Episode 6: Demons in Suburbia
We humans can often take for granted that we are ultimately responsible for our actions. That the choices we make are governed by nothing but our own free will. And yet, studies have shown that the brain can enact certain decisions up to 7 seconds before we have even become aware that we are making them.
The notion of free will is explored by the philosopher John Gray in his groundbreaking book Straw Dogs; a work of startling insight, it posits amongst many other profound notions, that the fallacy of free will is merely a concept that helps us make sense of the world. That all of ‘our acts are in fact nothing but end points in long sequences of unconscious responses.’
To accept that free will is little more than an illusion is a little unnerving to say the least. For some, it could be seen as merely a fascinating quirk of life, perhaps the existence of the seven-second delay merely the consequence of a quantum process we are yet to fully understand.
But for others, a lack of free will might speak of something else entirely, something far more sinister. For after all, if we aren’t in control of our minds, then just who, or what, is?
The following story took place in England in 1974 and I must warn the listener that it will contain some horrific and graphic details. Believed by some to be the most shocking account of ‘demonic possession’ ever to have occurred in the UK, the events that took place one quiet Sunday morning in a a small Yorkshire town have never been fully accounted for. It is a chilling mystery that remains to this day unexplained.
For Britain the 1970s was a time of extraordinary uncertainty. As the government lurched form right to left, the country found itself struggling to adapt to a post-industrial age. For some, especially those in power, it seemed that nothing less than the country’s entire social fabric was at stake.
For the residents of the West Yorkshire market town of Ossett, the landscape had been shifting for some time. The town situated in ‘border country’ where the northwest of the coalfields merged with the southeast of the woollen mills, had once been a thriving pocket of industry. But like many Northern towns in the early 70s, it was facing an uncertain future. For one couple in particular that future was beginning to look increasingly bleak.
31-year-old Michael Taylor and his 29-year-old wife Christine were described by friends as a kind and loving couple and doting parents to five young boys who were well liked by the local community.
After an accident at work, Michael had been forced to leave his job due to a serious back complaint. As the country slipped into a full-blown recession, opportunities for jobs had all but dried up.
For a proud young father of the seventies his sense of inadequacy and low self-esteem was profound and with the pressure to provide for his family starting to mount, Michael began to suffer from intermittent bouts of depression.
At some point, a local friend called Barbara Wardmen called to see how the family were holding up. Concerned that the couple’s recent struggles had left them socially isolated, Barbara suggested they accompany her to an upcoming social event that she had organised.
Barbara, it turned out, had recently become involved with a local group calling themselves the Christian Fellowship of Ossett. The group were part of a growing movement known collectively as Charismatic Christianity.
For Michael and Christine, who had never shown an interest in the church or any religion for that matter, the invitation to join Barbara’s group seemed a little daunting. Nonetheless, later that week the Taylor’s attended their first Fellowship meeting and were surprised by what they found. Rather then the stuck up, prickly group of religious eccentrics that they had expected, instead they found a group of friendly, ordinary people just like themselves.
Leading the congregation was a 22-year-old lay preacher named Marie Robinson. The young Charismatic, in every sense of the word, made a deep impression on the couple. That night under Marie’s magnetic tutelage, lifted by the joyous sprit of the group, Michael and Christine converted to Christianity.
Eager to learn more about their new religion, Michael and Christine attended a service conducted by Marie in the town of Horbury. During the service Marie seemed to become suddenly distressed. Shaking wildly, she started speaking in a strange language claiming she was possessed by the Holy Spirit. Unbeknownst to the Taylor’s, speaking in tongues, also known as Glossolalia, was a prominent feature of the Charismatic movement.
Later that night, the Christian Fellowship, led by Marie Robinson, convened for a meeting at the Taylor’s house. At some point during the service, many in the congregation noticed Michael becoming strangely animated. Seeming to be in the grip of an unknown force, Michael started shaking violently before shouting a stream of strange garbled words.
Ordinarily such an outburst might cause celebration amongst the group, but this was something different. The group were greatly disturbed. One member, Mavis Smith, sank into an instant depression and started to cry uncontrollably. Instinctively, Marie knelt in front of Mavis, calmly placed her hands on her head and proceeded to perform what Christine and Michael later discovered was an exorcism. As Marie’s voice grew louder, Mavis began to writhe uncontrollably, becoming more and more animated and swearing at Marie, telling her she hated her and to leave her alone.
When it was final over the sacred and confused members slowly left and agreed to reconvene later in the week.
The following day, a concerned Marie returned to the Taylor’s home to check on Michael’s welfare. Christine who had sensed that Michael was developing an attraction to Marie suggested the pair be left alone to discuss their feelings. When Christine exited the room, Michael kissed Marie who immediately pushed him away.
Marie pleaded with Michael to think of his love for Christine. When Christine re-entered, Michael declared that ‘they had won a great victory for the Lord, a miracle has happened’, he said, ‘we have both overcome our passions.’
But then something strange occurred.
Michael found himself standing naked as if in a dream, in a place that was not of this world. In front of him, with her face turned away, was Marie who was also naked. As she slowly turned her head to face him, Michael was horrified to see that her eyes had been replaced by two snake like slits. At once he felt a tremendous evil rise up inside of him.
For Marie looking on at Michael in the room, she recounted seeing a strange look come over him. A look that she would later claim was nothing less than the face of the devil.
Suddenly, Michael began shouting in tongues and slapped at Marie’s head. Christine tried her best to get between but was pushed out the way by her husband. Michael grabbed Marie by the hair and threw her across the room knocking her out cold.
When she came to moments later, the usually timid and gentle Michael was crouched over her ‘with a look of murder in his eyes.’ Seconds later having completely snapped out of whatever had come over him, Michael collapsed exhausted.
Afterwards, Christine ordered Marie to stay away from their home and in the days that followed, noticed Michael’s behaviour becoming increasingly erratic. He muttered strange things to himself and became angered by religious iconography.
A neighbour spotted Michael wondering the local streets in a bizarre state. He spat on the ground and told her to look on it as milk, telling her to drink it for it was the milk of human kindness.
As Christine became increasingly concerned for Michael, they turned again to the Fellowship for guidance.
On the evening of October 3rd, they attended a meeting led by the Reverend Peter Vincent of the church of St Thomas, at Gawber in Barnsley. Vincent was a well-respected figure in the local Charismatic movement having introduced it to his own congregation earlier in the year.
Within minutes of meeting Michael, it was clear to Reverend Vincent that something was profoundly wrong. After inviting Michael to make confession he performed a minor exorcism before sending the emotionally drained Taylors back home.
Once they had returned, Michael, fearful of what exactly was happening to him, was too afraid to sleep, pleading with his wife not to leave his side. That night they made the sign of the cross repeatedly over each other in an attempt to ward off the evil spirits.
Two days later on October 5th, Michael returned for another Fellowship meeting. Alarmed by his behaviour, the group suggested he be taken immediately to see the Reverend Vincent. After being driven to the vicar’s house, the vicar’s wife Sally, welcomed them into her home and settled them down in the kitchen.
A local Methodist Minister from Barnsley called Raymond Smith was called to provide a second opinion. A short time later, Smith duly arrived at the Vicarage with his wife Margaret.
As they sat down to eat dinner Michael immediately smashed his plate to the floor when the Vicar’s cat entered the room. He screamed at it, pulling fur from its back and throwing it out of the house before he could be restrained. Reverend Vincent was utterly shocked. To him it was clear: Michael was possessed by something deeply evil. There was no other option but to perform a complete exorcism.
As the others looked around nervously, Reverend Smith was the first to speak up. Unconvinced by Vincent’s diagnosis, Smith thought it best that they consult a doctor first. However, Christine was worried that calling the medical services might cause even more distress to Michael. Sally agreed. It was clear to her that not only was Michael possessed but that Marie Robinson was the culprit, having pledged Michael’s soul to Satan during one of her unorthodox rituals.
The team moved quickly, calling in Methodist Lay preacher Donald James to assist with the exorcism. At once Michael was taken to St Thomas’s Church and ordered to lie down in the vestry on a pile of hassocks that had been laid out on the floor.
Candles were lit all around and the three clergymen, watched on by their wives, gathered ominously around Michael. A bright moon hung in the sky, and as the chill of the night descended, the preachers began casting the demons from Michael’s soul.
For over six hours the priests worked, casting out demon upon demon as Michael writhed and screamed into the night, at one point shouting out the demon name of incest in a strange guttural voice. A cross belonging to Michael was later burned in a cleansing ritual. The following morning, as the sun’s first rays filtered through the windows of the church, the preachers collapsed exhausted to the ground.
By Reverend Vincent’s count it had been an unqualified success, having cast out no less than 50 demons from Michael’s troubled soul. However, there remained three demons that they had not successfully exorcised: the demon of insanity, violence and most worryingly of all, murder. Too exhausted to continue, it was agreed that Michael be sent home to rest before returning at a later date.
With the Taylor’s children spending the night at their grandparents’, Christine and Michael returned to an empty home shortly after 9am on the morning of Sunday October 6th.
A neighbour of the Taylor’s later recounted seeing Christine shortly after they arrived back. Christine had seemed distressed, telling her neighbour that she was worried that something might have gotten into her. She had planned rest with Michael a short while before calling for a doctor. Soon after, Christine went back inside the house. It was the last time she would ever be seen alive again…
Shortly after 10am a strange call was received Ossett police station. PC Ian Walker, who had just clocked in for work, assumed it was some kind of practical joke. The caller claimed to have seen a naked man walking naked through the streets covered head to foot in paint. Walker and his partner promptly got into their regulation patrol vehicle and headed out in search of the mysterious man.
Being as it was a quiet Sunday morning in a small market town, it wasn’t long before they found him.
The two officers pulled over in the car and carefully approached. As Walker drew near, his confusion turned to horror. It wasn’t paint that covered the man from head to toe; it was blood. Walker radioed back to base and was informed that the man he had before him was Michael Taylor.
PC Walker’s first reaction was to search Michael’s body for any sign of a wound but was horrified to discover that whoever’s blood this was, it wasn’t Michael’s. Staring out to an unimaginable distance, Michael spoke in a quiet detached manner, ‘It is the blood of Satan,’ he said, ‘I have killed my wife. I know I have.’
With Michael safely picked up dispatched to the hospital, Walker made his way to the Taylor’s house. When he arrived at the property, a superior officer had already inspected the scene. From the look on his face alone, Walker should have known better than to enter but despite efforts to prevent him, PC Walker’s curiosity got the better of him. What he saw would form the basis for every nightmare he has suffered ever since.
Tracing back from the door, a clear trail of blood could be seen leading out from the living room. Through the doorframe he could just make out Christine Taylor’s lifeless body strewn across the floor. All around, the room was splattered in blood, her blood. It seemed to cover every inch of her face as if she had been smeared in it but as he drew near, the full horror was revealed to him. There was no face.
Where there should have been eyes, instead there were two seemingly endless cavities. Her eyeballs had been ripped from the sockets and thrown across the room; the flesh of her face torn from her skull in a brutal fit of mania. And perhaps strangest of all, her tongue had been pulled clean from her mouth.
As the police searched desperately for a sign of the murder weapon something dawned on them with a profound sense of shock. There was no weapon. Michael Taylor had done it all with his bare hands.
On March 25th, at Leeds Crown Court Michael Taylor was found not guilty of the murder of his wife due to what was deemed a momentary bout of insanity. Coroner Phillip Gill believed that Michael had ‘no criminal or evil intent, and that he was merely trying to relieve her of the evil he saw in her.’
After sentencing, Dr Hugo Milne, consultant psychiatrist to the Bradford group of hospitals entered Michael Taylor’s cell in Leeds prison. He found the defendant to be ‘completely detached from reality, unaware of his surroundings, and unfit to remain in prison custody.’
He was immediately transferred to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital where Dr. Milne made an initial diagnosis of an acute schizophrenic attack but subsequently reversed his decision. It was his belief that one way or another the Fellowship Group had created Michael’s insanity and that Michael’s fascination with Marie Robinson had in some way played a part in it.
Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Donald Coggan, strongly the condemned the reckless approach of the Fellowship.
The Reverend Peter Vincent for his part exhibited no remorse, believing unequivocally that Michael had been possessed by an evil spirit.
The Church of England continues the practice of Exorcism to this day.
Aside from the senseless and avoidable loss of life, what strikes me most about this tragic story is the fact that regardless of what you believe there is no doubt that whatever Michael Taylor experienced or witnessed, it all appeared horrifyingly real to him.
Although we will never know exactly what happened to Michael, conventional wisdom suggests some form of schizophrenia. As such, I found myself drawn to a fascinating paper titled Quantum Logic of the Unconscious and Schizophrenia. In it, theoretical physicist Paola Zizzi and Massimo Pregnolato explore the mechanics of schizophrenia through the framework of what is known as the Quantum Mind.
In a very trivial sense, the notion of the Quantum Mind derives from the theory that since all of everything we know can be reduced to the quantum level, it follows that consciousness itself must in some way be linked to quantum mechanical phenomena. It is a thought that has led some to consider the brain as a form of quantum computer.
Drawing on earlier work by psychiatrist and creator of the term schizophrenia Eugen Bleuler, and the work of Sigmund Freud, Zizzi and Pregnolato’s paper posits the idea that, in a computational sense, the logic of the unconscious may well be the same as the logic of schizophrenia.
While a healthy mind will adopt the logic of consciousness as its primary process of thinking, the schizophrenic mind instead adopts the unconscious mind as it’s primary mode.
By extension, might it then be that not only do we all possess the capacity to experience schizophrenic episodes but that such occurrences may be the result of quantum processes in the brain, processes that in theory could at any time be switched from one state to another.
Is it possible that the extraordinary nature of Michael’s experiences, exacerbated by the intense delirium of his exorcism, created a fundamental change in Michael’s mind, a change that converted his darkest unconscious nightmares into a physical conscious reality?
It is certainly compelling to wonder at what could possibly cause such a gentle and loving husband as Michael Taylor to so brutally and manically murder his wife in a sudden moment of insanity.
That the mind might be so fragile and susceptible in such a way is a truly terrifying thought. Might we too be little more than a quantum leap from madness, if we are not indeed already there?
It certainly puts a new spin on that most familiar biblical adage:
Please forgive us, for we know not what we do.
© Richard MacLean Smith
1. Gray, J. (2003), Straw Dogs, UK: Granta Books
2. Swancer, B. (2015), Demons and Death: The Strange Case of Michael Taylor, Mysterious Univers, http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2015/12/demons-and-death-the-strange-case-of-michael-taylor/
3. Exorcism man 'feared full moon'. Times [London, England] 22 Apr. 1975: The Times Digital Archive.
4. Killing after exorcism is no crime, coroner decides, The Guardian (1959-2003); Apr 24, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 6
5. Cole, P. (1975), Wife killer had devils exorcised, The Guardian (1959-2003); Mar 26, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 1
6. Cole, P. (1975), What possessed Michael Taylor?, The Guardian (1959-2003); Mar 27, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 15
7. Hudson, J. (1975), 'Charismatic' group gets a warning from bishop, The Guardian (1959-2003); Apr 23, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 7
8. Evangelist tells of terror, The Guardian (1959-2003); Apr 23, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 7
9. Deeley, P. (1975), Exorcised man was 'brainwashed' , The Observer (1901- 2003); Mar 30, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 2
10. Killing after exorcism is no crime, coroner decides, The Guardian (1959-2003); Apr 24, 1975; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer pg. 6
11. Heal, M. (2014) A Love That Could Hurt No One, Unbound, https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-sussex-devils/updates/a-love-that-could-hurt-no-one-last-part
12. Zizzi, P. & Pregnolato, M. (2012), Quantum Logic of the Unconscious and Schizophrenia, NeuroQuantology, http://www.quantumbiolab.org/admin/files/Zizzi%20and%20Pregnolato%20-%20NeuroQuantology%202012%20%2810.3%29%20566-579.pdf
13. Quantum Mind, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mind
Episode 6 Extra: The Ultimate Price
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 last week’s episode, Demons in Suburbia, we looked at the tragic case of Michael Taylor. The story, aside from its obvious implication of serious mental illness, brought up the notion of free-will and the degree to which any of us can be truly held accountable for our actions.
For one man in particular, this idea became an obsession for which he would ultimately give his life.
The story of the maverick academic George R. Price, as explored by Adam Curtis in his documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, is nothing short of astonishing.
George was born close to New York City in 1922, during the era of America’s Great Depression. After the premature death of his father, George’s mother, a former opera singer, raised her son single handedly with little money or support. Yet, despite his impoverished childhood, the precocious George went on to graduate with a degree in Chemistry from the University Chicago before taking a teaching post at Harvard.
At some point George met and fell in love with Julia Madigan a devout Roman Catholic, with whom he had two daughters, Annmarie and Kathleen. For many the relationship seemed a strange fit due to George’s equally devout atheism. It was a contention that would ultimately prove irreconcilable and the pair divorced in 1955. The event would prove one of many turning points in the young chemist’s progressively erratic life.
By his mid-40s George had become deeply unsatisfied. Despite working a number of prestigious jobs, what drove George more than anything, according to author Oren Harman, was a desperate desire to achieve greatness. His was an obviously superior intellect but one that had yet to become established.
But all that was about to change.
Whilst working for IBM, George became convinced that colleagues were unfairly profiting from his ideas. Then in 1966, George was left paralysed after a botched operation to remove a tumour from his thyroid. One night, lying in bed George became convinced that something had to change. In 1967, George decided to abandon his family and new York City, bought a flight to London and and went in search of greatness.
Three and a half thousand miles away, a shy and lonely evolutionary Biologist was spending his night sat on a bench at London’s Waterloo station scribbling furiously into a notebook.
Now a widely celebrated academic, considered by Richard Dawkins to be the greatest biologist since Darwin, at the time William Donald Hamilton was an impoverished academic with little more than a 2:1 degree in Genetics to his name. He had chosen to work in the station because being surrounded by all the waiting passengers made him feel less alone.
From that humble bench in Waterloo station, Hamilton devised what would later become one of the greatest vindications of Darwinism. Although somewhat crude and unpolished, Hamilton’s early equations suggested something truly startling. In an idea, later popularized in Dawkins’, ‘A Selfish Gene’, Hamilton had discovered that altruistic behaviour was nothing but a biological function designed to better the survival of your personal gene pool.
The theory known as Kin Selection helps to demonstrate, for example, why colonies of bees are largely populated by sterile workers that would otherwise be expected to die out. Or indeed why a bees will sting despite sacrificing their lives in the process.
According to Oren Harmen, Price had been living a solitary existence in London shuffling around from one late library to another when he came across Hamilton’s equations. What he discovered shocked him deeply. Convinced there must have been a flaw in his reasoning, Price quietly set about disproving his theory. Much to his horror, Price not only found the theory to be correct but he also found a way to improve it.
As an extension of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, The Price Equation allows us to understand the competition between groups rather than individuals, but most specifically, how the behaviour of selfish individuals will compromise the fitness of the group overall.
Furthermore, it could be suggested that all behavioural traits are merely mechanisms that ensure the survival of that group be it your family, or the genes that make up the individual. In other words, what we think of as love, may be nothing more than the result of a carefully orchestrated self-interest.
Within months Price was given a fellowship at University College London and became a well-respected member in his new field of evolutionary biology. Price also began to work closely with William Hamilton whose work he had originally sort to disprove.
Later Price teamed up with acclaimed biologist, John Maynard Smith to develop the evolutionary stable strategy commonly known as ESS. Drawing on the earlier work of the mathematician John Nash the strategy helps explain why same species of snakes tend not to use their poisonous fangs on each other or why male reindeer’s antlers a more decorative than dangerous.
Price had without doubt achieved everything he had craved, not only had he gained the respect of his peers but now his legacy was also secured. But something was wrong.
Perhaps it was the guilt of abandoning his own family on the other side of the Atlantic, or merely the enormity of his discovery bur Price had become deeply unsettled. If altruism was just a biological conceit then a true love and kindness, what many would consider the fundamental elements of what is good, are essentially meaningless.
It isn’t known exactly when or how it happened but one night walking past a church in the area of Marylebone in London, the profoundly atheist George Price entered the church a completely changed man.
From that moment George devoted himself to a severe form of Christian asceticism. Believing he had been put on earth by god to teach human beings the true meaning of love, he proceeded to rid himself of all money and possessions. Everything he had, he gave those whom he felt needed it more. even offering up his apartment to the homeless.
In essence George wanted to disprove his own theory, to show that kindness and love could transcend genetic predisposition. That self-sacrifice was possible without ulterior motive, and that his will was ultimately his own.
Hamilton, who had grown close to Price was quick to notice the worrying signs of mental deterioration. The descent was rapid and would in the end prove to be fatal. On January 6th 1975, alone in a North London squat with little more than a mattress on the floor, in a final act of defiance, George Price took a pair of nail scissors to his throat. Minutes later this strange, brilliant and extraordinary man was dead.
A tragic end to a deeply troubled mind but nonetheless a story of startling relevance, living as we do in a time where Ayn Randian notions praising the benefits of self interest and greed have never been more questionable.
And what then of selfless love?
For those who might also despair at the implication of Price’s equation, you could do worse than to take a quiet stroll down to a small corner of the city of London. Hidden partway between St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum of London you may find yourself stumbling upon Postman’s Park. Once inside, towards the back you’ll find The Watts Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. Unveiled in 1900 the beautiful monument commemorates the lives of 62 individuals, who selflessly sacrificed themselves attempting to save others.
Lives such as that of 12-year-old David Selves from Woolwich, who died on September 12th 1886 after attempting to rescue his playfellow from drowning. As David fought desperately to save his friend he too succumbed, sinking below the waters clasping his friend in his arms.
© Richard MacLean Smith
1. De Waal, F. (2010), For Goodness’ Sake, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/11/books/review/deWaal-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
2. Brown, A (1996), Altruistic equations that killed a good man, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/altruistic-equations-that-killed-a-good-man-1358399.html
3. Geroge Price Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_R._Price
4. The Price Equation Wikipedia entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_equation
5. Harman, O (2010), Selflessness of strangers, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/node/16160773
6. Joliffe, T. (2015), The Homeless Scientist Who Tried to Prove Selflessness Doesn’t Exist, Vice, http://motherboard.vice.com/read/george-price-altruism