Review: The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story, by Kate Summerscale

Sometimes you should not review a book: it is a job for someone else.

It was the morning of my mother’s funeral; late September 2020, bright sunlight and sudden darkness; an angry wind shouting at me as my housemates gathered in a Wetherspoons in Stowmarket.  We had made our way separately across the country, a country closed down by disease. My first trip out in months – I was anxious and — well whatever feelings bubble beneath as you prepare to say goodbye to your mum in the age of sanitiser and face masks. Not long recovered from my bout with Covid, maybe I was grumpy despite the mountain of fried breakfast. Heaven knows I had every right to be, but I needed distraction and the papers provided it.

And then: an article in The Guardian about Kate Summerscale’s book on the Thornton Heath poltergeist utterly infuriated me. I felt the same annoyance as when yesterday an article declared some “unknown poetry” by a local Great War poet was discovered in — the archive of his work at the local library here!!! Why do journalists always have to frame research as serendipitous breakthroughs, and assume no one else has ever looked there? Why bother to keep these archives if you don’t expect people like me to go look in them? 

The problem with the shallow “previously unknown” convention is that implies that no one else has looked: and a lot of people probably have. Of course when you are writing a paper you hope you are being original: it is always painful to find others have got there first. Anyway the point was that this piece irritated me: I could certainly give most of the key facts about the Thornton Heath poltergeist, and so I declared “I must not review this book!”

So here I am, reviewing the book…

Now anyone who knows me knows I am suspicious of literary types and middle class dilletante authors who chance upon psychical research and are inspired to write worthy works in  beautiful prose about the cases that I specialise in. They often seem to have achieved but the thinnest patina of actual understanding of the literature. Many of you are probably waiting for me to burn Kate Summerscale in effigy as another privileged literary outsider dabbling in my subject. I suspect all literary, cultured types — I occasionally read Smolett or Sterne or Swift or  — anyway I one day hope to reach authors beginning with T. I am basically ignorant of modern literature, and not proud of it. 😦

Luckily, Summerscale overcame these prejudices: but I have set them out at length because they were so marked. If the book was dreadful I would not be reviewing it — so in many ways it is remarkably good, and you must certainly read it. So what is it about?

The book deals with a woman Alma Fielding who was at the centre of a poltergeist case in Thornton Heath, London In 1938. She was investigated by the Hungarian parapsychologist Nandor Fodor, an interesting fellow. My very brief summary of him in the first edition of the Parapsychologist’s Handbook reads “A Hungarian lawyer who moved to New York while acting as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper in 1921.

There he met Hereward Carrington, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and became deeply interested in the pursuit of psychical research. In 1926 a meeting with a psychoanalyst led him to develop that field as a personal specialty, and from 1927 onwards he investigated ghosts and mediums using psychoanalytic techniques.

In 1928 he transferred to a London newspaper group, and remains there into the 1930s. During that decade he published his theories that many poltergeists and hauntings originated in repressed sexual energies, which led him into bitter disputes with the easily shocked. His controversial theories in to the psychosexual origins of many hauntings, combined with a belief in Freudian theory and the unconscious manifesting paranormal events scandalized some and amused others, but few in the field doubted his knowledge and ability.”

If you are familiar with Fodor you may have read his 1935 book The Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, but the Fielding case is covered using  pseudonyms in his less known On the Trail of the Poltergeist. My own interest in him was reawakened reading Christopher Laurson’s excellent PhD (“Reimagining the poltergeist in twentieth-century America and Britain”) a few years back, which is definitely worth searching out if you are looking at psychical research in the 1930’s and if you enjoy this book.

So what is the book like? A well written page turner covering Fodor and Alma, and their relationship which is probably of more interest if you are not focusssed on the poltergeist element; except there is no relationship beyond the poltergeist, and poltergeists might well be products of relationships. Summerscale has really done her research and gone way further than any previous researcher on this case: hats off to her. She is one of Us now. One of us, one of us… 😉

The case captures a moment in time when new myths start to replace old ones: this is the beginning of the consensus that poltergeists are a “nervous breakdown outside the head”, an exteriorisation of unconscious conflict,  rooted in past trauma, and  all of the psychological theorising that posits poltergeists as produced by unconscious human agents, not spiritual dæmonic forces.

Fodor faced the central problem of all psychical research: how the hell do you pay the bills while doing this? (Other issues include the existence of ESP, survival after death, the nature of the Poltergeist, etc — but I can assure you from decades of bitter experience they are all secondary.) Fodor managed to get an income from the International Institute for Psychical Research — not Harry Price’s one but one endowed by I believe Arthur Findlay. As such the board had a pro-Spiritualist tendency: clashes between Fodor and the Board over his debunking of various mediums were exacerbated by a libel case brought with regards to Barbanell’s spiritualist journal Psychic News.

Now I believe the distinction between ghosts and poltergeists arose from the structure of the Census of Hallucinations and the particular biases of the SPR Committee 1888 to 1894, as long term readers of my stuff may know. However it is Fodor and to some extent Hereward Carrington and Eileen Garrett who manage to shift this to the hegemonic position, clearing the way for J.B. Rhine claiming it as a form of PK (recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis) and adding it to the General Extrasensory Perception hypothesis.

The much cited notion that poltergeists manifest around sexually frustrated women (a view much championed by sexually  frustrated psychical researchers, who are sometimes but not always dirty old men) or adolescent girls that was firmly ensconced in popular culture by the 1970s is a crude form of this idea. (It is also a nonsense: see my article on ‘Sex and the unmarried Poltergeist’ in Seriously Strange issue 146. Or even better read the only book on Poltergeists you ever really need to read, the magisterial Poltergeists (1979) by Cornell and Gauld.)

Anyway Summerscale’s book covers the poltergeist; the subsequent mediumistic experiments at the Institute; and what sounds like Fielding’s sometimes very clever trickery and strange personality. She is bored but happy to be strip searched (by women) and the centre of attention: she comes over in this account as a woman who is likeable but a bit scatty, with neurotic and hysterical symptoms as far as Fodor is concerned.

Fodor explains her strange behaviour in terms of repressed trauma; he suggests an orthodox Freudian view, and eventually his wife gets him an interview with the ailing Freud to discuss the case. Here there is a definite issue: Summerscale strongly implies Freud was not privy to and potentially antagonistic to psychical research: yet Freud had been a member of the Society for Psychical Research for at least twenty years by this point, and his conversations with Jung on the subject are well known. The story of Fodor’s fearless wife getting an interview with the great man by arriving at his apartment is a good one, and may well have been told by Fodor, but it is misleading.

Furthermore there is an emphasis in the last chapters that Fodor did not really think it mattered if the poltergeist was real in any sense, what mattered was the psychodynamic forces raging in Alma Fielding’s shattered psyche. I suspect this is bollocks – though he certainly said it at least once: Fodor remained committed to some paranormal forces at work in these cases, he just saw them as exteriorisation of internal forces within the agent not external spiritual forces. I could be wrong, but that is my reading of his later work with Eileen Garett et al. I expect Lisa Colette knows more than anyone alive in these subjects: despite Summerscale consulting her I am not convinced the inference one might draw of “Alma was a clever but disturbed woman and the only spooks were in her mind” is true to Fodor, no matter how much it is the story Summerscale’s readers want.

And then there is the elephant in the room – Freud. I know nothing about Kate Summerscale– I imagine from the text a prize winning product of some minor public school, sharing my background in history or cultural studies, but who maybe studied English at some Oxbridge college in the 70’s? See my prejudices writ large; I declare them freely. The reason I say this is because Psychoanalysis, repressed trauma, the sexual dogma, exteriorisation, the Id the Ego and the Superego all strike me as far more dubious than poltergeists; humbug psychiatry of the dark ages. In the 90s when I briefly trained as a psychiatric nurse we did not take Freud seriously; psychologists had rejected him in the 50s, embraced Behaviourism, rejected that and were creating new paradigms for the next generation to debunk by my time. (Trying to teach me NLP was an ordeal apparently owing to my overwhelming cynicism; I left before CBT was established as the new frontier… Actually trying to teach me anything ever is an ordeal according to some people? But I digress.)

Freud actually worked sonewhat on the wards back then for much the same reason Sun Sign astrology does — vested in cultural authority and any thing can work as therapy if you believe in it and your culture is permeated in it. Yet it was long rejected– the only place where Freud still had immense authority was in English Literature classes (and Developmental Psychology, where Freudian notions ludicrously persisted in how we understand Infant development and to some extent still do.)

Freudianism was largely dead and buried outside of there, literary theory and cultural studies. I used to be wildly amused by my friends textbooks, and was reading The Madwoman in the Attic, Seven Types of Ambiguity and any other literary theory I could lay my hands on in the bar. It often dazzled, sometimes sparkled, rarely convinced.

And then in the 90’s I believe Jeffery Masson or some such worthy published In the Freud Archives asking the question “what if Charcot was right and these women were actually abused, and the Electra/Oedipal complex was a myth?”.  That and the Sokal affair plus having adopted a grunge look inadvertently that tipped me briefly in to high fashion saw me reach my academic apogee: I had form for saying Freudianism is bollocks and became briefly reputable.

Kate Summerscale uses the story of Fodor, Alma and the spiritualists as a lens in to our cultural history, and questions of authority, knowledge and vaguely sexuality though the latter are treated with the delicacy of a vicarage tea party (and not the type with the latex clad randy rev. showing Nine Inch Nails videos). It feels too cosy, too hyggeligt — a book for Radio 4 listeners not those of us who get Heart FM and like it because we are not the drivers. She cites a whole raft of books in which the supernatural horror is ambiguously real, and the evil forces may be in the protagonist’s mind: but she suggests Fodor is the origin of this rather than the obvious origin, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (topic of a paper I am working on) forty years earlier!

There are two key passages which summarise the ambiguity of her position 

“The investigation of ghosts was ‘basically a psychological inquiry’, Fodor declared in his column for the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, ‘concerned with motives and emotions, and not with facts’.”

He did indeed, while courting the psychoanalytic movement. I am sure Andreas Somner could talk on this for a week. But then Summerscale herself concludes

“Since the 1980s, researchers in the psychology of supernatural belief have found a correlation between childhood trauma and adult experiences of paranormality. People who have been sexually abused as children are unusually likely to report supernatural events. Psychologists speculate that damaged children learn to use fantasy as a form of escape, while their desperate wish for control generates delusions of psychic power. Fodor believed that the desperation sometimes produced real supernatural force.”

And here is the rub: what research? The whole issues of trauma, repressed memory, the link between Fantasy Prone Personality and paranormal belief and paranormal experience (they are not the same) are so complex and so desperately contested it would take a longer book than this to go anywhere.

So in conclusion beautifully written, well researched and useful, tends to imply Fodor more central than he was in some ways — Hereward Carrington, Eileen Garrett and dear old Harry Price deserve treatments this good — occasionally misleading and ultimately probably slightly depressing, a bed time story for an audience with no time for a moral.

Recommended. But what would I know?

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
This entry was posted in History religion and society, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Social commentary desecrated, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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