Sunday, 14 February 2010

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.