Afront page story for the Sunday Pictorial in February 1938 was headlined: ‘“Ghost” Wrecks Home. Family Terrorised.’ A recent series in the Sunday Pic, as it was known, had invited readers to share their supernatural experiences. Almost a thousand of them wrote in. Alma Fielding, a 34-year-old housewife from the South London suburb of Thornton Heath, rang the paper (a ghost didn’t seem a case for the police, she said). As she and her husband, Les, lay in bed, she told the journalist, there were strange happenings. A tumbler spontaneously shattered, a light bulb from the bedside lamp migrated, still hot and intact, to the other side of the room; a pot of face cream, flying through the air, narrowly missed Don, their son, who was coming to their aid, and their lodger, George, was hit by coins (a shilling and a penny). A peculiar six-digit handprint appeared on the bedroom mirror.
Two reporters were sent to verify the mysterious occurrences at Beverstone Road. When Alma opened the door to them, an egg flew down the passage to land at their feet; a pink china dog fell to the floor and a tin-opener hurtled past at head height – all apparently of their own accord. While they were gathered in the front parlour, a wine glass escaped a locked cabinet in the kitchen and smashed; Alma’s teacup and saucer rose from her hands, the saucer splitting neatly in mid-air; a huge piece of coal in the grate careered across the living room and slammed into the wall. On an inside page the Sunday Pic featured a photograph of Alma, Les and Don – ‘occupants of the house of fear’ – staring at the sinister lump of coal.
Like all the best ghost stories, The Haunting of Alma Fielding begins jauntily enough. The ‘Croydon poltergeist’ is soon a local celebrity and the house teems with visitors. Nandor Fodor, chief ‘ghost hunter’ for the recently established International Institute for Psychical Research, arrives after his sidekick, the ‘personable’ Laurie Evans, who wants to work in the movies, has confirmed his own sightings. Another reporter – this time from the Croydon Advertiser – stays overnight; he is playing darts downstairs when a heavy wardrobe lands on top of the empty bed in his room. Dr Gerald Wills, a retired anaesthetist and a colleague of Fodor’s, carefully marks the spot on a plan of the kitchen where he saw the cat’s plate, still bearing scraps of fish, levitate and break against the back door. A palm reader, Professor Morrisone (Mr Morrison in civvy street), tells Alma that she is a very strong ‘carrier’ of ectoplasm, the substance with which some mediums materialise spirits. Alma’s older sister, Doris, their mum and Alma’s best friend, Rose (the lodger’s sister-in law) come and go, downing innumerable cups of tea, some of them flying from Alma’s hand before she can drink. A vicar and a local GP turn up, both friends of Fodor. So many bystanders throng the pavement outside the house that a policeman is posted at the front door. The doormat promptly wraps itself around the constable’s head.
The atmosphere soon becomes convivial, even festive. By way of a prank, it seems, the ghost leaves a kettle lid perched like a beret on a white china cat (the domestic clutter on mantelpieces and sideboards is ideal territory for a poltergeist). Evans sends out for cakes and buys new glasses for the spirit to destroy. Fodor is an amiable presence, cracking jokes as he makes copious notes. Inspecting the objects which have come to grief in the course of a few days, he lists 36 tumblers, 24 wine glasses, 15 egg cups. Chairs, rugs and a firescreen have been chucked at Alma, other utensils and ornaments are dented as if they had been punched. Fodor is on the lookout for hoaxes: being a ghost hunter largely consists in exposing frauds. His meticulous log records most of the phenomena, like the egg he watches spin down the hallway to break on the carpet, as ‘not evidential’. In other words, they might be chicanery. But some of them he simply can’t explain.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding lends itself to spoofing, though Summerscale lets the reader do the sniggering, allowing herself only the occasional dry aside. The Fieldings are also prime candidates for the kind of class condescension that inspired many humorists between the wars. Les is a tradesman with a cigarette tucked behind his ear; Alma, with her ‘Betty Lou’ velour powder puff and glamorous ‘Tattoo’ lipstick, fears being thought ‘common’. She gave up running a snack bar, not liking the tramps who lingered over their beverages. They live in an end of terrace Victorian house with three, not two, bedrooms (these distinctions matter) and, unlike the residents of an inner city slum, have a bathroom with a flush lavatory, electric and gas laid on. Les has a telephone and keeps a ledger for his business. There is also, which is handy given the breakages, insurance on the house. The Fieldings are not churchgoers or cranks, but lead respectable, even humdrum lives. Alma seems mystified by the unruliness around her.
Nandor Fodor, by contrast, is entirely free of English snobbery and English reticence, jumping up and clapping his hands the first time he sees ectoplasm issuing from a medium’s mouth. A Jewish-Hungarian émigré, he is the kind of excitable foreigner affectionately sent up after the war by his compatriot George Mikes in How to Be an Alien. He left Budapest in the 1920s to write for the Hungarian-American press in New York and has had his own psychological theories about poltergeists since interviewing his countryman, Sándor Ferenczi, a psychoanalyst and one of Freud’s original inner circle. He has a hunch that supernormal phenomena may come from within rather than from without. Fodor had investigated the case of ‘Gef, the talking mongoose’, one of the most famous stories of the day, a poltergeist that plagued the lives of the Irving family in a remote farmhouse on the Isle of Man.Gef hurled objects, killed rabbits, spat at the family and stole from them, but he also spoke several languages. ‘I am the Fifth Dimension!’ he apparently shouted. ‘I am the Eighth Wonder of the World!’
Ghost hunting was a money-spinner between the wars, especially for the popular press. Self-styled investigators, often journalists, went on assignments to haunted houses, toting microphones and cameras, and other paraphernalia. Like other sensational stunts paid for by the papers, the stories were aimed largely at the rapidly expanding readership among the working classes. Fodor had come to Britain to write features on Hungarian matters for the press baron Lord Rothermere (the Sunday Pictorial was one of his stable), but soon became fascinated by supernatural phenomena. There could be lucrative spin-offs. Harry Price, Fodor’s chief rival, was the best-known populariser of the paranormal. He often hit the road with the psychologist J.C. Flügel and the philosopher Cyril Joad, and reported back to John O’ London’s Weekly. His Leaves from a Psychist’s Casebook (1933) and Confessions of a Ghost-Hunter (1936) were bestsellers. The BBC frequently broadcast about the supernatural while cultural conservatives also cashed in. In a Britain carved up by arterial roads, disfigured by electricity pylons and telegraph poles, they lamented that ancient haunts with their equally venerable apparitions were being bulldozed. In True Ghost Stories (1936), co-written with the Marchioness Townshend, the ghost hunter Maude Ffoulkes mourned the loss of this romantic and patrician English heritage. Rather than ‘the honest upright ghosts of decaying castles and ancient halls’, as the Daily Mail put it, vulgar poltergeists were on the loose. They were the bully-boys of the spectral world, throwing their weight about among the lower classes.
Spirit communication seemed no more outlandish to many people than electromagnetic rays or indeed the wireless. Dematerialising and travelling ‘the astral plane’ as spirit without body was no more implausible than quantum physics. The International Institute for Psychical Research in South Kensington liked to think of itself as scientifically oriented, dissociating itself from the more gullible devotees of spiritualism. Shortly after its foundation in 1934, however, nearly all the scientists on its board resigned. ‘Not very scientific,’ was Julian Huxley’s comment. A proper scientific laboratory was never built. Fodor was willing to try anything, experimenting with a cloud chamber to replicate so-called photographs of animal’s souls; he decided that their ‘astral bodies’ were probably specks of dust on the plates (a version, perhaps, of Philip Pullman’s ‘dark materials’). He got himself injected with mescaline to enhance his senses. Fodor and Evans also examined the ‘psychic telegraph’, the ‘Communigraph’ and ‘Reflectograph’, inventions marketed by the medium Louisa Bolt and her manager, Mr Ashdown. The machines, which received spirit messages in spherical receptors and then tapped them out in Morse code, were fakes, but good for the sales of spiritualist magazines.
Much of The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a tightly constructed, blow-by-blow account of Alma’s sittings at the International Institute, where Fodor invited her to show her ‘powers’. Fodor’s testing of Alma was a test of his credentials as well as his credulity. He was in the midst of a lawsuit against Psychic News which had vilified him. ‘Fodor Finds Sex in Mediumship’ an article declared, deeming him ‘disgusting, insensitive and incompetent’, revenge for his suggestion that there was no reliable scientific evidence for spiritualism. Despite his prolific output – knocking off a 500,000 word Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, writing a nine-part series on the supernatural for Empire News, and innumerable articles for both highbrow journals and the gutter press – Fodor was broke. He had to stake his claim to Alma quickly. Harry Price wanted a look-in; so did Harold Chibbett with his ‘medium-busting’ business, the Probe.
But Summerscale also wants Alma’s haunting to mirror an ‘age of anxiety’ (lines from Auden serve as chapter headings). The investigation spans March to July 1938, months when the Nazis annexed Austria and the international situation worsened, with gas masks being issued to the British. The nation’s phantoms, she writes, were ‘symptoms of a nervous age’ and a population ‘braced for war’. She evokes the sense of dread felt by many, still wounded from the Great War, that the past might repeat itself a mere generation later. Alma’s husband, Les, suffered flashbacks to the trenches but also premonitions of a war to come. Summerscale segues swiftly from brief updates on political and international events to the progress of Alma’s case, building up the suspense and quickening the pace of the narrative.
At first Alma is in her element. With cameras trained on her under the controlled conditions of a séance room, she produces ‘apports’ or materialised objects, which fall from her person or land at a distance as she ‘goes into trance’. There are more than fifty of them in total. Summerscale brilliantly compares these random objects carefully preserved by Fodor to the ‘bizarre juxtapositions’ in the work of the Surrealists, ‘the comic with the creepy’, the extravagant and the senseless: a butterfly brooch, a stick of rhubarb, an ammonite, the tin of laxative pills from Alma’s bathroom shelf, still warm from travelling ‘the astral plane’, which lands on the floor while she is holding a glass of water. Breezes blow. The scent of violet wafts inexplicably across the hall. Like a proper medium, Alma soon produces a spirit guide or ‘control’, Bremba, a dead Persian, who speaks for her in a deep voice. The institute’s members are impressed. Countess Nora Wydenbruck sees Alma’s apports as miracles like those produced by the ‘highest type of medium’ – Catholic saints. When Alma relates an out-of-body experience, losing consciousness at the Croydon Picture Palace, and finding herself in South Kensington, it seems she has mastered ‘astral projection’.
Summerscale draws on the work of Alex Owen and other historians of 19th-century spiritualism who argue that mediumship offered women independence and authority beyond the home, challenging their conventional roles while still allowing them to employ the so-called feminine virtues of sensitivity and passivity. It could also be a form of social climbing. With Don now working as an apprentice, Alma was stuck indoors and underoccupied. Well-off by her own standards, with plenty of pocket money for clothes and make-up and regular visits to the hairdresser, Alma didn’t need the small fee she received for her sittings at the institute. But going ‘up West’ to South Ken she enjoyed the attentions of doctors and their lady wives, barristers, broadcasters and scientists. The daughter of a plumber and gas-fitter, she had the Countess Nora eating out of her hand.
Inevitably the scene darkens. More and more sittings; more elaborate and invasive tests of authenticity. Alma strips naked before the ladies and is given a fresh sanitary towel when she is menstruating; she dons a silver one-piece with the ankles and wrists tied; her stockings are sewn to her knickers and her hands encased in stockings sewn to the wrists. Her hair, ears, nose, mouth and false teeth are all scrutinised (Fodor doesn’t think the ladies would agree to make an internal examination); she is patted all over as she walks round the room. Nineteen sitters including magicians check for tricks and ‘flim-flam’. The magicians are convinced. But once or twice Fodor thinks he spots old-fashioned legerdemain and doubts seep in. He brings in a secret X-ray machine to scan her person and he checks the provenance of the ancient terracotta oil lamp her poltergeist apparently pilfered from the Victoria and Albert Museum. (It’s not theirs.) Disappointed to discover a few objects secreted on her person, Fodor decides that ‘the genuine and the fraudulent march in queer procession. It was too dangerous to conclude one from the other.’ Alma suspects him of suspecting her and the poltergeist turns nasty. Her latest apports – a terrapin and a beetle – begin to revolt her; foetid smells arise and the sitters all feel queasy. Deep and sometimes bloody scars appear up her arms and across her shoulders, supposedly caused by Bremba’s ‘pet tiger’; her skin breaks out in weals at a touch. She loses two stone in weight. More voices take over, one of a little girl crying for her mummy; Alma’s body swells up in a fake pregnancy. She has erotic nightmares in which she is vampirised (puncture marks appear on her arms). Utterly dissociated from her body, she knows she is really dead.
Summerscale mentions in passing that Fodor has begun psychoanalysis with Elizabeth Severn, an analysand of Sándor Ferenczi and another member of the institute. Severn, like Ferenczi, maintained that patients’ accounts of their sexual abuse as children were based on fact (Freud had argued that it was impossible to know when memories of infantile abuse were unconscious fantasies, since they were so deeply repressed, though they need not be any less powerful in their effects). She believed that the poltergeist phenomenon was an expression of ‘desire, fear, horror and anger’ stemming from the suppression of the memory of sexual assault as a child. Fodor agreed that a desire for retaliation might motivate Alma; and that her psyche had split under pressure. (Summerscale comes out from behind the curtain here, seeming to favour this aetiology. But she quickly withdraws.)
In his own wild analysis Fodor plunges into Alma’s past, looking for psychological clues. He tries hypnotism, word association and dream interpretation, uncovering a life full of damage and a catalogue of pain. It no longer matters to him if Alma is a phoney. She is no longer ‘wonderful’ but sick, and he must take her dreams and inventions as seriously as if they had been real. But is he implanting his own ideas? Is he Svengali or even Dracula, preying on her? As her suffering escalates, the other members of the institute, especially the countess, are appalled by his experiments and ‘far-fetched’ psychosexual theories. Even if she is a fake, in their eyes Alma has opened a psychic door through her trance states, flirting dangerously with the occult.
The case of the Croydon poltergeist has been mined before, but Summerscale makes the most of her own discoveries, notably Fodor’s lost dossier of materials including transcripts of the séances, his interviews with Alma, lab reports, X-rays, photographs, sketches and notes. His search for evidence and scientific proof is also, as she notes, a historical record ‘of the imagination’. Scholars have long underlined the links between Victorian psychical research, psychology and psychoanalysis – it was through the Society of Psychical Research that Freud’s theories were first disseminated. In the interwar years, as Joanna Timms and others have shown, Fodor was far from unique in using psychoanalytic terminology to analyse spirit mediums. Sylvia M. Payne, later president of the British Psychoanalytical Society, psychoanalysed mediums in the 1930s and 1940s; Donald West and R.W. Pickford were among the many who attributed paranormal activity to psychological conditions. Like psychical research, psychoanalysis might crave respectability through science and professionalisation but its adepts and followers were often mavericks. Dion Fortune, who published a guide to black magic in 1930 and trained as an analyst in London (her work makes a brief appearance in Summerscale’s story), went further, pairing occult practices with psychoanalytic experiment, trying to gain access to the more impenetrable areas of consciousness. In New York, Fodor had met not only Ferenzci, but other remarkable Jewish Hungarians, including Harry Houdini (a scourge of spiritualists) and Bela Lugosi. All of them explored the ways in which human beings might manage to escape the limits of their lives. Seen from this optic, psychical research and psychoanalysis were equally meaningful and could both look like hocus-pocus. In popular perception Freud was both showman and shaman.
Dovetailing Alma’s psychic state with the state of the nation is something of a sleight of hand. Everyday life, even in the midst of crisis, is rarely lived at constant fever pitch, whatever the papers say. During her haunting Alma happily went to see Dolores Smith ‘give clairvoyance’ one day, a variety show with the Crazy Gang and the Welsh conjuror Cardini at the London Palladium the next, a romantic comedy at the pictures after that. The so-called ‘morbid’ age was also, as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge suggested in 1940, when calling their social history of the interwar years The Long Weekend, an age of mass pleasures, of the lido, rambling and cycling clubs, the first holiday camps and the dance hall (the ‘Lambeth Walk’ was the national craze of 1938). More than once Summerscale relies on a fictional character, Orwell’s George Bowling, to voice a sense of imminent catastrophe. Diaries would be more nuanced.
Spiritualism boomed after the slaughter of the First World War. More than two thousand people attended Stella Hughes’s séances in the Queen’s Hall, off Oxford Street in March 1938. The dead were now a species of mass entertainment. But who can say if there was more supernatural activity in the late 1930s than at any other time? Poltergeists, as Peter Ackroyd tells us in The English Ghost, can be dated back to at least the 12th century, though they went by other names. The term poltergeist, from the German for a ‘noisy or merry ghost’, was certainly popularised in Britain in the 1920s and vigorously promoted by the media. The history of ghosts is the history of their interpretation, and popular culture is nothing if not capacious. In the supernatural world the spirit of the age was syncretism. Fielding was ‘compliant’, according to Fodor, trying to please her audience. She was also creative. Her psychic state is full of borrowings – from folklore, witchcraft, magic, vampirism (Lugosi’s Dracula films were all the rage), with shades of the occult and Orientalism thrown in. Most spirit guides were Egyptians, Abyssinians, Chinese sages or dead Persians, like Fielding’s own. As the language of the subconscious found its way into popular speech, modern ghosts were interiorised and psychologised. But they were still good for a laugh. The first ghost train in Britain opened in 1930 at Blackpool pleasure beach, designed by a modernist architect called Joseph Emberton, who also designed the resort’s casino. Yet exorcisms went on taking place and séances at the institute sometimes began with the Lord’s Prayer. And despite Tory nostalgia for the good old days, mad nuns and headless aristocrats still haunted cloisters and country houses. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were regularly sighted.
No matter. The Haunting of Alma Fielding is an absorbing and seriously unnerving tale. Summerscale treats her protagonists generously and their struggle to make sense of the poltergeist is compelling. Freud has a minor but crucial role in Fodor’s future, while Alma’s fate turns out to be surprising. But I won’t give the game away. A ‘true ghost story’, except to a believer, moves between the worlds of fact and fiction, but Alma’s poltergeist is more disturbing. It inhabits a place of constant dissolution where the borders are porous and riotous feeling threatens to erupt.