Friday, 30 July 2010

This Life, Next Life: Evidence for the Afterlife - DVD review

This Life, Next Life: Evidence for the Afterlife (2009) by Keith Parsons

It may seem odd reviewing a film that cannot be seen by the public.*  Keith Parsons’s documentary is currently in limbo because of copyright issues; it contains quite a few archive photos and downloaded clips which have not been cleared because of the expense.  But in case the DVD acquires a kind of samizdat existence, passed round aficionados for private study until such times as the intellectual property difficulties are resolved, it is worth outlining its content and evaluating it.

Keith is a retired BBC radio producer who has single-handedly put together a well-structured and informative 54-minute documentary presenting the arguments for life after death.  He is unashamedly pro-survival which may grate with those who expect their documentaries to present a balanced view.  The reason for this partisan approach is because Keith sees a bias against the survival hypothesis in media presentations and wants to cover aspects that are less frequently aired; apart from occasionally in religious programming, the subject is generally treated as entertainment and not taken seriously.

An engaging and sincere host, Keith’s stated aim to present the scientific case for the afterlife, which as far as he is concerned is too strong to be discounted.  He begins his investigation with an anecdote which had a great deal of significance for him.  When he visited a medium he was given messages from his deceased father and sister (whose names were supplied to him by the medium), and as far as he was concerned the choice was between the messages being genuine spirit communication, and the medium reading his mind.  His thesis is that an examination of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the former is far more likely than the latter.  Other possibilities, cold reading for instance, are not explored.

That experience was of course convincing on a personal level, but not necessarily to others, and Keith focuses on a number of areas, some historical, some contemporary, which he feels should convince the impartial viewer.  The first of these is the cross-correspondences, scripts independently recorded by a number of mediums, separated geographically, in the first third of the twentieth century.  He gives some simple examples of how these correspondences worked, fragments that by themselves were obscure and only made sense when combined.

The next stop is a brief look at Tom Oliver Whitlock, who died in action in 1916 and came through at séances in the 1950s.  This was one of Alan Gauld’s ‘drop-in communicators’, recorded in the literature with the pseudonym Harry Stockbridge.  ‘Tom’ supplied items of information which turned out to be correct but had to be verified by reference to a variety of sources, making fraud and super-psi less likely explanations than spirit communication.

For The Scole experiment Keith is fortunate to have been able to interview both Robin Foy, who was the main organiser of the séances, and David Fontana, a primary investigator.  They run through some of the phenomena recorded there and Keith exhibits the book written by Jane and Grant Solomon, but does not mention the SPR Proceedings which examined the phenomena in much greater depth, nor does he mention the critical comments Scole has attracted, apart from the locked box in which test films were kept during sittings.  Foy mentions that the sitters were never searched by the investigators, though he says that they would have complied had they been asked, but the investigators did search the séance room before and after each sitting.  Fontana vouches for the honesty of the sitters and stresses the implementation of controls to eliminate the possibility of fraud, though there is no mention that séances took place in complete darkness and the spirits refused to allow the use of infra-red cameras.  Fontana points out that the investigators had challenged conjurors to duplicate the phenomena under the same conditions but had not had any takers.  Overall, despite flaws, Parsons seems convinced of the genuineness of the bulk of the evidence gathered during the Scole sittings.

A description of an electrical device through which the Scole group received a twenty-minute message leads into a discussion of Electronic Voice Phenomena and Instrumental Transcommunication. Beginning with Frs Ernetti and Gemelli and their contact with the latter’s deceased father when the wire on the recorder they were using kept breaking, Keith moves on to Friedrich Jurgenson, Konstantin Raudive, and George Meek’s Spiricom.  He also visits Anabela Cardoso in Spain to see her experimental set-up.  Keith acknowledges that sounds can be open to interpretation, the background noise rendering it difficult to understand what is being said, but again considers this approach valuable in demonstrating survival.

The mediumship of Leonora Piper is covered, including the investigation mounted by Richard Hodgson, previously a sceptic and scourge of Madame Blavatsky, who changed his mind about survival as a result of his contact with Mrs Piper.  The final part of the documentary comprises a discussion of the relationship between brain and mind.  Bruce Greyson is interviewed saying that current discussions of how the brain relates to mental function are inadequate.  If the mind is not dependent on brain, then survival becomes more tenable.  To illustrate this point we are shown a clip from the BBC programme The Day I Died featuring the well-rehearsed Pam Reynolds case in which she had an aneurism and the blood was drained from her brain to repair it, yet she had an NDE.  It would be ironic if this is one of the items causing publication difficulties as the entire documentary is freely available (at least at the time of writing) on YouTube.

In addition to these strands, Keith lists a number of well-known researchers into life after death such as Sir William Crookes, Henry Sidgwick, Frederic Myers, Alfred Russel Wallace, Sir Oliver Lodge, Thomas Edison, John Logie Baird, William Barrett, William James, James Hyslop, Lord Rayleigh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (illustrated with the portrait from the National Portrait Gallery implicated in the Scole Polaroid of Conan Doyle – see Fortean Times Issue 261, April 2010, pp.64-65) and Arthur Balfour.  This is certainly an impressive list, and is intended to reassure the doubter that if such eminent men were convinced, there must be something in it.  Of course as reassurance for the doubter goes this is of limited value, though it is always worth being reminded of the range of talented individuals with an interest in survival.

While the presentation is generally sound, there are some issues with which it is possible to quibble.  For example Keith makes assumptions about the narrow extent of Mrs Piper’s knowledge (she is often portrayed as a woman of limited education), something about which I have always thought it pays to be cautious; and he repeats the myth that Edison invented the light bulb (Joseph Swan).  More significantly, he characterises Colin Brookes-Smith’s conclusion after studying the cross-correspondences to be that survival was the only conclusion to be drawn by any reasonable person, and that the SPR should announce this breakthrough to the world.  Keith believes that the SPR did not make such an announcement only because it has sceptics among its membership, individuals who present a major obstacle to the acceptance of survival.

However, this is not actually what Brookes-Smith said.  He talked (in the June 1963 issue of the SPR’s Journal) in weaker terms: “There must now be in existence a very large amount of script material from which, after making due allowance, it can be inferred that discarnate intelligences have at least partly contributed to the subject matter”.  He also talks about the scientific arguments for survival being presented to the public by “a team”, not as an official announcement by the SPR.  Making such an announcement would contravene the Society’s principle of not holding corporate views, so would not be possible.  This misrepresentation (or more likely misunderstanding) seems to have come from Victor Zammit’s book A Lawyer Presents the Case for the Afterlife, which is featured in the documentary.

Later Keith discusses Hodgson’s attack on Madame Blavatsky and says that in 1986 the SPR “officially retracted its verdict on her”.  The SPR did no such thing because it had no verdict to retract.  Keith is referring to an article by Vernon Harrison in the April 1986 issue of the SPR Journal which was critical of Richard Hodgson’s role in the original investigation of Blavatsky.  Harrison’s article was prefaced by an editorial note which says in part:

“Although, as it has been repeatedly pointed out, The S.P.R. holds no corporate opinions, it has widely been regarded as responsible for endorsing the 'Hodgson Report' (as we shall hereafter refer to the report as a whole) and hence as being on record as condemning Mme. Blavatsky.”

Critics of the original report have long, as indicated in the quotation, assumed that the Hodgson Report represented an official SPR ‘line’, but from the beginning of the SPR’s existence it has held that its publications are the responsibility of the authors, and do not represent an official view by the Society.  Harrison’s opinions were his alone, as would have been apparent from reading the editorial note accompanying his article.

Clearly Keith is impressed by much of the research he presents, and sees an increasing feeling among scientists that a theory of everything needs to incorporate consciousness.  He predicts a paradigm shift in which spirit and other dimensions are considered essential components in an understanding of reality.  As he rightly concludes, if we accept survival, that acceptance causes a change in our view both of ourselves and of the world.

There is a limit to what can be achieved in under an hour, and the resulting briskness could be confusing for the newcomer, but seeing it might encourage viewers to seek out a wider range of resources.  Unfortunately having produced the documentary at his own expense and in his own time, Keith has not been able to find a broadcaster willing to take it on.  It would be a shame if nobody heard about Keith Parson‘s project, and it joined those films which for one reason or another cannot be shown.

It would also be a pity to lose the interviews he conducted with a number of eminent researchers in the field: Archie Roy, David Fontana, Victor Zammit, Robin Foy, Anabela Cardoso, Bruce Greyson and Peter Fenwick.  In commercial terms its lack of balance is bound to harm its prospects so it seems unlikely that it will be picked up for national broadcast.  The alternative approach would be to strip out the elements for which copyright permission has not been granted and post it online.   Whatever one’s view of the individual topics covered, it is still good to see them aired in an accessible way, even though the overall feel is one of preaching to the converted.

I would like to thank Keith Parsons for his kindness in supplying a copy of the documentary.

*Update 21 June 2015

On 20 June 2015 a copy of the film was uploaded to YouTube.  I don’t know if Keith was involved in this or if it was done solely by other hands: the upload credit is to the cleverly named iDigitalMedium, part of whose aims is ‘To share all aspects of spirituality and creativity as they relate to our everyday lives in this age of technology, on the cusp of the re-enlightenment of the consciousness of mankind’.  It may have been carried out without Keith’s knowledge – Tim Coleman, for example, has long been fighting pirates who have illegally uploaded his film The Afterlife Investigations, but that is commercially available, whereas This Life, Next Life never has been.  iDigitalMedium seems a reputable organisation judging by its website so it is likely that Keith gave his permission.  The YouTube film is the same length as the DVD Keith sent me in 2010, so either copyright issues have been resolved, or simply ignored.  The film may disappear as suddenly as it appeared, but for the moment it can be found at:

Update 25 August 2015

Keith wrote to me to tell me about the film’s availability (24 August 2015).  I hadn’t been sure if he was aware that it is now on YouTube, but it was indeed done with his consent; a copy had been seen by someone in the US who asked Keith if he could upload it.  To date it has been viewed almost 15, 500 times and Keith was pleased with its reception, which has been largely positive.  As to copyright, the start of the online video has a declaration: ‘Produced for free, educational viewing only.  THIS IS NOT A COMMERCIAL VIDEO PRODUCT. Copyright – Keith Parsons – 2009.  Unlicensed materials are included under applicable Fair Use provisions.’  The first and last statements have been added to the beginning for the YouTube presentation (the middle two were on the original DVD).  Perhaps the copyright owners will be content to acknowledge fair use, or alternatively waive fees on the grounds that Keith is not making any money out of it, or they may not even notice his incorporation of their material.  It is certainly gratifying for Keith that after being in limbo for so long his labour of love is finally reaching an enthusiastic audience.