30 April 2023


Jack Hunter (ed.) Deep Weird; the Varieties of High Strangeness Experience. August Night Press, 2022.

The term 'high strangeness' was coined by J Allen Hynek in his 1974 book, The UFO Experience. He used it to describe accounts which seemed to stray beyond the limits of his Type One, Type Two, etc. classification system for UFO reports, and which were being ignored by UFO researchers who were fearful of stepping outside a 'scientific' approach to the phenomenon.
It was not long, however before some of these High Strangeness experiences were granted admission to UFO respectability, with the expanding categories of 'Close Encounter' reports, but researchers like John Keel and a young Jerome Clark were pushing the limits further with their exploration of stories such as 'Mothman', and accounts of psychic and paranormal involvement in UFO and cryptid encounters.

Although Fortean researchers and writers are happy to accept many such high-strangeness accounts as being valid material for study and record, even they may have their own 'boggle-threshold'. This is a term devised by the psychical researcher Renee Haynes, to describe the point at which even the most open-minded ufologist or parapsychologists cries 'enough is enough. But the writers in this book are prepared to step across that threshold and make a case for a broad academic acceptance of the validity of such experiences.

Jack Hunter describes this next level as the 'Deep Weird': “These are experiences that push and often far exceed, the boundaries of what the dominant models of Western science and culture allow for, and yet are relatively commonly reported worldwide.” He suggests that the concept of High Strangeness might lead to “bridging the gap” between the wild extremes of Fortean weirdness and academic research on religious experience and paranormal phenomena. He asks if 'High Strangeness' really is a rare outlier of phenomena, or is it an integral part of the human experience, the rarity of such reports being due more to them being ignored rather than being scarce. Any Fortean would respond with an enthusiastic “yes!”

Hunter present the essays here into three groups, firstly an selection of reports and experiences giving an overview of the types of 'deep weird' phenomena under consideration, from synchronicities and NDEs to fairies and ectoplasm. The second section looks at ways in which such experiences can be researched and analysed. This included examining the moral and methodological issues involved in interviewing witnesses and experiencers and the limits which researchers place on themselves when confronted with unsettling data. The final section looks at ways of making sense of the 'deep weird' by attempting to model such phenomena either experimentally or through data analysis.

The first essay in the first section looks at 'synchronicity'. The author, Sharon Hewitt Rawlette gives details of a number of amazing examples of the phenomenon, many of which seem to have a deeper meaning than just random coincidence. She points out that up to know these events have been seen in terms of Carl Jung's “acausal conjunctions” between psychological and physical events. The problem of course is in the word 'acausal' meaning that these coincidences are meaningful to those experiencing them, but are not generated by that meaning.

The examples Rawlette gives are in most cases almost literally unbelievable, but I see no reason to doubt the accuracy of her accounts. I realise that an infinite number of events are happening at any one moment and some of them will resemble other events happening at the same time, but even so it seems just about possible that some of them may have some external generation, although I have no idea what that may be, or indeed how they may be studied rather than just recorded. The only truly unexplainable 'paranormal' event that I have experienced, that sent shivers up my spine was a 'coincidence' involving a newspaper cutting and the death of someone I knew many years previously.

Other writers in this section look at topics such as out-of-body and near-death experiences. Writing on the latter, Gregory Shushan notes that the nature of the experience seems unconnected to the religious beliefs, non-beliefs or societal background of the experiencer, leading to the consideration of some external origin. In examining accounts of out-of-body phenomena that seem to go well beyond the 'norms' of traditional accounts, Samantha Lee Treasure describes experiences that involve being transported to a laboratory-like environment, or meeting robotic entities, characters from cartoons or even a creature apparently made from Lego.

Other aspects of 'deep weirdness' that are explored here include ectoplasm, poltergeists, fairies, and 'high strangeness' entities. The latter, in a chapter 'Anything But Standard' by Zelia Edgar, takes us deep into the world of Mothman, Sasquatches in UFOs and the Flatwoods monster, what John Keel dubbed 'the incomprehensibles'. Of course these will be quite familiar to anyone who is conversant with the Fortean literature, but will be beyond the boggle-threshold of many more conventional academic cryptid researchers.

One area where the academic boggle-threshold is being lowered is outlined in Simon Young's description of the development of fairy belief, tradition and experience. He shows how the character and appearance of fairies has changed over several centuries, influenced by popular stories, literary tradition, theosophical belief and modern Paganism, as well as actual modern-day fairy encounters.

These essays on particular facets of the weird take up the bulk of the book. Two smaller sections look at the problems, practical and ethical, in investigating deeply weird phenomena, and make suggestions for future research. Leonard Martins looks at the issues and problems involved in interviewing witnesses and experiencers, where there may be a great distance between interviewer and interviewee, culturally, economically, philosophically and linguistically – even when both are at least nominally speaking the same language.

Peter Rojdcewicz takes a very Fortean view of the continuity of the many kinds of experience that constitute the 'deep weird', which he calls the 'Extraordinary Encounter Continuum'. He looks at a set of ten 'traits' that are found across the whole spectrum of observations and encounters, examining four in more detail: 'bright and extraordinary lights'; 'borders and limits'; 'journeys to non-ordinary realms' and 'revelatory experiences'. He points out that it would be 'insupportable' to suggest that an OOBE is simply an UFO abduction by another name, and concludes that “extraordinary encounter experiences are significant not only for the study of folk belief, but also for studies of the acquisition of knowledge and the delimitation of realities”.

One topic I think could have been examined in the context of this book is the phenomenon of 'Virtual Banality', where the experiencers find themselves in very unremarkable, everyday situations, which they only later find out to have been totally subjective. These may have been completely hallucinatory, but ideas presented in this book lead to the suggestion that they might be created by some 'borderline' triggering process. [1]

One or two essays struggle to advance their topics far beyond the boggle threshold. I don't think, for instance that very much more can be added to the contemporary study of ectoplasm, other than from a purely historical perspective, but there is little in this book which is without interest to the Fortean reader. It is clear from reading the essays in this collection that new avenues are opening in the study of anomalous experience, and that this increasing awareness demonstrates the truth of Charles Fort's axiom that “one measures a circle, beginning anywhere”.

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