28.10.14

EXPLORING THE PARANORMAL

Christopher C. French and Anna Stone. Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Christopher French defines anomalistic psychology as “attempts to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known (or knowable) psychological and physical factors ... without assuming there is anything paranormal involved” [p1]. In this book French and Stone examine the various psychological, biological, and social forces which help generate anomalous experiences and paranormal beliefs. They examine possible social and personality differences which separate believers and sceptics, the role of various psychological states such as fantasy proneness, temporal lobe activity, sub clinical psychiatric conditions, REM intrusions, perceptual errors, false memory etc.

The coverage is wide ranging and is centred on literature surveys, both specialist and lay, and clearly most of the factors involved are included somewhere. If there is a problem in this approach it is that the emphasis lies heavily on the individual rather than society and contains within itself some inbuilt cultural biases. The sections 'individual differences', 'clinical perspectives', 'developmental perspectives', 'cognitive perspectives', 'social perspectives' and 'evolutionary perspectives' strike me as being in something of a reverse order, given that 'anomalistic experiences' and 'paranormal beliefs' are human universals and as such must possess survival value. By ordering in the way that they do the authors seem to suggest that there is something pathological or at least quasi-pathological about paranormal beliefs, either due to individual psycho-pathology or to “the persistence of magical thinking” etc. One might read much of this book without being aware of the fact that there are places in this world where refusal to believe in the 'paranormal' can lead to you being killed, and in many more to forms of social ostracism.
 
Now to be fair I don’t think that French and Stone really do take that reductive view, this is after all a survey of a wide range of thinking and studies and contains much valuable background material. There is a useful integration of the various approaches in the study of alien abduction stories and a very fair summing up of the equivocal evidence for psi in the last chapter, where both sides are allowed their say. This gives a real picture of just how complex to question of psi really is. I think the authors are too sanguine about the possibility of some sort of decisive experiment, and certainly wrong in the assumption that if someone having an out of the body experience could detect numbers on a hidden board it would provide evidence that consciousness could leave the body. Given that no-one ever reports seeing detached eyes flying around the place, information on such numbers could not be acquired by sight, but must have been acquired by some other process that would not necessarily involve something being present in the vicinity of the numbers.
 
This is clearly a book aimed at the student and academic rather than the casual reader but, despite my caveats, it is, I think, fairly essential reading for the serious student of anomalistic psychology and parapsychology. -- Peter Rogerson


24.10.14

MISSING THE SPIRIT

Jonathan Barry. Raising Spirits: How a Conjuror’s Tale was Transmitted Across the Enlightenment. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

In about 1690 Thomas Perks, a blacksmith and/or gunsmith of the village of Mangotsfield in Gloucestershire, with an interest in mathematics and astronomy, tried to summon up spirits using one of the primaries popular at the time. According to his acquaintance Rev Arthur Bedford, the Vicar of Temple Perks was so traumatised by what he experienced that his health gave way and he died a couple of years later.Various versions of this story were produced and printed and Barry’s stated intention is to track its transmutations at least up to 1892 as it was used and misused by people with differing agendas, evangelicals warning of the dangers of trafficking with the dark forces, spiritualists looking for precedents and rationalists seeing it as an example of primitive superstition.
 
A number of interesting characters got involved, the ghost story compiler T[homas?] Otway (sometimes called T. Charley), the Anglo-Catholic polemicist and supernaturalist Frederick George Lee, the spiritualist William Howitt, the ultra-rationalist Henry Maudsley and the ghost hunter Elliott O’Donnell.
 
This could have been an excellent opportunity to track the transmutations of a text down the centuries, but what surely would essential for such a task, the reproduction in full of each version in chronological order is not attempted. The original text is reproduced in a not easy to read line by line version, but there are just general commentaries on the other versions. One problem is that just too much potentially interesting material is compressed into too short a space, something not helped by devoting a page of each chapter to abstract and key words, as though they were separate papers. Altogether something of a missed opportunity. - Peter Rogerson


22.10.14

IN THE UFOSPHERE


Richard Dolan. UFOs for the 21st Century Mind: A Fresh Guide to an Ancient Mystery. Richard Dolan Press, 2014.
 
The title of this book would suggest that either the author is going to come up with some radical new approach or that it will contain large numbers of new and impressive 21st century UFO cases. It does neither, rather it is just another potted history of largely US ufology, with many of the same old stories that we have read countless times before. As seems standard with US UFO books the ETH or some variation thereon is taken for granted as is belief in the grand cover-up. Large portions of the text are taken up with speculation as to what might happen when “the government” “discloses” “the truth” about UFOs (i.e. they tell Dolan and like ufologists what they want to hear). Far from the panic and general mayhem that Dolan imagines, I would suspect most people would just assume it was some sort of stunt to take peoples’ minds off government failures.
 
Dolan is quite critical of America’s main UFO organisations, which are now all but moribund. According to Dolan his is not, as you might imagine, because these groups became infested with abductees, contactees, crashed flying saucer proponents, promoters of faked photographs, New-Agers and general wafflers, but rather because they were all infiltrated by “intelligence agents”, a term now extended to include anyone who was ever drafted into the US military, such as the late Richard Hall (a member of that well known CIA front organisation the American Civil Liberties Union). Given that world view it is not surprising to learn that Dolan thinks 9/11 was an inside job.
 
It seems reasonable to assume that the reason that proponents of the ETH do not present new very well researched and still puzzling cases, rather than engage in all this speculation and conspiracy theory is that such material does not exist and they know it.
 
At least, whether you agree with him or not Dolan can express himself clearly and is a literate writer, something that is certainly not always the case in these subjects.
 

 
Nigel Mortimer. UFOs, Portals and Gateways. Wisdom Books, 2013
 
Ilkley Moor is probably best known for the song On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at but according to Yorkshire ufologist and earth mysteries researcher Nigel Mortimer it is one of at least three areas in Yorkshire, the others being Judy Woods near Bradford and Castlebeg in Settle, which are portals to another dimension.
 
In my young day such areas were known as flap areas, then John Keel popularised the term window area, now, thanks to cinema and TV the name portal seems to taking over as the description of places where people experience all sorts of spooky and anomalous things. Explanations of this differ, Nigel Mortimer takes the word literally and assumes these are places where inter-dimensional break through; others will look for explanations either in terms of environmental or psychosocial factors.
 
It is hard to know whether such areas really do generate more anomalous experiences than others, or whether the interest of a particular researcher generates more stories. Perhaps if Nigel Mortimer had given a comprehensive account of experiences in these places we might be better able to judge, but like so many self or semi-self-published books, this one lacks discipline and jumps all over the place, spending pages on the Bible, Annunaki, New Age speculation and the like. -- Peter Rogerson
 

19.10.14

STRANGE TALES

Robert Damon Schneck, Mrs Wakeman vs. the Antichrist. Tarcher Penguin, 2014.

Here are eleven essays on bizarre phenomena in American history, from a murderous cult in the mid-nineteenth century to the phantom clown panics at the end of the twentieth.

The longest piece is the account of Ira Wakeman. In a coma after being beaten nearly to death by her drunken husband in 1825 she had a vision of Christ accompanied by angels. As a result she began to preach a curious gospel which, as well as conventional Biblical precepts, taught that she was a messenger sent by God to save the world and bestowed with supreme earthly power. She also developed the idea of the Antichrist as 'the man of sin' who could move from one body to another. It would seem that to become 'the man of sin' all that was required was to disagree with Ira. Unfortunately this would mean that you would need to be exorcised, which in extreme circumstances meant having your head cut off.

There were other ways of having your head cut off, and if you believe that if you want a job doing properly you should do it yourself, and follow the example of Mr Moon of Lafayette, Indiana. Inspired by America's great tradition of inventive ingenuity he devised an autodecapitation machine, which he satisfactorily demonstrated in room 41 of the Lahr House Hotel in that city. The chambermaid who discovered the result of this grisly experiment seems to have been a lady of remarkable fortitude. Despite this happening in 1876, she was still working at the hotel in 1915!

Most of the other adventures described here are of a more Fortean nature, including possibly one of the most sensible and level-headed stigmatics ever, Cloretta Robertson, a ten year old black girl living in Oakland, CA., who began bleeding from the palm of her left hand just before Easter, 1972. This seemed to have followed on from watching a TV film of the Passions of Christ. Unusually for a stigmatic Cloretta was not a Roman Catholic but, with her family, a member of a local mainstream evangelical, mainly African-American, Baptist church.

Also unusually she and her family were quite happy for her to be examined by doctors and psychiatrists at local medical facilities and universities. They all came to a remarkable conclusion: Cloretta seems to have been one of the most unassuming, pleasant and completely normal young ladies they had ever met!

Her stigmata reappeared annually over the Easter period for several years, and she became something of a personality at her local church, but eventually they just stopped happening and Cloretta disappeared into the everyday world of lower-middle-class American suburbia. A phenomenon all the more remarkable for being so unremarkable!

'Wild Men' were a feature of many 19th and early 20th century American travelling carnival shows and circuses. They were often impoverished young black men, or vagrants, who were dressed in animal skins and roamed about in cages for the entertainment – although the showmen claimed it was education – of the punters. In some cases, as is recorded here, the 'bestial' nature of the wild men was emphasised by them having a metal plate implanted into their head, onto which would be fitted a pair of animal horns. These degrading exhibitions have been the subject of a more contemporary controversy when an attempt to recreate one was closed down by groups of protesters, despite the actors involved themselves defending it as a vivid portrayal of racism: LINK

Another kind of 'wildman' appears in 'The Secret of Ape Canyon', a tale story from 1924, where a group of mystically-inclined gold prospectors described being attacked by sasquatch-type creatures as they attempted to uncover the location of a 'lost gold-mine' in the vicinity of Mt. St Helens in the American north-west. Author Robert Schneck points out the similarities between this Spiritualist-led quest and more traditional forms of mystical treasure hunting, such as are described in Johannes Dillinger's book Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America, reviewed HERE.

Other chapters in this fascinating anthology deal with rumours of sinister clowns attempting to abduct children, and linking them to stories of nineteenth-century 'Night Doctors' allegedly abducting people for medical experiments; the ouija board craze that brought panic to the civic authorities of El Cerrito in California; how a small West Virginia town was haunted by a clothes-snipping poltergeist; Jeanne Dixon's White House years; and the historical popularity of vampirism in Kansas City.

Altogether a fascinating and entertainingly presented collection of Fortean weirdness, which I highly recommend. – John Rimmer.


16.10.14

FAILING TO EXPLAIN

Robert Salas. Unidentified. The UFO Phenomenon: How World Governments Have Conspired to Conceal Humanity's Biggest Secret. New Page Books, 2014.
 
Robert Salas can hardly be said to be open to argument on the subject of UFOs, as in his preface to this book he states that there are two things that he knows for certain about the UFO phenomenon. These are that we are being visited by "real objects of unearthly origin", and that alien abductions are also real. A theme which runs through the book is the usual tired old one that world governments are aware of the facts about UFOs but somehow manage to keep them secret.
 
His experience allegedly involving UFOs occurred when he was a crew commander at the Malmstrom nucear missile site. He recalls an incident where he was on duty when he received reports of strange lights in the sky, followed by all of the missiles becoming disabled. But just turn the page and you read: ". . . when I initially tried to recall the incident of that night, I struggled remembering some of the details. It had been nearly 30 years and there were a lot of other memories in between". As well as this one, there are a number of similar stories to be found on the Internet, and they are the subject of ferocious arguments and slanging matches between believers and sceptics.

Salas gives us his opinions on alien abductions, which he regards as being real. He does not even mention the views of those who believe that abduction stories are best investigated by psychologists and sociologists, rather than by enthusiastic amateurs who believe them to be actual physical events. So, like many others, he apparently sees no problem about aliens gliding through walls and never being captured.

He claims to have been abducted himself in 1985, the experience occurring when he and his wife were asleep in their home and he was awakened by a mysterious blue light coming from the living room. He says that he tried to get out of bed but found himself paralysed. Mysterious figures appeared and floated him through the window, and he received similar treatment from the aliens as that described by other abductees. Of course, there is no good reason to believe that this was anything other than a dream.


A chapter is devoted to giving a brief history of nuclear weapons and nuclear power stations, which hardly seems relevant to ufology. This chapter also contains a list of alleged UFO incidents at installations with nuclear weapons, though of course there is no mention of the fact that at least some of them have been satisfactorily explained.


Salas thus follows the usual procedure of dealing with mundane explanations for UFO reports by simply ignoring them. He does not refer to sceptical or scholarly writings on the subject, but prefers the work of authors such as Carey and Schmitt, Frank Feschino, Stanton Friedman (who wrote this book's foreword), Timothy Good, Robert Hastings, and Budd Hopkins. It is only fair to note, though, that there are perhaps limits to his credulity, as the sheer absurdity and implausibility of alleged details of the notorious Bentwaters case are too much even for him, as he concludes that it is "an enigma of partial truths and conflicted facts". -- John Harney


14.10.14

FIRST READ: THE COMING OF THE SAUCERS

Gerald Heard. The Riddle of the Flying Saucers: Is Another World Watching? Carroll and Nicholson, 1950.

Desmond Leslie and George Adamski. Flying Saucers Have Landed. Werner Laurie, 1953.

At the start of my third year at Urmston Grammar School for Boys, I met my first actual ufologist, the parent of one of my fellow pupils. He came to give a lecture on flying saucers, which mainly consisted of slides of George Adamski’s faked flying saucer photographs, and if I remember rightly, a fragment of the Madeleine Rodeffer film. There were also pictures of 'Cedric Allingham’s' flying saucers. All of these contactee tales were presented with a straight face, and to be honest that sort of thing would have been typical of the British ufology of the period. It would not be too unkind to suggest that most of it was quiet brain dead.
 
GERALD HEARD
One outcome of this talk was that I was able to borrow the two books above from the speaker via his son. They were both the products of the marketing skills of Waveney Girvan, who was to go on to publish and then edit Flying Saucer Review. Heard’s was the first hardback UFO book, though I suspect that Heard, a writer on religious and social topics, knew very little about the subject and had taken the commission as a quick way of earning cash. Much of the content was probably supplied by Girvan, and Heard’s own contribution was the suggested that the flying saucers were piloted by Martian bees. The main contents were, I suspected, largely lifted from Donald Keyhoe.
 
But at least this was still just about 'sensible ufology'. Desmond Leslie’s contribution was altogether weirder, being a collection of historical accounts which might suggest flying saucers, some more or less recent newspaper clippings, early ancient astronauts speculation and dollops of theosophy. Desmond Leslie was the son of Sir Shane Leslie (a maternal cousin of Sir Winston Churchill) who had become a convert to Roman Catholicism and Irish home rule. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, Desmond Leslie rebelled against his strict Catholic schooling, and ended up becoming involved in occultism. I imagine that Girvan thought that this book would appeal to a more traditional occult minded group of people than the more 'technical' books on the subject.


I doubt that Leslie's contribution would have achieved anything like its British success without the added material by George Adamski and his amazing tale of meeting the space brothers, and his iconic photographs, which for years to come were the folk image of flying saucers. Adamski’s images soon moved beyond the world of ufology into general culture. I remember as a very small child being given a haircut in Lewis’s Department Store, Manchester, while sitting in a model flying saucer.
 
Adamski’s vision of peace loving, white, nearly Anglo-Saxon Venusians was a reassuring one. If there were aliens they were not all that alien, and not the unseen and rather menacing Martians of Donald Keyhoe’s books. Their space brother message was taken from the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, but without that menacing robot. In the dark post war, nuclear threatened, age they were reassuring figures, like the Cottingley fairies in the post First World War period. They also held out the promise of what today we would call 'green energy', modernity without menace, and a contrast to the polluted, smoke drenched cities of the industrial revolution, and the austere grey Britain of the immediate post-WWII era.
 
Looking at the covers of these two books, allows us to see how Adamski’s flying saucers replaced a previous vision, that of the Trent photographs. Perhaps we should now think of all the various 'flying saucer photographs' less as fakes than works of folk art, in which people sought to give a public concrete expression of images of the other, either reassuring or menacing.
 
The success of Leslie and Adamski’s book in the UK (as opposed to the USA, where it was published by an obscure import house) reflects how much Britain in the 1950s was an essentially pre-technological society, one in which the vast majority of people were scientifically illiterate. One in which the classics and humanities were seen as the basis of a 'sound education'.  -- Peter Rogerson.
 

9.10.14

AMERICAN MONSTERS

Linda S. Godfrey. American Monsters. Tarcher Penguin, 2014.

Cryptozoology is the starting point for many a budding Fortean. If one is British then by far and away the most well-known and written-about cryptid has to be the Loch Ness Monster. If one hails from the United States, it is probably Bigfoot and the news surrounding it that receives the most attention in the popular media, and therefore by default, almost certainly first catches the imagination. Strange beasts with distinctions from the usual fauna have been reported and noted ever since the human race has scratched upon cave walls. They have been with us throughout time, and are still appearing to us to this very day.

American Monsters is an overview of these unknown and unclassifiable creatures that have been reported as being seen in the USA. The lifeforms described are, on the whole, mainly animal-like in their outward appearance, although there are brief forays to examine humanoid beings that are strongly associated with UFOs and USOs as well. The volume’s chapters are divided up into three helpful main sections, Monsters by Air, Sea and Land. The monsters of the title are from all corners of the crypto-zoo, as it were. There certainly seem to be many, many sightings included herein. Things that fly, things that swim and, most distressingly, things that lurk in the lost and lonely places; all have been seen and noted by someone and the accounts have made it here to this tome.

Linda S Godfrey is no stranger to cryptids. She has amassed occurrences of odd yet apparently-living things from her native USA for our consideration. She cut her odd-creature teeth on the Beast of Bray Road (a creature with bear- or wolf-like and human attributes) whilst employed by a local newspaper. It corresponded to the popular folk-figure of the werewolf, except no sightings of it transforming from a human into the figure subsequently seen were reported. Since then she has specialised in unusual creatures and this is her sixteenth book.

The style of the work is quite approachable. There is an easy, almost chatty, style that attracts the reader. What with that and the clear-cut division, mentioned earlier, of land, air and sea early on, finding something of specific interest is simple from the outset. One does not have to have any previous knowledge of this field in order to read it. She does speculate now and then upon what may be behind the apparitions, but this theorising does not overwhelm the recording of the sightings which is, to my mind at least, the main strength of the text. A whole book’s worth of odd creature sightings in one place can be a convenient and a useful thing to have, even if one’s interests are not predominantly those of the appearances of odd lifeform sightings. Putting the USA's (and some bleeding over the borders) cryptid strangeness in one volume is handiness indeed.

This, then, is a book that is most certainly of use to the novice cryptozoologist, due to its approachable style and groupings, and it is probable that even some more experienced investigators will find something previously unknown to themselves here as well. It handily has notes and an index, therefore making it more useful to serious student of the unknown. -- Trevor Pyne


7.10.14

NORTHERN ECHOES: DOWNSIZING


On Monday 22nd September I had the pleasure of meeting Clas Svahn (right, below), his son Niklas (left) and colleague Carl-Anton Mattsson from the Archives for the Unexplained in Norrkoping, Sweden.
 
 
They came to collect the second tranche of my vast Fortean library and Clas estimates there were about 3,500 volumes in all, which they fitted into about 150 boxes.
 
 
They cover much of my collection on parapsychology, as well as a great variety of material on a very wide range of Fortean and related topics. These include many of the books reviewed over the years in Magonia, in print and on line. Another major feature of the collection is the vast collection of books on the Kennedy assassination and related conspiracy theories that I inherited from our friend and colleague the late Roger Sandell, and which I have added to from time to time.
 
 
Their trip was uneventful and the day was fine and sunny (a contrast to the apocalyptic thunderstorms in London), despite a last minute panic on my part when I realised that the day they were coming down coincided with the start of the Labour Party conference in Manchester.

The trip up to Urmston was just part of a longer AFU collecting expedition to England , details of which can be found in Clas Svahn’s blog:  http://www.ufo.se/csblogg3/30447. (go to each side bar), well worth the effort of cutting and pasting into Google translate.
 
AFU is by far the most comprehensive specialist archive and library of paranormal topics in the world, ranging from the most abstruse academic tomes to popular paperbacks and children’s works, and it will be of immense value not just to paranormalists and Forteans but to folklorists and to social and cultural historians. Anyone with a collection or library dealing with any of the topics you are likely to find in Magonia, Fortean Times, the old pre-Llewellyn Fate, SPR Journal etc. etc and wants to ensure a safe home should consider donating. Details of AFU can be found here http://www.afu.se/afu2/

 
It comes as something of a shock to realise that it is 45 years since my first, naïve teenage letter was published in the old Merseyside UFO Bulletin. Like my first article in the now forgotten DIGAP Review, this showed how much I was then under the influence of John Keel. Keel’s articles in FSR changed my perception of the subject and made me realise how complex the whole thing was.
 
However my reading of Keel soon abandoned any fundamentalist interpretation. To be it was clear that Keel’s “elementals” were not to be thought of as literal boggarts, that’s the way down to Gordon Creighton levels of paranoia, but rather were metaphors for mind forged manacles, and that was the take John Harney and John Rimmer had on it as well.
 
My reading of Keel is that he was essentially a gnostic, he saw humankind trapped in a veil of maya or illusion, but this world of illusion should not be thought of as the physical world of rocks and oceans, or skyscrapers, but rather the intellectual world. Everything we believe in is a product of the human imagination, perception and memory, not just the petty beliefs of ufologists, but the big stuff; the entire world’s religions, ideologies, belief systems, institutions, cultures. Not just traditional gods and demons, but the modern secular stuff as well; political ideologies, economics, money, nation states, kings, presidents and emperors; and no doubt he would have said science, reason and even Forteanism!
 
Keel’s vision is that our tragedy is that we have 'forgotten' that we have made the whole thing up, that we are trapped by and worship (even kill and die for) the phantasms of our imagination. The great temptation is to believe that this stuff is as real as rocks, and it is certainly possible that Keel himself, particularly when serious depressed, forgot we had made it all up and at times at least half-believed in the boggarts himself.
 
Mothman Prophecies is, I think, the best of Keel’s work, in that it uses local folklore to create a vision of failed communication; the fall of the Silver Bridge becomes a metaphor for failures of communication, the TNT zone is the deepest and darkest wilderness, and surely Mothman itself is the “wicked bird of prey” preying on breadcrumb sins as in Dylan’s Gates of Eden.
 
One area where Keel has been vindicated is that to understand anomalous experiences you have to know the whole life history of the percipients, not just their other anomalous experiences. Many of these experiences are probably metaphors for crises and other aspects of their lives, and the life of the communities in which they live.
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