8 August 2014


Eric J. Dingwall and Trevor H. Hall. Four Modern Ghosts. Duckworth, 1958.
Donald J. West. Psychical Research Today. Penguin, 1962. Duckworth 1954.

Dingwall and Hall's small sceptical book probably disappointed me at the time, though it probably helped to detoxify ghost stories for me. It deals with four ghost stories; the first was an alleged appearance of an apparition in the library of the Yorkshire Museum at York in 1953. This ghost had the habit of taking off the shelves a volume on church antiquities published on 1896/7 - not exactly an ancient tome - this being witnessed by a number of dignitaries.

It is perhaps fitting that old libraries should have ghosts, though if they appear today they are likely to be roped in as volunteers to replace the paid staff, and they would find the old volumes replaced by computers. Maybe the haunted Kindle as just around the corner. The sceptical authors came to the conclusion that the curator who had seen the ghost in the first place had some sort of hallucination and then faked the book moving from the shelf so they wouldn’t think he was mad and sack him.

The second story was that of the 1952 Runcorn poltergeist, which manifested in a teenage boy’s bedroom in a back street. This had also featured in a book by Joseph Braddock I had read earlier, though Dingwall and Hall cut out some of the weirder features such as the strange cloud which appeared on a local farmer’s land and led to livestock deaths. Poltergeists were, of course, a much more convenient explanation for this than pollution from one of the numerous chemical factories in the neighbourhood, which might have led to compensation claims.

Ten years later, I was to become local history and reference librarian in Runcorn, in a building with a spooky reputation of its own. Like the Yorkshire museum ghost, this one took books off the shelves and dropped them on the floor, and at least one staff member saw a strange shadow. Ghosts walked all around Runcorn and local tales included a ten foot giant, something like a huge knuckle, the green light of Halton, the phantom monks of Norton Priory and the disappearing island in the middle of the Mersey. It had been home to the mysterious contactee Jim Cooke and a number of slightly odd churches, to say nothing of some Fortean beasts.

The third story in Dingwall and Hall’s book is Harry Price and the materialisation of a ‘spirit child’ somewhere in either Brockley or Bromley, which Price was able to fondle in a way that would get him into court these days. Though years later someone confessed to playing the role of the spirit child, it is more probable that the story was made up by Price. If a story looks too good to be true, the lesson is, it isn’t true.

The final story, a rather vague poltergeist in an anonymous Yorkshire town’s doctor’s surgery is something of an anti-climax after the rest. The authors conclude that underground water was responsible.

Donald West’s Psychical Research Today was the first “serious” book that I read on psychical research and parapsychology and it was especially persuasive because it was a rational and sensible study. West was (indeed may still be at 90) one of the most sensible members of the SPR, and this book very ably navigated the twin extremes of belief and scepticism - with the ‘K’. West was deeply critical of the claims of anecdotal evidence, of tales of poltergeists and hauntings, of spontaneous cases of ESP and of physical mediumship. He pointed out the many problems of perception and memory which bedevil these topics. He was also rather more sceptical than many of the alleged abilities of Mrs Piper, a medium who created a great deal of interest in psychic research circles in the early years of the twentieth century. His review of the case raises the very interesting point that people grossly underestimate what information can be picked up by just a careful attention to body language and other slight perceptual cues (a look on the face, a change in breathing etc.).

He was much more impressed by the claims of experimental parapsychology and the work of Rhine and Soal. Back in the 1950s the work of Soal was regarded as by far the most impressive evidence for psi by a wide range of thinkers, and it was not until the late 1970s that his work was finally shown to be fraudulent.

There is no doubt that West’s day job as a forensic psychologist and criminologist aided him greatly in acquiring a critical edge that was to be so sorely lacking in many of his colleagues. He understood, in a way that many from a physical science background have never been able to, just how very strange even the most ‘respectable’ people might be, and just how slippery ideas of honesty can become when peoples’ deeply held beliefs are involved.

He was certainly not the credulous person that the absurd ‘biography’ in the increasingly dubious Wikipedia suggests; and though sections of this book now seem very dated, those on mediumship and eyewitness testimony are still valuable. -- Peter Rogerson.

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