Thursday, 10 September 2015

The SPR: Making the Most of the Enfield Effect

Poster for The Enfield Haunting

The President’s letter from Prof. John Poynton and the article by John Fraser in the Summer 2015 issue of the Society for Psychical Research’s (SPR) magazine Paranormal Review together show many positive aspects to the SPR’s current situation.  Poynton notes that the substantial Buckmaster legacy is allowing it to fund an online encyclopaedia and improved website, and the financial situation is much sounder than it was a decade ago.  Research and publications in the field are buoyant and the SPR’s image is generally good in an intellectual climate which is increasingly receptive to the issues raised by psychical research.

Fraser points specifically to the ‘Enfield Effect’, the upsurge in membership applications and spontaneous case enquiries which followed in the wake of the recent television dramatisation based on the Enfield case, one linked to the SPR by the figures of Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair.  Yet there is a fly in the psychical ointment.  Both Johns highlight a largely uninterested media, Poynton as an example citing the vigorous campaign to make the press aware of Dr Barrie Colvin’s 2010 paper on poltergeist raps, an effort which was unsuccessful; Fraser to an overall lack of impact by the SPR, at a time when local groups have proliferated and media coverage of the paranormal has actually increased.

Fraser suggests two possibilities that may allow the SPR to capitalise on the Enfield bounce in the longer term.  One is to appoint a media officer, the other to reinstate the long-dormant position of investigations officer.  The latter would be paid, to avoid having to rely on volunteers.  These are both useful ideas though personally I do not think they go far enough.

There used to be a media officer in the form of the immensely energetic Monty Keen.  One of his initiatives was to draw up a list of publications across all relevant subjects, and divide them among Council members who would keep an eye out for negative comments that could be countered, and opportunities for generating publicity.  In the event neither of these tactics proved effective.  Media indifference is not a new phenomenon.

The landscape has changed enormously since then and media enquiries are occasionally received through the website, but while welcome, their general impact seems fairly small.  Coverage often focuses on the early days, which simultaneously tells people the SPR has done noteworthy things while suggesting that these days it is irrelevant.  That is the situation which has to be changed, to show that the SPR still has something valuable to say.

An investigations officer would be beneficial, especially someone with a broad range of skills that encompass both experimental and spontaneous areas, who would be able to dedicate more time than volunteers can and be able to work up the results that could then be publicised.  Again though the impact might be limited, with no greater success with sophisticated material in breaking down the barriers than was the case with Colvin’s raps paper.

In the absence of such a post it should still be possible to conduct meaningful research with the resources available.   Admittedly it is difficult for individuals with other commitments to be able to undertake extended projects, but after all the SPR’s Spontaneous Cases Committee has a large number of individuals on it so there is no reason why it should not be effective in undertaking and promoting research.

At one time John Stiles, as Honorary Liaison Officer for Spontaneous Cases, kept a list of suitable SPR members to whom incoming cases could be referred, depending on location, which he would then follow up.  But he complained that the numbers of cases was getting smaller each year and the position lapsed when he retired from Council in 2003.  With numbers of cases on the rise such a mechanism to draw on members’ expertise would augment the SCC’s numbers and aid its efficiency.

These initiatives alone would probably still not be enough to prevent the surge of interest identified by Messrs Poynton and Fraser from receding.  The core problem underlying the SPR’s inability to overcome media inertia and reach a broader swathe of the sympathetic public I believe is rooted in its approach to research.  The odd high-profile activity (Enfield, the 1999 Scole Report) is not enough to gain the necessary momentum.  The SPR needs a sustained programme of research that is identified with the SPR rather than only the individuals carrying it out.

In the early days of the Society’s existence the undertaking of projects by senior figures in the Society was clearly defined, but nowadays it is likely to award grants to researchers at other institutions whose work is then associated with that institution rather than with the SPR.  It has mainly become a mechanism for administering grants and publicising the work of others rather than promoting work undertaken under its aegis.

Instead of this hands-off approach there is a case for having the SPR’s name closely linked to research, while maintaining its lack of corporate views.  Fraser refers to the Scole Report as achieving an unusually high profile outside the Society, but it is notable in recent years for being closely associated with the Society, rather than a project that was undertaken by a trio of investigators who happened to be members of the Society but were not identified with it.  The SPR needs to encourage researchers, whether funded by it or not, to associate themselves with the organisation in the same way.

Emphasising such linkages was part of the thinking behind the formation of the Research Activities Committee in 1992.  Prof. Bernard Carr outlined its remit in the January 1999 issue of Paranormal Review.  Of its various aims, he said that ‘the RAC's main task is to commission and foster promising research projects, rather than to undertake corporate research itself, although in some cases the Committee has encouraged “in-house” research.’  Unfortunately over the years the committee became moribund until it was wound up in early 2014.  That it was unlamented when it was put out of its misery is suggested by the lack of any reference to its termination in the Society’s 2013-14 Annual Report.

That is a shame because a body like the RAC could act as a focus to stimulate research while closely connecting those researchers to the Society.  It would nurture a symbiotic relationship, with the Society providing the funding (and attention should additionally be turned to increasing the relatively small amounts of money available) while, and this is the key point, the researchers emphasise that their primary affiliation is to the SPR.

That relationship would have a number of mutually reinforcing outcomes.  It would demonstrate the Society’s continuing relevance to the public, the media and other relevant organisations (not least the Parapsychological Association, the parapsychologists’ professional body); it would strengthen the network of researchers in the field and encourage them, whether SPR-funded or not, to publish in its magazines;  its Journal and annual conference would be able to attract the best research in the field; it would encourage membership growth; it would assist the SPR’s educational work, which is part of its charitable obligation; it would encourage passive members to become active and even conduct their own research; and the media might take notice of such a vigorous level of activity.

So the answer to the question in John Fraser’s subtitle – ‘Is the Recent Increased Interest in the Society for Psychical Research a Temporary Blip, or an Unmissable Opportunity?’ – is that the Enfield Effect has been a splendid opportunity which will ripple for a time but will eventually fade into the background.  A single bounce is never going to be enough, however significant it is in itself.  There are initiatives that will help to maintain the SPR’s profile in a sustainable way, notably the online encyclopaedia.  Social media plays a positive role, and an improved website will generate interest.  But more is needed, research that is relevant, done by SPR members who are not afraid to be seen primarily as SPR members and who are happy to promote that affiliation.

Perhaps this approach can be summed up by arguing that the SPR needs to position itself as a research institute as opposed to a learned society.  Whether that is possible will depend on its ability to project confidence in its potential alongside pride in its past achievements.  Above all it needs to possess the self-belief that it can match the heady days of its youth, rather than jog along in the lengthy shadow cast by its founders.  If it can do that it will be said with justice that there is a tide in the affairs of the SPR which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.


Carr, Bernard, ‘Research Activities in the SPR: New Initiatives’, Paranormal Review, issue 9, January 1999, pp. 3-5.

Colvin, Barrie, ‘The Acoustic Properties of Unexplained Rapping Sounds’, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 73, April 2010, pp. 65-93.

Fraser, John, ‘The Enfield Effect: Is the Recent Increased Interest in the Society for Psychical Research a Temporary Blip, or an Unmissable Opportunity?’, Paranormal Review, issue 75, Summer 2015, p. 30.

Keen, Montague, Ellison, Arthur and Fontana, David, ‘The Scole Report’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 58, 1999.

Poynton, John, ‘President’s Letter: A Tide in the Affairs of Men’, Paranormal Review, issue 75, Summer 2015, pp. 4-5.