The latest copy of Paranormal Review, the magazine of the SPR (Society of Psychical Research), is, as usual, a good read, full of interesting ideas. I like this magazine because of the quality of the content and that it’s done by the SPR and not fly-by-night ghost chasers. This issue provides a thoughtful talk on today’s paranormal (parapsychological) topics for even the skeptically-minded.
The cover features an image from the The Conjuring 2 movie starring fictionalized Ed and Lorraine Warren, “Demonologists”. The Warrens were real but the depiction of their involvement in the Enfield situation and in the Perron house of the original The Conjuring movie are almost entirely dramatized. Why the SPR-affiliated editors decided to take such a charitable view of this movie is beyond me, considering it ignored the far more involved SPR work on the case. I applaud the SPR for taking the high road here.
The movie created considerable buzz including around the fact that it did not reflect either the Maurice Grosse/Guy Playfair account considered by the SPR, or the skeptical view, but instead embellished the Warren’s role – creating a Marilyn Manson-like demonic nun while creating a heavy Catholic tone (to mesh with the Warren’s agenda). Confession time: I haven’t seen this movie. I saw the first The Conjuring which was an OK ghost story but the insertion of “true story” in the promotion is misleading and irks me. Tangent: There is a scary nun spinoff movie on the way just like the original that had the Annabelle doll spinoff. Cha-ching…
Writer David Saunders interviews director James Wan and star Patrick Wilson, both of whom emphasize that inspiration was from real life but the story is a horror tale meant for entertainment, it’s not a documentary. That is acceptable to a point. As I argue here, the audiences won’t know to what degree the story is “true” or not, but because we derive our opinions and information from pop culture items (like it or not). Viewers will assume there is some substance to it. Thus, we get a misleading portrayal of the Warrens, the Enfield poltergeist event, and hauntings in general. Only a few viewers will bother to dig into either alternative educated view (Playfair’s book This House is Haunted or the skeptical writings by Nickell and others.) Certainly American audiences will be less aware of the SPR investigation. Ignoring the skeptical information is de rigueur for movies, but ignoring the SPR’s work is pretty egregious since they remain the primary investigative body of spontaneous cases. Yet, Paranormal Review chose to be generous in coverage and clarify instead of critique the connection with SPR and the story in the film.
The President’s letter contained, once again, a reminder of the uniqueness of discourse between mainstream science, parapsychology and the SPR, and popular para-celebs and current amateur investigation groups (ARIGs). John Poynton reflects on “the history and philosophy of psychology research” – a piece of greater intellectual level and required background than all but 1-2% of typical ghost seekers can meet. I don’t mean that paranormal investigators are not intelligent, but professional parapsychology is not something you master via an online training program or can call yourself on the basis of ghost finding experience. There is a great chasm between parapsychology and ghost hunters regarding focus, background and mission.
Poynton raises interesting points, many with which I would not altogether agree, but its worth reading and thinking about to get a true insight into the highest level of research and educated speculation of this field. Remember that the SPR was founded by respected scientists of the day in 1882 and, as far as I can tell, continues a habit of internal debate and respectable scholarship. Such content is almost completely absent from the websites, TV shows and presentations of today’s paranormal ARIGs and top para-celebs. Though many skeptics pooh-pooh the whole paranormal-ghost thing, those with a passing interest in these topics, especially those prone to simply dismiss it as “stupid,” might take note that it’s not dumb schmucks involved in this subject area. There has historically been and continues to be serious thought about the relationship between psychical research and the strict framework of material science. To me, that discussion helps illuminate ideas about the philosophy of science. Whether you believe or reject ghosts and the afterlife, I think you’ll find something valuable in examining the discourse. I’d much prefer to visit a supposedly haunted location with today’s SPR members than with TAPS or the Ghost Adventures Crew who come off as utter morons in comparison.
Speaking of a haunted location, John Fraser writes about what the SPR refers to as a “spontaneous case”. That is, a strange occurrence, perceived as paranormal, that has arisen and continues in recent time. “The Cage” building in St. Osyth, Essex, England, was once a medieval prison. The owner of the house had experienced several events she deemed paranormal and, since moving out, other witnesses have had similar disturbing events there. Fraser embarked on a “back to basics” look at “similar fact” evidence gleaned through these eyewitness’ reports. There was a wide variety of witnesses in this case from the residents to paranormal investigation groups that were allowed to examine the premises. Fraser remarks that there is no agreed-upon guidelines to collecting this kind of witness testimony and recognizes that recollections are reconstructions, not facts. When analyzing reported events and locations of where they occurred, the researcher may be able to see patterns and establish what he calls “similar facts” evidence. This is a good start to producing worthwhile documentation of a “haunted” site – a big step above the slapdash efforts of most paranormal teams who do nothing worthwhile with whatever perceived anomalies they collect during their investigations. The difficulty is to avoid interpretation and objectively record only what was observed. This mistake is continually made in paranormal investigations as the witness characterizes their experience in terms of what they believe and compounded if the researcher enters the investigation with a bias for accepting paranormal activity as a default explanation. Fraser seemed to have a bit of difficulty splitting out the interpretation, but it was better than most.
I contacted him for a copy of his full report. Unfortunately, I was not convinced that there is anything paranormal at play here but it sounds like a great place to visit. However, what became obvious is how difficult, even impossible, it would be to conduct a sound investigation of such a place. Paranormal events are a bit too personal and free-wheeling to be conducive to “scientific” study. Regrettably, they remain subjective.
Fraser’s full report begins with a mention of the skeptical rejection of witness testimony. That’s not quite right. Witness testimony is useful. It can provide direction to an investigation. It’s weak and possibly worthless in itself, but it is evidence. All evidence should be subjected to critical evaluation to determine validity. Fraser’s attempt to document this difficult evidence more carefully is a constructive lesson for researchers in dealing with witnesses’ claims.
In summary: Yes, I read and enjoy Paranormal Review, as a SKEPTIC. It’s absurd to ignore paranormal subjects as they are a popular thread in our culture and will continue to be. The SPR constitutes a more thoughtful commentary on the subject than the Ghost Hunters. We can learn a lot about why the public believes in ghosts and demons by examining the information they absorb through the media. We also can understand more by asking questions and staying informed.