PSYCHIC RESEARCH


The 19th century increase in secularism brought about by the publication of Darwin’s The Origin Of The Species was also a period of increased interest in spiritualism. Many people, including imminent scientists were convinced of the reality of the spirit world. Could spiritualists be really in touch with the other side, and supplying first hand evidence for life after death? Frederick Myers, and Henry Sidgewick formed the Society For Psychical Research in 1882 to try and find out. The SPR aimed to get spiritualists and scientists working together in controlled laboratory conditions to prove whether or not some forms of paranormal phenomena could be found. Of the 16 founder members, the 10 practising spiritualists all quickly left the SPR, and the 6 non-spiritualists were left to carry on investigations alone. SPR researchers were hard headed. The poet, W.B. Yeats was a member for a time. He said "If you psychical researchers had been about when God Almighty was creating the world, he couldn’t have done the job."

100 years on, the SPR continues, but has yet to find any hard evidence for an afterlife. However, much paranormal phenomena occurs outside of the world of mediums. What about UFO’s? Ghosts? Crop Circles? Don’t they deserve equally dilligent research and scientific study? Yes, thought some SPR members, breaking away to form a parallel organisation, ASSAP, in 1981. Now, 17 years on, ASSAP has 500 members and 50 fully accredited, trained investigators, including Melanie, though she now concentrates on research, and media work, rather than direct investigation. ASSAP are eager to provide the public with ideas, views, research findings, on all aspects of the paranormal, and to build a database of case research for correlation and cross reference.

ASSAP take their investigation work seriously, and that many would be investigators have no idea how to go about it. ASSAP teaches ‘The need for investigation, how ‘NOT to investigate’, interviewing techniques, report submissions, use of ASSAP archives, a code of conduct, ethics of authorship and dealing with the press, and the National investigation network.’ After an initial intensive training day, trainees are expected to work with an established ASSAP team to get a feel for vigil work. They must also complete a report in the appropriate format, though this can be a report not necessarily based on the paranormal. It might be a study of one’s own house. The aim is to show diligent research in the right places.

Much of ASSAP’s findings show a distinct lack of phenomena. Vigils can take months, and produce no results. Researchers may end up spending night after night staying up after dark with cameras, video-recorders, and magnetometers and record nothing unusual at all. Patience is an ASSAP researcher’s greatest asset. The media, ever hungry for juicy ghost and UFO stories, is often frustrated when natural explanations are offered them instead, and dismiss ASSAP as a bunch of sceptics, but ASSAP researchers try to be objective. Melanie recognises that "If you can discard all the aspects of a case and details which are erroneous, hopefully you will end up with a nugget of evidence which could really be valuable’. This is rather like Sherlock Holmes’s observation that ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’.

Melanie described how she came to join ASSAP. She went to readings from a medium, who she believed to be giving very good readings of herself, and many friends she took along too. She came effectively to the brink of belief in spiritualism but she started having doubts. The medium’s findings were often trivial. She recalled an incident that involved a dress being spoilt whilst picking blackberries,, which Melanie eventually discovered to have happened to her sister when much younger. Melanie started audio-recording the medium’s assertions, and making notes of them later. She advised us that any medium who is not willing to be recorded in such a way ought not to be approached further by anyone interested in a reading. After some study, Melanie found that the medium often repeated stories and images to her and other customers.

It was soon after that Melanie heard of and joined ASSAP. Her favourite research topic is Ghosts. She believes in ghosts herself, but not as being spirits from the afterlife. She does however believe that natural explanations must always be sought first. She gave a few delightful examples. A house in Cumbria was the scene of late night gurgling and booming noises. Investigators found out that it was built over a mine shaft which flooded with sea water at high tide, creating noises that made it sound as though the water was in the house itself. Road ghosts can often easily be explained as in the case where new bus drivers regularly stop for a woman in a red jacket, to the amusement of passengers as the woman is composed of trees, leaves and a post box. At a vigil in Greenwich, an ASSAP investigator reported that he could smell baking bread in a perfectly preserved Jacobean mansion. No one else in the group believed him until they found out a sandwich toaster had been left on by mistake.

Sometimes, the results are more telling. On one vigil, Melanie and another researcher both saw a mysterious dark shadow in a house believed to be haunted, but were unable to pin down its origin. Melanie is an accomplished writer, with some radio broadcasting skill too. Her fascination for how stories originate and later mutate into legends is contagious. She leaves you wanting to hear more, and if her story ends in the disappointment of a ghost that wasn’t a ghost, but a post-box, you actually feel the disappointment and frustration, as well as the inevitability of the conclusion drawn.

In ‘Witch Wood’, Lancashire, there is a grave, bearing only the words, "The Witch. Died January 5th 1888." Melanie’s children have yet to forgive her for telling them that ‘The Witch’ was a horse.

ASSAP’s work remains serious however. It’s investigators may still believe in some aspects at least of the occult, but they look with better eyes than many who simply accept the supernatural at face value. They provide a valuable service for the many people who do believe in ghosts or UFO’s, by listening to them seriously, rather than dismissing them as cranks. It must be worrying to think your house is haunted, so having a team investigate properly, with open eyes and minds, can put such worries to rest. Many people probably sleep more soundly because Melanie and her ASSAP colleagues have helped them understand what might really be happening in their house after dark. ASSAP therefore provide an invaluable service.

Melanie answered many of our questions, and seemed thoroughly at ease with an audience mostly sceptical about all things paranormal.. This proved to be one of our most successful events, with a record attendance despite the rain and the opening matches of the World Cup being played.

We were joined by members of The Association For Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) who are working in conjunction with the GM Humanists in organizing an anti-superstition day event for Friday November 13th, 98. Watch this space for more news. Melanie Warren, and ASSAP can be contacted via her excellent second hand book shop Phenomenal Books, 9, King’s Arcade, King Street, Lancaster, LA1 1LE. 01524-845-559. Phenomenal Books also runs a terrific mail order catalogue service, which offers many books of interest to Humanists.

Arthur Chappell