Sunday, 14 February 2010

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.