The unknown is always with us – and always has been. There was never a time without mystery. Alongside the familiar there have been unfamiliar beings – sinister creatures to the woods, mysterious objects in the skies, weird monsters in the sea. Beyond what has been clearly seen and heard have lurked things half-perceived – shadowy shapes vanishing round corners, footsteps heard in empty rooms, words spoken when no one was near .
Even those who have not experienced such incidents have heard others tell of speaking with the dead, of being possessed by evil spirits or being taken aboard flying machines from distant stars. Walking the ordinary path of everyday existence, we may sometimes forget that on either side of that path lies the unpredictable and the unexplained.
Accepting, Believing, Rejecting
Whenever experiences occur on the margins of reality, people wonder how best to fit them into the pattern of their daily lives. Reactions to the uncanny have varied from one period of history to another, one culture to another, one individual to another. Even among a close-knit group of friends, the question “Do you believe in ghosts?” is bound to be et with responses ranging from total acceptance to mocking skepticism.
The simplest response is the way of acceptance. The British anthropologist Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard said of the Azande people of Africa, “They have no conception of ‘natural’ as we understand it, and therefore neither of the ‘supernatural’ as we understand it. Witchcraft is to the Azande an ordinary and not an extraordinary event.” In other societies throughout the world, the existence of a parallel order of things may also be taken for granted. For Australian Aboriginal people, for instance, the Dreaming spirits not only created their world, but also remain very much a part of their everyday lives, as much a part of the natural order as thunder and lightning.
Bit in some cultures there emerge individuals who believe they know better than their fellows, who proclaim that thunder and lightning are signs of divine displeasure, and interpret dreams and visions as glimpses of a hidden order that they alone – as priests or magicians – have the skill to interpret. This is the way of belief, which has dominated response to the uncanny for much of recorded history.
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Throughout the Dark Ages, for instance, all thinking was controlled by the prevailing religious establishment. In the East it was codified into rigid structures of belief; in Europe every happening. If a nun had beatific visions, she had enjoyed a divine grace; if she went into convulsions, she had been possessed by an evil spirit. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII lamented that “many persons of both sexes have abandoned themselves to devils, incubi and succubi, and at the instigation of the Enemy of Mankind do not shrink from perpetrating the foulest abominations and filthiest excesses to the deadly peril of their own souls.” To save Christian souls from damnation, the Church embarked on the great witch hunt that sent hundreds of thousands of people to the stake.
The inevitable reaction to the way of belief is the way of rejection. When in seventeenth-century Sweden scores of innocent people were burnt as heretics on the simple say-so of young children, even those who believed most fervently in the existence of the devil came to question the practice of holding him responsible for every mysterious evil. By 1768 English preacher John Wesley could note that “the English in general, and indeed most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere old wives ‘fables.’”
This was the Age of Enlightenment, when it seemed only a matter of time before science, which had solved so many mysteries, would explain those that remained. In their role as society’s watchdogs, scientists dismissed ghosts as figments of the imagination, while the mere possibility of telepathy was roundly rejected by the nineteenth-century German physicist and physiologist Herman von Helmholtz: “Neither the testimony of all the Fellows of the Royal Society, nor the evidence of my own senses, could lead me to believe in the transmission of thoughts from one person to another independently of the recognized channels of sensation. It is clearly impossible.” Other men of science declared that since tables cannot spin on their own, when they do spin it can only be due to muscular pressure exerted by the sitters: still others, confident that hypnosis is a delusion, have insisted that hypnotized subjects who claim to please the hypnotist.
Brushing Aside The Evidence
In 1848 British novelist Catherine Crowe coined the phrase “the Night-side of Nature” to define “that veiled department of nature which science has put aside as beneath her notice, because new facts that do not fit into old theories are troublesome, and not to be countenanced.” Nearly a hundred years later, Walter Franklin Prince of the Boston Society for Psychical Research suggested that a kind of enchantment surrounds the uncanny and causes otherwise intelligent people to abandon customary standards of judgment, brushing aside the evidence in a way they would never consider doing in other matters. Yet in the 1730s, as medical men observed the convulsionaries of Saint-Medard in France, they were genuinely baffled when apparently normal people were able to perform feats that seemed to be far beyond the limits of what is physically possible. And a century later the astonishing powers of France’s electric girl, Angelique Cottin, who caused furniture to fly away from her, were vouched for by several leading scientists. Those feats have never been explained.
It was the way such “troublesome” facts were disregarded by the scientific establishment that led in 1882 to the creation of the Society for Psychical Research in London, followed by similar institutions elsewhere. In his first address to the SPR, Professor Henry Sidgwick, one of its founders, observed, “It is a scandal that the dispute as to the reality of these phenomena should still be going on, that so many so many competent witnesses should have declared their belief in them, and yet that the educated world should still be simply in the attitude of incredulity.”
Today belief and incredulity are still at loggerheads regarding many of these subjects. Millions of people are persuaded from personal experience that the full moon affects human behavior, yet scientists, because they can find no proof, dismiss it as an illusion. Similarly, because dowsing violates the known laws of nature, science can find no place for it, although dowsers throughout the world have successfully located springs of water, shown miners where to dig for metals and even been able to track down escaping murderers over long distances.
The Way of Experience
Incidents of the uncanny have shown remarkable similarities over the centuries. The ancient Greeks recorded ghost stories; the Romans told of haunted houses. There is not a culture in the world that does not possess some tradition of communication between the living and the dead. The renowned American philosopher William James wrote in 1897, “The phenomena are there, lying broadcast over the surface of history. No matter where you open the pages, you find things recorded under the name of divinations, inspirations, demoniacal possessions, apparitions, trances, ecstasies, miraculous healings and productions of disease, and occult powers possessed by peculiar individuals . . . There was never a time when these things were not reported just as abundantly as now.”
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What has changed has been the way we respond to these events. When we hear of poltergeists, for example, the way of acceptance is no longer adequate – clearly they are out of the normal order of things. But neither can we follow the way of belief and attribute them to “noisy spirits,” for there is no real evidence of the activities of external agents. The way of rejection may simply place the blame on “naughty children,” but even that is certainly not the whole story. Instead, a growing conviction is that poltergeist phenomena represent some as yet unrecognized power existing in the human mind.
Acceptance, belief, rejection can all lead us astray. Perhaps the surest road to understanding is the way of experience, which begins by seeing each story as an event that has actually happened. This does not mean we accept it without question: when someone claims to have been abducted by aliens, we may find it probable that the person has travelled no farther than the confines of his or her own mind. But we need not reject the story as mere fantasy, nor twist it to fit conventional laws of science.