It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
Samuel Johnson (quoted by Boswell in 1791)
… many persons, who believe implicitly in the reality of apparitions, feel very little inconvenience or apprehension from their possible propinquity; while others, who have no jot of faith in their existence, are subject, nevetheless, very frequently, to nervous uneasiness, when they think of them. It would be difficult, perhaps, even by an analysis of that transitory commodity called COURAGE, to explain, or account for, the last of these anomalies; but thus much we may be sure, that neither real danger, nor even the belief of it, is absolutely necessary to the excitement of fear.
While the soldier who has fought twenty battles, will quit his tent because a bat flies into it; or one man shrinks from handling the rat, which he sees another take alive out of his waistcoat pocket; – so long as both these individuals feel a horror at the presence of objects which they know to be neither dangerous, nor mischievous, nor offensive, so long Johnson’s argument for the reality of apparitions, must go for little – that many who deny them with their tongues, confess them by their terrors.
There be infidels who fear, and believers who are at ease.
“A Chapter on Goblins,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1823)
Enough. Here it becomes palpably evident which is the most certain path from natural science to mysticism. It is not the extravagant theorising of the philosophy of nature, but the shallowest empiricism that spurns all theory and distrusts all thought. It is not a priori necessity that proves the existence of spirits, but the empirical observations of Messrs. Wallace, Crookes, and Co. If we trust the spectrum-analysis observations of Crookes, which led to the discovery of the metal thallium, or the rich zoological discoveries of Wallace in the Malay Archipelago, we are asked to place the same trust in the spiritualistic experiences and discoveries of these two scientists. And if we express the opinion that, after all, there is a little difference between the two, namely, that we can verify the one but not the other, then the spirit-seers retort that this is not the case, and that they are ready to give us the opportunity of verifying also the spirit phenomena.
Indeed, dialectics cannot be despised with impunity. However great one’s contempt for all theoretical thought, nevertheless one cannot bring two natural facts into relation with one another, or understand the connection existing between them, without theoretical thought. The only question is whether one’s thinking is correct or not, and contempt of theory is evidently the most certain way to think naturalistically, and therefore incorrectly. But, according to an old and well-known dialectic law, incorrect thinking, carried to its logical conclusion, inevitably arrives at the opposite of its point of departure. Hence, the empirical contempt of dialectics on the part of some of the most sober empiricists is punished by their being led into the most barren of all superstitions, into modern spiritualism.
Friedrich Engels, “Natural Science and the Spirit World” (1878)
Mrs. Forrest was leaning back at ease with her eyes open and her hands on the arms of her chair. Then her eyes closed and a violent trembling seized her. That passed, and shortly afterwards her head fell forward and her breathing became very rapid. Presently that quieted to normal pace again, and she began to speak at first in a scarcely audible whisper and then in a high shrill voice, quite unlike her usual tones.
I do not think that in all England there was a more disappointed man than I during the next half-hour. “Starlight,” it appeared, was in control, and Starlight was a personage of platitudes. She had been a nun in the time of Henry VII, and her work was to help those who had lately passed over. She was very busy and very happy, and was in the third sphere where they had a great deal of beautiful music. We must all be good, said Starlight, and it didn’t matter much whether we were clever or not. Love was the great thing; we had to love each other and help each other, and death was no more than the gate of life, and everything would be tremendously jolly…
Starlight, in fact, might be better described as clap-trap…
E. F. Benson, “Machaon” (1923)
“Charlie,” he began. (We had decided the poltergeist should have a name). “Do you think you could make those noises in the back room?” Dr Beloff and Mrs. Gregory were sitting in the back room discussing the case.
Charlie couldn’t, or wouldn’t, but as Grosse left the bedroom there were two very loud barks, which Rose assured him seemed to come from under Janet’s bed. It did not sound like the kind of vocal sound you would expect from a twelve-year-old.
Grosse tried again. “Come on, Charlie, you can whistle and bark, so you can speak. I want you to call out my name, my complete name – Maurice Grosse.” He went out of the room again, for at this stage there would never be any barks or whistles while he was near Janet.
As soon as he was out of the room, Charlie barked out:
“O… MAURICE… O…” Grosse did not hear this at the time, as he was saying something to us in the back bedroom. But it is clearly audible on the tape…
“Tell you what,” said Grosse, “I’ll give you a good name to say. Say Doctor Beloff. Come on, let me hear you say that.”
“DOCTOR,” the voice rasped as soon as Grosse had shut the door behind him. “GROSSEGROSSE”. Charlie seemed to have become confused.
It was a most extraordinary noise, which I could clearly hear through the closed door, with my ear against it. It was loud and harsh, and it was unquestionably the voice of an old man…
Grosse finally persuaded Charlie, after much coaxing, to say the names “Doctor Beloff” and “Anita Gregory”. “Now,” he went on, “can you tell me what your name is?”
“JOE,” came the prompt reply. And pressed for a surname, he added:
“Listen Joe, old sport… We would like to help you. But you’ve got to tell us what you want. We’re not getting mad with you. I’m sorry for you because you’re causing yourself a lot of trouble, and you’re going to pay for all this in the future. You’re going to be made to suffer in exactly the way you’ve made all these innocent people suffer here. The sooner you realise that, the better – for you. See? All we want to know is what you want. And we will give it to you, if we’ve got it. And if we haven’t got it, we can’t give it to you, can we? OK? Are you with me so far?”
“FUCK OFF,” growled Joe…
Guy Lyon Playfair, This House is Haunted: The Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist (1980)
A famous haunting at Chale Rectory, in the Isle of Wight in 1940 turned out to have been entirely caused by rats. Rev Sinclair and his wife arrived at the rectory to hear stories of ‘the driving into the yard at midnight of a carriage and pair, which was said to have been heard, but not seen, on many occasions.’ The were amazed to hear jingling as of harness, creaks, clangings, grinding and jarring sounds and a ‘rather stagey horses-hooves noise’ of a somewhat ‘coconutty’ quality. They were also perplexed by ‘unseen hands’ knocking objects off shelves, stealthy footsteps on landings, ‘cold spots’. After laying down rat poison, all phenomena ceased.
Andrew Clarke, The Bones of Borley (2000)
[Last year’s Tychy Halloween special is here. Ed.]