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THE SÉANCES OF “physical” mediums in America and England during the last half of the nineteenth century promised marvels, and often delivered them: mysterious spirit rappings and light orbs, unearthly music and voices, furniture that moved or levitated without human contact, musical instruments that appeared to play themselves. In dubious experiments, loaded guns being provided, invisible hands lifted them and fired at targets with deadly accuracy.

Strangest of all were the temporary “materializations” of bodies or body parts. Spirit-hands, described variously as fleshy and warm, or corpse-cold, would appear before “sitters” (a séance, in French, is a sitting), shake hands with them, touch them, and perhaps take up pencils to write messages.

Investigators with unimpeachable scientific credentials attested that physical mediums had sometimes materialized complete persons with…conversational powers.

Investigators with unimpeachable scientific credentials attested that physical mediums had sometimes materialized complete persons with mobile eyes, legs that moved, personalities, and conversational powers. These figures might appear dressed in clothes made of what appeared to be woven fabrics. Oxford philosopher H.H. Price, always suspicious of fraudulent mediums, witnessed the materialization of a girl who had died at age six. He felt the girl’s pulse and heard her breathing. Asked if she loved her mother present at the séance, she said yes, before falling silent and fading away.

cerisimilitude-slug B150Charles Richet, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1913, was among scientists who gave materializations serious attention. “I shall not waste time in stating the absurdities, almost the impossibilities, from a psycho-physiological point of view, of this phenomenon,” he wrote in Thirty Years of Psychic Research (1923). “A living being, or living matter, formed under our eyes, which has its proper warmth, apparently a circulation of blood, and a physiological respiration, which has also…a will distinct from the will of the medium—in a word, a new human being!”

richetBut facts were facts, and Richet’s list of scientists who had examined the most gifted physical mediums for trickery “not once, but twenty, a hundred, or even a thousand times” — and found none — included Alfred Russel Wallace, a colleague of Darwin’s who wrote on various aspects of evolutionary theory, and physicist-chemist Sir William Crookes. (Price, Crookes, Richet and Wallace were all fellows of the English Society for Psychical Research organized in 1882 for the study of what was once described as the “lesser known faculties” of the human mind. A glance down the “Contents” page of F.W.H. Myers’ monumental summation of SPR research, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death [1903], suggests what those faculties were: Genius, Sleep, Hypnotism, Sensory Automatism, Phantasms of the Dead, Trance, Possession.)

Crookes, like Richet, recognized a marvel when he saw one and wouldn’t turn his back on it just because he hadn’t an explanation. He spoke of “a hitherto unknown force” responsible for the “very remarkable phenomena which at the present time are occurring to an almost incredible extent.” Richet characterized the attitude of his scientific contemporaries who refused to look into materializations: “I do not want to see or to study these things, for I know beforehand that they are not possible. Therefore…you have all been taken in by imposters.”

weglintonIMPOSTERS THERE WERE — a lot of them — on both sides of the Atlantic. Word of what happened at séances got around, and con-artists came out of the woodwork. Moreover, genuinely gifted “physical” mediums, whether to compensate momentary loss of powers, or to spice performances, might not be above chicanery. The English medium William Eglinton, a remarkable fellow by all accounts—he not only materialized complete human bodies, but levitated and flew about séance rooms—was accused of deception several times. The gifted but prankish Italian peasant woman Eusapia Palladino seemed to enjoy toying with the earnest representatives of the Society for Psychical Research studying her, by mixing crude and obvious tricks with astounding displays of occult prowess. The problem for investigators was to distinguish the one from the other.

Richet described a typical sequence of events at the séance of a “physical” medium. There might be, first, knockings like someone at a door seeking admittance, or table-movements. Perhaps a book would levitate, or sitters would feel the touch of an invisible hand. Materializations were rarer, and if they happened were likely to come later in a session.

When complete human figures materialized, there would be “a first stage in which [the presences] are invisible, a second in which they begin to be visible but are still more or less amorphous, and a third stage in which they take on the semblances of living organisms surrounded by veils which at first mask the imperfections of form, but become thinner as the underlying form becomes more dense.” Early on, miniature two-dimensional figures like photographic images might be visible. Richet once observed “a white, opaque spot like a handkerchief lying on the ground… [which then] assumed the form of a human head level with the floor, and a few moments later it rose up in a straight line and became a small man enveloped in a kind of white burnouse.”

Commonly the medium would have withdrawn behind a curtain or door seeking freedom from external stimuli that would encourage trance before a materialization began. In that case, “sitters” would not have observed the developmental stages in a materialization, and the materialized figure’s emergence from the medium’s private space would raise the question of whether he or she were just the medium in disguise. To dispel suspicion, the hands and feet of the medium might be secured; but the best proof of an authentic materialization would be the sight of the medium and materialized figure together.

kkingIn the 1870s, the English teenager Florence Cook had often materialized her “control” spirit Katie King who claimed to have been in life Annie Morgan, hellion daughter of seventeenth century pirate Henry Morgan. Sir William Crookes, who studied Cook and Katie at length, wrote in an 1874 letter to Richet of having “absolute proof” Katie was not just Cook disguised. During a séance at his home, “Katie…having moved among us, retired behind the curtain and a moment later called me, saying, ‘Come into the cabinet and raise my medium’s head.’ Katie stood before me in her usual white robe and wearing her turban. I went towards the bookcase to raise Miss Cook, and Katie moved aside to let me pass.”

On another occasion, Crookes had seen Cook “dressed in black velvet, apparently asleep….Raising the lamp I looked round and saw Katie standing close behind Miss Cook. She was clothed in flowing white draperies. Holding one of Miss Cook’s hands and kneeling down by her, I raised and lowered the lamp so as to see Katie’s whole figure, and to convince myself that it was really Katie. She did not speak but moved her head. Three times I examined Miss Cook carefully to be sure that the hand I was holding was really the hand of a living woman, and three times I turned the light on Katie and regarded her attentively.”

kking_crookesCrookes had gone about proving Katie’s independence of Cook with a scientist’s empirical thoroughness—but he became the object of ad hominem attacks by skeptics. His numerous scientific achievements notwithstanding, he was said to be gullible and short-sighted; and since he had at times housed the pretty teenager Cook with his wife and ten children, hadn’t he just fallen in love with her? The joke going around was that the next “materialization” was going to be in a maternity ward.

AT A SÉANCE at Mr. Luxmoore’s home in 1873 which journalist Epes Sargent describes in Proof Palpable of Immortality: being an account of the materialization phenomena of modern spiritualism (1875), Cook was bound fast to a chair behind a curtain when barefooted Katie appeared in a loose white dress with long sleeves and a hood. She answered questions of sitters about conditions enabling materializations. Asked to write something, she seated herself and did so. She kissed one fellow audibly, although he “felt no pressure of the lips.” To demonstrate her independence of the medium, she asked Mr. Luxmoore to pull back the curtain, and those present saw the entranced medium still fastened to her chair.

Katie was, excuse the expression, really something. She could materialize for hours. She kibitzed with sitters, touched them, kissed them. Gifts people gave her would vanish when she did, but reappear with her later. A male sitter once presented her a gold ring. She put it on a finger and uttered the fathomless double entendre, “Now we are engaged.”

On one occasion, she cut a swatch from her dress and presented it to a sitter, then repaired the dress by waving a hand over the cut. The swatch survived her disappearance, as gifts received in Fairyland sometimes survive people’s return to terra firma in folktales. (American anthropologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz in his 1911 The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries noted other similarities between séance anomalies and experiences with Celtic “little people”: objects that moved without human contact, mysterious rappings and aerial music, manifestations and vanishings.)

Katie once allowed sitter George Trapp to examine her bare arm. He found it to be warm and beautifully shaped, but unnaturally smooth like marble or wax. Something else was odd about it: There was no bone at the wrist. He mentioned this to Katie. “Wait a bit,” she said, before continuing around the circle of sitters. Returning to Trapp later, she offered him her arm again, and the bone that had been missing was now in place.

kking_crookes1Katie was chameleonic. Sargent noted that people had seen her on various occasions as an “apparition of ravishing beauty,” or a woman with a “massive face” and “stout and broad across the waist”; she was fair-skinned, or resembled “a woman of the Levant”; she had large blue eyes with long lashes, or brown eyes; she was a “gentle and graceful young woman,” or a girl of “roguish, infantile, defiant vivacity.” In one materialization, her skin was dark at first, then became light. One of the numerous photographs Sir William Crookes took of her depicts what was conceivably a botched or incomplete materialization: Katie is life-sized, but has a glassy-eyed, doll-like appearance. One bent, crossed arm is dusky. The other, white, ends in four curved fingers resembling animal claws.

Disappearances of materialized bodies were as uncanny as their emergence. Crookes once held Katie King’s hand tightly, resolved not to let it go, but “little by little the hand seemed to dissolve into vapour, and it thus disengaged itself from my grasp.” Sitter George Trapp made some jesting remark offensive to Katie, and she struck him in the chest with a clenched fist. When he seized her wrist in response, it “crumpled in my grasp like a piece of paper or thin cardboard, my fingers meeting through it.” A fellow who grabbed Katie bodily in a fit of passion or curiosity saw her legs and feet vanish first, then the rest of her.

Richet mentions a Dr. P. Gibier having witnessed the materialized “Lucie” collapse “like a house of cards.” Reaching down to touch the last spot of Lucie on the carpet, he felt nothing.

Richet, while convinced of the reality of materializations, was reluctant to embrace the “anthropomorphic hypothesis” that their sources were disembodied spirits. (“We may allow it a place, strictly provisionally, but on this delicate matter it is advisable to take the scientific ground here adopted.”) French astronomer Camille Flammarion agreed, allowing only that materializations involved some unknown “psychic force” of the medium.

Materializations clearly involved mediums’ psychosomatic life.

SPIRITS OR NO spirits, materializations clearly involved mediums’ psychosomatic life. Before a materialization occurred a semi-transparent, white stuff known as “ectoplasm” could be seen flowing from mediums’ bodies. There are Victorian-era photographs of it online. One taken in 1921 shows the seated, entranced Norwegian medium Einar Neilson vomiting the stuff profusely into his lap. The medium Mme. d’Esperance likened her personal experience of venting ectoplasm to having “fine threads…drawn out of the pores of my skin.” Arthur Conan Doyle in the second volume of his The History of Spiritualism (1926) mentions Judge Peterson’s observation of a “fleecy cloud” issuing from the side of the medium W. Lawrence, and Richet had seen a “liquid or pasty jelly” coming from the mouth or breast of the medium Marthe Beraud. (“Under very good conditions of visibility,” he wrote, “I have seen this paste spread on my knee, and slowly take form so as to show the rudiment of the radius, the cubitus, or metacarpal bone whose increasing pressure I could feel on my knee.”) He once saw emanating from Eusapia Palladino a rod of ectoplasm with a hand at the end of it, “a living hand warm and jointed, absolutely like a human hand.”

John S. Farmer, biographer of Victorian medium William Eglinton, described one of his subject’s materializations: “His breathing became increasingly laboured and deep. Then, standing in full view, by a quick movement of his fingers, he gently drew forth, apparently from under his morning coat, a dingy white-looking substance.” The stuff slipped down Eglinton’s left pantleg to the ground where it expanded and “commenced to pulsate, move up and down and sway from side to side,” before rising up into a vertical form. Eglinton then parted the ectoplasm to reveal the bearded face of a materialized figure taller than himself. The ectoplasmic link between the medium and the figure now “severed or became invisible, and the spirit walked round the circle and shook hands with the various sitters.”

Ectoplasm, subtle and evanescent, was difficult to study, but a Polish medium Mike Dash mentions in Borderlands (2000) once captured in a test tube a small quantity which proved in chemical analysis to be “an unsavory concoction of human fatty matter, leukocytes (white blood cells) and cells from the mucous membranes.” Spirits might be making esoteric use of human substances, but the substances themselves were unremarkable.


SPIRITUALISM’S INFLUENCE IN America and England during the last half of the nineteenth century, and into the early decades of the twentieth, is generally forgotten. At a time when scientism and materialism were undermining traditional religions, spiritualism, promising empirical evidence of the afterlife, had acquired millions of adherents.

ehbrittenOnly a few years after the Fox sisters began hearing mysterious knockings in their family’s rural home near Rochester, New York, and discovered that the spirit could answer questions yes or no by knocking once or twice, people in thirty-six American states were hearing them. Mediums multiplied as if by contagion. People everywhere gathered in séance circles hoping for communication with departed relatives and friends. The Spiritual Telegraph, one of the numerous spiritualist newspapers that sprang up, noted that Boston séances attendees in the 1850s included doctors, clergymen, lawyers, judges, merchants, and city officials. Emma Hardinge Britten, a medium and itinerant lecturer on spiritualism, estimated in Modern American Spiritualism (1870) that a quarter of the American population was now in the fold. This struck her as mysterious, there having been “no regular system of propagandizing.”

“Physical” mediums were associated with knockings, materializations, and the other anomalies discussed in the first portion of the present essay. “Mental” mediums’ specialty was putative communication with the spirits of deceased persons. Messages ostensibly transmitted from the “other side” mental mediums received (the metaphor “downloaded” is almost irresistible) could represent with uncanny accuracy the character, interests, style of expression, and sense of humor of persons unknown to the mediums in life.

Some very intelligent people thought communication with spirits of the deceased occurred. James Hyslop, a Columbia University philosophy professor, had long since abandoned the fundamentalism of his Ohio farmer father without ever losing interest in the question of “survival.” He arranged for sittings with renowned Boston clairvoyant Leonora Piper, and after a dozen of them was convinced that he had been communing with his deceased father, brother, and uncles. The only alternative he could imagine was that Mrs. Piper possessed an “omniscient telepathy” that could access detailed retrospective knowledge of those persons’ lives. Charles Richet thought Leonora Piper’s powers extraordinary, but did not think more than that need be said of them. Mrs. Piper, announcing her retirement as a professional medium in a New York Herald interview, admitted her own uncertainty about the source of her clairvoyance.

Alan Gauld in Mediumship and Survival (1982) envisions the possibility of a “super ESP” that could provide detailed knowledge of “any living or recently deceased person in the whole of the Western world.” Myers had distinguished in Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death between “supernormal” and “supernatural.” Supernormal powers were resources of the “Subliminal Self”—the Subconscious or Unconscious of modern psychology. A “super ESP” would be supernormal, not supernatural. Debunking the supernatural having been nearly mandatory for Victorian-era scientists and intellectuals, SPR researchers tended to favor “supernormal” over “supernatural” hypotheses. (The poet William Butler Yeats once remarked, “If you psychical researchers had been about when God Almighty was creating the world, he couldn’t have done the job.”)

tyrrellG.N.M. TYRRELL (1879-1952), a fellow of the Society, was a physicist who had worked with Marconi in developing early radio technology before turning his attention to paranormal phenomena. He mentions Myers’ “supernormal” and “supernatural” distinction in his Science and Psychical Phenomena, but only to disparage the latter term as antiquated. Anything once regarded as “supernatural” could in this enlightened age be dealt with as a manifestation of the “Subliminal Self.” Tyrrell, while agnostic, was fascinated with mental mediumship. In The Personality of Man (1947) he dwells at length on messages received in automatic writings between 1901 and 1932 by five reputable mediums in different locations—Mrs. Piper in the U.S.; Mrs. Leonard, Mrs. Verrell and her daughter Helen in England; and Mrs. Holland in India. The sources of the messages were ostensibly three deceased SPR men—Myers, Sidgwick, and Gurney—all of whom had been seriously interested in the “survival” question while alive. Apparently it continued to interest them on the other side. There were cross-correspondences among the messages received by the various women, and in some instances thoughts expressed to one medium were complete only when placed side by side with what another had received.

While mental mediumship interested Tyrrell, he gives short shrift to physical mediumship in The Personality of Man, describing it as having been “for ages the happy hunting ground of tricksters and charlatans.” He abhors its “sordid sensations” that were irrelevant to the “survival” question. (Camille Flammarion agreed: “The greater part of the phenomena observed—noises, movement of tables, confusions, disturbances, raps, replies to questions asked—are really childish, puerile, vulgar, often ridiculous, and rather resemble the pranks of mischievous boys….Why should the dead amuse themselves in this way?”)

Much that happened at the séances of physical mediums was undoubtedly “puerile” or “sordid.”

Whether the materialization of a complete person who could describe his or her position in life were irrelevant to the “survival” issue might be questioned, but much that happened at the séances of physical mediums was undoubtedly “puerile” or “sordid.” A Victorian photograph shows ectoplasm shooting from the vicinity of a medium’s vagina. The hyper-skeptical SPR medium-debunker Frank Podmore wrote in his 1902 Modern Spiritualism: a History and a Criticism that if the physical marvels weren’t just trickery, it was certainly conceivable that they were the work of demons, not benevolent spirits.

In any case, to pretend physical mediumship was of little interest, as Tyrrell does in The Personality of Man, was absurd. Had conscience allowed, he would probably have been happy to ignore the physical mediums altogether, and he is simply turning his back on them when he writes, “I am not aware that any case of complete ‘materialization’ [of a person] investigated by critical observers has resulted in a favorable verdict.” (Richet and a number of other “critical observers” had produced such a verdict.)

The best explanation of Tyrrell’s inclination to ignore materializations and the other marvels of the physical mediums, apart from his finding them distasteful, is that he can make no sense of them. This he freely admits. He cannot deny that at least some of was said to have occurred at the physical séances really had, but the notion of a connection between these occurrences, and the mental states of mediums and/or sitters, makes him squirm intellectually. To admit such a connection would disturb the conventional modern distinctions between objective and subjective, physical and psychological, fact and imagination which he regards as sacrosanct. “Mental” mediumship did not disturb them, since telepathic communications between the spirits of persons present and absent, or living and deceased, were purely subjective in nature.

When Tyrrell stoops to speculate about how anomalies at the séances of physical mediums might be explained, he does so within the safe confines of the modern dualisms.

WHEN TYRRELL STOOPS to speculate about how anomalies at the séances of physical mediums might be explained, he does so within the safe confines of the modern dualisms, musing at one point that perhaps “in the neighborhood of a living human body in a particular state [not, of course, the mind or imagination in a “particular state”] the movement of objects and various other physical effects are brought about in some unknown way.” Maybe there is “some as yet unrecognized matter” emitted from the person of the medium which exerts “the necessary mechanical forces, etc.” (Such matter had been recognized—ectoplasm—and, alas, its emission seemed connected with the mental states of mediums and/or the other sitters. Tyrrell had obviously heard of ectoplasm, but he never once mentions it in The Personality of Man. No doubt it struck him as “sordid.” He does mention having heard of shysters regurgitating cheesecloth.)

At one point he surmises that a physical force of unknown character might be at work in the marvels at physical séances—or even “something deeper.” His idea of “something deeper” is that “the scheme of space, time, matter, and causality might be only a department of nature, and another order of things behind may occasionally shows through.” But one gathers that if and when it were to “show through,” it would be independent of, and perceptible by, minds functioning as they do ordinarily.

Another “order of things” seemed to have shown through at the séances of the legitimate physical mediums, but only when the medium and the other meditative sitters had gathered in dimly-lit rooms, perhaps holding hands to heighten collective psychic energy, and were not in what Tyrrell would probably have regarded as their right minds.

There is an analogy between Tyrrell’s inability to come to terms with physical mediumship, and his torturously ingenious view in Apparitions (1953) of haunting ghosts, postmortem manifestations, experimentally produced phantasms, and “crisis apparitions” (vivid hallucinations of people troubled in distant places). People had witnessed apparitions mistakable for actual persons moving about in rooms or along garden paths in broad daylight. Tyrrell’s view is that they were in no sense physical presences. Faithful to the dichotomy between physical and psychological realities, he represents apparitions as products of the “subliminal” mind.

hhpriceHis understanding of apparitional psychology is the same as that of H.H. Price, who, in Essays in the Philosophy of Religion, writes (in the chapter called “Paranormal Cognition, Symbolism, and Inspiration,”) that something first happens “at an unconscious level of our personalities. We…receive a paranormal [i.e. supernormal] impression of some kind.” The paranormal impression conveys to its recipient what Tyrrell calls an “idea-pattern,” the nucleus of an apparition, which the imagination of the recipient then fleshes out in “waking mental imagery…a vision or a voice, a visual or auditory hallucination.” The hallucination is not in any sense a physical presence. It resembles a daydream.

Tyrrell dwells at length on “crisis apparitions.” The source of the “paranormal impression” in these is usually obvious: A person related to the percipient in serious trouble of some kind in a distant location has knowingly or unknowingly conveyed telepathically the “paranormal impression,” the “idea-pattern.” The visual or auditory imagination of the person who receives the paranormal impression then produces an hallucination that may represent the crisis quite realistically or only metaphorically. The relationship between agent-sender and the person who perceives the hallucination is purely subjective, and resembles in this respect the supposed relationships between spirits of deceased persons and the mental mediums.

CRISIS APPARITIONS ENVISION remote scenes, but apparitional figures may appear in familiar settings. A few days after the death of Unitarian minister Dr. Harris, American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne saw him seated in a chair at the Boston Athenaeum reading a newspaper, as had been his habit in life. Both Tyrrell and Myers believed the perception of an apparition required an activation of the resources of the percipient’s “subliminal mind.” An apparitional sighting did not involve the physical eyes. When a ghost appeared in a room, some people there might see it, others would not. The ghost was, for Myers, in some sense really present. The “Subliminal Self” of a given person might or might not allow for its perception.

In Tyrrell’s characterization of Myers’ position, an apparition like Dr. Harris was “pasted” into an ordinary scene of life. Myers’ conception of the “pasted” apparition troubled Tyrrell. If the apparition was a product of the awakened subliminal mind and resembled a dream image, how could the senses be operating as they do in wakeful states to articulate the setting? That would amount to saying that the waking and sleeping minds can operate simultaneously.

Tyrrell thought the apparition is a work of the imagination in response to a paranormal inspiration, and so is the setting in which it appears.

Tyrrell proposed what he regarded as a better alternative: The apparition is a work of the imagination in response to a paranormal inspiration, and so is the setting in which it appears. The entire experience is phantasmal. He envisions a “complete machinery in the personality for producing visual imagery exactly like that of normal perception up to the range of a complete environment, and for making everything [in the environment of the apparitional figure] appear as natural and as fully detailed as normal sense-perception can do.” That would indeed explain how one can witness a ghost—a dreamlike figure—moving about in a familiar room, and it would preserve the dichotomy between what is subjective and what is objective. Somehow, though, it does not inspire a “Eureka!” response.

Neither does Tyrrell’s speculation in Apparitions about ancient people’s belief in mythical creatures like Pan the goat-man, the Chimera, and the Hydra. He thinks these figures were probably more than just make-believe. People must have seen them. His speculation about how they would have seen them preserves the dichotomy of psychological and physical realties: “Collective idea-patterns” having taken root in popular traditions, “anyone suitably sensitive going to the places…Pan was especially supposed to inhabit would then see and hear Pan with exactly the same reality that a person going into a haunted house [expecting to encounter a ghost]” may actually see one. Here again, by insisting apparitions are dreamlike projections of the “subliminal mind,” Tyrrell clings to his distinction between objective and subjective realities.

Humans both ancient and modern have experienced apparitional figures…as capable not only of visibility or audibility, but physical influence.

What makes his thinking here less than compelling is that humans both ancient and modern have experienced apparitional figures (fairies, angels, phantom animals, djinns, UFO-related “aliens”) as capable not only of visibility or audibility, but physical influence. The mind-boggling phenomena at the physical mediums’ séances were cases in point. Celtic peoples, well aware of what the “good people” could do to their persons and property, tried to avoid trespassing on their precincts. Big Foot, UFO-related “aliens,” and the phantom panthers of the Ohio-Indiana border may leave footprints—sometimes very odd footprints—that start somewhere, go a little distance, then stop, as if the apparitional figure had taken flight or simply dematerialized. John Donne remarked in a 1627 sermon that angels with no more substance than “froth is, as a vapor is, as a sigh is,” can, if so disposed, reduce rocks to atoms. William A. Christian, in Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain, writes of the numerous apparitional figures that had appeared before people in nineteenth century Europe, walked with them, touched them. As if to confirm their reality, they might leave behind objects with sacred significance. It is very difficult to explain such physical effects if apparitions are merely the psychological projections of those who witness them. (Pakistani nuclear scientist Bashiruddin Mahmood proposed in a Wall Street Journal interview that a way out of the looming international energy crisis might be to cultivate the assistance of the djinns. One can only wonder, though, how such a project might turn out.)

Tyrrell acknowledges, grudgingly, in The Personality of Man a few reports of people who believed they had been touched by specters. A woman who saw a ghost at her bedside had reached out and grabbed “something soft, like flimsy drapery.” Tyrrell writes, “There may be, for all I know…physical [italics mine] apparitions….On that point I express no opinion; but if there are, they are phenomena of a totally different kind from the apparitions we are dealing with here”—and as if that were all that need be said on the matter, he turns his attention elsewhere.

As one would expect, poltergeists were problematic for him, too, and those, too, he dismisses with an offhand remark: They “lie outside my present terms of reference, and in any case form a very small proportion of those collected by the Society for Psychical Research.”

cjungCARL JUNG, IN a lecture before the Society for Psychical Research in 1919, “The Psychological Foundation of Belief in Spirits,” had argued that primitive humanity’s “spirits” and “souls” were actually “autonomous complexes,” highly charged elements of personality split off from conscious identity that yielded visual or auditory phantasms. A ghost or a fairy was not to be regarded as being in any sense a reality independent of consciousness.

The lecture must have pleased many members of the Society, since it squared with their preference for “supernormal” as opposed to “supernatural” explanations. But a year later Jung was having second thoughts. He had rented a cottage outside London that proved to be haunted where he experienced strange rappings, sounds of dripping water, bad smells, and the horrifying apparition of a woman’s face on the bed pillow next to his. These and other later experiences, both his and his patients’, prompted him to add a footnote to the 1948 republication of the 1919 remarks: “After collecting psychological experiences from many people and many countries for fifty years, I no longer feel as certain as I did in 1919 [about these matters]. To put it bluntly, I doubt whether an exclusively psychological [i.e., “supernormal”] approach can do justice to the phenomena in question.”

If the apparition is in some sense a physical presence, its perception will depend nonetheless on the resources of the subliminal mind.

If the apparition is in some sense a physical presence, its perception will depend nonetheless on the resources of the subliminal mind. Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth century visionary, wrote in Heaven and Hell that the spirits of deceased persons were palpable for him when he was “withdrawn from the sight of the body, and the sight of his spirit had been opened.” The opening of the “sight of the spirit” had occurred for him in trance states induced by restraint of breathing, but sometimes no special preparations had been necessary. He might be walking in a city street talking with friends when it happened. Then he would have to shift attention back and forth between the two forms of awareness that accessed two levels of being.

An man who lived near Ireland’s Tara Mountain told American anthropologist Evans-Wentz, “The souls on this earth are as thick as the grass, and you can’t see them, and evil spirits are just as thick, too, and people don’t know it”; but the “old people” with “second sight” or the “third eye” had seen them about the mountain hundreds of times. An “Irish mystic” remarked to Evans-Wentz that when fairies became visible “the physical eyes may be open or closed,” but “mystical beings in their own world…are never seen with the physical eyes.”

And by the way, what are house cats looking at so earnestly in thin air when we see nothing?


APPARITIONAL FIGURES CAPABLE of acting in the physical world, visible to some people but not necessarily to others, abound in world religion, folklore, and literature.

In The Iliad, Athena materializes with flashing eyes before Achilles to prevent him from slaying Agamemnon. Angels materialize as men before Abraham and Lot. St. Augustine writes in On the Trinity of angels taking “created materials distinct from themselves and using them to present us with convincingly real symbolic representations of God.” Spanish Jesuit Martin del Rio in Disquisitiones (1599) speaks of angels, fallen or otherwise, compounding of air “things that can be touched and felt (papalia).” Robert Kirk, in his seventeenth century study of elves, fauns and fairies, The Secret Commonwealth, describes the “good people” as consisting “of matter in a state unknown to us.” They have “light, changeable bodies…somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud,” “chameleon-like bodies [that] swim in the air.” Marsilio Ficino, the fifteenth century Platonist, wrote of ancient Egyptian priests animating idols: Having “invoked the souls of demons or angels…[they] introduced these into their idols by holy and divine rites, so that the idols had the power of doing good and evil.”

Where materialized figures capable of acting in the natural world are concerned, the resurrected Jesus is an interesting case. After the Crucifixion, he appears disguised as a gardener before Mary Magdalene in John 20, shares a meal with the disciples in Luke, and invites doubting Thomas to touch his wounds. The body of the resurrected Jesus in St. Paul’s interpretation (I Corinthians 15) was a “spiritual body” (soma pneumatikon), not a physical being of any ordinary kind.

wlcraigWhat, though, is a “spiritual body”? William Lane Craig, a contemporary American philosopher of religion and Christian apologist, remarks at his website that in modern liberal Protestant theology the Pauline “spiritual body” is typically treated as a paradoxical “unextended, immaterial, intangible, mass-less entity.” Emanuel Swedenborg had noticed the same tendency in eighteenth century theology for which, as he wrote in Heaven and Hell, the soul was “like some volatile kind of pure ether which, on the death of the body cannot help dissipating.” This nearly complete divorce of spirit and body parallels, and probably reflects, the divide between psychological and physical realties in conventional modern epistemology. No wonder, Swedenborg wrote, that a person who reaches the other side and discovers that he (or presumably she) can still see, hear, speak and touch is bewildered. “He still yearns, wishes, craves, thinks, ponders, is moved, loves, and intends as before.” It is as if he had simply traveled from one place to another, taking with himself “all the things he possessed in his own right as a person” This initial bewilderment having subsided, there is likely to follow astonishment “ that the Church does not know anything about this condition after death, and consequently does not know anything about heaven or hell.”

As Craig points out, the reduction of the spiritual body to the vanishing point precludes taking literally the Gospel stories of Jesus’s worldly behavior after the Crucifixion; but if the spiritual body of Jesus were conceived as resembling that of fairies or the materialized Katie King, whatever the differences, this would not be necessary.


If one holds fast to conventional modern subjective-objective, imagined-real, psychological-physical dichotomies, making sense of what happens in “close encounters” with UFOs and “aliens” is as difficult as understanding the behavior of the resurrected Jesus, the materializations at séances, and the interactions of Celtic folk with “little people.”

The strangest possibility Jung could imagine, or was at least willing to admit in writing, was that the UFO might be a “materialized psychism.”

UFOs troubled Carl Jung in his 1959 essay, “Flying Saucers: a Modern Myth,” in the same way his haunted cottage had. That flying saucers registered on radar screens and photographic film suggested that they were material realities; but they violated the laws of physics as those describe the motions of bodies in space. In their uncanny maneuverings they were “not like bodies but like weightless thoughts.” (Jung might have written “weightless spirits” instead of “weightless thoughts,” but that would have suggested a willingness to abandon psychology for ontology—a no-no for a scientist intent on preserving his professional reputation.) The strangest possibility Jung could imagine, or was at least willing to admit in writing, was that the UFO might be a “materialized psychism.” He does not define what exactly one of those might be, but both the term, and his essay more generally, intimate that if the flying saucer were in some sense “material,” its materiality would have to be some kind of psychological projection. Modern secular humanity was perhaps experiencing a longing for belief (-ism) powerful enough to float a mysterious image in the skies? The flying saucer was perhaps an ethereal “spiritual body” like the resurrected Jesus in liberal Protestant thought?

Jung’s experiences in the haunted house after his 1919 speech had caused him to question his earlier interpretation of spirits as psychological projections. Had he lived long enough to be aware of some of the wilder “close encounters” with UFOs and “aliens,” he might also have felt less confident of the psychological emphasis in his 1959 essay. A direct, impressive personal encounter with a UFO or “aliens” is less likely to result in musings on “materialized psychisms” than spontaneous regression to something like primitive belief in aerial spirits.

greinerTo wit, thousands of people in Arizona saw flying over their state on March 13, 1997, an enormous V-shaped, soundless or gently buzzing pattern of lights, width estimated at a mile by some observers. Some saw the lights mounted to the arms of an immense, chevron-shaped object that blocked the view of stars as it passed overhead. Bill Greiner was driving a truck loaded with cement down a mountain north of Phoenix when he saw the lights. “I’ll never be the same,” he said. “Before this, if anybody had told me they saw a UFO, I would’ve said, ‘Yeah and I believe in the Tooth Fairy.’ Now I’ve got a whole new view, and I may be just a dumb truck driver, but I’ve seen something that don’t belong here.” The responses of other Arizonans were similar: “I have never forgotten that experience and hope never to see another thing like it for the rest of my life.” “They [the lights] left such a disturbing impression that I still think about them from time to time.” “This was a life-changing experience.” “It was the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.” “We have never seen anything like this.” And: “For sure it was not of human origin.”

jvalleeJacques Vallee, one of the most persistent, careful, and imaginative twentieth century students of UFOs, concluded early on that these presences in the skies were less likely to be nuts-and-bolts spaceships than aerial wonders of the kind found in the legends of Magonia, the land beyond the clouds in French folklore. (Magonian spirits were said to travel through the air in “cloud ships,” a term that describes rather well the appearance of many UFOs.) Vallee and Chris Aubeck have collected in Wonders in the Sky (2010) five hundred examples of aerial anomalies dating from the second millennium BC least likely to have been simply misunderstood natural phenomena: chariots drawn by dragons, ghost ships, anomalous lights, armies on the march, multiple suns or moons, etc.

Vallee surmised that there was not only resemblance, but identity of kind, between the “aliens” people met up with in “close encounters,” and the shape-shifting elves, djinns, dybbuks and demons of folklore. Author and occultist John Keel agreed. “Aliens,” he thought, were not “extraterrestrials,” but “ultraterrestrials,” beings that had always shared the planet with us that not only assumed perceptible, palpable forms, but could influence the physical world.

sfreixedoSalvatore Freixedo, a onetime Jesuit, expressed in a private conversation with Vallee, his grim evaluation of UFOs and aliens as manifestations of powers that manipulate our reality and our destiny for their own purposes. “Using our naiveté and our lack of critical judgment in the presence of ‘miracles,’ these entities…play with our emotions in order to be worshipped as gods….We are manipulated by someone or something unknown, a power which accords us little respect, and uses us for its own ends in the very same way we use animals.”

Father Seraphim Rose, an American-born Eastern Orthodox priest, concurred. In “aliens,” “the multifarious demonic deceptions of Orthodox literature have [simply] been adapted to the mythology of outer space, nothing more.”

VIEWS OF UFOs and aliens like those of Vallee, Keel, and Freixedo are not, of course, the ones generally found in popular discourse. The usual idea, derived from the same dichotomies between subjective/objective, and psychological/physical realities that yielded Tyrrell’s position on apparitions, is that UFOs, if “real,” must involve space travel, high-tech hardware, and exploratory humanoids from outer space. After a number of people, including airline pilots, saw a UFO hovering above O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in November, 2006, the question for local media was whether extraterrestrials had blown into the Windy City; and a BBC special that Public Broadcasting aired a few years back, while acknowledging all that was baffling about UFOs, reverted again and again to the notion that the “extraterrestrials” must possess technologies far in advance of ours.

Suppositions about UFOs and “aliens” explain why popular books on UFOs and aliens—including those by heterodox authors like Vallee and Keel—create such an uncertain impressions.

These suppositions about UFOs and “aliens” explain why popular books on UFOs and aliens—including those by heterodox authors like Vallee and Keel—create such an uncertain impressions. Anecdotes of freakish, dreamlike experiences the authors believe “really happened” usually fill these books. But how can experiences be both real and fantastic? If the authors have an explanation—it is not always clear that they do—it has not been integrated with the anecdotal material, so the reader is left to conclude that these strange events must have happened in the same way that anything in ordinary life does.

These books would be less puzzling if their authors had woven into their anecdotal material psychological and philosophical considerations like those contemplated in the present essay, but of course doing that would cast doubt on the conventional understanding of how the world works, and since that would likely offend both editors and readers of popular books, it does not happen.

THE DILEMMA THESE books present is illustrated by works of Budd Hopkins and David Jacobs that bear on perhaps the strangest of the “close encounters,” the “alien abductions” widely reported in the later decades of the twentieth century. In a typical abduction, a person was “beamed up,” or otherwise elevated, into a hovering UFO, and laid out on an examination table. There, he or she encountered a Chief Examiner who communicated telepathically through large, dark, mesmeric eyes. There would be a supporting staff of trolls clone-like in appearance and behavior. The examinations recalled the torments of Hell in medieval woodcuts: a tube inserted down the throat, a catheter up the urethra, a large needle through the navel. Steel implements probed women’s reproductive organs. Eggs were believed to have been extracted from women, sperm from men. Apocalyptic visions of ecological or nuclear catastrophe appeared on screens. Banks of transparent, aquarium-like vessels contained alien embryos, and abductees might learn of their involvement in a project of cross-breeding to fuse alien genetic material into humans’, or vice-versa. An abduction might also entail a more or less straightforward sexual encounter with an alien.

Abductees were generally sure what they had experienced had not been simply nightmares, and this seemed confirmed by the ostensible consequences of the physical probes: scars, bleeding, markings on the skin, fear of hospitals, and sexual dysfunction. Mysterious little metal implants, purpose unknown, were found in the nasal canals or elsewhere on the persons of some abductees.

buddhopkinsA motif in abduction tales involving pregnant women was the alien theft of human embryos. This subject first drew the attention of Budd Hopkins, a pioneer in abduction studies, while researching the case of abductee “Kathie Davis,” the principal subject of his Intruders: the Incredible Visitation at Copley Woods.

Kathie and members of her Indiana family had had more than one UFO-related encounter before a physician confirmed with positive blood tests and urinalysis in the 1970s that she was pregnant by her fiancé. When she thought she experienced a miscarriage, her doctor confirmed that she was, indeed, no longer pregnant, but having examined her he could not account for the lack of evidence she had ever been pregnant. The fetus had simply vanished. Kathie had always felt that her child had survived somehow, and while under hypnosis relived emotionally the supposed removal of the fetus from her body by an alien doctor.

After publishing Intruders, Hopkins learned of “hundreds” of women who believed that they had had similar experiences. He investigated personally two cases in which fetuses had disappeared in the seventh month “without any of the serious, even dangerous, symptoms that usually accompany such late miscarriages.” A doctor attending one of these women had heard the heartbeat of the fetus more than once. When the woman awoke one morning sensing that she was no longer pregnant, her doctor corroborated this. During the “D and C” cleaning procedure which follows miscarriages, he found the placenta—but no trace of the fetus.

ODD THINGS CAN happen during gestation, as Hopkins allows. Doctors will attribute vanished fetuses to “missed abortion, fetal ‘absorption,’ or unreported miscarriages.” Still, it seemed curious to him, and it is, that memories of abductions should accompany so many interrupted pregnancies.

[The] motif in abduction tales jibes not only with other reports of aliens’ interest in human sexuality and reproduction, but recalls folklore stories of “changelings”…and amours between humans and fairies or deities.

This motif in abduction tales jibes not only with other reports of aliens’ interest in human sexuality and reproduction, but recalls folklore stories of “changelings” (fairies who steal human babies and perhaps leave their own defective offspring in place of them); tales of women “taken” by fairies to become wives and mothers in Fairyland; and amours between humans and fairies or deities. Seventeenth century Franciscan Ludovico Sinistrari, an advisor to the Tribunal of the Holy Inquisition in Rome, wrote that “to theologians and philosophers it is a fact that from the copulation of humans with the demons human beings are sometimes born.” St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas labored to understand how such births might be possible; and scholarly eighteenth century Pope Benedict XIV speculated that the “sons of God” said to have mated with the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6:4 were “those demons who are known as incubi and succubae.” (More interesting than these arcane speculations is the question of what in the experience of these intelligent men might have prompted them.)

Hopkins, in Sight-Unseen, a book he co-authored with Carol Rainey, wrote, “It is absolutely critical to know if the extraterrestrials exist and are, as the reports indicate, experimenting with humankind—or if the reports represent some profoundly radical new mental aberration.” I.e., either aliens are technologically advanced little extraterrestrial explorers and experimenters, or the delusions of crazy people. Harvard psychiatrist John Mack in his Abduction (1994) observed that the abductees he studied had come from every social class, every level of intelligence and education, and were not for the most part either mentally disturbed or strongly imaginative; and Hopkins and David Jacobs (author of the 1993 Secret Life: Firsthand Documented Accounts of UFO Abductions) did not think the experiences abductees reported merely aberrational. Therefore, given the subjective-objective dichotomy, Hopkins and Jacobs conclude that testimony of abductees about alien embryo-theft and baby labs aboard UFOs was to be taken literally.


YES, REALLY. IN an interview about his 1998 book, The Threat: What the Aliens Really Want and How They Plan to Get It, Jacobs, an American history professor at Temple University, stated his belief that the “aliens” are “here on a mission…a breeding program, which accounts for the reproductive activity that we see, and a hybridization program…an integration program in which ultimately these hybrids, who look very human, will be integrating into this society. And who will eventually, I assume, be in control here because they do have superior technology and super physiological [sic] abilities.”

Jacobs’ speculation about “alien” organization in “The Abductors” chapter of his Secret Life sounds like a smoothly running corporation: “The technology and science that the aliens possess suggest that they have logical thought processes with a great capacity to learn and understand. The achievements they have demonstrated depend on cooperation among the aliens, and this would probably entail a hierarchy of work and divisions of labor; the differentiation of tasks that abductees report suggests this as well….a hierarchical structure not only of work but of command and knowledge.”

To envision aliens stealing human embryos in pursuit of their own project of world domination requires about as great a stretch of the modern imagination as assuming that “changelings” were realities.

To envision aliens stealing human embryos in pursuit of their own project of world domination requires about as great a stretch of the modern imagination as assuming that “changelings” were realities. But assuming for the sake of argument that aliens really are copping embryos, one would not necessarily have to conclude with Hopkins and Jacobs that the aliens are intent on species-modification. Adopting an epistemology less realistic and naturalistic than theirs, and assuming that in abduction experiences, as in other encounters with entities from “other dimensions,” “ultraterrestrials,” etc., the human mind is not functioning as it does normally, the thrust of embryo thefts (real or imagined) might well be conceived as symbolic and hortatory rather than biological.

A Welsh scholar remarked to Evans-Wentz during the latter’s studies of the fairy-faith, that God deploys apparitions with uncanny powers “in times of great ignorance to convince people of the existence of an invisible world.” Whether or not God does that, there is substantial evidence, both historical and modern, that the “invisible world” refuses to be ignored. Personal experiences of materialized figures like Katie King, fairies, poltergeists in haunted houses, ghosts that move about in rooms, UFOs and “aliens” compel awareness of the invisible world’s reality—make of that what we will.

Vallee wrote in Dimensions (1988), that if you were interested in producing a spiritual revolution, you would need to “bypass the intelligentsia and the church, remain undetectable to the military system, leave undisturbed the political and administrative levels of society, and at the same time implant deep within [a] society far-reaching doubts concerning its basic philosophical tenets.” Those effects have been produced by the UFO and aliens, manifestations of the “little people,” and the materializations of the physical mediums.

James Gallant is an independent scholar and the author of The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: A Novel of Atlanta. He has also written a collection of stories about historical classical guitarists.

From our archive: ‘A Defence of Modern Spiritualism’ by Alfred Russel Wallace, originally published in the Fortnightly in 1874, appears here.

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