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Ghosts in the Media

When Randi's Prize was published two years ago the press lady recommended it be timed to coincide with Halloween. To me, having pretensions to seriousness, that seemed a bit cheesy. However on reflection it made sense. It didn't help much in the end, but the principle was sound. Halloween is the one time of year when the chatterati allow themselves to talk about the paranormal without feeling guilty or embarrassed - an excuse for intellectual slumming.

So it's no surprise to see Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts getting a the sort of coverage I'd love to have had - a big spread on the news pages of the Sunday Times, in addition to a review in the supplement, and a long BBC radio discussion yesterday, among others. But of course to achieve that, Clarke had to make the kind of concession that I would not have been capable of, writing about ghosts in a detached way, as a slight and amusing curiosity. Like other books I've seen - Peter Lamont's on Daniel Home, for instance - it's artfully constructed to entertain readers but without frightening them into thinking that ghosts might be more than some curious hallucinatory episode or cultural belief.

It looked to me, from the reviews and the brief glimpse I got of it in a bookshop, as the familiar ghost story romp - classic cases like Epworth, Borley, etc - described with a light touch, and sometimes with interesting background details that I hadn't seen before. The approach in these sorts of books is the anthropologist's as well as the historian's: respecting anomalous experiences and beliefs, but not seriously engaging with them or with investigators' findings.

The urge to explain takes second place. There are references to JB Rhine, the Star Gate remote viewing, etc - when 'the race to understand ghosts became briefly part of the cold war', as one reviewer nonsensically put it - also to scientific findings, for instance that stimulating the temporal lobe can induce a sense of presence. The Society for Psychical Research gets several mentions, but - as so often - its conclusions are barely discussed, or are thrown out as asides for readers to make what they like of.

So for instance, when Phantasms of the Living comes up it's with the interesting observation that ghost sightings might be as much of the living as of the dead. That would have been an opportunity for some reflections about the shared mental space of the two different states, with reference perhaps to the equally significant reports of experimental apparitional projections. The principal author, Edmund Gurney, and other SPR commentators, recognised the true implications of this. But here all the reader is left with is the impression that the finding counts against these episodes being paranormal - which is not what they thought at all.

An alert reader will spot details that could be enlarged upon but aren't; doors that could be opened but instead are left resolutely shut; abundant opportunities to embark on an interesting and open-ended journey passed up.

Poltergeists episodes are linked with young girls suffering from teen angst, but why? What does this tell us? How could something in someone's head translate into the kind of baffling and violent activity that is so often described? If the available 'normal' explanations don't fully account for the Wesley family's poltergeist experiences at Epworth, as Clarke is willing to concede, then where do we go from there? And what are the implications when the musician Sting reports seeing an apparition of a woman holding a baby in his bedroom, and his wife also sees it?

If Clarke had been willing to go a bit deeper one would start to learn all kinds of interesting things. But that's what the writer absolutely has to avoid: readers must not on any account be seriously challenged. Instead they must be soothed into at least half-believing that clever boffins will one day unravel the mystery. As long as he can do that, he stands a chance of the book getting serious attention.

One avenue that Clarke briefly explored did interest me. His view is that ghosts - and I think he probably means the paranormal generally - is a working class interest. Also paradoxically one for the upper classes - if for no other reason than their ancient castles and stately homes are the kind of places where ghosts are likely to be found. It's the middle classes who are resolutely against it. He says, "Children are taught from a very early age not to see ghosts, since believing in ghosts violates natural law, and there are no sterner guardians of this law than the middle class scientist or university review-writing polymath."

Which is absolutely true and pithily said. I hadn't thought of it in terms of class, but I think he's on to something. The retreat from superstition goes hand in hand with the advancement out of poverty that drove the creation of the middle classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So perhaps we should take account these social and economic factors in the growth and development of secular scepticism.

I've no idea what Clarke really thinks, deep down. But he seems genuinely interested in the subject and given the social constraints his book is perhaps the best anyone with aspirations to be widely read could have done. It's just so curious that as a society we have to go on pretending that the phenomenon has no real significance, and that we won't allow ourselves to speculate about it openly.