Years ago I spent some time trying to get to grips with claims about séance phenomena. I remember spending weeks in the library plowing through long reports, including, among others, investigations of the Boston medium Mina 'Margery' Crandon that were published in the journal of the American SPR in the 1930s. The magazine Scientific American had offered a cash prize for a successful display of mediumship, but attempts to evaluate her effects quickly deteriorated into a long and noisy controversy.
The SPR's investigation of the Scole group in the 1990s was like deja vu. There's a circle of enthusiasts who claim to be generating superlative physical phenomena, including lights, images on film and materialised spirit forms. There are investigators who take an active interest and think it's real. Then there others who think their colleagues have lost their marbles. The sceptics had a point, given that the phenomena occurred only in total darkness, there were virtually no controls for fraud and that requests for infrared filming were rebuffed. But either way, I'd had enough of all of that, so when SPR's report came out in 1999 I just noted that some things never change and went on to less controversial matters.
I got interested again recently after reading a letter in the most recent SPR journal by David Fontana, one of the three sympathetic investigators (sadly deceased late last year). Fontana welcomed the publication of a definitive account of the Scole group's activities by its founder Robin Foy, titled Witnessing the Impossible. So I thought I'd take another look.
Foy is a retired RAF pilot, who at the time was working as a sales rep for a paper manufacturer. He'd had some striking personal experiences with mediums and had set up the Noah's Ark Society for physical phenomena, before moving on with his wife Sandra to found this new group. The circle met in the large basement of the Foy's newly acquired farmhouse in Scole, a small village near Diss in East Anglia. They were originally seven, but three dropped out leaving the Foys and two people, identified only as Alan and Diana, who acted as trance mediums, through whom a variety of 'spirit communicators' made themselves known.
The communicators also worked to produce a variety of physical phenomena. The one that is most frequently described is lights (in one place described as being 'like fireflies') that make displays forming catherine wheels, circles and ellipses. They are also seen to pass through objects and the sitter's bodies, causing a tickling sensation and on occasion bringing about healing effects.
Materialisation is another big feature: the forms can't be seen but make their presence known by constantly touching the sitters on various parts of the body. They include children, and at least one occasion a dog, and often make quite a commotion, walking around the room, clapping, clicking their fingers and sometimes even managing to talk.
The table levitates occasionally. There is a lot of experimenting with Polaroid film, producing some seemingly impressive images on film that was unused when it was introduced into the room drawings: writing from poems, signatures, photographs of deceased celebrities, etc. Apports appear: old coins and other small objects.
Mainly the unseen communicators seem preoccupied with trying new ways to create physical interactions. They mainly talk through the two members of the group who are entranced, but they also work hard to enable independent communication, and quite often succeed. This is not the old 'ectoplasmic' method, Foy stresses, but a new approach that they are pioneering for the first time. They also try to create a sort of rudimentary telephone, which by the end is starting to produce results, and even provides the beginnings of a synchronised video image of the celestial speaker.
At this point it all becomes a bit Star Wars, as the regular team of communicators abruptly disappears and an authoritative being, apparently from a far distant dimension, comes on the line. He identifies himself as Varren-here-ic and urgently addresses Jar-had-we Scole to tell them that they have to abort. Apparently their experiments have opened up a doorway, or vortex, in the time-space continuum, and this has unfortunately attracted the attention of experimenters in the future.
The interdimensional time wave pattern - generated by your future - is coming from another time belonging to your world... It is being generated by a crystalline time probe. This method of exploring time patterns is very basic, but still capable of generating a broad timecast. These are amongst the first of such experiments... It is this timecast that is creating the interference. .. By attempting to access your present time, those responsible are causing time ripples - or shock waves - to penetrate the doorway and the surrounding time space. It was these shock waves that severed your own special links with your spirit team at Scole, and are still causing imbalance in your dimension. ... this probing of time is a violation of the Cosmic and Intermidemnsional laws relating to time and space - and this will not be allowed to continue.
This made me giggle, but in other respects I was struck by the book's sheer ordinariness. The tone and ambience is absolutely unremarkable. Foy could be describing a group of enthusiasts setting up a successful animal shelter, perhaps, or a community choir practising to compete in a national choral event. There are discussions about the best way forward, excitement when progress is made, occasional arguments and disagreements, plans for extending the scope, and so on. It's all quite repetitive - a chronological description of each sitting, who was there, what happened, etc. In this case, half of the group are dead people, and they are meeting in a blacked out cellar two or three times a week to figure out new ways for the two sides to communicate.
The only real drama comes when the group starts opening up sessions to other people, including the SPR investigators Monty Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana. Initially things go well but the group is shocked by the hostility Keen starts to show when his demands for infrared photography are turned down. Foy makes clear that this refusal was made by the 'Team', which had strong ideas of what they were trying to achieve, in which this sort of intrusion would be unhelpful. From a scientific point of view this is no kind of answer, but from Foy's perspective it would have seemed reasonable. (Fontana in his letter claims the investigators remained completely unaware of the bad feeling they had caused, so the group obviously kept their irritation to themselves).
It also becomes apparent that the hostility that Keen's (and also on one occasion Ellison's) tetchiness was an effect of the extreme pressure they were facing from sceptics within the SPR. In these situations there are always people who assume it must be fraudulent, and either behave badly and disrupt the proceedings or else say nothing, but then go around afterwards noisily proclaiming that they know how the tricks were done. To be fair, the critics Alan Gauld, Donald West and Tony Cornell, had reasonable complaints. Gauld, in his typically acute analysis, pointed out that he was sympathetic to the existence of this sort of phenomena, he just didn't think the controls were sufficient for the group to be taken seriously.
However here's what Foy says about one particular incident:
WM - a member of the SPR - was apparently unsure and suspicious of the proceedings. We discovered afterwards that (although during our pre-sitting briefing we had specifically asked delegates not to do so) he had actually been making a grab for the spirit lights when they were in his vicinity - which may well be the reason that they did not travel down to his end of the room as much as they would normally have done. This information came directly from Monty Keen, who testified several months later that WM had telephone him personally - immediately he arrived back home from the Scole seminar - to allege that the sitting must have been fraudulent because he had been suspicious of the two microphones that hung down from the ceiling to record the session. These sat quite obviously in everybody's vision and - if anybody had bothered to ask about them at the time - we would have been quite happy to fully explain their use and allow any or all the delegates present to inspect and test them.
In a way, WM's allegations were a slight on the integrity and intelligence of the senior SPR colleagues who sat with us regularly; all of whom were vastly more experienced that he was in the research and investigation of physical psychic phenomena!
This is a pattern where physical phenomena is concerned. There are the enthusiasts who spend a lot of time on their own, and then invite other people in to watch. There are investigators who spend a lot of time with them and become convinced of their sincerity (for instance Malcolm Bird and Hereward Carrington in the 'Margery' investigations, or William Crawford in the Goligher circle). And then there are the occasional visitors (Walter Prince, Harry Houdini, Joseph Rhine in the case of Margery) who think it's nonsense. One's left trying to make sense of it all.
Looking at it from the outside, even through largely sympathetic third party appraisals like the SPR report, there's always a suspicion that we're dealing with shady tricksters. The claims are just too fantastic to be taken at face value. But if the logical conclusion is that it's all false - or 'a load of rubbish' as Richard Wiseman is said to have concluded after his visit - that doesn't make any sense either. It would be an extraordinarily complex and time-consuming hoax, and it must surely mean that the many sittings the group held on their own which Foy's book describes, and which were far more numerous than those held with other people present, were invented. For if the purpose was to fool investigators and the public, perhaps to make themselves famous on the world stage (there was certainly no money in it), they would hardly have had to meet on their own. In short, Witnessing the Impossible would be largely a work of fiction.
Read in another way, what this book provides, more than any other than has yet appeared on the Scole group, is a sense of the absolute sincerity of the participants, that they were doing something meaningful and useful. And at the end of the day, is there anything wrong about basing one judgements around these sorts of considerations?
David Fontana, perhaps the most open of the three SPR investigators, thinks not. He says he argued with Keen and Ellison about the value of infrared filming. It was an illusion, he told them, to suppose that it would satisfy die-hard sceptics, who would simply look for some other reason to reject it in order to stay secure in their comfort zone. 'The task of psychical research is to collect and publish evidence and to leave others to make of it what they will. If the evidence is good enough, those interested and with open minds will find it convincing, and that is all for which we can hope.'