If you are interested in this matter you may wish to read my Interview With Dave Woods, Chair of ASSAP on the changes, which I posted later and which clarifies many aspects of the proposals.
OK, I’m back from the ASSAP Seriously Strange conference now, and heard the “big announcement”. And yes it is big and yes it might well change things forever at least for a lot of small paranormal groups. It won’t however effect anyone outside the UK, but basically, from what we were told, ASSAP, the Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena has been recognised by the UK government as the Professional Body of “paranormal investigators”. That does not mean the UK Government believes in the paranormal in any way: far from it, all it means is that it recognises that “paranormal investigators” deal with potentially distressed clients, and that it is in the public interest to allow some form of self regulation of the sector.
Now the announcement was made last night, and I mentioned it then as word started to filter out, but an afternoon session today allowed us to put questions to David and Nicky of ASSAP: some were not directly answered, but many were. Firstly they were keen to point out this is NOT a takeover bid: they envisage many small groups continuing to operate, etc, etc, just as now. It may have ramifications for the “Paranormal tourism” industry and people running commercial events – but what they will be is completely unclear at this time, and will be subject to consultation with the industry. From the response to my question I also question whether groups will be recognised, or merely the individuals within those groups. ASSAP already has a certification process for paranormal investigators which involves attending a training event (next one January, around £29 to attend the weekend course as I recall?) — but ASSAP will not have the scope to train everyone in the area.
However enforcement will not be by ASSAP kicking in your door and taking away your EMF meter. I think its more likely that everyone will be asked to *voluntarily* sign up to a Code of Practice or similar. At this stage ASSAP appear to have the government recognition, and their website has changed to www.assap.ac.uk, but are still in the process of consultation and working out how they will operate as a professional body.
The SPR already serves as a sort of professional body for academic psychical researchers, the Parapsychological Association for parapsychologists, and there will be no impact on members of those organisations.
There may be education and even qualification options down the line, but for now the whole purpose seems to be providing ethical guidelines, assistance and recognition and representation for the paranormal investigation community in the UK. I’m still unsure how who counts as a paranormal investigator will be decided, but clearly it may have to be more than “people who say they are” at some point, else this could be a professional body for amateur enthusiasts, which seems all rather contradictory! I rather like the idea of a professional body, as that means there must presumably be a profession – will Cheltenham Job Centre offfer me a post as a Paranormal Investigator? I have already said I will create a Union
It’s all incredibly vague, and some obvious questions can’t be answered yet. Everyone, ASSAP member or not, is strongly encouraged to get involved in the consultation process – ASSAP are very keen to point out they are not going to try and impose anything on people without consultation, and indeed it all seems rather voluntary – recognition, in exchange for ASSAP acting as a sort of “paranormal ombudsmen” – and ending up being asked no doubt to get involved in a million small group politics struggles
Anyhow, despite probably a couple of hours snatched at the conference talking to ASSAP chair David Wood, I’m still really vague about almost everything, but my honest advice is “don’t panic!”. This is big, but I don’t think any group is going to be hurt or damaged by this, unless that group is filled with unethical tossers who actually harm people they are supposed to be helping – and if you mainly just hunt ghosts in public venues likes pubs, castles and so forth, it may not effect you much at all?
Despite being a speaker at the conference we were not told anything till it was announced, and so I have had no time t think it through properly, but we have all heard horror stories about traumatized families and loonies masquerading as researchers, burning furniture, vandalising and trespassing, etc, etc. Regulation will I guess end all that! Is it a good thing? I have no idea at the moment, but I see the potential, and yes I think it might be. Sceptics have been complaining about unregulated self-appointed paranormal experts for years – well now that’s no longer the case, maybe!
Look here for the details of the official announcement later tonight. I’m off to catch a few hours sleep after a fantastic conference…
One of the biggest disappointments to me was when a few years back I had to turn down the option to do the MSc in Parapsychology at Coventry University, because I did not have the money for the course fees. It sent me in to a long depressive period, but at least Becky and my dear friend David Curtin got to do it, both completing the taught course (sadly the only other student passed away before the end of the course). Luckily Dr Tony Lawrence and Dr Ian Hume were extremely kind and got to chat to them after lectures, and even sat in on one or two sessions — but it was a real shame.
I was in Coventry recently and I had the chance to catch up with Dr Hume, and was saddened to hear the online version of the course has been put on hold as student numbers failed to make it viable — owing mainly to nothing more than a cock up that prevented many people registering and was discovered far too late I inferred from talking to others. I did not like to press Dr Hume on the subject, but it will be back that he did say. Anyway enough rambling about my life! A PhD or subject specific MSc is certainly not necessary to make a difference in psychical research, and maybe I would never have cut the mustard, and lack the talent and drive to succeed at PHD level — who knows?
If you are still with me after that mournful digression, have you ever considered studying parapsychology? Sceptic or believer, there is a vast literature and a huge host of technical issues in the field that make it hard to get to grips with, and it can be hard work — but I have always personally found it fascinating, not least for what it shows us about all kinds of other issues, from philosophy of science to human psychology and cognition.
And the good news is that you don’t have to commit to something as big as a PhD or MSc, and the course fees. The Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University are offering a short online course “An Introduction to Parapsychology” that while non-accredited really does look excellent. I would do it if I actually ever had the money, and really want to, but sadly even £200 is currently beyond my means
In fact, sceptic or believer, I would seriously suggest you consider taking the course. I just saw on Twitter that enrollment for the latest run has opened, so please do consider it. There is an excellent article by Sceptic Kylie Sturgess on her experiences with the course in a recent issue (and online) of the The Skeptical Inquirer you can read to see if it might be of interest.
Many years ago back in the mid-90′s in the early days of the web I ran a brief online course on parapsychology, and I did try again a while ago on my GSUK forum before we ran out of steam. This however is a professionally taught course by real experts in the field, so as Coventry’s MSc is no more, I hope some of you will enroll for this one. And maybe one day I will be able to afford it!
Hoping to meet many of you at the Seriously Strange conference at Bath Uni in just under two weeks time.
Time to tell ghost stories!
OK, here is my ghost story. It was the reason for my involvement in parapsychology, and almost twenty years on I believe it to be true, but no longer can rely on memory. This account was written in 2001 (for a book introduction, hence narrative/genre style).
“It was 1987 and I was at a wargames meeting with four friends, all aged about the same as me – I was the youngest at just about to turn 18. We were driving through a town called Thetford in Norfolk, England, when one of us needed the loo badly, so we turned in to a cul-de-sac off the flyover which runs through the middle of town, looking for an alley or something for a call of nature!
At the end of the lane we stumbled across one of those delightful secrets English medieval towns spring on you – flanked by modern housing estates we found a medieval Priory, laying in ruins, built of the local flint stone and clad in ivy. A sign in the car park informed us that it was Thetford Priory, a victim of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the mid-C16th.
Well we were not that enthralled by this (we were from Bury St Edmunds with its beautiful monastery ruins), but we wandered through the evening light – it was about 8-8.30pm on a warm August day, (August 8th 1987) which in England means it is still light, day in fact – and eventually found a secluded part of the ruins, where the urgent business could be undertaken behind a bush. As the other chaps gathered we turned to look at the ruins one last time.
It was then we became aware of a joker wearing a black sheet over his head, pretending to be a ghost. I think it was Darren who saw him first, and remarked on this guy in a very light hearted tone – he was looking at us from a first storey (thatone above the ground) window, and was obviously watching us. Now if you imagine someone whose skill at Halloween costume making seems to go as far as throwing a bed sheet over his head, well that is what we saw – at least that is what I think I saw!
Darren, being the most headstrong of us said ‘lets scare him!’ and charged forwards, towards the facade of the building, which has one large arch and a smaller one in which there was a staircase up to the room we had seen the chap in. As I followed, partly to restrain Darren, partly in a spirit of Scooby Doo ‘and I’ve of gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you pesky kids’ I’m not sure what I was thinking.
And then we saw him coming down the stairs – the sheet billowed out like a woman in a ball gown, and there were three dark spots on his stomach area. At least that’s what I saw, and as I was running – well I was not the most observant. We threw ourselves up the staircase at the guy, who was now well within reach, halfway down the stais; which is why our impact with the flint wall at the back of the room came as a surprise. No stairs existed.
There was no floor in the room the figure had stood in. I struck my head, as did Darren. We were both nauseous, and I felt like i might vomit a few minutes later. There was also a distinct feeling of coldness, and I completely lost the plot.
What had the others seen? Well everyone agreed that there was a very real and very tangible staircase. They all also agreed that there was a figure, though David described it as a smoky mass – but if he did not think it was a joker in a sheet, why did he not challenge our statement before? Axel said it looked like a monk – but any shadow can look like a monk, hence the hundreds of spectral monks said to prowl English towns. Marcus later described the figure as like spiderman in a black costume.
Anyway on the way back we had a curious mix of nausea and extreme emotional reactions, along with a strong feeling of being cold, and a lot of shakiness. Eventually we got home (16 miles) and on the way David forbade us to discuss what we had seen. Only David had any previous belief in the paranormal, and he suggested we created independent signed testimony. . The statements were kept, and then compared – it was then that the fairly major differences in the description of the figure first came to light – apart from an agreement on the staircase, the figure being male, and wearing black, there was however a complete consensus on the order of events.
There was one more rather bizarre aspect to this sighting – as we left the Priory we had a sense the building was in somehow rebuilding itself, making its self more real, around us. Axel shouted ‘jump the walls – break its reality’. We missed that off the documentary – it sounded too sensational. Yet it was exactly what I felt, and evidently Axel too, and as I ran for the car I also felt as if with every step I was plunging deeper in to mud or wet sand – possibly a physiological response to extreme fear, the legs turn to jelly sensation.
At this point I had a major crisis of belief. At that point I was an absolute atheist materialist and advocate of scientific reductionism, despite my family’s firm belief in spooks etc, maybe because of it. The experience convinced me that people did see ‘ghosts’ – that experience is genuine. What those ghosts are – hallucinations, tricks of the light, abnormal mental phenomena, ESP, spirits of the dead, demons cavorting, whatever – I did not and still do not have sufficient data to judge. It just became obvious to me that people had profoundly unsettling experiences which were hard for those who had not been there to relate to, and which lead you to question your sanity, your place in the world, and what the heck really happened.”
I welcome any comments. My position: the experience of having encountered a “ghost” is undoubtedly a real experience, but that tells us nothing of the mechanisms or causality underlying the experience. I recently asked the lads what they thought we experienced that night — now if the confabulation theory is correct, we might ahve expected the story to grow in the telling. Tow responded – Marcus wrote
I remember me, you, Munch, Axel and Darren going to the Priory on a misty night. We all (even me the arch sceptic saw a stairway in that door way. Some of the rest of you (Axel and Dave esp) also saw a monk with some stab wounds. We all freaked out and ran off for a bit. When we came back nothing was there apart from a ‘vibe’. There you go that is all I can remember, it was circa 20 years ago.
Then Axel responded –
TBH Chris, I have very limited memories of the event.
Dave, Darren, Marcus, you & I were there.
We say a black, robed figure come out of the arch.
We ran away.
Now bear in mind this is despite having occasionally discussed the story between ourselves over the years, and having even featured on a documentary show talking about it in 1996. We really now have very little idea of precisely what happened that night — and I don’t think any of us would pretend otherwise, though I have not heard back from Darren or Dave. Still that in itself bears out one of the findings of the Census of Hallucinations - and makes me doubt the widespread assumptions that stories of ghost experiences grow in the telling, or are crystal clear in the memory.
I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank those who have donated so far to the blog; you know who you are, and i think I have talked to each of you, and to the gentleman, he knows who he is, whose sixty pound donation astonished me and means that I have food and electric till my next money comes through. What can I say but a very sincere thank you to you all?
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.
I just wrote this on the UK Skeptic’s forum, in response to this article by Chris Sherwood here on the same subject. I think mine is closer to the truth And before you panic, it’s not autobiographical – these days!
A Day in the Life of a Paranormal Investigator
A Paranormal Investigator is someone who can’t get a real job or any PhD funding. They wake up in the morning to a stack of unpaid bills, and then sweet talk the lovely bailiffs at the door. After a discussion with said gentlemen they pay some cash and mentally cross out their food budget for the next two weeks. They also note the recording they need to finish their lecture review for deadline today has still not arrived. Huzzah!
A paranormal investigator picks up the clothes they wore last night off the floor, hurls a book on Attachment Theory at the cat and wonder if SPR journals burn nicely once the gas has been shut off. They then dedicate four hours to grounded analysis of carefully collected accounts of spontaneous cases – or reading peoples ghost anecdotes to you and me. They code, construct categories by hand because they can’t afford QSR software, and after a hard mornings work with black coffee cos they have no milk they decide they have not made any advances over what Sidgwick and co had in 1894.
So they pop on the JREF for a morning of playful abuse, and after lunch (noodles, with noodle sauce, 12p a bag from oriental supermarket) they wonder why MAcDonalds, Wilkinsons and WH Smiths rejected them. So they spend couple of hours filling in application forms so they can be anything but a paranormal investigator.
The afternoon is busy, busy, busy! Reading the EJP in the bath as the nice shiny paper is not effected by splashes, they realise they are still after all these years useless at the level of stats required to check the articles validity. They wish they could afford a netbook so they could consult SPSS in the bath, but they would only drop it.
After a refreshing bath they set out to track down someone who reported a spontaneous case to them to verify certain questions arising from their account. The email will be ignored, they nearly always are. Wishing they had chosen a better paid career, like say leaflet distributor, professional philosopher or non-affiliated theologian who sells 5 books a year, they start work on a piece on the development of fairy lore in the early modern period, because they have nothing better to do. Then it hits them – they have no food for tea!
But huzzah! they have a call – and the phone is currently connected because their girlfriend paid the bill. And for once it’s not a debt collector! Nope, they are invited to give a talk to a local group. They start drafting it, becoming more and more depressed as they realise no one is actually interested in theoretical work or the parapsychological literature, so it end up as “adventures in ghosthunting”, a comic tale of sitting around in the dark in rooms filled with other hopefuls, while absolutely nothing happens. The difference in being a pro is you don’t have to pay for the privilege.
Suddenly they decide to reach for their handy EMF meter. They can’t hear the washing machine from the basement but long experience shows this device can pick it up – have they washed their pants, as girlfriend coming tomorrow? They dream of the day they can afford a second pair.
Afternoon brings email: another studentship rejection, disturbed family members wondering how you became so unemployable, and a coffee break dedicated to the lesbian mediumship of Eva C – less exciting than it sounds – from an old PSPR. They decide to kill Cousins, Braithwaite, Luke etc for being so much better looking and better funded than them; but then reject the notion, and return to the Spud-U-Like application.
Wasting an hour on wondering why no one seems to be participating Alex Tsaris’ Jaytee the Psychic Dog replication the earnest paranormal investigator returns to their grounded analysis, struggling with methodological issues.
Evening: a bitter ex-wife accusing you of leaving her in poverty, hungry cats yowling for food, and your mother sadly asking how work went? You set out to meet a veteran investigator of mediumship who will buy you lunch,and an enjoyable hour of salacious gossip about the misdeeds of contemporary physical mediums later, well fed, you feel the strength to once again face writing up a study you performed eight months ago. Finally even you are bored with it, so you start work on looking at the geological maps of Gloucestershire, and a water table plan of Cheltenham from Severn Trent, trying to work out if GW Lambert really was on to something.
You get another call – there is a vigil in a haunted house, a local tourist spot, can you attend only £30? Muttering to yourself a Noel Coward lyric
“The Stately Homes of England,
Though rather in the lurch,
Provide a lot of chances
For psychical research-“
You politely enquire who experienced what and when? It seems a tourist thought they saw something in 1982 in the East Wing, and a the under gardener swears he saw the dead master in 1963. On and a cleaner heard a voice call her name last Wednesday but six.
So you suggest that rather than taking 50 people to sit in the dark all night, festooned with electronic gizmos, while a lovely lady reconts the sad tale of the spirit girl who starved to death on Christmas Eve, it might be worth actually just interviewing and recording what the witnesses said, and having a look at that? The person trying to sell you the ghost night hangs up.
You sigh and stare out the window, and regret ever becoming a paranormal investigator. And then you wake up the next day and post this on UK Skeptics.
I think this is a bit closer to the truth actually :
It’s hard to believe it is fourteen years since I wrote this piece, and it reflects my ideas at that time. I have however, with some embarrassment as some of my ideas have changed, reproduced it here. I hope it may amuse, and furthermore it will not offend!
Elliot O’Donnell was an extraordinary man, perhaps the first of the great media star ghost-hunters. His fame has been largely eclipsed by Harry Price yet he was in his day a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. His fifty plus books are still reissued today; no-one has ever managed to create a complete bibliography of his prolific works and there is no biography, (as of writing in 1995, see the wikipedia article for a partial list), but his methods did much to inform modern ghosthunting, for better, and for worse.
Born in 1872 in Bristol, O’Donnell’s first psychic experience was purportedly at the age of five when he encountered an ‘elemental spirit’. Terrified of ghosts and the dark, he grew up a nervous yet energetic child, intensely proud of his claimed descent from a noble Irish clan, and the family banshee (a banshee is a death-omen spirit whose wail heralds the passing of a clan member).
He was educated at Clifton College in Bristol, and then at the Queen’s Service Academy in Dublin where he claimed to be involved in another supernatural struggle, this time with a spectral strangler! On graduation he went to America, where he was a rancher in Oregon and collected tales of ghosts in the New World. By 1894 he had left the ranch and was working as a policeman in Chicago during the great railroad strikes and labour unrest. The brutality of the suppression of the strikes, the Haymarket Bomb outrage and the anarchist and IWW provide a colourful backdrop for a colourful character.
O’Donnell was by nature a raconteur; it is unsurprising that he found employment as a freelance journalist in both San Francisco and New York. Well so he would have us believe, for with O’Donnell it is hard to know exactly what to believe, and it may well be that some of his American exploits are as fictitious as his later ghost stories! By 1900 he seems to have returned to England, and taken up a career as a schoolmaster. This was merely however a means of support as he trained as an actor, and he soon left teaching to join a traveling repertory company.
Eventually he settled in St. Ives, Cornwall, and there wrote his first occult novel For Satan’s Sake which was published in 1905. Then O’Donnell struck upon the idea that was to make him famous – he would become a ghost-hunter! He had a few previous figures to model himself upon; the early SPR, already over twenty years old, and other collections of ghost stories (by folklorists such as Andrew Lang). Elliot collected stories, visited haunted houses, and pursued a distinguished career as an author, lecturer, playwright and broadcaster in both radio and later television. As previously stated O’Donnell was so prolific an author and writer of articles and columns that no-one has ever managed to create a definitive bibliography.
His books, primarily non-fiction, include his own experiences and those of a large number of his friends and acquaintances as well as famous stories from English ghost lore — such as the Berry Pomeroy castle White Lady. There is little doubt in the mind of any critical reader of O’Donnell that much of what he wrote has been, well, dramatized! Elliot was not a man to let the truth get in the way of a good story… (One wonders what he made of Harry Price?) EDIT: Some of his books are now available online through Project Guntenberg.
Should we therefore ignore O’Donnell? I feel not. There is almost certainly an element of truth underlying all his stories, and they afford fascinating glimpses into the beliefs in apparitions and folklore of a bygone age. Furthermore, he almost justifies himself, as when he wrote:-
‘Let me state plainly that I lay no claim to being what is termed a scientific psychical researcher. I am not a member of any august society that conducts it’s investigations of the other world, or worlds, with the test tube and weighing apparatus; neither do I pretend to be a medium or clairvoyant — I have never undertaken to “raise” ghosts at will for the sensation-seeker or the tourist. I am merely a ghost hunter. One who lays stake by his own eyes and senses; one who honestly believes he inherits in some the degree the faculty of psychic perceptiveness from a long line of Celtic ancestry; and who is, and always has been, deeply and genuinely interested in all questions relative to phantasms and a continuance of individual life after physical dissolution.’ (O’Donnell; 1964)
As the above quotation makes plain, O’Donnell believed his celtic heritage rendered him more ‘psychic’. It is interesting how common this belief that Romany and Celts are more ‘sensitive’ is. Is it a folk belief or is there some evidence for the assertion? The most likely reason why these races should be seen as imbued with greater psychism may lie in the binary opposition between Nature and Culture. The Celts and Romany are both geographically and socially marginalized within the British Isles; they are “Other”, and hence ascribed “other” values. They are also seen as “Ancient”; indeed the Celts are seen as almost aboriginal, and it is common to ascribe great wisdom to ethnically indigenous races, particularly if they are seen as closer to nature and natural rhythms and cycles – a notion of “the primitive” as “noble savage” which is potentially offensive.They are seen as aligned with Nature as opposed to Culture (by which I mean the “artificial constructs of civilisation”.) Their own culture (small ‘c’) is seen as natural, healthy, and spiritual. This seems to link with the post-Darwinian idea of progress and evolution. Could these races possess strange vestigial powers which have been lost to the rest of us in our struggle to become what we are? Victorian anthropologists noted that ‘primitive’ ( a value-laden term now thankfully obsolete) people quite commonly manifested psi-powers. Even if they did not possess them it was necessary for us to imbue them with them, giving them an Edenic existence and compensation for the excesses of the conqueror?
However if we are to consider Batcheldor’s idea of psi-resistance, by which we have an unconscious resistance to allowing ourselves to perform impossible psychic deeds, which may be overcome by certain methods, it becomes possible that a race or culture who believe they are psychic or allow for the possibility may become just that! They are “allowed” to, and it is simply not impossible or “satanic” to them. Religious folk and spiritualists who place responsibility for these manifestations on an exterior deity or spirit could theoretically also more easily break down this negative conditioning, and allow psi to manifest more easily, as could those who believe they have inherited “the Gift?”
There is no doubt that O’Donnell did not see things in this light. And why should he? The Celts themselves believed in their psychism; any suggestion that like the tragic association in Medieval Europe of money lending and the Jews the role of “psychic” was forced upon the Celts by outsiders he would have deeply resented. Eric Quigley and myself have recently completed (1995) a preliminary study of possible cultural traits in apparitional experiences in Britain. Amongst the oddities there reported are the fact that Scotland has a very high proportion of ghostly green ladies, and England prefers white or grey. Wales and Cornwall oddly enough follow the English distribution, with English Green Ladies mainly clustered in Lincolnshire. This research was suggested by our interest in Elliot O’Donnell. Does it tell us anything? Probably not!
What did O’Donnell make of the phantoms he purported to encounter? He classified them as belonging to one of four main groups:-
Created by high emotion, O’Donnell believed that “recordings” could be created which embedded themselves in the ‘ether’ and which replayed from time to time when the conditions were right. Unlike most of the post-war ghosthunters O’Donnell believed in anniversary ghosts, and many of his phantoms manifest at midnight. The recording was just that — not technically a ghost but an apparition, a scene replaying rather than a self-aware conscious entity (a ghost). The recording theory remains extremely popular with the intelligent public, though increasingly psychical researchers are dismissive of it. Today the emphasis is often on the idea that silica, the very stones, can be recorded upon, following Kneale’s famous Stone Tape theory.
2. Thought Projection
O’Donnell cites several incidents where the ghost turned out to be the ‘astral double’ or projected thoughts of someone who was dreaming or thinking intensely of a place. One anecdote he gives is quite amusing in that it involves the Rev. Wynn Wescott, one of the founders of the Order of The Golden Dawn who apparently appeared in the British Library when unable to keep an appointment, by doing so in spirit!
Today this form of telepathic communication or projection seems increasingly acceptable to some psychical researchers. Andrew Green gives a convincing case, and if we include crisis apparitions in this category the evidence is very strong. The SPR Census of Hallucinations found phantasms of the living more prolific than the spectral dead. Many ghosts may be nothing more than the wandering memories of living persons!?? (Edit: in 1995 when I wrote this I was unaware of how strong the theoretical framework for ghosts as telepathy was in the psychical research culture of the late 19th and early 20th century)
3. Ghosts of the Future
Not precognition as we usually understand it; or rather precognition manifesting in an apparitional framework. Here O’Donnell seemed to be closest to folklore; he cites several nights when visions of the future may be gained by certain charms or visiting supposedly haunted locations. These visions could be explained as the result of the attempts at scrying into the future breaking down resistance and allow precognition to manifest, or as the results of vivid imagination!
One of the strangest things about O’Donnell’s experiences is the number of times he encountered what he termed Elementals. These were usually hideous half-human, half-bestial entities which almost always seem to be malevolent. He believed that many poltergeists fell into this category, and felt they could be drawn to a location, family, object or individual by sentimental attraction or hatred. These strange pagan manifestations seem like pre-Christian satyrs, dryads or nymphs. Often they form the genius loci or spirit of a place, and they are the monsters of Celtic mythology. O’Donnell suggested that some were the thought projections of nightmares; others he felt were independent alien entities, intruders from ‘outside’ or possibly ‘beyond death’. Some of these entities could be profitably examined in terms of the new UFOlogy with its emphasis on psycho-social manifestations. (Edit: I think now that Arthur Machen’s fiction and the Celtic Twilight might give a better angle)
These are the major categories O’Donnell discusses. There remain two more which he implies and addresses from time to time. The first is the 5. Classic ghost -the surviving spirit of a deceased human being. He deals with several stories where the dead apparently manifest. The second is the 6. Death Omen- in O’Donnell we find a man who took the Banshee seriously, and his own family was haunted by one. Sadly we do not know if the banshee wailed before his own demise!
Throughout his life O’Donnell varied in his ideas as to what conditions were suitable for a haunting to occur. In the 1920′s he believed the months of September and August were the best times, and that either heavy rainfall or still calm conditions were ideal. Later he was to write:-
“I have found little seeming consistency in hauntings relative to the weather, but that may be due to my wrong classification of the phenomena… The idea that apparently ghostly manifestaions occur on still, moonlit nights is as fallacious as it is to believe that they invariably occur at midnight, and never in daylight. In my experience they occur in any weather, at any hour, and in all seasons.”
O’Donnell was one of the founding fathers of the spontaneous case investigation. Always witty and with an eye for a good story, he foreshadows Harry Price, yet in an odd way seems devoid of the occasional arrogance of the latter. His stories almost always are resolved by a coda or tail-piece, which tells us who the ghost was and why it haunted, and their construction is too neat for modern parapsychology. Yet just because his testimony is unreliable is no reason to forget O’Donnell, and I believe much could be learned by an examination of his works.
As information about Elliot is so scarce I would welcome any personal reminiscences or O’Donnell related material that readers could supply. Please write to the ‘Comments’ address at the end of this article
OK, we have all been there. A frightened friend tells us of how they woke up, pinned to the bed by an invisible entity, struggled to speak or move but could not — or worse, saw the THING sitting on their chest… and I’ll avoid all the obvious jokes about ex-girlfriends and move on to the point.
We say, “don’t worry dear, it was just sleep paralysis”.
And we sound all content, smug and scientific. But are we really talking sense, or just spouting hot air?
Is “sleep paralysis” actually meaningful as an explanatory hypothesis? We all know what it is I’m guessing, and most of us would classify certain experiences as it, but as we lack any actual empirically testable hypothesis as far as I know, or even probable physiological mechanism with supporting evidence does it actually mean anything? It’s a hypothesis, not a theory?
People often say it is REM atonia. As far as I know REM atonia is just the medical name for sleep paralysis. Yes we have a vague idea that the body paralyzes in REM sleep, and that the even some ideas as to how – but no actual description of the mechanism. That is what interests me.
Someone says “I had this weird experience”.
I say “oh that s sleep paralysis”.
They say “cool, whats that?”
So I respond “it’s REM atonia persisting after you wake up.”
Person “oh cool, er, how does that work?”.
CJ –”er, the neurological mechanism is not known or currently demonstrable. We have a few ideas, but no accurate description of the mechanisms involved.” Person – “oh so it’s psychobabble woo?”
Hence my concern. When we say these experiments are sleep paralysis, we are really just answering with a set of symptoms, and a tentative hypothesis – but we sound dead medical and scientific so people don’t normally question.
Obviously I don’t think sleep paralysis is aliens, ghosts or witches! I’m just saying that honestly we don’t actually really understand it yet. And so, really, honestly, what does telling someone it was ‘sleep paralysis’ mean?
WILD PARANORMAL THEORY!
I wrote this for fun a couple of years back on James Randi’s forum… thought might amuse! I thought time to allow myself some wild speculation and kookery, and the original featured LOTS OF STUFF IN CAPS, and bright coloured text and fonts. Still, I actually was quite serious, as I realized as I got in to typing it – so here is a less brightly coloured, parody lite version of my musings. Reading them know I think they were quite sensible actually…
Ok, here goes… question — “if ghosts are spirits, how do they open doors, bang on stuff, and interact with the physical world?”
Well I have argued for a long time that ghosts may be primarily INFORMATION – not necessarily the Recording hypothesis (a ghost is a recording of a past event) , but something similar.
The idea is a ghost is NOT physical in the accepted sense – it is closer to being made of the stuff of ideas or thoughts, but an objective idea/thought, which may be experienced by independent witnesses. It is real – just non-physical.
No if so, a human brain may be needed to “receive” said idea. So hence the absence of excellent quality ghost photos/films – (some do exist, but let us pass on that for a moment, and assume they can all be explained away) – by this theory ghosts can only manifest when there is a human being to see or hear or whatever them.
Yet as a casual search and analysis of a random sampling of ghost cases by Becky Smith and myself showed – ghosts are USUALLY associated not just with appearances, but with knocks, bangs, small object movement, doors opening, etc, etc. Minor physical phenomena.
Also, and confusingly, many ghosts show directed intelligence – they seem to act with purpose, and occasionally even interact with the living. An information model could include the possibility of intelligence – but a recording can not. So is there a way of saving the recording hypothesis in the light of the physical and intelligence aspects of the hauntings?
My guess is yes: the key is in the observer.
Now we are dealing with miracles, and two very different miracles interest the ghost hunting kids and the parapsychology gang in my experience.
Ghosthunters generally are interested in ghosts. Duh.
Parapsychologists are interested in supposed unknown powers of the human mind, called PSI – ESP, which includes psychokinesis (mind movement), telepathy, clairvoyance etc, etc.
Assuming both miracles exist, and that is a big assumption, I think ghosties might work like this.
The ghost of Elizabeth haunts the physical location of Harris’ house – and is information. Some, maybe all humans have the capacity to experience Elizabeth, maybe the cat too, but when there is no observer, ‘she’ can not be perceived. Ghosts haunt people, not houses.
If a witness however “tunes in” to Elizabeth, their own psychic powers may be activated – they can blame the impossibilities they commit on the ghost. Denial of personal responsibility for the psychic actions may be psi-enabling according to many parapsychologists. Ditto belief. Both might make some sense. It was the ghost moved it, not me.
So if you took 5 different ghosthunting groups to the house, although there might be some agreement on the ghost, there might also be a lot of different phenomena, unwittingly created by the different groups own psychic powers, unleashed by the fact they can perform impossibilities because “Elizabeth” did it… . I call these hypothetical “additions” to the phenomena “psi-de effects” – a term I am proud of, but if anyone invented it or can find a reference to it before 1993 do let me know!
So my guess, and we are multiplying miracles here, is that the “ghost” does not ever interact with the physical in any way. That is done in fact by humans, using these psi powers, who ascribe it to the ghost. This would explain the physical aspects of the hauntings –it might even explain some of the intelligent behaviour.
In which case even Recording/Stone Tape could be rehabilitated as theories to explain ghosts. I have no idea how psychokinesis would effect matter (wonderful gobbledigook – “you wouldn’t understand madam – it’s technical!) , but at least we have no moved from “spirit” to a ‘mere’ energy conversion.
If I am right, Spirits by definition possess no energy, no mass, only information. It requires information to be a fundamental principle of reality – which I’m guessing might annoy those who know something about physics, which I am afraid I don’t.
So when a psychic talks about energy – it is their own energy that is really involved – not the ghosts. Without the ghosthunter, there is NO ghost – but that does not make it in any sense less real.
And furthermore – lets apply Occam’s Razor to this tawdry mess of multiplied miracles – we don;t actually need the ghost or spirit to be real. If PK, or some other psi abilities were real, then Harris’ belief in the ghost as it build may slowly allow him or another resident to psychically generate the ghost by PSI alone… which strikes me as no more likely than the ghost, but in keeping with what we are seeing.
That was fun. It may even make some sense, and it’s therapeutic to take the mickey out of oneself and ones colleagues occasionally. Personally, I don’t think we need to invoke anything more than misperception in this case, but hey its always fun to think up a theory!
Have fun, and really do hope you get to the bottom of it. Hope my levity does not offend. I really do hunt ghosts for a living, more or less… if only I could charge my clients I’d be wealthy!
Any comments or ideas?
Another old piece from RichardDawkins.net, but an important one I think! For DCG… “The Professor” is a reference to Richard Dawkins, and this was another piece from the week before The Enemies of Reason show…
Now many of you know that I am twice damned as far as the Prof is concerned, for not only am I a dodgy Christian, I’m also by profession a dodgy ghosthunter. Yep, if you did not know, you read that right… It’s an odd mix I suppose. Most Christians don’t seem overly keen on running ESP tests, or researching poltergeist cases or whatever, but I’m really quite comfortable with it. Long term readers of this forum are painfully aware of how passionately I defend proper academic parapsychology against its critics, while remaining a skeptic and supporter of Randi and the JREF. Anyway, I can’t see Prof Dawkins taking kindly to my chosen path. I guess this series of essays may be nothing more than an attempt on my part to justify my own position: I don’t like the idea of being dubbed an ‘enemy of reason’ much!
OK, so tonight I’m going to talk about my problem with the paranormal. And here we have a problem straight away – what is the Paranormal? The term is used so loosely as to be almost meaningless. I tend to make a distinction between the supernatural – things above or beyond the universe and nature, and so presumably if they exist outside the scope of the naturalistic inquiry of science, or at least unfalsifiable – and the paranormal, which I would argue is simply a term used for those phenomena lacking any currently agreed hypothesis or theory as to their cause but which may one day be included in the scope of science, because they are part of currently undiscovered natural laws, or we understand the principles which govern them, but so far have failed to apply them correctly. So those laws may well include misperception, wishful thinking, or all kinds of naturalistic explanations. I think this is roughly what Professor Dawkins means when he refers to perinormal phenomena.
This is where Prof Dawkins and I are in some agreement. I personally think many “paranormal/perinormal” phenomena will eventually become part of our knowledge as science advances. Why?
Well when I was a kid, Arthur C Clarke had a TV show called Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World . It was actually probably rather good, and had a slightly sceptical edge, but I was never a fan as such things did not interest me – I thought what I know know to be Forteana, Cryptozoology, Parapsychology etc etc were utter bilge. Still I recall the episode when Giant Squid were discussed, and we were told there was some evidence in terms of sucker marks on whales. Yet Giant Squid back then were thoroughly “paranormal”.
That was what, thirty years ago? Nowadays Giant Squid are perfectly respectable, though i still would not take one home to meet mummy and daddy, well not unless you really don’t like mummy and daddy! And the same with high altitude blue streaks, ball lightning, and a few other phenomena which in the 70′s were considered paranormal, but now have made the jump over to scientific acceptance, if not yet full explanation.
Others, like the legendary Sasquatch and Nessie are not looking so good after thirty years of research, and may well end up finally be accepted as myths. UFOs, well after Cartman got his anal probe and the bizarre excitement of the 90′s Abduction craze, nuts and bolts ufology is well in decline, and Wicca and the Occult has suffered from over exposure and the harsh light of day – never a happy fate for a mystery religion. It end up less The Devil Rides Out and more Sabrina the Teenage Goth Wannabe Witch. Still my point is simple – some “paranormal” phenomena make it as science includes them, usually without any radical new breakthroughs or changes in our understanding of the laws of nature, others just fade away as they are explained as mistakes or fail to stand up to scrutiny at all, and swim away like Nessie seems to have done. The thing is to keep an open mind without your brains falling out.
Anyway, so far hopefully so good. The problem I have with the paranormal is not people being interested in it — even Most Haunted had the advantage of creating a generation of new skeptics and hard core researchers, so I’m not entirely unhappy with it (and won’t decry my short association with the show – they paid me well, and I enjoyed the work) — but the fact that I don’t really know if the Paranormal works at all.
Let’s starts with a list of “paranormal” claims –
- ESP, Ghosts, UFOs, Zombies, Ball Lightning, Nessie, surviving Thylacines, Mediumship, Spoon Bending, Dowsing, Crystal Power, Atlantis, Witchcraft, Astrology, Poltergeists, Curses, Synchronicity, Astral Projection, Vampires, Werewolves, Psychic Pets, Auras, The Bermuda Triangle, etc, etc…
Now that’s a pretty outrageous list, and I would not necessarily advocate the reality of any of those. However, what if say Poltergeists were real? The very fact they have been placed in this category makes them immediately suspect, and makes any decent scientist worth his salt (so not me) ignore them utterly. Guilt by association. And you know what? You try and do some research in to a poltergeist case, and suddenly people all link you with Auras, Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle – you are a nut. Why – because you study the paranormal! Yet my question — what do any of these things actually have in common?
What does Spoonbending tell us about Atlantis? How are Psychic Pets linked with Werewolves? (Er, don’t answer that actually – I don’t want to know!) This whole paranormal category si just a vast dumping ground for subjects we think lack credibility – and in many of the above examples, probably quite justifiably! However paranormal is just a term of abuse – it tells us nothing about the phenomena except they are not respectable. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena and anomalies out there which are taken seriously – its research on these anomalies, on the niggling problems with our best scientific models which leads to revisions and to the models improving, and hence scientific progress after all. Yet “paranormal” as a term? It’s meaningless.I’m even wary about “parapsychology”. It’s too close for comfort to the despised term.
I’ve just realized I’m in danger of rehashing an article I write in 1996, when Prof Dawkins last publicly spoke on these things, decrying the X Files as it happens. (Amusingly he admitted in The Times interview earlier this week he never actually watched the show!!?) Still back then I wrote a little piece, which I may well repost next in my ongoing collection of CJ musings…