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.

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Poltergeist Acoustics

In 2010, the Journal for the Society of Psychical Research published ‘The Acoustic Properties of
Unexplained Rapping Sounds’ by Barrie Colvin, which advanced the theory that rapping sounds produced by (alleged) poltergeists have acoustic properties different from those produced by regular means. In brief, Colvin suggested that whereas normal knocks start at their maximum volume and decrease, poltergeist knocks build up to their crescendo.

The unexplained rapping effects described in this study […] appear to involve the relatively slow build-up of a stress within a material, culminating in an audible sound when the level of stress reaches a specific magnitude.

Here are some examples:

Wave form begins at max volume and tapers off quickly

Knocking with knuckles upon wood, with the microphone close by, produces a wave that begins at its maximum volume.

Poltergeist knock - rises to crescendo.

A poltergeist knock from a case in Schleswig, Germany (1968).

Colvin addresses in his paper the inevitable objections concerning the reliability of his ‘poltergeist’ samples, and acknowledges that further work remains in order to support his hypothesis.

Recently, Chairman of the Ghost Club, Alan Murdie, highlighted Colvin’s work as possibly the first instrumental (rather than anecdotal) evidence for the existence of poltergeists [1].

As audio analysis software [2] is freely available these days, I decided to investigate Colvin’s hypothesis for myself.

The first thing I discovered is that good quality recordings of alleged poltergeists are extremely hard to find. I had imagined the main difficulty would lie in distinguishing ‘poltergeists’ from sounds that are hoaxed or have other natural causes. Recordings offered on YouTube and on the websites of paranormal groups were either obvious fakes, or else too faint or poor-quality to allow detailed analysis of their sound wave properties.

My search turned up only one usable recording that wasn’t included already in Colvin’s study. This was a YouTube clip featuring unexplained knocking sounds recorded by paranormal investigators at Borley church [3]. I took a sample from the clip, and was intrigued to discover that its soundwave properties agreed with Colvin’s hypothesis.

Borley church knock sound wave - rises to crescendo

A knock taken from a recording made by investigators at Borley church.

But the second thing I discovered was that although Colvin was unable to replicate the ‘poltergeist’ wave form by natural means, other researches have, in the meantime, enjoyed far more success. One of these is Maurice Townsend, who accomplished the ‘poltergeist’ waveform in a variety of ways – for example, by pushing an object rather than by striking it; or by recording noises that sound like knocks, but are actually sharp creaks [4].

C.J. Romer [5] has also worked out how to replicate ‘poltergeist’ knocks by natural means. He suggests it requires nothing more complicated than positioning the microphone at a distance from the source of the sound, or by placing the microphone inside a room and then knocking on the wall from outside. In the first case, the effect might be explained by the way sound waves move within a confined space, bouncing from surrounding walls and arriving at the microphone at slightly different times, thus creating the effect of a ‘gradual build’. The closer the microphone to its sound source, the less apparent this effect.

In the second case, sound is passing through two mediums before it reaches the microphone: firstly, the solid wall; and then the air inside the room. This, too, seems to have an attenuating effect on the waveform produced by the recording.

So – case closed? Not quite! Romer presented 12 waveform samples on his website, four of which (obtained from Colvin himself) were allegedly ‘poltergeists’. Romer professed himself unable to take the difference. However, when I took the test myself, I was surprised to have identified three out of four, the fourth being a sample I’d narrowly rejected.

I wasn’t selecting at random. I’d noticed that the ‘poltergeist’ samples had a simplicity in their waveform that the non-spooky samples lacked. The amplitude of the non-spooky samples seemed to oscillate in a more complex fashion than the ‘poltergeist’ samples.

To show what I mean, I’ve coloured the lower and upper part of the sound waves differently. In the ‘poltergeist’ sample the transitions between red and green are more regular and equal (‘tit for tat’), whereas in the non-spooky samples, one of the colours dominates for a while, with the other in a minor role, before the roles reverse (‘yin and yang’).

Wave form rises to a crescendo and demonstrates symmetrical pattern in its amplitude

An allegedly paranormal knock, recorded at Borley church, shows a symmetrical pattern in its amplitude.

Wave form builds to a crescendo -- has asymmetrical amplitude.

The wall of the room and a wardrobe are between me, knocking, and the microphone.

Was I really onto something? Or was I projecting patterns onto something insignificant? One of the difficulties with the hypothesis is the lack of examples to work with. And even where examples can be found, we cannot be absolutely certain they aren’t natural or hoaxed.

Colvin had taken some of his samples from a commercially available CD of paranormal recordings [6]. It was only after I’d purchased my own copy that I was in a position to conclude the feature I thought I’d identified probably isn’t significant. The samples from the CD simply didn’t display the symmetry that had been apparent in Romer’s samples.

See if you can work out which of the following three sound waves are ‘poltergeist’ and which are natural. Answers are in the footnotes [7].

sample 1

Sample 1.

sample 2

Sample 2.

sample 3

Sample 3.

I’ve written to Romer and have asked him for more details concerning his samples. I haven’t heard from him yet, but for now I would guess that all four samples might come from the same case. The ‘symmetry’ I thought I’d found would (if that’s true) be simply a feature of the acoustical environment where the recordings were made.

There is nothing paranormal about sound waves – although that doesn’t mean there cannot be a paranormal cause for sound waves. However, this remains to be demonstrated. And having undertaken the exercise I’ve described here, I’m far from confident that Colvin’s hypothesis will lead to the ‘instrumental evidence’ that Murdie suggested. To claim that we could identify a poltergeist from how it sounds is surely as problematic as the claim that we might recognise a ‘ghost’ from how it looks. Few people, these days, would be willing to hold up an alleged photograph of a ghost as ‘instrumental evidence’ for their existence. If the paranormal can be said to lie anywhere, then it must be in the cause of these supposed manifestations, rather than in those manifestations on their own account.

To take Colvin’s hypothesis forward, we would need to establish a causal link between the poltergeist and its knocking sounds. Then we could introduce variables into the recording procedure – such as different positionings of the microphone – to explore the effect on the sound waves produced. Two possibilities come to mind: the first is the establishment of long-term sitting groups, with the explicit aim of producing poltergeist phenomena under controlled conditions (like that described in Owen & Sparrow’s Conjuring Up Philip). The second is that future investigators of spontaneous cases should simply go in prepared and forearmed with knowledge of Colvin’s work, and – please – put the microphone as close to the sound source as possible!

Notes

[1] Alan Murdie, talk given at the London Ghosts Conference, held by the London Fortean Society at Bishopsgate Institute (October 3rd, 2012).

[2] I used Audacity, an open source program that can be downloaded for free.

[3] The Ghost Hunters, a BBC documentary made in 1975.

[4] Maurice Townsend, ‘Haunting Sounds’ (2012).

[5] C.J. Romer, ‘Knocking away the poltergeist evidence? A follow up on Dr. Colvin’s JSPR paper’ (September 6th, 2010).

[6] Okkulte Stimmen – Mediale Musik: Recordings of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007, 3-CD box set (Berlin: supposé).

[7] Sample 1 is allegedly paranormal, from a case in Pusruck, Germany (1971). Sample 2 is me, knocking on the outside wall of a room. Sample 3 is allegedly paranormal, from a case in Thun, Switzerland (1967).