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.
OK, a long, long time ago Anne Lay said that fantasy was the only interesting genre in gaming. I disagreed, and wrote a game set in a St. Petersburg Boot Factory, during the Russian Revolution. There are no great historical or ethical lessons to be learned – the history may well be rubbish – but it’s a fairly simple game you can play with 9 friends over for dinner and a bottle of vodka. Steve Hatherley of UK Freeforms made a pdf, which is free to download, so you can print it out and play it if you want to. The GM is the Gamesmaster – the host – they should have read all the character sheets, and be familiar with the whole print out, and make up any answrs to rules questions not covered by the game. Everyone else just gets some game cards, a character sheet for the person they are playing, and the briefing documents — anyway email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions.
It’s not my best game, but I’m trying to mention my gaming hobby more on my blog this year, and it may amuse. The original version included a points scoring system to determine a winner: Steve deleted it to make it more of a freeform, but if Axel still has the files I sent him I can make that available as well if any one wants it. Have a read see what you think!
As I won’t be able to get to my blog for a few days, well not much, and I am rubbish at sending cards, please consider this an e-card from CJ! This year’s card is a picture taken by the very talented Ed Woods a few days ago in Buxton: Ed is here in Cheltenham for Christmas, and I thought this was really pretty…
And my old RD.net Christmas message seems appropriate, as it covers most of my my friends and readers (the two are really mutually inclusive categories…)!
“Evening! I have been meaning to write a little Christmas post, so I will. It’s in lieu of cards – I have not been organized enough to send any of those in over the last decade. I am one of those people who is today considering buying a few presents tomorrow and will doubtless hand them to friends and loved ones mid-January. My crapness is legendary! (As I give them random gifts through the year they tend to forgive me and not lynch me!)
A long time ago, far from here, a child was born. A VERY special child, utterly unique – a child who would grow in to a wonderful, special person. A child whose life would touch many – who would laugh, love and suffer.
Schmaltzy it may be, but we are all unique. It does not matter if we knew our parents, have big families or no one in the world – we are each absolutely unique, and absolutely worthy, at least potentially. We are all in a sense special, from the most disorganized old pseud like me, to the most brilliant scientists. We have one life (Buddhists and other reincarnationists please forgive this claim!) and one chance to be happy, and make others happy in this world.
At the risk of being banned or warned i’ll do a brief preachy bit: I believe in the radical equality of worth of every human being. The baby Jesus grew up to teach us that we should love one another, as God loves us all: crap will happen to us all, as he reminded us that the rain falls on the good and bad alike, but we are all worthy of love. Those who deny the value of others, the hypocrites who are without compassion, deserve to be spoken against – but our love should extend to even our enemies. It’s hard to be enemies with someone you love.
Now this love thing is pretty hard, and lets face it we all get it wrong. You try not to hold grudges, you try to be understanding and rational, but as Schiller remarked “with stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain”. My personal struggle is with people who say “love the sinner, hate the sin”. I can see the logic, but so often it means condemn you for what you are, and feel good about it. That’s pretty sick.
Now you don’t need religion to decide we are all special and unique – genetically it’s true, and physically it’s true, and mentally it’s true. Every death diminished us, as John Donne reminded us – priceless experiences lost. However, all too often, we forget that fact.
And right now, here is my Christmas thought, in true Jerry Springer style. You are special, and worthy of love, and deserve good things. We are always being told to love others, our enemies etc, but hell, this Christmas be good to yourselves. I joke about how rubbish I am, but I’m completely happy being CJ, and you should all love yourselves. (Well maybe not literally and physically, at least in public; don’t want you spending Christmas in jail!). Remember, it’s hard to love others if you don’t like yourself. You are in my experience a wonderful wild and wacky bunch, and I hope you all realize how special you really are!
Now I don’t think Prof Dawkin’s would disagree with me on this. This week I re-read The Selfish Gene, and it struck me I agree with the Prof here. You all know by know that I equate “original sin” with the selfish genes, our inherited mammalian traits, and you all know that I think we can rise above petty territorialism, self aggrandizement and aggression to build a better, more rational world. I’m no speceist – I love trees, lichen, moths, cats and the city streets – but humans have a unique ability, according to the Prof and to I, to rise above our genetic imperatives. Read that famous last chapter of The Selfish Gene again, the one detractors so often ignore, and you will see that humanity has a unique chance to shape their evolution, to forge their future, to have a society in no way “red in tooth and claw” – a special dignity. As far as we know so far, we are pretty unique in this as a species – so let’s not blow it dudes!
So love yourselves guys, and be good to yourselves this Christmas time.
It only remains to say to you all have a wonderful festive season, and a splendid annual rotation of the sun to follow!
Happy (insert whatever you want to celebrate!) “
and for those with a sense of humour, a favourite story of mine, by HH Munro – Saki – now long out of copyright…
Respectfully dedicated to my pagan. psychical research and occultist mates…
The She Wolf
By Saki (HH Munro)
LEONARD BILSITER was one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an “unseen world” of their own experience or imagination – or invention. Children do that sort of thing successfully, but children are content to convince themselves, and do not vulgarise their beliefs by trying to convince other people. Leonard Bilsiter’s beliefs were for “the few,” that is to say, anyone who would listen to him.
His dabblings in the unseen might not have carried him beyond the customary platitudes of the drawing-room visionary if accident had not reinforced his stock-in- trade of mystical lore. In company with a friend, who was interested in a Ural mining concern, he had made a trip across Eastern Europe at a moment when the great Russian railway strike was developing from a threat to a reality; its outbreak caught him on the return journey, somewhere on the further side of Perm, and it was while waiting for a couple of days at a wayside station in a state of suspended locomotion that he made the acquaintance of a dealer in harness and metalware, who profitably whiled away the tedium of the long halt by initiating his English traveling companion in a fragmentary system of folk-lore that he had picked up from Trans-Baikal traders and natives. Leonard returned to his home circle garrulous about his Russian strike experiences, but oppressively reticent about certain dark mysteries, which he alluded to under the resounding title of Siberian Magic. The reticence wore off in a week or two under the influence of an entire lack of general curiosity, and Leonard began to make more detailed allusions to the enormous powers which this new esoteric force, to use his own description of it, conferred on the initiated few who knew how to wield it. His aunt, Cecilia Hoops, who loved sensation perhaps rather better than she loved the truth, gave him as clamorous an advertisement as anyone could wish for by retailing an account of how he had turned a vegetable marrow into a wood pigeon before her very eyes. As a manifestation of the possession of supernatural powers, the story was discounted in some quarters by the respect accorded to Mrs. Hoops’ powers of imagination.
However divided opinion might be on the question of Leonard’s status as a wonder-worker or a charlatan, he certainly arrived at Mary Hampton’s house-party with a reputation for pre-eminence in one or other of those professions, and he was not disposed to shun such publicity as might fall to his share. Esoteric forces and unusual powers figured largely in whatever conversation he or his aunt had a share in, and his own performances, past and potential, were the subject of mysterious hints and dark avowals.
“I wish you would turn me into a wolf, Mr. Bilsiter,” said his hostess at luncheon the day after his arrival.
“My dear Mary,” said Colonel Hampton, “I never knew you had a craving in that direction.”
“A she-wolf, of course,” continued Mrs. Hampton; it would be too confusing to change one’s sex as well as one’s species at a moment’s notice.”
“I don’t think one should jest on these subjects,” said Leonard.
“I’m not jesting, I’m quite serious, I assure you. Only don’t do it to-day; we have only eight available bridge players, and it would break up one of our tables. To-morrow we shall be a larger party. To-morrow night, after dinner – “
“In our present imperfect understanding of these hidden forces I think one should approach them with humbleness rather than mockery,” observed Leonard, with such severity that the subject was forthwith dropped.
Clovis Sangrail had sat unusually silent during the discussion on the possibilities of Siberian Magic; after lunch he side-tracked Lord Pabham into the comparative seclusion of the billiard-room and delivered himself of a searching question.
“Have you such a thing as a she-wolf in your collection of wild animals? A she-wolf of moderately good temper?”
Lord Pabham considered. “There is Loiusa,” he said, “a rather fine specimen of the timber-wolf. I got her two years ago in exchange for some Arctic foxes. Most of my animals get to be fairly tame before they’ve been with me very long; I think I can say Louisa has an angelic temper, as she-wolves go. Why do you ask?”
“I was wondering whether you would lend her to me for to-morrow night,” said Clovis, with the careless solicitude of one who borrows a collar stud or a tennis racquet.
“Yes, wolves are nocturnal animals, so the late hours won’t hurt her,” said Clovis, with the air of one who has taken everything into consideration; “one of your men could bring her over from Pabham Park after dusk, and with a little help he ought to be able to smuggle her into the conservatory at the same moment that Mary Hampton makes an unobtrusive exit.”
Lord Pabham stared at Clovis for a moment in pardonable bewilderment; then his face broke into a wrinkled network of laughter.
“Oh, that’s your game, is it? You are going to do a little Siberian Magic on your own account. And is Mrs. Hampton willing to be a fellow-conspirator?”
“Mary is pledged to see me through with it, if you will guarantee Louisa’s temper.”
“I’ll answer for Louisa,” said Lord Pabham.
By the following day the house-party had swollen to larger proportions, and Bilsiter’s instinct for self- advertisement expanded duly under the stimulant of an increased audience. At dinner that evening he held forth at length on the subject of unseen forces and untested powers, and his flow of impressive eloquence continued unabated while coffee was being served in the drawing- room preparatory to a general migration to the card-room.
His aunt ensured a respectful hearing for his utterances, but her sensation-loving soul hankered after something more dramatic than mere vocal demonstration.
“Won’t you do something to CONVINCE them of your powers, Leonard?” she pleaded; “change something into another shape. He can, you know, if he only chooses to,” she informed the company.
“Oh, do,” said Mavis Pellington earnestly, and her request was echoed by nearly everyone present. Even those who were not open to conviction were perfectly willing to be entertained by an exhibition of amateur conjuring.
Leonard felt that something tangible was expected of him.
“Has anyone present,” he asked, “got a three-penny bit or some small object of no particular value -?”
“You’re surely not going to make coins disappear, or something primitive of that sort?” said Clovis contemptuously.
“I think it very unkind of you not to carry out my suggestion of turning me into a wolf,” said Mary Hampton, as she crossed over to the conservatory to give her macaws their usual tribute from the dessert dishes.
“I have already warned you of the danger of treating these powers in a mocking spirit,” said Leonard solemnly.
“I don’t believe you can do it,” laughed Mary provocatively from the conservatory; “I dare you to do it if you can. I defy you to turn me into a wolf.”
As she said this she was lost to view behind a clump of azaleas.
“Mrs. Hampton – ” began Leonard with increased solemnity, but he got no further. A breath of chill air seemed to rush across the room, and at the same time the macaws broke forth into ear-splitting screams.
“What on earth is the matter with those confounded birds, Mary?” exclaimed Colonel Hampton; at the same moment an even more piercing scream from Mavis Pellington stampeded the entire company from their seats. In various attitudes of helpless horror or instinctive defence they confronted the evil-looking grey beast that was peering at them from amid a setting of fern and azalea.
Mrs. Hoops was the first to recover from the general chaos of fright and bewilderment.
“Leonard!” she screamed shrilly to her nephew, “turn it back into Mrs. Hampton at once! It may fly at us at any moment. Turn it back!”
“I – I don’t know how to,” faltered Leonard, who looked more scared and horrified than anyone.
“What!” shouted Colonel Hampton, “you’ve taken the abominable liberty of turning my wife into a wolf, and now you stand there calmly and say you can’t turn her back again!”
To do strict justice to Leonard, calmness was not a distinguishing feature of his attitude at the moment.
“I assure you I didn’t turn Mrs. Hampton into a wolf; nothing was farther from my intentions,” he protested.
“Then where is she, and how came that animal into the conservatory?” demanded the Colonel.
“Of course we must accept your assurance that you didn’t turn Mrs. Hampton into a wolf,” said Clovis politely, “but you will agree that appearances are against you.”
“Are we to have all these recriminations with that beast standing there ready to tear us to pieces?” wailed Mavis indignantly.
“Lord Pabham, you know a good deal about wild beasts – ” suggested Colonel Hampton.
“The wild beasts that I have been accustomed to,” said Lord Pabham, “have come with proper credentials from well-known dealers, or have been bred in my own menagerie. I’ve never before been confronted with an animal that walks unconcernedly out of an azalea bush, leaving a charming and popular hostess unaccounted for. As far as one can judge from OUTWARD characteristics,” he continued, “it has the appearance of a well-grown female of the North American timber-wolf, a variety of the common species CANIS LUPUS.”
“Oh, never mind its Latin name,” screamed Mavis, as the beast came a step or two further into the room; “can’t you entice it away with food, and shut it up where it can’t do any harm?”
“If it is really Mrs. Hampton, who has just had a very good dinner, I don’t suppose food will appeal to it very strongly,” said Clovis.
“Leonard,” beseeched Mrs. Hoops tearfully, “even if this is none of your doing can’t you use your great powers to turn this dreadful beast into something harmless before it bites us all – a rabbit or something?”
“I don’t suppose Colonel Hampton would care to have his wife turned into a succession of fancy animals as though we were playing a round game with her,” interposed Clovis.
“I absolutely forbid it,” thundered the Colonel.
“Most wolves that I’ve had anything to do with have been inordinately fond of sugar,” said Lord Pabham; “if you like I’ll try the effect on this one.”
He took a piece of sugar from the saucer of his coffee cup and flung it to the expectant Louisa, who snapped it in mid-air. There was a sigh of relief from the company; a wolf that ate sugar when it might at the least have been employed in tearing macaws to pieces had already shed some of its terrors. The sigh deepened to a gasp of thanks-giving when Lord Pabham decoyed the animal out of the room by a pretended largesse of further sugar. There was an instant rush to the vacated conservatory. There was no trace of Mrs. Hampton except the plate containing the macaws’ supper.
“The door is locked on the inside!” exclaimed Clovis, who had deftly turned the key as he affected to test it.
Everyone turned towards Bilsiter.
“If you haven’t turned my wife into a wolf,” said Colonel Hampton, “will you kindly explain where she has disappeared to, since she obviously could not have gone through a locked door? I will not press you for an explanation of how a North American timber-wolf suddenly appeared in the conservatory, but I think I have some right to inquire what has become of Mrs. Hampton.”
Bilsiter’s reiterated disclaimer was met with a general murmur of impatient disbelief.
“I refuse to stay another hour under this roof,” declared Mavis Pellington.
“If our hostess has really vanished out of human form,” said Mrs. Hoops, “none of the ladies of the party can very well remain. I absolutely decline to be chaperoned by a wolf!”
“It’s a she-wolf,” said Clovis soothingly.
The correct etiquette to be observed under the unusual circumstances received no further elucidation. The sudden entry of Mary Hampton deprived the discussion of its immediate interest.
“Some one has mesmerised me,” she exclaimed crossly; “I found myself in the game larder, of all places, being fed with sugar by Lord Pabham. I hate being mesmerised, and the doctor has forbidden me to touch sugar.”
The situation was explained to her, as far as it permitted of anything that could be called explanation.
“Then you REALLY did turn me into a wolf, Mr. Bilsiter?” she exclaimed excitedly.
But Leonard had burned the boat in which he might now have embarked on a sea of glory. He could only shake his head feebly.
“It was I who took that liberty,” said Clovis; “you see, I happen to have lived for a couple of years in North-Eastern Russia, and I have more than a tourist’s acquaintance with the magic craft of that region. One does not care to speak about these strange powers, but once in a way, when one hears a lot of nonsense being talked about them, one is tempted to show what Siberian magic can accomplish in the hands of someone who really understands it. I yielded to that temptation. May I have some brandy? the effort has left me rather faint.”
If Leonard Bilsiter could at that moment have transformed Clovis into a cockroach, and then have stepped on him, he would gladly have performed both operations.
I don’t often go to the cinema – in my whole life I have seen eight films there. The Wizard of Oz (got scared and had to be taken out), Excalibur, Ghostbusters, Mississippi Burning, Dracula, the first Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings part one – The Fellowship of the Ring, Tombraider 2 – where I screamed and Lisa swore she would never go to the cinema with me again! That’s it, every film I have ever seen in my whole life at the cinema, until last night, when I went with Becky to see a film called Paranormal Activity.
I have watched about the same number of films on TV, and maybe the same again on DVD (including Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, Battleship Potemkin, Oktober, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Producers (original version, never seen the new one) and Dr Strangelove. I have enjoyed all these films, and maybe I should watch more; but I acknowledge that many people watch more films in a month than I have seen in my entire life, so I may be the worst person in the world to review films. However compared with the other films I have seen, let’s get one thing straight — Paranormal Activity, the film I saw last night–was not very good. Or was it? I can’t make my mind up!
So what is the film? It’s pretty simple in concept – hand-held camera home movie of a couple experiencing paranormal activity. The two main characters are called Micah and Katie, a young couple who live in a house I think near LA. Katie experienced “paranormal activity” in her childhood home aged 8, then later at age 13 – though we learn very little about the second bout of activity. Micah is I think a “day trader”, which I assume is some kind of depraved bloodsucking capitalist vampire, or is that a “day walker?” On seeing their house my first thought was people this rich deserve to be haunted, I hope they spontaneously combust. That may just be me though… Actually in many ways the house was a star of the film – I wonder if it belongs to one of the cast? It has that kind of homely feel, and would certainly meet the overall theme of the film. It was almost an exploration of what could be, a house’s neuroses. It was anew house, like the Barnwood poltergeist case I investigated in 95 – it had a very authentic feel in that respect. A weaker film would have used an old house – this was a film which deals with the kind of noises in the night any new tenant has to face. I hope that was the writer’s intentions, because if it was he did a great job.
The plot, in as far as there is one, reads like something I would research or Becky would be studying for her PhD (which in case anyone does not know is on a replication of an 1894 Society for Psychical Research survey). Given we both are active in spontaneous case investigation, and both watched the film from that parapsychological perspective, our perspectives may be warped.
So I’m going to look at the film briefly on a number of levels..
Firstly as a film. It did not move me, certainly did not scare me, it made me laugh out loud a number of times, but in a nice laughing-with-not-at kind of way – Micah Sloat (yes he is actually called Micah, and Katie is played by Katie Featherstone) has some fantastic lines, and both characters are likable and believable. The ending was a bit naff, but overall the film tried for the ambiguity of the classic ghost story – it came closer than most to The Turn of the Screw in this respect, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw is the best you can get. I would have ended thsi film a minute earlier, with them just going downstairs after Katie screams – the final shot was really not needed. Still, full marks that the house did not blow up, the thing was never seen, remain an eldritch horror lurking off camera, and I will say the script by Oren Peli shows huge promise.
Was there a script? I should say “idea by Oren Peli” (I hope I got his name right, I tried to remember the actors and writer) because you get the idea that much of this was improvised – it’s the most natural dialogue I have seen since Alan Partridge stayed in a Travelodge outside Norwich, and actually that is really a serious compliment.
It works, and works well. A way in I suddenly whispered to Becky – Dogme 95, and i think she though I was mad, if she heard me. Dogme 95 was a manifesto I associate with Danish genius Lars von Trier (anyone seen Riget? Not Dogme 95, but brilliant – watch the series! ) Hand held camera, classic unity time and place, no budget, shot in colour with natural lighting – all there. This may ironically be the most commercially successful Dogme manifesto film ever – I’m just not sure if that was intentional, and Peili was aiming for that, or he just hit upon the same formula because it works so well for this kind of film. Oddly it seems far closer to Dogme 95 type films that to say it’s obvious parallel, The Blair Witch Project. I tried to sit through a video of Blair Witch once, mainly cos I knew a Cumbrian Witch called Jo Blair and thought it funny, but this film was better. Artistically, intellectually, creatively, an excellent film.
Emotional response; same as any review of a spontaneous case video; more interesting than the hours I have spent watching footage from locked off cameras waiting for the ghost not to show, but at least in those cases it was real. This being fiction made the tedium less acceptable, even if I just had to watch the edited highlights. This made Most Haunted Live look exciting: in fact it made sitting “backstage” at Most Haunted Live chatting to Phil Whyman and David Wells look like a hot night out. :) I was tired and if cinemas were more comfortable might have fallen asleep on Becky’s shoulder, as it was I ate a large bag of popcorn and was mildly entertained. Maybe some people are scared by this film — if so I suggest they do not attempt a career in paranormal TV, or spontaneous case investigation. I was personally more scared by the Muppets take Manhattan.
I was however drawn to Micah’s character – he reacts EXACTLY as I have on occasion – when folks were calling out “is there anybody there?” I have done exactly what he did “What is your Quest?”, “what is your favourite colour?” The Monty Python quip is an obvious one, and the mix of humour and suspense is good throughout, but I laughed a little too loud as I recognised something of myself, not least the absolute frustration that drives Micah to try and make stuff happen, and Katie’s resistance and just wanting the phenomena to go away – the central paradox of psychical research of this type, the people experiencing it want it to end, the investigators want to see more. The film captures that paradox nicely, framing it in the young couples reactions. There is probably something also about the voyeuristic male gaze – why men like porn and pictures, women relationships here, but I won’t explore that lest this become a nightmare essay. Oddly the film does not seem voyeuristic or an intrusion on intimacy to me, but then I was viewing it from the perspective of someone interested in the phenomena, not the relationship – this may be an unusual way to read the film and one my own odd perspective brings ot it. I’ll have to read some reviews later see how others not in this line of work see it.
Now let’s look at it with my “work” hat on. This comes closer to being what the kind of cases i have looked at in reality are actually like than any other film or TV adaptation I have seen. It feels authentic. The psychic was beautifully understated, and the phenomena were entirely believable. I found myself wishing I had a dictaphone to record the rumbling bumping noises and apply Barrie Colvin’s ideas on sound analysis of poltergeist cases h discussed at the recent SPR Study Day on Poltergeists to the sounds, which were disturbing – was infrasound used? Dunno! Only the ouija board scene seemed over the top to me – the recovery of the misplaced photograph was beautifully shot, and i keep trying to recall where I have come across that motif before, as I think through real pyrogeist cases from the literature. It seemed familiar. I thought the footprints of the thing seemed to be like those of a giant chicken – again something I think I have seen in have seen in the literature.
A couple of missed opportunities – having the bead clothes form a simulacra, whole body of face only is in keeping with the reported cases in the literature, I think Amherst, and of course M.R.James fictional Oh Whistle I’ll And Come To You My Lad, and an apparition of a rabbit or white animal, or a talking mongoose called Gef would have added to my pleasure. Actually if there has been a parrot in a cage I think that might have freaked me out and made me think this was a documentary after all, but I won’t explain that just yet – you get the idea I have found pet parrots involved in a rather a lot of poltergeist cases, why I know not! Unlike say Ghostbusters there were no knowing nods to the psychical research literature – and that was good, Katie and Micah are not normal people eschewing (strongly in the case of Micah) so-called “expert” involvement. Again, full marks for authenticity.
Now let’s talk Demons. Yes I know, another Sunday night in with CJ.
In the film the phenomena is interpreted not as RSPK (Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis, or a common or garden lesser spotted Poltergeist to you and I) but as demonic, or perhaps to be more accurate daemonic activity. Actually, nah, let’s face it it was a demon. (A daemon is just a discarnate intelligence – angels, demons fairies, elementals, whatever other psychical bogeyman can be found on a Theosophophist’s shopping list really.) This was a demon – you know one of them satanic, malign, malevolent, evil, insidious beasticles which most cultures have in their cultural history. This is mildly disturbing, but mirrors something going on in real life.
When I first got in to the ghost business my Christian beliefs made me often feel a bit of an outsider – sure in the UK we have the Church Fellowship for Psychical And Spiritual Studies etc, and David Sivier and David Carter-Green. However Ed and Lorraine Warren, demonologists who see paranormal activity through the lens of the demonic were a peculiarly American, and I thought distinctly non-mainstream fringe. However, just as in the UK Most Haunted brought Spiritualism and spontaneous case investigation back together, and made the use of psychics fashionable (at least I’d be playing around with Gertrude Schmeidler’s ideas on Quantitative Assesment of a Haunted House for a good decade before that, and knew the pitfalls) in the USA demonology is now huge.
Ironically, given that I am famous (in some circles) for saying “if it acts like a demon, bites like a demon, stinks like a demon it’s a demon” I’m a bit disturbed by all this It’s not far from the idea that all paranormal event are demonic to seeing them rooted in people’s sins; the victim is once again victimised. Exorcism kills – you know my friend I wanted you to know that, because I am deadly serious. While the churches on the whole have been careful, circumspect and intelligent in requiring psychiatric, medical and natural explanations to be considered, there are now crowds of amateur US ghosthunters who see demons behind every rosebush, in C.S. Lewis’ memorable phrase. This film eschews the spiritualist “dead guy” interpretation of the poltergeist (the shade of Professor Ian Stevenson is no doubt annoyed) and equally rejects the “nervous break down outside the head” living agent hypothesis (and for once, the shade of D Scott Rogo shakes his head glumly in agreement with Stevenson’s spirit.) I am tempted to say it’s like William Roll never happened; it’s actually more like Roll, Gauld, Cornell, Cassirer, and all modern parapsychology never happened. Come ot think of it it’s like the whole 18th century never happened – we are stuck in that milieu Shakespeare lived in, just after the Reformation: ghosts might not be visitors from Purgatory, but instead ‘that damned mole’ may just be a demon masquerading as your father on the battlements of Elsinore Castle.
I have some sympathy with the theology and the analysis, but the ramifications and craziness that may follow as amateur ghosthunters throw away their EMF meters (ya!) and pick up crucifix and holy water terrify me. And i mean that – as I said to Jeff Belanger on the phone earlier this year, this can only end in a tragedy. :( Guys leave the spiritual forces to the devout ministers of God – we really can dabble in things we don’t understand (a point the film makes, through the psychic who is far wiser and more mature than the reality of dealing with such often leads me to expect. Astonishingly for an American film it also avoids religious symbolism, crucifixes, pious cant and much of the craziness – perhaps it’s a Jewish ghost – actually, Oren, Micah, I may be right, and if so I’m glad?)
So all in all, what did I think? I’m glad I saw it; a clever, well shot, intelligent film, not remotely scary but highly enjoyable, with a great cast, marred a little by the Blair Witch style opening and closing “it’s all real” credits. I look forward to seeing more of the actors – Micah Sloat is outstanding, and Oren Peli will doubtless go on to great things, and deserves an even better house than the one used in the film, or to buy that one if it does not belong to one of the cast! Katie Featherstone was very good too I think, and I could completely forget it was a film at times, suspend disbelief an actually get interested in the case.
But it won’t scare you, unless you a bigger wuss than even me, a noted self confessed coward who was terrified by and screamed out loud to Lisa’s horror…
Well, anyone who does not know that cj.23 or Jerome is me, is probably not going to be excited by my blog anyhow! And having finally worked out how to change the title, I thought I would. If anyone wants to know where the title is from -
Lather by Jefferson Airplane.
Lyrics (c) RCA Music.
Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys.
His mother sent newspaper clippings to him,
About his old friends who’d stopped being boys.
There was Harwitz E. Green, just turned thirty-three,
His leather chair waits at the bank.
And Sergeant Dow Jones, twenty-seven years old,
Commanding his very own tank.
But Lather still finds it a nice thing to do,
To lie about nude in the sand,
Drawing pictures of mountains that look like bumps,
And thrashing the air with his hands.
But wait, oh Lather’s productive you know,
He produces the finest of sound,
Putting drumsticks on either side of his nose,
Snorting the best licks in town,
But that’s all over…
Lather was thirty years old today,
And Lather came foam from his tongue.
He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said,
Is it true that I’m no longer young?
And the children call him famous,
what the old men call insane,
And sometimes he’s so nameless,
That he hardly knows which game to play…
Which words to say…
And I should have told him, “No, you’re not old.”
And I should have let him go on…smiling…baby-wide.
As far as I know it was written for Skip Spence’s thirtieth: “never trust anyone over thirty” was a hippy motto, but I still, after my years with the Nameless Anarchist Horde and roleplaying games, find it strangely apt and moving. It ended my set at the Axiom, on the goth night I dj’d to celebrate my thirtieth birthday, a great track to go home too. Yes I used to be a goth dj! Indeed do many things come to pass!
I’m a huge fan of Jefferson Airplane as my friends all know, and if you are wondering what they sound like – amazingly diverse is the simple answer. But here is Lather! Do have a listen…