaret Haynes, S.B. Publications, Seaford, East Sussex, 1996, £4.50.

This is naturally a book of potential interest to APRG members, as it covers one of the most historic sites in East Anglia. The authors are ex-teachers and Blue Guides in the city, one conducting a regular ghost tour, so they write with considerable knowledge of historic Ely, though not as psychical researchers.

It is short (56 pages), and heavily illustrated, but still the book packs in a great deal of information. Starting with our old friend Black Shuck, subsequent chapters cover the usual fayre of haunting monks, nuns and historical figures, including Oliver Cromwell and Nell Gwynne, as well as more humble ghosts.

The information is a combination of public domain material and statements given by local witnesses. As is typical in this kind of publication, no effort is made to conduct extensive research into their stories, which limits its usefulness for serious students of the paranormal. And there is a lot of historical background, albeit fascinating, in an attempt to fill out what are in some cases somewhat thin stories. However, used as a tour guide, and even a source of places which might merit further investigation, this type of small-scale effort is handy. If you are visiting Ely, and want to know more than just the standard history of the place, this is very good, and well priced, example of the genre.

In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, Susan Blackmore, Ph.D., Prometheus, Amherst, New York, 1996, £14.50. (Prometheus books are available in the UK from 10 Crescent View, Loughton, Essex IG10 4PZ.)

“In Search of the Light” sounds like the titles of one of Betty Shine’s books, but this is the revised autobiography, first published in 1986, of one of the most interesting figures in contemporary parapsychology.

Critics of psychical research are often charged with sitting in armchairs and failing to examine the evidence thoroughly. That charge cannot be levelled at Sue Blackmore. She has crammed more experiments into her career so far than many in the field. Her conclusions about psi phenomena, although not welcome to her critics, are based on rigorous research into just about every area of the subject.

That is what makes it unfair when her name is used as shorthand, often linked to James Randi’s, for a type of narrow-minded bigot who automatically declares the paranormal to be impossible (see a typical issue of Psychic News’s letters page, for example). They do exist, but she is not one of them, having put in more effort to research the issues than the vast majority of her critics. And as this book shows, the conclusion that there is nothing in it was reached only after much pain and (pun intended) soul-searching.

This type of scientific autobiography is especially interesting because the layperson does not normally see what lies behind the ordinary journal article, the effort, thought and sometimes misery which lie behind the dry prose. That said, some of the personal material reads rather awkwardly (the sentence describing living with Adam Hart-Davis, “with whom I write books, make television programs, and love” really ought to be dropped in the next edition). On the whole though it is very readable, with lots of invented dialogue, and has the added bonus of introducing a great deal of the parapsychological debate in a friendly and non-technical manner. As a portrait of an intellectual journey and a behind-the-scenes look at some of the personalities and the research it is extremely entertaining.

The section covering the last ten years is raced through in less than thirty pages, which is a pity, because that is the period in which she has come to national prominence. On the other hand, it only continues a trend which was clearly marked out before. In her struggle to find some paranormal component to human experience, nothing has changed to alter her attitude that it is unlikely to exist, although she hopes that she is wrong. The final section is valuable for a discussion of the famous expedition to Cambridge, the background to which she could only allude to in the first edition.

During a ‘Start the Week’ discussion on Radio 4 last year, she said that she was interested in conducting research into concepts developed by Richard Dawkins, another name to provoke frothing by Psychic News readers, but the shift clearly signals a move away from parapsychology. After so many years of obtaining results at chance levels it is understandable that she should want a change, but the field will be the poorer for her absence. It also means that we might not get a further instalment of her autobiography in 2006, as In Search of the Light gets its structure from her journey of exploration of the paranormal.

Footnote: On the coincidences front, one relating to Sue Blackmore came my way recently. On 13th January 1997, BBC2 showed a programme presented by Adam Hart-Davis (with whom Dr Blackmore writes books etc.). That was followed by University Challenge. The teams were The University of the West of England, where Sue Blackmore is a senior lecturer, and the University of Surrey, which is where she did her Ph.D. I wonder which team she rooted for.

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 3

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 3 - Autumn/Winter 1996

James Randi. The Supernatural A-Z: The Truth and the Lies, Headline, London, 1995, £19.99.

James Randi is well known as a sceptic and scourge of the paranormalists. It might therefore be with some trepidation that one would open a book by him purporting to cover the entire field of the ‘Supernatural’. One’s fears would be justified. This is a fat book, covering six hundred and sixty-six topics (cute) ranging in length from a few lines to several pages, but it certainly is not an encyclopaedia, and the subtitle gives away the real intention. Encyclopaedias are supposed to be even handed, whereas Randi is sure which is the truth and which are the lies. Such dogmatism seems more appropriate to a fundamentalist than someone who would have us believe that he is seeking knowledge.

As might be expected, Randi’s book is partial in its coverage, relying heavily on his previous work, and utilises the usual sceptical trick of mixing in all aspects of the allegedly paranormal, whether they be New Age, occult, pseudo-scientific or just plain barking, and making anything remotely scientific seem guilty by association. He lumps all his opponents together as believers, not acknowledging that many of them might prefer to examine the field subject by subject, assigning a level of probability to a particular phenomenon under consideration. They might even agree with many of his verdicts.

Unfortunately his emphasis on gullibility, fraud and delusion consigns all non-sceptics to the dustbin of belief, whatever their motives and however rigorous their examination of the evidence. Even qualified praise can seem mealy-mouthed, as when he says that “Ganzfeld techniques continue to hold promise for parapsychology”. Given the degree of irony throughout the book, and his stated opinion of parapsychology, this verdict seems to be damning with very faint praise indeed.

Some of the entries are selective, and the text is riddled with minor errors. An example of the former is the praise heaped on Sue Blackmore as a sceptic, to the extent that it mentions her affiliation to CSICOP, the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, but fails to record her membership of The Society for Psychical Research, of which until relatively recently she was a Council member. Geller and spoon bending keep cropping up like a tic, reflecting his and Randi’s once litigious relationship. East Anglian readers might be surprised to learn that since the destruction of Borley Rectory, paranormal events are still experienced at nearby “Borley Abbey.” Wiccans will be furious to read that the athame is used “to trace out the magic circle for invoking demons”. One error which could be intentional is the entry for bilocation, the ability to be in two places at once, which is printed twice.

The inadequacy of many of the entries gives this book the feel of a pot-boiler. I would not recommend that anybody buy it at full price, but if it is found remaindered, second-hand, or comes out in paperback, it would be worth acquiring to keep in the bathroom for the frequent amusement, and occasional edification, that it provides.

Black Dog Update

Readers of the last issue of However Improbable may recall that I suggested that supernaturally-derived Black Dogs no longer roam the countryside in the quantities that they were supposed once to have done. Well, I may have been premature in writing them off, because more recently I came across a couple of articles featuring encounters with these big beasts, one very close to home. It seems that they are still on people’s minds, even if as intangible as ever.

The first was in Eva magazine (24th April 1996). Paul Becker of Norwich had a dream in which he was walking through Ipswich town centre (it already sounds like a nightmare to me) when he was terrified by a “huge black dog with red eyes” which leaped on him, its face so close that he could feel its hot breath. Fortunately for Paul it promptly vanished when he woke up, otherwise it might have been a bit of a poser for the coroner. Paul will not be persuaded that he was having a dream, insisting that the dog was real. Further evidence to back him up was provided by his brother Bob two years later. He was telling Bob about the experience, when Bob stopped him, wrote something down, and asked Paul to continue with the story. When Paul had finished, Bob showed him what he had written: It was a description of the very same experience which had happened to a friend of Bob’s! Which supplies the answer to the riddle, “When is a friend-of -a-friend not a friend-of-a-friend?” Answer: “When he’s a pal of your brother’s”.

I also came across an article devoted to black dogs by Mark Chorvinsky in the December 1993 issue of Fate magazine. He acknowledges that black dogs have hitherto been regarded as a British phenomenon, and he discusses the Welsh corpse hound and the Moddey Dhoo of the Isle of Man, but he also looks at black dogs further afield. These include dogs in Polynesia, particularly Hawaii. He mentions a case where huge paw prints had been seen on an atoll, although no dogs had lived on it for centuries.

He also describes a pair of encounters in his home state of Maryland, one in which a gambler reformed after meeting a dog on his way home one night. The other is interesting because, although not a black dog in the sense of the large fierce beasts we have so far been considering, it features either a strange dog inside a house (which is unusual) when the occupant was fully awake, or it parallels Paul Becker’s experience - the details provided by Chorvinsky are tantalisingly unclear. One William Sterling, aged 77, a church official and allegedly a credible witness, was driving his buggy to see his girlfriend (presumably this was not a recent experience) when he met a “little dog”, which was pacing the buggy, running along between the wheels. To get rid of it he had to whip his horse up to outrun it, and when he arrived home it was not present. There is a slight discrepancy here because he was supposed to be going to see his girlfriend, but it does not alter the substance of the story.

On getting ready for bed, he saw the same dog, with red eyes and tongue, sitting at the top of the stairs. Its supernatural origin was made clear when he “picked up a stool right by his bed and threw it at the dog. The dog disappeared.” Getting ready for bed and seeing it at the top of the stairs implies somebody up and about, but if he picked up a stool by the bed, it suggests he was in it, and therefore perhaps had been asleep. That might mean that he had experienced sleep paralysis, which can involve realistic hallucinations (including the sense of something on one’s chest, not unlike Mr Becker’s encounter). If so, it is very interesting that both involved a dog rather than the more usual old hag or vague presence.

Hans Eysenck and Carl Sargent. Are You Psychic?: Tests and Games to Measure your Powers. Prion, London, 1996, £5.99.

In the last issue of However Improbable, I reviewed Test Your Psychic Powers, by Sue Blackmore and Adam Hart-Davis. Eysenck and Sargent’s book complements it well. TYPP covers more ground, and is concerned to get people think critically and develop their own experiments, but AYP? is more rigorous in the experiments it does describe, and provides fuller statistical tools to enable results to be assessed.

Starting with a short section on what psi is, Eysenck and Sargent go on to discuss the characteristics of a ‘psi star’, and provide several personality questionnaires which might correlate with psychic ability, before launching into the principles of testing people. Exercises are included to try to enhance psi processes, including techniques for relaxation and to enhance creativity.

Tests are graded in terms of difficulty. The easier ones can be used as warm-up exercises, to allow familiarity with the testing situation to develop, or can be used in their own right. The results of the more stringent ones can be viewed with increased confidence. Most of the experiments described do not require specialised equipment, not even Zener cards. Instead packs of ordinary playing cards, dice and magazine pictures or postcards can be used, so that testing is made as easy as possible on a low budget. The book concludes with a series of tests which can be posted to Sargent for a large-scale experiment the authors are conducting.

The few criticisms are minor. This is essentially a reprint of a book first published in the early ‘80s, and some of the references are dated. For example Honorton, mentioned in connection with the Ganzfeld as still being at Princeton, moved to Edinburgh to continue his research at the Koestler Chair until his death in 1992. The use of video clips in the Ganzfeld, which Honorton and his colleagues found gave better results than photographs is not mentioned. Eysenck and Sargent hope that Inglis will publish a successor to Natural and Supernatural, his history of psychical research up to 1914; Inglis published Science and Parascience, bringing the story up to 1939, as long ago as 1984. Targ and Puthoff’s book Mind-Reach is endorsed, although problems have been found in the protocols since its publication. Other minor quibbles are that the authors are perhaps over-impressed by the Victorian medium D.D. Home, some of the pages to which cross-references are made are wrong, presumably as a result of the new edition, and J.B. Rhine did not develop Zener cards (that honour goes to Dr Zener, although the cards were to be used in Rhine’s laboratory). These points do not detract from the value of the book.

AYP? is very reasonably priced, and will provide the basic techniques necessary to test with confidence. The statistical tables and formulae are especially useful. They are accessible to those with no specialised knowledge in this area, and give the experimenter greater precision in analysing their results than similar DIY books. With the usual caveat that those with no knowledge in science or experimentation might find that they get false positive results due to laxities in the set-up, I would recommend this book wholeheartedly.


This summer I went with my family on holiday to northern England. Just before we left, my nine-year old daughter learned from her best friend, who lives in our village, that she was going to Scotland to see her grandmother at about the same time.

During a visit to Carlisle, we went into the railway station to see how far we would have to go down the line to cross the Ribblehead Viaduct. While standing at the enquiry point, I became aware that my daughter was talking to another little girl. It was her best friend, with mother and grandmother in tow. The chances of bumping into them so far away from home seemed remote, and we were all somewhat astonished.

Later that week we drove to Dumfries for the day. On our return home from our holiday, the first thing I did was retrieve the goldfish from our next door neighbour. She asked where we had been, and when I mentioned Dumfries she looked surprised and said that she and her husband were going there on holiday the following morning.

The only experience I have had similar to the one in Carlisle was when I was a college student and hitch-hiked to Greece with a friend. We were in Yugoslavia and had been dropped off away from the best route, and were walking to rejoin it. Suddenly we saw a couple standing by the side of the road. Approaching, we found that they were people we knew from our college. They too were hitching to Greece, and had been dropped off just hundreds of yards from us. Again, the chances of meeting them, or indeed anybody that either of us knew, and not even on the main Zagreb-Belgrade road, seemed vanishingly slim.

Given that it was unlikely that any of these episodes had a paranormal component, the inference is that one must be cautious in attributing such an explanation to an occurrence. Very unlikely events can occur just by chance, and however remarkable they seem, they have no significance. Investigators should be careful not to read more into a phenomenon than the situation warrants merely because it is unusual.

If everybody we know is taken into account, and the conditions of meeting are not specified in advance, there is a good chance that at some point we will meet one of them somewhere. If, as it is said, one could stand at Piccadilly Circus and eventually see everybody one knows, why should it be so surprising to meet one of them at Carlisle, or on a road in southern Europe?

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 2

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 2 - Spring/Summer 1996

Black Dogs

Stories of mysterious black dogs are found in many parts of Britain, as well as abroad, but the main concentration is in East Anglia. The black dog has a variety of names, such as Barghest in Yorkshire, Trash in Lancashire and Padfoot in Staffordshire. In Suffolk it is known as Gallytrot, but the best known of all is undoubtedly Norfolk’s Black Shuck.

The black dog has a venerable history. Commentators have tried to find parallels with Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Norse mythology, and the first English account, in the context of a Wild Hunt at Peterborough, appeared in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in 1127. The category ‘Black Dog’ does not include the ghosts of pets, although one black dog at least is thought to be the ghost of a dog which drowned. It is conceivable that the more conventional types which have been encountered were the ghosts of pets, but others hint at something much more sinister.

Black Dogs are seen in rural, isolated areas, particularly lanes with hedges. They have also favoured churchyards, gallows, cross-roads, and boundaries such as field borders and rivers. It has been suggested that they display a preference for locations near water, although in East Anglia at least it would not be hard to correlate sightings with the presence of water.

The bulk of accounts tend to have a consistent core. Someone out walking suddenly finds that a black dog has tagged along. The animal does not seem unusual until it perhaps suddenly vanishes, or the person’s hand goes through when he or she reaches to stroke it. Quite often they will have no prior knowledge of the subject, and will only realise what has happened afterwards, when told that it is a black dog area. The dog usually but not always appears very close to single eyewitnesses, as if for them alone. There are few records of more than one person being present which inevitably reduces their credibility. The dog is usually black, but there are variations. It is nearly always large and shaggy, sometimes as big as a calf or small pony. Rarely it is lithe and cat-like, providing a link with ‘alien big cats’, out of place felines which also lead a ghost-like existence, seen but rarely captured.

One does wonder when reading that somebody’s hand went through the dog when reaching out to touch it, because it would seem to be a brave act to attempt to pat such a large unknown beast, however amiable it appeared. Yet oddly fear does not seem to be the typical reaction to meeting one of these animals. Perhaps the beasts exercise a mesmeric effect, because people often seem strangely unquestioning, even though encounters occur in rural areas in which one would expect a resident to know the local dogs, and to wonder at the sudden appearance of a new, and especially such a distinctive, animal.

Sometimes there are hints that the animal might have a supernatural origin, such as fiery eyes, perhaps as big as saucers, two heads, or more startling still, no head at all. Occasionally headlessness and glowing eyes are somehow combined. Other bizarre attributes include one eye in the middle of its forehead, a human face, talking, walking on its hind legs, walking backwards, or coming out of the sky. There have even been reports of invisible dogs with hot breath, or clanking a chain. The last detail is interesting as it hints at an equally supernatural master. The very name Shuck derives from the Saxon “soucca”, meaning demon, and the Devil was often said to visit witches as a black dog.

The most famous black dog story concerns the churches at Blythburgh and Bungay, in Suffolk. The townsfolk at the former were in church on Sunday 4th August 1577 during a ferocious thunderstorm when a black dog raced in and killed three people and burned another before leaving, but not before deeply gouging the north door, where his claw marks can still be seen. The church’s spire fell down in the storm, an event attributed to the hellish beast. The same morning, a black dog was seen running down the nave at St. Mary, Bungay, seven miles away, during the service there. It broke the necks of two parishioners at prayer and attacked a third, who survived. There was no doubt in the minds of the congregations that they had been subject to Satanic attack.

Another category features the shape-shifting dogs which can appear as a goat, calf or horse in Norfolk, in Suffolk a human (a black dog was said to become “an Italian stranger” at Lowestoft), and various other animals around the country. All are sinister in intent. The Lowestoft case featured the victim suffering lacerations to the neck, suggesting that there might be a vampire connection. There are also cyclic black dogs which appear at regular times in a particular locality.
Black Dogs are sometimes considered to be an omen of death or of a crime, but on the whole, like many ghosts, they usually appear and disappear for no apparent reason. Sometimes, though, they seem to have a definite purpose. Elliott O’Donnell recounted in his book Ghosts Helpful and Harmful the story of his aunt who found herself accompanied on a walk by an ordinary-seeming black dog. She did not pay it much attention until she found herself threatened by two ruffians who jumped out of a hedge. When they saw the dog, however, they fled. Taking the dog home, the aunt shut it in a room while she fetched it food and water, but not before a collie who saw it lay down and whined in terror. Upon her return to the room she found it gone, although there was no way out. She then realised that it must have been a ghost, and considered it sent by the Divine Power to protect her from the villains.

So do Black Dogs still roam the countryside? Past folklorists who collected these stories vouched for the honesty of their informants, although acknowledging that what they had to tell might have been embroidered. More recent reports are harder to come by, and have the characteristics of urban legends, or FOAF (friend of a friend) tales. You might encounter people who say that black dogs exist today, but finding anybody who has seen one personally is much harder. Several years ago I advertised in The Norfolk Journal for stories of black dog encounters, but had no response. There are two possible explanations (other than witnesses not reading the magazine): Black dogs no longer wander our land in an age of secularisation and urbanisation; alternatively, a person coming across one might not survive the meeting!

Test Your Psychic Powers: Find Out the Truth for Yourself, by Susan Blackmore and Adam Hart-Davis. Thorsons, London, 1995. £5.99.

You think you’ve got a psychic ability, to see into the future or at a distance, move objects, or communicate telepathically, and you want to confirm it. What do you do? You could contact one of the national psychical research organisations and ask to be examined, but that can be difficult to arrange and might involve being tested in inhibiting circumstances. Alternatively you could try to do it yourself, perhaps with some sympathetic friends. But you soon find that it is more difficult than you first thought. To begin with you have to work out a suitable procedure to assess your ability fairly. Then you have to conduct it properly, so that data can be analysed and valid conclusions drawn. The whole thing has to be done in such a way that as far as possible counter-explanations can be excluded, whether the test is for your own satisfaction or whether the results are to be used to convince other, perhaps sceptical, individuals.

Susan Blackmore and Adam Hart-Davis have compiled a book that aims to help people who think that they have psychic abilities to scrutinise them. Chapters cover both traditional psychical research areas - telepathy, dreams, dowsing, precognition, psychokinesis and the ouija board - and more New Age interests - crystals, using a pendulum, palmistry and astrology. Each section is fairly short, but with enough information to assist the novice experimenter to get started. More importantly, the authors are concerned to try to inculcate habits of critical thinking. They typically describe a simple experimental set-up, then ask the reader to raise objections to it in order to make the controls more rigorous. The adoption of this questioning habit, rather than merely accepting a particular design (and by implication the unsupported claims of others) without question, is perhaps the most important lesson of the book.

Using the suggestions will undoubtedly strengthen the quality of research for those who do not have a scientific background, and could enable some people who feel that they are psychic to examine other possible explanations. Whether these types of test, particularly those which rely on statistics for analysis, can determine whether a person possesses psychic powers is open to question. However rigorous the experiment, there are always other possible explanations. If accomplished parapsychologists, with years of experience, regularly have their work ripped apart by sceptics, what chance does the amateur at home have?

It might be argued that if all that is required is personal satisfaction that one possesses the talent in question, elaborate precautions are not necessary. But if the target used in an experiment is biased in some way, or information is inadvertently passed which enables a correct choice to be made non-paranormally, then not only are the results useless, but they could lead to the erroneous conclusion that something significant is happening, resulting in psychic claimants believing that they really do possess their claimed powers when they do not. In this sense there is an ethical problem raised in testing others which Blackmore and Hart-Davis do not tackle. There is a real case that to do rigorous research, there is no substitute for a science degree.

Another ethical issue is raised by the chapter on the ouija board. This is a contentious subject, particularly among sections of the Christian Church and even Spiritualists, and it is possible that some people trying the ouija or planchette will suffer distress, either at the time or retrospectively. It was worth including material on it because many use it as an uncontrolled parlour game and the chapter will help them to take it more seriously. Perhaps no caveats were provided in case dire warnings about possible consequences were self-fulfilling, producing an hysterical atmosphere which could itself cause psychological problems.

Each chapter contains alternative explanations for the particular topic under consideration. These hint that possibly there is no foundation to the claim that a psychic process is at work, but this is never made explicit. Whatever the authors’ private opinions, they are not dogmatic but are concerned to promote enquiry. It does seem likely, though, that more people using the book will find that the psychic ability they thought they had disappears under scientific scrutiny than are able to confirm that they are indeed as psychic as they thought. Paranormal research is hard enough without self-delusion, so from that point of view the book is to be applauded.

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 1

However Improbable Vol 1 Issue 1 - Spring 1996

Editorial: Issue One

Welcome to the first issue of the Anglia Paranormal Research Group’s newsletter. We hope you enjoy it and subsequent issues. The intention is that it will be quarterly, assuming sufficient material.

Any feedback would be welcomed, either privately or for publication. We aim to make the newsletter a lively forum for the dissemination of ideas and information, but to achieve that we need as many people as possible to become involved. As the group does not hold any corporate views there isn’t a ‘party line’ to toe, so no need to feel that a particular opinion would be unacceptable. If you have something to say, put it forward. Suitable illustrations would also be appreciated.

We might also consider taking paid advertising in future, should the opportunity arise, as a way of raising funds. Let us know what you think.

The crucial thing about the group is that it has to involve a two-way process. Members should keep an eye out for cases which arise in their localities. The local newspaper, the radio, even gossip in the post office, might bring possible cases to light. Members should think of themselves as field officers, gathering material that the group as a whole can then investigate. Good cases are rare, which means that we must not miss any opportunities.

The newsletter, as well as being a means of keeping members informed, is also designed to be of use in publicising the group. Ask if your local library would consider taking a copy. The more we get our name known the greater will be the chances of both increasing our membership and hearing about the really juicy cases. It’s up to you!

The Psi Researcher: Back issues

The Society for Psychical Research publishes a magazine for its members called The Psi Researcher. We have been lucky enough to come into possession of a quantify of back issues (not a complete run), and these will be sold to swell APRG coffers. Copies of 15 issues are in stock, dated between October 1991 and November 1995, but quantities of each vary wildly, from 2 to 37. So if you want all those available you’ll have to hurry. A couple of the earliest issues have a little staining on the staples but the rest are in pristine condition. We are charging 50p each plus postage, a massive bargain for hours of pleasure. Let me know if you are interested. Oh, and I have this car...

Survival Pact Scheme

About eight years ago, David Christie-Murray, a well-known author of books on speaking in tongues and reincarnation, launched a Survival Pact Register. It would contain details of pairs who undertook that when one died, s/he would attempt immediately to communicate to the survivor. If the survivor felt that such communication had occurred, a report would be sent to David, acting as Registrar, before attempting to ascertain whether the other had indeed died.

It can be seen that partners would have to be carefully chosen, because they should not be so close that the survivor would be immediately informed of the death of the other (family members, for example) nor yet so distant that the survivor might not hear that the other had died. The pair should be close enough to enable an empathetic bond to develop, as this would hopefully enhance the chances for post-mortem communication to occur.

Member of APRG might in due course be able to fulfil these conditions. We expect that a bond will develop through conducting investigations, but obviously we would not expect relationships to be as close as with those with whom one has everyday dealings. If this state occurs, pairs could register with David. There is no effort involved, and hopefully the scheme would not be tested for many years, but it could be useful in the long term. There are many cases of crisis apparitions on record, but the evidence is usually supplied to researchers after the person experiencing it has discovered that a death has occurred. A case would be stronger if it could be established that the experience had happened before the news was received, and the Register is an ideal way of putting the subject on a more scientific footing.

A few personal details are required for registration: Name, address, age and sex for each partner; their relationship; and “personal belief or disbelief in human survival of death”, to see if there is a sheep/goat effect. If one person receives what is felt to be some form of communication, s/he should immediately inform a third party, and both should write down the details, as fully as possible. These should be sent independently to the Registrar, without any comparison. Then, and not before, should the partner ascertain whether the communication is valid. The Registrar should be informed of the outcome not less than one day later than that on which the reports were sent, even if it transpires that the partner is still alive. A record of failures will enable statistics to be compiled, and are thus important in their own right.

If individuals would like to become involved, either using another APRG member as a partner, or indeed somebody outside the group if they fulfil the criteria, they can get in touch with David at Imber Court Cottage, Orchard Lane, East Mollies, Surrey KT8 0BN (enclosing a SAE).

A simple experiment

From time to time, people write to the newspapers to ask if pyramids keep razors blades sharp or food fresh. There seems to be no reason why they should have these properties, but recent correspondents in that highly scientific organ The Daily Mail have been enthusing about the effect of pyramid power on razor blades. This would be a simple proposition to test, and might make an interesting experiment for members to try at home.

A simple pyramid can be constructed out of cardboard (I’ve seen nothing comparing the effectiveness of D-I-Y compared to proprietary structures, so we can leave that factor aside for the present). The size should not be too crucial, although best results might be obtained by placing the blade in the centre, say balanced on a matchbox. Rather than suggest a standard size, it might be better if people construct one to their own design, keeping a careful record of what they did. Then, should we get positive results with a particular type, we could attempt to replicate it.

Other considerations need to be taken into account. There are some variables which are difficult to control, such as beard growth (I am assuming that mainly male members would wish to participate, but females should not feel excluded if they wield a razor regularly) which could fluctuate in vigour due to say hormonal influences, but if shaving is done on a regular basis that should not be too much of a problem. Obviously the type of blade should not be changed during the experiment. A writer to the Mail suggested that pyramids worked on cheap blades, or even those shoddy disposables, so perhaps quicker results could be obtained by using these rather than a top of the range type.

As well as using a pyramid, a control blade - of the same brand - should be used to compare how long they last. It should also be used in the same way, so that if you decide to use a blade for one day and put it in the pyramid for two, or use it every day and store it in the pyramid the rest of the time, you should do the same with the control blade, except that it should be kept well away from the pyramid. Test and control blade use should perhaps be alternated, to minimise any seasonal variations (do beards grow faster in winter?) but they could be used consecutively if having more than one blade on the go is awkward. A record should be kept of the way in which the test was done and the number of times each blade was used. Everything except storage should be identical, and then if the pyramid-influenced blade lasts for significantly more shaves than the other, we can conclude that the pyramid probably did have an influence.

Of course the problem is in determining when a razor blade is finished. People will have different tolerances of bluntness, and apart from using an electron scanning microscope it is going to be difficult to make comparisons across individuals’ blades. But if a control blade is used self-reports should be fairly reliable, bearing in mind the power of self-deception which could lead a believer in pyramid power to give an unfairly generous score to the test blade. To put it on a more scientific footing, an assistant could mark the two blades, say with different colour Tipp-Ex so that the shaver would not know which was which.

Have a go at this, and send the results to me. It should be fun, and who knows, we may make that paradigm-shifting discovery which will put us up there with Newton and Einstein!

Competition corner

We have a paperback copy of Jim Schnabel’s entertaining book on crop circles, Round in Circles, to give away. In order to increase the number of people writing for this newsletter, it will be given to the person who, in the judgement of the editors, has written the best article in the first two issues (the editors themselves are naturally excluded from consideration).