Polts and People



James Houran and Rense Lange (editors). Hauntings and Poltergeists: multidisciplinary perspectives McFarland and Co., 2001.


This collection of papers makes a brave attempt to examine hauntings and poltergeists from physical, psychological, sociological and cultural viewpoints. These range from those of the moderate believer through to the hard-core sceptic, but contributors generally manage to stay polite with each other.

In the first section, sociocultural perspectives, in what are essentially precis of their books, Ronald Finucane examines the changing meaning of ghost stories through the centuries, Hilary Evans examines ghost stories as part of the wider spectrum of entity experiences. Emily Edwards examines the use of ghost stories in popular film.

David Huffosd examines some ghost narratives from the perspective of his experience-centred approach, and seeks to argue that the supernatural beliefs arise rationally from certain experiences. At one level no one would challenge that, and it is by no means a new or revolutionary idea, for example Victorian anthropologists argued that beliefs in a separable spirit arose from the experience of dreams. Hufford, however appears to be going further in arguing that as disembodied spirits must be assumed to be beyond empirical inquiry and therefore the belief cannot be challenged by contemporary rationalism. Here Hufford misunderstands what the folk belief in ghosts was and is, it was not a belief in disembodied spirits, but in differently-embodied spirits, able to interact with the physical world, to the extent of making footsteps, producing transiently material figures etc.

As Finucane shows these quasi-material visitants were originally regarded as coming from the afterlife realm for a specific purpose. (Even the elite belief in disembodied spirits must assume that such spirits are able to interact with the physical world even if it is only to interact with the perceptual centres of the witness s brains, and are therefore by definition physical).

Hufford returns to his study of the hag experience, now under the influence of political correctness renamed the Mara experience. While we can appreciate the reasons for this, the renaming isolates the experience from its general folk explanation, which was not ghosts but witches. Today, ghosts and poltergeists, along with aliens in UFOs constitute the authorised supernatural, as opposed to say the actions of witches or of boggarts and djinns etc. In other words culture plays a strong role in the interpretation of such experiences.

The paper by James McClennon may provide a clue as to the origin of the Mara experience. McClennon argues that paranormal experiences cluster round specific charismatic, encounter-prone, shamanic individuals, and that their experiences, and more importantly their ability to convince other people that they have shared them laid the foundations of religious experience. This would certainly seem to be the case in many modern examples from a whole range of anomalous experiences. Might not one go further and argue that this development of the shamanic complex is intrinsic to the development of behaviourally modern humans. This is certainly an idea worth pursuing.

Coming back to the Mara experience, imagine what this experience of "sniffling snuffling footsteps' and ominous presences meant to our Palaeolithic ancestors; not I think ghosts, but predators. The Mara is the Universal Predator. A further clue lies in the connect between sleep paralysis and narcolepsv which also involves cataplexy and/or REM sleep in conditions of hyper arousal. Is this a vestigial 'play dead' response in the presence of danger? If so then the experience of aware sleep paralysis may trigger some ancient predator present warning system which produces 'predator present' imagery.

The second set of papers on physical and physiological perspectives shows the increasing influence of Michael Persinger, who co-authors two papers here, in this field. I definitely get the impression that Persinger's ideas are reaching gospel status, though it is not all clear to what extent if at all they have been independently verified. Sceptics who quote Persinger may wish to pause, when they see him invoking natural holograms, conscious plasmas (they wouldn't be boggarts by another name would they?) and time warps to account for some experiences.

I must say that science fiction writers should go for the conscious plasmas which might have the level of consciousness of a squirrel, and imagine them stabilised and used as the basis for the new generation of super computers. Imagine the political ramifications: the demos by the Boggart Liberation Front, and the alliance of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists who say that it is trafficking with demons. A good film there folks.

There are sceptical pieces by Joe Nickell and Peter Brugger; Nickell summarises the various normal events that can trigger ghost and polt reports. However Brugger's piece which deals in part with the "facilitated communication" controversy is perhaps more pertinent to a discussion of ouija boards and table turning than hauntings. Similarly Dean Radin's experiments with the psychomantrum, a kind of upmarket crystal ball, do seem to be dealing with the same sort of experience at all.

While the previous sections were all highly accessible, the last, on psychological perspectives, includes some really heavy-going stuff, though parts of Fatima Machados semiotic study of po1tergeist cases give clues as to the psychology behind such stories, it is worth trying with pieces by Tony Lawrence and Kumar and Pekala, because despite the technical language and mounds of statistics they are saying something important. The concluding paper by the editors examines the relationship between ghost and poltergeist cases and 'mass psychogenic illness' and the role of selective attention and misperception of ambiguous stimuli. Such a view should perhaps be connected with a more general concept of all perception being more akin to a work of art than a video recording.

The paper by Houran and Lange links in with that of McClennon in suggesting that the ability to weave stimuli into meaningful patterns and construct patterns between events plays a role in the development of behavioural modernity. This is connected with the development of modem language and culture about 60,000 BC, a process during which the human imagination filled the world, transforming the neutral nameless backdrop, into a named, mapped place. It is here that our ancestors development a "thou" relationship with the landscape of the imagination.

The one deficit in this study is the lack of a study of the social and cultural meanings of ghost stories and what it means to be haunted. As I mentioned in a Magonia article, ghosts (spirits of the dead) and crvptids (living fossils, prehistoric survivals) hint at the 'presence of the past' in our world while UFOs (advanced technologies) hint at the 'presence of the future'.

The 'presence of the past' lives on in our genes and cultures, haunting us and oppressing us. The terrors of our age tell us that it is folly to be believe that there are no ghosts and that we are not haunted. They also suggest that it is equally folly to believe that the ghosts exist as lumps of ectoplasm - 'out there', which could be exorcised by a mixture of holy water and parapsychologists hi-tech equipment. If only things were that simple. And when our ancestors claimed that the Mara was due to witchcraft, they knew that the Universal Predator, the Great Terror in the darkness was. -- Peter Rogerson. From Magonia 79, October 2002



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