Straw Ghosts

Nicholas Humphrey

  • This house is haunted: An Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist by Guy Lyon Playfair
    Souvenir, 288 pp, £6.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 285 62443 1
  • Science and the Supernatural by John Taylor
    Temple Smith, 180 pp, £7.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 85117 191 5

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge I used sometimes to have tea with the philosopher C.D. Broad, and we would talk about ghosts. Professor Broad lived in Newton’s rooms in Trinity, and his favourite spot for talking and for tea was an armchair placed beside the window where in 1665 Newton caught a beam of sunlight in the prism he had bought at Stourbridge fair and spread it like a rainbow on the floor. Seated in this chair one afternoon Broad told me of his fears that the spirit world in the mid-20th century was losing all its colour. Not that spirits as such had finally gone to rest – new reports of hauntings, poltergeists and so on reached him every day – but it seemed that these modern spirits no longer cut the dash they used to do. Their activities were becoming – dare he say it? – increasingly vulgar. Only the previous day he had heard of a poltergeist which was shifting caravans around a holiday camp near Great Yarmouth. If this trend continued, Banquo would soon be advertising tartans on the television and Hamlet’s father taking coach-parties round Elsinore. The old philosopher’s face fell as he contemplated the disagreeable prospect, and I understood only too well why he had concluded his celebrated Lectures on Psychical Research: ‘For my own part I should be more annoyed than surprised if I should find myself in some sense persisting immediately after the death of my present body.’ I do hope he is not now passing his post-mortem retirement in the great caravan site in the sky.

But the evidence, in so far as it continues to reach us from the other side, is not encouraging. In fact – if evidence it is – Mr Playfair’s account of the goings-on in an Enfield council house in 1977 suggests that the decline in standards which Broad detected twenty years ago has now become a rout. This is not a book for sensitive souls, nor is it a book about them.

The objection is not to the premises as such. Wood Lane. Enfield, Middlesex is probably a perfectly respectable locality. The fact that the ghost is not the owner-occupier, regrettable as it may be, is nothing new; and if a ghost chooses io be semi-detached, then that – as any student of structuralism will realise has a certain logical consistency to it. But with ghosts as with people, it is not where you are but what you are which matters: and what the Enfield poltergeist is, is distinctly not nice.

Ghosts have of course a reputation for being horrible (even most horrible at times), but they have surely never before been so manifestly uncultivated, pettyfogging or cheap. In the old days a ghost might be expected to give itself a proper introduction – ‘I am the ghost of Christmas past’ – but now in December 1977 the Enfield ghost shouts through the wall: ‘I come from Durants Park, I am 72 years old ... Shut the fucking door ... I want some jazz music, now go and get me some, else I’ll go barmy.’ In the old days spiritual graffiti-writing was an art – ‘Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin’ written in letters of fire on the wall of the banqueting chamber – but now in Enfield the poltergeist, having laid out a row of potted cactuses on the kitchen floor, writes ‘I am Fred’ in black sticky-tape on the bathroom door. In the old days if an offended spirit meddled with the cutlery it would pick out a dagger and wave it before the glazed eyes of the Thane of Cawdor, but now it takes a tea-spoon from the dresser and bends it before the camera of a reporter from the Daily Mirror.

Still, if there is one thing a philosopher ought to be it is philosophic. And Broad was generous besides. Had he lived to hear of the Enfield poltergeist, I do not suppose it would have entered his head to regard bad manners on the part of a ghost as evidence of bad faith (or even of bad observation) on the part of the ghost – hunter. But here he and I part company. For, in the matter of ghosts, I have always subscribed to what may be called the Argument from Lack of Design. The argument simply stated is this: if it’s ugly, formless or trivial it’s probably fake.

I expect something super of the supernatural. If spirits exist we shall know them by their works – and their works ex hypothesi will be potent, elegant and grand. Even allowing for the occasional off-day, I cannot believe that any spirit worth his salt would challenge the laws of physics by bending tea-spoons, or would challenge the will of living human beings by telling them to fuck off and get some jazz music. We live, I know, in a changing world, but not surely a world in which the entelechy which orders the super-natural universe is a cross between Fungus the Bogeyman and Mrs Thatcher.

Who, then, is Fred? And what is Mr Playfair doing writing a book about him? For an answer we may perhaps turn to Professor John Taylor, who has known Fred – or rather a mate of his called Uri – from both sides.

Eight years ago Uri Geller – ex-fashion model, conjurer and convicted con-man – hit out television screens with a miraculous display of spoon-bending. The effect on the British public was remarkable. There were those who wondered at Geller’s supernatural powers, and those again who merely wondered about them. John Taylor, professor of mathematics at London University, did both by turns.

Taylor is an empiricist. Not for him the argument from good form or the lack of it, but rather the argument from galvanometers and strain-gauges. Confronted by the phenomenon of paranormal metal-bending, he was determined – tea-spoons or no tea-spoons – to get at the scientific truth: and when it turned out that the truth changed over the years, so much the better – for then Taylor could tell us about it in two books rather than one.

In his earlier book, Superminds (1973), he described how his research on the ‘Geller effect’ had at that time persuaded him of the reality of strange forces beyond the ken of physics. Now, in Science and the Supernatural, he tells how further investigation of the world of psychical phenomena (extrasensory perception, table-turning, poltergeists, divination and so on) has made him change his mind: ‘We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. Only poor experimentation, shoddy theory and human gullibility have been encountered.’ Years of research on the paranormal bending of metal have, it seems, revealed nothing more than the all too normal bending of facts.

Taylor, reincarnated, emerges as a stern and sometimes uncharitable critic of the psychical fraternity to which he previously belonged. And yet, like many an apostate, he continues to have a love-hate relationship with his former church. Though he can no longer countenance its rites, neither can he bring himself to ignore them altogether. Habits of faith (and habits of writing best-sellers) die hard – and if there is a good story to be told, Taylor may be counted on to tell it, even when he no longer believes it to be true. Thus he begins with ‘spontaneous human combustion’, ends with survival after death, and leaves out precious little in between. In fact, so anxious is he not to miss a trick (in more senses than one), that at times he seems determined to overplay his adversaries’ hand. It gives him as much satisfaction to unmask a straw ghost, to topple the battlements of a caravan site, or to return a tea-spoon to its scabbard, as it does to find fault with a serious piece of laboratory research. The result is that the book as a whole reads more like campaigning journalism than like scholarship.

That is not to say that Taylor’s tactics are unsubtle. Crusader though he is, he does not attempt to rush the enemy’s camp in the naive belief that at the cry of ‘Science akbah!’ the walls of superstition will immediately come tumbling down. Instead he contrives to lure the defenders out into the open before he cuts the ground from under them.

With a technique that is almost Socratic in its disingenuousness, Taylor presents his argument in the form of a running dialogue between three characters: the sheep, the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing and the wolf. First comes the sheep, a trusting layman who is ready to believe everything he hears. This likeable fellow, who behaves for all the world as if ectoplasm would not melt in his mouth, is given the job of setting up the psychic scene: ‘There I was, minding my own business, when suddenly the man burst into flames ... The table rose from the floor before my very eyes ... The lady went into a trance and found herself reliving her earlier life as a servant to the King of France ... The spoon bent without the boy so much as touching it ...’ etc. Next comes the liberal-minded physicist who on the face of it appears quite willing to believe it all, provided only that his measuring instruments can confirm that the events described have actually occurred: ‘If the man caught fire, then there ought to have been some heat given off which would register on a thermometer ... If the table rose from the floor then a spring balance should indicate that temporarily the table had negative mass ... If the lady was alive eight hundred years ago then she ought to remember the eclipse of the sun in the year 1180 ... If the spoon bent without the boy touching it then it should not be covered with his fingerprints ...’ And finally comes the forensic scientist, a detective-cum-psychiatrist who knows all about fraud and something about Freud: ‘The witness was later admitted to hospital suffering from conflagratory hallucinations ... The table was lifted by a paid accomplice ... The lady from France, though she would not admit it even to herself, had read it all up in an historical romance ... The boy was caught in the act of bending the spoon behind his back ...’ Alas for the loss of innocence! When you sup with Uri Geller you must, it seems, not only take a long spoon but keep a very careful eye on it.

Because Taylor attempts to cover so much, he does not always do the job effectively: and sometimes, indeed, he spoils his case against the psychical researchers by committing methodological errors of his own. Inevitably there will be readers who find his treatment shallow: a magical demystifying tour which is too much of a whistle-stop affair. There are certainly people (and I know several of them among my academic colleagues) who believe that when we are confronted by prima facie evidence of the paranormal we should lean over backwards to accept even the strangest claims until their dubiousness has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. Such people are bound to wish that Taylor had chosen to examine a few of the better-documented cases in more depth. But for my own part I confess my prejudice: life is too short, the natural world too interesting, for it to be insisted that we approach even the showpieces of psychical research with an obsessively open mind. Though I still nurse a child-like hope that one day I myself shall meet with some grand and incontrovertible manifestation of the spirit world, I am not prepared to go looking for it on my hands and knees. For the moment the ball remains firmly in the supernatural’s court. In Taylor’s words, the paranormal has turned out upon investigation to be totally normal.

Or has it? Only, I think, if we accept a very odd definition of the normal. For when Taylor’s book is finished, two major aspects of the subject remain unexplained. First, why do the pedlars of the paranormal do it? Is it really ‘normal’ for otherwise honest citizens to cheat, to lie, to fake the results of experiments, and to practise delusion – and self-delusion – on a scale which has almost become institutional? Second, why does society pay so much credulous attention to them? Is it really ‘normal’ for the rest of us to treat tricksters, hysterics, charlatans and practical jokers as if they were supernaturally inspired?

An answer to the second question would clearly go a long way to answering the first. For in one form or another, attention is precisely what most of those people who claim to possess or to have witnessed supernatural powers are seeking. It may be an Israeli conjurer who is simply after fame and money, it may be a newspaper reporter who is trying to impress his editor, a Cambridge research student who is hoping for a degree in parapsychology, or any of the other unsung men and women who are attempting to be bigger than they really are. It may even be, as in Enfield, a teenage daughter of a broken marriage who is seeking with her voices and her sticky-tape to advertise her own emotional distress (‘Why do girls have periods?’ asked the voice of the poltergeist in one of its more revealing moments). But whoever it is, whatever their particular motive, there can be no doubt that involvement with the supernatural is a sure way of gaining special recognition. The question is, why are the rest of us so ready and willing to give it?

We live in a culture where belief in the supernatural is strong and growing. In 1660 Joseph Glanvil (quoted by Taylor) could write: ‘The present-day world treats all such stories with laughter and derision and is firmly convinced that they should be scorned as a waste of time and old wives’ tales ...’ But in 1977 a poll of American university professors showed that 65 per cent thought that the existence of paranormal phenomena was either established or extremely probable (the proportion of believers being, not surprisingly, considerably higher among engineers and physicists than among psychologists and anthropologists). To some extent, this growth is self-sustaining. For belief breeds belief: once we have abandoned the constraints of rationality, it becomes only too easy to prefer simple-to-grasp supernatural explanations to difficult-to-grasp natural ones.

Thus, a lady from Dublin dreams of the assassination of President Kennedy on the night before his actual death, and we accept it at once as a ‘precognitive dream’ – forgetting that every night of the year there are dreamed on this planet about 20,000 million dreams (five per night per head of the world population), making it almost inevitable that some of them come true ... An astrologer discovers that in over half the school classes in England there are two or more children with exactly the same birthday, and we immediately detect some cosmic influence at work – forgetting that in any group of 23 people there is a 50 per cent probability that two will have the same birthday by chance ... A gipsy fortune-teller reads our hands and tells us some secret known only to ourselves, and we attribute it at once to second sight – forgetting that while we were looking at our hands she was looking at our face and that the reading of facial expression is a skill which the human species has been slowly perfecting over at least the last five million years.

Once we believe, and want to go on believing, there is no reason to stop. Not only can we find confirmatory evidence all around us, but counter-evidence ceases to exist. For we can always give a topsy-turvy interpretation to anything which might otherwise suggest we are being fooled. When, for example, Janet Harper, the teenage girl in the Enfield council house, confesses under hypnosis that she and her sister are responsible for causing ‘all the trouble’, Mr Playfair is worried for only a moment before he decides that what Janet actually means is that she and her sister are indirectly responsible because it is they who have upset the poltergeist. When it appears that Stephen North, one of the child-star spoon-benders, always gets his best results just as Mrs North interrupts the experimental session by bringing in the tea, Professor John Hasted concludes that Stephen is marshalling his paranormal powers ‘in response to an offer of reward’, rather than that he is taking advantage of the tea-time confusion to cheat (see J.B. Hasted’s paper to the third International Conference of the SPR). Or when, as so many of us must know, one of our friends tells us in hushed tones of his own encounter with a ghost, we treat the story as evidence of just how ‘frank’ our friend is being rather than as prima facie evidence that he is fibbing. But if such distortions of judgment are the consequences of belief, where does that belief begin? I think it begins with the fear of being seen to be an unbeliever.

In a culture where belief in the supernatural is commonplace, sceptics who publicly express their doubts are on a hiding to nothing. They will be disliked for being right, and disliked for being wrong. When they can prove their case, the best they can expect is to be branded as a know-all. While when they cannot prove it, they are criticised for daring to question what others take on trust. They will be accused of intellectual conceit (‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy’), of insensitivity (‘Man will not perish through want of wonders; only through want of wonder’); of sour grapes (‘Just because it hasn’t happened to you’); of protesting too much (‘It has happened to you, only you’re scared to admit it’); of failure to see the good in other people (‘How dare you suggest he’s a liar’); of being no good themselves (‘You wouldn’t accuse him of lying, unless you too were versed at lying’); and so on. Worse still they may be accused of a kind of spiritual infanticide (‘Every time a child says “I don’t believe in fairies” there is a little fairy somewhere that falls down dead’).

It is a rotten trick to knock down fairies. And yet, when all is said, perhaps it is the believers rather than the sceptics who are the greater criminals. For it is they who with their patent superstitions and quack theories drug us into a state of intellectual apathy in which we fail to attend to the true mystery, man. The strangest thing on earth is not ghosts or reincarnation or ESP: it is muddled, deluded and deluding man. It is Professor Broad, John Taylor, Uri Geller and Fred. As Sir Thomas Browne wrote in Religio Medici, ‘we carry within us the wonders we seek without; all Africa and her prodigies are within us.’