Saturday, 15 May 2010

Tony Cornell and the Cambridge Cinema Ghost Experiment

Some time ago I reviewed a book for the nthposition website called Six Feet Over by Mary Roach (Spook in the US), in which she described a series of experiments conducted in 1959-60 by Tony Cornell with members of the Cambridge University Society for Psychical Research. These involved a figure masquerading as a ghost in a variety of settings in order to test the reactions of the public. The final experiment consisted of “a white clad figure” (ie Tony wearing a sheet) walking both ways across the stage in a cinema, after which the investigators asked the no doubt bemused patrons whether they had seen anything. The procedure was carried out during a black and white trailer for the following week’s attraction, as it allowed the group time to quiz the audience before the single feature began.

What caused my eyebrows to levitate was Roach’s description of the cinema as a “porn theater“, a type of establishment most unlikely to exist in Cambridge, and even if it did, not the sort of place I could imagine Tony taking university students. It was also clear that women - one with her husband - were present during the discussion, which seemed even more unlikely if the cinema were showing pornographic films.

The original article describing this experiment, in the Society for Psychical Research Journal for December 1960, refers only to “a local cinema” (ie in Cambridge), and there were a number of these in the city. So I asked Tony which one they had used and he told me it was the Rex, no longer in existence, which was located behind the Shire Hall Council buildings. After such a long gap he could not recall the name of the film that was playing that night, but the article says that it was X certificate so that they could obtain the responses of adults with no children present.

In my review I speculated that the film might have been Peeping Tom, a strong film for the time (eliciting negative verdicts from the newspapers and effectively ending director Michael Powell’s career), which was released in May 1960. But, during a recent email exchange with Chris Romer, he said that Tony had told him that the cinema they used was known for dirty films, which suggested the type of fare that would have been shown at a membership-only cinema, rather like Soho‘s Compton Cinema Club which opened in 1960. As it seemed possible that even more people had this impression, I thought I would check to see what was on at the Rex the night of the experiment.

Fortunately Tony was very precise in his article about the date: 28 May 1960. Knowing the cinema’s name made it easy to establish what was showing as the local newspaper, then called the Cambridge Daily News, carried advertisements for all the cinemas each day. The film exhibited at the Rex on Saturday 28 May certainly was an X, but pornographic - no, although mentioning the word ‘panties’ was thought a bit racy at the time. It was Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger, with Lee Remick and James Stewart. The following week saw a double bill, The Last Angry Man and Edge of Eternity, both U certificate. Edge of Eternity is in colour, but The Last Angry Man is black and white, so it is likely that that was the trailer showing when Tony made his passage across the stage, with not a dirty mac in sight.

Why Mary Roach should have thought that the cinema was showing porn is unclear. I don’t think Tony can have given her this misinformation because he would have mentioned it to me when I discussed her book with him. It is possible that, being unfamiliar with British film certification and the Cambridge cinema scene of the period, she assumed an X-rated film would be pornographic, as its use in the United States before the introduction of NC-17 had those associations. Tony’s reason for telling Chris Romer that the cinema showed dirty films is harder to fathom. Most likely he was exaggerating for effect. Or, it could be, his standards were of a kind that considered Anatomy of a Murder to be such a film, though given the nature of some of his anecdotes, I somehow doubt it.

PS 13.9.10: At the 2010 annual conference of the Society for Psychical Research in Sheffield, Professor Bernard Carr gave a talk about Tony's life during which he referred to the cinema experiment. The following day, Professor Chris French gave a paper which among other things discussed inattentional blindness. This is the strange inability we often have to notice something which should be obvious when we are focusing on a cognitively resource-hungry task. The example he provided was the well-known Daniel Simons/Christopher Chabris 'Gorilla in our midst' video made in 1999: viewers are told to count the number of ball passes made by a group moving around a small space, and a surprisingly large number will fail to notice the person in a gorilla suit passing through. During the question session, Carmen Dell'Aversano pointed out that the experiment bore a striking similarity to Bernard's description of the cinema experiment, and that Tony was far ahead of his time. While there are differences (the cinema audience was not told to concentrate on a task, for example), the point remains that the CUSPR work was pioneering, and deserves to be better known.