Tag Archives: ASSAP

Sex and the Poltergeist – Part One


The following article was first published in the ASSAP magazine Seriously Strange 147 Spring/Summer 2015 (p.30-31). I have added a short bibliography, but otherwise the article is as originally published. You can join ASSAP at http://www.assap.ac.uk if interested in this sort of thing. Part 2 will follow…

“Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?” So sings Holly Johnson on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1985 hit Two Tribes – YouTube. Well you can see why he might ask the question; sex and horror are staples of the cinema, and at the point that record came out Britain had experienced a moral panic over ‘video nasties’.

Now of course we are jaded – films like Hostel, Saw and The Human Caterpillar are described as torture porn, and sex and horror are still tightly entangled. It’s nothing new – The Creature from the Black Lagoon poster (1954) is a classic of the B Movie genre that exploits sex and horror in a more innocent way, but the two entwine back through theatre,to the early novels where the Gothic is all about sex and horror.

So does Art imitate Life? According to most of the ghosthunters I know, yes. After all, many of us have encountered cases like the ladies who believe ghosts are having sex with them, or the chap who believed he was attacked by a  Succubus – he said incubus, but I think he meant the female variant – through to groping ghosts or their more pleasant cousins the incredibly beautiful phantom, beloved of older folklore collections where no phantom is ever plain or homely.

Occasionally one is able to help someone – if you spontaneously orgasm while lying down, it is probably worth seeing your GP, because there is a condition that causes it, and it is best to get it treated no matter how satisfying the symptoms! In other cases one just has to shrug and explain that the experience reported may be sleep paralysis (a convenient place-holder, though the actual physiology of the experience remains mysterious) or possibly psychological, but there are some places where even the boldest ghost hunter can not take their EMF meter, and a clients bed with them is one of them!

It is worth noting however that you are most likely to see a ghost at home, in your own bed according to all survey research, and yet when I try and sell ghost nights where I just come around and sleep with you no one buys tickets. Oh well, one tries…

So while a tiny percentage of cases a paranormal investigator is called upon to look at involve sexual themes, there is one kind of haunting that always seems to be associated in the popular mind, and indeed among many ‘experts’, with sex, or developing sexuality. I refer of course to the poltergeist. In the 1970’s one North American researcher joked he had a scale of charges to seduce your daughter: time and time again forty years later I read things like “there is always a young woman going through puberty associated with poltergeists” or “poltergeists never occur except around teenage girls” or “sexual frustration and powerful emotions are invariably associated with the poltergeist”. If you hold to the agent theory, that a poltergeist has a human focus, well researchers tend to look for the younger women in the household. I’m guessing many of you watched the recent adaptation on Sky of This House is Haunted, Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on the Enfield poltergeist?

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get's the voice right I'm happy!

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get’s the voice right I’m happy!

Did you notice how, like the book, but even more so, the narrative focussed on the two girls, and Margaret’s puberty and Janet growing in to womanhood? We even get a scene in the bath featuring one of the girls first menses as I recall? In my recent look at the Enfield Case I came to focus on the boys – but they are almost missing from the narrative; one tragically died a few years later, and one was absent through many of the events at school, but seriously we will never understand Enfield till we look at the whole family, not just the girls. My gut feeling is Playfair and Grosse were on to something important, but I’m frustrated at times by the way the boys don’t feature much in the write up.

I’ve done it – in an early case, the teenage daughter seemed the obvious focus, and the fact she was a dancer and very attractive and articulate probably added to that, but eventually I came to think another family member represented the centre of events.

I have long noted that in much psychical research in the past the focus was on (attractive, vivacious, one might say alluring) young ladies. Eva C (she was a lesbian) and Baron Shrenck Notzing aside, time and time again we find accusations of romantic relationships between the older, powerful and usually well positioned man and the young, attractive and not so powerful female medium. Sir William Crookes and Florence Cook (or Katie King) are one example, and various accusations of sexual impropriety with her investigators floated around Mina Crandon, aka Margery, no matter how unjustified. These young ladies were tied up, probed and allowed to act in a

Alex Owen's The Darkened Room

Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room

manner that would not normally be possible for a woman – though Margery was maybe an exception, being a talented and strong willed woman before she dabbled in mediumship. One would need to write a detailed study of women, power and sexuality in the Victorian and Edwardian séance room, did it not already exist in the form of Alex Owen’s superb book The Darkened Room.

So what’s wrong with this? Surely the reason for all these young ladies being involved with physical and mental mediumship is because the phenomena occur around them, rather than as I seem to be suggesting because historically most psychical researchers have been ageing men, perhaps susceptible to the charms of the fairer sex? Are adolescent girls not the centre of most poltergeist cases?

It is admittedly hard to tell, but we have one tool we can use. In 1979 Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell published their magisterial work Poltergeists, in which they analysed 500 cases from across a huge range of time and place, subjecting them to factor analysis and then using a computer to see how various factors (case mainly nocturnal; phenomena occur outside; raps or knocking – that sort of thing) group together in a Cluster Analysis. If you own the book turn to pages 226 to 228 – if you don’t, head over to Amazon or similar and buy a copy. It is that good!

At first glance the data in the table seems to support the contention women are the primary agents. Out of the cases where an “agent” who seemed to be at the centre of the phenomena was identified, in 143 cases (29%) were female, and 54 (11%) were male. (In the remaining 60% of cases no clear agent can be found).

Gauld and Cornell however realised not all their cases were evidentially equal, and they analysed a subgroup of their cases with stronger testimony, comprising of just under half (247) of the cases (column 6 if you have the book open). There we have 12% male agents (30 cases), and 34% female (85 cases).

So we can at least put one myth to bed – while there appear to be a roughly 4:1 split in favour of women in these cases, a sizeable minority revolve around men, as for example was the case in Julio in the Miami gift warehouse poltergeist reported by Bill Roll. Given the tendency for researchers to look at the women first, this may possibly explain some of the difference.

So what about the age of the agent? Luckily Gauld and Cornell provide us with figures for two categories – “agent under 20” and “agent 20 or over”. 30% were under 20; 8% over 20 (in the higher testimony cases it was 37% and 9%). In short we see again a preponderance of young people, and in maybe 75% of cases a teenager features – but a good quarter do not. Now there is a complicating factor – because assuming there is a difference – and I am on record as doubting that strongly – Gauld & Cornell’s data contains some cases that can better be characterised as hauntings rather than poltergeists. Indeed they did an analysis that separates very groups by cluster, and found some haunt type ghost cases, some classic poltergeists, and a group somewhere in

Alan Gauld

Alan Gauld, c.1997

between. I ran a cluster analysis using Becky Smith’s PhD data using NVIVO, looking at her “poltergeist type cases” and I did not find a gender bias difference between polts and hauntings – but it COULD occur in the Gauld and Cornell data set – I have no way of telling. Unfortunately Becky Smith disproved from her data set the pilot study suggestion that men forget these incidents faster so are less likely to report them than women. So what is going on?

I don’t know. Historically women were perhaps more likely to be at home more than men, as were younger people. This may well account for mush of the bias, for with a few exceptions like the Miami warehouse very few poltergeists seem to manifest at work. Given they are domesticated entities, who dwell within your homes, maybe that explains the sex differential in the data?

So given my doubts about whether adolescent women, or even young women, feature heavily in the majority of poltergeist cases, and that that was proving hard to establish by statistics, I resorted to the only thing I could think of, and read every account I could find of poltergeists. I’m still doing it now, and my infrequently updated blog Polterwotsit is the place to follow my findings, but I guess I need to open the floor to other researchers, and ask – is there a link between sex and the poltergeist, and if so what is it?

Over to you, the readers of this blog – what are your thoughts?

REFERENCES

Gauld, A; Cornell, A.D.; (1979) Poltergeists, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Owen, A (1989) The Darkened Room: Women,Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, Virago, London.

Roll, W.G., Burdick, D., & Joines, W.T. (1973) Radial and tangential forces in the Miami poltergeist. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 67, 267-281.

Roll, W.G; (2004);The Poltergeist; Paraview; New York

Smith, B. (2013) A Century of Apparitions (unpublished PhD thesis)

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The SPR & ASSAP: time to merge?


IntroductionASSAP FB logo

The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) was founded in 1981 as the result of dissatisfaction felt by a few members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  This is ancient history and it is not the present intention to rehearse the issues which created that rupture.  Suffice it to say that the two organisations have existed in parallel for over thirty years, attracting different, though frequently overlapping, memberships but generally standing aloof from one other.  Now that aloofness is dissolving, with each promoting the other’s activities on social media, and there is more interaction than has been the case in the past.  With this improvement in relations, the time has come to ask: why not merge to form a single body?spr_logolowres

The first response might be to wonder why they should merge when they have such strong individual identities and do well on their own.  The answer is that they have strengths which are complementary, rather than antagonistic, so that both sets of members would gain from unification.  Another question is that if some members were dissatisfied with the SPR in 1981, could the same happen in the future, leading to yet more friction and possibly a fresh split?  The answer to that is that the current SPR is a long way from its 1981 incarnation, and fully aware of how traumatic such a rupture is in the life of an organisation.

The following sections attempt to answer some more of the questions that will naturally occur in a discussion of the merits of bringing ASSAP and the SPR together.  It is to be hoped that these will generate debate, which may produce further questions.

What are be the benefits of a merger?

The obvious one is a bigger combined membership, with economies of scale and greater resources.  A larger size should increase its punch and authority, both within the field and among the wider public.

The SPR has dedicated premises and a paid full-time administrator which would improve the ad-hoc administration experienced by ASSAP members.  The volunteers who run the latter do a tremendous job, but a dedicated office function has to be more efficient.  ASSAP members would have access to the range of benefits already enjoyed by SPR members.  These include four numbers of both the magazine Paranormal Review and the peer-reviewed Journal (and occasional Proceedings); free access to London lectures, reduced rates to bi-annual study days and the annual conference; a permanent library, archives of international significance, and free access to an online library of publications back to 1882.  ASSAP officers could be brought into the SPR Council structure by means of co-optation.

In terms of research, ASSAP has an energetic and enthusiastic membership, and this injection of energy would be welcome in the SPR.  ASSAP’s spontaneous case network would reinforce the existing SPR Spontaneous Cases Committee and its emphasis on training would be useful in stimulating interest in investigation among SPR members.  A larger combined membership, and therefore increased income, would enable an expansion of the amount given to fund research activities.

Education, a core function for both the SPR and ASSAP, would be improved as well.  Integrating the libraries and archives would provide an enhanced resource (the new SPR premises, bigger than the previous rented accommodation, providing the required space for ASSAP’s books), and ASSAP’s records would find a permanent home.  A single set of periodicals, with a larger circulation than either achieves singly, would attract a wider range of writers.

There would also be benefits in geographical reach: the SPR is often seen as London-centric, whereas ASSAP is successful regionally.  With a combined membership around the country there would be motivation for regional activities, enabling members outside London to participate in their localities.  This is an opportunity to decentralise some of the SPR’s functions, with more grassroots involvement.

What about differences in scope?

The subject-matter of the two organisations is not identical, that of ASSAP covering a wider area than that of the SPR.  ASSAP members might legitimately complain that a merger is likely to squeeze out particular interests, such as ufology, earth mysteries and folklore.  This is not necessarily an impediment, even though such topics in general fall outside the scope of the SPR.   In these days of easy electronic communication it is straightforward for sub-groups to pursue their interests.  The new SPR website will make it possible for members to keep in contact with each other easily, so that even though say ufology is not a significant element of psychical research, those with such an interest can still interact, while enjoying the benefits of their SPR membership.

Membership fees

A stumbling block is that ASSAP’s fees have always been significantly less than the SPR’s.  The standard membership rates are noticeably different, with ASSAP’s being a quarter of that charged by the SPR.  This reflects the different set-ups of the organisations, ASSAP’s lower volunteer-based costs compared to the SPR’s permanent paid staff and building expenses.  ASSAP members would hopefully consider the broader range of benefits enough to justify an increase, but perhaps there could be a transitional arrangement, with incremental rises over several years for existing ASSAP members to bring the two sets into line.  The SPR membership rates are very reasonable, and ASSAP members would hopefully see that the increase was justified.  It is most unlikely that there could be any reduction in the SPR rates to bring them closer to ASSAP’s.

Events

On the other hand, ASSAP members would undoubtedly baulk at the costs of the SPR conference and study days (as do some SPR members).  With ASSAP’s expertise in mounting economically priced study days (notably the extremely popular ‘Seriously…’ series), there is no reason why these could not continue, augmented by the presence of SPR members who had never attended an ASSAP event before.  The status of some of these, such as conferences on vampires and witchcraft, would be problematic under the SPR banner but these could be run in collaboration with other organisations, such as the London Fortean Society; the SPR has participated in joint events with the Scientific and Medical Network so there is precedent for such an approach.

A concern which has to be acknowledged is that the desire to organise events might diminish, with those who had previously volunteered for ASSAP not wanting to make the effort on the grounds that conferences of all kinds should be arranged at the centre.  It is doubtful that the SPR office would be willing to shoulder the extra administrative load.

What about the name?

The name could be a sticking point for ASSAP members.  There is no easy way that the names SPR and ASSAP could be combined, and there would be overwhelming resistance within the SPR to altering an internationally-recognised name that has been in existence since 1882.  The most likely outcome is that the SPR would retain its name, but with ‘incorporating The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena’ on its literature – something that might not appeal to ASSAP members whose first loyalty is to that organisation.  This could be a major obstacle, but one that might be overcome if ASSAP members were convinced that the advantages outweighed the loss.

Mechanisms for reaching an agreement

This article has set out some of the pros and cons of a merger.  Bringing the two together would not be quick as there are a number of steps before that could happen.  In addition to a general debate among both sets of members there would have to be an initial discussion by the officers within the two organisations; a formal process of consultation with members; meetings between the two sets of officers to resolve any contentious issues; then there would have to be a vote, with a criterion for a yes vote agreed in advance.

Conclusion

This long after the event, most of those interested in our subject are not bothered about why ASSAP came into being.  What they want to see is a thriving organisation or organisations that can deliver the means necessary for them to pursue that interest.  Many join both with no sense of conflict, and a number of those who established ASSAP continued to take part in the SPR’s activities, clearly seeing no contradiction in belonging to both.  There is no doctrinal reason why the respective memberships should not combine and work together, and the practical difficulties could surely be overcome with goodwill on both sides.  In delivering their services the two organisations are capable of existing independently, but their combination would strengthen the voice for psychical research.  If that is our aim, then the case for coming together to our mutual benefit, and that of the field, is a strong one.

This article is being published jointly on the authors’ blogs, and publicised on social media, in the hope that it will generate a constructive exchange of views.  The authors are both members of the two organisations, but are not writing in any official capacity.  They welcome feedback of all types, which should be sent to tom.ruffles[at]yahoo.co.uk, in order to gauge levels of support for and opposition to the proposal.  This has to be a bottom-up process, with all opinions aired.

Tom Ruffles and C J Romer

10 October 2015

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