"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Psychic News closes down after 78 years — but why?

Posted in atheism, Paranormal, Religion, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on July 27, 2010

Now let’s get this straight. I am NOT a Spiritualist, a Spiritist, a psychic, a medium, or anything similar. I’m an Anglican Christian, and one who happens to be passionately interested in psychical research. Still it came as a surprise today to learn from the JREF of this —

Psychic News final issue

Psychic News final issue: 1932 -2010

Now as it happens today is the busiest I have been in a very long time, and I really did not intend to blog about anything, but as the old gal disappears, I felt a few words were in order. Firstly, my best wishes to everyone who was involved in the publication — I know only too well how traditional print and broadcast media are struggling to compete with new media claiming an increasing share of advertising revenues. ITN is the poster child for this issue; as more satellite channels and web advertising take up, commercial television has taken a huge hit. ITN have bounced back, with advertising revenues up, but a lot of traditional print media has suffered what may be an irreversible downturn, and had to look to internet editions and subscriber services to pick up the slack.

Secondly, I am aware of the byzantine politics of the Spiritualist movement, and the complex theological, administrative and personality clashes which sometimes (always?) arise. In this the Spiritualist National Union is much like any other church, or much like any other organisation, be it poetry club or gardening society.

In those two factors, economic issues and doubtless some political manoeuvring we see the immediate reasons for the decline of Psychic News (a newspaper that as long term reader of this blog may recall once featured me on the front page!). It is a shame, but possibly to be expected. And yet…

CJ is confuzzled…

The reason for my confusion is simple. While the actual reasons for the ending of publication are pretty straight forward — see the Paranormal Review blog for a good explanation and commentary — I am deeply puzzled as to why the Psychic New should have fallen a victim to the challenge of new media etc.  While independent it was published by the SNU, and as such one might have expected it to be immensely popular among adherents of that organisation, which maintains a good number of churches, though possibly not enough to give the PN a future. Still, every time I go to Tesco to get my shopping I see this, and several similar publications…

Chat It's Fate!

Chat It's Fate! (c) IPC Media

There has been an explosion of ‘psychic’ publications. We have also this one…

Spirit & Destiny magazine

Spirit & Destiny - click for their website

and probably others I don’t know about. Back in the early years of this decade I noticed that Jane Millichip was changing LIVING TV from a channel that basically was Loaded magazine on screen, for the lads and laddettes, to something closer to the women’s interest magazines like Chat etc – a brilliant, visionary formula which paid off in spades. They brought Most Haunted to our screens, John Edwards,  Colin Fry, Tony Stockwell, and a host of others. Above all, Derek Acorah became a household name.

I doubt Spiritualists were wildly enthusiastic: the few members of the SNU I know seemed concerned that the glitz and excitement of celebrity mediumship was at odds with their own experiences of ‘Spirit’, and there were as always accusations of fraud. It’s an odd fact, but spiritualism does seem to attract critical thinkers, perhaps because it is such an empirically based religion — it professes to demonstrate the reality of its theological claims on platforms in spiritualist churches up and down the country every week after all, and almost every spiritualist i have ever spoken to has been convinced by the evidence they have seen of afterlife communication — yet remain sceptical of the claims of other mediums they have also witnessed.  As such, they can be  difficult audience to address for their Class A mediums (a designation something like ‘vicar’, not a dangerous drug!) and I doubt many Church of England vicars could handle the level of criticism and empirical demands of a Spiritualist congregation.  Quite the contrary to public perception in my opinion, spiritualists are not wild and wooly believers – they are often VERY sceptically minded folks, with a “i’ll believe when you show me proof” attitude.

As the 90’s ended and teenage Wiccan wannabes ceased to be fashionable and became more and more figures of ridicule, many who had been intoxicated by the promise of The Craft now wanted something more real, more empirical, and more directly answering to their needs – the need to see if their was a life after death, to deal with the terrible pain of bereavement, to deal with the inevitability of our personal deaths. These are real human concerns – you can find them on atheist forums, discussed and disected, just as much as in churches and in psychic groups.

Around 2003-2004 I think the UK underwent a major cultural transformation, as a TV-led taste for the psychic and for empircal rather than occult (in its literal sense of ‘hidden’) religions picked up. People did not just want comfort, vague promises of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ — they wanted proof. They wanted direct spiritual experiences – signs and wonders, something that the Charismatic Christian Churches had been providing since the late sixties, and especially in the late eighties and early nineties, and that Wicca had maybe provided for others. A religion that had in my youth been the staple of advertising jokes (I’m with the Woolwich/Toffee Crisp, etc, etc) and associated with elderly ladies and slightly dotty maiden aunts in the public mind suddenly became credible and relevant — and more than that, it provided something really appealing — the chance to experience the truth, not be told it second hand.

The years that Living TV and the psychic boom led to a population of facebook names like Bob Smith (medium) – an example I made up though there may be one – happens to coincide with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the grim litany of names in the media of our fallen warriors. Historians always point out that the years of the the First World War marked a highpoint in Spiritualism (or so it is claimed) — yet after the grim death toll of the war it faded away again, and the Second World War does not seem to have seen a huge increase in numbers. I don’t know if there is a link, but there may be — please do comment with your thoughts on any of this, I’m no expert, I’m just thinking aloud!

And suddenly we have an explosion of popular interest in the paranormal and the psychic. Two other things arise from it — firstly, a plethora of Ghosthunting TV shows, following the path blazed by Most Haunted — and with them an explosion of paranormal research groups, up from maybe 30 in the late seventies to over 700 in the UK by 2006, if my memory of Dr Ciaran O Keefe’s research is correct – again a “hands on” empirical approach to finding out where spiritual truth stands. That ghosthunting group can be seen as a “New Religious Movements” is I think self evident – they are often technological approaches to ancient questions, a sort of hands-on theological investigation.  Enquiring minds that might have been involved in a church group, or in a occult prctice, or in a scientific pursuit were more and more going out and seeking personal experience – if in the sixties they dropped acid and sought Nirvana, in the seventies looked to the skies for UFo’s and talked to space-brothers, and in the eighties joined a charismatic church or in the nineties a Wiccan coven, in the 2000’s these same peopel became ghosthunters or psychic, or organised sceptics…

Hey, something to offend everyone? Yes, I regard the modern development of many organised sceptic groups as allied to these same cultural phenomena, albeit a critical response to them.  For established folks like CSI(COP), the JREF, or UK Skeptics it must be puzzling — now one can hardly throw a stick without hitting Sceptics in Little Snoring, or some other sceptical group.  While the mainstream media has not been as kind to sceptics as the psychics  – Derren Brown, James Randi and Penn & Teller made it by having other very real talents, ditto the immensely charismatic Dr Richard Wiseman, and Dr Susan Blackmore and Dr Chris French — there are now dozens it seems of sceptical podcasts (sceptics seem very New Media savvy) and while scepticism has been around as a movement since the 1950’s, i think the explosion of interest may well be a direct response to the ‘paranormalisation’ of our popular culture.

I’ll go a stage further, and even allege the New Atheists, and the public interest in Professor Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the TV shows he did on these subjects was a response to the same upswing of ’empirical’ religion (undoubtedly strengthened immensely by 9/11 and the genuine fear of religious fanaticism and old fashioned xenophobia as alien religions and ethnicities become apparent on our streets.)

Ironically I think the thing the New Atheists and Dawkins champion, empiricism and science, have won the battle for the minds of the UK — and the strength of their victory, and the fear of faith based beliefs, can be seen in the upswing of empirically based ‘psychic’ and ‘ghosthunting’ faiths. The adherents of these “new religions”  have taken on-board the dangers of dogma and blind faith, and arcane theological formulations, and are part of the scientifically minded “show me the evidence” culture of doubt and “I’ll believe it when I see it”.   The Atheists are partly a response to some of the spiritual anarchy that has arisen as more and more weird claims are peddles as truth — I often offend by my statement that I prefer institutionalised religion to spiritual anarchy, but that is a discussion for another day — but the New Atheists are at least partially independent of all this – and share the same basic critique of taking things on faith many of the psychics, spiritualists and ghosthunters do as they reject the established faiths and go looking for themselves for the evidence.

The New Sceptics – they serve their role in the new religious landscape of the UK, providing (often badly, sometimes very well), a critique of the experiences that are taken as evidential by the ghosthunters and psychics, explaining them usually in terms of psychology, or less often having a stab at neurological explanations.  New Scepticism is a response to the psychics and ghosthunters to some extent, as Dawkins and the New Atheists are a response to the established Churches?

So why did Psychic News fail?

Well we know the obvious reasons, and looking at the glossy covers of the “rival” psychic magazines, we can why people might pick them up – glossy, polished, exciting, rather then poor old  Psychic News.  As I have hinted above, “people hate noobs”; while SNU churches are undoubtedly welcoming to new members, the criticism and rational analysis I might expect to find of the celebrity mediums in a spiritualist church may make them appear stuffy or conservative to the fans of the big name mediums who pack out theatres all over the country, rather than spiritualist churches.  We have seen this before – in Anglican resentment of John Wesley’s popular preaching in the 18th century, in the distaste for Charles Spurgeon’s evangelical meetings in the 19th century, in the at times snide response of the ‘traditional’ churches to the Charismatic churches in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  And sometimes, as history has shown, the conservatives are right — one remembers the collapse of the Nine o clock Service  rave-church back in the 90’s, and hell, plenty of big name psychics and mediums have been exposed — some like Colin Fry in the pages of Psychic News itself.

We see the same thing in ghosthunting circles – perhaps the SPR (www.spr.ac. uk ) could do more to reach the new ghosthunters, though it appears to me they are, in Atheism – many critiques of the New Atheists come from ‘old atheists’ rather than the religious — and even in scepticism, where politics and personality clashes are as apparent as in any human group. Enthusiastic ‘noobs’ (an internet culture term for a ‘newbie’)  are often a little brash, a little over the top, a little – well ‘enthusiastic’ (in the 19th century sense) – for the tastes of the ‘establishment’.

If I am thinking correctly though, it is not really the fault of those ‘establishments’ though, because a sceptically empirically minded bunch, be they psychic practioners, ghosthunters, sceptics, or whatever, out to tear done the nonsense they perceive in popular belief, and to find out the facts for themselves, put the emphasis not on membership of a church, a certain prestige group, or any organisation that impedes their independent thinking, but in their own experiences, their own thoughts, and their own findings. None like chiefs – they smack of dogma – and none like idols much either. The new spiritualism may be a grass-roots movement that nods at organised Spiritualism, but can’t be bothered to check if their beliefs and experiences tally with the principles of the SNU or orthodox spiritualist theology, or to get out of bed to attend a service or meeting — this is religion for the ‘me’ generation, and  they want a feel good Nescafe friendly morning read not an exposition of often technical spiritualist thinking and history: emotional, personal, experiential, not intellectual and institutionalised religion. The divide between the It’s Fate readers and the psychic news readers may be like the divide between the readers of Paranormal magazine and the ghosthunters and those who subscribe to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research or the European Journal of Parapsychology — and that I think may be the key to why Psychic News has died, even as psychism as a belief system may be reaching its apogee in the uK??

Dunno, just some quick thoughts. I’d better go do some work, but I’d love to hear your comments…

cj x

My Own Ghost Story

Posted in Paranormal, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on March 5, 2010

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.

Thetford Priory - Almost Haunted pic

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!

THetford Priory

The small arch to the right of the main arch is where the staircase was.

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.

Thetord Priory: from The first Mousetrap site

Thetord Priory: from "The First Mousetrap" site which interested me - the photo is a link...

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?

cj x

Thoughts on The Society for Psychical Research

Posted in Fun forthcoming events, Paranormal by Chris Jensen Romer on January 27, 2010

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.

SPR logo

The SPR logo: the symbol is psi, the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet.

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 Mekon

You don't have to look like the Mekon to join the SPR: evil geniuses are still welcome, but normal folks join too!

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!).

10 Downing Street

Who ya gonna call?: Not no. 10 -- Sadly since former SPR Secretary Balfour's Prime Ministerial career ended in 1905 this is no longer a useful address if you see a ghost!

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?

symmetrical book stacking, from Ghostbusters

If this is what you want to do in life, you need to join the SPR and know the parapsychological 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.

cj x

CJ goes to the cinema: ‘Paranormal Activity’

Posted in Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events by Chris Jensen Romer on December 20, 2009

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…

cj x

Elliot O’Donnell 1872-1965: the first great ghosthunter?

Posted in Paranormal by Chris Jensen Romer on September 19, 2009

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.

the cover of werwolves by Elliot O Donnell

the cover of werwolves by Elliot O Donnell

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:-

1, Recordings

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!

4. Elementals

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

How to Investigate a Haunting – Part Three

Posted in Dreadful attempts at humour, Paranormal by Chris Jensen Romer on May 27, 2009

Hints for Ghosthunters!

It often sounds rather glamorous to work in psychical research. Imagine the scene: a rainy day in downtown Bury St Edmunds. An office, neon light flashing behind the Venetian blinds, the whirr of an overhead fan. The author looks up, dressed in a whiskey soaked black raincoat and trilby, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.

He speaks in a slow Suffolk drawl which is really nothing like Sam Spade…

“Hi there blue-eyes… I was working on a case. I’ve had to work on a case since the poltergeist threw the desk out of the window. A tall broad walked in, I wouldn’t have minded but she walked in through the wall. “Wass the name huuneybun?”, I snort. “Oulton” replies the broad, rolling her eyes at me. I picked them up and rolled them back… {Note for Non-East Anglian folks – Oulton Broad is a lake in Norfolk…]

Well luckily it’s absolutely nothing like that. To be honest there is actually very little point in ghost hunting. Whatever you are looking for won’t turn up, for as the old German proverb says “When the ghosthunter arrives the ghost flies out of the window.” Yes it really does; funny people those old Germans! And even if you do see something no-one will ever believe you but your dotty Aunt Mabel who’s been talking to the ghost of Uncle Sidney since the 1940’s. Still Uncle Sidney doesn’t mind, it gives him more time to potter around in the garden as she thinks he’s dead.

“Aha!”, I do not hear you cry, “What if I get a photo?” Then the “Sunday Sleaze” will print it with a ludicrously wrong account of how you took it, a wide variety of occult-orientated nutcases will arrive on your doorstep to worship you and your mates will never speak to you again. And the biggest mystery of all is while every expert in the land denounces it as a fake no-one will see fit to pay you a penny for your destroyed reputation or hard work.

Have I suceeded in putting you off? I feared not…

Oh well, here are ten commandments of Ghost Hunting.

1. Never trespass on private property, it’s a serious offense these days. Avoid cemeteries as they are frequently vandalized and you don’t want to take the blame. If you join one of the reputable parapsychological organizations you can get to witness cases as they develop. Join one, and save a lot of effort standing around Walberswick Common in the early hours freezing to death.

Remember that most of the houses mentioned in ghost books are someone’s home and they will not appreciate being asked to answer enquiries about ghosts, so leave them alone!

2. Never go alone. Not only would I hate to see you murdered, as you won’t then be able to buy my next book, but if you do see something you have another witness. Remain perfectly still, and observe. Do not talk about what you have seen until you have both written, signed and had witnessed your independent testimony. I had two friends who did this. One had written a page description of the white figure who floated across a field at him making a low groaning sound. His sharper eyed girlfriend wrote “Didn’t see any ghost. Did see Frisian cow which trotted over and mooed at us!”

3. Keep quiet, and maintain vigilance. Do not take drugs, alcohol or your really hot date as all will dramatically interfere with your perception. The latter is a really bad idea as haunted abbeys are never as romantic or cosy as they sound when you are safely inside, and if it rains they’ll never forgive you. Wear what you think is appropriate clothing and then dress warmer just in case. You can always take it off… (Note: CJ may have ignored part of this on some of his cases, and really hot ladies may apply at the usual address!)

4. Photographs can, as the illustrations in my book show, lie. Nonetheless a camera, camcorder or best of all a cine camera are invaluable. Why cine film of all things? Because it is hard to fake and can be examined frame by frame. Everyone should have a watch, a torch, notepad, pen and if possible a thermometer. Measure the temperature every 15 minutes. I was once on a case where the temperature dropped from 12C to -6C in less than a minute, and this was never satifactorily explained. Mind you, I didn’t catch cold…

5. While it is often a good idea to tell one responsible person such as a spouse or parent where you are off to just in case of accidents, do not spread the word too much, unless you enjoy being hoaxed all night by your mates dressed up in sheets.

6. If you join a group you will eventually get to investigate someone’s ghost. Be careful to abide by all the rules of that group, and try to fill in all paperwork however tedious that may be.

7. More profitable than just running around at night failing to see anything, delve into your local archive and research in detail the cases therein or new ones you uncover. Then share your knowledge with others who will be very happy to hear from you.

8. Theoretical and experimental work is fascinating and very easy to set up. For ideas subscribe to a reputable journal such as that published by the SPR. This is particularly useful on long winter evenings when the rain is lashing your windows, the wind rattles your chimney and your local library is closed. It is also an invaluable aid to insomniacs. Card guessing to calculate your psychic talent is a harmless family pastime.

9. Ouija boards are not a harmless family pastime, unless you are a very adept Spiritualist in which case you won’t dabble with anything so basic. Whether you believe they open paths to demonic entities or merely allow for exteriorisation of, or merely the surfacing of, unconscious material straight from the Id they are a generally bad idea! They are linked to a large number of tragedies. You’d probably be better off joining a Charismatic Christian Church or Witch Coven if you wish to see spiritual powers at work. Sermon over.

10. Whatever else you do try not to dwell too much on all this. It’s really not that important unless you really intend to spend your life seriously studying parapsychology. If so a good degree in Psychology, Cultural Studies, Anthropology, Literature, Medicine, Biochemistry, Religion, Electrical Engineering or almost any other discipline will provide you with the basics. Once you’ve got that, contact and join the SPR. I wish you the best of luck!

cj x

Wild “paranormal” theory! Why ever not?

Posted in Paranormal by Chris Jensen Romer on March 18, 2009


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? :)

cj x

Six Types of Ghosthunters

Posted in Paranormal, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on March 11, 2009

A bad attempt at humour on my part, originally written back in the days when I was a researcher/consultant for the TV show Most Haunted , and posted by me on a few websites since. I rather like it though, and it does contain a lot of truth!

If you are looking for Edinburgh Science Festival’s Science of Ghosts event the website is here —


I mentioned it in a previous post and loads of people have come here looking for it! Still I am going, and hope to see you there! Anyway on with the spookiness…

The six types of Ghosthunter according to CJ —

1. the Safari Group – out to “catch” a ghost on film, armed with the latest in video, camera and laptop equipment. Every “vigil” begins with several hours of wiring and setting up sensitive devices all over the shop to allow these latter day big game hunters to bag the spook. Usually succeed only in making you uncomfortable using the toilet in case you are being filmed or monitored, and while generally pleasant folks there is more technobabble than an episode of Star Trek.  Always find an “anomaly” which as they are usually waving around EMF meters sensitive enough to pick up a fridge being turned off at 300m is no surprise! Unfortunately likely to follow their own mobile phones in their pocket around with the EMF meters, convinced it’s a spook, and tend to be Very Serious Indeed, while having very little knowledge of the literature of parapsychology. Never publish their results.

2. the Legend Trippers – usually young people, who have dared themselves to go to the spooky place, where they plan to drink alcohol, tell ghost stories, frighten each other and make out. Not all legend trippers are teenagers – some are much older, but if you want to flirt and hear a lot of screaming these are your folks. No ghosts caught but they have a good time, a bit like a fairground haunted house! They never publish their results.

3. the Pyscho-dramatists – ok, these tend to be ladies, and these groups usually revolve around one or two star performers, with several minor competing mystics, all of whom compete to tell you the story of the lost little Victorian girl who was the daughter of the wicked Squire who abused her terribly, etc, etc – sort of paranormal MisLit. Occasionally they encounter Terribly Evil Entities (TM) whose lack of corporeality has not slaked their lusts, and who have designs on the mediums person, which in many cases having seen the medium and witnessed their shrieking I would agree anything planning on ravishing is a deeply unnnatural entity.  When they find a spook a redemptive myth is played out, and the spirit “moved on” in to “the light”. Bizarrely, despite my cynicism I once saw this process appear to do something useful — not all people in this category are nuts — however a considerable number are. They never publish their results.

4. The Enthusiastic Amateurs – always nice, people unsullied by contact with other ghost hunters and sometimes still naive enough to think that orbs are definitely paranormal, and scorn the dust hypothesis, these people have watched Most Haunted and bizarrely responded by wanting to do it themselves rather than selling their TV and emigrating. I like them a lot, because generally you can teach them a few good habits, and sell them merchandise for said dodgy TV show, and because on the whole these are good hearted people with often great knowledge of local folklore and history. Enthusiastic, fun folks. They never publish their results.

5. The Ghosthunting Machiavelli – this person has been in a dozen groups in the last year, all of which split off or schism-ed from each other. They have appalling relations with half the groups in the UK, and love to discuss ghost group family trees, their many enemies, and who is doing what with whom (in the bedroom not the haunted house usually!). Often they have a profitable sideline in running paying events, but really they seem to mainly succeed in creating new groups and then alienating the committees of said groups. They never publish their results, which is probably just as well!

I suppose I should offer my own perspective and why I differ very slightly while still having many of the failings I point out light heartedly in others, and some new ones all of my own. All these “types”, and most groups contain a mix of types, resulting in internal conflict, favour a method of investigation called the “vigil”, which means pretty much sitting around all night waiting for stuff to happen. They hope to observe and interact with the phenomena first hand, and hence all the mediums/night vision cameras/EMF meters (very handy of you want to put a nail in the wall and not electrocute yourself, or see if your neighbour has turned on their washing machine, not so useful for ghosts!) and shouting “is there anybody there?” Not bloody likely with you lot kicking up a row.

I have of course sat through many hundred of these (being paid to do so for a long while) but my preferred method is the Inquiry Model. Briefly, arrive in daylight, and interview carefully the witnesses to previous “sightings”. Record their testimony, and photograph “the scene of the crime” from many angles. Try to ascertain where the story originated, and who knew what and when about the purported phenomena. Collect interviews and evidence for as long as it takes,and perhaps attempt to reconstruct the incident. Carefully check out maps, and local histories for any useful clues, and then consult with relevant experts – often builder, plumbers, electricians, naturalists, geologists. The emphasis here is on understanding how the account arose, and on trying to find the origin and explanation for the ghost, rather than sitting around trying to see it yourself. of course if the occurrences are frequent you might well do that — but the tragedy of Most Haunted was it suggested ghost hunting was about personal encounters with the unknown, whereas really its generally about understanding and trying to explain other peoples experiences, and then writing up what you find. I’m not sure I have put this very well, but perhaps you can follow my intent?

Anyway, not sure if that is particularly helpful, but I thought I’d try and explain and am happy to field questions if I can. That is my personal experience, and despite my cynicism, I rather like the vast majority of ghosthunters who are lovely folks – and it is a topic I genuinely love talking about!

cj x


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