Friday, 19 March 2010

Study Day Talk - Spontaneous Experiences: Vital Data or Pointless Anecdotes?

The SPR’s Study Day No 52, held on 28 April 2007, was on the subject of Spontaneous Cases: from Haunted Houses to Significant Incidents. The other three talks were on hauntings and poltergeists (the day was partly a tribute to the late Maurice Grosse), and I was left with ‘significant incidents’ in the final slot, which felt a bit of an anticlimax. Guy Lyon Playfair spoke on ‘The Importance of Field Research’, Barrie Colvin on ‘Bang, Bang! and Other Rapping Cases’, and Melvyn Willin on ‘Poltergeists’. The event was organised and chaired by Mary Rose Barrington. An account can be found in The Paranormal Review, Issue 46, April 2008, pp.26-29. Here is the complete text of my talk.

Study Day Talk - Spontaneous Experiences: Vital Data or Pointless Anecdotes?


Compared to my fellow speakers my remit from Mary Rose was, in keeping with our subject, couched in the negative – don’t cover things that go bump in the night, as they would be dealt with comprehensively in earlier talks. So I am going to focus on a subset of a subset, qualitative accounts of ostensible psi experiences produced by ordinary members of the public, either unprompted in or response to appeals, but not relating to apparitions or poltergeists. Bearing in mind what a huge subject this is, don’t expect me to cover it all in the time available. In particular there won’t be a chance to recount experiences, and those who are not familiar with the collections I mention are urged to look at as many as they can.

What I will briefly cover however, is what such an event is, and issues that researchers have highlighted when analysing and assessing them. I will look at spontaneous cases in comparison with experiments, how they have changed over the years, their investigation and investigators, and how the results may contribute to the expansion of our knowledge.

What are spontaneous events?

Before we go any further it would be as well to give an idea of what is a spontaneous event. Thalbourne defines spontaneous as ‘an adjective applied to any paranormal occurrence which takes place in the real-life situation – naturally and often unanticipated – as opposed to the experimentally elicited psi phenomena of the parapsychological laboratory.’ I think that nicely sums up the sorts of material we have heard already today. A fuller definition of the cases I am discussing this afternoon needs to include some notion of acquiring information or having an effect at a distance, or the transference of impressions or sensations that have a veridical basis, but, however conveyed, without using the senses or powers of inference, and excluding coincidence. They may or may not occur as a response to needs, or have an obvious meaning, or any meaning at all. They do not involve planned hypothesis testing by researchers, although the percipient may be so subjected later. They produce results that are more difficult to analyse statistically than those produced in a laboratory, and they often have a richness that the work carried out in laboratories lacks (cue protests from the experimentalists in the audience).

The way these cases are studied, when they are studied, is potentially manifold. Rhea White, who sadly died recently, identified twelve distinct approaches, the most commonly used of which are: individual case study, case collection, survey, cross-cultural, and clinical. The others she mentions have been used hardly at all, and White argues that approaches other than the tried and tested might reveal insights about the processes involved. An example she gives from a folkloric approach is the assertion by Arnold Mindell that he had found no modern parapsychological narrative whose core could not be found in a fairy tale. Make of that what you will.

Useful sources (accounts and analyses)

I want to mention briefly some useful sources of compilations and analyses. Notable ones are the two volumes of Phantasms of the Living from 1886, the substantial paper by Mrs Sidgwick which occupies 400 pages of volume 33 of Proceedings from October 1922, and more recently the work of Louisa Rhine, who collected almost fourteen thousand accounts sent in by the general public (these actually are the ones she retained; she discarded as many again as not having enough information, or as probably having a non-paranormal explanation). There are specific studies like Sir William Barrett’s Death-Bed Visions, Keith Hearn and Andrew MacKenzie on precognition and MacKenzie again on retrocognition. There are also numerous other cases scattered through the literature.

Source material is still being produced, and readers of the Paranormal Review are treated to an Experiences section, ably conducted by John Crabbe. Fortean Times, Fate and the newsstand magazines that come and go carry similar sections for readers to add their stories, though the remit of these publications is wider than that of the SPR. Fate has ‘True Mystic Experiences’ and ‘My Proof of Survival’ departments, and if an account is accepted for publication, the writer is required to send a notarized affidavit attesting that the incident described is true, though as this will often not be possible, this restriction may result in wheat being discarded with the chaff.

The internet has produced an even easier outlet for people to post their experiences than is provided by printed case collections. The Fortean Times website includes noticeboards that are an interesting forum for readers to post stories and comment on them. These are wider in scope than the categories that interest the SPR, for example there are boards for cryptozoology and conspiracy theories, but others, the ‘It happened to me’ and ‘Ghosts’ boards in particular, contain items that are relevant to us, and the best of these are fed into the print magazine. There is no verification process, and so in themselves the stories have little or no evidential value. However, it shows that the internet can act as a magnet to facilitate the acquisition of new cases and leads. With guidance, such as a proforma questionnaire of the sort used very often by investigators visiting haunted houses, the amount of usable information could be increased quite easily.

In addition to these case collections, there are a number of surveys, although these may also include examples of cases, such as the SPR’s Report on the Census of Hallucinations that takes up the bulk of volume ten of Proceedings, 1894. This received 17,000 responses, an effort I doubt if the SPR could complete today. It asked the following question: ‘Have you ever, when believing yourself to be completely awake, had a vivid impression of seeing or being touched by a living being or inanimate object, or of hearing a voice; which impression, so far as you could discover, was not due to any external physical cause?’ Unlike the authors of Phantasms of the Living, the Census takers therefore did not invite dream experiences. They also quite rightly draw attention to the problems of surveying one’s own servants or those of one’s friends. The SPR later mounted further smaller surveys: one in 1947, in collaboration with the Mass Observation organisation; another in 1959, analysed by Celia Green; and in 1990 Donald West carried out a version of the 1894 one, which he characterised a pilot survey, though with a modified question. There have also been numerous country-specific surveys, by both academics and commercial polling organisations.

What do we find?

Alas we don’t have time to discuss specific results in the publications I have referred to, but I was struck by a 1995 article by Kennedy and Kanthamani in the Journal of the American SPR on the benefits that these experiences can bring. This was a study assessing the effects of having had what the participants considered to be paranormal and transcendent experiences. Kennedy and Kanthamani gave questionnaires to people who had already professed themselves interested in parapsychology but of this self-selected sample the overwhelming conclusion was that psychic events had beneficial consequences. 80% felt an increased desire to achieve a higher consciousness, 77% an increased interest in the paranormal, and there were similar large increases in belief in life after death, and interest in religious or spiritual matters. At the other end of the scale there were large reductions for fear of death, feelings of depression or anxiety, worry for the future, feelings of isolation and so on, though for some individuals there were increases on these items – for example a small number reported an increased fear of death.

Only limited conclusions can be drawn from this study because there are issues of cause and effect – people may have interpreted experiences as paranormal because they already had the positive attitudes indicated in the study. But it is suggestive, and supports research by people such as James McClenon and Kenneth Ring that having these sorts of experiences enhances a sense of well-being and spirituality.

Yet in a separate paper five years later, Kennedy asks the rather startling question whether the point is not if psi can inspire a more spiritual worldview or not, one more open to transcendental experience – which he considers established – but whether it does anything else. For Kennedy, as well as researchers such as Louisa Rhine and Jule Eisenbud, the conclusion is that practical benefits are few and far between, with an alteration of outcome, even in the precognition cases, less frequent than a change in worldview. Given that Kennedy then goes on to talk about the difficulty of distinguishing genuine psi from the general tendency of individuals to interpret non-psi events as having psi in them, one wonders if the reality of psi actually matters – what is important is that people think they are having them, and achieve a greater degree of spiritual awareness as a result.

Actually the situation may be worse than this. Looking at the bulk of the recorded cases, very few contain accounts that can be classified as crises (only about a quarter of those collected by Rhine, for example), while most do not even relate to significant effects. We can say that people are not usually writing about matters of life and death, nor is it likely that they are tapping into a transcendental state. The impression one receives is less that the writers have achieved a more spiritual worldview than that among a wide range of emotions generated, their overall impression is one of puzzlement and unanswered questions.

One thing that is unclear from the cases collected is whether, if psi does exist, it is a general attribute that just rarely manifests, or is possessed by only a few people. A situation that is made complicated by the challenge in disentangling the unknown number of false reports, made either sincerely or not. The answer to this question has implications for experimentation because rather than general and indiscriminate testing of large unselected groups, a more fruitful way of proceeding might be to go back to identifying stars and attempting to find correlates of psi within personal differences.

Problems of spontaneous cases

Obstacles for researchers in their efforts to rule out normal explanations for spontaneous cases have been well rehearsed in the literature, and much of this relates to spontaneous cases in total, not just the sort I am focusing on here. These include the general unreliability of eyewitness testimony and misinterpretation. Memory errors are a factor, and can be quite large, so length of time between event and report has to be taken into consideration. Informed guesses and extrapolation can be very subtle. Consider the famous prediction of an aeroplane with a red tail crashing at a particular time that was based solely on statistical tables (I’m afraid my library angel let me down when trying to find the precise details of this one but I think it was in the Skeptical Inquirer). Without the context this prediction would have seemed an impressive hit. Coincidences can be impossible to disentangle – was there a paranormal relationship between a dream and an event, or did they occur at the same time by chance? Expectation can lead witnesses to assume that what might be considered normal circumstances actually had a paranormal component. There may be reporting effects, as Sybo Schouten found in his analysis of cases in Phantasms of the Living, which skew the conclusions drawn from an analysis of collections.

Witnesses might be vague, leading the researcher to fill in the gaps with unsupported supposition, imposing interpretation unwarranted by the evidence as provided. They might have been interviewed by someone else earlier, causing contamination. There might not be corroboration by other witnesses. There is unlikely to be support from documentary sources, received before fulfilment. Taylor Innes famously asked of Phantasms of the Living, “Where are the letters?”, a query that has dogged data collection ever since. The researcher has to asses how much discussion there may have been between witnesses, leading to elaboration, what the connections between witnesses are and the group dynamics at play. What is on their bookshelf can be important. The firmness of the witness in sticking to a story needs to be considered, how consistent it is, and whether this is a form of rigidity that points to a well-rehearsed untruth rather than an unvarnished reflection of something that actually occurred. They are probably rarely frauds or hoaxes. However, I have had a case which I thought on balance may have been a leg pull, although it could have been rather a case of general idiocy. There may be a desire for self-aggrandisement leading to exaggeration in the telling, or a general rewriting of history. The witness might plan to use you as a stepping stone to gain media publicity. Then there are more pathological states such as neurosis, mental illness, delusions, the effect of drugs, legal and illegal, not to mention hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, sleep paralysis, wish fulfilment, and so on and on. The upshot of all this is that a judgment of reliability is often made by the investigator based on no more than impressions and a gut feeling.

There is of course a distinct drawback with these narratives and that is quality control. West’s 1948 paper includes a pertinent statement from Hilda Harding. She had been asked to plough through the Journal from 1884 to date, but had given up at Volume 15 because as a barrister she had been unimpressed with the cases recorded in them, anything of evidential worth being extremely rare (and West himself states that contrary to the general feeling that the SPR has very high standards in collecting and verifying cases, he found the accumulated records in SPR publications to be of surprisingly little worth. I’d be interested to hear what people, including Donald himself, have to say about the subsequent sixty years). Miss Harding puts it in an elegant nutshell when she says ‘Against the mere word of the percipient we are obliged to offset all that life has taught us of the strange results ensuing from lack of mental balance, honest error, illusion, expectancy, suggestion and so forth, apart altogether from mischievous lying.’ It is no surprise to hear that West calculated that only about 1% of psychic incidents collected by the SPR could be authenticated well enough for publication.

Spontaneous vs experimental

So should we bother with the spontaneous and unplanned at all and retreat to the laboratory? The divide between spontaneous and experimental in psychical research is a deep one. The experimental position at its extreme was put by Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe when he said of OBEs, though in terms that could be extended to other spontaneous areas: ‘No progress is likely because almost all evidence for these phenomena comes from spontaneous cases and thus was collected as after the fact anecdotes rather than as controlled lab results.’ That is, anecdotes bad, lab results good.

True, the spontaneous can’t be repeated, in the same way you can’t step in the same river twice, nor can variables in the situation be isolated and manipulated. Those experiences that happen in the real world are not circumscribed in any way by the imposition of test conditions. They have to be interpreted after the event and are so unlike the sorts of experiments that occur in laboratories that we have to ask what the two domains have in common. Can we legitimately take field data and use them as the basis for lab investigation when the processes involved might be totally different? Or to put it another way, do we risk reducing the variables involved in the lab to such an extent that we are no longer able to model what happens outside it?

Schouten asks why, although spontaneous case studies yield interesting material, they have had such a small impact on lab research. He comes up with three related possibilities. One is that researchers may observe a demarcation, with little overlap between the two areas. That is, they have an inflexible mindset. Another is that in a spontaneous situation the influence of non-ESP aspects cannot be controlled and their extent is unknown, which is messy; and a third is that researchers do not consider the outcomes of analyses suitable for application within an experimental setting. They may indicate how people are affected by putative psi experiences but rarely yield hypotheses that can be tested. Schouten found this to be a restrictive viewpoint, and felt that experimentalists should look at them, both because they are of interest in their own right, and because they can yield hypotheses for rigorous testing. The problem of course is determining the extent to which non-psi factors might be present.

I should say that whenever I use the word phenomenon I use it cautiously, bearing in mind Emanuel Schwartz’s stricture that it too easily neglects the human dimension in favour of studying what has happened for its own sake. But I would not go as far as researchers such as Moody, Schouten and White in arguing that we should jettison notions of proof and disproof in favour of exploring meaning for the experient. Important as this client-centred component, for want of a better phrase, is, to focus on it and minimise the notion of proof strikes me as sociology or social psychology, or counselling, rather than parapsychology, which has to concern itself with proof as its basic (but not only) task. To agree with H. Reed, as quoted by White, that to characterise an experience as a coincidence is a form of psychological resistance that denies implied claims of intimacy, ignores the value of evidentiality entirely. McCleonon says that to throw out cases because they are not evidential, or are trivial, is to distort the sample, and I agree fully that to do so is to reduce the richness of the phenomena as reported. To retain the noise does risk losing sight of the signal. At the same time, the investigator (and perhaps this term is itself loaded with connotations of power and control) needs to be aware of the implications of the witness statement as performative act, and the cultural influences and traditions that lead a witness to categorise an experience as paranormal.

I think Carlos Alvarado has put his finger on a big concern when he argues that parapsychologists tend to do it the wrong way round. They favour a particular method – usually the laboratory experiment – rather than look at a research puzzle and then apply the most appropriate technique, or combination of techniques, to its solution. Alvarado himself favours the latter approach, with the two approaches as equal partners, rather than spontaneous data being used to validate experimental findings, and he takes to task those parapsychologists who are ready to criticise spontaneous work in terms that they do not similarly apply to the experimental. He argues that it is by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each, and how they might complement each other in best helping to understand the experience and its wider context, that progress in the subject will be made. As he says, few researchers would argue that weaknesses in experimentation should lead to its abandonment, but precisely this argument has been used on the spontaneous side. On the contrary, he argues, there are areas that are not suitable for the experimental approach, such as telepathic impressions, apparitions, reincarnation-type cases, deathbed visions, non-recurrent PK, poltergeists and Near Death Experiences. Adherence to this approach would conform to William Braud’s notion of integral inquiry which utilises qualitative and quantitative methods as appropriate.

Have these narratives changed over the decades?

An interesting question is whether these narratives have changed over the decades. In many ways there are similarities. People are still having dreams, a lot of them precognitive, and either realistic or symbolic in form. Daniel Clarke’s daughter dreaming of her cousin breaking a vegetable dish, and later finding that this remarkable event had actually happened, occurred in 1875, but it could have been yesterday, except it is now less likely to see print. People still have hallucinations via every sense modality. They have intuitions that someone is ill at the moment that illness occurs far away, and experiences that go beyond what one can credit to coincidence. There are odd feelings that seem linked to past happenings. Items move, disappearing and sometimes, but not always, reappearing. The Virgin Mary is still making her presence known.

In other ways they are different, or rather expressed differently, though I cannot pretend that my comparisons are scientifically rigorous. But in my impressionistic trawl through cases ancient and modern I can see that, to take an example, some now take advantage of new technology. An instance is the account contributed to the Paranormal Review by Michael Thalbourne in which he described possible communication by D. Scott Rogo using a mobile phone, with added PK to move a piece of paper, the circumstances of which Thalbourne associated strongly with Rogo. There are reports nowadays involving computers, cameras, VCRs and electrical equipment unknown to the pioneers. There seem to be a lot of animal stories in the Paranormal Review experiences column, but that may say something about their selection – I suspect John Crabbe of being a cat lover. There is far more gambling going on, or at least people are more willing to admit to it than before. I also feel that media representations play a larger role than they used to. There are so many programmes on the paranormal that it would be surprising if witnesses were not influenced by them either directly in providing templates, or more indirectly by suggesting similes to help them articulate something that might be inchoate, and distorting the original raw experience in the process.

The role of the amateur

So much for the cases. What about the investigators? Most individuals outside the university environment who wish to become involved in research do not have an experimental background. They go on ghost hunts, and through this gain experience interviewing witnesses and writing case reports, but do not necessarily have any training in methodology. Because they are active in the field they may find themselves in touch with psychic claimants of one kind or another. This can be a sensitive area as these people are sometimes damaged, or have a large amount of emotion invested in their claims – something that rarely comes through in the published reports. The investigator is often as much a social worker as a psychical researcher, however reluctantly, and collecting data in a rigorous manner can be problematic. There is precious little training given before the researcher goes into the field, and he or she has to rely on common sense, background reading and discussions with colleagues. Most cases gathered by such individuals are either not written up or are not made available to the wider community.

There is a huge untapped potential for SPR members to gather accounts from those who say that they have paranormal experiences, and add them to a thriving database. The reporting needs to be reliable, but some of the energy that currently goes into running around pubs at night taking photographs of orbs could be channelled into investigation of other forms of spontaneous experience. Three surveys of thirteen western European countries and the US, summarised by Haraldsson and Houtkooper in 1991, asked questions about telepathy, clairvoyance and contact with the dead. According to the responses about 100 million Europeans and 145 million Americans claimed at least one of these, so there should be plenty to keep researchers busy. Yet we in the SPR don’t seem to see large quantities as we once did. There may be all sorts of reasons for a decline from our early days, possibly intrinsic to the phenomena, such as electromagnetic smog dampening psychic abilities. But in the main it is probably down to reporting issues, for example everybody thinking they are an expert because of the proliferation of TV programmes that make it all look so easy. A loss of deference may reduce people’s desire to submit to an expert from a research society. The internet, and the local groups fighting for a share of the cake, siphon off cases that might otherwise have come to us. Perhaps in addition to these explanations, and there may be others, the SPR is seen as irrelevant to people’s needs or currently has too low a profile to attract attention.

Assuming we can energise individuals into taking non bump-in-the-night cases seriously, what qualities does the scrupulous investigator need (though these qualities apply in all kinds of investigations)? I thought Theodore Besterman, SPR investigation officer, had it right in a talk he gave as part of a symposium on the BBC in 1934 when he said that ‘it is obvious that anybody who sets out to investigate these phenomena needs wide knowledge, infinite patience, and, by no means least, a sense of humour.’ To which one might add a healthy dose of common sense, compassion and a consideration of the wider personal factors that make up the social dynamics of the situation. And the investigator needs to be aware of the danger of preconceived opinions, the need to make sure that he or she is sensitive to the subtleties of the experience and does not close down possible novelty by assuming it fits into a pre-existing category.

The investigator needs to be aware that the interests of the witness and the psychical researcher are not always identical. The researcher is told an interesting thing has happened and wants to see it happen in his or her presence, whereas the witness’s motive for calling someone in might well be to see if a) they can explain what is happening and b) if it is still going on what can be done to stop it. The scrupulous researcher has to put the needs of the percipients and those around them before the needs of the investigation. Collaboration is not always easy however. A typical letter from a member of the public might say that the writer had had many curious experiences, or was able to predict the future, and so on, and could they prove this please. Yet ask people to keep a diary, and see how rarely this request is complied with, even though it would supply useful data. Faced with potentially paradigm-challenging events and witnesses who can’t be bothered to jot things down is a frustration. People who feel that their experiences are a reflection of wider abilities may initially profess themselves keen to be tested yet often actually just want to tell someone else what they can do. They then withdraw on the grounds that they have already demonstrated their abilities to their own satisfaction, which may be a cover for lack of confidence, or for thinking it is really all too much effort.

What to do with them

If we are to acknowledge the importance of spontaneous experiences and the need to carry on collecting them, then we have to decide what to do with them. I suspect that local groups, which have burgeoned in recent years here and overseas, as well as individual investigators, have accumulated cases in files in private offices. But they sit there, unanalysed, to be joined by yet more that suffer the same fate, until they are most likely chucked away. This seems a wasted resource. Those that are in private hands should be written up and deposited in the SPR archives. It is only when one has collected numbers of cases in the volumes achieved by the likes of the SPR pioneers, or Louisa Rhine, that one will be able to detect patterns and draw conclusions.

And I am referring here to all sorts of spontaneous occurrences, not just the sort I have been talking about. Some types of cases are sexier than others. Ghosts and poltergeists are always going to be popular, stories of granddad’s watch stopping at the moment he dies less so. You might argue that one only needs so many stories of watches stopping to establish a principle and that to pile up more is gilding the lily. But that is to assume a priori that further stories have nothing to tell us, and by ignoring specimens we may be missing aspects, such as how they might relate to other variables, that could shed light on them as a totality. They are prime candidates for data snooping, and the seemingly banal could contain pearls.

These sorts of statements often arrive in the form of letters varying widely in their level of detail, and there is no opportunity for follow up questions. This can present problems when a researcher tries to analyse them. Where there is a chance to amplify an initial account, the researcher has the opportunity to fill in gaps and clarify ambiguities, improving the evidential value. In particular there is an opportunity to widen the enquiry to take in factors that the percipient might not consider of relevance but might, taken with similar factors in other cases, have a bearing on the components of psi.

A renewed interest in this field could lead to greater awareness of the standard of reporting that researchers need to reach. The downside is that access to available collections might provide a repertoire of motifs for future witnesses to draw on when making their own statements, thereby contaminating them. But these opportunities exist anyway. The disadvantages I would argue are outweighed by the chance to show researchers how to help witnesses to recount experiences fully without falling into the errors that can reduce their worth. A resurgence of interest in such cases would be of intrinsic value in scientific terms. It would also have the spin-off benefit of re-attracting that constituency, a very large part of which has been lost to the Society in recent years, which is sympathetic to our aims but alienated by the emphasis on the laboratory and the statistics that tend to go with it. I am not talking about dumbing down our subject, discarding lab research or sacrificing rigour to impressionistic yarns. But, like our pioneers, I am interested in how we can make what we do and how we present it more relevant to everyday life and the concerns of those who are interested in our aims but lack a high-level technical background.

How exactly should we handle cases? A paper by Caroline Watt in the SPR Journal in 1990 contrasts top-down and bottom-up approaches, respectively either theory driven or starting with observation. She goes on to describe an integrated approach, a circular, or to be more precise a spiral, model that goes from theory, based on observation and description, leading to hypotheses and specific predictions that can be tested, the results of which feed back into more sophisticated theory, and so on. This is a standard scientific model that in parapsychology is observed in the laboratory but not outside it. Watt argues that researchers should be generating more hypotheses based on existing research and then looking for fresh cases to test them against, rather than concentrating on post-hoc analyses of existing collections, useful though that can be. This is a bold idea, and makes it a quasi-experimental activity. However it may be optimistic to try to control all variables in a spontaneous situation other than the one under consideration, particularly when interactions between complex variables are so poorly understood. And there are the practicalities of seeking out new cases that conform to specific criteria.

The problem for psychical researchers may be that they fail to take full advantage of the qualitative methods developed in the academic environment in recent years. There is much opportunity for cross-fertilisation, but I cannot see a great deal of evidence that techniques developed for the social sciences have made much of an impact in psychical research. The crucial change over the last couple of decades is the use of computer software to analyse qualitative data, including content analysis, which has been used in psychical research though not widely. Despite Watts’s emphasis on an integrated approach, Grounded Theory, a bottom-up inductive method, which has been used on qualitative data in the Parapsychological Counselling Office at Freiburg, may prove useful in analysing spontaneous narratives; as Pidgeon and Henwood point out it is ‘particularly suited to the local interaction and meanings as related to the social context in which they occur’.


What can we in the SPR do about the current situation? This is something we can discuss in the time available after this paper, and in the general discussion after tea, and afterwards as a continuing debate about the role of a psychical research society in the 21st century. We do have initiatives that will help – a new website that will improve our profile among the general public and help to draw in cases; we have an active spontaneous cases committee as we have heard; Peter Hallson performs a valuable role in liaising with local groups to our general benefit. But there is always more to do, and it is my personal hope that more members will become involved in investigation. There is also a case for pooling accounts sent in to other organisations to form a consolidated and easily available database, though to do the job properly would require manpower, funds, and will. In addition, it would be interesting to collaborate with sister organisations in other countries, particularly non-English speaking ones, to see what sorts of similarities and differences there might be.

As well as the collection of new cases, there is scope for further analyses with other databases of the kind that Schouten carried out on Phantasms of the Living, the Sannwald and the Rhine collections. In particular it would be interesting to conduct a longitudinal study, comparing cases from the time the SPR began collecting them through to the letters that come in to John Crabbe, Fortean Times, and the other contemporary repositories, to determine systematically how they have changed over the decades, how these changes might reflect the society producing the cases, and whether the sheer accumulation might add up to a bundle of sticks that will provide convincing evidence of psi. These kinds of efforts benefit investigators by forcing them to think about the issues, read around, discuss possibilities, and give themselves a grounding in psychical research that will stand them in good stead as active participants in our subject.

There is the charge that a thousand weak cases are no stronger than one weak one, though I trust I have indicated convincingly that even weak cases can en masse provide fruitful avenues for research. But this problem of strength is being addressed in a project developed by David and Julie Rousseau, Kuhnexus, named in honour of Thomas Kuhn of paradigm shift fame, and the subject of a study day in 2002. The aim is to develop a database of cases of all types. It would have advantages over paper collections not only in its accessibility via the internet but also because it could be interrogated in a way that paper collections cannot, in order to find links, and would be easily updated. I should mention as an aside for those who have not tried it yet the sheer pleasure of putting a keyword into the SPR online library and seeing the hits over a wide range of Journals and Proceedings, instantly available.

Kuhnexus aims to collect the strongest cases in every category, going beyond what we currently regard as the boundaries of psychical research to include topics such as ufos and healing, on the grounds that we cannot prejudge where boundaries lie. The criteria for inclusion are: that the phenomena have to be explained if we are to have a proper understanding of the interconnections between different aspects of the world; have some supporting evidence already; and that, in David’s words, ‘confound expectations based on the mainstream scientific paradigm.’ This is a collaborative project in that individuals can nominate cases they believe are evidentially strong and a classification system will be developed that best reflects the nature of the cases. They are rated in terms of credibility, significance, representativeness and so on for the best to be included. As well as those already published, new ones will also be considered, and this might be an opportunity for local groups who are active in this type of research, and not just ghost hunts, to supply those cases they feel are their best ones. As well as providing an accessible repository of material assessed for value, the organisation of cases in this way should lead to new insights as the signal-to-noise ratio is increased and interconnections established.

Clearly computerisation is the way ahead if we are to make the most of the vital data that lurk within what people tell us, but researchers should at all times remain sensitive to the phenomenology of the experience, and not fall into the trap of forgetting the individual in the quest to crunch numbers, else the charge will be that the field researcher has become as distanced from a full understanding of the ecology of the experience as his or her laboratory colleague isolating variables.

Monday, 15 March 2010

ESPRI Newsletter Contributions

Before the Anglia Paranormal Research Group there was ESPRI – The East Anglian Society for Paranormal Research and Investigation – which I suppose was intended to be a pun on ‘Spirit’ and ‘Esprit’. The group was set up as an offshoot of the better-known Cheltenham Paranormal Research Group. I was a member from 1993 until 1995, when Andy Waters and I left to start up APRG. I held the posts of Case Officer, along with Andy, and SPR Liaison Officer.

ESPRI produced a single Newsletter, dated Winter 94 (there was clearly a delay as I have a draft dated Autumn 94, with Autumn crossed out). ESPRI was a mass-membership organisation and the officers wrote brief and very general articles to explain their roles. I contributed three items and have reprinted them below, along with a list of the magazine’s contents. Pages were unnumbered.

The Society for Psychical Research's’s Regional Study Day at Cambridge University Library was covered in much more depth in the SPR’s magazine The Psi Researcher No. 15, Winter 1994, pp.24-26 (available in the SPR’s online library).

‘A Night to Remember’ was an account by Andy of a visit to The Bell Hotel, Thetford, with veteran researcher Tony Cornell and a film crew from Inca Productions, to record a segment of a television series called Ghosthunters. I explained how Tony’s SPIDER (Spontaneous Psychophysical Incident Data Electronic Recorder) worked and the group tried to pretend we were conducting an investigation while boiling from the heat of all the gear packed into the hotel’s honeymoon suite. Unfortunately ESPRI’s contributions were not used in the programme (first aired in June 1996). Despite keeping us there until 6.00am, Inca failed even to send us the promised copy of the video, which didn’t surprise me as I had already spent an entire afternoon at their London office having my brains picked by the production team and never got a credit, nor anything other than my train fare. Tony Cornell devotes a chapter of his excellent book Investigating the Paranormal to The Bell, though he understandably doesn’t bother to mention this particular visit.

E.S.P.R.I. Newsletter, Issue 01, Winter 1994


Editorial, by Andy Waters
A Word from the Chair, by Simon Driscoll
The Role of the Medium, by Simone Key
The Role of the Case Officer, by Tom Ruffles
Local Ghosts, by Tom Ruffles
The Job of a Research Officer, by Tim Driscoll
SPR Regional Study Day No 2, by Tom Ruffles
Book Reviews, by Andy Waters
A Night to Remember, by Andy Waters

The Role of the Case Officer

You may have noticed on the committee list that Andy Waters and I are listed as “Case Officers”. So exactly what does a Case Officer do?

ESPRI’s role is to research all areas of the paranormal, but in practice this largely means the investigation of spontaneous cases. By spontaneous I mean those phenomena which take place in the ‘real world’ as opposed to the laboratory, such as hauntings and poltergeists.

Once a case is brought to the attention of the group, the Case Officers arrange for witnesses to be interviewed and for data to be gathered. The potential value of the case can then be estimated, and a recommendation be made as to whether further research is warranted. The Case Officers do not make any decisions on their own – the entire committee agrees a particular course of action.

Should a case be intriguing enough to warrant further action, more interviews might be conducted, and the research team will follow up any leads which could help to build a picture of what is going on.

The most high-profile activity that the Case Officers undertake is arranging vigils. This is an effort to experience (and hopefully record) claimed phenomena. How the vigil works will be the subject of a future article.

After the vigil has been conducted, the Case Officers examine the records, and again make recommendations. These might be that a further vigil is worth undertaking, or that no further information is likely to be gained from further research, perhaps because a normal explanation for the events has been found, or even because of strong suspicions of fraud.

Once all the data have been gathered, the Case Officers arrange for the report to be written up. Feedback is given to the witnesses, within ethical limits. Summaries, with identifying details removed, might be published, for example in our own newsletter or in the publications of The Society for Psychical Research.

It should be emphasised that the Case Officers do not work in isolation, nor do they do all the work themselves. Their task is to coordinate the efforts of the group so that investigations can be conducted in the most efficient manner.

Tom Ruffles
E.S.P.R.I. Case Officer

Local Ghosts

Many ghosts are associated with pubs, perhaps because large numbers of people pass through, perhaps because the publicans hope that a good ghost story will increase custom!

One such pub ghost is the one reportedly seen in The Wenns Hotel, by the Saturday Market Place in King’s Lynn. Originally four shops, the Wenn family converted them into a pub in the early nineteenth century. One of these, now the Grapes Bar, had been owned by a Mr. Cooper, a butcher, and he must have been annoyed at the change of use because he came back to haunt it.

Another pub with a ghost in King’s Lynn is the Globe Hotel, in the Tuesday Market Place. Known as ‘The Boxer’, he is supposed to be the ghost of a young man killed during a fight in the stables more than a century ago.

ESPRI is always interested to hear about ghosts and haunting in the area it covers, and members who hear of any should send details to the Chairman. Alas, it is one of the rules of research that investigations and alcohol should never mix – we are interested in one type of spirit only...

SPR Regional Study Day No. 2

On Saturday 15th October 1994, The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) held a study day on “The Archives and Early Literature of Psychical Research: The Cambridge Connection”. Hosted by the Cambridge University Library, where the SPR’s rare books are housed, the day covered a wide range of historical material.

Professor Donald West kicked the proceedings off with a talk on the value of archives. He emphasised the necessity of maintaining high standards, particularly when dealing with first hand accounts. He gave a warning to be wary of fraud and self deception, and the problems which arise with uncorroborated material. As well as collecting witness statements, censuses can be undertaken in order to determine the extent of particular beliefs in the population as a whole, and of course the early SPR was active in both these areas.

Carlos Alvarado discussed parapsychological periodicals in historical perspectives. He pointed out that Journals are not passive resting places for research reports, but play a dynamic role in shaping the field. He gave numerous examples, showing some rather obscure foreign language titles, which indicated how insular psychical research can be (a problem the Parapsychological Association is attempting to redress). He also stressed how influential the early SPR proceedings were, judging by how frequently they were cited in other periodicals.

In the last talk before lunch, Dr Alan Gauld outlined some of the areas covered by the SPR’s library, and how it developed. He concentrated on mesmerism and hypnosis (on which subject he has published a standard work), but also mentioned the SPR’s holdings on apparitions and poltergeists, Spiritualism, witchcraft, dowsing and techniques of fraud. As well as English language, there is an extensive quantity of rare German and French material.

After lunch, the librarians conducted participants on a tour of the Library, and we also saw an exhibition of some of the SPR’s books. Hilary Evans then gave a slide show of paranormal pictures, and discussed the problems of using visual documentation as evidence.

The last talk was given by Nancy Zingrone who looked more closely at the role of Cambridge scholars in founding the SPR. She provided statistics on just how productive they were, but also how the history books have been biased in favour of men, tending to neglect the work done by women except when acting as mediums. Finally, a discussion period touched on virtually everything which had been covered during the day.

This is a highly compressed account of a wide ranging and enjoyable event. The SPR library is a major resource for psychical researchers, and should be more widely used. The study day was a valuable step in publicising it and its riches.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

‘Win a Corn Circle’ – Magonia

In 1991, Magonia magazine, under its editor John Rimmer, ran a competition to see what the Next Big Thing would be after the crop circle craze. I was very pleased to win, my prize being a magnificent Led Zeppelin poster featuring – what else? – crop circles. My entry was printed in Issue No. 39, April 1991, p.24. I can safely say that I am no futurologist.

Magonia Competition 1991


After the demise of corn circles, what will the next craze be? A strong contender will be provided by the mysterious appearance of small footprints on panes of glass. These will become known as the 'smallfoot' phenomenon. The prints will bear traces of mud and will appear overnight, often in places well out of reach of the ground. It will be quite apparent that they were not there before, but had just not been noticed. They will tend to be seen in the winter due to ice highlighting the mud outline, but will not cluster in particular areas of the country.

After numerous sightings, increasing dramatically in frequency, a vigorous debate will ensue between a number of factions. They will put forward competing theories of the prints' causation as the definitive explanation, each less plausible than the last. The situation will be confused by the possibility of hoaxing, though this will never be proved, and it will be pointed out that some of the prints would have been difficult to fake due to their inaccessibility. Many small children will have their feet scrutinised carefully. A spin-off of smallfoot will be the partial rehabilitation of Conan Doyle.

Alas, after much press speculation, the setting up of specialist journals and conferences (and the unearthing of smallfoot reports going back almost to the invention of glass), the subject will go the way of the circles, and give way to yet another enthusiasm, possibly involving the prehistoric use of petroleum products.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser

During the 27th Cambridge Film Festival in 2007, I was fortunate to be able to interview Canadian filmmakers April Mullen and Tim Doiron for the Cambridge community radio station 209radio’s Bums on Seats film programme. They had brought Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser to the festival for its world premiere and were extremely enthusiastic about it. On the back of my interview I wrote a short piece for the printed ‘Film Festival Daily’, continuing the mockumentary conceit, but it was not used. Perhaps it had one too many double entendres.

April and Tim were a delightful pair, spending part of their time in Cambridge running up and down Regent Street in costume, challenging all-comers to play RPS. They tried to make me believe that the game was under consideration as an Olympic “Demonstration Sport”, whatever that is, for 2010 (a choice of date which perhaps should have given the game away).

They are both actors as well as writers/directors/producers, and I only recently discovered that April had a small part in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005). Rather a contrast to RPS, which I have to say is a whole lot funnier. The Cambridge crowd loved it so much they gave it the Audience Favourite Award for best film in the festival.

Rock, Paper, Scissors gets its world premiere in Cambridge!

You might suspect that Canada is a dull kind of place, but not a bit of it. There is one activity at which they excel: Rock, Paper, Scissors (RPS). They turn out world RPS champions on a regular basis (yes, there are such things), and now what might once have been considered merely a trivial pre-adolescent game has gone mainstream. After the exposure given it by April Mullen and Tim Doiron’s new film, Rock, Paper, Scissors: The Way of the Tosser, it may never be the same again. It’s going to be really big!

Found across a wide range of cultures, RPS speaks to some deep part of us, which is perhaps why an alternative name for it is “The Well.” Our guides to the intricacies of this zen-like pursuit are Gary (the one with the gay moustache), Holly and Trevor. Gary is good with his hands (though with an aversion to throwing paper, which is a bit of a disadvantage) and his dream is to beat off all-comers - including creepy arch-rival Baxter Pound - to seize the crown at the RPS World Championships. This is not just about winning against the other entrants though, it’s about self-knowledge and rigorous discipline, and the transcendent wisdom that comes from a life dedicated to RPS.

It’s unfortunate that the gravitas of this important tool, which could easily be used as a way to attain world peace, is slightly undermined by the connotations of the word ‘tosser’ of which Gary and his colleagues are surely unaware, being Canadian. Never mind. After watching him train, and compete at the highest level, this hymn to the pleasures of tossing is bound to be a boost for RPS. Expect it to go global on the back of their documentary, with Gary a kind of secular patron saint. Not so much a way to pass the time, more a philosophy of life, and who knows, one in which Canada may one day have to cede the tight grip it currently enjoys.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Film reviews posted on rental website

These brief reviews are available on the LoveFilm website but I thought I would gather them together here as they are now buried under many others. A version of the 'Yella' one also appeared in Fortean Times. There was no particular reason why I decided to write about these films rather than any of the others I rented.

One rather strange thing is worth mentioning. I liken Frank Randle to Count Arthur Strong. Unfortunately I managed to catch part of one of Count Arthur's shows on Radio 4 last year, and I swear that at one point he whispered "Frank Randle", apropos of nothing. For a spooky moment I thought he might be addressing me personally but dismissed the idea quickly on the grounds that if your radio starts talking to you, you really are in trouble.

1 The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

What a poor way to treat a classic

Hitchcock has been poorly served by the distributors here. This is a fine film with tremendous atmosphere and a lingering sense of menace. The shots of Novello taken from underneath, walking on the floor above, and hanging from the railings at the end are both superb - this is probably Novello's best film work, including The Rat.

But the treatment is appalling! The London Fog is far foggier than it need be because of the inept transfer and the music is off the shelf and stuck on anyhow with no feeling for mood or rhythm. I can sympathise with those who couldn't watch it to the end because they have been poorly served.

Eureka can do wonders with a film like this,but even if there is no money for that kind of restoration (though I find that hard to believe) there should be a law against this kind of release. Pat Hitchcock should complain!

In the meantime, turn down the volume and try to ignore the fuzzy image, it's a great story, told with skills picked up by Hitchcock from the Expressionists in Germany, and containing a superb performanace by Novello, full of ambiguity.

Tom Ruffles from Cambridge
Posted 06 Sep 2006 13:52

2 Mouchette (1967)

Girl on the edge...

Mouchette is a loner, unloved at home where she is put upon by her family, nursing her ill mother and baby brother while her father and brother take her for granted, her father even taking the earnings from her part-time cafe job. And because she is slightly rebellious, poorly socialised or even just poor, she is despised and ostracised at school while pitied and patronised by the village's adults. The cinematography lovingly documents her world, its drudgery, the humiliations she endures, her father and brother's bootlegging, the rivalry between the gamekeeper and the poacher and Mouchette's fleeting pleasure at a funfair and the possibility of engagement with someone her own age that is rudely disrupted by her boorish father.

Portraying Mouchette as a victim of ignorance and poverty is legitimate, but I would query Bresson's treatment of her. There is an uncomfortable eroticism here that is voyeuristic and exploitative. In the rape scene she is shown to grip her assailant tightly, as if enjoying the experience, precisely the problem that Peckinpah ran into with Straw Dogs (though Mouchette is not nearly as graphic). Also there are a large number of shots of her thighs and stockings (typical legwear for young teenagers even in rural France in 1967?). Bresson in his misogyny becomes complicit in the ill-treatment meted out to her.

Mouchette herself shows sparks of rebellion, refusing to sing in class, throwing clods of soil at classmates and refusing to be patronised or censured. But it is hard to see what sort of future she would have in this community. A positive outcome would be to suggest that she would leave the village on one of the lorries that incessantly run past her front door, but instead it ends badly, if implausibly. The repressive patriarchal order is maintained at the expense of the individual, young and female. It reminded me of Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (probably the gamekeeper and the luminous depiction of the countryside) and it extended Renoir's points about the aristocracy to the marginalised lumpenproletariat and petit bourgeoisie. There is plenty of suffering here but no redemption on offer.

Tom Ruffles from Cambridge
Posted 02 Oct 2006 13:24

3 Most helpful member's review of It's a Grand Life (1953)

Dreary 'comedy'

This ranks high among the worst films I have ever seen. It seemed interminable, with the astonishingly unfunny Frank Randle mugging and gurning with his equally idiotic stooges. He was clearly the 1950s Count Arthur Strong, and just as dire. The only bright spots are Diana Dors, a class act who deserved better than this, and the wonderful Winifred Atwell, who comes on in the last few minutes to vamp her piano, but too late to retrieve the proceedings.

As for the rest, it was supposed to be a gentle burlesque on National Service life, with the nasty old lascivious sergeant-major as straight man getting his come-uppance, but was actually a parade of awful music-hall bits of business that must have felt dated before the start of the First World War. Only when the focus shifts from Frank and the boys to the Diana Dors subplot does the film pick up, but only because there’s less of Frank.

Thank goodness the Soviets didn’t see this film. If they had taken this as an indication of the strength of Her Majesty’s forces, we might all be speaking Russian now. The wonderful thing about DVD is that it resurrects forgotten gems for a new generation. But sometimes films are forgotten for a reason. Only bother with this if you did National Service and feel nostalgic, or are a film studies type that needs a comprehensive knowledge of British cinema of the period, and then be prepared to grit your teeth. Take it from me that this was not our finest hour.

TomRuffles from Cambridge
Posted 21 Feb 2008 12:33

4 Yella (2007)

Why accountancy is not boring

Starring: Nina Hoss, Devid Striesow, Hinnerk Schonemann
Director: Christian Petzold

Based loosely on Herk Hervey's acclaimed low-budget 1962 horror Carnival of Souls (even down to the moments of silence and apparent invisibility that so unnerve the heroine in each case), Yella is not as easily pegged as a genre piece.

Yella (Nina Hoss), emerging from a river into which her estranged husband has driven them from a bridge, leaves home in East Germany and falls in with a slick businessman. She agrees to participate in his scams despite nervousness caused by the sudden appearances - and just as sudden disappearances - of her husband.

More sophisticated, though less visceral, than its predecessor, Petzold eschews Hervey's blatant attempt to create an increasingly bizarre environment for his heroine. Instead he balances uncanny moments with the everyday world of corporate finance.

The occasional puncturing of the normal if depopulated world in which Yella passively moves gives the film a slow, oneiric feel. The payoff is easy to spot early on, but the eerie atmosphere and Hoss's ghostlike performance hold the attention until the watery denouement.

Posted 21 Feb 2008

5 Russian Ark (2002)

Beautiful but cold

Russian Ark is often billed (including in its trailer) as the first film shot as a single continuous take. I should think Mike Figgis gets fed up whenever he hears this, considering that he released Timecode a full two years earlier, another film recorded as a single take, except with four cameras and the added problem (superbly executed) of having to ensure that the cameras did not appear in each other's shots, and having to edit the sound so that it was not a cacophonous mess.

Admittedly Aleksandr Sokurov's effort is on a far bigger canvas (an expression appropriate to the stunning Hermitage location), but the cast of thousands exposes it for the technical exercise it is. There are times when the camera swings round so wildly to capture interchanges you wonder how the cinematographer didn't fall over, when a simple cut would have been much more effective. You have to admire the stamina necessary to carry the camera for that length of time, but stamina does not necessarily make it art.

Andre Bazin would have loved this film as an example of an unmediated slice of reality which the viewer is free to interpret, but Russian Ark demonstrates by its lack how cutting enables us to get closer to the characters, for example by its ability to isolate gestures that tell us something about the gesturer. Instead the characters parade through, including Catherine the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra, complete with family at dinner, but we never feel that we know them. They become bit-players in their own drama as the never-still camera caresses their surfaces before moving off to the next group of actors. There is so much bustle in the set pieces, caused by the conceit of collapsing three hundred years into less than two hours, that the film starts to take on the characteristics of a computer game, and the costumes upstage the actors in them.

The cleverest device is having the camera stand in for the narrator, circumventing the problem of actors looking at the camera, which happens frequently. The film is not quite the exercise in crowd control that the statistics would suggest, because for much of the time we follow our protagonist down endless corridors, where the paintings are more animated than the actors, some of whom are surprisingly amateurish. An impressive film certainly, but somewhat pointless.

TomRuffles from Cambridge
Posted 13 Aug 2009 10:39