Friday, 4 July 2014

Preserving the Historical Collections of Parapsychology: International Conference, Utrecht, 12-14 June 2014


It was serendipitous that shortly after writing about the preservation of parapsychological archives recently I was invited to attend a conference in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on that subject.  The event was organised by the Dutch organisation Het Johan Borgman Fonds (HJBF) in collaboration with the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene (IGPP, Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health) in Germany and the Coalition for the Preservation of Extraordinary Human Experience Collections (CPEHEC) in Canada.  The purpose of the conference was to bring together those with an interest in archives relating to parapsychology, psychical research and Spiritualism – whether as archivists, librarians, or researchers – to discuss their common interest in acquiring, preserving and promoting collections in ways that maximise their scholarly value.  It was the continuation of an initiative begun in 2007 by Wim Kramer, the Managing Director of HJBF, to highlight the vulnerability of parapsychology’s heritage, prevent its destruction, and make it publicly accessible (see the free online journal Psypioneer Vol. 6, No 3, March 2010, pp.81-5, for an article by Kramer, ‘Preserving the History of Parapsychology & Spiritism in The Netherlands’, which gives the background).


Day 1 –Thursday

Wim Kramer welcomed the conference participants and talked about Johan Borgman, poet, painter (there is a gallery devoted to his paintings in Amsterdam) and healer, who founded HJBF in 1969.  Then Walter Meyer zu Erpen, archivist and President of the Survival Research Institute of Canada (SRIC), gave a brief historical overview of Spiritualism, psychical research and parapsychology entitled ‘The Archives of Parapsychology: Why Even Bother?’  Among other topics, he touched on the controversy over the biased editing of paranormal-related Wikipedia pages by sceptics, a long-running issue which erupted recently in the battle over Rupert Sheldrake’s entry.  We learned that such practices are not restricted to English-language Wikipedia pages.  zu Erpen talked about the prejudice the field faces not merely from well-known sceptical groups, but extending even to commercial companies, as happened when Psychic News asked Max Communications to quote for digitising the newspaper from 1932-2010.  The company declined the job because some of its employees were apparently uncomfortable with the newspaper’s subject-matter (see Psychic News, June 2014).   He noted the underfunding of archives and the challenges generally that archivists face in acquiring and preserving materials for generations of future researchers but, to answer the question posed in the title of his talk, how worthwhile the effort is in terms of knowledge advancement in areas that are fiercely contested but which are of great interest to large numbers of people.  As a demonstration of their commitment, SRIC has been gathering a library and archives which will eventually be housed at the University of Manitoba.  It was an excellent summary of the field and the role of historical collections in its development, and provided a sound foundation for the rest of the conference.

John Reed in ‘The Role of the World Institute for Scientific Exploration (WISE) in the Preservation of Parapsychology Literature and Collections’ outlined the remit of the World Institute for Scientific Exploration, begun in 2011 as a sister organisation to the Society for Scientific Exploration.  He ran through WISE’s programmes, most notably its Worldwide Resource Center (WWRC), or ‘WISEwiki’ as it is generally called, which is being set up as a balanced alternative to Wikipedia, with registration of contributors and vetting of content.  WISEwiki now contains some 30,000 pages and promises to be a valuable resource.  WISE is also concerned with literature preservation, both physical and digital.  In terms of physical preservation, WISE is concerned to collect, and find repositories for, material such as research files and correspondence, which are often rejected by libraries, and the Coalition for the Preservation of Extraordinary Human Experience Collections, which is linked to WISE and of which zu Erpen is the director, has been instrumental in contacting established archives to find suitable homes for acquisitions.  Additionally, WISE is compiling information on archive holders around the world, and what they have.  WISE is developing a digital library (observing copyright laws) that already contains a wide range of publications and it has set up another acronym, the International Coalition of Periodical Digitizing Organizations and Individuals (ICPDOI), to oversee this.  Digital preservation is a daunting task, being expensive and laborious, and Reed said that he was concerned to avoid duplication with other digitisation endeavours, a situation that has already occurred elsewhere.  To try to reduce wasted effort, ICPDOI is compiling a master catalogue listing periodicals worldwide, with their digitisation status, whether complete, in progress or not started, and are trying to keep track of those groups undertaking the digitisation.  The WISE website provides links to other sites where digitised materials are available.  The discussion mentioned the Society for Psychical Research’s own ‘alternative Wikipedia’, and Reed said that WISE had been in touch about this and that he thought there was scope for linkages between the two, though the SPR’s would be smaller than WISE’s.  In fact, throughout the conference Reed stated that WISE could act as a co-ordination centre for the dissemination of information.  In a field beset with resource problems it is essential, he said, that organisations cooperate to maximise their use.  Quality control, such as the quality of scans which can sometimes be poor, and metadata, which can be worse, was raised as an issue in digitisation.

Brandon Hodge stood in for Marc Demarest, who runs IAPSOP, the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult periodicals.  This digitises Spiritualist and occult periodicals, very broadly defined to include freemasonry, Theosophy, free thought, astrology and some other ‘fringe’ topics.  There is an ancillary element, the Standard Spiritualist and Occult Corpus (SSOC), which is devoted to digitising and making freely available online book-length texts.  Hodge characterised the work as ‘bootleg preservation’ as it is done on a voluntary basis outside formal archival structures.  The statistics are quite staggering in terms of the cost of carrying out high-quality digitisation and the numbers of pages scanned, currently in the region of a million journal pages and one and a half million book pages.  This has been carried out with virtually no outside financial support; nearly all material, equipment, finances and labour have come from IAPSOP’s four board members (despite the apparent formality of that term, Hodge stressed that IAPSOP is not an organisation).  In addition to their own efforts, they sometimes advise archive owners who wish to embark on a digitisation programme.  Hodge touched on some of the issues that confront anyone wanting to provide high-quality digitised copies: items being thrown away (last-minute rescues from skips and bins was a common theme of the conference) – institutions that should be careful custodians are often the villains of the piece and Hodge gave us the anecdote of an IAPSOP member walking past the New York Public Library and finding a nearly complete bound run of the Religio-Philosophical Journal in a skip; owners hoarding and refusing access because they are concerned that digitisation will devalue the originals; dealing with crumbling paper; institutions muddying the copyright situation by illegitimately claiming rights to material in their possession; the annoyance of publishers offering the unwary print-on-demand versions of books at inflated prices that are freely available as PDFs;  and problems in digitising old microfilm (that may itself be in poor condition) as institutions dispose of the necessary equipment.  Despite such obstacles, IAPSOP is doing an amazing job in the race against time to save disappearing publications, with little external support or even positive feedback from its users, and it deserves to be better known.  The discussion mentioned the expansion of the project to include more non-English language books (currently only some French and German volumes); the grotesque things that Google Books sometimes does when scanning; the preservation of items scanned by IAPSOP (they are retained); and migration as digital standards change, which can be expensive.

After lunch, Leslie Price discussed the online monthly Psypioneer which he founded and which is currently edited by Paul Gaunt.  In addition, Price is the archivist and librarian at the College of Psychic Studies.  In its current form Psypioneer has been published since 2004 and now has 600 subscribers.  It carries a mix of transcriptions of hard-to-find material (which was particularly valuable before the current flurry of digitisation) and scholarly commentaries.   Price stressed the problems that occur when we forget history, which is often muddled by misinformation, and lazily accept what is passed down, culprits often including academics who should know better.  He gave some examples of misconceptions that the journal has tackled, and argued that Psypioneer has contributed to a new awareness of the importance of having a full and accurate understanding of the subject’s past.  He touched on FOTA, The Friends of Theosophical Archives, which was recently formed to support and promote Theosophical archives around the world, and noted the particular challenges that archives face in conditions inimical to the preservation of paper, such as tropical climates and the hazards of political unrest.  Price was the only speaker directly covering the British situation, and it would have been useful to have looked at other archives there, not least the Society for Psychical Research’s, or the Harry Price Library, both of which Price could only allude to in passing.

As a useful case study of how archives can be used, Wilfried Kugel in his talk ‘In Search of “Hanussen”’ described his painstaking reconstruction of the life of mentalist Erik Jan Hanussen (Hermann Steinschneider), sometimes billed as ‘Hitler’s Jewish clairvoyant’ and who famously ‘predicted’ the 1933 Reichstag fire (though based on inside information as opposed to precognition).  Numerous myths, frequently contradictory, had accreted around Hanussen, and Kugel followed his trail for a decade through archives in a number of countries in order to strip out these myths and depict Hanussen in an objective light.  The achievement was all the more remarkable considering how archives in Germany have fared since Hanussen’s death in April 1933, including wholesale removal to the Soviet Union after the war.  Kugel emphasised the risk that archives can face, even from those one would think their friends, citing an eminent professor in the GDR who stole a significant file which was then lost when he died.  A passing reference to a company of First World War German dowsing soldiers created some discussion.  During his search Kugel encountered documents that he decided had been forged, which indicates the forensic skills a researcher needs in evaluating sources.

Ingrid van der Bij, Director of the Archives and Documentation Centre for Dutch Behavioural Sciences, spoke on ‘What, Why and How to Preserve’.  She gave concrete examples of some of the problems archivists face in the acquisition, analysis, preservation and storage of holdings, and in making them accessible.  Things to be considered run from forming a mission statement that guides management policy to records management at the other end of the process.  As she memorably put it, an archive is like a pet, needing to be looked after constantly.  Acquisition can be either passive, relying on donations, or active, and the former can be awkward if not everything offered is relevant to the archive’s collection policy.  Complications can occur when items are offered on loan rather than as gifts and are not then the archive’s property.  Alongside preservation the context needs to be researched so that the meaning can be retained with the item, and van der Bij mentioned the International Standard Archival Description (General) or ISAD (G), which is an international standard that provides guidelines for the content of archival descriptions.  You cannot just assume that archive users will beat a path to your door while you focus on conservation; how do they find out what you have?  Marketing, promoting the archives’ USP, is necessary, for example by producing articles for segmented audiences and mounting exhibitions highlighting the archive’s contents.  It is necessary to be aware of the ways in which users use data, so that the archive is kept relevant to evolving needs.  Discarding items is an act fraught with danger because future scholars may have interests that we cannot guess at.

Kramer had arranged a display of artefacts in the conference room, and to round off the afternoon he gave us an introduction to them, demonstrating how important it was to understand objects and how they worked in their historical context to be able to appreciate fully the reports in which they feature, something picked up by Brandon Hodge in his talk on the final morning.  Without this understanding a dimension is missing when reading the printed accounts.  He said that psychical research had deep roots in the Netherlands, and during the First World War half of the Dutch cabinet had been Spiritualists, but that the Second World War Occupation had caused considerable damage to the Dutch heritage.

The venue


Day 2 – Friday

Kramer kicked off the second day, this time talking about the ‘HJBF Archive Project - Some Lessons Learned’.  He reiterated the scarcity of Dutch Spiritualist and parapsychological material – both from the Netherlands or originating in former colonies –from before the Second World War, a situation caused by a combination of ideological prejudice, shortage of space, and simple indifference.  The work of the HJBF Archives Project began in 2007, with funding from the Foundation.  Before that time there was little Dutch parapsychological material in publicly-accessible collections and surprisingly little research into Dutch Spiritualism and parapsychology had been conducted; in fact during its search journals not even known to have existed were discovered.  Kramer described the work of the Foundation in acquiring collections and then finding a suitable home for them at national, regional or university level, in the Netherlands or elsewhere (such as the IGPP at Freiburg).  It does not focus on wider esoteric material as this is taken care of by other organisations.  The HJBF itself does not have a large collection, but is a facilitator, and the emphasis is on trying to acquire at least enough to be representative of the field as a whole.  Acquisitions run the gamut from books, journals, magazines, documents, audio and video recordings, to of course artefacts; it can be difficult to find homes for the non-print elements because of the storage issue and libraries’ collecting policies.  Kramer gave some examples of failures and successes in the enterprise.  The former category includes the archive of Wilhelm Tenhaeff, compiled over a period of 60 years, which was spirited away by his secretaries after his death and never recovered, probably destroyed.  The experience of finding that collections have gone missing or been dispersed is far from uncommon.  The success category includes the archive of Gerard Croiset, currently being indexed, and the 130 boxes of papers of the Dutch Spiritualist organisation Harmonia, which was established in 1888, that are now in the Utrecht Regional Archive.  In passing he remarked that there are few sceptical archives preserved.  Familiar difficulties faced by those trying to save collections include time pressures on relatives having to clear out a deceased person’s belongings and items kept in unsuitable conditions, such as damp cellars or lofts that are subject to fluctuating temperatures.  Kramer touched on the concerns that guide HJBF’s work, such as the financial implications of archives, some of which are collectible and fetch high prices, and which necessitates reliance on goodwill to make donations when funds for purchase are non-existent; the boundaries that have to be set when deciding what to collect; the sort of agreement that is reached with a receiving institution that might want to dispose of parts of a collection later; the cost of keeping artefacts in good condition; and problems posed by obsolete technological formats.  Success breeds success, and having saved and rehomed collections, others often hear of it and this encourages them to make donations.  As well as still looking for archives, HJBF is kept busy sorting and cataloguing acquisitions, and uses student volunteers as assistants.

As a break from the talks, the participants were treated to two activities for the rest of the Friday morning.  The first was a visit to the Utrecht Archive (Het Utrechts Achief) where we were given a reception and saw a special display on psychical research, plus their current exhibition on Utrecht during the First World War.  The second was a trip on the city’s canals in fine weather, which was a pleasant break from the serious business of the conference.

After lunch Shelley Sweeney, head the University of Manitoba’s Archives and Special Collections, talked on ‘Prime Motivator: The Thomas Glendenning Hamilton Family Fonds as Stimulus for Acquiring Parapsychological Collections’, focusing as the title suggests on psychical researcher T. G. Hamilton and the Hamilton family fonds, which is held at the university.  After providing details of the Hamiltons’ activities she went on to talk about the issues involved in being the custodian of such an extensive body of material.  She underlined the necessity of active promotion, such as seminars and the use of social media, and noted the success of a ‘virtual exhibition’ and later a YouTube video of Hamilton’s photographs of ectoplasm, with a link to the Hamilton page on the University of Manitoba website.  Translations into different languages can extend the reach of publicity.  If a collection has a star or signature attraction this can be used as a hook to encourage interest more generally, as has been done with the Glendenning family.  By raising the profile, it is possible to stimulate research, attract acquisitions, and use them in fundraising activities.  It is necessary for the archivist to bear in mind the variety of purposes to which collections can be put, not only by academic researchers but also artists for cultural reworking, and these can be extraordinarily diverse in their range.

René Schurte spoke about ‘Two Parapsychology and Esotericism Collections in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich’.  He is a librarian at Zentralbibliothek Zürich, looking after parapsychology and occultism among other subjects.  He gave an overview of the significant holdings in his care, notably Bibliothek Schlag, dealing with esoteric literature, and the collection of Schweizerische Parapsychologische Gesellschaft (SPG, the Swiss Parapsychological Society).  Medium and occultist Oskar Schlag, who died in 1990, left 25,000 books (of which only about 500 are rare volumes, it being very much a working library) to Zentralbibliothek Zürich, which collaborates with the Oskar R. Schlag Foundation.  The library is still located in his old home and is being expanded.  That of the SPG, of which Schlag was a founder, amounts to a further 3,000-odd volumes.  As a result of these acquisitions, Zentralbibliothek Zürich is now the most important centre in Switzerland for the study of parapsychology and esotericism.  Like other custodians, Schurte ran through some of the problems he faces.  Selection criteria are determined by costs of storage and preservation, and there may be conditions laid down by donors.  Working in a public library means that there are fewer specialists to call on for their expertise than would be the case in a higher education institution.  Promotion of the collections is not always easy, and ways of increasing access need to be examined.  The question session threw up the pan-European digital repository Europeana as an alternative to Google Books, and the way in which German-born but Swiss-resident Schlag links the parapsychological traditions of those countries.

The next speaker was Anna Rademakers, a subject librarian with responsibility for parapsychology and occultism at the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Hague.  The library’s primary focus is books published in or about the Netherlands.  She spoke on ‘Parapsychological Collections in the Dutch National Library’ and gave some historical background on the library’s collections which cover witchcraft, Spiritualism, parapsychology, astrology, freemasonry, Theosophy and Rosicrucianism (it has the largest Hermetic manuscript collection in the world).  Holdings include archives from the Theosophical Society and Dutch parapsychologist George Zorab.  Some donations had come from HJBF.  Again care was a major theme, and marks were given on a number of criteria in a risk-based system to evaluate importance and value when prioritising conservation.  Digitisation includes using Google and the Dutch-language ‘Delpher’ website, which allows the library to attain its digital aims within strict financial constraints.  The recent travails of the Bibliotheca Filosofica Hermetica (Ritman Library), part of which, owned by the State, has gone to the Dutch National Library, were commented on in the discussion.

Eberhard Bauer, who besides other administrative posts at IGPP is head of its Department that covers Cultural and Historical Studies, Archives and Library, talked about the post-war renaissance in German parapsychology with the increase in funding available to it.  He went through the IGPP’s origins, its founding by Hans Bender, and its growth thanks to the bequests by Swiss biologist and parapsychologist Fanny Moser and by businesswoman Asta Holler.  He outlined its current activities in the natural sciences and experimental research; in social and cultural scientific research; and in counselling those who have had extraordinary experiences, plus the provision of information and documentation.  As well as Moser’s library (2,000 volumes) IGPP has that of Baron von Schrenck-Notzing (2,500 volumes).  Much of its heavily-used library, 60,000 volumes plus subscriptions to some 260 journals, is housed at Freiburg University, although IGPP itself has a large reading room, and the library is still growing at the rate of about 1,700 volumes per year, with heavy investment in it by the Institute.  It has a digitisation programme of German-language journals in collaboration with the University Library of Freiburg.  Supplementing its research files it has audio recordings, photographs, films and artefacts.  With its funding and staffing levels, and broad programme of interdisciplinary research in Spiritualism, occultism, psychical research, parapsychology and anomalies in general, IGPP is an institution to be envied.

The final talk of the day, ‘The Paranormal in Photography and Art: Research in the Context of Exhibitions’, was by Andreas Fischer, also of IGPP and a member of its Cultural and Historical Studies, Archives and Library Department.  He was involved in the touring exhibition that was accompanied by the tremendous book The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, and he talked about the cultural projects in which the IGPP has been involved, often in collaboration with other organisations, which combined photography, painting and drawing with the paranormal.  However, he had found that tracking down potential exhibits in public and private collections could often be a problem because of the lack of available information.  IGPP itself is rich in its collections of images, with thousands of prints, including Louis Darget’s ‘fluid photographs’.  Like Sweeney, he noted how material can be used in varying ways, listing a number of examples of artists who have been influenced by Schrenck-Notzing’s photographs, for example Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy, more recently Zoe Beloff and Alexander Gehring, and most famously Francis Bacon drawing over the illustrations in his copy of Schrenck-Notzing’s Phenomena of Materialisation and incorporating the images into his painting.  Fischer cited the way in which the 3-CD set ‘Okkulte Stimmen - Mediale Musik’ (‘Recordings of Unseen Intelligences 1905 – 2007’) has been sampled by composers.  Does such appropriation mean a loss of control, he asked, and who is to say what constitutes a proper or improper use of the sources?  On the other hand, artists can assume that images are public domain and ignore copyright, and reworking tears the image from its original context.  Fischer also highlighted the perennial problems of acquiring archives.  These include contending with competition from collectors with deep pockets, particularly for photographs, which can fetch very high prices nowadays.  There can be fragmentation through poor security, a lack of inventories, deterioration because of storage deficiencies, destruction of something not considered significant at the time – sometimes amounting to a ‘path of destruction’ – and so on.  As a case study, Fischer examined the chequered history of Schrenck-Notzing’s work.  He died in 1929, and Bender secured his estate in 1941 when the building in which his laboratory was located had to be cleared out quickly.  Unfortunately large quantities of papers had been destroyed after his death, and his widow spent weeks in the garden burning his correspondence.  Even more papers were destroyed before the rest were handed to Bender.   Schrenck-Notzing’s colleagues separated out what they decided to be valuable and discarded whatever in their eyes was useless or compromising, during which laundry baskets-full of glass plates were destroyed (you could hear groans in the room at this point).  Even then the travails of what had survived were not complete: the boxes were stored in the attic of the original IGPP building at temperatures that fluctuated enormously according to the season.  The result of this chequered history is the irrecoverable loss of great parts of Schrenck-Notzing’s legacy.  However, Fischer urged us to look on the bright side: bearing in mind the number of collections that have disappeared entirely, or the frequent unavailability of those that have survived, the ones to which we have access are of inestimable value.

Me making a contribution. Credit: HJBF PHCP 2014


Day 3 – Saturday

The final morning began with Marty Bax, secretary of the ‘Foundation for Academic Research into the History of Freemasonry and Related Currents in the Netherlands’ (OVN), talking on ‘Secret Knowledge: Esoteric Archives in the Netherlands’.  She sketched the Dutch situation regarding the study of esotericism, with a chair at the University of Amsterdam and two significant research libraries, the Cultural Masonic Centre (CMC) in The Hague and the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica in Amsterdam.  The CMC is involved in the Dutch ‘Metamorfoze’ digitisation project to enable easy access to its collections.  OVN was founded in 2001, and Bax described its work in promoting esoteric archives, stressing its need to remain independent of other institutions, such as masonic organisations, and avoid bias in attitudes to an organisation’s subject matter.  Boundaries, across subjects and geographically, are less rigid than might be supposed, with members of societies having interests that cross them, for example linkages between Spiritualism and freemasonry (hence the ‘related currents’ in OVN’s name).  This phenomenon encourages an interdisciplinary approach in collecting and research, not least because information on one subject can often be found in the archives of another.  Bax discussed the problems OVN have encountered as well as the advantage of handing over inventoried archives in order to make them available quickly, which in turn necessitates acquiring contextual information where possible, such as genealogical records.  Receiving institutions are not always keen to take objects, and masonry has its fair share of these, but separating them from books and archives damages the integrity of collections, leading to a loss of knowledge.  On a positive note, where smaller archives are debating whether to make an investment to maintain safety and accessibility, or transfer their holdings to larger institutions that already possess such facilities, OVN is able to offer guidance.  To assist researchers access information that is sometimes not always easy to locate, OVN produced a research guide to masonic archives, its third edition expanded to include other esoteric archives plus Spiritualism; and an esoteric guide to The Hague covering the period 1850-1945.  Bax is currently transcribing the fragile Theosophical Society membership lists held at Adyar and OVN is developing a glossary of esoteric terminology.  The question session raised the problem of confidentiality with personal information, particularly acute with masonic and esoteric records, the publication of which can attract criticism.

The last speaker of the conference, Brandon Hodge, gave a vivid talk on physical artefacts.  Hodge, who runs the website ‘Mysterious Planchette’, is a collector of the instruments of Spiritualism, and he took us through the enormous variety of objects and the ways in which they evolved over the decades as Spiritualism developed, from table tipping, the Planchette, to the Ouija board.  Objects have often been neglected as archives concentrate on paper, and their fragility has meant that they are now often rare.  Many are owned by private individuals, making documentation impossible, and may be kept in sub-optimal conditions.  Hodge gave examples of the contextual information that can be culled through records as diverse as advertisements, patents, catalogues and book illustrations, and discussed the conservation of items that are often so fragile that it is a wonder that they have survived at all.  Often parts are missing or damaged beyond repair, in which case Hodge makes replicas of the parts, always ensuring that additions are reversible and properly documented.   Building facsimiles of lost instruments using illustrations and patent descriptions can help in the search for the originals by showing exactly what they look like.  We were given some useful conservation tips, the major one being a warning about bubble wrap, which can soften varnish and scar its finish.  Photographing objects is crucial, and we were reminded of the hostility that still occurs from those with prejudices against attempts to communicate with the dead.


The conference concluded with a general discussion, asking what we had learned, and where we go from here.  Among a variety of questions, we considered what if anything is unique about the archives of parapsychology, and what issues those working with them face, bearing in mind that many are volunteers, not trained professionals, and are feeding archives rather than being custodians of them.  A number of themes from the conference re-emerged, such as the precarious existence of some archives and variable rules on retention.  The problem of Google Books, which has flaws but cannot be ignored, was raised, as was that of web content not always being picked up by Google’s searches.

Topics included care in choosing institution for a donation carefully, and the dilemma if a potential recipient wanted to be selective and discard part of it, or if it were necessary to spread a collection across different institutions according to their collecting criteria.  Expertise can be lacking: professional archivists often know less about specialist collections than do amateur enthusiasts.  There is indifference to parapsychology and related fields from some of those controlling archives, though balancing this is enormous interest and helpfulness from others.  A possible strategy to counter hostility is for archives to try to find modern relevance in historical records, but it comes with the danger that tradition would become submerged by novelty, and there is a need to stabilise historical knowledge and verify facts.  The necessity of an awareness of historical context was emphasised, and it was suggested that the Parapsychological Association could play a greater role in promoting historical knowledge for researchers.  It was also felt that the label ‘rejected knowledge’ should itself be rejected and prominence given to how the subjects have influenced culture’s mainstream, rather than merely its fringes.  In that sense the archives of parapsychology are no different to other forms of collection and should be treated in the same way.

We discussed the dangers of destruction by families when the collector has not made proper provision for preservation, and the consequent need for letters of intent to be signed by owners of significant collections.  Even better is for donation to be made while the owner is still alive because such letters are not necessarily honoured, often simply because houses may need to be cleared out quickly, with little time for such niceties.  The tension between archives and collectors in acquisition was raised, and it was suggested that one way round the problem is to appeal to their sense of accumulation, giving an assurance that the donation’s integrity will be maintained, with the collector’s name attached.  A register of archives that are missing could be a useful focus for attracting material, not necessarily only that on the register (the British Film Institute’s ‘Missing Believed Lost’ campaign to locate missing films might be a model).

The lack of coordinated information sources became clear during the conference, and the desirability of a hub so that researchers have a reliable first port of call.  This would be particularly useful where records are only a small part of bigger collections and are easily overlooked.  WISE could act as a central resource, with articles and free advertisements.  Social media were mentioned as ways of sharing information.  Linking online in a ‘web ring’ reinforces search results and so improves rankings and enables cross-promotion.  Regular income streams can help to bring stability to what is an often unstable field and fund raising came up, with possible methods including requesting money for a specific purpose, or attracting endowments with names attached.  Even crowd-funding might be considered, and grants are available for digitisation.  Not mentioned was the increasing willingness of archives to allow photography, which means that there will be large numbers of ‘mirror’ collections of documents not otherwise digitised in private hands.  Should the originals be lost through some mishap, it would be possible to recreate them from what is essentially a decentralised backup system.


Along with the speakers’ abstracts the conference programme carries several articles.  The first is a reprint of ‘In Preservation and in Peril: Protecting Documentation of Paranormal Research’ that Christopher Laursen wrote for his ‘Extraordinarium website on the then-forthcoming conference, and which includes an interview with Wim Kramer.  Gerd H. Hövelmann contributes ‘The Scientific Estate of Spiritualist Emil Prinz zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg (1824-1878) – A Preliminary Note’, which discusses the papers of Dutch sceptical journalist Piet Hein Hoebens as well as those of Prince Emile who among many other pursuits in a busy life was an active Spiritualist.  Hoebens’ archive is an exception which goes to prove Kramer’s observation that sceptical collections are uncommon.  Alejandro Parra’s article is ‘Contribution of the IPP [Institute of Paranormal Psychology] to the Historical Research and to Preserve the Parapsychological Legacy in Argentina’, covering the IPP’s library, an exhibition of paranormal photography which it organised in Buenos Aires, and a research project on Argentinian Spiritualism.

The conference was truly international, and while participants represented a broad range of institutions, large and small, what clearly emerged was their common devotion to the archives they use and manage, and the considerable challenges and opportunities they face.  At the end it was suggested that we have a further meeting in a different country, perhaps in a couple of years’ time.  This proposal was warmly endorsed, and it will be interesting to see what the archives landscape looks like then.  In the meantime, it was clear that the conference has acted as a springboard for further discussions, that networking will carry on, and that the historical collections of parapsychology, and related currents of course, will be the stronger for it.  HJBF superbly organised and very generously funded the conference, and to them, and particularly Wim Kramer, a debt is owed by anyone with an interest in parapsychological archives.  Walter Meyer zu Erpen introduced the speakers and moderated the discussions. Matti, Evelyne, Susan and Loes did a great job with the administration, making all participants feel very welcome.  Utrecht is a lovely city and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay.

I’d like to thank Shelley Sweeney and Karen Ruffles for sharing their notes of the conference.

The conference website can be found here: http://hetjohanborgmanfonds.nl/.  It has further information about HJBF and the conference, with contact information.  The lavishly-illustrated conference booklet can be downloaded as a PDF from the site.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Ghost Hunters, by Neil Spring


This is not to be confused with Deborah Blum’s non-fiction Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death.  The strapline on the cover of Neil Spring’s novel is somewhat misleading: ‘Terror awaited me at Borley Rectory, the Most Haunted House in England.’  ‘The most haunted house in England’ is taken from the title of a book by Harry Price, one of Britain’s best-known psychical researchers, The Most Haunted House in England: Ten Years’ Investigation of Borley Rectory, which was published in 1940.  The reader might reasonably expect the novel to be primarily about that ill-fated building but much of The Ghost Hunters does not directly concern Borley, and the main character is not Harry Price, nor the Rectory, but Price’s fictional secretary, Sarah Grey, through whose eyes we witness events.  Sarah and her mother attend the opening of Price’s National Laboratory of Psychical Research in 1926.  Sarah’s father had been killed in the Great War, and like many of the bereaved her mother had become immersed in Spiritualism and the search for life after death.  One thing leads to another and Sarah finds herself Price’s secretary.  The story charts the ups and downs of her relationship with Price, and the sacrifices she has to make as she assists him in his various psychical researches, of which there are others besides that at Borley.  Through her we get an image of Price’s complexities, and his shifting attitudes to the phenomena he investigates.

There is some careless writing that mars the book – for example an afternoon in October is mysteriously the end of the academic term rather than the start, and the religious revival Spring has in mind was in 1904-5, not 1903.  One would be unlikely to see copies of the Daily Worker on sale in London in 1926 as the Communist Party’s paper of that name only began publication in 1930.  The church at Borley does not have a spire but a tower.  There are occasional jarring anachronisms for the 1920s, such as ‘put my life on hold’, ‘video camera’, ‘glamour model’ and ‘lockdown’ that damage the creation of atmosphere; and typos, most notably the Austrian medium Rudi Schneider being called an Australian.  It is a mystery why the Society for Psychical Research is always clumsily referred to as The Society for Psychical Research in conversation when anybody knowing it would have simply called it ‘the SPR’.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes a brief appearance but Spring garbles the famous line from The Sign of Four – ‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’ – substituting ‘probable’ for ‘impossible’, which makes no sense.  It may be a subtle comment on Sir Arthur in his declining years, but it seems more likely to be a simple transcription error on Spring’s part.

There is a frame to the narrative which has a problem with its timescale: it is set in October 1977, when Sarah Grey’s manuscript, which forms the bulk of the novel, is given to another character.  The recipient, living in Oxford but who for some reason signs his introduction with ‘London, 1977’ as his location, says ‘I have kept this manuscript secret until now’, suggesting that he has had it for some time, despite having only just received it.  Such problems should have been picked up by a good editor.  A more serious flaw, the reveals at the end are heavily signposted and come as little surprise.  Even with these blemishes this is an entertaining read, if a sprawling one.  There is plenty of narrative drive, and, anachronisms apart, Spring has done a decent amount of research into Price’s life and times.  It may suit better those with no prior knowledge of Price and Borley as those who have some may find that they constantly compare fiction with the record, distracting them from immersion in the narrative.  For those who are already aware of Price’s reputation, the image of him subordinating the ‘Search for Truth’, as he called his 1942 autobiography, to the advancement of his career by unethical means is all too familiar.

There is a tension in the novel between the possibility of life after death and faking of the phenomena that appear to support it.  In conditions of uncertainty it is hard to reach a verdict with confidence, and for most of the novel Sarah stands for anyone drawn to such deeply contested matters who attempts to arrive at some sort of conclusion which does justice to the evidence (she gets her proof in the end).  In that sense it is an interesting portrayal of Price, who casts a long shadow over psychical research to this day.  As a novel, though, The Ghost Hunters does not generate a sense of unease in the way that, say, The Haunting of Hill House, The Shining or The Woman in Black do, despite sharing generic similarities with them.  It is still a creditable first novel, one that should stimulate even greater interest in the historical Price and the Borley phenomena than exists already.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Time Machine, Adapted and performed by Robert Lloyd Parry


H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) was the first science fiction novel I read, at the age of 11.  I can date this precisely because I was in hospital for an operation.  Far from the association with surgery putting me off it, I have always had a soft spot for the book, with its vivid descriptions of the Time Traveller’s journey to a far-future world inhabited by the passive Eloi and the predatory Morlocks.  I have also been a fan of Robert Lloyd Parry for some time, having seen him perform stories by M R James in the intimate surroundings of the Corpus Christi Playroom in Cambridge.  So it was with great anticipation that I visited Anglia Ruskin University’s Mumford theatre to see Lloyd Parry’s one-man performance as Wells’s much put-upon chrononaut.

There were two performances at the Mumford, on 23 and 24 May.  Each had an Initial talk, and that on the second night was by Professor Roger Luckhurst of Birkbeck College.  Luckhurst is currently editing an edition of The Time Machine for Oxford World’s Classics to coincide with Wells’s books coming out of copyright in 2016, and his talk, ‘Forward to the Past! Some contexts for 1890s time travel’, was presumably a dry run for the introduction.  Addressing the audience flatteringly as ‘hard-core Wellsians’, he took us on a tour of the novel’s themes and historical background.  Starting with an overview of Wells’s life, Luckhurst outlined his immense reputation while alive, yet its rapid decline after death.  The lively popular early scientific romances gave way to increasingly turgid didacticism, his distrust of democracy and conviction that a rational technocratic world government populated by the intellectual elite would create a better future sounding increasingly naive.

Luckhurst situated The Time Machine within both science fiction and the fin de siècle Imperial Gothic and saw it as futurology, projecting current trends forward.  It was in dialogue with other books, such as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) and the futuro-mediaeval socialism of William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890).  Before his journey the Time Traveller thinks that the future will continue on a smooth progression, whereas when he arrives in it he sees only decay and an end to evolution.  There were concerns in the 1890s over such issues as the decadence of society and degeneration which the novel tapped into (Max Nordau in his influential 1892 book, Entartung, published in 1895 as Degeneration, talked about ‘the unchaining of the beast in man’, and what is the beast if not a Morlock?).  Humanity in Wells’s novel has bifurcated into two species, heirs of present-day social classes for whom social distinctions have become biologised.  The feeble Eloi, living in the ruins of a vanished civilisation, are a mockery of the Victorian decadents that Wells despised, the subterranean Morlocks represent a retreat back down the evolutionary chain.  The Time Traveller is appalled at what we have become while acknowledging our kinship with these creatures.  When he escapes into the even further future he finds the world exhausted, its death surely not far off as it succumbs to entropy.

Luckhurst argued that Wells’s best work had been done by 1901, with much rubbish produced after that date by the prolific author, to the extent that writers as diverse as Henry James and the literary modernists defined themselves against him.  However, Luckhurst stressed that there was a great deal of snobbery in this because of Wells’s lower-middle class background, even though he was unusual as a novelist during the period in actually having had a science education.  E M Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) was a humanist attack on Wells’s technocratic ‘utopia’, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) was an even more influential satirical riposte.  Yet The Time Machine is an ambiguous text, balancing optimism and pessimism; the future inhabited by Eloi and Morlocks can be changed, if we have the will to do it.


After this entertaining and illuminating introduction, it was off to see what Lloyd Parry had made of the role of the Time Traveller.  The set comprised the titular machine, a garden chair and a bird bath, the last filled so that from time to time he could plunge his face into it for a refreshing draught before continuing his story.  The time machine itself was a beautiful construction.  The designer had avoided the temptation to go steampunk and have whirring gears and flashing lights.  When seen initially on its side it looked like small tapered mahogany missile but when upright it was in the form of a huge metronome, with time increments displayed on the pendulum which handily could be pressed into service as a weapon later in the action.  The machine was a versatile bit of kit because it doubled up as aspects of the far-future scenery, an effect facilitated by staples up one side that the Traveller could climb.  It could be a hill enabling him to survey his surroundings, and even masquerade as a well by the process of hinging back the tip and staring down into it.  The script was complemented by effective sound effects and lighting, insistently chiming clocks particularly helpful in ratcheting up the tension.

The setting at the start is the garden outside his house (hence the bird bath and garden chair) and the beginning bore a similarity to that of the Corpus Christi James performance I witnessed, in that he was on stage but hidden in the machine before the audience entered.  The Time Machine started with him falling out of it exhausted and writhing about until he regained his composure.  Whether intentional or not, it was reminiscent of the beginning of Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production of Frankenstein, when the creature (alternately Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch) emerged from a womb-like structure and fell about helplessly while learning to control its limbs.

The wildly bearded Traveller – as in the book we never learn his name – presented a contrast to Lloyd Parry’s clean-shaven bespectacled M R James.   It was curious too to see the actor so mobile after his seated performances as James.  The Traveller was cast in the mould of the Victorian gentleman explorer, perhaps the John Hanning Speke of time travel, though Lloyd Parry seemed to be channeling Professor Challenger in his vigorous physicality.  He spent the evening wearing extremely disreputable-looking long-johns, signifying what a tough time he has had/will have (oh these time paradoxes) in 802,701.  (The publicity leaflet is misleading in showing the Time Traveller properly attired and sporting a neat moustache.)  A thought did occur that if he has only the one pair, and wears them for every performance, by the end of the run it won’t be a one-person show because they will be able to participate independently.  A change from the novel is that one actor cannot easily replicate the circle of friends who listen to his story, and instead the theatre audience stands in for them.  At the same time, the audience plays the part of a jury weighing evidence; we are explicitly given the option of taking the story as untruth, and have to assess its plausibility.

As the action continued, Lloyd Parry was able to generate a real sense of tenderness when talking of Weena, an Eloi who had become devoted to him, and of menace when recounting his trip into the underground lair of the Morlocks in search of his purloined time machine.  Overall the Traveller did not come across as a particularly likeable character: he showed that he could be petulant under stress, and mean to Weena when she became irritating.  He was put out by the failure of the Eloi to be suitably impressed by his achievement in visiting them, and not unreasonably disappointed to find that intellectual and social development had not made a smooth progression from the 1890s to some higher plane.  Whether or not our descendants have such a future to look forward to – and who knows what the Traveller would have found had he ventured out of the Thames Valley – Wells’s novel is a rich text, and Lloyd Parry’s interpretation was enjoyable and thought-provoking.  You do worry though about the foolhardiness of travelling to unknown places with only a box of matches but without a firearm or a change of underwear.  It all seemed most unlike the correct behaviour of a Victorian gentleman.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

A symposium on Gef, the Talking Mongoose


On 10 April 2014, the University of London’s Senate House Library hosted a meeting organised by Christopher Josiffe and Richard Espley, ‘“If you knew what I know, you’d know a hell of a lot!”: A symposium on Gef the Talking Mongoose’, to examine the Isle of Man’s weirdest personality.  A good-sized crowd gathered to hear a range of speakers explore the phenomena surrounding Gef, and to discuss how we might make sense of the bizarre story 80 years on.  The symposium was supported by displays of items connected to the case drawn from the library’s collection.

The first speaker was Christopher Josiffe, who has researched ‘the Dalby Spook’, to give Gef one of his alternative names, and published a well-received article in Fortean Times (January 2011).  He started by saying that he had thought the matter would be easy to resolve, but after a number of years finds that the case is still enigmatic.  He ran through the events at Doarlish Cashen (Manx for Cashen’s Gap), outside the village of Dalby.  These started in Autumn 1931, the family involved comprising James Irving, his wife Margaret and their 12-year old daughter Voirrey (the local variant of Mary).  Their house was isolated, a couple of miles away from the nearest neighbour, with no electricity, radio or telephone.  The family were incomers from England, and were not making a go of life in the harsh terrain, Mr Irving having previously been a commercial traveller, not a farmer.  They were in straightened circumstances and not popular in the insular community.  Against this background, the chatty Gef – a mere 12” long, six of which were occupied by his tail – must have come as a bit of welcome relief to the family, for all his annoying habits
 
Voirrey and her father at Doarlish Cashen

The following speaker, Robin Klarzynski, discussed connections between Gef and William Burroughs in a talk that was really more about Burroughs than Gef.  Klarzynski did bring in the concept of the trickster, which seems highly relevant here, and was keen to reject a simplistic real/hoax, either/or, binary.  Burrough’s interest in animals, particularly cats, as psychic familiar spirits certainly chimed with Gef.  The notion of the ‘Third Mind’, which results from the meeting of two minds, suggests that an emergent property could have been produced in the febrile atmosphere at Doarlish Cashen, but it is a stretch to consider Gef as a dream reality made manifest, the creature brought into existence by thought.  The exercise in cutting up Gef’s statements á la Burroughs, and putting them through google translate multiple times, did not seem particularly illuminating of the Gef mystery.

Next up was Alan Murdie, chair of the Society for Psychical Research’s Spontaneous Cases Committee, who looked at the case in the context of poltergeists, particularly the role that sex has been shown to play in them.  His starting point was that poltergeists exist as ‘social facts’, the SPR receiving large numbers of such reports from around the world.  Many of these involve animals, or entities that resemble animals, so in that light Gef is not unique.  Murdie also pointed out that while about three-quarters of all poltergeist cases last for under a year, about a quarter (more place- than person-centred) go on longer, sometimes considerably so.  Gef-as-poltergeist should not therefore be ruled out on the grounds that it lasted too long.

Murdie drew on the work of psychical researcher and psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor, who linked sex and poltergeists.  He spent a week on the island investigating Gef, but unfortunately went off the rails somewhat by reaching the conclusion that Gef really was an animal that could talk.  Murdie, taking a more plausible line, speculated that there was an element of incest between Mr Irving and his daughter.  Voirrey later blamed Gef for her failure to marry, but perhaps she was really blaming her father.  Incest does seem to be a possible factor in a considerable proportion of poltergeist cases.  In this scenario Gef might have been Voirrey’s way of gaining a limited measure of control: his rudeness and bad language to Mr Irving giving her licence to be offensive to her father while blaming Gef, a small measure of release.

Harry Price visited the farm in 1935 and wrote a book about what he dryly referred to as the ‘Manx prodigy’ with R. S. Lambert (editor of The Listener), published the following year.  This was The Haunting of Cashen's Gap: A Modern ‘Miracle’ Investigated, a pair of inverted commas that speak volumes.  When Price suggested that he take Voirrey for a ride in his car, Irving became angry and said that Price should look for a girl elsewhere.  In his interpretation of this incident, Fodor thought that as well as protecting Voirrey, Irving probably feared that he would lose his position centre-stage in the drama.  Despite Fodor’s Freudian leanings, Murdie suggested that he had missed the more sinister possibility that Irving feared his daughter might spill the beans if Price was allowed to interrogate her unsupervised.  Fodor concludes in the 1953 book he co-wrote with Hereward Carrington, The Story of the Poltergeist Down the Centuries, in the chapter on Gef just before that of ‘The Poltergeist Psychoanalysed’, that Gef ‘was the missing link between the animal and human intellect…’  Gef was not a poltergeist, Fodor thought, but he had included the case in the book as it exhibited many characteristics associated with poltergeists.

James sitting firmly between Voirrey and Lambert

Mark Russell Bell’s paper was read in his absence by Richard Espley.  Bell compared the Gef phenomena with those of the 1817 Bell Witch case in Tennessee.  Fodor actually has a chapter on the Bell Witch immediately before that of Gef in The Story of the Poltergeist, in which he suggests that Betsy Bell hated her father John because he ‘had taken sexual liberties’ with her.  Perhaps he felt on safer ground making such suggestions once the individuals concerned were all safely dead.  Mark Bell, presumably no relation, finds parallels between Gef and ‘Kate’ in Tennessee, with strange animals featuring in the latter, a disembodied voice, trickery and clairvoyance.  (In addition to speech, Gef developed clairvoyant abilities, picking up gossip from around the island, though despite considering himself ‘just a little extra, extra clever mongoose’, his information and observations tended to be mundane.)  However, Kate was supposed to be the spirit of a human, not an animal, and Kate displayed physical violence that was alien to Gef, though he did have a verbal temper and was supposed to exhibit bad language, though when this was raised as a question nobody could say precisely how bad it had been.

Richard Espley then presented his own paper.  He looked at instances of books being referred to in The Haunting of Cashen's Gap, and noted tensions whenever this happened.  Despite claims of Gef’s literacy, it was apparent that he didn’t actually like books (the Bell Witch on the other hand was knowledgeable about the Bible), on one occasion insisting that a book on ghosts be destroyed.  When a book is mentioned it tends to be along the lines of ‘it was brought into the house’, as if to disavow responsibility.  It was not the sort of household that welcomes books.  Nor was Gef happy to see Mr Irving reading a newspaper.  Espley suggested that this was a preference for orality, Irving both the teller of the tale and its servant and Gef living through ritualised oral retellings of his story.  Gef’s ability to read may have been overstated, and the only evidence of writing that he produced was the letter ‘N’, which Fodor said was an attempt to write his first name.  It is fairly obvious that ‘Gef’ had a problem with spelling.  Price and Lambert on the other side represented a textual culture.  Reading between the lines, Espley thinks that Price and Lambert thought Irving a bore, and Espley sees their book as documenting the uncomprehending encounters of the various participants in the saga.

The final speaker was Craig Wallace, a post-graduate at Queen's University Belfast.  He analysed possible influences of Gef’s story on Nigel Kneale, who lived in Douglas from 1928, when he was 6.  Kneale’s work is full of the supernatural and the idea of digging through layers of the past.  Similarly, Gef was possibly a manifestation of something older, and Wallace mentioned a slab covering a funerary urn being found at Doarlish Cashen.  He focused on the Baby and Special Offer segments of Kneale’s 1976 series Beasts, the former revolving around Something uncategorisable found behind the wall of a cottage, the latter featuring a cartoon creature called ‘Briteway Billy’ used as a marketing device in a shoddy supermarket.  With their interspecies aspects they both have echoes of Gef.  As with Kneale’s The Stone Tape we have with Gef, as Wallace put it, data awaiting interpretation, ‘disturbances in the grid.’  During the discussion, Mark Pilkington from the audience said that he had once attended a BFI interview with Kneale and Kneale had vehemently dismissed the reality of paranormal phenomena, almost too strongly Pilkington thought.  Kneale did not refer to Gef in the conversation.

The Irvings spend a pleasant evening at home

The final event of the afternoon was a screening of Vanished! A Video Seance (1999), a gallery film made by Brian Catling and Tony Grisoni that was based on the case (‘Vanished’ was Gef’s word for goodbye).  The film consisted entirely of close-ups of three actors playing the Irvings talking about Gef. Some artistic licence was taken with the evidence in the monologues, but it did convey the claustrophobia, eccentricity and emotional poverty of life in that isolated cottage.  Catling and Grisoni had gone to the site of the house – demolished sometime in the 1980s we learned – to record the wind, and the film began with it, before we even saw the actors.  We could hear just how exposed it was there, and the viewer had to wonder how living in that place might affect a person’s mental stability.

So did the afternoon shed any new light on the Gef enigma?  Was Gef a poltergeist, some kind of cryptid, a hoax, or a combination of these?  If a hoax, was it by Voirrey alone, a cry for help; with her mother, the two women attempting to force Mr Irving to move to somewhere more congenial; or was he involved as well?  Clearly there was some hoaxing, as evidenced by the dubious casts of paw prints (of which it seems only the photographs now exist) and the hair samples.  Voirrey could have been engaging in ventriloquism, possibly aided by the house’s acoustics, given the gap between the outer walls and the wooden panelling that provided some measure of insulation.  Money does not seem to have been a motive for hoaxing, but the psychology of the family may have provided one.


 The symposium showed how Gef has had a cultural influence and remains a popular Fortean oddity, but we got no closer to working out what was going on in that house.  Whatever it was, Gef petered out along with the 1930s and was gone by 1939, by which time the world had most definitely moved on.  Despite a previous reluctance, Walter McGraw managed to interview Voirrey for Fate magazine in 1970.  She wasn’t terribly forthcoming but affirmed Gef’s reality: ‘Yes, there was a little animal who talked and did all those other things.’  She still did not admit to it being a hoax, which would have helped to dampen interest, and provide the peace she wanted.

I wonder if the story would have been anything more than a curiosity if it had not been for the involvement of Harry Price.  Was it really worth a book-length treatment, one wonders.  There are other strange cases in the annals of psychical research which have faded into obscurity, and there is no particular reason why this one should have become so well known.  But Price has retained a high profile because of his symbiotic relationship with Borley, and his profile has lent itself, along with Christopher Josiffe’s efforts in more recent years, to the maintenance of interest in Gef.  One of the speakers said words to the effect that it was useful to scrutinise the mystery from a variety of angles and that the symposium showed that a multi-disciplinary approach would yield fresh insights.  But the day seemed rather to indicate that Gef is a limited, if entertaining, mystery that does not lend itself to deep analysis or wide extrapolation.  The talks suggested ways of looking at Gef that go beyond Price and Lambert’s narrative, but while the resulting suppositions and insights might be correct, what we are left with is a fantastic story that is not amenable to a solution.  Still, while we may not have come to any conclusions, it was nice to gather in the congenial atmosphere of Senate House Library to discuss that clever little beastie.

There was one question which did not come up during the afternoon: Gef called himself ‘the eighth wonder of the world.’  Was he aware that King Kong had been given that title in the 1933 film?  Was it a coincidence?  Perhaps Gef did read the newspapers and saw a reference.  If so, his humour went over the Irvings’ heads, comparing his tiny body to that of the mighty Kong.  There’s hubris for you.

A possible theory of what Gef was appeared in the pages of a 1976 issue of Look and Learn.  It noted that prior to the First World War a farmer had released a number of mongooses on the island to keep down rabbits.  This is true, and according to Josiffe there are alleged sightings of these animals today.  Look and Learn speculates that if a mongoose had mated with a weasel, ‘its descendants would almost certainly have looked like, well, Gef.’  But would they have had his vocabulary?

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Memories of seeing The Exorcist, 1974


I’ve been enjoying Leo Ruickbie’s article in the latest Fortean Times celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist, which opened in the UK in March 1974 (‘What Possessed Us?, FT April 2014, pp.30-35).  Forty years, how time flies.  I particularly remember the film because I saw it that summer in Edinburgh, on a school trip to Scotland. We had spent the bulk of our time near Aviemore (featuring a visit to Loch Ness, as well as the first and last time I ate haggis) and had stopped at Edinburgh for a final couple of days before travelling back to London.  The film, as the FT article indicates, had received a huge amount of publicity and debate, and some friends and I decided that as we had the opportunity we ought to see what the fuss was about.

This was far from being the first horror film I’d seen.  I used to go with my mother to the cinema occasionally, and she was happy for us to see X films as long as they weren’t sexual in content.  The first of these was The Travelling Executioner in 1970, which was the support feature on a double bill with House of Dark Shadows, the film I was there to see.  Later I remember going with school friends to see A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs, other controversial films and not ones to see with my mother.  Being underage was never a problem, and I don’t recall ever being turned away from a film because I looked too young.

Fortean Times, April 2014

That night in Edinburgh we were primed to expect a terrifying experience by being handed a copy of a leaflet as we walked in.  ‘The Exorcist shows the reality of evil power’ it shouted; that was a promising start.  ‘It portrays this power in a way which is likely to affect you adversely’ it continued.  By the time we read ‘The viewing of this film may lead to unusual fears, depression or mental stress and it is possible that physical, mental and spiritual breakdown may result’, we knew we were in for a great night.  The choice between paying attention to earnest Christians handing out leaflets on the pavement or witnessing the power of Satan in action didn’t seem much of a contest.

I kept it, but didn't need it

The lurid newspaper reports of cinema-goers experiencing adverse reactions had raised expectations that we were in for an intense experience.  A lot of the hysteria whipped up by the film’s publicists related to people being sick in the cinema.  We happily thought we might be physically ill at the horrid sights on screen, so we all sat in the back row just in case, because then we could vomit in the gangway behind us and not over our neighbours.  We were that keen to be revolted.

Helping to whip up the frenzy

In the event not only did we not see anyone be sick, I don’t think anyone in the audience even fainted.  Certainly nobody fled screaming, though perhaps for some the mental and spiritual breakdown threatened by the leaflet came later.  We sturdy South London school students all enjoyed the film, but felt a little short-changed it had not had the promised physiological effects that would have represented extremely good value for money.  Yet despite falling short of the hype I think we agreed that it was scary enough, and nicely wrapped up a very pleasant trip.

Nowadays when such material is easily available there is no sense of achievement in seeing a particular title.  You can watch Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom uncut at home, whereas when I first saw it at the Brixton Ritzy it was in a cut form and the audience had to join a ‘cinema club’ for the night.  As a result it felt a big deal.  I would not want to go back to the times of a censorious BBFC (when the C pre-1984 stood for Censors rather than Classification), a time when the phrase ‘Festival of Light’ made you think of Mary Whitehouse rather than Diwali.  But convenience does come with a price.

That easy availability has made us blasé.  The heightened feeling of anticipation experienced by those audiences for The Exorcist in 1974, so strong that in some cases they resulted in severe psychosomatic effects (if reports are to be believed), could not be replicated in 2014.  Something, an intensity of engagement, is lost when on the whole we can see what we want when we want.  Is the flipside of accessibility a greater sense of disposability?