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.