Beware the prowling ghost (Book Review)

Middleton_spirits of industrial ageRegarding paranormal research, there is no comparison between the work that comes out in print (paper or digital) and the mostly crap posted online from paranormal groups or the media. You are hard-pressed to find anyone online who knows what they are talking about when it comes to solid paranormal scholarship and writes well. Here’s another example – A new book by Jacob Middleton called Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Imposture, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society. It was available to borrow for free from the Kindle lenders library (if you have a Prime membership). So I “borrowed” it for as long as I wanted.

I’ve read a lot of paranormal books, a lot on the web, even “long-haired” academic-type books and papers but I must have missed the fascinating story about the prowling ghost phenomenon of the 19th century. I had an incomplete idea about these old-time spooks. As far as I knew, there was only one Spring-heeled Jack who harassed people of London for a while. I didn’t know his origins or his ultimate fate. (I’m still waiting for Mike Dash’s book to come out.)

In today’s paranormal pop culture, we seek haunted spaces. Middleton’s book describes a strange time where “ghosts” wandered the streets looking for people to frighten. They hid behind hedgerows and in dark alleys. They had no purpose except to be surprising and scary. People really did wear white sheets! (No mention if they said “Boo!”)

The prowling ghost was a well-known phenomena on the outskirts of the big towns in Britain. This book explores the particularly British phenomena in some of its more famous manifestations and how this related to society at that time. In several respects, it is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking story not many American paranormal researchers know of.

People living in Hammersmith in the early 1800s half expected to meet a specter when out alone at night. There was no public lighting at this time so travel after dark was a serious hazard. The Hammersmith ghost manifested repeatedly in the 1820s and 30s – his identity (presumably multiple) was not resolved. This “ghost” and others like it sought out people to victimize. The goal seemed to be to elicit a good scare but in some cases, there was physical assault. Obviously, women were particularly vulnerable. There is not a lot of info about this aspect, given that the most lurid details were often left out of newspaper accounts, but there is ample suggestion that sexual assault was certainly perpetrated. Females were often targeted, their clothes ripped and skin scratched by long nails or claws of the “ghost”.

Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)
Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)

The tale of the Hammersmith ghost spread beyond the locals. This was not a normally behaved ghost. It seemed an obvious hoax; someone (or more than one) was deliberately doing this. The most common guess was that it was bored aristocrat boys who, if caught, were able to buy their way out of trouble. Besides, law enforcement was lax. Often, gun fire would not draw police attention since it was so common. As fear in the town increased, so did vigilanteism as the citizens had to take matters into their own hands.

The Hammersmith ghost activity came to a crescendo when it resulted in a mistaken death. Thomas Millwood was shot in what was judged to be a case of mistaken identity. He was mistaken for the ghost because he was wearing a bricklayers light clothing. The shooter, Francis Smith, was repentant, but was to be hanged. He was pardoned due to sympathy for the man who thought he was shooting the troublesome “ghost”.

Several more such tricksters appeared. The most famous off all these terrorizing characters was Spring-heeled Jack (1837 onwards). While this book contains excellent info about the Jack phenomena — such as documentation that almost all remarkable traits of Spring Heeled Jack (claws, flame, jumping, etc.) appeared to have precedent from earlier marauders — it is not a definitive book on Jack. What it does do is place Jack into the tail-end chronology of prowling ghosts of Britain.

The term “spring-heeled jack” eventually became a personification of any threat, attack, or display of aggression by an assailant. Even though some attacks were real, it appeared Jack was very much an early urban legend generating lurid tales for the newspapers and penny dreadfuls.

SHJ-No32-cover

Army barracks were often the reported locations of ghost sightings with armed soldiers reporting a “spring-heeled jack”. Guards would see apparitions in the night temporarily forgetting their fellow officers were not beyond playing tricks. Confronting a ghost was a brave act.

The bogeyman of Spring-heeled Jack was replaced in society by fear of a more notorious Jack in the late 1800s. The prowling ghosts disappeared as society evolved greater personal security measures.

If there is one concept that all paranormal researcher should understand is that ghosts are a product of their time. To those of us used to hearing about the transparent, amorphous, contemporary shadow person or ghost, the physicality of the Georgian and Victorian “ghost” descriptions are strange. They were solid, like people. Many of them WERE people. There were misperceptions, of course, sightings of people who were going about their business in the dead of night but in unfortunate clothing or circumstances for which they were mistaken as a paranormal marauder. Most people assumed they were hoaxes. But even when you know it’s a fake, the surprise encounter can be disarming and intimidating.

Speaking of surprising encounters, funnily enough, nudity was considered ghostly. Nude, likely disturbed, people running around in the night were mistaken for ghosts. In several instances Middleton points out that deviant sexual activity was conflated with the supernatural. Again, we see things through the lens of that time.

The book can be a bit wandering in places, the chronology was difficult for me to track, maybe because some ghosts made return appearances, but I learned so much that was new to me. The sociology of ghosts is fascinating; ghosts live off of human belief.

Expecting a low-quality amateurish piece like so many paranormal books out these days, Spirits of an Industrial Age is surprisingly well done. I enjoyed it so much that I purchased it as a Kindle e-book because I didn’t want to give it up!

If I could teach a class about paranormal history to today’s Dunning-Kruger suffering ghost hunters, I would include this book. An important addition to the cultural study of ghosts (as well as history and historical crime), it’s well worth the price for those of us that love real ghost stories. Ghost back in those days were WAY more interesting than the mists and floating balls of dust today. Ghosts then were far more exciting, but potentially more dangerous because they were “real”.

A ruse by any other name still stinks

As one who runs a website about weird news, it’s been a crazy start to the year. A number of hoaxes proliferating around the media the first week of this year. They are passed on almost with the same respect as actual news. If you resolve to do anything this year, resolve to doubt the news when it sounds too outrageous or too weird to be true. Because it’s probably not.

There are too many urban legends and popular rumors going around to follow at any one time, but let’s take a quick look at some of the major hoaxes that recently created hype in the media.

Made for TV hoaxes

Not counting the Punk’d and Candid Camera-type practical joke setups that are humorous (if rather mean), several television programs aim their hoaxes at the public, making them realistic, and keeping the background a secret as the bizarre video goes viral across the web.

In July, in Whitstable, Kent, U.K, a video from a medicine shop’s closed circuit television showed a man surprised by a falling box. But before the fall, the camera captures the box defying gravity, levitating off the shelf, hanging there for a moment, then dropping.

Was this paranormal activity? (There were obvious signs that it was not.) It was such a fun video that it was passed around extensively. Finally, in December, it was revealed as a hoax for a TV show. The reveal happened on a broadcast that did not get good ratings. Most people may still assume the video was actual evidence for paranormal activity.

The case of the glowing squid-like mystery creature in Bristol harbor, also in the U.K., didn’t hang on quite as long. People in the harbor sounded amazed to see and film a bright, pulsating animal that did not look like a machine. It looked like something out of this world!

The prank was released on YouTube as part of a marketing stunt by UKTV’s entertainment channel, Watch, to launch the show “The Happenings”. I really wanted that bioluminescent beastie to be real.

Continue reading A ruse by any other name still stinks

Feeling versus Thinking: Spent the weekend at a paranormal convention

I spent the weekend at a paranormal convention in Gettysburg, PA. Now, to most Skeptics, they may not have been able to hold out three days but, actually, it’s a truly enlightening experience. I’ve been to a few paranormal events like this before. I’m certain I was the only card-carrying Skeptic at this one. I’ll be writing and talking about it in various outlets soon but I wanted to give you the quick takeaways.

These conferences are fun and rewarding for the people who attend. They feel like they are among their “kind”. In their spare time, they do paranormal investigations so their regular jobs do not compare. This is no different than a skeptical or any other hobby con. But the big difference between a skeptic event like Skepticamp or a conference is the worldview of the attendees. At a Skeptics convention, the scholarship is high, mistakes are pointed out, serious critiques are brought up in the questioning and it’s all about thinking, not feelings. For this event it was very much the opposite. It was all about suspending scientific thought, very much more spiritual (in the religious sense) than I anticipated. It did not matter what religion you subscribed to (it all sort of mashed together) but your belief will protect and heal you. References and evidence were weak, emotion was strong. Personal stories are welcomed – when were you most scared and most vulnerable? People are very profoundly altered by experiences they had and are struggling to understand them. Without critical thinking tools or framework, it appears explainable in the spiritual sense. Often, what is lacking from Skeptics is empathy towards others’ struggles to understand their frightening experiences. In fact, empathy is downright rare.

Continue reading Feeling versus Thinking: Spent the weekend at a paranormal convention

Vampires in Serbia. What’s up with that?

On November 24, a story appeared in the Austrian Times relating fear of a vampire roaming the remote village of Zarozje,Serbia.

That seemed odd. Vampires aren’t something we assume people actually believe are real.

The story, however, was legendary. According to Serbian folklore, a man, Sava Savanovic, lived in a wooden house near a mill on the Rogačica river. He was a horrible guy, a vampire, who would attack villagers and drink their blood. These stories went on as late as the beginning of the 20th century. For several decades, the watermill was owned by the Jagodić family and was in operation until the late 1950s. After its closure, it became a tourist site. The legend of Savanovic appears to play a part in that draw for tourists.

The Balkans, of which Serbia is a part, has a rich history of superstitions involving vampires. As late as the 18th century, the accusation of a person being a vampire brought on mass hysteria, mob violence and public executions.

Back in the village… the Savonovic house by the old mill stream recently collapsed. That was followed by reported misfortune upon the local towns – five deaths and a suicide occurred. I also found in news reports that people were hearing strange sounds and footsteps in the woods. OOoo, spooky. Also rumored is that Sava can exist not as a bat but as a butterfly.

Continue reading Vampires in Serbia. What’s up with that?

Going off-track: A visit to the paranormal side of Dragon Con

I have finally experienced Dragon Con, the world’s largest sci-fi/fantasy convention, which was held August 31 to Sept 3 in Atlanta, Georgia. Encompassing 5 hotels and including 40,000 or so attendees, many of whom were in costume, it was a bit overwhelming at times. But, I was determined to squeeze the most out of my participation, hosting a great discussion panel on Monday about skeptics and believers, and attending as many talks as I possibly could.

Besides the uniqueness inherent in a convention fueled by artistic flare, this conference is different from all others I’ve been to in that the various “tracks” (themed schedules) are visited by others who may not attend a conference based solely on that particular theme. Certainly many people wandered into the Skeptic track room as they made their way to events in the nearby Science or Space tracks. This buffet of choices allowed me to see how other fields discuss their content. So, I wanted to share my observations on the Paranormal track, the sessions featuring the TV ghost hunters, and the fantastic talks about monsters.

Continue reading Going off-track: A visit to the paranormal side of Dragon Con

Paper on Amateur paranormal investigation groups: Being Scientifical

I finished my thesis last year on amateur paranormal investigation groups. Many of you have requested copies. It can be purchased but not many would want to spend the money for that so I’m giving it away via PDF.

Continue reading Paper on Amateur paranormal investigation groups: Being Scientifical

Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

In a recent post on Skeptoid blog, I suggest that paranormal-based tourism, such as ghost tours and monster festivals, which are growing in popularity, border on fraud.

“Even if there are long-standing legends of strange events occurring at some location, to suggest that a place is haunted just to freak people out is contemptible.”

“Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality.”

Commenters remarked that I might be getting too worked up over it. Meanwhile, I found this commentary from a local who thinks his town needs one of them monsters to draw tourists and he is not beyond creating one from scratch. Continue reading Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter