An Update for the Curious
At the time of writing ASSAP is plunged deep in election fever: for the first time in many years we have many candidates competing for roles on the Exec committee. That is not what I am writing about though; I have pumpkins to carve and lots to do.
What I thought I might do was write a plain English update on where we got in our research this year. Please do ask questions, and note these are my personal opinions, and I'm often wrong.
A lot of our people are fascinated by ghosts; many go out and try and record evidence, while others try and study them as history or folklore or in literature. My second paper on the Cheltenham Ghost falls in the last category - I put forward my case that a very famous ghost story "The Turn of the Screw" was based not on the Hinton Ampner case as proposed by Roger Clarke, but much more directly from a real ghost story here in Cheltenham. This is a follow up to my paper on Gustav Holst and the Cheltenham Ghost: but I am assuming if you are reading this you are interested in real ghosts not books about them.
Its ten years today since Becky defended her thesis for her PhD on ghost experiences. Despite her expertise in the area no journalist has ever interviewed her, and she never appears in articles. Yes, Becky is quite shy but even so it is mildly amusing that someone with as much research in the area as Becky is ignored in favour of the latest media darlings every Halloween. 🎃
So what can we say about ghosts? Becky and I agree that some hauntings do seem to suggest that we live after death, and might appear to the living. If you think that is just what ghost means, well I'm afraid it is much more complex. Many people have suggested (since 1928 at least) that ghosts might be recordings: just an appearance of the past playing over and over again. Since the 1970s this idea has become very common -- but there is surprisingly little evidence for it.
In fact, if you look at the experiences people relate to researchers, the evidence is completely the opposite way. Ghosts speak, interact with witnesses and generally seem aware of the modern environment. Many ghosts appear as much "there" as the witness. This would not be the case if they were recordings of the past.
Something else to note is there are three categories of Spook -
1. Experience ghosts - peoples own experiences of ghosts that happened when they were not looking for ghosts, related directly to the researcher. These have much in common, and Becky found they had not changed since an earlier study in 1894.
2. Story Ghosts - ask people to make up a ghost story about a real ghost. These fictional ghosts have a number of tropes or aspects that don't appear in class 1. They are influenced by what people think they know about ghosts, which is usually wrong.
3. Ghost hunter’s ghosts. These are ghost’s people experience while out ghost hunting trying to see ghosts: Becky did her MSc study on ghost hunting groups at the Station Hotel Dudley. What is odd about ghost hunts is people hardly ever ***see*** ghosts: most of the phenomena they encounter is different to Class 1. I'm going to run a paper by Becky on this in a future Anomaly if it passes peer review. Visual apparitions are very rare here though.
So concentrating on Group 1; it looks like something real underlies the ghost experience, it is powerful enough to overwrite our cultural expectations and it similar around the world and across time. It was these qualities found in Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell's impressive study Poltergeists (1979) that first made me realise poltergeists were a problem for Science; Becky convinced me ghosts are too. We have a mystery, and we need to try and find answers - it's what humans do. 🙂
So what happens when we see a ghost? I think these experiences might be internal; the ghost is in your head. I don't mean that it's not real, it is just imagination. You are conscious and experience the world around you; our science still cannot explain why we are conscious, or what consciousness is. It is perhaps the ultimate mystery. Who am I who is looking out and seeing the world?
Yes our brains are important in this process: can you have consciousness without brains? We don't know. The philosopher Anthony Flew argued it would no longer be us, and the arguments back and forth are too complex for this letter. If your brain is a receiver for your consciousness elsewhere (think The Matrix) like a radio picking up and broadcasting a signal, then what if another consciousness interferes with the reception? This could manifest as telepathy, personality issues or presumably seeing ghosts - though in the latter case the visual input suggests the ghost you are seeing is not the consciousness you are encountering, but the person looking at them...
Anyway wild speculation. More sensibly, my working hypothesis is the parts of the brain involved in "seeing" a ghost are the same parts involved in "seeing" in our dreams. We hallucinate the ghost as our dreams are hallucinations, but just as we can dream of real places and real events so our ghosts might represent real people and things. They might just activate these parts of the brain to convey information to us.
So what is a Ghost? We don't know. We know the hallmarks of a fake made up ghost; we have evidence it is not shaped as an experience by books or TV as you'd expect; and *most* evidence implies it occurs inside your head. So how do we know it is not just imagination? Because some ghosts seem to be seen by different people at different times, and they are unlikely to imagine the same thing. Even better, some ghosts seem to appear and give us information that we could not know, such as Aunt Agatha appearing at the exact time of her death. We call these veridical - "truthful" - ghosts. Also 12% of cases have multiple witnesses who see the "ghost"; what are termed collective cases- and they are clearly not imaginary.
However if internal there will be no real ghost photos, electronic gizmos won't detect ghosts and we need to embrace radically different research methodologies not the vigil monitoring positivist approach.
So what's going on in the world of ASSAP investigations? I've not seen any new case reports this year apart from an interesting poltergeist where the family withdrew and the Downham Market Spook which again ended before we could establish the truth with the pub shutting down.
This year most cases I have got to look at in detail came via the medium of podcasts or the new wave of Paranormal TV epitomised by Sian Eleri's Paranormal and Danny Robin's Uncanny. Now these shows are head and shoulders above the last 20 years of “reality TV" ghost hunting, but from the viewpoint of a ghost researcher they suffer from being edited to make good TV: something I may find regrettable, but millions of viewers probably prefer.
What is very curious is some of the editorial choices: in the case of both the N. Wales case in Paranormal and one of the cases Danny Robins presented on the Uncanny TV show there were a lot of fairly sensational elements to the cases that were omitted from the TV shows. This strikes me as curious - we might expect the TV show to exaggerate or play up the story, not miss out really startling claims. Maybe it's down to what parapsychologist Renee Hayes called the "Boggle Factor" - maybe the editors felt these parts of the story broke suspension of disbelief, or took the story from spooky to unbelievable for most viewers.
Another factor is the missed opportunities from "experts" on these shows to raise relevant research. Fortunately I know some of them well and am aware they are not ignorant or incompetent: they are probably working on limited information, in very low budget formats, and are required to constrain their speculation to a "storyline" dictated by the director. I find it hard to believe any parapsychologist would not immediately reference GW Lambert's 1953 geophysical hypothesis, or Cornell and Gaulds famous shaking to pieces of a Cambridge council house on Anglia to test it when faced with the Bear Park case from the second uncanny episode.
Hopefully the experts having had proper access to the witnesses and seen the final version will submit reports to us or papers to the journal, barring any contractual impediments. In the meantime the next issue of the journal contains a number of papers where we'll known researchers in the field bring their attention to cases from the shows.
Last year I was convinced we were seeing really big steps forward in poltergeist research. So far though it’s not manifested in new papers, and I'm woefully behind on books. One theme that was big in 2023 was contagion; the idea that exposure to a paranormal source rubs off on investigators and the phenomena "follows them home". Darren Ritson brought out a new edition of his book, and he is undoubtedly the leader on this, but other investigators started to talk about it more. It’s one of those things I tend to bang on about after realising phenomena reported at Derby Gaol often seemed to arrive with the ghost hunters and vary from team to team. The Mothman Prophecies could be seen as extended contagion.
So is contagion
1. A force that somehow attaches to and manifests around the investigator? (Like sin in Purity code era ancient Near Eastern religion: psychic contamination).
2. ESP powers of the investigator awakened by exposure to the idea/presence of psi on the case, so the investigator haunts themselves?
3. Spirits or demonic entities that follow the investigator home and haunt them?
4. Psychological and perceptual priming where we just notice weird things much more? I know from experience how strong this can be.
Anyway I'd like to test some of these ideas, and hold a conference on new perspectives in poltergeist research. It’s an area where there is a lot of interest and activity but we need to get the handful of experts in the area together and push for some real progress here.
British Ufology and the Air Ministry used to use UAP for Unexplained Atmospheric Phenomena - it is a hypothesis not the neutral label the USA government were looking for. This I think really demonstrates the problem with the dabbling of NASA and the US agencies in Ufology - they are essentially enthusiastic amateurs given to reinventing the wheel, and easily taken in by nonsense. While lots of people in the UK were excited by the Congressional oversight committee and reporting of whistle-blowers, it all felt like Bob Lazar, Majestic 12, SERPO and all that stuff once again. We've been here so many times - and I'm not seeing anything to suggest Extra-terrestrial or even Ultra terrestrial involvement in some of the highlighted cases; they are almost certainly very this world in origin, at a time of escalating global tension.
Are there still mysterious UFO events that need research and experiences that need support? Absolutely: just most of the media interest and the new high profile research have been looking at other cases.
So did we see huge advances in Ufology this year? Yes, I think so. One was our own Robert Moore's Project Foxfire. In his detailed study of seven ages of British UFO reports he demonstrates that there are cultural factors underlying what people see in the sky - the opposite to Becky's finding on ghosts. The sky is a mirror to our soul - what black triangles and abductions tells us about the 1990s I hate to think!
Robert died suddenly, tragically, unreasonably back in April. I was shocked: Ufology’s loss is immense. It was particularly unreasonable of his heart to fail when I finally felt we had established that the Psychosocial Hypothesis which we both held had failed. It has long been held by social scientists that times of social anxiety and tension such as say the Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1968 Civil Rights movement in the USA lead to an increase in reports of paranormal phenomena.
It's a seductive hypothesis but hard to quantify: how do you measure either side of your graph? Still I do have more access to data than most people, and so far the COVID pandemic, Ukraine War and so forth seem to have caused to my mind unprecedented levels of social anxiety and yet no increase (a drop in fact) in reports of anomalous phenomena. I think like the predicted increase in suicide rates during lockdown it proved one of those things that everyone knew and which was widely reported in the media but which was it turned out utter nonsense: we now know male suicide dropped to the lowest level in years during lockdown, and women's deaths through self-harm declined to a lesser extent.
So has the Magonian Psychosocial position failed to demonstrate itself? I think so. We need to look less at the cultural and societal and more at the individual; these are religious or mystical experiences occurring to visionaries, not manifestations of societal unease. They take forms dictated by culture and experience, but sometimes they might be something profound. And most of the time? Drones, stars, the moon or other simple causes.
The Loch Ness sonar scan went ahead but I've not see anything detailed on the results or what the previous eDNA survey showed. I was wondering if a giant eel might show up in the DNA? Anyone know where the results were published?
One thing that might demonstrate the Psychosocial Hypothesis in action is the one category of phenomena that increased; mystery big cat sightings in the UK. This might be caused by social anxiety; or it might be caused by a real and timid population creeping out of the woods during lockdown when humanity retreated. We saw deer at the end of my road...
Controversy raged in ASSAP over these sightings and then an excellent documentary Panthera Britannia was released: its well worth a watch. My cynicism was dented, but I'm waiting for the follow up documentary.
The problem with big cat sightings is not just rubbish photos - compare with the escaped lion cub on the garage roof a few years back - it's the embarrassment of riches. There are sightings from all over the country, and so many - few bodies or roadkill, but lots of beasties. Maybe they are werewolf’s 🙂