On The Trail Of The Spirits

new internationalist
issue 237 - November 1992

On the trail of the spirits

The idea that it's possible to communicate with spirits is probably considered the most wacky area of the paranormal in the West. Yet this is readily accepted in communities right across the Third World. And it has lately become a vogue subject for serious literary concern, as in Ben Okri's The Famished Road and Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits.

I had two elements of personal interest in investigating 'spirit communication' which I should 'declare'. Family legend has it that my great-aunt Muriel was a medium who channelled for the spirit of an artist called Hugo. When under his influence she was said to create the most wonderful pictures in a matter of seconds - but gave up when my mother (then a child) took fright at the idea. And my only personal brush with the paranormal came at 14 when I spent a whole night at a Ouija board seeing the most detailed messages spelled out with astonishing speed and violence. I've always wondered what was the 'truth' behind these events.

So I started visiting mediums. The very first one I met seemed to give a pretty accurate reading of my character; he was also specific that he was receiving information from a great-grandfather who took a special interest in me. He couldn't offer me a name (why not?) but gave a description: a portly man wearing a tweed jacket and pocket watch and holding up a rose to signify his interest in gardening. One of my great-grandfathers fitted this description - though so did just about every other middle-class Englishman at the turn of the century. But if there was anything to this idea then he ought surely to have popped up again flashing his rose and pocket watch when I consulted other psychics.

He never did. A couple of mediums were honest enough to say that they couldn't pick up enough to make the sitting worthwhile and refunded my money. Others were impressive character analysts but failed to deliver anything you might consider 'evidential'. Still others seemed sadly deluded, like the man who told me at length about his numerous encounters with - wait for it - Joan of Arc, the Angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary and Christ himself.

I was bombarded with the names of people anxious to speak to me and give me messages yet not one of those names ever meant anything to me - and I am pretty well acquainted with my own family tree back into the last century. I was offered all kinds of plausible predictions about my future work yet the same prediction never recurred. My own spirit guide was described variously as an old Chinese healer with a typical goatee beard, a Native American and a small man who looked like he might hail from an island in the South Pacific.

The (anti-)climax of this particular phase of investigation came when I saw a medium with reportedly fantastic powers. She bewildered me with her rapid-fire offer of a vast range of spirits who seemed to be zipping in and out the room like lightning. She gave each one a name but when none of them meant anything to me they got on their bikes again, as if she was just fishing to get lucky with a name.

Later I sent a colleague back to see her and we compared notes. She'd rung almost exactly the same bells, diverging only when my colleague, who is passionate about Native American culture, showed an interest in the idea that he had a Red Indian guide (Crazy Horse himself, of course, who was his uncle in a past life). The coup de grace came when she said both he and I had been connected in a past life with Mary Queen of Scots.

After experiences like this I could have been forgiven for throwing 'open-mindedness' to the four winds - there was clearly plenty of fraud and self-delusion at work here. But at the same time I encountered eminently trustworthy people who testified to the most remarkable paranormal experiences. Take Charlie, a 74-year-old Christian Spiritualist from London.

I trust Charlie: I doubt that I have met a man less capable of duplicity. He could have deluded himself about some things, of course, through too great a willingness to believe: gullibility is a common hazard in this area. But does that mean I should flatly disbelieve everything he tells me? What, for example, are we to make of this?

'A few years ago I found myself thinking about this woman I knew who was working in Saudi Arabia. I'm sitting here at three o'clock in the aftemoon and in my mind I see her coming out of her house and get into an army staff car. A tall Eurasian officer goes with her and they drive off into the Sahara followed by a convoy of trucks full of Arab soldiers. She's the only white person, the only woman, and I feel worried about her. I see her arrive in a village where the people are unlike any I'd seen in her photographs - all dressed in black so that you can just see their eyes, both men and women. The officer Illustration by JIM NEEDLE walks with her into a house at the centre of the village and at that I breathe a sigh of relief.

'I didn't see her in the flesh until she came back on leave two months later. I told her what I'd seen and she confirmed every detail. She said the people in the village had been Bedouins rather than the normal Arabs I'd seen in her slides and she said I'd been relieved when she'd entered the house because it belonged to the local police chief. So you don't have to be in the next world to pick up people.'

Most of the paranormal experiences Charlie relates emerge directly out of his belief in a hierarchical spirit world through which we progress towards 'The Light' by reincarnation - the parallel with Eastern religions like Buddhism seems very clear. But this last incident is anecdotal evidence of what parapsychologists call 'remote viewing'- it is one of the extrasensory powers currently being tested in laboratory conditions, as the next piece explains.

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New Internationalist issue 237 magazine cover This article is from the November 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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