Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Reading Notes – On the Trail of the Poltergeist

This post is about a classic in parapsychology written by psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor. This is an older book published in the late 1950s, and it recounts Fodor’s investigation of a famous British poltergeist case in the late 1930s. There are a number of key ideas in parapsychology that emerged from Fodor’s research. In spite of its older age, this book brings a number of useful concepts to parasociology. The full notice is:

Fodor, Nandor. (1958). On the Trail of the Poltergeist. New York: Citadel Press.

Fraud and the study of the paranormal

One of the main challenges in the study of the paranormal is the issue of fraud. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) established a policy in the late 19th century that should someone commit fraud at any time, he or she would not be studied anymore by the SPR. This policy was adopted by other similar organizations. But this policy is erroneous in many ways. First of all, the presence of fraud does not preclude the possibility of genuine psi effects. Furthermore, as Batcheldor (1984) has shown, a bit of “cheating” helps to make people believe that they can succeed in producing psi effects. Such (unconscious) belief is a critical condition for producing psi effects. Also, it is important to note that the production of psi effects is helped when consciousness is “neutralized,” so that the unconscious can act with less constraint. Such neutralization may occur through psychological dissociation, which can be pathological or not.

One of Fodor’s key findings is that the distinction between genuine psi effects and fraud is not a useful one. What produces psi and what motivates one to enact fraud are very often coming from the same unconscious processes. Hence, as Fodor wrote about the case he investigated, “some of these happenings were self-evidential, establishing an excellent case for the supernormal range of the powers of Mrs. Forbes’s unconscious, others were of a compromising character but psychologically still very interesting. They made me incline to the analytical view that dissociated persons can work on two levels of consciousness. They may attempt fraud on one and continue it on the second in a state of genuine trance; they may also produce supernormal phenomena. In other words, the table sittings have led me to conclude that there is a genuine psychic angle in the problem of fraud and that the life of a dissociated personality must be considered as a whole and not split into departments of the genuine and the fraudulent” (p. 81).

From the point of view of UFO studies, such finding is important. A rash of UFO sightings is often accompanied with hoaxes. Yet, the symbolic content of those hoaxes is most likely feeding from the same socially shared unconscious processes. Therefore, one should not exclude fraud from the data when investigating a UFO wave, or a rash of sightings, as they provide important information. A good example of this is the Gulf Breeze incident of 1987-1988. The most common opinion is that Ed Walter engaged in fraud, as miniature models of the UFO photographed by him were found in his house. Yet, this does not preclude the possibility that he may have had a genuine UFO sighting. But what is more interesting is that it started a series of sightings in the region. Some of them were most likely night tests (or training) of seaborne missiles by the U.S. Navy (which in turn can be seen as an interesting synchronistic event), while others sightings could have been genuine psi events.

Interpretation of symbols

Another interesting element in Fodor’s book is the issue of interpreting symbols. As he wrote “there was a process of reasoning behind the apparently senseless act of the Poltergeist. It is not easy to follow it and it is never certain that our interpretation will be correct, but a little light is better than none at all. [...] The very choice of Mrs. Forbes’s apports [teleportation] impresses me as a cipher in which her tragic life-story is hidden. From wherever she got them, whether they came to her by supernormal or normal means, they had a definite meaning; they were governed by unconscious association.” (p. 217).

Without going through all his analysis, here are a few examples of what he meant. Fodor was convinced that Mrs. Forbes’ Poltergeist was linked to her repressed feelings linked to her past, as he discovered that she was victim of a pedophile when she was five. There were violet flowers appearing during the Poltergeist, which can mean “violate” (i.e. violated). There was coral appearing, which can be linked the choral that was singing when she was victimized. Her wedding night appears to have been very traumatic as well, although not because of her husband, but because of her past. Several objects appeared on their wedding anniversary. Many objects thrown by the Poltergeist were aimed at her husband (Mrs. Forbes clearly loved him consciously, but unconsciously wrongly associated him with her aggressor). Fodor’s interpretation is clearly influenced by the Freudian approach to psychoanalysis where sexual issues are central to interpretation. But his work shows that if one wants to interpret the symbolic meaning of psi events he or she must plough large (i.e. go much beyond the actual psi event) and look into a number of non-obvious symbols (like the word associations).

As shown in the posts related to the Hill story, such holistic symbolic approach can be fruitful. However, when it comes to interpret symbols linked to expressions of the socially shared unconscious, through events in the public realm, Fodor’s suggestions are more difficult to apply. In the public realm there are many more activities going on. It can be quite difficult to decipher what is relevant from what is not. Kottmeyer (1996) and Viéroudy (1977) noticed, however, that in the United States major UFO sightings tend to be related to concerns related to national security (which implies indirectly that we have a bunch a very psychologically repressed people in those milieus).

To go back to the Gulf Breeze incident, we have here again another case that tends to confirm the interpretation key for American cases. But because it was declared a fraud by many, key clues were missed. What was not studied is the symbolic signification of the sightings, including Walter’s alien visitation claims. His story is essentially about someone who is losing control over his life, and trying to get back control by making his story public. The symbolic structure of Walter’s life presents interesting parallels with key public events contemporary to the Gulf Breeze incident.

The first sighting occurred on 11 November 1987, on Veteran’s Day, which had a very special meaning for the Navy. Earlier that year 37 sailors of the USS Stark, a ship based in Florida, were killed in the Persian Gulf, in the context of the so-called Tanker War. It was one of the largest lost of life for the Navy since World War II. Emotions were certainly high on that day of 1987. These sailors died accidentally due to an Iraqi pilot who mistook the American ship for an Iranian one, but the U.S. Navy was there to fight the Iranians. Yet, at the same time the American government was accused of secretly selling weapons to Iran (Iran-Contra Gate). Feelings of betrayals among sailors were probably running very high.

What is more telling, however, is that there was a similar lost of control and scrambling to regain it during the same time period in and around the Office of the President. “The Democratic-controlled United States Congress issued its own report on November 18, 1987, stating that ‘If the president did not know what his national security advisers were doing, he should have.’ The congressional report wrote that the president bore ‘ultimate responsibility‘ for wrongdoing by his aides, and his administration exhibited ‘secrecy, deception and disdain for the law.’ It also read in part: ‘The central remaining question is the role of the President in the Iran-contra affair. On this critical point, the shredding of documents by Poindexter, North and others, and the death of Casey, leave the record incomplete’. “ (From Wikipedia)

The Gulf Breeze sightings occurred in a liminal time, i.e. when the content of a major public report was known by a few key players, but not released publically yet while there was serious tensions about national security in the Persian Gulf (a scenario similar to the Barney and Betty Hill story about the Transport Commission’s report and the Berlin crisis). Furthermore, it resembles a lot the October 1973 UFO wave, as there was a major conflict in the Middle East simultaneous to the Watergate scandal unfolding through the sudden resignations of the Secretary of Justice and his Deputy (as discussed in a previous post). In other words, this is another case in the United States of UFO wave concurrent to high level tensions about national security accompanied a major challenge to a key democratic institution.

Are these interpretation keys useful for future events? It is less than sure. Many days during the Bush administration would qualify for such context favourable to UFO wave (war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan, the 2004 elections, 9/11 commission, Abu Ghraib, CIA authorized torture, etc), but there was no major rash of UFOs between 2000 and 2008 in the United States. A possible explanation for the lack of major UFO sightings is that the lost of trust in the Executive branch during the Bush era was more gradual and therefore less prone to sudden major collective emotional discharges. As well, maybe the American society is now more cynical than before, so there was no big upset about what occurred. Another possibility is that other psi events replaced UFOs, but remained under the “radar screen” (e.g., more Bigfoot sightings, more ghosts, more Chuppacabra, etc.).

In the light of Fodor’s research, it appears to me that a number of UFO cases might have been “closed” too fast.nAs well, this shows that the generally shared ”intuition” about a link between governmental conspiracies and the UFO phenomenon might hold some truth after all. But not in the way that most people imagine: UFOs are not enacting conspiracies (to hide their existence), but rather it is conspiracies about mundane power issues that set the stage for UFO sightings, be they psychokinetic UFOs, hoaxes, or synchronistic passage of mundane aerial objects.

Copyright © 2009 Eric Ouellet

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