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I have been interested in the paranormal since my days at Cambridge, where I once heard a lecture by Prof. C. D. Broad formerly Professor of Moral Philosophy, who was devoting a busy retirement to Psychical Research. He was expounding the famous Soul-Shackleton experiments conducted by Dr. S. G. Soul, a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics at King's London, on the telepathic, and possibly precognitive, powers of Basil Shackleton. Conducted with elaborate and apparently foolproof precautions against information reaching Shackleton by any normal means, and producing results so striking that the odds against as good a result being obtained by chance were billions to one, those experiments persuaded a great many formerly skeptical people of the possibility of non-physical transfer of information from one person to another. On the strength of that research and similar work with Gloria Stuart, Soul was awarded a Doctorate by King's College London.
In the course of the following years I remained mildly interested in the subject, occasionally reading a little about it. I inclined to the view expounded by A.G.N. Flew in A new Approach to Psychical Research, where he argued that there do seem to be phenomena for which we have no explanation, but that does not justify assuming that no scientific explanation can ever be found, especially since explanations usually offered by 'psychics' in terms of spirits are logically incoherent, and there are no repeatable experiments by which theories can be properly tested.
In 1981 I got to know a Japanese
student who hoped to do research on Parapsychology with Dr. John Beloff
in Edinburgh. At the time Beloff lectured in Psychology in the
University of Edinburgh and, unusually for a specialist in that
subject, thought that there might be something worth investigating in
the many reports of the paranormal. Although his research post never
materialized my friend spent some time in Edinburgh improving his
English and he persuaded me to join him in a conference in Cambridge in
the Summer of 1982. It was a joint conference of the Society For Psychical Research (SPR),
celebrating its Centenary, and the (American) Parapsychology
Association, celebrating its 25th Jubilee.
At the time Uri Geller was much talked about and 'spoon bending' was all the rage, so one evening conference members were invited to a spoon bending party - spoons were not de riguer, forks were an acceptable alternative. We were instructed to sit around and concentrate on our piece of cutlery. To stimulate our psycho kinetic powers and concentrate them on producing the desired effect, we were advised to stroke our object gently. A few people did after a while present seriously distorted cutlery, but I suspected that that was because the 'stroking' had gradually turned into pressing hard. One participant was so excited by his bent fork that he fainted.
My interest having been raised to a higher pitch by the conference, on my return home I joined the Manchester Association for Parapsychology. That met monthly in a pub in central Manchester, when it would usually be addressed by the practitioner of some mystical art, and I found it remarkable how many such arts were practiced.
There were of course astrologers,
the burden of casting horoscopes much lightened by the advent of the
personal computer, also palmists, a UFO investigator, numerous people
who saw auras, and almost everyone except me was a dowser. All those
I'd expected, but there was also hypnotic regression to supposed past lives,
psychic massage - that's when the healing hands don't actually touch
the patient, water with a memory linked to (literally) electrified
people, name therapy where your future prospects can be much improved
by a carefully planned change of name, but only if you employ a solicitor to do it through
the official channels and pay, and finally psychic kung
fu, expounded by an enthusiast who confided that the secret was to aim
straight for the goolies - on the spiritual plane of course.
It is worth commenting briefly on
dowsing. The popular picture of the dowser is someone seeking water
with a bent twig or a coat hanger. Actually most dowsing is done with a
pendulum, which dowsers have adapted to finding, or attempting to find,
The pendulum oscillates in a
horizontal circle, either clockwise, or anti-clockwise. If one attaches
a small weight to one end of a string, and holds the string by the other
end the small involuntary motions of one's hand usually start circular
motion in the weight. Dowsers usually start by calibrating their pendulum by saying 'Give me a
yes' The direction of the subsequent rotation is taken as 'yes' and rotation in the
opposite sense as 'no'. Most questions that do not admit of a
simple yes/no answer can be reduced to a series of simpler questions
that do. For instance we once visited a stone circle in Derbyshire and
tried to dowse its age, using binary subdivision. So someone might
start by saying 'Is it more than 10000 years old ?' given the answer
'no' the next question would be 'is it more than 5000 years old', and
ten questions should suffice to determine the age to within ten years.
Dowsers say that everyone can dowse, but in my experience the answers
to different questions are often inconsistent. In any case one cannot
rule out wishful thinking. I found that if I wanted the pendulum to
rotate in a particular direction, it usually did, even though I made a
point of not influencing it by any deliberate movement of my hand.
The psychics even had their professional association, or rather two professional associations. Importing into the spiritual plane some of the base concerns of the material world, they divided between the genteel association of the Guild, and the cloth cap solidarity of the Union.
More intriguing than any of the speakers we actually heard, was one who couldn't make it. Barbara Brandolini, reputed to have a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling of the boudoir in which she gave Tarot readings, had excited the local press by her proposal to convert a redundant Baptist Church into a Pagan Temple. Alas, she couldn't keep her appointment to address us because she was giving evidence against a man who'd tried to employ her to magic his wife to death.
Apart from its regular meetings the Association from time to time undertook investigations of apparently paranormal events, such as hauntings or poltergeists. Some members of the group also belonged to the SPR which sometimes referred cases to us. We then acted as a filter, making a preliminary investigation to decide whether it was worth the SPR marshallings their big guns on the case. We proved a very efficient filter, since, so far as I can recall, we never judged any phenomenon worthy of further investigation.
It was quite hard to mount and investigation, as that usually involved a lot of work by a lot of investigators. First the people who thought they had a problem needed to be interviewed, and the premises inspected to see if there were any obvious normal explanations of whatever it was that seemed to be happening.
There would then usually be an overnight observation. That had to be done mainly by people who did not know the background story so that their observations would not be coloured by hearing it. As it is preferable that observers work in pairs, anything up to 6 or 8 would be required for that task alone. I have spent a several nights watching in buildings supposed to be haunted, though I have never observed anything unusual happen. Apart from listening and watching to see if anything unusual happened, we usually took the temperature at regular intervals, usually every 15 minutes. It's common for stories of hauntings to include claims of sudden temperature changes. In fact I was surprised how stable temperatures were, rarely varying by more than a couple of degrees in the course of a night. We also usually observed in darkness - we had torches to read the thermometer. That seemed to be rather a bad way to see what if anything was going on, but I suppose it might have been the most promising way to spot a faintly glowing diaphanous object such as people sometimes claim to have seen.
Once investigations were completed everyone involved wrote a report, and eventually everything would be put together and presented first to the afflicted people in a final interview, and then to the Association at one of its meetings, and, if it was an SPR case, eventually to them.
My first investigation concerned the alleged haunting of a pub somewhere in the East of Greater Manchester - I think it was in the region of Hyde. The pub backed up to a canal which was much lower than the road at the front of the pub, so there were two stories below street level but above the level of the canal, they were treated as cellars, though from the canal they were above ground. I think that at one time deliveries may have been made by canal; there was an entrance from the tow path but it was no longer used.
We were told that the landlord did not want it to be generally known that an investigation was under way, so we were asked to drift unobtrusively into the bar, and simply stay there at closing time. Of course there had to be someone present who had already met the landlord, to vouch for the rest of us. When we arrived our co-ordinater said that the landlord asked him to provide a cover story for our presence by pretending we were Brewery security staff helping to solve the pub's other problem, the frequent disappearance of money from the till. Fortunately I'd brought a clip board with me, so I got it out and I and another investigator walked around behind the bar discussing possible sitings for security cameras, while I occasionally made little doodles on my clip board. The locals, however, were not fooled and all seemed to know that we were there to 'catch the ghost'.
It was my first time in a pub after closing time. I don't know what usually happens, but in that pub the departure of the customers was the signal for the really serious drinking to begin, and after a while we were waiting impatiently for the landlord and his wife to go to bed so we could set up cameras and start. As they described the ghostly manifestations at length, our status as unprejudiced observers was completely undermined.
The key event had occurred one night when the landlord and his wife were locking up, and as whoever had the keys went to lock the door to the cellar, the other said 'I think there's someone still down there - I saw someone go down a few minutes ago and I haven't seen them come out' However, everyone who was supposed to be on the premises was in the bar area, and the cellar was empty. Hence the supposition that whatever had been seen descending into the cellar must be a ghost. That seemed to be the only sighting.
There had also sometimes been smells of burning in one area of the bar - the area in question contained a large grill used for preparing bar snacks so the incineration of stray crumbs of toast would have explained those observations.
A medium whom the landlord and his wife had called in had held a seance, during which he'd detected a presence of some sort, and during his seance the dog had 'had diarrhea on the new lounge carpet' an event which had made a great impression on them, though it's psychic significance was never clear to me.
I was one of two investigators stationed in the cellar in charge of a camera pointed up the steps so that we could photograph anything we might see descending towards us, moving in the direction of the original apparition. The cellar was used to store bottle of spirits, and I remember noticing about a dozen bottle of Drambuie. Had we loaded the contents of the cellar into a car and made off with it, they wouldn't have noticed till morning. One thing that struck me on a number of investigations was remarkable extent to which people are prepared to give complete strangers the run of their premises. I think it shows how worried people are by happenings they don't understand. The people at the centre of supposedly paranormal happening are certainly worried and frightened, even if it's only of their own shadows.
And so far as the pub is
concerned, that's it. Absolutely nothing untoward or interesting
happened for the whole night.
So far as tales of ghosts are concerned, people in psychic circles consider that the strange experiences people report are hallucinations, purely mental events. Past events may somehow leave some trace in certain places, and those traces may somehow stimulate the imaginations of some people, but what those people think they see and hear has no other realty outside their minds. So far as I know, there is no independent evidence of any such traces of past events.
Another case we investigated was the Swinton Poltergeist. In the course of that investigation I had my only encounter with trance mediumship.
The poltergeist allegedly threw things around in a suburban house in Swinton and left threatening notes which were written in strange wiggly writing and signed 'your heavenly Farther' The theologically alert thought that misspelling most significant!
The household consisted of a retired couple, a son aged about 30, and a grandson aged about 20. It was the 20 year old whose handwriting the SPR's graphologist matched to the putative communications from on high. and the threats were directed at his grandfather.
It was also the 20 year old who had taken photographs purportedly showing a ghost emerging from a wardrobe. Members of the investigating team managed to produce closely similar photographs by inflating a large plastic bag and trapping it in a wardrobe door.
We were the family's last resort. The diocesan exorcist had exorcised in vain, the spiritualists had failed to detect any uneasy spirit and had said that if anything was happening it must be fraud. The Chinese exorcist had written Chinese prayers on sheets of paper, burnt the paper, mixed the ashes with water, and walked round the house taking mouthfuls of the mixture and spitting it out on the walls. All to no avail. Eventually they came to us - I seem to recall that the local Library had given them the address of the SPR, which had in turn referred the case to us, but I'm not completely sure of that. Cases were often referred to us by the SPR.
So alarmed were they all (or possibly all but one) at the apparent manifestations from another world, that all four of them slept together on mattresses on the floor of one of the downstairs rooms.
I took part in an overnight watch. To make sure none of them tried to engineer a happening we sealed them in their downstairs bedroom by stapling wires across the doors. The fuse wire we used would have been easily broken so that would not have prevented their leaving in an emergency such as a fire, but we'd have known if they had done so. As a precaution against more routine emergencies, we provided them with a bucket. In the course of a distinctly boring night we observed nothing of interest.
At another session to investigate the same case we tried a ouija board, getting what I gather is typical ouija board nonsense like 'bananas' a word often produced by ouija boards. There were two retired midwives present I'll call them Doris and Johnson (those aren't their real names, but the one I'll refer to as Johnson liked always to be referred to by her surname; she was the medium). Doris and Johnson had dealt with ouija boards before and knew that what they needed was discipline.
So they gave our ouija board a good talking to. It went something like this:
'We have been having fun haven't we?, and of course there's nothing wrong with a little fun now and again, but we can't just have fun all the time. Sometimes there are more serious things to do, and now is one of those times, so lets try to answer some questions properly shall we!'
That shut up the poor ouija board completely, so Johnson suggested that we put the board on the floor beside her chair and that she shut her eyes, relax, and use her hand as pendulum to select letters. When we tried this there were initially one or two letters that made no sense and then she started speaking in a low hesitant voice, assuming the persona of 'Mary'. 'Mary' was the only name she gave us. I gather that in such cases people try to get infomation that could be checked against official records. Mary said she was about 14 years old, and worked at a farm, but we couldn't get Mary's surname, the farmers name, the address, or a date - the reigning monarch was said to be Victoria but there was no indication as to when in Victoria's long reign Mary had worked at the farm, so there was nothing we could check.
After a few minutes Johnson sat up, noticed us all looking at her, and said 'I've been off, haven't I' and we told her what had transpired. She had no memory of what she had said while channelling Mary. Johnson had at one time acted as a trance medium, but had given it up several years before because she found it tiring - I guess she was in her late seventies when this happened.
Two dowsers involved in the
investigation claimed to have detected what they called 'black lines of
evil power' linking the house to Swinton Church. The black, they
explained, was not a physical colour, but some non-optical character of
lines of power (sometimes called 'ley lines) There was, however, no
independent evidence to link the supposed lines with anything
detectable by any means other than dowsing. Indeed, there was no independent evidemce that there were any such lines at all. The keener dowsers in our circle were prone to detect black lines in the region of any investigation.
The story had a happy ending; the events stopped when the 20 year old found a girl friend.
Another overnight investigation took place on the premises of a small knitware company that made women's dresses. Five ladies worked in a unit on an industrial estate, a great barn of a place, with dresses and pieces of dresses scattered about higgledy piggledy all over the place. The principal testimony came from one of the ladies who gave an animated description of seeing whole cohorts of Roman soldiers drilling among the dresses. She had not been alarmed, as experiences of the 'other world' were no novelty to her; at the age of only 7 she had had a personal visit from God the Father.
With one exception the stories told by other
staff were all second hand reports of that one lady's
experiences. The exception was the story of the extra dress told
by the two sisters who owned the business. They said that one
evening, just before going home, they had counted 12 finished dresses,
but that when they arrived the following morning there were 13. I
wasn't sure whether the Roman soldiers were supposed to have made the
extra dress. We thought that in the state of confusion that reigned in
the workshop, it would have been easy to miscount.
As well as such large scale
operations, the group also had smaller investigation of individuals
claiming to have some special skill or power.
We once dealt with someone who
claimed to be able to tell by looking at photographs which of the
people shown were still alive and which were dead. Many photographs
contain clues that make it easy to guess. For instance if the style of
dress and the makes of motor car indicate the photograph was taken
about 60 years ago, it is reasonable to guess that all the adults who
appear in the picture are now dead. So the number of correct answers
would not on its own have indicated whether the subject had any special
power. We had to compare the subject's score with the results obtained
by people who based their answers on clues in the photographs. We found
that using those clues enabled us to do rather better than the subject.
Indeed the subject gave correct answers for less than half the people
shown in our collection of test photographs, which is worse than might
have been expected had he answered by tossing a coin.
A bizarre case was that of the
scoutmaster who believed be was a reincarnation of a medieval German
prince. He spent his holidays in Germany and Italy investigating that
prince's life, remarking coyly that he 'seemed to have a way with
German women' The women who interested him were not only German, as he
took to ringing up a member of the investigating team, a happily
married woman, to tell her that he was convinced he and she were 'meant
for one another'
Although they uncovered no evidence of the supernatural, the group's investigations did seem to be helpful in one way, in so far as the disturbing events that prompted people to call us in usually stopped after we investigated them. As the people concerned usually wanted them to stop, that was a success from their point of view.
In the course of my involvement with psychics and the various investigation I gradually became more skeptical, not just of the theories psychics advance, which are usually laughable, but of the reality of the phenomena they were trying to explain, or perhaps it would be better to say the nature of those phenomena, since it became apparent that what we were dealing with were confused people and their strange beliefs, not with any reality external to the minds of those people. It was not just that nothing significant ever happened in the course of any investigation, that might have been my bad luck. It was more my concern at the confused thought and propensity for optimistic self deception shown by many people involved in the paranormal. I don't mean just the people who claimed to have experienced the paranormal in the cases we investigated; their state of confusion was obvious to all concerned, but even many of the people simply expressing an interest in the subject and attending meetings to discuss it, seemed most anxious to persuade themselves that there was 'something in it' often almost to the point of wilful self deception.
One thing that intrigued me in the attitudes of many who professed belief in the paranormal was a combination of scepticism in particular cases with general gullibility. It was common for people to express a conviction that 'there must be something in it', even though they rejected every particular case they encountered. That is not just a generalisation from the people I met in the course of investigation. I had also joined Society for Psychical Research and formed the same opinion about many of the people who wrote for the magazine and spoke at the two conferences I attended in the 1980's. Another consideration that undermined my confidence in the enterprise was the way investigations were conducted. I've already remarked that investigations were often conducted overnight and in darkness. Observers were tired and bored. Under those conditions is would be easy to imagine something happening when nothing did, and should anything of interest have happened, it would have been hard to tell precisely what it was. For instance in our Poltergeist investigation, had some object been thrown across the room, we should not have been able to see whether an intruder had crept into the room to throw it or, indeed, whether another investigator had thrown it.
Eventually I discovered that the much cited Soul/Shackleton experiments had turned out to be fraudulent after all, not because there was any flaw in the experimental procedure, but because the records of the experiments had been altered afterwards by Dr. Soul himself. Once I discovered that I decided that parapsychology was just a a study of human gullibility.
Since leaving the Manchester area in 1993, I've been involved in only one investigation, which was conducted through the cix conferencing system and tested a dowser's ability to delay the souring of milk. The results of that test were negative.
The paranormal is now just a minor interest. I agree with the Skeptics that the subject provides some interesting examples of the way people sometimes think, and the way they view the world, but tells us nothing else about the way the world is.