30 June 2018


James McClenon. The Entity Letters: A Sociologist on the Trail of a Supernatural Mystery. Anomalist Books, 2018.

This is a serious book on a strange and unusual subject, that of the author’s researches as a sociologist into psychokinetic phenomena (PK). His researches began in 1982 when he befriended members of a PK group in the USA called the Society for Research on Rapport and Telekinesis (SORRAT). The members of this group included the two principal characters in the book, Ed Cox and Tom Richards. Both were academics, one retired and the other teaching. SORRAT’S PK experiments were being monitored by the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man (FRNM) at Duke University.

To this end a series of apparently controlled experiments took place, which included the use of a sealed mini-lab. If there was any activity in the mini-lab, a motion-censor triggered a movie camera. Other activities involved writing letters to entities who had announced themselves at séances, which were witnessed by McClenon. The entities identified themselves by laboriously tapping out their names (one tap for A, two taps for B etc). The taps were unexplained noises whose origin and loci were hard to determine.

On the face of it the results of the SORRAT experiments were impressive. Film was taken of a pen writing a message in the mini-lab, film showed leather rings mysteriously joining together and so forth. The problem was that the results could have been replicated by freeze-framing, so there was no way of ruling out fraud. This induced McClenon to sleep next to the camera, and inevitably there was no further activity.

The entities had also replied by stamped addressed envelopes to questions to the entities by various people (these letters by people appear to have been simply left on a table in the house where the séances were happening). There were thousands of requests and mailed letters in reply over the years. Some of these letters appeared to have been written by Tom Richards, possibly in a trance, as they bore tell-tale spelling mistakes of his. On the other hand, some postmarks pre-dated the date of posting, and the places of posting (going by the stamp) were impossibly varied.

Similarly photographs were taken of tables levitating, some with and some without hands. The snapshots could prove nothing, since a table in the air might have been thrown, so that left the testimony only of the witnesses. On one occasion a photo of a levitating table clearly shows the thumb of Tom Richards under it. However McClenon is clear that these séances were highly impressive, on occasion giving him the sensation that the room was shaking.

However it was difficult not to reach the conclusion that some level of fraud was involved, and the FRNM decided to pull the plug on SORRAT, which left a cloud of suspicion hanging over Tom Richards, and this in fact had the effect of damaging his academic career. Also the fact that Cox was a magician makes me a little suspicious.

It seems the author reaches the conclusion that there is almost a need for some element of fraud to “prime the pump” so that rapport can be built with the entities. The essential ingredient appears to be an unconditional belief in the entities, and when this is harnessed in a group, very powerful emanations can follow. The question then is whether such entities actually exist, or have been conjured up from the dark recesses of the human mind, collective or individual.

Also for the scientist, the more objective he or she is in such a setting, the less likely the chance of anything happening. The author helpfully draws the analogy from particle mechanics of the Zeno effect, where the mere act of observing the particle changes its characteristics. Another drawback to scientific investigation is the fact that the ”entities” have the personalities of tricksters, who lie to people and who deliberately try to sabotage investigation by creating the impression of fraud. This also suggests that caution should be applied before becoming involved in investigating these phenomena.

Although I found the subject matter and content of this book highly illuminating, the reader will have to cope with a style of writing involving the re-hashing of lengthy conversations (presumably based on his notes of the time). To start with this format is readable but in the end it is in danger of becoming tiresome. However overall McClenon’s research has some important insights, which may well resonate with many readers’ own experiences. – Robin Carlile

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