Bindelof's Boys

Rosmarie Pilkington. The Spirit of Dr Bindelof. Anomalist Books, 2006.

Dr Bindelof was the spirit conjured up in the séance type games of a group of adolescents from creative but rather dysfunctional families back in the 1930s. The first part of this book is an account of these séances mainly in the voice of one of the participants Gilbert Roller. I use those words because the late Mr Roller is not credited as the co-author of the book, and I wonder if this mean that the main author is reconstructing the account from notes and conversations.

Roller was the child of a broken marriage and his mother’s second marriage was a stormy one in which much china was thrown, and in which she frequently left home, taking her son with her. In the centre of this chaos Gilbert became the centre of a series of poltergeist effects. In time he and a group of friends start to play the séance games which summon up Dr B. In this group all sorts of odd events are alleged to occur, ranging from raps to healings to ponderous messages from Dr Bindelof.

None of this would have been different from the tales told of many another séance game from this period, such as those played by my parents and maternal grandparents, were it not for the fact that one of the participants was Montague Ullman who went on to be a well known parapsychologist. Ullman seems have looked back on these experiences with some bafflement.

Roller and Pilkington tend to argue that Bindelof was a creation of the boys’ collective imagination, and few would disagree. Where they are likely to disagree, is with Roller and Pilkington’s belief that the human imagination can directly affect the physical world.

This is a theme taken up by Pilkington in the second part of the book in which she gives a highly positive account of the history of physical mediumship, this means taking in the lot, not just D. D. Home and Eusapia Palladino, but Florrie Cook and Katie King, Helen Duncan, Ted Serios and so on. In this account she shows few signs of a critical faculty, and produces little in the way of evidence which would convince anyone other than a dedicated believer.

Conan Doyle once had Sherlock Holmes say “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth”, but the nub is that “impossible” is a big word. Most us argue that if someone told as that they had seen a man take his head off, kick it around like a football, then put it back on his neck and walk off, we would know he was either lying, mistaken or the victim of a trick. It is impossible to take off your head and put it back on again, and no amount of ‘eyewitness testimony’ can alter that judgement. We might be baffled as to how so many people could have such a strange and impossible experience, but we would never take up as the explanation that a man actually took off his head.

Sceptics will argue that at least some of the experiences related in this book are as near as damn as impossible as taking off one’s head. Even for those who would not go as far as this, there have to be balances of probability. Pilkington’s argument actually boils down to claiming that it is more probable that everything we know about physics, chemistry, biology, physiology etc. is wrong, than that ‘eminent and reliable’ people could be mistaken, misperceive or misremember, or lie or be fooled by members of the working class like Eusapio. It is slightly puzzling to see how many paranormalists, some of whom like to think of themselves as heretics of one kind or another, resort to this kind of argument from authority (and often social snobbery).

Before invoking mysterious powers for which there is only relatively weak evidence, which contradict everything else we know collectively of the world, and which if possible ought to be widespread and obvious (like artistic, musical or sporting ability) given their survival value, we should look to other explanations.

What obviously springs to mind is to look at the psychology of small groups, especially when dominated by a charismatic personality. Experience far beyond the boundaries of the paranormal shows us what individuals and groups are capable of believing and doing when under the influence of particularly dominant people. One recent example was a fraudster who managed to persuade several apparently rational people that he was an MI5 agent, that they were under imminent danger from the IRA, then persuaded them to hide out with him as virtual prisoners for years.

In the case of the Bindelof boys, what seems to been happening is that boys are slipping into a game reality, in which they become so engrossed in the game, they forget it is a game, and block out the knowledge that they are generating the effects themselves. This sort of game reality may well be going on the wider world. This would make sense of the claim that paranormal phenomena cannot occur in the presence of sceptics. If these were real physical effects produced by real physical forces it is hard to believe that the presence of sceptic could have any effect, but if these are some sort of illusion, the product of a game, something we might call suggestion, hypnosis, compliance, enchantment or whatever, then the presence of someone who refuses to be part of the game, to fall under the ‘influence may ground people back into the consensus world.

The construction of this world may have indeed non-paranormal physical dimensions, the sort of changes in body chemistry and brain activity demonstrated by couples madly in love for example. Like lovers the people in such a group can be blind to what everyone else sees as reality. Sadly in too many cases this seems to be rather unhealthy kind of love, in which dominance and dependence play a major role.

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