Thursday, November 12, 2009

Traumatising Paranormal Literature

A strange and unsettling thing began to occur during the early 1970’s- the term ‘paranormal’ began to replace the older word ‘supernatural’. This may seem a trifling point, but it actually has a subtle importance. This new term was deliberately intended to indicate that the study of the weird had evolved into an actual science, with established rules and methods.

As a child, I was led by the literature I consumed to believe that the ‘paranormal’ was taken seriously by all. I presumed that most universities probably had departments dedicated to researching this most important of topics, with methods standardized by decades of practice. If the evidence was as overwhelming as was claimed in the books I was reading, surely only a fool would remain skeptical. After all, they laughed at Copernicus too, right? Obviously, movies such as Ghostbusters and Poltergeist didn’t exactly help to straighten me out on this issue either.

But at least I knew they were fiction. It’s those who promoted this stuff as fact, often to impressionable children, that I will concern myself with in this article.

A certain brand of scientific-seeming paranormal literature continued until the 1990’s, but it was certainly at its apex during the 70’s, when it seemed you couldn’t even pick up an astronomy book without reading at least a short chapter about those puzzling (but factual) flying saucers. But there was one man who did more than his fair share to convince me that we lived in a strange world. He was an Englishman named Colin Wilson.

Wilson is an infamous figure in British literature- a self described ‘genius’ whose philosophy work was first hailed and then reviled in the 1950s. During his extended exile from literary respectability, he produced books about the paranormal. Most appeared to be harmless potboiler-type collections of odd tales, with generic titles such as World Famous Strange But True. A closer look, however, reveals a more calculating, scientific approach that made the super-normal seem far actually believable (and hence utterly terrifying).

In the period after spiritualism had failed to change the world and the first wave of New-Age mysticism had broken, Wilson saw the ‘paranormal’ as exactly that- simply an extension of the natural world that we couldn’t yet explain. An umbrella term that could encompass apparitions (the term ‘spirit’ had too many religious, non-scientific connotations), UFO’s, extra-sensory perception as well as all manner of other weirdness, the ‘paranormal’ was different to what had gone before. For one thing, there was no spiritual aspect whatsoever. Any unusual phenomena-that most delightfully non-commital of words- was expected eventually be explained as a natural law. Kitchen implements are floating around your house? Spoons are bending? It’s just some aspect of physics we haven’t figured out yet. We’re not there yet, but we’re working on it. This week Uri Gellar, next week cold fusion. That’s science. This was the attitude that prevailed during this time.

By this logic, ghostly encounters that early 20th-century investigators would interpret using outmoded ideas like ‘souls’ and ‘demonic possession’ would instead be seen in the light of proper ‘scientific’ ideas such as ‘psychokinesis’ and ‘telekinetic energy’. Yep, I can sure see the boffins down at the lab congratulating themselves on that breakthrough in weasel-words.

Even old Freud was dragged into this reassessment of values, as the unconscious mind was called upon to carry out what was once the Devil’s work. Wilson in particular liked the idea that poltergeist cases were not what they seemed. Even if a poltergeist openly declared itself to be a demon or a witch or the spirit of a dead person, this was nothing but a cover story. The real poltergeist, according to Wilson, was the suppressed sexual energy of some troubled adolescent in the house. It’s true enough that most reported poltergeist cases have revolved around a child close to the age of puberty. It’s also true that during puberty, frustrations and tensions often cause intense feelings and emotions. And lastly, it’s true that there is much we have still to learn about how the mind works. Perhaps the unconscious mind sometimes taps into some store of energy during this turbulent time? Given an already-existing belief in psychic energy, the whole thing almost sounds reasonable! It’s a stirring concept- a poltergeist as a powerful manifestation of teenage angst; a pimply Creature from the Id.

When presented in the guise of a ‘factual’ book, these ideas were very impressionable to the young mind. Wilson believed he was helping to figure out and demystify the workings of the universe, but in fact he was making traumatizing phenomena seem horribly plausible. Imagine being a child in a world where at any time, for no reason at all, your house might be invaded by forces that could explode windows, cause chairs to march about the house, and create a cacophony of inexplicable sounds at all hours of the night. And knowing that ghosts might be explained by ‘tape recordings’, or energy from a violent, emotional event that is somehow trapped by the surroundings, makes them no less disturbing. If anything, it makes them moreso, simply by providing a convincing explanation.

Wilson was not, in fairness, writing for children. An outfit that does write for children, and that made some extremely strange decisions round about this time, is Usborne Publishing.

It was the 70’s. Everyone was getting into the whole ‘paranormal’ thing. But Usborne was, and is, a tried-and-trusted brand known for producing quality children’s books. When they publish a book about rockets, or pets, or the countries of the world, you know it’ll be a solid, educational read. So when they produced the Supernatural Guides in 1979, it was akin to announcing to the children of the world that this stuff was real.

The Haunted Houses, Ghosts & Spectres Guide is chock-full of traumatising nightmare fuel- floating heads covered with blood, poltergeists throwing children out of bed and pulling their hair, the spectre of a tongueless woman, spirits setting houses on fire- and all illustrated with horrifying pulp-esque oil paintings. Not only were the pictures seriously scary for a book with writing apparently pitched at the level of a ten year old, but nowhere did it indicate that this stuff might not be real. To the literal mind of a child there is no difference between a Supernatural Guide and a newspaper, so the presentation of the material in this way raises some serious questions.

A sample ‘ghost report form’ is even provided, with tips on how to investigate hauntings in a systematic way. Information was also provided on the history of the Society for Psychical Research, without mentioning that they were, at best, a group of dedicated, largely-amateur enthusiasts rather than a pillar of the scientific establishment. Prior to the age of instant information, how was a child to have the slightest shred of doubt that ghost-hunting was an accepted, matter-of-fact science?

Similarly, the Mysterious Powers Guide includes rundowns on ESP and other oddities of the mind, all of which are, again, treated as though they are completely real, accepted phenomena. The use of Zener cards (recognizable from the opening of Ghostbusters) to scientifically quantify the existence of mental powers is mentioned. So is the work of Cleve Backster, who famously believed that he had proven, using polygraph testing, that plants respond emotionally to the world around them. Such examples seem to provide the trappings of real scientific research, when in fact they were already discredited, fringe works. It is not the place to begin explaining how these researchers acquired false positive results -the explanations are far more complicated and less interesting than the initial results. The use of such material, out of context, provides a false image of the place of paranormal research within the scientific thinking of the day.

These publications could only have happened in the 1970’s, a time when the paranormal was briefly regarded as a legitimate field of study by some. Today’s reader has to wonder whether the writers believed that this was really an important topic for children to read about, given the climate of the time, or whether they were simply careless in how they presented the material.

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