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.
A short post till the hour comes round for this rough beast to slouch to TESCO, being bored…
I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.
Thomas Paine –The Age of Reason
Oddly enough, despite a dramatic “ghost” experience in 1987, I did not immediately come to consider seriously the afterlife hypothesis. After all one might come up with many explanations of “ghosts” which do not require the human to persist in some sense beyond death, and for many years I did (and still do in they majority of cases I think) favour those. I am as noted personally disinclined to consider the survival (life after death) hypothesis – it strikes me as deeply counter-intuitive.
Anyway the summer of 1993 saw me reasonably well versed in parapsychology, and how to investigate a “haunting”. That summer I was contacted by a gentleman who owned a small hotel, and who stated his family who lived there had been troubled by a series of ghostly happenings – could we do something about it? Immediately we have a problem – I want to investigate ghosts, but people who call me usually wanted to get rid of them! I am a researcher, not an exorcist, no not even a ghostbuster! Fortunately a few months earlier we had also met a psychic claimant, Morven, who asked to be tested to see if her mediumship was genuine, or self delusion, or something else!
Morven was a lovely middle aged woman from Ireland who had been in the area for about two or three years. We agreed to the test, and with our “haunt” some thirty plus miles away in another town, felt it unlikely she could have foreknowledge of the case. As by profession I am a researcher, I conducted newspaper archive and book searches for material on the locations “haunting”, and established that no stories had been published for almost twenty years, but that there was a legend of a maidservant who hanged herself in one room after she found herself pregnant and her lover went off to the English Civil War, never to return. This necessitated that we go to elaborate lengths to prevent the medium gaining knowledge of her location.
We therefore placed cotton wool over her eyes, and taped it in location. We then placed a sleeping mask on top, before employing a full head bag of total opacity, secured at the neck to prevent peeping. We placed a walkman with loud music on, and drover her out of town by a circuitous route, doubling the 30 mile trip. I did not reveal the location to my team until minutes before we set off, when one sceptic went ahead to make sure any obvious items in the five hotel rooms we planned to use for the experiment were removed, and the curtains secured to prevent any glimpse of the sky line or other external identifying features.
On arrival the medium, now thoroughly car sick and gagging was taken as quickly as possible in to one room, and the hood removed. Our research ethics were awful! She however soon perked up, and identified one room as the haunt location. Now this was correct, though if she had gone by the published accounts she would have been wrong – the rooms had been renumbered ten years before as I had previously established. Still she had a 20% chance of that!
She then reported a strangling sensation, and said a woman about 5’10” tall had hanged herself in the room. Fine, but rather tall we thought, and hardly unlikely given the age of the building! Furthermore she described turn of the century dress – 300 years out from the accounts we had! A radio team present taped (and broadcast next day) her “reading” – and the highpoint was the suggestion of unhappiness (do happy people hang themselves?!!),too much booze and a name. She gives the name as follows – “Amy – no, Emmy. The surname is almost the same. Yes, it’s something like Emmy Emily”. She offered NO other names, and a few minutes later we had to open the window to giver her air, calling the experiment off..
I (rather gleefully I am afraid) told her she was completely wrong.
A week passed, and an interested local historian, Lionel Ayliffe, checked out the local coroners records – to find the only suicide recorded in the building happened in 1904, a lady named Amy Amery who was a servant who hanged herself after being dismissed for being a drunk. This material had not been published as far as I can ascertain since the tragedy in 1904 when it had appeared in a local newspaper.
I am still disinclined to the mediumistic hypothesis by nature, but following this apparent success I decided to experiment further. The medium made a number of correct statements, and one possibly incorrect – that the body was buried in the church opposite, something we could not ascertain. It was no more than a spark, but it got me interested. I claim no real evidence here – coincidence perhaps? – but it led me to at least investigate the survival hypothesis.
Annoyingly, the tapes are lost. There is an account in The Psi-pher, the CPRG magazine, written close to the time – that is filed with the SPR, and in the British Library, but I don’t have a copy. I will try at some future date to find the newspaper articles from the local press at the time. The “hit” was impressive – and I am tempted to speculate on how Morven could have gained access to the information, by various natural and “paranormal” hypotheses. For the moment however, I’ll reflect more on the whole issue of mediumship…
Morven is no longer with us. I worked with her till 1995, when she became clearly unwell, and she died of breast cancer, refusing all but palliative care, brave and cheerful to the end. Her absolute conviction death was not the end was demonstrated int he immense courage with which she refused treatment. She left a wonderful son and daughter, two lovely people, and my memories of her are all fond. She died far too young, and I was angry about it, and I must say blamed her belief system to a small extent, however irrationally. Fear of death does make you fight harder maybe? Still Morven, I hope you are happy somewhere and giggling at me writing this… I’ll write more on Morven another time, in tribute to her memory.
Morven “did feet”. She was reflexologist I think, and she insisted on doing this to my feet, free of charge. It was ok I guess, I did not really think it would have much effect, but it was soothing I think, depite my cynical jokes throughout the session. I really hope I did not offend her, now at least! I can be, like Clovis, terribly frank. One night after the session she offered to try and get in touch with the Other Side for me, and despite my utter religious and moral rejection of necromancy and mediumship, I said, “well if anyone has a message I’ll gladly hear it.” Eventually she did give me a message, and with some heavy prompting by me, she finally gave me one part of a message I had expected from my grandmother. If she had then given the second part, I would have been convinced – as it was, I’m afraid I was not. There was nothing evidential to me in the message: to this day, no one has ever given me the two things i would expect to hear from her.
Why do I have problems with mediumship? Partly, it is to do with the dignity of the dead. I dislike treating the dead as performing seals.Here are the wise words of Stan from South Park –
You see, I learned something today. At first I thought you were all stupid, listening to this douche’s advice, but now I understand that you’re all here because you’re scared. You’re scared of death and he offers you some kind of understanding. You all want to believe in it so much, I know you do. You find comfort in the thought that your loved ones are floating around trying to talk to you, but thnk about it: Is that really what you want? To just be floating around after you die, having to talk to this asshole?
Now obviously I do not feel this way about Morven. She was a truly lovely, talented human being, who felt she had a special gift. Yet, in most cases in my experience, given enough time mediums do suffer in their own lives. The Fox Sisters succumbed to alcoholism I have met some lovely mediums, like my dear friend, Natalie, but I have also met some who I could honestly categorise as douches. Except possibly a douche has some valid medical usage – I don’t know… Yet to me, dabbling with the dead does not seem to generally result in much good. Ironic words for a fervent investigator of mediumship and spontaneous cases? Well, look at it this way – I use the bus analogy.
Imagine you are on a bus, and a stranger tells you to end your marriage. They inform you they are your long lost uncle, know all about your life, and while they really just tell you a lot of platitudes, with maybe a couple of verifiable facts, they insist they are telling you the best, for your own good. Would you take that advice? I have a frind who told me she was given up on her plans to study Classics at postgraduate level, because the board had advised her. The university board? A board of classicists? I was puzzled. No, it turned out the board she was taking advice from was – a ouija board! To me this is tantamount to insanity. Sure, I’m probably really offending vast swathes of the readers of this blog – well a couple of you, as amazingly fifty people a day do read this, why I have no idea – anyway, I can only say it as I see it.
Now, what is the difference between listening to a medium, or supposedly a “disincarnate, disembodied spirit” and the guy on the bus who says he is your uncle? Some Christians believe they have the gift of discernment of spirits – I sure as hell don’t – but I can judge things by their fruits, and i have never been persuaded That much good cvomes of taking advice from the “dead”. My problem – are they always the dead? Pretty much every culture has a tradition of daimonic spirits, demons, evil spirits, angels, call them what you will- non-human intelligences. Many mediums talk to me about “lower astral entities”, who impersonate the dead. So really dudes, I’m a bit wary. In fact I’m more than a bit wary – I’m positively opposed to listening to the “dead”, and making life choices on that basis. Sure my religious thinking probably results in prejudices, but if these things exist – how do we know they are what they say they are???
So do I believe in life after death? As a matte rof religious faith, yes. “Everything is NOT pointless” is CJ’s mantra, and I’m a colossal optimist – where Louie and I differ sharply. But evidentially? Again, a guarded “yes”.
What really made me decide to favour it was the JSPR papers of Robertson and Roy on their PRISM research. These experiments examine the common (and on the face of it reasonable) sceptical claim that the statements given by mediums which purport to come from deceased communicators are so vague and general as to apply to anyone, and secondly that “cold reading” (which is possible, I can do it myself) whether conscious or unconscious accounts for any successes. Now as communication theorists generally agree that over 50% of communication is non-verbal, and that latter is demonstrable (even by me) to be possible, then immediately we need to devise quite a complex protocol for testing a medium.
What Roy and Robertson did was to design a simple procedure, by which a mediums statements to an individual in an audience were recorded. They then asked people not present how many of the statements they could accept, and found a incredibly high difference between the two sets of results. It was statistically demonstrable that chance could not account for the difference. The probability was less than 1 in 10,000 million the results were due to chance. Somehow the mediums were making statements which were NOT generally applicable, though about 30% of statements were vague enough to be taken as true by the average person. However over a large sample the statistics speak for themselves — somehow the medium was receiving information, or the recipient was far more likely to accept statements than the later research pool of a similar demographic “marking” the statements.
Now I’m sure that would not surprise anyone at all. After all the medium can SEE the audience member,and receive feedback. I’m sure we are all familiar with Cold Reading, and Hot Reading (deliberate research and preparation) remains a possibility. Therefore I am not especially surprised that the experiment gave the results it did…
However Robertson and Roy did not stop there. They published their protocol, in their second journal article, and deliberately sort out critical and sceptical evaluation. The protocol was tightened to a triple blind experiment, where the medium was not able to see the audience, and the audience did not know who was the recipient, and the two experimenters did not share this information two and a half years they conducted trials with this basic protocol and six different variations. And their conclusion? The statistical evaluation clearly showed that somehow the mediums were “hitting” far beyond probability, and that the chance could not be responsible. Some other factor is involved – what it is we do not know.
Sure that does not mean all “mediums” can do this. Most are doubtless deluded, charlatans or simply mistaken. The selected mediums studied however, chosen for their integrity and seeming ability were somehow obtaining information without any obvious sensory cues, in triple blind experimental conditions. That in no way proves afterlife – I can think of several other possibilities – but it was equally clear that cold reading was not responsible, and that in fact 60%+ of statements made were far too specific to be accepted by an audience, regardless of the common assertion that is exactly what is happening.
So at the moment, I accept the theoretical possibility of life after death and even mediumistic communication – but I’m not a huge fan of talking to the dead.
Anyway time for Tesco! If anyone actually read this far do comment, and I admre your patience with my dull uninteresting nonsense.