Well we come at last to my final review of the 2011 Cheltenham Science Festival, Richard Wiseman’s Seance at the Playhouse Theatre. Professor Wiseman was of course up to his old tricks — a despicable performance in which he tortured kittens, sacrificed goats to Dawkinsabub and then hypnotised the audience who compliantly became his slaves as he indoctrinated them against all that is good and holy — oh, sorry, no, that was my Paranormality review. Actually he was fantastic, and this was probably my favourite event of the week, though of course after over half a lifetime in psychical research I’m rather biased. Not many people can say this was there second (or actually fourth or fifth) séance they have observed this year at the Playhouse!
So what is Wiseman’s Seance? It’s a look at the phenomena of the Victorian physical mediumship scene (though of course such phenomena continues to be reported to this day, though less commonly – the Noah’s Ark Society produced some physical mediums I believe, and the Scole Group are the outstanding late twentieth century example). I doubt many in the audience today would know what I was on about it here, but it does not matter, as Wiseman provides a self contained, entertaining and actually rather informative narrative/experiment. Put aside your prejudices for a moment, and consider what Professor Wiseman has to teach us. I’m going to assume you know who Richard Wiseman is, because let’s face it apart from a few tribes living in the most impenetrable jungles of E17 who have never seen a Guardian readers face everyone knows who Richard Wiseman is, and if this week was anything to go by, regards him as a dear and bosom pal, have done several shows with him, and have taken deep personal offence to my Paranormality review (despite me giving it 5 stars on Amazon…) If you don’t know, flip back through my blog – he is the guy who gets mentioned more than my girlfriend, which has to be unhealthy!
So, to start with Richard shows a large picture of Houdini and asks the audience who it was. I was so tempted to shout Ehrich Weiss! (Houdini’s name, well actually that is the Anglicized spelling he adopted later, but close enough). Before I got the chance someone answered correctly. So how did I know? Well because I happen to be a fan of Mr Weiss/Houdini, and have a few biographies, and this may surprise many of you, a number of books on conjuring and magic. I think it was the influence of another psychical researcher and very young magician, Mike Rose (UK), who I knew in Bury St Edmunds when he was still a young but very talented boy that led me to get interested. I’m good at the patter, but lack the practice, practice, practice that makes one a magician — but I genuinely enjoy my amateur conjuring exploits . I hate card tricks as it happens, but mind reading tricks delight me. I’m rubbish, but I do also love the history of magic, and read what I can, and yes I’m well aware of Houdini’s crusade against the spirits and the Scientific American committee controversy over Margery (Mina Crandon). All this is pretty much by the by, for Richard gave a very brief but highly amusing history of physical mediumship, and Houdini acted as a framing device.
Before I actually stop digressing and start reviewing, two quick things. An excellent biography of Houdini which I found very readable if that of Kalush and Sloman — but if you are interested in the psychical research aspect and the infamous Houdini codes then try to find a copy of Rinn, which I do not own. For the history of magic I always recommend Hiding the Elephant, a great book by Jim Steinmeyer. Secondly, and even more of an aside, sceptics are fond of telling me that James Randi has clearly shown that all psychical research is flawed by trained magicians not being involved — which shows a colossal ignorance of the pioneers of psychical research, a surprising number of whom were actually talented amateur magicians, yes even Harry Price who had a wonderful collection of rare magic books, now part of the University of London’s Harry Price Collection. One day I plan to write an essay on psychic researchers and magic, but to be honest Richard Wiseman could do it a hundred times better. Anyway, before you quote Project Alpha at me, or mention Randi and conjurers being needed in the investigation of mediums or spooks, please, please take out life insurance, and/or check your facts. Rant over.
OK, OK, the review! Richard Wiseman is a genuinely funny guy, and his presentation was both factually accurate and hilarious as he did a rather iconoclastic (by inference) blast through Daniel Dunglas Hume, the Fox Sisters, Katie King, in fact all the usual suspects for a quick presentation on physical mediumship. Only Agnes Guppy and Eusapia Palladino deserved a name check and failed to appear, possibly because they are too funny even for Richard’s wicked wit. Still, I nodded approvingly – Richard had a fairly neutral tone I thought, given his well known beliefs, but he was setting the scene for what was to come.
Which was,as the name suggests, a séance. Now Derren Brown did a show called Seance, which I rather suspect Richard was involved with somehow, though I do not know that. That was as far as I recall about “mental mediumship”, that is talking to the dead, Derek Acorah/Colin Fry style. This was about physical mediumship, which I could easily spend the next couple of hours discussing, but for the sake of this review it will suffice to say that it involves the spirits doing physical stuff, that is, moving objects around, physically manifesting (usually but not always out of a substance called “ectoplasm”) and otherwise physically interacting with the world.
He then asked for ten volunteers from the audience; people were allowed to opt out by raising their hands, and I did so immediately, as I had read his write ups of his earlier seances using the same model, and let’s face it I have a bit of experience in investigating seances (I have sat in well over a hundred now despite my religious objections and general distaste for them, as an observer rather than a participant). So I definitely DID NOT want to spoil the fun. Anyway I was sneakily taking photos of the side of the theatre, for reasons I’ll mention later in this review.
A quick test for suggestibility, ten audience members were selected and taken off to the séance room. Now you could see Wiseman the psychologist coming through; he performed a process of open disclosure and informed consent which would pass any Research Ethics committee, and commendably so. They all knew what they were letting themselves in for, and commendably so! They were taken off to another room – the panelled room just to the right of the Stage door near the Playhouse Bar as it happens, and then with a melodramatic patter that would embarrass any TV medium with it’s gleeful over the top-ness, they sat in the Victorian style séance room in total darkness, holding hands and controlling the medium (Wiseman) by holding his hands. For us still in the auditorium, it was all rather fun — for the poor volunteers it may well have been spine chilling!
And we could see just fine, as a Night Vision camera (active IR I’m guessing?) gave us a wonderful look at EXACTLY what was going on inside the room. The objects on the table were marked with phosphorescent tape, so the sitters could see them move, and move they did! A wicker ball rose in the air, castanets rattled, and so forth. In fact the table even lifted up in the air and moved violently. And the method used? Exactly the same as that used by my fake seances in my freeform live action roleplaying game Last Flight of the Albatross, which a few of you may have played in! So what was the method?
Um. I’m not going to say.
I’m not a magician, I’m not bound by that brotherhood’s code of secrecy. That it was faked you know, and faked by methods that require no real conjuring skill by the fact you know I have done it in the past for tw runs of the aforementioned game – right down to the table rattling. In fact because my “sitters” were playing in character, and because the séance in my game lasted rather longer, it was I think arguably more effective than Richard’s, what with all the screaming. So why not say? Well because to do so spoils the fun here: it was not by any method that any sensible psychical researcher would not immediately spot. If you want to know, look up Richard’s JSPR article on the Fielding Report on the Naples sitting with Eusapia Palladino – because no one ever hits the donate button on this blog (this may count as an unsubtle hint!) I can not afford to rejoin the SPR yet and my LEXSCIEN account has lapsed, but if you look up the terms I just mentioned in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research you will find the article, and just assume it was a rather simpler version of that, requiring no carpentry!
The idea for the series of experiments was created by Richard with the wonderful Andy Nyman who did the West End show Ghost Stories, and like that is simple but remarkably effective. I thought it worked really well, and the audience (and I among them) loved it, but honestly, the science festival attendees while clearly nervous were just not primed to lose it half as much as people did during the real seances Ross Andrews ran at the Playhouse during the Paranormal Festival earlier in the year. No trickery was used there, and any phenomena were real, and heck, did people scream, shout, freak out and have intense emotional experiences — all real.
And here is my first critique. In all my hundred plus séance experiences/observations, at Derby Gaol, a couple of dozen other places, and here in the Playhouse Theatre, I never faked anything. Stuff happened, people freaked out, people were convinced. But it was real – which is not to say it was necessarily paranormal, indeed many times I am absolutely convinced it was not, but people had very intense experiences. Here the volunteers did not seem to come close, and the reason was Richard was working against the almost impossible problem they knew it was faked, and they were at a Wiseman show. Not completely impossible to overcome as I shall explain in part 2 of this review, but certainly difficult. For now I need a rest so part 2 will follow tomorrow…
I have a lot more to say,and most of it good!
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) are probably known to many readers of this blog: I first joined back in 1992, was a member for a couple of years, and after a fifteen year hiatus have recently once again become an Associate member. Some of you may still be storing SPR Journals and Proceedings for me – if so thanks! Perhaps some readers would consider joining up?
Founded in 1882 the SPR are still Britain’s (if not the world’s) leading parapsychological organisation, and hold regular monthly meetings in London as well as occasional Study Days which are always worth the effort. The London based nature of most events makes me an irregular attendee – London is about as accessible to the Moon for me with no car and no money, and Becky is based in Derby so it’s not much easier for her — but the excellent Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR), and a popular magazine The Paranormal Review arrive in the post four times a year and are never devoid of interest. (There are also irregular occasional Proceedings (PSPR). In fact these form much of the basis for my reading in what is going on in contemporary parapsychology, along with the excellent Journal of European Parapsychology (not an SPR publication). On top of these benefits, SPR members also receive a generous download provision from another independent project, LEXSCIEN, the online parapsychology library -- where one can search through, read or print as needed 150 years worth of peer reviewed psychical research and parapsychological literature. Unfortunately I had already joined LEXSCIEN before rejoining the SPR, but it really is a huge plus to SPR membership for anyone interested in the subject – you can take a look at Abstracts and a few bits and pieces for free anyway.
Of course the greatest benefit is the other members: I have been privileged to have the opportunity to meet so many people, from the late John Beloff, Manfred Cassirer, Maurice Grosse and Andrew Mackenzie through to the many wonderful people I have learned a great deal from and whose work I knew, such as Tony Cornell, Tom Ruffles, Alan Gauld, Mary Rose Barrington, Archie Roy, David Luke, Tricia Robertson, Terry White, Guy Lyon Playfair, John Randall and Eleanor O’ Keeffe and many many more interesting people through the SPR’s events. And we should not forget the offices and library in London where members can find a wealth or research materials and assistance!
Ghosthunters & The SPR
Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in “spontaneous cases”: that is non-experimental psychical research. (Mrs Sidgwick seems to have originated that distinction and the phrase “spontaneous cases” in the Report on the Census of Hallucinations in PSPR, vol 10, 1894 I noted yesterday!) So now we have ghost groups, often deeply committed and sometimes very efficiently run, all over the country. These “local groups” like Cheltenham’s PARASOC however always maintain a distance from the SPR, I suspect more through ignorance of what the Society has to offer than by design. Some people are just in to the subject for “legend tripping” – they enjoy a spooky night in a haunted house, but want little more from their hobby. Many are put off I suspect by the dry prose of psychical research literature, especially some of the papers which feature quantitative methodologies and page after page of statistics, or just by the fact that articles are very technical. Yet the Paranormal Review rarely features such papers, and even if one is not willing to fire up SPSS (a stats computer program) to check the stats for oneself, the peer reviewed nature of the JSPR means one can always learn something from an article and have faith that the numbers mean what the author states!
So why don’t ghosthunters from local groups join the SPR? You don’t have to be a brilliant academic with a brain like the Mekon – you can be a normal person, and don’t have to speak like you swallowed a thesaurus.
The SPR is far less stuffy than many similar academic groups, warm and accepting. From the earliest days the membership ranged from the brilliant and famous (and many were) through the mighty and powerful (Balfour was Secretary of the SPR while Prime Minister, and on some old Proceedings the address for correspondence is given as 10 Downing Street, London!) through the scandalous and eccentric (George Sand) to the humble – chambermaids, undermaids and grocer’s assistants appear in the lists of members. Nothing has changed (except you can’t send mail to number 10 any more!).
Now the SPR is not, and never has been cheap, compared with joining your local ghost group. What it does do however is you bring you in to the mainstream and give you access to what has gone before in psychical research, and give you a chance to contribute insights and research to the wider parapsychological community. Long term readers of this blog may recall my piece on “types of ghosthunters” where each category I jokingly discussed ended “and never publish their results.” Of course many groups do publish newsletters, or decent websites where they chronicle their findings, but if you don’t publish in a mainstream publication, and I suspect some of the cases people have studied would make great Paranormal Review articles at least, how can you say you are doing scientific work? Scientists publish their results, and share with each other. While the peer reviewed JSPR may prove daunting to many with a non-academic background to write for, that is the aim. (they were kind enough to publish something of mine, and I’m not brilliant!). Even if you don’t want to write up articles , you can file your reports with the SPR library, and providing they are readable I am sure the SPR will be willing to store them for future researchers.
On top of all this the SPR has a number of members with a huge amount of experience in investigating spontaneous cases, and a Spontaneous Cases Committee who can usually help you, and put you in touch with a local member who will provide valuable knowledge and experience in your investigation if you so desire. How else will you be able to say as Venkman did “Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947?”, if you don’t know the literature?
The SPR has been doing this research for 150 years, so why do so many groups stand apart? They do NOT affiliate with local groups, by long term principle, but they will still give you as a member all kinds of valuable ideas and information you can bring to bear on your own research efforts, and provide a forum to discuss and meet with genuine experts in the field. The new SPR updated website has for the first time an online payment form – current annual membership prices are (January 2010) £60/ £40 unwaged/ £30 student, but honestly, you would pay more for a lot of psychical research related books and events out there.
I’m sure many of us have signed up to a local group only to later find they have a secret mission – in the case of the old Cheltenham group (CPRG) taking over the world, but in the case of many groups simply finding the Holy Grail or defeating the evil minions of some dire satanic cult, like the Inland Revenue – anyway another reason people hesistate to join psychic research groups is in case they are thought to be committing to belief in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis, without even a steady paycheck to compensate. This is not an issue with the SPR owing to a very important rule -the SPR as a body has no corporate opinions on the phenomena it studies, all members owning their own beliefs. So even if you are completely sceptical of all alleged paranormal phenomena, you will find SPR members who share your beliefs. There are actually a few important guidelines for SPR members – you can’t use membership in the Society to promote yourself or product (blast there goes my psychic phone line – “Madame CJ speaks the future, only £20 a minute!”), ad so forth. You can read them here.
Anyway what occasioned these brief thoughts is that the SPR website at www.spr.ac.uk – note the ac.uk domain, I was always impressed they got that! – has just undergone a major overhaul, with a lot of new material. There is a guest essay, a form to report your experiences, links to some members research (hopefully as soon as Becky has her ethics approval through she can get listed) and a listing of recent books on parapsychology and related topics, as well as extensive revisions throughout. So stop reading this, go have a look!
Hope to see you at an event one day, and if you join do comment.