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.

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Report on the ASSAP Seriously Strange Conference (2013)

It was a lovely autumn weekend at Bath University, host for one of (if not the) biggest paranormal events in the country, with presentations from some of the foremost experts in the field. Here is my report on the proceedings. Apologies for not having name-checked all the participants, or having mentioned the entertainments and other activities that took place during a brilliant conference. What follows is my personal summary and response to some of the ideas in circulation during the weekend.

ASSAP Seriously Strange Conference, University of Bath, 2013.

ASSAP Seriously Strange Conference, University of Bath, 2013.

Christian Jensen Romer’s session, ‘Let me convince you your home is haunted’, began with an incident in his parents’ home: someone was heard running down the stairs. On investigating, a can of air freshener flew downstairs, allegedly swerving to miss the head of Romer’s friend. It was a one-off incident with no recurrence although Romer, relating the story of his father discovering medieval skulls in the garden, illustrated how easy it would be to regard his parents’ home as ‘haunted’, if he felt so inclined.

Next, he turned his attention to the well-known study by Houran & Lange (1996) that purports to show how, rather than ghosts, it is people who make their homes ‘haunted’. Houran & Lange argued that plotting cumulative reports of ‘paranormal’ incidents against time results in an S-curve, which can be explained by householders increasingly attributing ‘paranormal’ significance to events, and then losing interest as the ‘haunting’ becomes established. But after some delving, Romer was shocked to discover that Houran & Lange had based their results upon only a single case. Their paper has been used by sceptics as a hammer to smack down the notion of ‘hauntings’. But if it is indeed based only on a single case, this would seem unjustified.

Romer took the published account of the Enfield poltergeist as a test case, and plotted the cumulative frequency of incidents in the same way as Houran & Lange. This produced a diagonal line rather than the predicted S-curve. Romer then enlisted five volunteers to keep diaries of events in their homes. Two of them returned zero incidents, but plotting the results from the three that did report incidents also produced diagonal lines rather than S-curves. Further research is planned.

Romer concluded his session with remarks on how the major cases (such as Enfield) seem qualitatively different from the minor incidents reported in the diaries of his volunteers. He supports the basic hypothesis that turning attention to unusual events produces a ‘haunting’, yet this difference between major and minor cases remains unaccounted for. Is it human fallibility at work in both? Or is everyone’s home ‘haunted’, but only some of us notice? Or could it be that through the involvement of ESP and PK in certain (‘major’) cases, once we begin to assume our house is ‘haunted’, then in a qualitatively different way we begin to haunt ourselves?

Next up: a panel session, consisting of contemporary writers speaking on the theme of storytelling and paranormal research. I found this interesting, but not of much relevance. None of the speakers owned up to any sharp-ended personal experiences of the strange. This does not make them bad writers. Quite the opposite, in fact, because they have all produced first-rate material, yet apparently without the inconvenience of having to experience it at first hand. I suppose I was expecting something less literary but more experiential.

However, the poltergeist panel that followed I thought was the most successful of the panel sessions. Guy Lyon Playfair, a senior investigator wise in the ways of polts, peppered the session with numerous memorable remarks. He drew an analogy between poltergeist research and Barry Marshall, the doctor who proved that stomach ulcers can be caused by a bacterium, which he did by giving himself a stomach ulcer and then curing it. We need a Barry Marshall in poltergeist research, suggested Playfair – someone who can produce a polt (thereby understanding its cause) and then get rid of it (thereby bringing relief to those harmed by the phenomenon).

Having conducted research in Brazil, Playfair also highlighted an intriguing difference between cases in this cultural context and our own: black magick (or macumba). In Brazil, polts are often the apparent consequence of curses. Usually the victims number among the poorest in society. The members of the panel seemed unanimous in their view that the assumption of polts arising only from stressed teenage girls is now pretty much a dead duck.

After Playfair and C.J. Romer had related some hair-raising first-hand accounts of polt phenomena, Romer lamented the neglect of physical phenomena by the Society for Psychical Research. Because of early splits within the organisation, the SPR tended to emphasise ‘higher’, ‘spiritual’ mental powers, excluding the more physical and active phenomena. Romer also highlighted the porous boundary between poltergeist and apparitional phenomena: apparitions are often accompanied by physical phenomena and, likewise, polt cases often include apparitions.

Nicky Sewell provided revealing insights gained from her role as independent observer on the investigation of the South Shields poltergeist case. Nicky was very gracious towards the original investigators, but the conclusion I drew from her presentation was that a golden opportunity was lost in South Shields because suggestions that might have introduced adequate controls were rejected.

Guy Lyon Playfair had the podium to himself in the next session, ‘The twin thing’, in which he argued that alleged cases of telepathy between twins have been under-researched and unjustifiably dismissed by sceptics. Conceding that not all identical twins enjoy a telepathic bond (‘some twins are more identical than others’), he argued nevertheless that the measurement of galvanic skin response in both twins, whilst only one of them is exposed to a test stimulus, has already established a suitable protocol for proving the existence of a so-far unexplained sympathetic response from the unstimulated twin. Playfair bemoaned how lack of interest among the scientific community had left him at the mercy of popular television shows, the only forum that has demonstrated any eagerness to replicate the experiment.

If the alleged effect is indeed as reliable as Playfair’s presentation suggested, then it seemed to me it should be fairly easy to replicate. The real test will be whether the effect survives greater controls – in particular, ensuring that interpretation of the polygraph results is conducted ‘blind’.

Two panel sessions occupied the Saturday mid-afternoon slots, which I think might have been more successful if they had occurred in reverse order. As they stood, the first explored the question ‘Has parapsychology achieved anything?’ Cal Cooper highlighted the refreshingly interdisciplinary approach of parapsychology, and (in Cooper’s own speciality, phone calls from the dead) its contribution to the understanding of bereavement experiences and therapeutic approaches to bereavement. Chris French, meanwhile, suggested that the statistical techniques that parapsychology has been forced to develop have made the biggest contribution to mainstream science. But he sounded a cautionary note by pointing out that the growing awareness within mainstream psychology that perhaps most psychological ‘effects’ are in fact spurious will probably take its toll also upon parapsychology. ‘What would a science look like that had failed to separate signal from noise and was really only noise?’ French asked rhetorically. His answer: ‘It would look like parapsychology.’ This prompted a similarly provocative analogy from Steve Parsons: ‘parapsychology is like UKIP,’ he suggested. Previously, mainstream science has simply ignored it, but now mainstream science is far more dismissive and more inclined to attack, presumably because it is regarded as a greater threat.

Having established during this panel that parapsychology has probably pretended to be more interdisciplinary than it really is, due to its tendency to exclude physics and physical evidence, the next panel on ‘Interdisciplinary approaches’ seemed only to compound this view. The participants called for a perspective that incorporated anthropology, folklore, religion and ethnography, which – indeed – given the absence of the hard sciences, is perhaps not really very ‘interdisciplinary’ at all.

David Farrant was the last speaker of the day, on the topic of ‘The Highgate vampire revisited’. An autobiographical account of 40 year-old occult hijinks, many delegates were puzzled by its inclusion. Farrant’s main aim seemed to be to deny culpability for the desecration of corpses in the cemetery, where he was caught with some colleagues at night, carrying paraphernalia that might have been interpreted as ‘vampire hunting’ equipment. Farrant does not believe in flesh and blood vampires. He does, however, accept the existence of incubi and succubi, entities that visit and can drain the health and energy of victims when they enter certain states of consciousness – states we might also describe (I think) as ‘sleep paralysis’. Farrant claimed that he was in the cemetery to perform a magickal ritual to guard against a spiritual entity, rather than to drive a stake through a corpse. And you know what? I believe him. But I can understand why the authorities might have took the chance to make a too-convenient example of him, to deter others who were breaking into the cemetery at night.

I once had a visit from an ‘entity’ during an attack of sleep paralysis. It seemed to me she was pressing a pillow onto my face. Although I could not see or hear her, it was strange how I nevertheless had a strong sense of a female presence. There was no obvious reason for this. So, to me, at least, Farrant’s musings upon states of consciousness as ‘beings’ did not seem entirely senseless. I would have preferred it, though, if he had spent more time on this than on his protests of innocence. His presence at that night’s Gala Dinner, however, was heartening evidence that although the experiences of 40 years ago must still rankle, he is still able to dine out on them.

Sunday morning, and Tony Eccles was on first with ‘Close encounters of the shamanic kind’. There is scant evidence for physical extraterrestrials, argued Eccles. Instead, he proposed, UFO encounters are more profitably viewed as spiritual, transformative events with a shamanic significance. In ufology, witnesses are too often regarded only as a source of data rather than (as Eccles’s view would imply) the focus of the case and the whole point. He described two fascinating case histories, both involving male witnesses, both encounters with red balls of light, which marked a transformative turning-point in both men’s lives, leading to positive change.

My question to Eccles was whether the term ‘shaman’ was not a bit overblown to apply to people who – to be blunt – had merely changed careers or sorted their lives out a little. Eccles explained to me that there are people who become shamans but, more commonly, people who receive shamanic healing. In this case, it is probably more correct to view the UFO itself as the ‘shaman’, the vehicle of healing transformation. We also discussed briefly how it is difficult to apply a causative relation to this view; it is not clear if the UFO causes the healing, or the witness’s situation causes (through some psychological process) the UFO. Eccles reserved judgement when I asked if he thought Carl Jung had it right on the topic of UFOs; he seemed more inclined to the view that psychological processes in the witness cause the UFO.

Next, Chris French provided ‘An introduction to anomalistic psychology’. He argued that work in this field presents us with a win-win situation, because if the paranormal is proved to exist then we can enjoy a revolution in science; and whilst it fails to be proved to exist, we are finding out more about human psychology, because most people continue to believe in its existence.

French gave many graphic demonstrations of concepts from the sceptical tool kit: our poor ability to estimate probabilities; the Barnum effect and cold reading techniques; false memories and the relative ease with which they can be implanted; and ‘top-down’ processing – i.e. the way that beliefs and meanings tend to influence our perceptions, rather than vice versa. The highlight was French’s revelation of the ‘satanic’ message in Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’, which can be heard quite clearly when the record is played backwards. That is, only if you have already been primed to listen for it, otherwise – as French showed – it is not really there at all.

The next speaker, Chris Roe, addressed the topic ‘ESP and dreams’, beginning with a history of investigation in this field that started with Louisa Rhine’s collection of spontaneous cases during the 1950s, followed by the work of the Maimonides sleep lab, overseen by Stanley Krippner and Montague Ullman in the 60s and 70s, which introduced protocols that allowed quantification of results and rigorous experimental controls.

Roe described a typical experimental session from his own research at Northampton University. The dreamer dreams at home, recording their visions on waking in a diary. Overnight, a computer in the lab selects a target image or video sequence, displaying it on a screen. Occasionally, a human volunteer will be on hand to look as the image. Afterwards, the dreamer is asked to select the target image from amongst three others selected at random. The results obtained have indicated a level of hits significantly above chance.

The aim is not to replicate dream ESP, Roe stressed, but to identify its causes. So far there is evidence that the rate of hits is related to personality type and personal belief in the paranormal. There also seems to be a relationship to the content of the target image: an image with negative emotional tone, or with dynamic rather than passive content tends to yield more hits. Roe suggested that this might make sense from a Darwinian perspective.

In the questions that followed, mine concerned the assumption that dreams, if they do not deliver a literal depiction of the target image, are somehow a ‘misperception’ of the target. Given that dreams have the properties of images more than perceptions, I wondered if there had been any research in the area of emotions or intentions as targets, rather than visual images. Roe knew of one similar study involving auditory targets, which had failed to achieve significant results. Visual targets would seem to elicit a higher rate of hits, but Roe acknowledged a symbolic, interpretative element at play in the ‘receiving’ of them. Just because a dream includes Bruce Willis, he suggested, this does not mean that Bruce Willis will be in the target image. The dreamer may find themselves wondering, in relation to the set of images from which they most choose the target, what it is that ‘Bruce Willis’ might represent.

After lunch a panel convened to discuss, ‘Are UFOs different from other anomalous phenomena?’ The outcome was a fairly non-cohesive collection of opinions. Sacha Claire Christie has distinguished herself among UFO ‘experiencers’ by refusing to jump to conclusions concerning the nature of her experiences – ‘I just don’t know,’ she confessed. But when Chris French proposed sleep paralysis as an explanation, she reported that she had eliminated this as a possible cause. She obviously did know something, then: that her experiences are not sleep-paralysis! I would have been more interested to hear about what she knows and how she knows it than her claims not to know. She was not alone in making these. I had the distinct impression that the default behaviour of any panel of experts on the paranormal will be: (1) deny any knowledge; and (2) call for ‘an interdisciplinary approach’.

John Sabol’s ‘Auditory manifestations of an American Civil War presence on a haunted battlefield’ was the most divisive session of the conference. Because of the transatlantic cultural divide, its content was not smoothed by Sabol’s style of delivery. In Britain, a person who shouts is less likely to be regarded as passionate about their topic, and more likely to be viewed as a bloody nuisance. The audience also had to grapple with Sabol’s claim that his photographic images and audio recordings were evidence for ghostly presences on a former battlefield. One of the effects that Chris French had highlighted earlier, how the ‘message’ in EVP recordings is usually not apparent until we are told what to listen for, was unfortunately very much in evidence in the case of Sabol’s recordings. And yet, I think it is wrong to dismiss Sabol as your average EVP / pareidolia enthusiast. His background in archaeology, and the way he couches his description of what he does in the language of pragmatist and postmodern philosophy, suggests this is not someone with a naïve understanding of the ‘truth’ of what his researches yield.

In mainstream scientific paranormal research it is not known what a ‘ghost’ is or what ‘haunted’ means. Sabol’s approach, in contrast, is to use archaeological concepts to produce ghosts and hauntings. He identifies a site, takes his team onto it, and re-enacts historical incidents that took place at the site, recording as he goes. A ‘historical incident’ for Sabol is a set of culturally-conditioned codes whose traces persist through time in one form or another. If he can identify traces of those codes in his recordings – for example, sounds that resemble words that could have been spoken on the battlefield – then a trace of those codes has been retrieved and is re-presenting itself to us for interpretation in the present. This is a ‘haunting’, a ‘ghost’. What differentiates Sabol’s method from your run-of-the-mill ghost hunter is that the traces returned by it will have some historical accuracy.

He seems to be doing something that is not quite historical re-enactment, nor psychogeography, nor magickal evocation. Like archaeology, it is concerned with retrieving and interpreting site-specific traces, but it is certainly not a ‘hard’ scientific investigation. It is not concerned with the causes of ghosts as such, but with recreating the conditions that produce an experience of ghostly presence. For this reason, I think Sabol’s methods cast interesting light on some of the questions raised by C.J. Romer at the very start of the conference: how is it that a place comes to seem to us ‘haunted’?

Richard Freeman’s ‘Cryptozoology: on the track of living monsters’ was far easier on the audience, an engrossing narrative tour through some vivid slides of creatures that never were; some that were once believed mythical but have since been discovered; some that are reported but not yet known; prehistoric survivals; and some that are known to science, but have grown to a remarkable size. Freeman also related gripping details of expeditions in which he had taken part, in search of evidence for the ourang pendek (a Sumatran ape-like animal), the Mongolian death worm, and the almasty (Central Asia’s answer to the sasquatch). There was too much material to fit into the available time, but this seemed part of its charm. I realised that, as a regular reader of Fortean Times, I was pretty much already up-to-date with Freeman’s adventures and I hope there will be more developments soon.

And then – alas – the final session, a panel on ‘The future of ghost investigation’. John Fraser expressed the view that universities should, where possible, be dragged out of the lab to participate in fieldwork. As long as they adhered to the principle of Occam’s razor, he looked forward to a future in which diverse groups and disciplines pooled their efforts. Hayley Stevens expressed a similar sentiment, calling for a more rational approach with an avoidance of electrical gadgets, and a focus on the logical causes of phenomena. Indeed, the panel was unanimous in its view that stocking up on electrical equipment is probably pointless. C.J. Romer, however, perhaps expressed a slight reservation in his call for a greater emphasis on measuring phenomena, rather than sitting around in the dark waiting for ghosts to appear.

There was a general consensus among the panel that commercial ghost-hunting should probably be tolerated as a means of attracting people to the field who may then become interested in more serious research. The way to deal with paranormal tourism, it seemed, was to allow it to die a natural death, or perhaps to speed it toward its demise by offering more attractive packages utilising a scientific approach. The scientific liberalism of a comment by Steve Parsons seems a good note on which to end this conference report: there are all sorts of apparently ludicrous directions in all branches of science, Parsons noted, but one of them – which we may not suspect – may one day take us forward.

Thoughts on the regulation of paranormal investigators

A few weeks ago I attended the advanced training course for paranormal investigators, run by ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena).

What inspired me to join ASSAP was the news (in 2011) that it had been recognised by the UK government as a professional body, which has cleared the way for ASSAP to establish and operate a national register of paranormal investigators. This seems to me a means to remedy the damage done by paranormal tourism, and the unwitting occultism of amateur groups influenced by Most Haunted and other television shows.

ASSAP is still at work on setting up its national register, but it seems likely to launch this year. Hopefully it will have a major impact on the UK paranormal scene. Investigators who join the register will gain various benefits, such as insurance and access to an ethics panel. Anyone who joins the register must undergo a criminal records check, and sign up to a professional code of ethics. (The material in the ethics section on this website is based upon the ASSAP code.)

What this means in practice is that a client can call on an investigator whom they know in advance is most likely not a thrill-seeker, but interested in scientific assessment of phenomena, with a commitment to safeguarding the client’s interests and well-being. And this has got to be a good thing!

It also seems likely that members of the register will need to complete formal training. The course I participated in was very professionally run and totally engrossing. I won’t go into much detail, because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who decides to go down the same route, but it involved designing (as a group) an investigation to test hypotheses relating to an actual case, and then performing the investigation, and then drawing appropriate conclusions from the evidence collected.

Afterwards, it struck me what a brilliant opportunity paranormal investigation can be for getting to grips with scientific method in perhaps one of its most naked forms. The joy – and also the tragedy – of this field is that nothing is known about the so-called ‘paranormal’; nothing is proven; there’s no specialist equipment that has been demonstrated to be useful; there’s not much by way of specialist knowledge, either. There’s just you, your rational thinking, your hypotheses, and the evidence you collect to support or disprove them.

Personally, I believe there is something as yet inexplicable at the bottom of it all. I say so because of experiences – with others, but mostly by myself – gained when I was a teenager, larking about with a Ouija board. I won’t go into detail, but those experiences bothered me for years, and still bother me now. However, proving that those experiences really were what they appeared is a question that cannot be ducked, and I know that I must produce evidence to support my views before I can expect others to share them.

One of the ways I attempted to wrestle with those experiences was through an exploration of the occult. I was and am still active on that scene. Although I have gained many more strange experiences from pursuing this path, these have been of a subjective kind. They have lacked any objective evidence or significance. They have also lacked the apparently physical component of those earlier experiences. Occultism, in my view, is properly understood as a form of religious practice. At best, it can create for us greater meaning from life, and experiential insights into how the mind works. But whether ‘paranormal’ phenomena are only illusions arising from misunderstanding how the mind works, or (taking the occult view) an actual effect of perceiving accurately how everyday reality itself is only an illusion – these still seem to me only two sides of the same and perhaps unknowable coin.

Science is a method for arriving at facts, rather than – in itself – a philosophy or view. Science is never about truth; always about knowledge. No matter my beliefs, if science is a method then I can employ it, and be seen to be employing it. Or not.

Since the course, my investigation write-up has been accepted by ASSAP and I am now on their list of approved investigators. The next steps for me are to join the national register, once it comes into operation, and to continue to find and investigate cases scientifically and ethically, according to the ASSAP model.

But I am a contrarian by nature, so sometimes I can’t help wondering whether the ASSAP model isn’t a sceptical plot to keep investigators away from the sort of cases that most challenge the sceptical point of view.

For instance, a case like the Enfield poltergeist wouldn’t stand a chance of getting past the ASSAP code of ethics. There are two ways of looking at this: paranormal phenomena might be caused by disturbed minds and situations, in which case the regulation of investigators may prevent important cases coming to light; alternatively, disturbed minds and situations might exploit natural conditions to give the impression of paranormal phenomena, in which case the regulation of investigators will filter out distracting and potentially harmful ‘noise’.

I don’t know which – if any – of these is true. The bigger priority at the moment is surely the damage caused in recent years, which has blurred the distinction between the experiential approach of occultism, and the scientific search for knowledge. Inability to distinguish the difference can lead only to nonsense and confusion. The regulation of investigators, on both scientific and ethical grounds, looks to me a worthwhile and overdue correction.

Conference Report: Seriously Unidentified – Summit on the Future of Ufology (2012)

Hosted by ASSAP (Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena) at the University of Worcester, 17th November 2012

Ufology is in a terminal decline, its quest for evidence hijacked by the agenda of alien abductees and conspiracy theorists. This was the premise of the conference, which sought to account for the current state of the ufological field, and yet Seriously Strange played host to a wide range of opinions, and balanced them rather successfully.

ASSAP President and Fortean legend, Lionel Fanthorpe, gave the introduction. And then Ian Ridpath was first up, a science writer and astronomer, who boldly asserted that all UFO sightings have prosaic causes.

Interest in UFOs, Ridpath suggested, is fuelled by a self-perpetuating and lucrative industry. The assertion of witnesses that ‘I know what I saw’ in fact disguises an underlying rejection of reasonable explanations. There are so many possible mundane causes that the likelihood of ET becomes vanishingly small. He led us on a concise tour through Roswell (= a secret military balloon) and Rendlesham (= misperception of the Orfordness lighthouse),which indeed seemed to explain both these classic cases beyond reasonable doubt.

The causes of UFOs, Ridpath concluded, are misperception, self-delusion and hoax, yet this in itself leads to valuable insights, for if there is no evidence for visitation by aliens, this might well mean there is only one advanced civilization in this part of the universe: us. There is probably no one out there to save us from our problems. But if we can help ourselves, then maybe one day it will be our species in a position to help others. And when you think about it, this is indeed just as profound a conclusion as any to be drawn from advocating the existence of ET!

‘Saucer Movies and Politics’ by Paul Vella (forensic computer expert witness, and Bigfoot hunter), explored the fugitive link between cinematic depictions of UFOs and the experiences reported. Vella suggested that – generally – the sightings follow in the footsteps of the movies, and so Betty and Barney Hill report the first big-eyed aliens a few months after they appeared for the first time in an episode of The Outer Limits. Yet, as soon as we think a simple pattern exists, something comes along to contradict it. For instance: when the Republicans are in power, aliens tend to be presented as nasty and aggressive (War of the Worlds), but when the Democrats take office, more thoughtful depictions appear (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Except, during the Regan-Bush years, aliens stopped being evil and turned fuzzy and innocuous instead (E.T., The Last Starfighter, Star Wars, Batteries Not Included, etc.)

The War of the Worlds (1953)

This is what can happen when the Republicans take power. ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953).

Certainly, Hollywood is subject to political influence, but does the government use the depiction of UFOs to shape public opinion? Or what about the converse: that a belief in UFOs has shaped the policies of the leaders themselves? (Carter and Regan being conspicuous examples.) Apart from pointing to these teasing possibilities, Vella drew no firm conclusions, yet provided a useful reminder of popular culture’s richness and influence in this field.

After lunch, and probably with some nervousness, Sacha Claire Christie took the podium to speak about her personal experience of high strangeness. She was a member of a party of six in a Welsh holiday cottage who witnessed strange lights approaching close to the ground. She described a curious lack of fear amongst the witnesses during these events, and dreamlike, out-of-character behaviour – such as a sudden desire to do the washing-up. Christie decided to venture outside alone. Watching the lights some more, something ran up behind her and delivered a blow to her back. Her response was to run in panic – ‘I went blind with terror,’ was how she put it.

Since her experience, she has suffered from severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress. She also continues to witness odd occurrences, including bruises and inexplicable injuries that appear overnight, and peculiar objects in the sky. She has numerous photographs of these, two of which she shared with the conference. One was an indeterminate, but seemingly solid blob in the sky. The other resembled a curious distortion of the light on a sunny day. But the fact that both were amenable to photography suggests that something was indeed there to be seen.

Christie spoke on the damaging impact of the experience upon her, and upon the lives of others in the cottage, sadly one of whom has been driven to take his own life. Despite seeking assistance from various quarters, she has been unsatisfied by the responses. ‘What is a dream; what is sleep-paralysis?’ she asked, highlighting her view that sceptics and ‘believers’ alike lack a terminology to address the fundamental reality behind such experiences.

I felt that her talk was received with much interest and sympathy. Like others, I wished I could help – but what help can anyone give? Her contribution was a vital reminder that explanations (no matter their accuracy) come from the realm of ideas, and may offer little meaning or comfort to someone whose involvement is a traumatic experience. I was struck by the similarity of a ‘close encounter’ to a religious experience: neither conform to the ordinary categories of ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’. Although mystical traditions offer alternative registers for processing other-worldly experiences, these may not be attractive or meaningful to someone plunged into strangeness against their will.

In complete contrast, Trystan Swale spoke next on ‘Crop Circles: a Ufological Footnote’. As a crop-circle insider (in his own words, ‘as someone who may have spent a night in a field’) Swale led us down the tram-lines of the rational, taking gleeful side-swipes at the absurdity of the view that crop-circles are made by aliens, rather than by people with wooden boards and ropes.

The idea that ET is still at work in the wheat is not entirely dead, although it has been forced to morph slightly – into the idea, for instance, that human-made circles nevertheless attract aliens; or that the aliens inspire the circle-makers. However, the truly interesting intersection between circle-making and ufology, Swale suggested, is likely to lie in the Vale of Pewsey, a crop-circle hotspot where there have been numerous sightings of anomalous lights, some of them by the circle-makers themselves whilst going about their business. (Swale didn’t say as much himself, but the implication seemed to be that the Pewsey sightings might lead us into the domain of so-called ‘earth-lights’ rather than ET.)

The Vale of Pewsey

The Vale of Pewsey, looking suitably moody and mysterious.

Kevin Goodman was up next, speaking (in a nostalgic mode at times, due to his own involvement) on the history of the ufological scene in and around Warminster. He seemed pretty tolerant of the view that the Warminster flap, with Arthur Shuttlewood at its centre, was mostly a self-perpetuating exercise in stimulating tourism.

In the 1950s, Goodman suggested, the Clean Air Act had enabled a new generation to see the sky more vividly than before, coinciding with a dramatic increase in aviation traffic. Meanwhile, the MOD was busy exercising upon land around Warminster, producing lights and sounds ripe for misattribution. In the 1960s, the younger generation was raising its consciousness, rejecting orthodox religion, and looking skywards for inspiration. Goodman himself joined them during the 1970s, but had to balance these factors debunking the flap against two dramatic sightings of his own: one involving four red lights performing outrageous manoeuvres; the other, a silver cigar-shaped object which, despite multiple witnesses, refused to appear on film.

The flap itself began to die down as early as 1976, and the death of Shuttlewood in 1996 seemed to have relegated Warminster to the footnotes of ufology, but Goodman, I sensed, perhaps wasn’t totally convinced by his own observation that the Warminster scene is probably approaching its inevitable end.

I felt that the psycho-social perspective was under-represented at the conference. Cal Cooper, a parapsychologist, stepped up next and took us some way in this direction, but could have gone further, perhaps, if he hadn’t been re-purposing a talk mainly on ghosts for his ufological audience. Cooper’s area of research is anomalous phone calls (‘phone calls from the dead’ in more populist parlance), of which he has collected many cases.

Cooper described how the phenomenon of speaking via instrumentation with the dead occurs universally, regardless of religious beliefs, although belief certainly affects interpretation of the experience. In contrast to apparitions, anomalous phone calls more commonly involve the dead than the living. Cooper also insightfully observed that in dreams, it is more common to talk on the phone with a dead person than face-to-face.

Ufology and psychical research are linked, he suggested – most obviously in high strangeness cases, where anomalous phone calls can provide the (literal) connection between them. There are numerous reports from witnesses claiming to have been phoned by ‘aliens’. Even more common are strange, electronic voices warning witnesses not to discuss sightings: ufologists such as Gray Barker, John Keel and Brad Steiger are seminal in this regard. Sometimes, the voices themselves self-identify as alien; it’s not widely known that the famous ‘Philip’ experiment shifted focus from poltergeists to aliens, when Philip himself began to claim extraterrestrial origins.

E.T. phoning home

Ever wondered why the telephone is E.T.’s preferred mode of communication?

Cooper’s talk called for a recognition of psi in the phenomena of ufology. ‘Is a haunted house still haunted when no one is at home?’ Cooper asked. Because there are no ghosts without human beings experiencing phenomena as ghosts, then psi is always a factor – these experiences come from our propensity to have such experiences, and this applies to ufology just as much as it applies to psychical research.

John Wickham of BUFORA spoke next on ‘UFOs Throughout History’. I wasn’t terribly impressed by the use of historical images and artefacts. Just because a figurine resembles a spaceman for us, that’s no proof it resembled anything remotely similar for the culture concerned. And I don’t know much about Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, but I know enough to be pretty sure that ‘hieroglyph which looks like a helicopter’ probably didn’t signify ‘helicopter’, or even ‘thing which looks like a helicopter’. Equally, medieval depictions of the annunciation or the baptism of Christ, with aerial lights and beams from the sky, may hint to us at UFO encounters, but that isn’t necessarily what they represented in their original context – which is what needs to be explored in detail by anyone wishing to pursue this type of argument.

The rest of Wickham’s talk was a pleasant meander through figures and cases from the history of mainstream ufology, although I was most interested by the conclusion to BUFORA’s most recent investigation: those strange lights filmed in Pitlochry turned out to be a spotlight on top of forestry equipment!

This marked the end of the individual presentations. Conference organiser Robert Moore, as a prelude to the panel discussion that followed, set out his case for ufology being in decline. He singled out exopolitics in particular, a field that takes the existence and nature of UFOs as given, even whilst the number of sightings and the quality of research into them continue to wane. He also highlighted the impact of the internet upon ufology. By making promulgation of images and information easier, it allows a detrimental bypassing of ufological organisations and their expertise. Widespread availability and advances in digital photography, and in image manipulation software, have also not served ufology well.

The panel discussion was lively, and more than adequately supplied with penetrating questions from the audience, but – to be honest – there were no great surprises in the speakers’ responses. The closer their allegiance to mainstream ufology, the less willing they seemed to countenance ufology’s demise. But I seemed to detect a slight consensus that the dominant trend, at present, is downward, and that this must be reversed for ufology to survive in the longer term. What form this rescue will take, and whether it can be relied upon, seems – for the time being – a matter of faith.