Investigating the Paranormal

Tony Cornell. Investigating the Paranormal. Helix Press, 2002.

Tony Cornell is one of Britain’s veteran psychical researchers and ghost hunters, and this book contains detailed examinations of some of the cases he has investigated in the last 50 odd years. All sorts of very strange experiences indeed are reported; but very few are encountered by the investigator.

On critical investigation much of this resolves into a mixture of fraud and misperception, but some incidents are very resistant to conventional explanation. The investigator might find some very puzzling incidents even when surrounded by the crudest fraud, as in physical mediumship, but these incidents never take place when the scene is subject to instrumental observation. Nothing happens which would convert the sceptic, but just enough to keep the psychical researcher from giving up in despair.

Unlike must books of 'true' ghost stories, which are a mixture of folklore and fakelore aimed at the heritage and tourist industries, this one provides in depth studies of a select number of cases, and some are very instructive, Cornell shows how the press and publicity seekers can generate ghost stories out of nothing, which are then repeated ad nauseam in one compilation after another; each author adding colourful detail after colourful detail from his own imagination.

Classic cases such as the haunting of the Queen Mary are more or less demolished, and in other cases much of the psychological background is brought out. One case discussed, in which the central percipient engaged in self-harm and arson, shows the connection between Munchhausen’s Syndrome and poltergeists (the person involved was last reported serving two years in gaol for arson. His wife, intends to take him back on release, one can’t help feeling she would be very unwise to so do). A case involving weird electrical effects, ascribed by the witnesses to EM effects from a secret government establishment, looks most likely to be fraud by the lady of the house, but there are aspects which would be very difficult to produce by normal means. There is the physical mediumship of a lady who has featured from time to time on the fringes of ufology, whose performance Cornell largely sees as a crude fraud.

Though much of the material can be explained as a result of fraud and misperception, there are other cases which Cornell feels resist such an easy resolution. Many seem to hover on the fringes of explanation but contain puzzling features, others seem quite resistant to conventional explanation, and Cornell finds himself as irritated by what he sees as the closed minded of sceptics and CSICOP members, as he is by the credulity of spiritualists.

He clearly feels that whatever is going on is a good deal more complicated than either believers or sceptics want to consider. He clearly has little time for explanations involving discarnate intelligences, and tends towards explanations involving novel human faculties, i.e. telepathy and telekinesis. However this explanation looks as forced as any other, and involves invoking one unknown to explain another. Furthermore there are massive problems with the idea of psychokinesis. There is no shadow on the horizon of any process whereby patterns of electrical and chemical activity in the human brain could fling furniture about, and not only that, if these wild talents are possible they ought to be much more common and we should see PK at every football match. (I have always felt that the very delicate balance of forces involved in snooker would make it ideal for intervention by a PK-gifted psychic.)

This, and the absence of instrumental recordings (where, asks Cornell, are all the security camera photographs of ghosts), suggests that the solution lies somewhere in the processes of human perception and memory. Perhaps a mixture of expectancy and environmental factors, and perhaps the presence of 'shamanic' personalities can generate very complex perceptual anomalies.

There seems to be hints in some of Cornell’s cases not just of Munchhausen’s syndrome, but of kinds of folie a deux, and a connection with the suspension of disbelieve in play. Cornell notes that these sort of things don't happen when instruments are in the room. Does that imply that the percipients are aware at some level of the unreality what they are experiencing, and the cameras etc., would show it and break the spell? All these factors occur in other paranormal and Fortean fields as well of course. -- Peter Rogerson. (Reviewed on-line January 2003)

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