Episode Four: Where Darkness Plays
We like to think we know the difference between fantasy and reality. Perhaps, one evening, we might find ourselves alone at home. Then we hear a noise, or see something odd. Maybe it’s a cupboard door left slightly ajar. A door that we could have sworn was closed before. Slowly, we might begin to feel the creeping sense of fear. That perhaps someone somewhere is watching us, that we aren’t alone after all.
Fear it would seem is a powerful primal emotion. So potent that it can even make us afraid of something that may not even exist. But then again, just because we can't see something, it doesn't mean it isn't there…
In a physiological sense at least, most people would feel confident if asked to locate and identify the human heart, or indeed the brain. But if someone were to ask, where exactly does consciousness reside? We might find the answer a little harder to come by.
It is a question that has profound consequences, particularly if you are inclined to believe that the mind might also exist outside the body…
On one cold January evening in 1924 a young woman named Doris was giving birth at the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead London. The attending Obstetrician, Lady Florence Barrett, had made a successful delivery when things took a turn for the worse. Just as the baby was being born, Doris suffered a sudden heart attack from which she would not recover.
As she lay dying she grabbed Lady Barrett’s hand. Don’t let it get dark, she said, it’s getting darker and darker. But then something extraordinary happened. An ecstatic smile played across Doris’ face. What is it? Enquired Lady Barrett. Father is here, replied Doris and so to my sister Vida.
The sudden appearance of Vida was particularly remarkable considering she had died two weeks previously and Doris had not yet been informed of her death. For the next hour Doris continued to talk with Lady Barrett but also with the spirits of her father and sister who she believed were there to take her to the other side. A short time later, Doris passed away.
When Lady Barrett returned home, she relayed the incredible story to her husband, Sir William Barrett. For Sir William, an eminent physicist and fellow of the Royal Society, it was an astonishing revelation. One that was to mark a significant turning point in the research he had been conducting for the last fifty years. Research, into the possible existence of Poltergeists.
The word poltergeist is derived from the German for knocking ghost. For some, they are believed to be malevolent spirits that can interact and communicate with our physical world.
Sir William however had a different theory. Rather than being the machinations of an evil spirit, he believed the reported effects of poltergeists were actually caused by as yet unknown powers of the mind.
He believed this right up until Lady Barrett told him the tragic story about her patient Doris. Suddenly it had become clear. Could it be he thought, that the poltergeist was a spirit after all? One that, unlike the spirit of Lady Barrett’s patient had, for reasons perhaps linked to the manner of their death, not been collected by loved ones while waiting at death’s door. Instead they had become trapped, forever destined to exist in a horrific disembodied limbo.
For author and paranormal enthusiast Colin Wilson, his feet were firmly in the former camp. He believed the havoc caused by so-called poltergeists was in fact linked to the chemically charged process of puberty and adolescence. Either that or it was all merely a hoax. Or at least, he believed that until something extraordinary occurred that would change his mind as well.
Just what exactly took place in a small West Yorkshire town between 1966 and 1970 has never been fully accounted for. Often described as the most violent haunting in Europe it is a mystery that remains to this day, Unexplained.
Located on a Roman road part way between Leeds and Doncaster, the town of Pontefract has a rich and bloody history. For Jon Betjeman it was home to the liquorice fields where his love and he did meet. For Shakespeare, the town’s castle was the place of Richard the Second’s brutal murder, hack’d to death within the guilty closure of its walls. Some have even claimed Pontefract as the place of Robin Hood’s death.
But for the Pritchard family of number 30 East Drive it will forever be associated with the terrifying events that began one swelteringly hot day in August 1966.
For Jean and Joe, and their 12-year-old daughter Diane, the August bank holiday weekend was a chance to relax after the recent move into their new home. For Jean and Joe’s son Phillip however, it was a chance to have some time to himself.
Having fallen out with his father, Phillip had elected to stay behind. Since he was only 15 it was arranged that his grandmother Sarah would stay to look after him.
After seeing the rest of the family off, Phillip went to the garden to read, leaving his grandmother knitting inside the house. A few hours later a large gust of wind tore through the living room, slamming the back door shut. A surprised Phillip ran into the house to see if everything was alright. Sarah had assumed it to be the wind but as Phillip remarked, it couldn’t have been more calm outside.
Shortly after Phillip went to put the kettle on. When he returned ten minutes later something strange had occurred. His grandmother had been too engrossed in her knitting to notice the peculiar cloud of fine white dust, floating around the room.
Instinctively they looked to the ceiling, perhaps some whitewash had fallen from above but then Phillip noticed something incredibly odd. The dust seemed to be falling from waist height. Sarah noticed it too. Standing up from the sofa it was as if she had poked her head through the clouds.
Sarah ran to collect her other daughter Marie Kelly who lived in the house opposite. They returned to find the dust still falling in the living room. The furnishings now completely covered in a thick layer of the chalk like substance.
Marie went to the kitchen to begin cleaning the mess when she suddenly skidded across the floor. She looked down to find little pools of water all over the linoleum. When she tried to mop one up, another puddle seemed to instantly appear in their place.
Assuming it to be a leak coming up from under the house, Marie pulled back the linoleum only to find the concrete underneath completely dry.
A plumber was called to the house. Arriving a short time later he too was unable to located the cause of the flood and left soon after. An hour later the puddles mysteriously disappeared.
What they didn't know at the time was that the strange reoccurring puddles were a classic sign of a poltergeist.
At about 7 o’clock that evening, Phillip came through from the kitchen. It’s happening again he said.
Sarah entered the kitchen to find counter covered in sugar and tealeaves. The dispenser was switching itself on and off as boiling water cascaded onto the surface top. Suddenly an almighty crash came from out in the hallway.
Somebody was inside the house.
Petrified, Peter and Sarah approached the door and slowly pulled it open… but the hallway was empty. Then the light was inexplicably switched on revealing the source of the crash. At the bottom of the stairs was a plant pot that had been smashed to the floor. Then a banging started, coming from the kitchen.
Terrified they ran back to find one of the cupboards shaking violently as if someone was trapped inside. Phillip yanked it open but there was nothing inside. They ran to get Marie. And when they returned all the cupboards doors were shaking, the cutlery and plates rattling violently inside. And then it stopped.
Marie’s husband Vic, although skeptical, suggested they speak to their neighbour Mr. O’Donald who was thought to have experience dealing with the paranormal. Despite the lateness of the hour Mr. O’Donald was more than happy to oblige.
On returning to number 30, they found the place to be exceptionally cold. However after waiting for almost two hours, they found no sign of anything else untoward. But as the three were exiting the house a loud crash was heard from inside.
Marie switched on the light to find two paintings thrown to the floor, their glass frames completely shattered. Further down the hall, lay another broken frame Marie turned it over and gasped. It was a photo of Jean and Joe Pritchard on their wedding day. It had been slashed right across their faces.
When the rest of the family returned two days later they struggled to believe the accounts of Marie, Sarah and Phillip, and that appeared to be the end of the incident.
Two years later, as the August bank holiday came round again, Jean’s mother Sarah couldn’t help but be reminded of the events of 1966. She started to hear noises again. A low thud at first and then those same loud bangs.
She asked her daughter if she’d heard them too. Jean, who had spent most of the day redecorating, had little patience for her mother’s nonsense and told her so in no uncertain terms. Seconds later there was a tremendous crash.
At the bottom of the stairs was Jean’s bed pane. Jean was carrying the bed pane back to her room when they heard a second crash. Racing back to the landing, three plants had been thrown from their pots. There was little doubting it. The poltergeist was back.
That evening, Jean, unable to sleep, headed to the kitchen to get a drink but when she walked into the hall she froze in fear.
A strip of wallpaper was moving on its own accord – and then the brushes she had been decorating with earlier were pulled into the air and one after the other were launched at her head.
She scrambled back to the room, screaming for Joe to wake up. Joe and Jean rushed back to the hall were Diane and Phillip now stood, woken by Jean’s screams. All around more objects were pulled into the air and flung at the terrified family. Together they fled to the safety of Joe and Jean’s bedroom and slammed the door shut.
At this point it might be reasonable to ask why the Pritchard’s didn’t move. But they argued the event had brought out an innate territorial nature. This was their home and they weren’t about to allow themselves to be bullied out of it.
For the next few years they endured a number of strange events from loud bangs to severe drops in temperature, as well as the intermittent battles with flying objects. They had even given the poltergeist a name, calling him Fred.
At one point a local Reverend was consulted, which seemed to act the catalyst to a sinister turn of events. The Reverend, Mr. Davy, was convinced that there was something evil in the house, something that later seemed to fix its attention on Diane.
One night after getting in to bed, Diane felt a presence in her room. Suddenly, the covers were yanked from the bed and the mattress wrenched up from underneath her throwing her to the floor.
Another time a crucifix was flung across the room that stuck to Diane’s back like a magnet. When it was finally pulled off, a red cross shaped mark could be seen on her back for days.
Perhaps the most terrifying event happened one night when Diane was making coffee. As the kettle boiled, the power was suddenly cut off. As Jean stumbled to find a torch, Diane let out a blood-curdling scream.
Jean ran into he hall to find Diane being dragged up the stairs by an unknown force, her cardigan stretched out behind her as if being pulled, and an invisible hand seemingly at her throat. When Diane was finally released her neck was covered in finger marks.
The events finally came to an end after a family friend alerted them to an old Scottish tradition. Many years ago, superstitious Crofters would hang garlic to word off evil spirits. The Pritchard’s gave it a go and sure enough it did the trick, Fred had gone.
Ten years later, local historian Tom Cunniff began to wonder if the haunting might have something to do with the Pontefract priory. The priory had been built to house a number of Cluniac monks before being dissolved by Henry 8th in 1539. The story gained credence when a neighbor of the family found a book in the town’s library detailing the case of an unsavoury Cluniac Monk.
The Monk had been sentenced to hang for the rape and murder of a young girl during the time of Henry 8th. It was also believed that the Monk had strangled his victim.
After a little more research Tom made an unnerving discovery. The Pritchard’s house was built almost directly on top of the spot where the old Gallows would have stood.
In truth we will never know exactly what happened in those four years but after a careful study of the records it would appear that no monk had been executed in the area after all.
Certainly the debate as to what might explain the strange series of events remains wide open. A few years after the Pontefract Haunting came to an end a group of Canadian scientists, intrigued by the poltergeist phenomena carried out an extraordinary experiment that they believe finally settles the debate for good.
The experiment, created by Canadian Mathematician Dr. George Owen and overseen by psychologist Joel Whitton of the University of Toronto took place in 1972 and has become known as the Phillip experiment.
Together with a test group of individuals of extremely high IQ, including, Dr. Owen’s wife Iris Owen, a former chairperson of MENSA Canada, the scientists claimed, under test conditions, to have contacted a spirit known as Phillip. The spirit was even captured on video seemingly conversing with the group through knocks on a table and at one point moving the table around a room. The only thing was, Phillip didn’t exist.
A few months earlier the group had been tasked with creating a fictitious individual with whom they might later try to ‘contact.’ The group settled on a character that they named Phillip Aylesford. Born in 1624, Phillip was given an entire back story including links to a young Charles the second and even an unfortunate ending, committing suicide at the age of 30 after his girlfriend was burnt at the stake after wrongfully being accused of witchcraft.
Having sufficiently plotted out the story of Phillip’s life the group began trying to ‘contact’ his spirit. After a number of months the experiment failed to yield any meaningful results. However when they adopted a different approach, this time recreating the atmospheric setting of a séance, the results were staggering. Almost instantly they experienced the familiar knocking noises associated with poltergeist hauntings followed by the table being rocked and pulled across the room.
The group was convinced that the creation of sounds and the movement of the table was the result of their collective minds, trained in such a way as to effect the physical world around them.
What they claimed to have discovered, was nothing less than a form of telekinesis.
Unsurprisingly their results met with skepticism from the scientific community, and despite claims to have replicated the results in studies across the world, absolute proof has remained elusive.
But perhaps it is something else entirely that is taking place. Something unrelated to spirits of the dead, malevolent or otherwise.
In his essay Mind and Matter the celebrated Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, considered the relationship between our conscious minds and the physical world. He believed it was merely a convenience to imagine the world existing objectively on its own. That one way or another, it does not become manifest without a conscious mind to observe it.
The inference being not that the material world might only exist as a figment of our imagination, but rather that our conscious minds might somehow create the physical world around us.
As improbable as this may sound, the truth may be even stranger. As demonstrated by what is known as the double slit experiment, physicists have come to accept an extraordinary peculiarity in the way that sub-atomic particles behave.
Thanks to the work of physicist Max Born, it is widely thought that rather than occupying determined positions and outcomes; all particles exist merely as a collection of probabilities. The principle is known as Superposition and its implications are unfathomably profound.
In short, it would seem, that only when a particle is observed by the external world does it become fixed in any meaningful way.
Perhaps like the eponymous planet of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, the universe is merely a giant mass of energy, drawn into shape and form when witnessed by our conscious minds. The world we create and experience, seamlessly assembled before us as if made from some kind of sub-atomic putty.
Is it inconceivable that rather than being the disembodied energy of a malevolent spirit, of the as yet untapped power of telekinesis, the poltergeist phenomena is nothing less than our imaginations becoming manifest? A phenomena powered by the heightened sense of collective fear.
With this in mind, you might start to wonder just what terrors could we create next?
As ever it might seem, it is not fear itself that we should be afraid of. Rather, it is ourselves that we should fear.
© Richard MacLean Smith
1. Greene, B. (2004), The Fabric of the Cosmos, USA: Alfred A Knopf
2. Wilson, C. (2009), Poltergeist: A Classic Study in Destructive Haunting, US: Llewellyn Publications
3. A Right Royal Castle (2004), BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bradford/sense_of_place/unexplained/pontefract_castle_history.shtml
4. The Paranormal Files The Phillip Experiment, TWIEntertainment, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZTNmB-UvFo
6. Schrödinger, E. (2013), What is Life?, UK: Cambridge University Press
Episode Four Extra: Victorian Ghostbusters
For the weeks in between Episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.
In this week’s episode, Where Darkness Plays, we touched briefly on the supernatural theories of the eminent Sir William Barrett. Sir William passed away in 1925, roughly forty years previously, however, he had been a founding member of a fascinating collective known as the Society for Psychical Research.
Counting among its early members such luminary figures as Arthur Conan Doyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Ruskin, the society had been established in an attempt to legitimize the investigation of paranormal phenomena.
Rather than dismiss reports of strange occurrences that might not tally with conventional wisdom, the society made it their mission to approach each case impartially, adopting a strict scientific method with each investigation. You might say they were nothing less than the original Ghostbusters.
The Society for Psychical Research had been established in response to a peculiar craze that was sweeping the Western world, a craze that had its origins in a small wooden house in the hamlet of Hydesville, New York.
In 1848, two sisters named Kate and Margaret Fox claimed to have made contact with the spirit of a dead man. The sisters alleged that the spirit had communicated with them through a series of knocks and bangs. In short, they professed to have made contact with a Poltergeist and in so doing inadvertently created a movement that would come to be known as Spiritualism.
As news of the Fox sisters’ incredible claims spread, it wasn’t long before everybody from The Romanovs to Queen Victoria were conducting séances in an attempt to replicate the apparent communications with the dead.
Inevitably as the movement’s popularity increased so did the number of bogus mediums, psychics and clairvoyants ever ready to take advantage of a gullible public. For the Society of Psychical Research, it was these charlatans that posed the biggest threat to what they believed was an otherwise perfectly legitimate area of study.
The group was formally established in 1882, however it wasn’t until 1886 that the society established itself with the publication of what is now considered the first classic text of parapsychology. Titled Phantasms of the Living, the book was the work of three Oxbridge educated scholars: the psychologist Edmund Gurney, the poet Frederic Myers and, author and founder of the Fabien Society, Frank Podmore.
The fascinating book, which can be found online, provides an exhaustive study of the paranormal, taking in witchcraft, dreams, hallucinations, telepathy and of course the poltergeist phenomena.
In conclusion the authors believed that rather then describing the workings of the spirits of the dead, all paranormal phenomena was merely the result of Extra Sensory Perception.
Or as Frederic Myers, notes, 'Instead of describing a ghost as a dead person permitted to communicate with the living, let us define it as a manifestation of persistent personal energy'
The trio, who also went by the brilliantly titled Committee of Apparitions and Haunted Houses soon caught the attention of controversial newspaper editor William Thomas Stead.
Stead, a pioneer of investigative journalism is perhaps most well known for a series of articles published in the Pall Mall Gazette exposing the dark underbelly of Victorian society and its proclivity for child prostitution.
The articles, collectively titled The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon, not only helped to raise the age of consent from 13 to 16, but are also considered to mark the birth, for better or worse, of something we now take completely for granted, the power of the media to influence public opinion.
As a commentator on popular culture, Stead had grown increasingly interested in the spiritualist movement, and so it was to him that the Society turned for their next extraordinary venture.
In what remains one of the most ambitious investigations into the paranormal ever undertaken, the trio, along with the help of the Society’s Secretary Alice Johnson and Eleanor Sedgwick, set about compiling the data fro what would be come known as The Census of Hallucinations.
As an aside, as was regrettably standard for the time, and in many cases still is, the contribution of women was often criminally undervalued. But this was certainly not the case with the Society for Psychical Research Eleanor Sedgwick, in particular, was a very highly regarded member of the society and would later be elected its first female president in 1908.
After 6 years the Census of Hallucinations was finally completed and the results published by William Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette. What the data revealed was nothing short of astounding.
The team focused their investigation on instances of telepathy, in particular telepathy that had taken the form of a waking hallucinations. After collating the responses of over 17,000 participants, they found that as many as 10% of respondents had experienced some form of hallucination.
After further cross checking and verification, the highly educated team concluded that of the 1700 reports that remained, at least 2% claimed to have experienced a hallucination that revealed information they couldn’t possibly have been aware of before.
Furthermore, many of the people who claimed such experiences had recently suffered a profound moment of crisis, suggesting that such occurrences may make the mind more receptive to such an experience.
Although of course the validity of the research is wide open for debate, it remains a fascinating document.
The Society for Psychical Research continues its work today, continuing to employ the rigours of science in its tireless investigation of paranormal phenomena.
For the original Committee of Apparitions and Haunted Houses, their fates however were somewhat more tragic:
Edmund Gurney had staked much of his reputation on his investigations into the existence of telepathy. In the spring of 1888 he discovered his assistant George Albert Smith had in fact faked many of his successful results. Broken hearted by the deception, Gurney is believed to have taken his own life in the June of that year.
In 1907 Frank Podmore, was forced to resign from a senior position in the Post Office due in large part to the revelation that he was gay. Shunned by his family and friends, Podmore later drowned in the town of Malvern in 1910. Neither his family nor any members of the Society, are believed to have attended his funeral.
For William Thomas Stead, his fate was sealed as one of the 2224 passengers of the maiden voyage of the Titanic, sinking beneath the freezing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean on the morning of April 15th 1912.
As for Frederic Myers, he died a peaceful death in Rome in 1901. Or so was thought.
Shortly before his death, the Classicist Myers had informed his friends of his intentions to prove the existence of life after death by contacting them from beyond the grave. One such friend was the world-renowned physicist Sir Oliver Lodge. Not long after Myers passed away, Sir Oliver was contacted by a medium. She had a message for him, she said. It’s from a man called Frederic Myers…
What ensued over the course of several years was a series of messages supposedly relayed to mediums all over the world, none of whom had previously met. The obscure highbrow allusions and snippets of Latin verse contained in the messages meant little on their own but when pieced together were found to form a cohesive set of communications. Known as the Cross Correspondences, it is considered by many a compelling ultimate proof of life after death.
© Richard MacLean Smith
1. Wilson, C. (2009), Poltergeist: A Classic Study in Destructive Haunting, US: Llewellyn Publications
2. Podmore, F., Myers, F. W. H. & Gurney, E. (1886), Phantasms of the Living, http://www.esalen.org/ctr-archive/book-phantasms.html
3. The Census of Hallucinations, The Parapsychology Foundation, http://www.pflyceum.org/153.html
4. The Society For Psychical Research, http://www.spr.ac.uk/