Raising the Dead

Bart Simon. Undead Science: Science Studies and the Afterlife of Cold Fusion. Rutgers University Press, 2002.

In March 1989, two University of Utah-based chemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, claimed to have discovered an extraordinary anomaly: an electrochemical process which produced more energy than was put into it. They argued that this was caused by cold (i.e. room temperature) nuclear fusion, which opened up vistas of cheap energy. However by the end of 1990 cold fusion was effectively dead and buried, attempts at replication having largely failed.

But as Simon shows, research continues into cold fusion in a kind of scientific half-life. Cold fusion is an undead science, a thing which won't lie down, and which continues to haunt the liminal fringes of academe. He argues that this cold fusion research cannot be thought of as really live science, for after all it was dead and buried back in 1990 and Simon is not disputing that fact at all. But nor is it really dead, people are still performing experiments.

While, if they are like me, Magonia readers are probably not likely to want to wade through pages of often excruciatingly technical detail in this book, the broad argument is one which should be of interest, and the analogies with psychical research should be apparent. Here too we have a topic officially pronounced dead by the scientific establishment, where people on the fringes continue to do research. Ufology on the other hand is perhaps more like an aborted foetus of a science but one still capable of doing some quite good haunting.

This of course leads to the question as to how such ghostly sciences fit into the general theory of ghosts and haunting which involves the fragmentation of the narrative of personal experience under the impact of unassimilable fragments of 'history', which can only be contained within the contours of a pastiche of folk drama which contains the resulting breach within a cell of metaphors. If this applies to cold fusion, then cold fusion and its research is a metaphor for something else which cannot be spoken of, a breach in the edifice of capitalist economics perhaps, or the dangerous notion of liberation from living by the sweat of the brow as symbolized by "free energy". -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 84, March 2004.

UFO Religions

Christopher Partridge (editor). UFO Religions. Routledge, 2003.

This collection of seventeen papers explores various aspects of UFO religiosity, ranging from studies of such usual suspects as Heaven's Gate, the Raelians, Unarius and the Aetherius Society, to broader looks at the development of ufology in Germany and Finland, a study of ufology as a cargo cult, through to analyses of the contemporary abduction movement, as well as studies of lesser known movements.

If there is a common theme among the studies it is that ufology and the UFO religions which developed from Theosophy and Spiritualism, represent attempts to find some kind of reconciliation between science and religion, either to represent the narratives of traditional religion in terms of material or quasi -material extraterrestrial beings intervening in human affairs, or to claim that ufological and paranormal experiences point to a de-secularizing challenge to contemporary science. There is less emphasis on interpretations which argue that UFO and other new religions are a response to the ideological crisis which sees traditional religious, scientific and political narratives all discredited alike. More also could have been made of the transition from the 1950s contactees which followed the Anglo-American Protestant tradition of the admonitory sermon where the word is the container of the sacred, to the abductee narratives based on raw experience of the transcending power of 'the Other', substituting direct spiritual experience for the word.

Though all of these essays are of interest to Magonia readers, and their authors would all be welcome as Magonia contributors, there is something slightly dated about them. Despite the date of publication, it seems clear that most if not all of these essays were written before 9/11. It is also perhaps curious that there is no discussion of the use of UFO and abduction imagery for overtly theological purposes in the work of Steven Spielberg, most notably in the mini-series Taken in which filmic, ufological and traditional Christian themes such as sin, suffering, redemption and damnation are woven together.

This is a reasonably accessible academic collection, if rather overtaken by events. Definitely worth a look. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 84, March 2004.

Manufacturing Victims

Tana Dineen. Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry is Doing to People. Constable, 1999.

Are the various strange therapies that we encounter in Magonia, the past-life regressions, the spirit-releasement therapy, the UFO abduction syndrome and the Satanic abuse myth, merely the result of the misapplication and misuse of otherwise solid and worthwhile techniques? Tana Dineen suggests they are not, rather they are the extreme examples of a fundamentally flawed doctrine, the psychologising of human experience and behaviour and the manufacturing of victims out of fundamentally healthy people.

She does not deny there are real victims in the world, but as she points out, the majority of 'real' victims, the victims of poverty, oppression, racism, or of vast cruelty are of little interest to the psychology industry, as they do not have the wherewithal to pay psychologists fees. The psychologists' ideal 'victims' are to a large extent the successful within society, the bored and vaguely unhappy bourgeoisie whose lives are not as happy and shiny as shown on the TV adverts, and who can be persuaded that the normal stresses, frustrations and failures, which are the lot of any human life, are 'traumas' or 'addictions' rendering them victims in need of a therapy; and which in effect declare them unfit to nm their own lives without the intervention of a 'professional'.

The medicalisation and pathologisation of normal human experience is often accomplished by using terms devised to describe extreme situations and using them to describe the trivial. Thus having your purse snatched, or being belittled by the boss become 'traumas' almost on a par with being held hostage and raped, or having your legs chopped off in a traffie accident.

More dramatically, vague senses of disquiet can be interpreted as 'symptoms' of some hidden and improbable victimising experience; a deep, dark, hidden secret to which the all-wise therapist has the only key. It is here are bred the wild therapies we have commented on so many times before in Magonia. Those who are most likely to become their prey are what Dineen calls psychologically-prone personalities whose features include: seeing the world in psychological terms, being emotionally preoccupied and reactive, being disposed to imagination and fantasy, being open to suggestion and influence, especially from purported authority figures, seeing direction and guidance in living, wanting simple solutions and answers. These are very similar to the descriptions of fantasy prone personalities, or the highly hypnotisable personality. They also show some similarities to those who are drawn to 'cults' and other fringe religious and social movements.

Dineen remarks on a study which noted a strong correlation between fantasy-prone personality and childhood sexual abuse, arguing that the former had emerged as a defence against the latter. An alternative reading she suggests would be that fantasy prone personalities are more open to suggestions from therapists that they suffered from childhood sexual abuse, and more able to 'remember' imaginary events.

Overall the psychology industry, she argues, belittles real victims, and denigrates human beings' often
extraordinary ability to come through the most appalling situations. It reduces peoples capacity to organise and control their own lives, replaces a real concept of normality based on average human experience with an absurd ideal of psychological health which almost everyone will fail, and thus become a victim of some internal or external force from which only the psychologist can deliver us. Thus we arc all seen as being 'vulnerable', in need of guidance or even guardianship. Like many totalitarian leaders, psychologists seek to undermine existing, authentic human relationships, and to replace real relationships, however flawed, with ones' bought and paid for, a form of prostitution.

Like many polemicists, it is probable that Dineen exaggerates to some degree, and it is perhaps unfair to blame psychologists alone for the growth of the victim culture. Surely equal 'credit' must go to Rantzenite TV shows and the legions of ambulance chasing lawyers, who persuade people that if something goes wrong, someone else, preferably someone with cash, is to blame. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 72, October 2000.

Railway Weirdness

Paul Screeton. Crossing the Line; Trespassing on Railway Weirdness. Heart of Albion Press, 2006,

Paul Screeton will be best known to Magonia readers as the editor of Folklore Frontiers, a long established magazine of urban legends, wild rumours, fortean eccentricity and scantily-clad young ladies. Also predominant in its pages is evidence of the editor's fascination with trains and railways, and staunch defence of this interest. For instance there are frequent denunciations of imagination-challenged journalists who use 'trainspotter' as a universal term of derision. This book manages to combine both of Paul's interests in one volume, with what is perhaps the first comprehensive survey of railway folklore. It's not surprising that something which has been a part of our lives for so long should have developed a wealth of legend and tradition, but it is surprising that it's taken so long for such a collection to be published.

One of the reasons is touched on elsewhere in Peter Rogerson's review of another book on folklore, The Lore of the Land: "By and large folklore is presented as something quaint, remote and safe, and quite suitable for nice coffee table books." There is no room in this conventional view for a folklore which is based in a modern, arid urban background. Little in Paul Screeton's collection of railway folklore is likely to make the coffee-table books, certainly not stories of fellatio in crowded trains and underwater sex in the Channel Tunnel!

But of course the key to folklore is that it expresses basic human concepts in terms which mean most to the people who transmit it. So that within this collection of ostensibly 'modern' stories, the great themes of legend can still be seen. Many nations have a legends of a mighty king, who never died, but sleeps in a cavern with all his knights, ready to return in his nation's hour of need: Alfred, Charlemagne, Wenceslas, Arthur, have all filled this role, and the theme appears here as the legend of the Strategic Reserve.

A passenger falls asleep on the last train of the day, misses his station and is not noticed by the train crew. When he awakes he is in an unknown shunting yard, or in a tunnel, and surrounding his train are dozens, maybe hundreds of steam locomotives, carefully mothballed to be brought out in a time of national emergency, when the National Electric Grid is disabled.

There are even geomantic overtones to railway lore, with lines being cursed by being cut through 'fairy hills', or power being leached from power lines as they cross the site of a megalithic stone avenue. And was the Box Tunnel near Bath really aligned so that the rising sun shone directly through it on Isambard Kingdom Brunel's birthday?

Here are tales of locomotives buried under football grounds or walled up in viaducts like Kray gang victims; a relative of the Phantom Gasser of Mattoon turns up on Italian trains in the 1990s, anaesthetising his victims with a gas pumped under the doors of sleeper compartments, before robbing them of their luggage. It seems that every facet of conventional 'coffee-table' folklore has its parallel in railway lore, and Paul Screeton has done a marvellous job in collating them in this collection. Even 'alternate-history' buffs will find something worth contemplating: the possible influence on geopolitical events in the 20th century of the collapse of the Forth Railway Bridge in 1879. - John Rimmer, from Magonia 93, September 2006.

Getting It Right About Rites

Janet and Colin Bord. Earth Rites. Granada, 1982.
Bob Pegg. Rites and Riots. Blandford Press, 1981.

Earth Rites deals with a wide range of British folk customs and argues that all of them are derived from fertility rituals going back as far as the Stone Age. A great many people have a vague idea that this is the origin of folk customs, probably because it has served as the background for many supernatural thrillers (such as the British film The Wicker Man), so it's worth pausing to look at this explanation.

The idea originated with Dr Margaret Murray's The Witch Cult in Western Europe, written in the 1920s. According to Dr Murray the prehistoric fertility religion was still the religion of the mass of the population of Britain throughout the Middle Ages until it was stamped out by the witch persecution of 1550-1650. Unfortunately, there are serious problems here that Dr Murray (and the Bords) leave undealt with. First of all, it is rather hard to picture an unbroken continuity of beliefs from the Stone Age to Medieval Britain when in the intervening period Britain had undergone invasion and settlement by Celts, Saxons and Vikings. It is certainly true that whole cultures did not become Christian overnight and that we can trace pre-Christian survivals into the Middle Ages. However, neither Druidism, the pre-Christian religion of the Celts or the worship of the Viking or Saxon gods bears much relation to any hypothetical fertility cults. Nor does what we know of the popular culture of the Middle Ages from sources such as Chaucer suggest the existence of any such cult.

Furthermore, the Bords follow Dr Murray in believing that several violent deaths of medieval monarchs and other prominent people were in reality human sacrifices to ensure fertility. The reason this idea has failed to convince any historians is not because they 'know nothing of esoteric pagan practices' but because Dr Murray's evidence is based to quite a large extent on misquotation and misrepresentation. (For further details see: Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons, and Elliot Rose, A Razor for a Goat.)

In spite of the problems with the Bords' main thesis, their book contains much that is interesting about folklore and customs, many excellent photos and detailed documentation, making a welcome change from many recent works on fringe science which consist almost entirely of material rehashed without acknowledgement from other equally dubious works.

A rather different approach is taken in Rites and Riots. This book examines a variety of European traditional annual customs and attempts to analyse why they have lasted and what social function they fulfil in their community, rather than treating them as ancient survivals. In the process it turns out that many may be considerably less ancient than often thought and in some cases may have been influenced by published accounts of alleged 'ancient rituals' that the participants had read rather than 'ancient fertility cults'. (The way that some folklorists assume that those they study are illiterate and incapable of original thought is rather similar to the way some ufologists assume that those they interview are incapable of picking up information on UFOs from the printed word.

The kind of social analysis attempted in this book may be usefully applied to the current popularity of 'fertility cult' explanations of popular customs. The idea of a once-universal cult centred around childbirth and the need to renew the earth, although it may not tell us much about the origin of our popular customs, speaks eloquently to a time when many are becoming more conscious of the importance of the earth's resources and of the manner in which the experience of women is excluded from many orthodox religious and philosophical discourses. - Roger Sandell, from Magonia 11, 1982.