Paranormal Pickings

Alexander Imich (editor) Incredible Tales of the Paranormal: Documented Accounts of Poltegeists, Levitations, Phantoms and Other Phenomena. Bramble Books, 1995.

The bulk of this book is about something rarely encountered these days outside the pages of the products of the vanity press: physical mediumship. It includes accounts of Carmen Mirabelli, Indridi Indridason, Matylda Skrzetvska and Teofil Modrzejuvski. Herein are recounted wonders without measure, including levitations, materialisations, apports - including those of people - strange lights and raps. The full monty.

If only a fraction of what is claimed in this book really happened as described, then everything we know about the world is wrong. This puts it in a very different category from most Fortean and paranormal claims. If a pleisiosaur were to be found in Loch Ness tomorrow, a gigantopithecus would walk into the offices of the Oregon Herald, John Major would spontoneously combust, or the spaceships landed on the White House lawn, we would be astounded, as all these things are vanishingly improbable, but the broad canvas of our understanding of the universe would remain unshaken. Telepathy, clairvoyance, even precognition could slip through some fuzzy boundaries of quantum physics. But the stuff in this book would totally collapse science.

With such a dramatic claim we would need a huge volume of extraordinary evidence, hundreds of videotapes of seances with dozens of mediums, before we had anything to set against the weight on consensus reality. Rother, what we do get are stories of things that happened in faraway places a long time ago. Even taking these stories at anything like face value still leaves trickery as the only possible explanation. What are the alternatives? Why should spirits of the deported engage in ridiculous party tricks? If these ability are natural human ones, why are they not put to practical use? Ectoplasm would make on excellent emergency wound dressing.

I can surely say that never while reading this book did I ever feel for a moment that I was doing anything other than reading accounts of conjuring tricks. The hilarious photographs at the front of the book, for instance a man with a bag over his head, were even less convincing. What did strike me, particularly in the accounts of Matylda Skrzetuska's seances, was that the idea of the sitters as a passive audience to a performing medium was quite wrong. in many cases the audience are the ones playing the tricks.

This suggests that the real significance of these seances was a social one: in the anonymous darkness of the seance room otherwise staid people could let their hair down and indulge in a wide range of horseplay and sexual encounter. When infra-red photography brought the end of anonymity this brought discomfort and embarrassment not just for the medium. Equally, physical mediumship seances have been put out of business by television, other forms of entertainment, and changing sexual mores. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 59, April 1997.

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