"And sometimes he's so nameless"

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

A Day in the Life of a Paranormal Investigator

I just wrote this on the UK Skeptic’s forum, in response to this article by Chris Sherwood here on the same subject. I think mine is closer to the truth :) And before you panic, it’s not autobiographical – these days!  :)

A Day in the Life of a Paranormal Investigator

A Paranormal Investigator is someone who can’t get a real job or any PhD funding. They wake up in the morning to a stack of unpaid bills, and then sweet talk the lovely bailiffs at the door. After a discussion with said gentlemen they pay some cash and mentally cross out their food budget for the next two weeks. They also note the recording they need to finish their lecture review for deadline today has still not arrived. Huzzah!

A paranormal investigator picks up the clothes they wore last night off the floor, hurls a book on Attachment Theory at the cat and wonder if SPR journals burn nicely once the gas has been shut off. They then dedicate four hours to grounded analysis of carefully collected accounts of spontaneous cases – or reading peoples ghost anecdotes to you and me. They code, construct categories by hand because they can’t afford QSR software, and after a hard mornings work with black coffee cos they have no milk they decide they have not made any advances over what Sidgwick and co had in 1894.

So they pop on the JREF for a morning of playful abuse, and after lunch (noodles, with noodle sauce, 12p a bag from oriental supermarket) they wonder why MAcDonalds, Wilkinsons and WH Smiths rejected them. So they spend couple of hours filling in application forms so they can be anything but a paranormal investigator.

The afternoon is busy, busy, busy! Reading the EJP in the bath as the nice shiny paper is not effected by splashes, they realise they are still after all these years useless at the level of stats required to check the articles validity. They wish they could afford a netbook so they could consult SPSS in the bath, but they would only drop it.

After a refreshing bath they set out to track down someone who reported a spontaneous case to them to verify certain questions arising from their account. The email will be ignored, they nearly always are. Wishing they had chosen a better paid career, like say leaflet distributor, professional philosopher or non-affiliated theologian who sells 5 books a year, they start work on a piece on the development of fairy lore in the early modern period, because they have nothing better to do. Then it hits them – they have no food for tea!

But huzzah! they have a call – and the phone is currently connected because their girlfriend paid the bill. And for once it’s not a debt collector! Nope, they are invited to give a talk to a local group. They start drafting it, becoming more and more depressed as they realise no one is actually interested in theoretical work or the parapsychological literature, so it end up as “adventures in ghosthunting”, a comic tale of sitting around in the dark in rooms filled with other hopefuls, while absolutely nothing happens. The difference in being a pro is you don’t have to pay for the privilege.

Suddenly they decide to reach for their handy EMF meter. They can’t hear the washing machine from the basement but long experience shows this device can pick it up – have they washed their pants, as girlfriend coming tomorrow? They dream of the day they can afford a second pair.

Afternoon brings email: another studentship rejection, disturbed family members wondering how you became so unemployable, and a coffee break dedicated to the lesbian mediumship of Eva C – less exciting than it sounds – from an old PSPR. They decide to kill Cousins, Braithwaite, Luke etc for being so much better looking and better funded than them; but then reject the notion, and return to the Spud-U-Like application.

Wasting an hour on wondering why no one seems to be participating Alex Tsaris’ Jaytee the Psychic Dog replication the earnest paranormal investigator returns to their grounded analysis, struggling with methodological issues.

Evening: a bitter ex-wife accusing you of leaving her in poverty, hungry cats yowling for food, and your mother sadly asking how work went? You set out to meet a veteran investigator of mediumship who will buy you lunch,and an enjoyable hour of salacious gossip about the misdeeds of contemporary physical mediums later, well fed, you feel the strength to once again face writing up a study you performed eight months ago. Finally even you are bored with it, so you start work on looking at the geological maps of Gloucestershire, and a water table plan of Cheltenham from Severn Trent, trying to work out if GW Lambert really was on to something.

You get another call – there is a vigil in a haunted house, a local tourist spot, can you attend only £30? Muttering to yourself a Noel Coward lyric

The Stately Homes of England,
Though rather in the lurch,
Provide a lot of chances
For psychical research-

You politely enquire who experienced what and when? It seems a tourist thought they saw something in 1982 in the East Wing, and a the under gardener swears he saw the dead master in 1963. On and a cleaner heard a voice call her name last Wednesday but six.

So you suggest that rather than taking 50 people to sit in the dark all night, festooned with electronic gizmos, while a lovely lady reconts the sad tale of the spirit girl who starved to death on Christmas Eve, it might be worth actually just interviewing and recording what the witnesses said, and having a look at that? The person trying to sell you the ghost night hangs up.

You sigh and stare out the window, and regret ever becoming a paranormal investigator. And then you wake up the next day and post this on UK Skeptics. :)

I think this is a bit closer to the truth actually :

cj x

A Cheltenham Poltergeist Investigated

Posted in Paranormal, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on September 19, 2009

I have only the vaguest recollection of this case now! From the mid-90’s…

A Local Poltergeist?

Tonight I have been privileged to investigate a possible poltergeist case, albeit of a minor nature, which has been troubling a personal friend. I was informed of the case some two weeks ago but owing to other commitments was unable to give it much attention until tonight. I will use a fairly self-explanatory structure in this report, which unfortunately must use pseudonyms.

Persons Present

The Garden (basement) flat (above ground level in the main, from the rear of the house) is home to two students. Cathy, aged 22ish is a English student, and Tom, about the same age is a mathematics- and science-orientated teacher trainee. They share the kitchen of their flat with Simon, who is also a student and does bar work at a local pub, but who has a room in the main (upstairs) part of the house which is occupied by the [[ B]] family. The [[B]] are a couple in their fifties, who live upstairs with their 18 year old daughter who Cath describes as a “sporty type”, quite happy and pleasant enough. The events are as far as we are aware confined to the downstairs flat, Cath having not broached the subject with her landlords.

Cath has been resident in the flat since September ’93, and after a troubled relationship with another girl, who left the flat in February ’94, lived there alone until September ’94 when Tom moved into the house. Relations between Tom and Cath are very good, the couple enjoying a strong platonic relationship. Simon is not communicative with Tom, while not hostile. Apparently he got on better with Cath before Tom moved in.


The flat consists of four rooms: kitchen, Cath’s room, bathroom, Tom’s room. The kitchen is shared with Simon. All of the rooms connect via Cath’s room, and during the daytime Simon must walk through first Tom’s and then Cath’s room to get to the kitchen, and Tom must pass through Cath’s room to leave the house or enter the kitchen or bathroom. At night Simon walks around the outside of the house to use the kitchen. All the same Cath must get very little privacy, although she does not seem to overly resent this.

The “Haunting”

When Cath first moved into the flat Simon (already resident upstairs) said that he could feel a presence in her room, sitting in a chair. He later admitted this was only to tease and frighten her, in which he succeeded, Cath being fairly timid about such things.

No futher mention was made of the “ghost” until Cath had a schizophrenic friend called Mary come to stay. While Cath was in the toilet and Mary was on the bed in Cath’s room Daphne, Cath’s then flatmate wandered through to the kitchen. On her return she looked startled and asked Mary if she had been on the bed all the time, insisting she had looked and failed to see her there on her way to the kitchen. This amazingly trivial incident seemed full of psychical significance to Mary and Cath who discussed it at great length. I would say it was evidently a perfectly normal case of misperception.

From this point nothing occurred until the Christmas vacation ’93/’94. The next incident was related to Cath and Tom by Simon. Tom and Cath were away, and the [[B]]’s were leaving so Simon would be alone in the house. The building has a burglar alarm which is set and turned off by a key, although the [[B]]’s own two copies. Just before they left they discovered one key was missing.

On New Year’s Eve Simon was working at the pub. On his return in the early hours of New Year morning he was astonished to see the missing key on a table with the container which held the other one, in plain sight. He was sure it was not there when he went out, but he was the only inhabitant in Cheltenham at the time.

At the risk of casting Simon as villain in this suburban melodrama, there is a perfectly rational explanation. Simon is, as we shall hear again, prone to fiddle with things and distractedly carry them about. Is it not likely that he was carrying the other key all the time, having forgot to replace it? He may have been too embarrassed to admit to the family he was still carrying it, but as they asked him to look around for it in their absence he did not need to invent such an extraordinary story. “It was down the back of the sofa!” would have done just as well. Then again, conscious deceit is far from necessary. He could easily have used it to disarm the system without thinking, and then noticed two, not one keys, in front of him. I don’t think I’m too harsh if I say barmen are not renowned for their sobriety in the early hours of New Year’s Day. Then again perhaps this really was Small Object Displacement.

On January 9th Tom and Cath both returned back to the flat. Tom immediately noticed that his set of three juggling balls was missing from it’s usual place on top of the piano. He assumed that Simon had borrowed them and absent mindedly forgotten to return them; Cath also noticed evidence that Simon had entered her room and played some of her music tapes. Two of the balls have since been located; one appeared in the kitchen, and the other on Tom’s bedroom floor. Both were placed in plain sight. Cath believes this piecemeal return makes Simon’s involvement unlikely; he would just have returned them all. Tom is not convinced.

The spot where the balls normally “live” in plain sight is marked with a J on the sketch map. They are just to the right of Tom’s door through which Simon must pass to reach the kitchen, and on top of the upright-style piano are at roughly chest height. The compulsive twiddler Simon probably picked them up absently as he wandered in and out. I have a theory that Simon is not sneakily returning them but simply playing with them as he wanders down to the kitchen and discarding them en route, without thinking. I suspect the missing ball will be returned or another vanish soon. This theory is strengthened by the fact that Cath and Tom have not liked to ask Simon if he’s seen them!

Poltergeist Effects?

The case however, even if we discard the apparent Small Object Displacement must surely be proven or disproven in the two most dramatic incidents, which share several things in common. Both objects apparently moved, both were items of personal significance to Cath and both were in Cath’s room at the time.

The first object may be presumed to have moved during Cath’s absence during the vacation. The item which moved was a photograph of Cath’s mother, which was in a relatively inaccessible postion on a shelf some 6′ off the ground and standing behind two other photo’s which were untouched.

The photograph weighs the 3g and moved about 6″ upwards and 6″ to the left. Although Simon had apparently entered her room and played tapes, etc, etc, during the vacation Cath finds it highly unlikely that he would move a photo of her mother. If he wished to consult the photo albums it is unlikely that he would move the photo; this was simply unecessary. However, I would like to suggest that this explanation, while highly improbable, could be seen as less improbable than invoking poltergeist activity!!!

The relationship between Cath and her mother is at the moment very good, and is generally amiable. Cath noticed the photo had moved shortly after her return, and believes it probably moved during the vacation. Cath is unable to state if she noticed the occurrence on the day of her return or the next day.

The photo (which resides in a cardboard frame) could not have fallen to the face down position in which it was found without having:-

1. Previously been moved to the top of the albums, and then fallen. Cath denies she did this, and that seems reasonable enough.
2. Been physically picked up and moved, presumably by Tom, Simon or Cath. There are no cats or other pets to confuse the issue!
3. Performed a strange and “paranormal” flight!

I personally have to come down in favour of option (b) but do acknowledge that option (c) is interesting. If (c) is the case then I would suggest two further immediate possibilities, being (1) PKE (or psycho-kinetic energy, whatever that may be) generated by a human agent, or (2) a disembodied spirit. Before we consider these options let us look at the two further incidents of “haunting” reported to me.

Perhaps one or two nights after her return Cath was startled awake at 4 a.m. by feeling something falling on her bed. She was frightened by this, not unreasonably, and on turning on the light to investigate found it was a plastic cow wristband which makes a “moo!” sound when a button is depressed. This novelty item was given to Cath just before her return, and was sitting on her bookshelf. It weighs exactly 1 oz and had travelled some twenty inches, in a downward curve (I estimate 8″ horizontally, 12″ down).

The bookcase is open at the back, more of a shelving unit really, and is relatively stable. I bounced up and down all over the floorboards without disturbing anything on it! The “moo-er” had been sitting on a pile of books, and Cath demonstrated that if it had slipped off naturally it would have fallen on the floor. By experiment we discovered the “paranormal” flight could be replicated by pushing it hard from the other side. If this was done the “ghost” would then have had to dash into Tom’s room (door closed), the bathroom (door closed) or the kitchen. In any of these eventualities Cath would have noticed as she was startled awake.

The cow-thing incident is hard to explain, but it is possible that the object merely slipped and that the flight path was more natural than myself or Cath realised. I wouldn’t like to rule out a natural or paranormal explanation for this one….

The next incident is undoubtably the most curious, and pushes back my personal boggle threshold another millimeter or two. On Thursday, 12th January Cath was suicidal. Her depression is rooted in stress of college work and uncertainty as to her direction in life more than any problem with her personal relationships, although she had just chosen to end a relationship with a chap she had been seeing as a “partner”, although neither particularly emotionally or sexually entangled with the aforesaid male. Presumably she had washed her hair, for she was drying her hair when she noticed something extremely odd. The hairdryer was plugged in but the switch was at the off position. The hairdryer continued to function when she unplugged it, completely isolating it from the power supply. She eventually turned the device off, puzzled. Despite many attempts she has never managed to repeat this.

What happened? Well two possibilities immediately spring to mind. One; the incident never happened except in Cath’s mind. Her depression caused her to hallucinate the episode in some way, and this false memory provided a stimulus and mystery which eventually helped jolt her from her ennui and depression. It is of course possible Cath was lying; I have only her testimony for almost all the events although Tom certainly doesn’t believe this to be the case, and neither do I. I think we can rule out conscious falsehood, if only because most of the incidents were of such a trivial character and Cath remains interested in getting to the bottom of them.

That leaves option two; that the hairdryer was operating while disconnected from any obvious electrical current. Rational explanations do not spring readily to mind. Was there a secondary power supply based on batteries, which ran flat before her second attempt? I only briefly examined the offending device, but could find no battery port. Does the hairdryer have capacitors or backup power supply internally? I can’t say but if so would expect Cath to suceed in her attempts to reproduce the effect. Could Cath have been in contact with an exposed wire and powering the hairdryer herself? She should have noticed a continual 240V shock, to say the least! No obvious source for such a “live” wire (literally!) theory could be found….

This does not necessarily invalidate the idea of a (nonlocal) power source. My stereo when sitting idle though plugged in frequently comes to life with taxi cab radio messages. While extremely unlikely, I can not rule out a remote power source.

So what are the possibilities of PKE being behind the events? Cath returned from her vacation on January 9th. She had been staying with a penpal (male) with whom she has a warm relationship via mail, although she finds it harder to communicate in person. The penpal’s home is over one hundred miles from Cheltenham, so if Cath was creating PKE effects during the vacation then the energy decay curve for psycho-kinesis is to say the least interesting! [Roll, 1977 is probably the best authority for this; under his theory this is an impossible action]. There is some evidence that a PKE-field or battery can be created and discharge itself when the focus is no longer present. If forced we could invoke this; however there is no proof that the object moved during the vacation. It could have occurred before Cath left or since she returned.

Now let us consider the well known agent theory for poltergeist activity for a moment. There seem to be three immediately obvious agents for a poltergeist focus, but if the “paranormal” hypothesis is correct who is it?

Is it a) Tom, the mild-mannered flatmate?

If Tom was at the centre of the occurence then why did Cath’s objects move? If he is unconsciously using PKE to apport or SOD objects he is unaware of this latent gift. Tom is highly intelligent, sociable and shows signs of diverse tastes in his reading matter, amidst which I was happy to note H.H. Munro (Saki) and M.R. James. He is scientifically inclined and puts the “haunting” down to Simon fiddling with things. He stated that he was under no particular stress at the moment, though he has been helping Cath through her bad patch.

So what about b) Cath, the sweet student eco-guerilla?

Cath is also highly intelligent, and has a strong interest in things occultish and paranormal. Before you ask, attention seeking can be safely ruled out; I can only offer my personal testimony on this but feel I am the last person Cath would try to demonstrate preternatural abilities to, being well known to her for my cynicism and scepticism. She takes a rational stand on matters paranormal, although she does possess a crystal ball and tarot cards. She is amused by how unpsychic she seems to be, and perhaps a little disappointed.

She offered me the chance to investigate in casual conversation, and in the two weeks before I contacted her made no attempt to raise the subject again. She was happy to participate in the study, and did not seem at all miffed by the fact I remained dubious of paranormality in this instance. She is furthermore a friend of my girlfriend and previous partner and very much part of my social “scene”, and took a risk of ridicule by allowing the investigation to occur at all from these two formidably sceptical ladies.

Cath was following the vacation in a state of deep depression, and college stress was undoubtably partly to blame. She has reached a kind of intellectualised nihilism in which all meanings are negated, and on the day of the hairdryer incident was suicidal. Tom talked her out of this mood. Following this her mood has fortunately improved drastically. She believes that her mental unbalance and depression may underlie the “poltergeist”, and is amused and interested by this.

I have frequently referred to poltergeist activity as a “nervous breakdown taking place outside of the head”, and Cath thinks this is the most likely cause. I am disinclined to agree simply because Simon seems such a perfect villain, but am willing to accept this as a possible cause.

So what of c) the villainous Simon?

Does Simon act as a poltergeist agent? I feel not, although he does certainly have a habit of fiddling with things. I myself have observed Simon pick up and play with small objects as he moves around the flat, and on one occasion he moved a “Cuddly frog” toy from Cath’s bedroom to the kitchen while wandering through. This and other “SOD”, “JOTTLE” or apport type events were ascribed to Simon because he was seen doing it. However Simon was the only person present throughout the time when the purportedly paranormal events, and if we are going to invoke the agent theory of the PKE poltergeist then we really must consider Simon as a primary suspect.

What about the other possibility? It is of course possible that a disincarnate spirit or “ghost” is behind the events. I personally feel it unlikely and offer the following points against:-

1. There is no evidence of an attempt at communication on the part of the ghost, unless it’s mind is totally alien to us.
2. There is no known legend of the house being “haunted” until the comparatively recent events, exceptions noted above.
3. No easy identity can be provided for the apparition, and there is no known person who may wish to haunt the property.
4. There are no sightings of, or sounds of, a “disincarnate” visitor.

I admit that the above is largely negative evidence, and I may well be proved wrong. The “haunting” at first glance seems to be focussed on Cath, but events have also happened to Tom and Simon. I personally believe that it is unlikely that all the events are misperceptions, Simon or other normal causes. It is however extraordinary unlikely that a poltergeist is involved – so I must favour the former. I leave the individual reader to judge for themselves and would welcome comments.

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

SPR Study Day 58 : Poltergeist Outbreaks, Then and Now. London – Halloween 2009

Posted in Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on September 16, 2009

EDIT: Tom Ruffles has posted a great review on the SPR website at


SPR Study Day 58 : Poltergeist Outbreaks, Then and Now

Oct 31 2009, All Day

‘Noisy spirits’ were disturbing the peace long before their naming as poltergeist effects (or even more recently as RSPK), and some unfortunate person was commonly identified as what we today would term the focus; he, or more usually she, would probably have been associated with witchcraft or demonic possession, and treated accordingly. Coming up to date, it may well turn out to be true that the raps on walls associated with these outbreaks are indeed not of this world, since acoustic analysis of paranormal raps has disclosed effects that have so far defied replication by human knuckles or other rapping mechanisms. An historic advance is in the making, and this Hallowe’en seems a good day for cementing the link between things that traditionally go bump in the night on the one hand and rigorous scientific inquiry on the other.

St Philip’s Church, Earls Court Rd, London W8, 10am-5pm.
Cost: Members £30 / Non-Members £35. / Students, Over 60s or Unwaged: £2 discount.
Tea, coffee and biscuits will be served, but bring your own lunch.
Advance booking is recommended, as space is limited.

More details and booking

– post removed

Posted in Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on September 9, 2009

I has here reproduced the SPR study day information on the forthcoming event, but having now rejoined the society i note one of the membership guidelines clearly states “Members of the SPR may not issue public notices or advertisements about purported SPR meetings or events either on behalf of the Society itself or in conjunction with other organisations (ref. Paranormal Review 23, July 2002), unless authorised to do so by the Council.” so I will not be publicizing or reviewing future events on the blog.

The relevant reference appears from a piece by John Poynton

“For this reason the SPR Council has requested members not to declare membership of the Society when issuing a personal statement of some kind, when advertising, or when promoting a personal publication.”

As a blog could be seen as constituting a personal publication, and although I always simply reproduce the SPR website text with a link to the website, I have decided to refrain from doing so in future.

cj x

The Medium and the Massage: a ghost story…

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion by Chris Jensen Romer on June 18, 2009

A short post till the hour comes round for this rough beast to slouch to TESCO, being bored…

I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.
Thomas Paine –The Age of Reason

Oddly enough, despite a dramatic “ghost” experience in 1987, I did not immediately come to consider seriously the afterlife hypothesis. After all one might come up with many explanations of “ghosts” which do not require the human to persist in some sense beyond death, and for many years I did (and still do in they majority of cases I think) favour those. I am as noted personally disinclined to consider the survival (life after death) hypothesis – it strikes me as deeply counter-intuitive.

Anyway the summer of 1993 saw me reasonably well versed in parapsychology, and how to investigate a “haunting”. That summer I was contacted by a gentleman who owned a small hotel, and who stated his family who lived there had been troubled by a series of ghostly happenings – could we do something about it? Immediately we have a problem – I want to investigate ghosts, but people who call me usually wanted to get rid of them! I am a researcher, not an exorcist, no not even a ghostbuster! Fortunately a few months earlier we had also met a psychic claimant, Morven, who asked to be tested to see if her mediumship was genuine, or self delusion, or something else!

Morven was a lovely middle aged woman from Ireland who had been in the area for about two or three years.  We agreed to the test, and with our “haunt” some thirty plus miles away in another town, felt it unlikely she could have foreknowledge of the case.  As by profession I am a researcher, I conducted newspaper archive and book searches for material on the locations “haunting”, and established that no stories had been published for almost twenty years, but that there was a legend of a maidservant who hanged herself in one room after she found herself pregnant and her lover went off to the English Civil War, never to return. This necessitated that we go to elaborate lengths to prevent the medium gaining knowledge of her location.

We therefore placed cotton wool over her eyes, and taped it in location. We then placed a sleeping mask on top, before employing a full head bag of total opacity, secured at the neck to prevent peeping.  We placed a walkman with loud music on, and drover her out of town by a circuitous route, doubling the 30 mile trip. I did not reveal the location to my team until minutes before we set off, when one sceptic went ahead to make sure any obvious items in the five hotel rooms we planned to use for the experiment were removed, and the curtains secured to prevent any glimpse of the sky line or other external identifying features.

The haunted Old Bell; Camera flash on wardrobe not an "orb"! :)

The haunted Old Bell; Camera flash on wardrobe not an "orb"! :)

On arrival the medium, now thoroughly car sick and gagging was taken as quickly as possible in to one room, and the hood removed. Our research ethics were awful! She however soon perked up, and identified one room as the haunt location.  Now this was correct, though if she had gone by the published accounts she would have been wrong – the rooms had been renumbered ten years before as I had previously established. Still she had a 20% chance of that!

She then reported a strangling sensation, and said a woman about 5’10” tall had hanged herself in the room. Fine, but rather tall we thought, and hardly unlikely given the age of the building! Furthermore she described turn of the century dress – 300 years out from the accounts we had! A radio team present taped (and broadcast next day) her “reading” – and the highpoint was the suggestion of unhappiness (do happy people hang themselves?!!),too much  booze and a name. She gives the name as follows – “Amy – no, Emmy. The surname is almost the same. Yes, it’s something like Emmy Emily”. She offered NO other names, and a few minutes later we had to open the window to giver her air, calling the experiment off..

I (rather gleefully I am afraid) told her she was completely wrong.

She wasn’t.

A week passed, and an interested local historian, Lionel Ayliffe, checked out the local coroners records – to find the only suicide recorded in the building happened in 1904, a lady named Amy Amery who was a servant who hanged herself after being dismissed for being a drunk.  This material had not been published as far as I can ascertain since the tragedy in 1904 when it had appeared in a local newspaper.

Reputedly haunted corridor at the Old Bell - naked CJ pics next time!

Reputedly haunted corridor at the Old Bell - naked CJ pics next time!

I am still disinclined to the mediumistic hypothesis by nature, but following this apparent success I decided to experiment further. The medium made a number of correct statements, and one possibly  incorrect – that the body was buried in the church opposite, something we could not ascertain. It was no more than a spark, but it got me interested. I claim no real evidence here – coincidence perhaps? – but it led me to at least investigate the survival hypothesis.

Psychic News article on the incident

Psychic News article on the incident

Annoyingly, the tapes are lost. There is an account in The Psi-pher, the CPRG magazine, written close to the time – that is filed with the SPR, and in the British Library, but I don’t have a copy.  I will try at some future date to find the newspaper articles from the local press at the time. The “hit” was impressive – and I am tempted to speculate on how Morven could have gained access to the information, by various natural and “paranormal” hypotheses.  For the moment however, I’ll reflect more on the whole issue of mediumship…

Morven is no longer with us. I worked with her till 1995, when she became clearly unwell, and she died of breast cancer, refusing all but palliative care, brave and cheerful to the end. Her absolute conviction death was not the end was demonstrated int he immense courage with which she refused treatment. She left a wonderful son and daughter, two lovely people, and my memories of her are all fond. She died far too young, and I was angry about it, and I must say blamed her belief system to a small extent, however irrationally. Fear of death does make you fight harder maybe? Still Morven, I hope you are happy somewhere and giggling at me writing this… I’ll write more on Morven another time, in tribute to her memory.

Morven “did feet”. She was  reflexologist I think, and she insisted on doing this to my feet, free of charge. It was ok I guess, I did not really think it would have much effect, but it was soothing I think, depite my cynical jokes throughout the session. I really hope I did not offend her, now at least! I can be, like Clovis, terribly frank.  One night after the session she offered to try and get in touch with the Other Side for me, and despite my utter religious and moral rejection of necromancy and mediumship, I said, “well if anyone has a message I’ll gladly hear it.”  Eventually she did give me a message, and with some heavy prompting by me, she finally gave me one part of a message I had expected from my grandmother. If she had then given the second part, I would have been convinced – as it was, I’m afraid I was not.  There was nothing evidential to me in the message: to this day, no one has ever given me the two things i would expect to hear from her.

Why do I have problems with mediumship? Partly, it is to do with the dignity of the dead. I dislike treating the dead as performing seals.Here are the wise words of Stan from South Park

You see, I learned something today. At first I thought you were all stupid, listening to this douche’s advice, but now I understand that you’re all here because you’re scared. You’re scared of death and he offers you some kind of understanding. You all want to believe in it so much, I know you do. You find comfort in the thought that your loved ones are floating around trying to talk to you, but thnk about it: Is that really what you want? To just be floating around after you die, having to talk to this asshole?

Now obviously I do not feel this way about Morven. She was a truly lovely, talented human being, who felt she had a special gift. Yet, in most cases in my experience, given enough time mediums do suffer in their own lives. The Fox Sisters succumbed to alcoholism I have met some lovely mediums, like my dear friend, Natalie, but I have also met some who I could honestly categorise as douches. Except possibly a douche has some valid medical usage – I don’t know… Yet to me, dabbling with the dead does not seem to generally result in much good. Ironic words for a fervent investigator of mediumship and spontaneous cases? Well, look at it this way – I use the bus analogy.

Imagine you are on a bus, and a stranger tells you to end your marriage. They inform you they are your long lost uncle, know all about your life, and while they really just tell you a lot of platitudes, with maybe a couple of verifiable facts, they insist they are telling you the best, for your own good. Would you take that advice? I have a frind who told me she was given up on her plans to study Classics at postgraduate level, because the board had advised her.  The university board? A board of classicists? I was puzzled. No, it turned out the board she was taking advice from was – a ouija board! To me this is tantamount to insanity. Sure, I’m probably really offending vast swathes of the readers of this blog – well a couple of you, as amazingly fifty people a day do read this, why I have no idea – anyway, I can only say it as I see it.

Now, what is the difference between listening to a medium, or supposedly a “disincarnate, disembodied spirit” and the guy on the bus who says he is your uncle? Some Christians believe they have the gift of discernment of spirits – I sure as hell don’t – but I can judge things by their fruits, and i have never been persuaded That much good cvomes of taking advice from the “dead”. My problem – are they always the dead? Pretty much every culture has a tradition of daimonic spirits, demons, evil spirits, angels, call them what you will- non-human intelligences.  Many mediums talk to me about “lower astral entities”, who impersonate the dead. So really dudes, I’m a bit wary. In fact I’m more than a bit wary – I’m positively opposed to listening to the “dead”, and making life choices on that basis. Sure my religious thinking probably results in prejudices, but if these things exist – how do we know they are what they say they are???

So do I believe in life after death? As a matte rof religious faith, yes. “Everything is NOT pointless” is CJ’s mantra, and I’m a colossal optimist – where Louie and I differ sharply.  But evidentially? Again, a guarded “yes”.

What really made me decide to favour it was the JSPR papers of Robertson and Roy on their PRISM research. These experiments examine the common (and on the face of it reasonable) sceptical claim that the statements given by mediums which purport to come from deceased communicators are so vague and general as to apply to anyone, and secondly that “cold reading” (which is possible, I can do it myself) whether conscious or unconscious accounts for any successes. Now as communication theorists generally agree that over 50% of communication is non-verbal, and that latter is demonstrable (even by me) to be possible, then immediately we need to devise quite a complex protocol for testing a medium.

What Roy and Robertson did was to design a simple procedure, by which a mediums statements to an individual in an audience were recorded. They then asked people not present how many of the statements they could accept, and found a incredibly high difference between the two sets of results. It was statistically demonstrable that chance could not account for the difference. The probability was less than 1 in 10,000 million the results were due to chance. Somehow the mediums were making statements which were NOT generally applicable, though about 30% of statements were vague enough to be taken as true by the average person. However over a large sample the statistics speak for themselves — somehow the medium was receiving information, or the recipient was far more likely to accept statements than the later research pool of a similar demographic “marking” the statements.

Now I’m sure that would not surprise anyone at all. After all the medium can SEE the audience member,and receive feedback. I’m sure we are all familiar with Cold Reading, and Hot Reading (deliberate research and preparation) remains a possibility. Therefore I am not especially surprised that the experiment gave the results it did…

However Robertson and Roy did not stop there. They published their protocol, in their second journal article, and deliberately sort out critical and sceptical evaluation. The protocol was tightened to a triple blind experiment, where the medium was not able to see the audience, and the audience did not know who was the recipient, and the two experimenters did not share this information two and a half years they conducted trials with this basic protocol and six different variations. And their conclusion? The statistical evaluation clearly showed that somehow the mediums were “hitting” far beyond probability, and that the chance could not be responsible. Some other factor is involved – what it is we do not know.

Sure that does not mean all “mediums” can do this. Most are doubtless deluded, charlatans or simply mistaken. The selected mediums studied however, chosen for their integrity and seeming ability were somehow obtaining information without any obvious sensory cues, in triple blind experimental conditions. That in no way proves afterlife – I can think of several other possibilities – but it was equally clear that cold reading was not responsible, and that in fact 60%+ of statements made were far too specific to be accepted by an audience, regardless of the common assertion that is exactly what is happening.

So at the moment, I accept the theoretical possibility of life after death and even mediumistic communication – but I’m not a huge fan of talking to the dead. :)

Anyway time for Tesco! If anyone actually read this far do comment, and I admre your patience with my dull uninteresting nonsense. :)

cj x

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

The Science of Ghosts: how it went, part 4

Posted in Paranormal, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on April 9, 2009

After a short break we were back for another excellent talk, Things that go bump in the mind: The psychology of apparitions by Dr Caroline Watt of the Koestler Psychology Unit at Edinburgh. Dr Watt has to be one of the biggest players in the European parapsychology scene, and it was a pleasure to see this presentation, but I won’t say much about it, because it really was a Psychology 101 lecture on perception and the brain, complete with fun visual illusions (an animation), one of which is on Richard Wiseman’s site here – fun!  The highlight for me of this particular presentation was however this incredibly fun Youtube video!

(Edit:  Sadly no longer available for copyright violation of the music. Shame, it was funny and I don’t really think the Orff estate were losing much in royalties through this particular video!.)

What I managed to sit through a whole talk without quibbling? No of course not! Micheal Persinger’s work on electromagnetic fields and the brain was referenced. My scepticism on this matter is well known – but really it made very little difference overall to a fun and interesting presentation. Watt’s presentation was ideal for a lay audience, and a fine introduction to some key concepts.

This  review continues with Part 5 here.

The Science of Ghosts: how it went!

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal, Science, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on April 8, 2009

So what can I say about the Science of Ghosts event?

Well I have been at the Edinburgh Science Festival, and I sort of wish I was there today. I was in a planning meeting last night though for our own Festival, so keep watching this space! Anyway, the opening event was The Science of Ghosts, which attracted a great deal of media attention, and I think I can say that it was an excellent day, and you should have been there! (Unless you are Becky, in which case you were there!)

Becky drove up – it’s a terribly long way, the train is bad enough and we spent the night before trying to find the venue. There were no directions on the website, and finding accommodation and the venue were major hassles – and Richard Wiseman never replied to my enquiry email – next time I shall try Caroline. Even the Science Festival staff who were first rate overall were unable to help us as we walked around Edinburgh in a fog on friday night, seeking where we were going the next day.  If I  had not been able to call Laura Nelson and get her to perform net searches we would probably never have found the venue. Next problem was parking – this is central Edinburgh, and all the parking we could find was a) extortionate and b) maximum four hours. We asked at the uni – the sat nav had taken us to the wrong uni campus, and Edinburgh as two universities as well just to add to the fun — and no one could help. We also spoke to a nursing student, who was really friendly and helpful, but had absolutely no idea where the Anatomy Lecture theatre was!

Walking round Edinburgh in the fog is quite eerie – beautiful city, but chilly and with deep mist like something from a Jack the Ripper film. At a students suggestion we ate at Monster Mash, a little restaurant that does sausage, gravy and mash in various varieties – not much change from twenty quid, which makes me think if this is how Edinburgh students live no wonder they have huge debts, but really good service and great food. Highly recommended! It’s off Teviot Place I think.

On Saturday morning up soon after daybreak to get the bus for the seven miles from the nearest affordable accommodation – a Travelodge in Dreghorn, in to Central Edinburgh.  The Travelodge was fine, with exceptionally friendly staff and superb service – and bus pretty good as well. I must say Scots do seem very friendly, even to those of us with English accents.

So we got  to the venue, and the excellent Festival staff in their orange shirts were very welcoming. I wish I had taken names to email praise to their bosses – but thanks to all of you! About 200 people attended the session — I was hoping to meet a chap off the JREF forum, and spent a whole day clutching a PSPR (Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research) – The Scole Report actually – to give to him. Never found him, so gave it to laura in the end, and she can pass it on when she has finished with it!

First event was Richard Wiseman on Investigating ‘haunted’ locations: A scientific approach. This was on quantitative approaches to spontaneous case investigation, and to be honest I don’t think anyone who knows me would have found it particularly new. I have after all being banging on about Gertrude Schmeidler’s approach since the early 1990’s, and as Parasoc, the later CPRG and GSUK have all used various forms of quantitative assessment based on my various methodological designs, well nowt new here.

What is it? It’s when you use people recording impressions and marking them on a map and compare that data against existing witness sightings, in essence. :)

It is however still a minority approach in ghost investigation among parapsychologists I think (mainly because parapsychologists always strike me as woefully ignorant of the literature and the papers describing the idea were published in American parapsychological journals from the 1960s to 1983 I think, not the PSRP or JSPR - hence little known in this country.

Those interested can check out Quantitative investigation of a “haunted house”. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1966, 60, 137-149 was the paper which inspired me to try it initially, and Quantitative investigation of a “haunted house” with sensitives and a control group. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1968, 62, 399-410 and Quantitative investigation of a recurrent phenomenon. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 1975, 69, 341-352. I’m sure there is a 1983 paper, but I forget it!  Gertrude Schmeidler is one of the true giants of modern parapsychology, and I hope one day to meet her if she ever lectures in Britain. Google will find my own comments on experiments with these – I may try and get the data from the GSUK experiment at Tamworth Castle last summer written up properly soon, if Becky is interested in doing that. Those interested on my musings on this approach ot investigation can find it on google easily enough, on the JREF Forum, or even on some earlier posts on this blog.

Anyway Richard Wiseman did a presentation on the research he was part of at Hampton Court Palace and Edinburgh Vaults. I’m guessing a lot of readers of my blog have already read the papers – but you can read about this and learn much more on www.richardwiseman.com Furthermore you can download three of the papers by Wiseman et al on the research which are really very interesting reading, if a bit dry and technical. Have  a look!

Criticisms? I was rather surprised at the emphasis placed on the infrasound hypothesis of Tandy’s – I spoke to both Ian Hume and Tony Lawrence last year about it and both felt it had been taken further than Vic intended, and given the debunking  work of Braithwaite published in I think the EJP last year (yes Jason Braithwaite and i agree on very few things – this is one of them though!), and the ubiquity of low frequency sound in nature, I’m extremely sceptical. I saw Ciaran’s Silent Sound experiment referenced – but I have not read the paper so I’ll reserve comment for now. I’ll just not that I think from the papers that other environmental stimuli were far more important? Um… not convinced!

Generally though Richard Wiseman’s talk was a plea for environmental theories of haunting to be taken seriously by sceptics I think. Whats that?

I’ll give an example. A few years ago Becky  raised the idea that some of the phenomena associated with the Station Hotel, Dudley may be linked to seismic activity. We know that ten days before Dudley Castle featured on the Most Haunted Live show, there was a major earthquake in the vicinity. It seems likely that the underground activity may have been responsible for, and may still be responsible for, some reports of odd phenomena in the district. This is a classic environmental theory of haunting – no ghost, but something in the place making people perceive “ghosts”.  So an environmental theory is one that postulates some natural but not easily detected force is acting in ways which cause apparent ‘hauntings’.

Such ideas are currently very fashionable in parapsychology, and this has led to research like that of Wiseman et al at Edinburgh Vaults, looking for factors which may cause apparent “hauntings” seemingly with some success.

In the 1950’s the President of the Society for Psychical Research (henceforth SPR) G.W. Lambert put forward his UNDERGROUND WATER HYPOTHESIS. He argued that in fact many “hauntings” were caused by underground water, such as streams flowing underground, and that these hidden water courses could cause all manner of odd vibrations, sounds and other phenomena which were interpreted by witnesses as ghostly. He attempted to demonstrate this with particular reference to the famous Morton Case, or Cheltenham Ghost. His theory here was that the Despard family hallucinated the “lady in black” after hearing and feeling sensations caused by periods of heavy rainfall.

It would be fascinating to objectively research this against 19th century rainfall figures for Cheltenham, if such can be found, but the only “proof” he offered was that the hauntings apparently ceased following the opening of the Dowdeswell Reservoir in 1888. In fact this argument is flawed in three ways – a) the ghost was continued to be seen well in to the late twentieth century b) maps of the water table do not suggest any underground watercourse beneath the house at least in the last few decades,and it is relatively unlikely as the house (called St. Anne’s today) stands on a slight ridge between the Chelt and another river valley (Wyman’s Brook) and c) the Reservoir, while still extant, was decommisioned in the 1990’s without any noticeable effect to the water table in the area in question. Further research with Severn Trent would of course be worthwhile.

Of course the archaeologist and occultist T.C.Lethbridge had already suggested underground water may act as a battery or necessary power source for paranormal entities – his ideas were developed through his interest in dowsing. Lambert may have been providing a rationalist answer to this apparent link. What might be interesting is to bring the resources of modern geology to bear on a dozen or so “strongly haunted” spots, hunting for underground water courses.

In the early 1970’s a rival theory developed, linking paranormal activity with fault lines. The earliest version I have seen were a series of articles in the early Fortean Times (then The News) looking at possible links between UFOs and seismic activity in Leicestershire and Staffordshire. Paul Devereaux in particular looked at “earthlights”, lights that seem to appear around areas of seismic stress. It has been suggested that quartz under pressure may produce light effects, or electrical fields which may have some effect on the human brain (see the work of Dr Serena Roney-Dougal.) The problem with this theory is that Britain has mainly tiny faults in the west of the country – yet East Anglia for instance appears very haunted, at least to a casual observer! I did some research on this in the 1990s, which was discussed on a TV show, which suggested that South Gloucestershire haunts did indeed cluster around fault likes, or junctures of fault lines. This was suggestive, but further research is desperately needed before we can draw any conclusions.

Devereaux also drew attention to the fact that most megalithic tumuli and henges seem to cluster around fault lines. I have a sneaky suspicion this may have more to do with geology though and natural reasons than Earth Mysteries – the west of England,where such things are found, is fairly hilly and I suspect that most tumuli and henges in the East where ploughing and arable farming weremore lucrative have long since been destroyed by intensive agriculture, whereas in sheep and cattle farming areas the have survived. As near surface faulting is more common in hilly and rocky areas, we might therefore expect to find a correlation between tumuli and faulting, but not a mystical or paranormal one!

So the question remains – can earthquakes, tremors and seismic activity cause apparent “haunting” phenomena? I believe the answer is yes, probably – earthquakes seem to have an effect on animals and therefore probably on humans, but I do not think we need worry about much more than vibration and shaking occurring – the electrical and earthlight ideas are interesting, but tremors felt unconsciously as Becky has suggested may well be enough. There is, however, still one piece of experimental evidence against the theory to be considered.

The major physical movement of objects has long since been noted as a feature of Poltergeist (RSPK) cases. In the 1970’s SPR veteran researcher Tony Cornell decided to test this hypothesis, in association with I believe a Cambridgeshire council. He arranged for access to a council house which was about to be demolished, placed articles in several rooms, and then had the house literally shaken to pieces by large industrial machinery/ He remained inside as long as it was safe to do so, observing, and then had cameras which filmed until the house actually collapsed. The footage was shown on Anglia TV – I’d love to see it again, as am recollecting from memory of an event many years ago.

Now what the experiment seemed to demonstrate is that vibration caused major cracks in walls etc before any objects flew as they do in poltergeist cases. The vibration would be extremely obvious to a human observer long before any apparently paranormal motion was detected!

Now I know bugger all about geology or earthquakes, but I will raise three quick replies to this problem…

1. The vibration in the experiment was as I recall provided horizontally, by a belt or chain around the structure. In a tremor, he pressure would be vertical – the actual source of movement deep underground.

2. Objects did of course move under vibration. the moved slowly, over a period of time – just as the object at the Station Hotel on the infamous Most Haunted footage did.

3. I suspect the higher up a building you might be, the more you would feel the effects. Room 214 is on the second (3rd US) floor, high above the road, and at the bottom of a major hill, built in to the slope. While I believe it is too high for traffic to cause th motion see on the footage, it does strike me as entirely possible the movement of the chair could be caused by underground activity.

Anyway this should mean you are up to speed on what is meant by an environmental theory of ghosts – and apart from a strong doubt on my part about the idea of confabulation and “paranormal experience” narratives growing with time, which I queried at the end of the day briefly – more research needed, and I think it would make a fascinating PhD if i can find funding, as probably outside the scope of Becky’s — anyway that takes us to the end of the first session, and 10am. Er, given there are seven more sessions to describe I think I shall take a break and return to this shortly with a Part Two!

cj x


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