In Search of Ghosts

3 out of 5 stars
In Search of Ghosts
Ian Wilson (London: Headline, 1995).

Book cover, showing a sinister female figure in white.Well-written, substantial, and packed full of cases, what first leapt out at me from this book was its bravery in stripping away certain kinds of experiences in order to define what a ‘true’ ghost is. Unusually, Wilson will have nothing to do with poltergeists and crisis apparitions; in his view, a true ghost haunts, and the nature of haunting is very much the focus of this study. After a single chapter on each, poltergeists (because they seem to originate from the living) and crisis apparitions (because they appear anywhere, and generally only once) are quietly laid aside.

Every writer has their personal quirks. Wilson’s seem to include issues of status and identity. He will not present a case without soon mentioning what the witness does for a living (preferably an architect, psychiatrist or bishop), what titles and qualifications he or she has collected, and how big their house is. For instance, Roy Jenkins becomes ‘the former Roy Jenkins, now Lord Jenkins of Hillhead’, and even plain old Mrs. Dobbs is not spared the soubriquet of ‘humble cleaning lady’ (p. 64).

Wilson is charged with the need to know who people are, ‘since… any ghost book in which the names and locations have been changed might as well be a work of fiction’ (p. ix). Consequently, most of the cases in the book are attributed to named witnesses and specific places and dates. To me, this seemed admirable at first, until a case linked to the suicide of a young man (p. 69).

Wilson not only provides the full name of the man, and a version of events leading to his suicide, but also attributes the phenomena experienced on the site to him, so that: ‘we confront a ghost who, though he may have expressed himself only by sounds, emerges as a person with whose plight we can identify’ (p. 93).

Evidently, Wilson regards this as a compassionate stance, but, given that alternative explanations for the phenomena surely are possible, is it reasonable to identify strange noises in a house as the post-mortem intentions of an actual person? I wonder how the victim’s family and friends would receive the idea that after his death he remained in some kind of ‘plight’?

Wilson opens the book with an intriguing ghostly experience of his own, during which his impulse to pray for the ghost seemed to enable it to depart (p. 4). As the book proceeds, the impression grows that Wilson’s personal experience has very much coloured his attitude toward ghosts in general.

Much as he likes to firmly identify people in this life, Wilson seems drawn to assume that survival of that same identity beyond life is the best explanation for ghostly phenomena. Next, he marshals the anecdotal evidence at his disposal to advance the notion that rituals or prayers should be used where possible to relieve the condition of ghosts.

For him, the way that ghosts respond to prayer suggests: ‘something sentient, something capable of understanding the words and sentiments behind them. In other words, a human mind, a mind continuing on beyond death’ (p. 239). But what Wilson does not explain is, assuming that the ghost understands, why does prayer seem to work so much more powerfully for people who are dead? Is it not more likely (given Wilson’s own spontaneous need to pray whilst in the presence of a ghost) that the effect of prayer says less about the dead and more about the living?

This is a substantial book, and is brave in its attempt to get back to the old-school notion of the ghost as an ex-person in distress. But the evidence on offer never reaches the velocity required to escape from what seem the author’s personal preoccupations.

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Things that Go Bump in the Night

3 out of 5 stars
Things that Go Bump in the Night: How to Investigate and Challenge Ghostly Experiences
Emily Peach (London: Aquarian Press, 1991).

'Things That Go Bump In The Night', by Emily PeachA commendatory aside in Hilary Evans’s Seeing Ghosts drew me to this book. What quickly becomes evident is how much Evans’s book owes to it: there are similarities in both format and method, although maybe this is because of the debt that both owe to the SPR material from which they draw their case material.

Peach takes a phenomenological approach, arguing that – to the extent people report them, and those reports share certain characteristics – therefore ghosts ‘exist’. She spends the first third of the book marshalling some classic cases and organising ghosts into five categories, all of which challenge the common notion of ghosts received from fiction and folklore.

This first part, for me, was the most rigorous and compelling. In the second part, on theories, niggles set in. Due to her phenomenological approach, the sceptical theory of misperception does not receive the attention it deserves; and – although she tries to insist otherwise – Peach is obviously partial to what she labels ‘the occult theory’ (‘a hypothesis regarding a subtle environment that underlies the physical’ [p. 115]), which trumps the four other theories she pits against it by consistently explaining all the ‘facts’ about ghosts.

The third section deals with how to investigate cases. It is a little dated, but most of the advice it gives seems sound. Yet now that we are down to practicalities, a host of factors become relevant that were not given consideration in the earlier sections. We are suddenly obliged to consider whether witnesses have been boozing, or if their mental health is not good (p. 133); and urged to consult geological survey maps (p. 147) before citing ghosts as the cause of creaks and bangs.

‘Some intestinal ailments have been linked with telekinesis’ (p. 132), Peach asserts, in a startling aside that calls out for a supporting reference (but in vain). It was the rare lapses like this that made me wonder whether the reasoned voice in which the book is written is entirely Peach’s own. So too does the decision to include the section on investigation. The title of the book promises to ‘challenge’ ghostly experiences, yet this was always going to sit uneasily with the phenomenological approach espoused in the first two thirds.

Nevertheless, this is mostly a compelling and useful book. Second hand copies are cheap and easy to obtain, and are worth seeking out.

The Poltergeist Prince of London

5 out of 5 stars
The Poltergeist Prince of London: The Remarkable True Story of the Battersea Poltergeist
Shirley Hitchings & James Clark (Stroud: The History Press, 2013).

The Poltergeist Prince of London by Shirley Hitchings & James ClarkSome chocolate is left for a poltergeist, then found broken up a few days later with an accompanying note: ‘VOUS CAN HAVE A BIT’ (p. 216).

Question: would this note seem to you more likely to have been written by (1) the spirit of a former king of France; or (2) a fifteen year-old girl from Battersea, who had never learnt French at school, but was known to own a French dictionary?

Perhaps the oddest thing about the case of the Battersea poltergeist (1956-1964) is that its investigator, Harold Chibbett, devoted so much time and energy towards establishing whether the phenomena were caused by a spirit formerly King Louis XVII of France. Reconstructed from notes rescued from Chibbett’s posthumous papers, there is more than enough detail here (I think) to suggest that teenage angst and dissociative states probably played a far greater role in the happenings at 63 Wycliffe Road than any alleged spirits.

But, as with many poltergeist cases, it would be too glib to write it all off as due to psychological causes. The happenings certainly centred around Shirley Hitchings, co-author of the book, yet there were numerous witnesses and a range of phenomena that included movement of objects, voices without evident physical cause, apparent telepathic and precognitive phenomena, and highly frequent (but elusive) knocking and tapping sounds, on occasion so loud they could be heard in the street.

Like the classic Enfield case, it’s a huge mess: a melange of psychological disturbance, possible hoax, and lack of investigative controls, but with just enough nuggets of what seems genuinely inexplicable to string along everyone involved in the case, and also to engage the reader of this account. James Clark does a great job of laying out the material in a more or less chronological order, whilst imparting a vivid sense of its main protagonists: the feisty Shirley, the avuncular Chibbett, and the imperiously parochial poltergeist himself, ‘Donald’.

But despite the mayhem of the surface narrative there are serious issues at stake, such as the possibility of collusion between investigator and witnesses, because Chibbett evidently provided Shirley with opportunities and contacts she could not have enjoyed otherwise, and he in turn was provided with material for his spiritualist-oriented researches. In the latter half of the book it becomes especially apparent just how much of Chibbett’s interaction with the poltergeist boiled down to a power struggle, a bargaining for information that the polt never quite delivered.

And then there is Ethel, Shirley’s grandmother, whose death was perhaps tragically hastened by the happenings in the house. Understandably, this angle is not highlighted by the authors, but it’s clear that Ethel of all the householders took the firmest stand again ‘Donald’ and most assertively laid the blame at Shirley’s door. I couldn’t help feeling that maybe she paid the ultimate price for her resistance, although I would not want to imply that anyone was intentionally culpable.

The book has all the hallmarks of a classic in its field. It is rich and detailed and captures the flavour of the era in which the case took place. It also raises a question common to every classic poltergeist case: if only strict experimental controls had been in place, would anything have been reported at all? One day, I hope, there will be a case that provides the answer.

Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal

4 out of 5 stars
Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the Paranormal
Hilary Evans (London: John Murray, 2002).

Hilary Evans, Seeing Ghosts: Experiences of the ParanormalA well-organised and thoughtful book that bases its analysis on almost 200 cases, which are interspersed throughout the text and incorporated as the argument develops.

Evans builds on the ideas of previous researchers, especially the SPR, but his interpretations take a slightly different trajectory from theirs. Unable to accept that all ghost cases are misperception or coincidence, but agreeing that the mechanism must be some form of hallucination, Evans pushes into the possible causes of these hallucinations, having to account for their veridical content in many cases.

Two hypotheses are offered: (1) super-psi, an as yet unknown ability of the subject of a ghost experience to access information otherwise unknowable; and (2) the extended self, an as yet unknown vehicle by which the object of a ghost experience can influence the subject, in some instances perhaps from a point beyond death.

Evans suggests either hypothesis is adequate to explain the ghost experience, but evidently favours the parsimony of the latter, given the difficulties that arise when we consider the motivation for the percipient’s supposed use of super-psi. In other words: why see ghosts, unless ghosts are there and willing to be seen?

I was surprised by my own doubt concerning Evans’ even-handed and Fortean approach to his case material. The Chaffin case, for example, in which a dead father appears to reveal the location of his revised will is co-opted by Evans as support for his ‘extended self’ hypothesis (p. 104, 237). Yet this case has been satisfactorily resolved by Mary Roach, who has produced evidence that the ‘revised’ will was actually a fake by the dead man’s son, who therefore probably invented the story of the ghost.

Another case (p. 65) similarly bugged me (although I have no explanation). It concerns an investigator who arrives at a location and leaves the door unlocked for a delayed colleague. The householder soon after reports that she sees a ghost; the investigator sees nothing; but then the delayed colleague steps into the house and asks where the ‘other man’ has gone. Evans takes this tale at face value, partly because he is acquainted with the investigator concerned. Me, I was too suspicious not to feel this story too hokey somehow, nor to avoid wondering if the householder and the delayed colleague weren’t in collusion.

Evans seems averse to coincidence. ‘Surely this is stretching chance too far!’ (p. 225), he says, and makes similar remarks elsewhere. But improbable things can and do happen. My own hunch is that coincidence plays an important role in ghost experiences. Evans style of thinking is scientific in the respect that even though he posits currently unknown mechanisms, his are nevertheless mechanistic theories, envisaging a discrete chain of causes in the production of ghost experiences. Personally, I like the weirder option that ghosts are synchronicitous experiences, perhaps beyond causality. This is territory that Evans only begins to confront when considering the implications of his ‘extended self’ hypothesis for the relationship between ghosts and time (p. 265).

On the one hand, then, I found Evans not sceptical enough, whilst on the other, too mechanistic. What I suspect this might mean is that he is probably doing a better than average job of finding a useful middle ground between inflexible scepticism and irrational belief.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

3 out of 5 stars
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
Mary Roach (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).

Mary Roach, Spook: Science Tackles the AfterlifeThis was enjoyable and very readable, which didn’t surprise me, given the reviews I had read of her other books. What did surprise was the book’s scope and its not inconsiderable depth.

Roach explores mediumship, research into Near-Death Experience and reincarnation. She interviews (among others) Michael Persinger and Vic Tandy. And there are also a couple of thought-provoking chapters on the history and (odd as it seems) on-going attempts to identify and measure the human soul.

My favourite chapter is the one in which she revisits a case from 1925 (the Chaffin case), in which a supposed ghost revealed the location of his revised last will and testament. The new will was accepted in court as genuine, but in the process of interviewing the man’s descendants, uncovering the original documents, and hiring an expert analyst, Roach (in my opinion) provides a definitive explanation for the case.

She adopts a wry and sceptical approach to her material. Her analyses are sound, but her style is always deflationary in tone. One of her techniques (common among stand-up comedians) consists in highlighting a bizarre detail, then harking back to it unexpectedly, so that what at first seemed strange comes to seem ridiculously familiar. (Harry Hill does this a lot.)

Her writing is funny, but I found this technique annoying at times. It probably means I prefer books on the paranormal that confront us with oddness, rather than those that work to puncture the outlandish and return us to the familiar. Yet Roach does not come across at all as a blinkered debunker. Largely, I was won over by the breadth of her research and the solidity of her arguments.

Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide

4 out of 5 stars
Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide
John Fraser (Stroud: The History Press, 2010).

John Fraser, Ghost Hunting: a Survivor's GuideThis is a highly readable portrait of present-day, rational ghost-hunting by an author who is a prominent member of both The Ghost Club and The Society for Psychical Research – and I’ve heard him give talks also at ASSAP events (The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena).

Fraser has evidently been in the thick of ghost-hunting for years, and shares the benefit of his wide experience. In essence, what this book offers, apart from a history of the subject and much practical advice on how to approach and organise the investigation of ghosts, is a sustained meditation on what the activity of ghost-hunting might actually amount to.

I was surprised, and a little disturbed at first, by his liberalism. Where circumstances ethically allow, Fraser is not averse to the use of Ouija boards (p. 110), self-proclaimed ‘psychics’ (p. 128) and other pseudo-scientific assets whilst investigating a case. He is not dismissive of historical research into sites (p. 140) – as opposed to concentrating exclusively on current phenomena – nor does he regard commercial ‘ghost tourism’ (p. 51) as necessarily all bad.

I received my training from ASSAP, where all of these were presented as big no-noes, but Fraser’s reasoning behind not ignoring them entirely is based on what is surely a realistic assessment of what ghost-hunting can be expected to achieve. ‘Ghost hunters,’ he writes, ‘should not really be trying to be Newton or Einstein – providers of a whole new science of the supernatural. This is not our strength and we would look silly trying to do it’ (p. 183).

On the site of an alleged ‘haunting’, Fraser suggests, it is highly unlikely that sufficient controls could ever be in place for us to prove the paranormal. By the end of the book I had decided that I quite admired the author’s disinclination to fool himself that the strongest motivation for ghost-hunting lies in the challenge of establishing adequate scientific protocols, rather than in our personal desire to confront our preoccupations with what might happen to us after death, and in the emotional, visceral reaction that arises in response to the ‘spookiness’ of allegedly haunted sites.

Fraser’s book is a practical guide to making ghost-hunting as rational as it can be, yet without losing what makes it so emotionally engaging.

Supernormal

4 out of 5 stars
Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities
Dean Radin (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2013).

Supernormal by Dean RadinThis is far less dry and more readable than Radin’s previous books, but it hinges still upon his familiar approach: the use of statistical meta-analyses of formal parapsychological experiments to demonstrate a definitive effect in favour of the paranormal, or ‘psi’.

Radin uses Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a hook on which to hang his narrative, partly because a whole host of psi phenomena seem to be described in this ancient text, but also because it fits with the direction in which Radin’s research had led. In the early days of parapsychology, experimenters discovered small but discernible effects among their subjects. This effect was increased when subjects cultivated a meditative state. And then the effect was discovered to be even more substantial among people specifically trained in cultivating meditative states. Yoga, Radin suggests, whatever else it might be, is a means by which people can develop siddhis, the Sanskrit term for psi.

Yet therein lies my quibble with Radin’s line of reasoning. Patanjali’s assertion that meditation on changes and their consequences in the mind ‘develops the ability to observe the mind of others’ (3.19) might suggest one thing to a parapsychologist, but something subtly different to a meditator. For instance, Patanjali might have meant something along the lines of ‘knowing how one’s own mind works enables one to know how the minds of others work’, or perhaps ‘when meditating on the mind, this is like experiencing someone else’s mind’. Both of these describe unusual experiences and insights, but they do not necessarily require a paranormal explanation.

Personally, I have had what seemed to be psi experiences arising directly from meditation. Yet it seemed to me that every quotation from Patanjali in Radin’s book was amenable to other interpretations that matched my own experience but did not necessarily depend upon psi. In short: there is an argument to be had that what Radin calls a siddhi is not what Patanjali meant.

What I liked most about this book, however, is Radin’s suggestion that mainstream science has nothing to fear from psi. The parapsychological evidence suggests its effects are – relatively – tiny and rare. But Radin never tires of pointing out that they are real. If psi is there (and it is, says Radin) then it has been there all along, and science has got along just fine in spite of it. Medicine has progressed and astronauts have landed on the moon despite all the telepathy, precognition and psychokinesis that must have been fizzing along gently in the background.

The final chapters of the book turn somewhat vague with speculation, but I could help agreeing with Radin that what the actual evidence for psi suggests is that the world will not fall apart if it is taken seriously.