Don’t Follow the Lights across the Moor, said the Monk, or Why We Learn Nothing New about Fairies

William James in Brazil, about age 23 (Wikimedia Commons)

The famous American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) was also a paranormal researcher, chiefly in the area of Spiritualism and mediumship. Toward the end of his life, he wrote about a problem that still vexes ufologists, ghost-hunters, and everyone else engaging “the phenomenon.” He starts by speaking of a fellow psychical researcher, Prof. Henry Sidgwick:

Like all [psychical research] founders, Sidgwick hoped for a certain promptitude of result; and I heard him say, the year before his death, that if anyone had told him at the outset that after twenty years he would be in the same identical state of doubt and balance that he started with, he would have deemed the prophecy incredible. It appeared impossible that that amount of handling evidence should bring so little finality of decision.

My own experience has been similar to Sidgwick’s. For twenty-five years I have been in touch with the literature of psychical research, and have had acquaintance with numerous “researchers.” I have also spent a good many hours (though far fewer than I ought to have spent) in witnessing (or trying to witness) phenomena. Yet I am theoretically no “further” than I was at the beginning; and I confess that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling, to prompt our curiosities and hopes and suspicions all in equal measure, so that, although ghosts and clairvoyances, and raps and messages from spirits, are always seeming to exist and can never be fully explained away, they also can never be susceptible of full corroboration.[1]William James, “The Last Report: The Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher,” in William James and Psychical Research, ed. Gardner Murphey and Robert O. Ballou, (London: Chatto and … Continue reading

James’s frustration was mentioned in an episode of Weird Studies, a podcast produced by musicologist Phil Ford and writer-filmmaker J. F. Martel.[2]Both are Canadian, although Ford teaches at Indiana University. Weird Studies is devoted to “a scholarly field that doesn’t and can’t exist,” but they try.[3]The Weird is that which resists any settled explanation or frame of reference. It is the bulging file labelled “other/misc.” in our mental filing cabinet, full of supernatural entities, magical … Continue reading

James’s comments also reminded of a comment by some UFO researcher I once read who said that during the Fifties and Sixties there was this rising anticipation that Something Was Going to Happen. Maybe the Space Brothers would simultaneously land in Red Square, Lafayette Square (by the White House) and Brasiilia — or whatever. But the climax never happened; instead, the same stories repeat and repeat.

“The Fairy Faith,” Jim Fitzpatrick, 1989.

A few months ago, I finally read Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, one of the classics of Fairy literature, written but not published in 1692. I recommend Brian Walsh’s annotated version, The Secret Commonwealth and the Fairy Belief Complex, 2002. Kirk wrote,

These Siths or Fairies they call Sleagh Maith or the Good People  . . . are said to be of middle nature between Man and Angel, as were Daemons thought to be of old; of intelligent fluidous Spirits, and light changeable bodies (lyke those called Astral) somewhat of the nature of a condensed cloud, and best seen in twilight. These bodies be so pliable through the sublety of Spirits that agitate them, that they can make them appear or disappear at pleasure.

And can we say anymore today, three centuries later? We ask a few more questions: Do the Good People associate with certain ethnic groups? Do they migrate? Can they change shapes (orbs of light, silvery “aliens,” tall hairy bipeds, etc.)? But do we really know anymore than Robert Kirk did?

A few years back, when I was co-chair of Contemporary Pagan Studies within the American Academy of Religion, seeing a rise in the number of “fairy festivals,” which seemed to overlap Pagan festivals to some degree, as well as new books on the Fairy Folk, I suggested all that as a topic for one of our sessions, but my idea got no traction. Too early, maybe.

Now there are more books[4]Some of them seem to say, “Fairies are dangerous, but if you read my book, I will tell you how contact them.” and even Cherry Hills Seminary, the most viable Pagan seminary, is offering a class called “The Fair Folk: A Thanatological Perspective.”

Class Description: Who are the Fair Folk? Many do not expect one of the answers to be “the dead”!  In this Insights course we will parse through the different types of Fair Folk (focusing on the Irish traditions), examine species of Faery with clearly human folklore (including hauntings, burials and premature deaths) and contemplate the possibility of the Fair Folk as ancestral figures.

So where is the monk? You promised us a monk!

Another podcast I sometimes listen to is Strange Familiars, and in a recent episode, “A Monastic View of the Other,” co-host TImothy Renner interviewed Br. Richard Hendrick, an Irish Capuchin (Franciscan) monk and meditation teacher. He used to manage the Capuchins’ friary and retreat center in Donegal. If you click through the photos, I think that one shows the fairy hill described in the interview.

Brother Richard tells some stories of house-cleansings, where people thought they were disturbed by ghosts or other entities. He comes across as level-headed and compassionate, and he stresses that one cannot respond to such requests by charging in and (my words) firing off Latin invocations while throwing incense grenades.

And Then There Is Hellier

Inverted pentagram? Really?

In another podcast, TImothy Renner of Strange Familiars mentioned that some of his music (he is a musician too) is used in Season Two of the paranormal documentary Hellier, which reminded me that I needed to download it.

Brother Richard talks about being spiritually grounded, avoiding obsession, and “not following the lights across the moor,” In other words, don’t let yourself get sucked in to the point where you have one foot on the Other Side.

But if there is anyone who does “follow the lights,” it is all the ghost-hunters and paranormal investigators out there, who show up with their spotlights and cameras and recording equipment and digital thermometers and other gadgetry and announce, “All right, Bigfoot, where are you? Goblins, show yourselves! We come in peace! [Aside: “Are you getting a reading?”]

Here is the synopsis:

In 2012, Greg Newkirk received an email from a man calling himself David Christie, who claimed that he and his family were being terrorized by unearthly creatures by night. After exchanging emails, David disappeared. For the next five years, the case only got stranger, as more connections and mysterious emails came in. Then, in 2017, Greg and a team of researchers [chiefly Dana Newkirk, Karl Pfeiffer, and Conor Randall] traveled to rural Kentucky, not knowing what they would uncover, or how deep they would discover the case might go.

Back at Weird Studies, J. F. Martel observes, “If you ever wondered what Samuel Beckett would have written if he had developed an interest in the paranormal, Hellier may be the answer.”

Yeah, Waiting for Goblin, that’s it.

On the plus side, the show’s production values are high. I have seen stuff on cable TV that was a lot worse. On the negative, sometimes I just want to reach into the screen and grab them:

If y’all are “digital natives,” why did you wait five years to have a competent IT guy check the headers on that email — which reveal that it did not come from eastern Kentucky at all?

Do you know anything about using public records? Don’t you realize that the volunteer fire department in a small town will know where everything is?

Don’t you carry a good GPS receiver? If you can’t write down the address when you think you have found “the house,” at least get its coordinates, which will save you a lot of driving around later, plus you can research its ownership history with the county assessor.

Since the initial email sounds a lot like Whitley Strieber’s experience in Communionand his books are on the Newkirks’ shelves, I am surprised Strieber’s name does not come up. (At least so far. I am only just into Season Two, so no spoilers, please.)

One book that does come up a lot is John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies.It took me a long time to read that, because the title put me off, but it remains a classic study of how the researcher can go over the edge, off “across the moor.” The Hellier group refer to it a lot when they raise questions such as, does experiencing uncanny synchronicities mean that you are on the right track, or are they just a distraction? Are they “signal” or are they “noise”?

And to go back to William James, after twenty years, will you have learned anything substantive at all? Or is the real story the subjective experience of the researchers? I have been there, a little, and I know how fast the paranoia can grow.

Notes

1 William James, “The Last Report: The Final Impressions of a Psychical Researcher,” in William James and Psychical Research, ed. Gardner Murphey and Robert O. Ballou, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961), 310. Originally published in The American Magazine, October 1909.
2 Both are Canadian, although Ford teaches at Indiana University.
3 The Weird is that which resists any settled explanation or frame of reference. It is the bulging file labelled “other/misc.” in our mental filing cabinet, full of supernatural entities, magical synchronicities, and occult rites. But it also appears when a work of art breaks in on our habits of perception and ordinary things become uncanny.The Weird is easiest to define as whatever lies on the further side of a line between what we can easily accept from our world and what we cannot. And it defines an attitude towards whatever lies on that side of the line: a willingness to remain suspended between explanations and abide in strangeness.
4 Some of them seem to say, “Fairies are dangerous, but if you read my book, I will tell you how contact them.”

3 thoughts on “Don’t Follow the Lights across the Moor, said the Monk, or Why We Learn Nothing New about Fairies

  1. With regard to ghosts etc. watch the 11th Doctor episode called “Hide” which might possible have a reasonable explanation for ghosts. Anyhow, it was a good episode!

  2. Several factors probably influence psychic/paranormal/magical perceptions and experiences.

    Novelty–You perceive something that you have not perceived before, and perhaps with a sense complex that you have not registered before. That maybe does not always and routinely function.

    Uncertainty–The phenomenon may not repeat itself. Or it may repeat itself in a manner that is difficult to predict. Or it may tailor its occurrence to you and your life circumstances.

    The edge of the envelope–Both the observer and the observed phenomenon plus the felt experience may involve unusual or stressful or flowy circumstances such that the event
    takes place at the edge of the envelope. Where everyday life mostly does not happen.

    Weird may take place askew of the ways we usually make sense of things.

    Fairies.

    I’m satisfied that European fairy beings moved along with European humans to the New World, and acclimatized there. Immigrant Fairylands. Along with indigenous other worlds.
    New World practitioners may encounter different populations than Old World practitioners. And maybe different social organizations. Is a Fairy Queen of California the same sort of power as a Fairy Queen of Connaught? May be not.

    Around all this is a cloak of denial. What is Weird does not exist.

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