In an Open-Minded Way: Jack Hunter on an Ethnography of Anomalous Phenomena

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on July 18, 2012


“In other cultures, therefore, experiences such as telepathic communication between two individuals, predicting the future in dreams, seeing the dead reanimate, witnessing an apparition, communicating with spirits through entranced mediums, or being afflicted by witchcraft (amongst others) may be considered entirely possible. Many highly respected anthropologists, in conducting ethnographic ?eldwork amongst other cultures, have gone several steps beyond appreciating different modes of thinking about the world and have crossed the threshold into alternate ways of experiencing it. E.B. Tylor, E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Bruce T. Grindal and Edith Turner all crossed this threshold during their ?eldwork, and all interpreted and presented their experiences in different ways. Through examining the ways in which these ethnographers documented their experiences, and how their personal world-views accommodated such unusual phenomena, it is possible to gain an insight into both changing academic attitudes towards the anomalous and the mysterious nature of the paranormal itself.” –”Anthropology of the Weird: Ethnographic Fieldwork and Anomalous Experience” by Jack Hunter in G. Taylor (ed.) (2011). Darklore Vol. 6. Brisbane: Daily Grail Publishing. pp. 243-253.

Since the late 60’s and early 70’s parapsychology has sought objective verification for the phenomenon in the laboratory rather than cultivating the experience as a participant in the field.

Jack Hunter, editor for Paranthropology, Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal, is working with a group of researchers that are changing this trend. Through ethnographic and participation based research they are discovering new ways to engage with anamolous phenomena that offer alternative avenues for exploration outside of the circular skeptic/believer debate.

D.M.: What got you into all this?

J.H.: I have always been interested in the paranormal, and when I went to university to study archaeology & anthropology I came to the realization that anthropological, and more specifically ethnographic, methodologies provide an ideal means to investigate the paranormal in an open-minded way.

How can the study of anomalous phenomena help our understanding of human experience?

I think the best answer to this question was given by the psychologist William James in the 19th century when he wrote that “no account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.” James stressed the fact that our understanding of reality will be limited, and hence fundamentally flawed, if we fail to take into account all aspects of existence — no matter how weird and unusual they are. To ignore these “anomalous” phenomena and experiences is to arbitrarily neglect a facet of the human condition and of reality as a whole.

Did being directly involved in learning mediumistic techniques change your perspective on the phenomenon?

Through participating in mediumship development sessions I was able to directly access personal experiences that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. The few experiences that I did have while developing in this way have enabled me to appreciate to a greater extent the fact there is an experiential reality (at the very least) underlying the beliefs and practices of contemporary mediums.

This opened up new avenues of inquiry and new possibilities for study. It became clear to me that the experiential component is key to understanding the sort of group I am investigating, and that no account of the group would be complete without addressing the experiences of its members (again echoing William James).

How do you think your perspective would change without those experiences in the field?

If I hadn’t had the strange experiences associated with the mediumship development experience, I doubt whether I would have been able to appreciate the experiential component of mediumship traditions.

In studying mediumship in the UK, have you been able to develop an understanding of the differences and similarities between spiritualist mediumship, and trance work in say Afro-Carribean traditions, North African traditions, Asian shamanism, etc.? What are some of those differences and similarities?

Not having conducted fieldwork with Afro-Cuban and African spirit mediums, or Asian shamans, I am not really in the position to definitively state that they are doing precisely the same thing as Euro-American spiritualist mediums.

But, based on my own field research, and my reading of the ethnographic literature pertaining to spirit possession practices around the world, it seems to me that there are similar processes involved across the board. Chief amongst these are alterations of consciousness in the mediums/possessed and the use of bodily performance in the manifestation of spiritual beings.

When I talk about performance I am not implying that what trance mediums do is necessarily fake, but rather that performance is a means by which non-physical entities can be expressed in the physical world. I have discussed this is greater detail in my MLitt dissertation Talking With Spirits.

“By drawing comparisons between ethnographic accounts of supernatural beliefs and contemporary reports of psychic phenomena, such as those investigated by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), (Andrew) Lang demonstrated that the perceived cognitive gap between Europeans and non-Europeans was not quite as wide as had inititally been thought. If modern rational Europeans of high respectability, like the early members of the SPR, had experienced phenomena they considered to be supernormal in nature, then why should the experiences and believes recorded in the ethnographic literanture not also be taken seriously?” — “Anthropology & the Supernatural: From Spirits to Consciousness.” by Jack Hunter in Edgescience, No. 10, March 2012, pp. 14-17.

Did you encounter the “trickster” phenomenon that George Hansen explores in his work?

I would say so. The trickster really rears its head when it comes to trying to pin-point precisely what is going on in physical mediumship demonstrations. In the gloom of the seance room it isn’t easy to tell what is going on: an air of uncertainty is generated. I have come to view this, however, as an essential component in the paranormal experience.
As Hansen suggests, drawing on the ideas of Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, seances are periods of liminality and anti-structure in which clear-cut distinctions break down.

As an observer it becomes very difficult to distinguish between reality and what might be termed trickery: our usual modes of interpretation cease to be adequate. I think this, whether conscious or unconscious, is a deliberate aim of the seance — to develop a social situation in which such distinctions break down, which in turn may lead to alterations of consciousness in the participants and to “paranormal” experiences.

After studying the phenomenon of spirit possession in the field, do you have further insights into how/why lab work with anomalous phenomenon and abilities has been difficult?

This is an interesting question and brings to the fore, I believe, a really significant issue for paranormal research — the role of emotion and participation. When we look at first-hand accounts of paranormal experiences, including many of the experiences reported by ethnographers in the field, we see that such experiences, more often than not (though of course there are always going to be exceptions), occur during periods of emotional arousal.

For instance, the classic example of a paranormal experience — the crisis apparition — is often associated with the intensely emotional period immediately preceding the death of a loved one. Poltergeist cases are usually associated with the emotional turbulence of puberty, or with individuals experiencing some form social liminality.

The most elaborate paranormal experiences recorded by ethnographic anthropologists often take place at the climax of emotionally intense rituals (see for example the descriptions on pages 12 through 15 of the October 2010 issue of Paranthropology). Emotional intensity of one form or another, therefore, would appear to be a fairly recursive element of many different forms of paranormal experience.

Now, when we come to look at the lab-based experiments of parapsychology, particularly after the development of J.B. Rhine’s methodologies, we find none of this, infact we find quite the opposite: a deliberate attempt to generate a sterile, controlled and unemotional environment in which to verify the existence of psi phenomena. When we look at it from this perspective it is remarkable that modern parapsychological experiments achieve positive results at all (this could perhaps be considered testament to the strength of psi phenomena: that psi can even make itself known in conditions entirely removed from the environment in which it naturally manifests).

I’m not the first person to notice this by any stretch of the imagination. Ernesto de Martino, an Italian philosopher and historian of religion, described just this disconnect between the traditional, spontaneous, paranormal experience and the phenomena produced in the laboratory when he wrote in 1968 that “in the laboratory, the drama of the dying man who appears… to a relative or friend, is reduced to an oft repeated experiment — one that tries to transmit to the mind of a subject the image of a playing card, chosen at random,” this, he suggests, represents “an almost complete reduction of the historical stimulus that is at work in the purely spontaneous occurrence of such phenomena”. In other words; the drama of real life is ignored in the laboratory experiment.

This is where ethnographic approaches are able to shed light on the paranormal, through documenting its occurrence in the midst of the social drama which allows it to manifest in its most elaborate forms.

How has working with the Paranthropology journal changed your perspective on the field of anomaly studies?

Paranthropology was set up as a means to encourage greater, and more open, dialogue amongst anthropologists on issues of the paranormal. Many anthropologists have encountered “anomalous phenomena” in the field but have been unable to express their experiences in the professional academic journals for fear of ridicule.

A field anthropologist recently told me that he had been warned against publishing an article on seemingly paranormal phenomena by university colleagues because it was “threatening” to the “basis of scientific rationalism.” Paranthropology aims to provide a platform for anthropologists to discuss these issues openly. It also aims to develop an interdisciplinary dialogue between anthropology and other disciplines including folklore and parapsychology so that a more holistic understanding of the paranormal can be developed.

Working on the journal has proven to me that interdisciplinarity is the route towards gaining an understanding of the anomalous.

Do you have any other projects you are working on in the field?

I am involved in a group, the Afterlife Research Centre, based at the University of Bristol, which aims to promote ethnographic approaches to the study of the afterlife through a method that we have termed “cognitive empathetic engagement” (see the website for a more details exploration of what we mean by this).

Members of the group are researching afterlife beliefs, primarily in the context of mediumship traditions, in a variety of different cultural settings. We have organized a conference at the University of Bristol and are aiming to publish a book on the ethnography of spirit mediumship.
Jack Hunter is a PhD student in Anthropology at the University of Bristol, studying Spiritualist groups in the city. His undergraduate dissertation also at Bristol concerned the practice of contemporary trance and physical mediumship at the Bristol Spirit Lodge. Jack produces a regular on-line newsletter exploring anthropological and other academic approaches to the paranormal.

Confirming Craddock – Contemporary Anomaly Research Through the Veil of Victorian Spirits

Posted in > BLACK CADILLAC REVIEW by David on December 5, 2010

ghost-illustrationGrowing up I was fascinated with folklore, especially ghost stories. A trip to the library wasn’t complete without picking up some antiquated accounts of the unknown. As I’ve grown into a more mature understanding of my youthful interests I’ve come to discover that the books I really enjoyed usually came out of the Spiritualist tradition or were in some ways associated with the more esoteric end of Masonry, Theosophy, the Golden Dawn or the Psychical Research Society (and in so many cases the lines between these groups was, and is, rather blurry.)

It’s interesting to see that many of the books on “folklore” and “mythology” coming out of the 19th century were produced antecedent to the more practical implications of the work. The Psychical Research Society utilized past accounts to buttress their contemporary research, and so many of the historical works produced during this period were actually just case studies couched in the form of popular research.

W.B. Yeats’ accounts of Irish fairy lore were fascinating, it took me years to realize that his research into folklore and myth were actually supportive to his esoteric practice. Things like that tend to be glossed over in the mainstream understanding of established authors whose actual intentions hold some embarrassment for the staid authorities of culture.

41Fl7Yv+MiL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Vere Chappell has published a biography of the Theosophist and Spiritualist Ida Craddock giving an even deeper view of this process (For a more detailed review of the book itself see Freeman Presson’s literary review blog). Red Wheel/Weiser was kind enough to send over a review copy and the experience of reading it has attended a series of personal revelations on the nature of reality and cultural transmission.

Most of my readings from Vere’s biography of Ida Craddock have taken place on the train to and from Chicago on trips to attend an alchemy lecture by Dennis Hauck, president of the International Alchemy Guild, and to attend a local conversational salon of like minded folks interested in some of the odder antecedents of culture. This fortuitous correlation has given me a contemporary view of the ideas that Ida addresses in her writings, and also a picture of how ideas about topics such as Spiritualism transmute, shedding and acquiring cultural bias, retaining their core value despite what seems to be great gaps in time.

One of the issues addressed in Ida’s writing is the subjective understanding of anomalous experiences. In her case this was focused on a relationship with a spirit or thought form that she considered her husband; to be more direct she experienced a physical relationship with a disembodied entity she believed was the spirit of a past acquaintance. By physical relationship I mean she felt that she was sexually active with a ghost.

To be absolutely honest as I read this account I was a bit put off by her direct assertions. They violated my credulity, and exploring her thoughts lead to conjectures on what value this kind of story might have to various groups or agendas keeping me from fully embracing the narrative; I was searching for the hook.

This is where the circumstances of my reading become important, and why I mention them. After an hour on the train and another hour on the subway (or EL as we call it in Chicago) attending to Ida’s account I found myself faced with the same questions while joining the company of people involved in the contemporary exploration of anomalous events.

ida-craddock-33a4703a-b233-454c-86f0-3de5d2a3a84-resize-750It’s one thing to conjecture about the influences and intentions of a Victorian Spiritualist, but it’s another to have the same phenomenon addressed, face to face, by contemporary peers. To a skeptical mind it’s even more odd to realize that there are correspondences between the accounts and also to realize that the contemporary researchers are not involved or knowledgeable about the esoteric influences that attended Ida’s understanding of her experience.

There is still the lingering doubt that the contemporary researchers might be subtly influenced by such esoteric ideas simply through the culture of their investigations. This becomes less suspect when the accounts are from the perspective of those experiencing them, from the people that the contemporary researchers encounter rather than from the researcher’s own conjectures.

It’s still possible to say that the idea has so perniciously infected society that it reaches even the mainstream understanding, but the farther the influence stretches, whether anomalous or not, it still becomes an object worthy of study, perhaps even more so.

If everyone is being honest there is a clear line of experience stretching from the 19th century (and much farther as the 19th century researchers were reflecting on much older accounts) up to this very day. If there is a difference in the interpretation it’s the sobriety with which these anomalies are addressed. Ida’s account is firmly protected by very sober and rational safeguards. To her such experiences become negative, not due to the anomaly itself, but rather to the subjective understanding of the individual.

What some might discount as Victorian prudery becomes invaluable advice to the modern researcher into anomalous activity. Disordered lives, addiction, mal-intention, sexual impropriety, each of these play a part in the contemporary narrative of negative anomalous events. To Ida this is self-evident, if one is not prepared to live an orderly life in society, one is certainly not prepared for the experiences that come with contacting the “borderland”.

From Ida’s work Heavenly Bridgegrooms:

“In the case of Spiritualist mediums, professional or amateur, where the phenomena assume some show of regularity, and are claimed by the medium to come entirely from the world beyond the grave, one always has to be on one’s guard against the subtle interpolation among otherwise truthful matter of fantastic or misleading statements made apparently by the communicating spirits themselves. Occultists in all ages have invariably assumed such statements to be the work of “lying spirits”. But it is noticeable that a medium of correct life and clearness of intellectual conception is less troubled by such lying spirits than is the medium of halting intellect or morals. This of itself should indicate to the thoughtful student of occult phenomena that the medium, and not the spirits, may be to blame when lying communications are made. Just as in Astronomy it is now found that the apparent movements of the sun and fixed stars are due almost entirely to our own planet’s motion through space, so, I think, when we explore the heavens of occultism we shall eventually realize that erratic psychical phenomena are due to our own shifting relation to the beings who produce phenomena. Not until people got rid of the Ptolemaic theory that the Earth was a permanent unmovable fixture in the heavens did they learn that the bewildering cycles and epicycles of the sun and fixed stars were caused by the movements of their own planet thorough space; and not until we get rid of what I may call the Ptolemaic theory of occultism, that the psychic is the one permanent, immovable factor in the apparently shifting phenomena about him, will we ever get at the true scientific laws of occultism that our own vibrations–or our own moral and intellectual ups and downs–are almost entirely responsible for the erraticness of Borderland communications. To blame Borderland intelligences for “lying” is as if in the proverbial London fog at noonday one should blame the sun for not shining. The sun is shining right along; but it is the smoke from one’s neighbors which returns upon one to shield the sun from one’s view.”

According to contemporary accounts, and Ida’s understanding, the crossing of boundaries requires great energy, and this can either be supported by self control and focus, or by the energy expended due to chaotic living. The neutrality of the experience separates it from the orthodox understanding of the sacred. It’s inconsequential to the contact whether this energy is positive or negative, these factors only come into play on the subjective experience that follows such contact.

Whatever the cause of such experiences, the continuity between what Ida recounts in her writings and what the current coterie of investigators encounter in their field of study shows that uncritical exploration can lead to disastrous results.

I would recommend that everyone interested in anomalous activity, whether skeptic or believer, take a deeper look at their intentions and purpose. Whether it’s psychosis, skepticism or revelation that leads us towards the ‘borderland’, Ida’s rational and cogent advice is invaluable.

My account may seem pedantic, so let’s allow Roky Erickson, who has experienced the extremes of positive and negative synchronicity, explain it with a bit more passion…