New book reveals unsolved ghost mysteries

Fearing the eerie: A scene from the film The Fog, featuring the ghosts of drowned sailors.

Could ghosts really exist? A new book tells the true story of a suburban housewife in the 1930s whose extraordinary experiences obsessed the public – and baffled expert ghost-hunters.

One evening in 1938, Alma Fielding and her husband Les were lying in bed in the London suburb of Thornton Heath. Alma was suffering from kidney pain and Les from toothache. Suddenly, a handprint appeared on the mirror – with six fingers. The next thing they knew, an eiderdown was flying through the air, a dank wind was blowing through the house and a glass shattered for no apparent reason.

Over the next four months, the couple – along with their teenage son and their lodger – were terrorised by what seemed to be a poltergeist. They saw hairbrushes flying through the air and furniture toppling over. In a single morning the breakages amounted to 36 tumblers, 24 wine glasses and 15 egg cups – not to mention a dented kettle. When a newspaper, The Sunday Pictorial, sent reporters to investigate, they experienced flying eggs, china breaking in mid-air and a brass fender falling down the stairs.

These bizarre events are the subject of Kate Summerscale’s book, The Haunting of Alma Fielding. It draws on the diary and notebooks of the man sent to investigate them by the International Institute for Psychical Research (IIPR), a Hungarian journalist called Nandor Fodor.

At first Fodor was convinced that Alma was both haunted and the possessor of strange powers. When he visited her, he saw a teacup sail through the air and the cat’s bowl smash against a door. “My flesh creeped,” he wrote after a ring Alma had admired in Woolworth’s turned up a few hours later in one of his camera-film containers.

Alma even seemed able to be in two places at once, writing a recipe for potato wine in her house while being examined at the psychical research institute.

It finally became clear that she was playing tricks when Fodor placed her in front of an X-ray machine. It showed that she had hidden objects in her underwear and even inside her body. She turned out to be an expert at distracting people’s attention in the same way that a magician does, so that the objects appeared or moved as if by an unseen force.

And yet there were some things that not even this factor could explain – such as a doormat that wrapped itself around a policeman’s head, and a wardrobe that kept falling over.

Fodor became convinced that Alma was a deeply disturbed person whose inner turmoil was somehow expressed as energy, causing these strange events. He decided that she was haunted by a childhood experience of abuse, as well as by the death of her second child from meningitis.

This was not what the IIPR wanted to hear, and Fodor was fired. But when his wife took his file on the case to show Sigmund Freud, the great neurologist agreed with Fodor’s conclusion.

Modern scientists suggest several reasons why people believe they have encountered ghosts. One is that they are disturbed by low-frequency sounds from machinery or the atmosphere; another is that they are exposed to toxic mould or carbon dioxide that causes hallucinations or irrational fear.

Could ghosts really exist?

Cooking up spooks

Some say, yes. The case of Alma Fielding may not have been a genuine haunting, but there are so many stories of strange events told by perfectly sensible people that we must accept a supernatural explanation. We are constantly discovering strange new things about the way the universe works, so it would be wrong to dismiss the idea of ghosts entirely.

Others argue that Kate Summerscale’s book shows not only how ingenious fraudsters are in pretending that ghosts exist but how willing people are to believe them. The fact is that humans have a weakness for bizarre tales. With all the highly sophisticated devices we have for detecting and recording things, by now someone would surely have produced convincing evidence of ghosts – if there were any.

You Decide

  1. Would you spend the night in a house that was reputed to be haunted?
  2. Should we only believe in things that have been scientifically proven?

Activities

  1. Write a story about a haunted school.
  2. Draw an illustration for Kate Summerscale’s book showing some of the strange events at the Fieldings’ house.

Some People Say...

“Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy: the mad daughter of a wise mother.”

Voltaire (1694–1778), French philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that belief in the supernatural increases at times of great upheaval. There was an enormous interest in it following the First World War, with many people desperate to make contact with lost loved ones. This activity continued through the turbulent 1920s and 1930s. Charlatans often took advantage of the situation: one, who seemed to have amazing insights into people’s lives, turned out to be a telephone operator who had been listening in to their conversations.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether ghost-hunting is a complete waste of time. Vince Wilson, one of the world’s leading paranormal investigators, uses an array of high-tech equipment, such as infrared thermal cameras, ultrasonic listening devices and electromagnetic field meters. But although he has been searching for ghosts for more than 20 years, he says that only once has he ever seen one.

Word Watch

Eiderdown
A type of quilt or duvet. It takes its name from the eider duck, whose under feathers – known as down – are extraordinarily light and warm and used to insulate everything from jackets to sleeping bags.
Fender
A guard made of metal. In the Fieldings’ house, it would have stopped burning coals falling out of an open fire.
International Institute for Psychical Research
An organisation that existed from 1934 to 1947. Although several distinguished scientists were involved in it to begin with, they soon decided its approach was not sufficiently rigorous, and resigned.
X-ray machine
Because of the dangers from radiation, X-ray machines are used sparingly today. But before the risks were discovered, they were routinely used for, among other things, checking children’s feet when they were measured for shoes.
Turmoil
A state of great confusion. The word was originally a verb meaning to agitate.
Meningitis
A dangerous disease that causes inflammation of the membranes protecting the brain and spinal cord.
Sigmund Freud
The founder of psychoanalysis arrived in London in June 1938 after fleeing Vienna to escape the Nazis. He died just over a year later.

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