Authors: Colin Wilson
Tags: #Body; Mind & Spirit, #Mysticism, #Occultism, #Parapsychology, #General, #Reference, #Supernatural
Your guide through the unexplained,
the unearthly and the unknown
Foreword by Damon Wilson
by Damon Wilson
winter of 1969, when I was 4 years old, our family spent most of the winter in Deya, in Majorca.
My memories of the place are not very clear: I chiefly recall the small boy called Pedro, who lived next door and who drew pictures in the dust of the courtyard, with a stick, and a tall man in a cloak and an odd-shaped hat who walked into the house one day and showed my mother how to split a banana into three with his thumb-nail.
From the fact that he presented me with one of his books—a children’s story called
The Poor Boy Who Followed His Star
—I gathered that he was a writer like my father.
Years later, when I became an avid fan of the
series on television, I was impressed to realise that I knew its author.
What I did not know was that my father had asked Robert Graves’s advice on writing a book about ‘the occult’, and that that advice had been ‘don’t’.
It was as well he ignored it, for the book and its consequences became an important part of our lives during the next few years.
It led—to begin with—to a BBC television series called
‘A Leap in the Dark’,
in which my father was the presenter.
We bought our first video machine to record them—the early kind whose tapes played for a maximum of one hour—and so videos became a part of our lives long before they became as common as televisions.
One result was that I was able to watch the ‘Leap in the Dark’ series as often as I liked.
The ‘creepiest’ was the Edgar Vandy case, in which a dead man ‘came back’ to describe his accidental drowning through the mouth of a medium.
The point of the programme was to try to show that only the dead man could have provided the information, and that telepathy by the medium could not account for the complex data she was able to provide.
But the one I remember most was the case of a girl called Christine Beauchamp, who suffered from ‘multiple personality’—she periodically turned into a scatterbrained and mischievous child who called herself Sally, and who embarrassed Christine by doing mischievous things that landed her in all kinds of trouble.
Then there was the account of the poltergeist which wrecked the office of a German lawyer in Rosenheim, and which subsided only when a shy, nervous girl called Anne-Marie was sacked.
I was intrigued to learn that this was not a real ‘ghost’, but some kind of manifestation of Anne-Marie’s unconscious frustrations.
All this meant that, by the age of 10,1 had a fairly good working knowledge of the paranormal, which I accepted in the same matter-of-fact way that I accepted all the books and magazines about true murder cases that lay about the house.
Like any normal 10-year-old, I would not have wanted to meet a ghost; but I was intrigued to learn that they could be explained by a science called ‘parapsychology’.
One day I learned that it was not quite as simple as that.
A man called Mike Delaney came to stay with us, and I learned that he was a publican who had been driven out of his pub by a poltergeist that smashed rows of bottles and glasses, and made the electronic tills go haywire—Mike was still suffering from nervous strain.
My father was writing a book about poltergeists—and had been to Croydon to look into the case.
There were apparently no ‘disturbed adolescents’ associated with the pub, and Mike himself had no doubt that the culprit was a spirit.
I talked to Mike for hours, and noted that he preferred not to discuss the haunting—it was obvious that he was still deeply disturbed by it.
In fact, he went to see our doctor, and took his advice to commit himself to our local mental home in Bodmin.
(That quickly proved to him that there was nothing wrong with him, and he discharged himself and went off to Africa to become a mercenary.)
My father also went to Yorkshire to look into the case of a ‘spirit’ that had wrecked every breakable object in the house (see
When he came back, he was finally convinced that poltergeists are real spirits, and not just the unconscious energies of frustrated adolescents.
Obviously, it was possible to be too ‘scientific’.
But another experience of the time also demonstrated that it was possible to be too credulous.
When my mother was going to Bodmin one day, my father asked her to go and look at St Mark’s Church, and see if she could find out anything about a poltergeist haunting there.
A journalist called John Macklin, well-known for his ‘believe it or not’ stories, had described how a coffin had risen up off its trestles and floated down the aisle.
The man in the coffin, a Liskard builder called Pencarrow, objected to being buried near his estranged wife, and his spirit caused poltergeist disturbances until his son decided to bury him elsewhere.
There was even a bare patch on the lawn of the churchyard, where Pencarrow’s coffin had rested before being taken away—no grass had grown there since.
My mother was asked to try and get a photograph of the bare patch.
In fact, she found that there was no St Mark’s Church in Bodmin, or even in Cornwall.
The vicar, the Rev.
Basil Bradley, had never lived in Bodmin.
And no builder called James Pencarrow had lived in Liskard either.
Another story by John Macklin—about a ‘cursed’ field in North Cornwall—proved to be equally unfactual.
When my father wrote to Macklin asking for an explanation, he got an angry letter in reply protesting that no one had ever questioned his accuracy, but offering no other explanation.
All of which seemed to demonstrate that the science of parapsychology had to tread an extremely wary path between scepticism and credulity.
In fact, what tends to happen is that the positions become polarised; the sceptics attack the believers as gullible idiots; the believers attack the sceptics as dogmatic materialists.
Both seem incapable of moderation or objectivity.
The career of the French statistician Michel Gauquelin illustrates both positions.
By the age of 7 he was a total convert to astrology, and could rattle off the character-types associated with each sign of the zodiac; his friends called him Nostradamus.
While studying at the Sorbonne, he learned of the earlier researches of ‘Hitler’s astrologer’ Karl Ernst Krafft, who had tried to ‘prove’ astrology by statistical means.
Krafft had studied the horoscopes of thousands of professional men, mostly musicians, and announced that he had proved that individuals are cast in the mould of their ‘sun sign’ (i.e.
Aries are pioneers, Geminis changeable, Cancers home-loving, etc.) Gauquelin, who was studying statistics and psychology, decided to put Krafft’s results through a computer.
That convinced him—as he had suspected—that Krafft was deceiving himself.
His reaction was to become a determined opponent of astrology who missed no opportunity to denounce it as nonsense.
He even went so far as to ignore the occasional fact that supported astrology.
But since he was a statistician, he continued with his research.
And when he looked into the question of ‘rising signs’ (the ‘planet’ that is coming up over the horizon at the moment of birth) he was startled to realise that the evidence was no longer negative.
In a group of 576 doctors, he discovered that a significant proportion were born under Saturn—as astrology predicts.
Similar researches into actors showed that Jupiter was their rising sign, while sportsmen tended to be born under Mars.
He also investigated the notion that people born under the ‘even’ signs (Taurus, Cancer, Virgo etc) are introverts while those born under the odd signs are extraverts; again he was surprised to find that his statistics supported this view.
He announced his findings in 1955, in
The Influence of the Stars—A Critical and Experimental Study.
He expected to be attacked by scientists; in fact, they ignored him.
It was the astrologers who assumed they were under attack, and responded with scathing criticisms.
But another sceptic, Professor Hans Eysenck, who checked Gauquelin’s results, was courageous enough to invite the derision of his fellow psychologists when he wrote: ‘The results were extremely clear-cut and so significant statistically that there is no question whatsoever that the effects were not produced by chance.’
By 1976, Gauquelin’s findings had become increasingly influential, and parapsychology had acquired a new respectability through the researches of Dr Andrija Puharich and the Stanford Research Institute into the powers of the Israeli metal-bender Uri Geller.
It had also acquired widespread popularity, so that books like von Daniken’s
Chariots of the Gods
Teachings of Don Juan
Orthodox scientists felt it was time to act.
They formed a Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), apparently unaware that the Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882) had been founded for exactly that purpose.
Unfortunately, CSICOP differed from the SPR in starting out from a position of hard-line scepticism —in fact, of downright hostility to the very notion of the paranormal.
Its basic position seemed to be that anyone who reported paranormal events must be either a fool or a liar.
At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1979, the eminent physicist John Wheeler was applauded for his battle-cry: ‘Drive the pseudos out of the workshop of science.’
Oddly enough, it was the same John Wheeler who created his own version of the ‘anthropic principle’ (the notion that man has, in some respects, a ‘priveleged position’ in the universe), in which he asserted that man may be creating the universe by observing it.
I was surprised to learn that one of the founders of CSICOP, the scientific journalist Martin Gardner, had been a friend of my father’s.
He is the author of a book called
Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science,
an amusing attack on various ‘crank theories’, such as the view that the earth is flat, and he and my father had been in correspondence for some years when they finally met (at Gardner’s home) and found one another sympathetic—one of my father’s science fiction stories has an affectionate portrait of him as a mediaeval monk called Martin the Gardener.
But when he came to write a biography of Wilhelm Reich in the late ’70s, my father reread the chapter in
Fads and Fallacies
about Reich and concluded that it was biased and inaccurate.
The Quest for Wilhelm Reich,
he commented on Gardner’s book: ‘He writes about various kinds of cranks with the conscious superiority of the scientist, and in most cases one can share his sense of the victory of reason.
But after half a dozen chapters, this non-stop superiority begins to irritate; you begin to wonder about the standards that make him so certain he is always right.’
Gardner took this to be a declaration of war, and launched attacks on my father’s ‘credulity’ in his books
Science: Good, Bad and Bogus
The New Age.
He also wrote a letter to the
New York Review of Books
protesting that articles by my father (on astrology and paranormal phenomena) had been included in
The Oxford Companion to the Mind.
His general tone makes it clear that he regards anyone who can defend the paranormal as a dangerous maniac.
In 1981, CSICOP was shaken by rumours of scandal.
One of its members, Dr Dennis Rawlins, discovered that a refutation of Gauquelin’s ‘Mars effect’ was based on inaccurate research; among other things, it based its findings on 303 sports champions instead of Gauquelin’s 2,088.
When the mistakes had been corrected, the report tended to confirm Gauquelin.
When he pointed this out to this fellow members on the executive council, he found them unresponsive—they seemed to feel he was splitting hairs—and he was not allowed to print a letter on the subject in the CSICOP journal
The Zetetic Inquirer,
even though he was an associate editor.
In fact, Rawlins made his own follow-up study of the Mars effect which concluded that Gauquelin was wrong after all.
This he was allowed to publish in the magazine on condition that the section that revealed the truth about the first debunking report was edited out.
He insisted that a note be printed to the effect that part of the article had been censored, and this was agreed; but when the article appeared, the note had been removed.
Rawlins now insisted that the dispute be judged by a team of impartial referees.
The council agreed, but insisted that they should choose the referees.
When, in fact, the referees agreed with Rawlins that the first report had been based on faulty data, the council declined to print the referees’ report.
In 1979 Rawlins tried to speak out at a CSICOP press conference; the council stopped the conference before he could finish, and then met in closed session and voted him off the executive.
continued to refuse to publish the correction (in spite of the fact that Rawlins remained an associate editor), he finally resigned, and told the whole story in a pamphlet called
Its cover states: ‘They call themselves the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
In fact they are a group of would-be debunkers who bungled their major investigation, falsified the results, covered up their errors, and gave the boot to a colleague who threatened to tell the truth.’
In 1980, Marcello Truzzi, founder and editor of the
(and an old friend of my father), resigned when the council refused to agree that if you print an attack on someone, it is only fair to print their reply.