Early in the twentieth century, the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871–1937), “the father of nuclear physics,” is supposed to have remarked snarkily that all science was either physics or “stamp-collecting.” 1)Variations on the saying include “That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting” and “Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.”
By “stamp-collecting,” I have always assumed he meant collecting and classifying, in that a geologist of his time might have been mainly occupied with classifying rocks and minerals or an entymologist concerned with classifying insects. (These disciplines — and others — now include much more.)
“Stamp-collecting” likewise describes a lot of paranormal studies. The famed Charles Fort (1874–1932 was the master of it.2)His life almost parallels Rutherford’s. Interesting. “As a young adult, Fort wanted to be a naturalist, collecting sea shells, minerals, and birds” (Wikipedia). The sheer size of his collections had an effect, however.
Fort is acknowledged by religious scholars such as Jeffrey J. Kripal and Joseph P. Laycock as a pioneering theorist of the paranormal who helped define “paranormal” as a discursive category and provided insight into its importance in human experience. Although Fort is consistently critical of the scientific study of abnormal phenomena, he remains relevant today for those who engage in such studies
Back in the the early 1690s — contemporanous with the Salem witch trials — the Rev. Robert Kirk3)A minister in the then-large Scottish Episcopal Church was not afraid to theorize, producing a handwritten book on fairies that latter became The Secret Commonwealth. Maybe his MA at Edinburgh University prepared him.
His attempt to fit the fairies into a Great Chain of Being might not appeal to everyone, but at least it gave him a theoretical lens through which to consider them.
Kirk proposed that the reason that the fairies appeared to humanity was to convince us that an invisible realm exists, and that it’s not entirely out of reach. Their occasional interactions with humans served as both a “caution and warning” that we are not alone in the world, and that unseen, intelligent forces occasionally meddled in our affairs. Maybe these forces are still at work. (video transcript)
We still have people who are solely Bigfoot-hunters or UFO researchers or ghost-hunters or whatever, but thanks to Vallée, it is more and more common to see all of these as part of something bigger: “the phenomenon.”4)Some BIgfoot researchers still seek a flesh-and-blood “wood ape,” which might be less psychologically threatening than an interdimensional big hairy critter.
Variations on the saying include “That which is not measurable is not science. That which is not physics is stamp collecting” and “Physics is the only real science. The rest are just stamp collecting.”
His life almost parallels Rutherford’s. Interesting.
Now my favorite podcasters, J. F. Martel and Phil Ford of Weird Studies, have produced the episode on Hellier and related things — with them, there will always be related things. Usually they send me to the library website with a bunch of interlibrary-loan requests.
On the night before this episode of Weird Studies was released, a bunch of folks on the Internet performed a collective magickal working. Prompted by the paranormal investigator Greg Newkirk, they watched the final episode of the documentary series Hellier at the same time — 10:48 PM EST — in order to see what would happen. Listeners who are familiar with this series, of which Newkirk is both a protagonist and a producer, will recall that the last episode features an elaborate attempt at gate opening involving no less than Pan, the Ancient Greek god of nature. If we weren’t so cautious (and humble) in our imaginings, we at Weird Studies might consider the possibility that this episode is a retrocausal effect of that operation. In it, we discuss the show that took the weirdosphere by storm last year, touching on topics such as subterranean humanoids, the existence of “Ascended Masters,” Aleister Crowley’s secret cipher, the Great God Pan, and the potential dangers of opening gates to other worlds … or of leaving them closed.
No, I haven’t listened to it yet. Weird Studies episodes are saved for long drives, and M. and I are going to the city tomorrow.
You can buy this artwork in various forms at Strange Familiars’ Patreon site.
Readers, I have reworked the blogroll (right-hand column) to create a new “Podcast” category.
If you are looking at a single post, the blogroll might not display for you. In that case, click the main blog title or the banner photo at the top to switch to the main page.
I had few podcasts mixed in the blogs, but I am listening to more now, and I decided that they deserved their own category.
For instance, I mentioned Strange Familiars recently in my post, “Don’t Follow the Lights across the Moor, said the Monk.” Apparently that episode — with host Timothy Renner interviewing Br. Richard Hendrick about fairies, ghosts, and poltergeists — was their highest-rated ever.
Weird Studies is another solid favorite. Co-host Phil Ford is a musicologist at Indiana University. Who knew you could do such strange and edgy stuff under the roof of the School of Music? About every other time that I listen to Phil and his co-host, J. F. Martel, I have to visit the library.
Some of these podcasts are easily downloaded from their home sites, plus you can get them on Google Play, Apple Podcast, and usually various other podcast sites. I use Apple gear, but I don’t like Apple Podcast very much and prefer to download individual episodes to iTunes.
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 Windus, 1961), 310. Originally published in The American Magazine, October 1909.
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 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.
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.
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 books4)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.
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.
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 Communion — and 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.
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.
Both are Canadian, although Ford teaches at Indiana University.
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.
Some of them seem to say, “Fairies are dangerous, but if you read my book, I will tell you how contact them.”
I put its thesis like this: Instead of chugging through interstellar space to Earth, the UFO-nauts have always been here. “They” appear in many different shapes, some humanoid, some not, as it suits their fancy. Sometimes They just like to mess with us for reasons we do not understand. Or in more refined language,
As an alternative to the extraterrestrial visitation hypothesis, Vallée has suggested a multidimensional visitation hypothesis. This hypothesis represents an extension of the ETH where the alleged extraterrestrials could be potentially from anywhere. The entities could be multidimensional beyond space-time, and thus could coexist with humans, yet remain undetected (Wikipedia).
Back in the 1970s, Vallée and his wife flew to Argentina to investigate the case of Juan Pérez, a 12-year-old boy from a gaucho family in northern Argentina. Sent out one morning to bring in the family herd, Juan saddled his favorite horse, Cometa (Comet), and rode off into the pastures. On his ride, Juan encountered . . . something . . . that seemed to be a typical flying saucer. Tying Cometa to the craft’s ladder, he went up into it, he said.
There he encountered two beings. When he went home and told his story, he soon became a UFO celebrity. Cometa, however, sickened and died mysteriously only a few days after the encounter.
Juan’s life was wrecked. Call it PTSD. Call it a bad case of susto (soul loss). He fled the ufology scene. He ended up a fifty-ish bachelor, living an isolated life with just his dogs, working seasonally on neighboring ranches and otherwise alone.
There he was until an Argentine filmmaker, Alan Stivelman, decided to reunite him with Vallée, with whom he had had a good relationship as a youth. Vallée was enthusiastic about the plan — all he wanted was a couple of months to study intensively to improve his Spanish.
Stivelman’s documentary, Witness of Another World, is just beautiful movie-making. Whether on Argentinian pampas or up north in the jungle villages of Guaraní Indians, who play an important part in the documentary (Juan has some Guaraní ancestry) or exploring the texture’s of Juan’s crumbling house, it is good to look at.
It is a story of a man brought back from the edge, a spiritual rescue mission, where ufology meets shamanism meets a compassionate reunion of old friends — the eighty-year-old scientist and the grown-up but still frightened gaucho boy.
Listen to what Jacques Vallée has to say about “the phenomenon,” his term for the whole UFO/demon/fairy/visitor complex. Watch what the shamans do. And remember that “They” are not necessarily our friends.
The survey (‘the fairy census’) is split into three parts: (i) for those who have seen fairies, (ii) those who have second-hand accounts of fairies and (iii) a more general one on fairy belief, which can be filled out by anyone who understands the word ‘fairy’, I did it with my four-year-old daughter yesterday . . . I have used the phrase ‘associated with the FIS’ in all press releases. I did this because I thought it might be a good way to attract extra members, as I was trusting in coverage around the world in the two years it runs. In the first forty eight hours we had forty detailed fairy sightings (in the first and second category). Just to put this in perspective the great and energetic Marjorie Johnson managed a couple of hundred sightings in her two year survey, 1955–1956. It would be great to get to two thousand, which would mean by far the biggest folklore survey of its kind.
A prolific writer on mysticism and the paranormal, among other things, the English author Colin Wilson has passed on. In the video (audio recording, really) he discusses some of his work and personal experiences.