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The Weird And The Wonderful

new internationalist
issue 237 - November 1992

The Weird and the Wonderful

The term 'paranormal' encompasses a vast range of different phenomena.
Here are some of the main kinds of paranormal activity -
with examples of how it is claimed they work.

Definition: Matter appearing out of nothing.

CAMERA PRESS · The 'physical' mediums of the late nineteenth century claimed to materialize physical forms from ectoplasm, a luminous cloud which would emanate from them and then harden into a form that could be touched. Some of these were plainly frauds; others could not be dismissed so easily.

· Eva C, a French/Algerian woman photographed here with one of her 'materializations', was investigated by Charles Richet, a Nobel Prizewinner for physiology. Richet said he watched her images gradually take shape and dismissed the possibility of fraud.

· The most celebrated modern-day medium is the Brazilian Carlos Mirabelli, who has produced full-form materializations of dead relatives who could be spoken with and even touched. He has achieved this in full light and in test conditions, tied up in a sealed room; his exploits have been attested to by scores of prominent Brazilians and there has been no implication of fraud.

Definition: Clairvoyance which involves perception of some future event.

· Nostradamus' accurate predictions about the French Revolution are well known. Less known is the gathering of progressive aristocrats just before the Revolution at which the Marquis de Cazotte correctly predicted the fate of all those present - one poisoned himself to avoid the guillotine, four were executed (including Cazotte himself) and the freethinker Jean-Francois LaHarpe (who recorded the prediction) survived and died as a Christian.

· In the 1950s US researcher William Cox examined records of railway accidents in which 10 or more people were injured and found that in every case the train had carried significantly fewer passengers than the average on the same train seven days before. He could think of no other explanation for this than precognition of some kind, possibly unconscious.

· In 1898 the medium Morgan Robertson published the novel Futility which featured a new monster liner called the Titan, the largest ever built. It was designed to be unsinkable with 19 watertight compartments yet it sank after hitting an iceberg on its first Atlantic crossing. The Titanic sank 14 years later.

Definition: Divination and assessment of character by relating birth times to planetary influences.

· This was the most discredited area of the paranormal until the 1970s research of the Gauquelins. This French husband-and-wife team tried to use statistics to prove how unfounded astrology was but achieved the opposite result. They used the birth dates of thousands of prominent people and found statistically significant correlations between Mars and sportspeople; Saturn and scientists; Jupiter and actors.

· The Gauquelins' research was pursued by sceptical psychologist Eysenck. He found that, as astrologists would claim, introverts were more likely to have been bom under Saturn and extraverts under Mars or Jupiter.

· The debunking Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal, launched a 1978 research project which expected to expose the Gauquelins' research as fake.To their embarrassment the same results were achieved and were duly covered up until they were leaked in 1983.

Definition: The religious belief in magic and communication with spirits as practised by diviners in communities all over the world from Siberian shamans, through African 'witch doctors' to Native American 'medicine men'.

· Stories abound of early contact between sceptical Westerners and tribal shamans. Father Boilat, a French missionary in Senegal, recalled how he tried to expose a local diviner. Required to formulate a question in his mind and then spit it out into a heap of sand he spat but put no question - and was given no answer. When he did silently formulate a question he was told 'You will receive the papers you are expecting from your country in 15 days'. This turned out to be exactly right.

· Hunter David Leslie was told by a Zulu diviner exactly what had happened to all eight of his native hunters who were scattered over 200 miles: one had been killed by elephants, one had died of fever, one had killed four elephants and so on. 'To my utter amazement it turned out correct in every particular.'

Definition: Receiving visual information (often about far distant events) via the mind rather than the eyes. Clairaudience and clairsentience are related phenomena which involve hearing and feeling things paranormally.

· The most celebrated example of clairvoyance was that by Emmanuel Swedenborg, on 19 July 1759, who described in vivid detail to a reception full of local notables in Goteborg the progress of a disastrous fire which was sweeping through Stockholm, 300 miles away. At six he told them the fire had just broken out; at eight he told them it had been extinguished only three doors from his home. Two days later a messenger from Stockholm confirmed every detail.

· In modern times the most celebrated clairvoyant was Gerald Croiset, who worked successfully with the Dutch police on many missing persons cases in the 1950s and 1960s.

Definition: The detection of (underground) resources by paranormal means.

· US Marines in Vietnam had marked success in dowsing with coathangers to detect tunnels used by the Vietcong.

· In the 1970s a dowser was officially appointed to Canada's Agriculture Ministry.

· The pharmaceutical multinational Hoffmann-LaRoche employs a dowser whenever it sites new factories. When asked to comment on this in the 1980s a company spokesperson Dr Peter Treadwell said: 'We use methods which are profitable, whether they are scientifically explainable or not. The dowsing method pays off'.

Definition: From the German meaning 'noisy and boisterous ghost'. The (often violent) movement of objects by unknown forces, associated with a particular place.

· Investigators have found that an individual adolescent is commonly the unconscious focus for these events. Parapsychologists now believe the phenomena are a form of 'exteriorized psychokinesis' related to the emotional turmoil of adolescence.

· In 1849 the official magazine of the French police described how a house in Paris was assailed every night by a hail of projectiles which did serious damage to its front. Police patrolled the whole area with dogs and watched from rooftops but could find no source - the projectiles rained in over their heads onto the one house with mathematical precision.

· In 1967 a lawyer's office in the German town of Rosenheim became famous for its poltergeist effects: lights exploded as fluorescent tubes twisted in their sockets; the phone system went haywire. Investigators, including police and two physicists, then filmed plates jumping off the wall, pictures turning on their hooks and filing cabinets moving by themselves. A 19-year-old typist was found to be the focus: when she was removed the effects ceased.

Definition: The projection of psychic energy so as to move or influence matter.

· Laboratory tests of 'micro-PK' - the ability of individuals to influence events at the subatomic or quantum level - have been analysed statistically. The odds against chance as an explanation for them are 100,000 million million million million million to one.

· The Israeli Un Geller is now routinely dismissed as a conjuror. Yet some of his exploits remain remarkable and unexplained. One example is the permanent change he managed to produce under test conditions in the shape of nitinol wire at the Naval Surface Weapons Center in Maryland, a feat which normally requires reshaping under tension at 900°F. This feat of bending nitinol wire was replicated under test conditions by schoolboy Mark Briscoe in 1982.

· The Soviet psychic Nelya Kulagina was tested by a US team in the Kruschev years. They witnessed her movement and levitation of several small objects when she placed her hands above them. They took elaborate precautions against magnets and concluded that no known force could account for the movements.

Definition: Apparitions of the dead.

· Ghosts haunting particular locations can usefully be separated from 'spirits'. They usually perform the same action over and over, manifesting no awareness of any humans present or any interest in communicating. One theory has it that they are images recorded on the physical place by the emotional or psychic power of a particular event which are then replayed. Hauntings have been commonly referred to throughout human history. The best attested case is that of the Despard family home in Cheltenham where a woman in black with a handkerchief to her face appeared to so many people so consistently that it seemed to dispel all doubt.

· Apparitions of dead people have often been supposed to appear via mediums. But they also seem to act independently, as when the poet Wilfred Owen's brother found himself inexplicably depressed amid a ship's celebrations at the end of the First World War. He went down to his cabin and saw Wilfred sitting in his chair with a characteristic expression which turned to a broad smile before he disappeared. The poet had been killed on the last day of the War.

Definition: Humans defying the power of gravity.

· The most celebrated levitator in history was St Joseph of Copertino, a dimwitted monk who would soar into the air whenever he felt religious ecstasy. He had no control over his 'flights', which could last for minutes and were attested to by scores of witnesses from the Pope downwards.

· Magician Harry Kellar enjoyed exposing frauds but was astounded in the 1 870s to witness a Zulu witch doctor in trance floating three feet off the ground. He could detect no trick. In 1882 he challenged the medium Eglinton to perform a feat no conjuror could repeat: Eglinton duly levitated Kellar one foot off the ground.

Definition: Physical immunity to burning.

· Firewalking is common in Third World religious festivals.

· New Zealand magistrate Colonel Gudgeon went with friends in 1899 to watch a Maori fire walk and was invited to join in. The Maori 'mana' or spiritual protection was handed over to him and his friends and they walked on red-hot coals feeling no more than a tingle.

· Under hypnotism a subject's skin will blister if they are touched with a pencil they are told is red-hot metal and will remain unscathed if touched by red-hot metal they are told is a pencil.

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