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 said I’d write something about the weekend, and i guess I should, but for anyone hoping for fantastic proof of the paranormal, look elsewhere! What follows is a short account of a weekend ghost hunt that was notably devoid of actual spooky happenings.
GSUK is a small psychical research group set up by Becky Smith and I after we stopped working for Richard Felix at Derby Gaol. It’s every much a group of friends, and we have a forum where we chat, occasionally talk about the paranormal and plan our low cost little ghost-tourism jaunts, where we go to supposedly haunted locations and stay a night, a lovely way to see the country. I can’t recall exactly how many trips we have done, but we have ranged all over the Midlands and South West of England, and our regulars do try to attend every single event, for which we are very grateful. Perhaps the most interesting thing about GSUK is just how little of a paranormal nature ever seems to happen to us – in all our trips, only on one have I been really convinced something very odd was afoot! So unlike many ghosthunting groups, we are spectacularly unsuccessful in our endeavours.
Another peculiarity of GSUK is the wide range of beliefs that members hold. A year or two back Becky and I got our folks to fill in Michael Thalbourne’s Australian Sheep/Goat survey, an instrument for testing belief in the paranormal. The majority of our members were actually extremely sceptical compared with the British public, and i was the second LEAST sceptical member of the group. Only one member counts as a strong “paranormal believer”. Yet we are convinced that the phenomena are worth investigating, and even Balders (Tony Robinson), our most sceptical member by far, is open minded enough to drive all over the country checking out the evidence for himself.
Even in religious beliefs we are diverse, ranging from Natalie Evans, our Wiccan-Spiritualist believer, through to the passionate atheists and then David Carter Green, David Sivier, Dawn Bedwell and myself, all practicing Christians. No, we don’t burn psychic believers at the stake – though if I could get away with it a few New Agers might make for a great open air barbecue! We are a tolerant bunch, often amused by each others ideas but we are good friends through shared experience I guess, even if the experience is limited to talking on a forum, eating together in nice hotels and wandering around looking for spooks! Anyway a great group of people, and we always welcome new people, as long as they are not loonies. :)
Anyway there was not even time to advertise this one on Facebook, where GSUK has 60+ fans – we just mentioned it on the forum, and it filled up immediately. We had to turn people away for once, almost unheard of! The plan was simple – make our way to the Old Bell, Long Street, Dursley, and book in, have a meal – the food there is simply wonderful, huge meals very reasonably priced, then drive down to the Ancient Ram Inn, Wotton-Under-Edge, stake it out till the early hours then return to the hotel in Dursley where people could sleep or sit up and look for ghosts as the mood took them. As the Old Bell is very reasonably priced, and we agreed we would give John Humphries owner of the Ram a sensible donation, the weekend was not too expensive, and I think it was worth every penny, even if I say so myself…
Getting There – an adventure in itself!
On Saturday Becky picked me up and we made our way to Dursley, where our intrepid investigators assembled form all over. Many arrived at Cam & Dursley station, or as Tracy calls it after an earlier visit, “Damn and Cursely”. Would be ghosthunters should note it is a few miles up a very steep hill from Dursley, and a couple of miles from that town and Cam. There is a bus route, but folks dropped of by train in what appears to be the middle of the countryside may feel a little hard done by, so arrange lifts or look at bus times in advance! Once we had all arrived at the Old Bell, we had the usual meeting and greeting, the aforementioned excellent meal, and as many of us had been to the Old Bell before, in my case many, many times, a cheerful social afternoon. Any ghosthunters reading this may wish to check out the Old Bell Hotel, a wonderful place to investigate with a genuinely ghosthunter friendly staff (and I’m usually available to show you round with enough notice as well if you want to know my side of the story – I blog about my previous experiences investigating the Old Bell here), but be warned – the hotel rooms are directly above Capone’s Nightclub, which is open till 5am in the morning, and the exuberant youth of Gloucestershire and pounding music are VERY audible all night.
On a previous investigation we ended up parodying Most Haunted, with me shouting “Did You Hear That?” over the sound of dance music, and when an ashtray moved in the dining room on the first floor it was clearly the vibrations from the speakers. You would have thought we were disgruntled, but not a bit – it’s very comfortable and we all I think enjoyed a good nights sleep, except those disturbed by certain member’s almost legendary snoring! However if you are planning to investigate here, do choose a week night.
At seven pm we set off for the Ancient Ram – you need cars to get there across the hills from Dursley, it’s about thirteen miles I think. We set off in convoy but some cars quickly became detached, but most of us went the wrong way in Wotton itself, and when Becky and I took the lead we could find no where to turn round, so we drove some eight miles before we finally managed to turn back, and I managed to get us to the Ram. We arrived in darkness, and pouring rain. I know where it is, I have been many times over the years, most recently being filmed for a US show called Ghost Adventures (Travel Channel, showing this month) just a month or two back, but I can’t find the Ram’s postcode anywhere and so Sat Nav was useless – and owing to some fault Becky’s Sat Nav played up all day.
The Ancient Ram House
I have quite a long association with the Ancient Ram. Back in 1993/94 I conducted a lengthy investigation, including a 72 hour vigil with a team. On another occasion I investigated alongside a team from ASSAP, and with the CPRG made a number of other trips there. I believe Derek and Harry’s report will still be filed at the SPR offices in Marloes Road – I was not actually party to the report, and am not sure what was said therein, but I certainly personally formed the conclusion that there did seem to have been a series of poltergeist type events in the late 1980’s when John’s daughter was resident in a room at the top of the stairwell. My memory, which may be faulty, was at the time we investigated John lived in the area which is now called The Barn, and was sole resident. I don’t actually recall the “ancient grave” which is in the main room downstairs, though I do know it was apparently uncovered in late 1968, so how I missed it I have no idea! The house itself is far more cluttered than it was then, and the upper storey and attic is now no longer reachable, after the staircase collapsed under the weight of some rather large ghosthunting ladies. This has led to some notoriety for John Humphries as he has signs up which inform the public that fat women are not welcome upstairs! If you are at all sensitive about your weight probably best give the Ram a miss – even if you are slim as Becky, who is positively thin, you might be worried the building might collapse about your ears.
The Ghost Adventures episode was not my first time with TV at the Ram – Most Haunted filmed there, though I was not present, in the period I was a researcher for them, and ditto Dave Barrett’s Y Files and of course the episode of Ghost Hunters Spectres of the Severn in which I feature quite prominently talking about fault lines and Gloucestershire hauntings in relation to the geology of the area. The building is definitely picturesque, with features of historical interest, and there has been considerable controversy about the council’s refusal to help the owner John Humphries preserve a grade 2 (star) listed building which is clearly in structural disarray, and at the time of his taking it on in 1968 was actually as I understand it condemned to demolition. I do not really know the ins and outs of the court actions, and the loss of an adjacent area of land ot New Life Church Dursley following another court action, but it is clear that John is struggling to keep his home in a habitable condition and that the property requires massive capital investment if it is to be there for future generations to enjoy. Ghosthunters are one of the ways, along with American tourists brought to the building by a Mayflower connection, that John is able to attempt to fund the restoration.
Arriving finally at the Ram it was already nighttime, and we managed to make John hear and gain admission. He has recently been hospitalised after local kids beat him up after breaking in (he is 82) and he is now very security conscious. He proved, despite many rumours, an excellent host, and we all felt sorry for the sweet old chap, who is little like the more vigorous and opinionated John Humphries of the 90’s. He gave us a lengthy guided tour, in the course of which I noted several features I had not seen before, but mainly I was amazed by how much stuff he had accumulated – almost every room is filled with piles of stuff, from furniture to soft furnishings, stacked high. When Most Haunted was filmed they must have carefully filmed round this, unless the clutter is much more recent.