In the spirit of Samhain (pronounced “sow-win”), this review deviates from the usual at Real Change, where contemporary books of fact or fiction are perused and given a crisp critique. Samhain is an ancient Celtic word meaning the end of summer. A yearly festival around Nov. 1, it would later be de-paganized as All Saints Day by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century.
In Celtic lore, the night before Samhain is a time when the veil separating the material world and the spirit realm becomes especially permeable, allowing souls of the dead to return and visit their earthly origins. In the preternatural gloom, unwitting mortals could inadvertently slip through this border and find themselves in an otherworldly locale. Pregnant with simmering strangeness, this night was known in Gaelic as “oiche shamhna.” It was the Irish who brought the tradition to America’s shores. We know this spooky nocturnal time as Halloween, celebrated by the young and the young at heart.
Under consideration here is a century-old abridgement of a two-volume opus by English poet, classicist and psychic researcher Frederic Myers. In his day, Myers hobnobbed with intellectual lights such as the father of American psychology William James, eminent scientist William Crookes and Alfred Russell Wallace who, with Charles Darwin, is the recognized co-discoverer of evolutionary theory. It was an era when doctrines of materialistic science were waxing and traditional religious and spiritual doctrines were perceived by some to be quaint vestiges of a less enlightened time.
For certain distinguished personages in scientific disciplines and other respected professions, this eclipse of spirituality was cause for alarm. Surely there are rarified and meaningful dimensions within the collective human journey and in an individual person’s existence that must be acknowledged. Not all aspects of reality fall easily under the rigorous scalpel of the scientific method. Still, Myers believed fervidly that areas of the outré like spiritualism and mediums, extrasensory phenomena, somnambulism, visions and visitations of wraiths and revenants could be brought within the fold of science if only a proper approach to such things could be patiently and delicately elucidated.
In 1882 Myers and others founded the British Society for Psychical Research. Members would dedicate themselves in an unbiased effort to explore the paranormal parameters of human experience. They would study and carefully record instances of clairvoyance, prophetic dreams and apparitions of the deceased. It was Myers who coined the terms “telepathy” and “supernormal.” In 1886 the Society published a sprawling compendium of stories and anecdotes of ghosts and eldritch encounters with discarnate entities, entitled “Phantasms of the Living.”
Myers’ contribution, “Human Personality and Its Survival After Bodily Death,” was published posthumously in 1903. A later abridged edition followed. Some chapters in the abbreviated offering contain the headings “Hypnotism” and “Trance, Possession and Ecstasy,” but it is Chapter VII, entitled “Phantasms of the Dead,” that concerns this particular review. “Whatever else, indeed, a ‘ghost’ may be,” Myers wrote, “it is probably one of the most complex phenomena in nature.” He became thoroughly convinced of personal survival after the demise of the physical body: “That the world of spiritual life does not depend on the existence of the natural world I hold as now proved by actual evidence.”
Myers relates two fascinating cases. In 1867 a man had lost his beloved eighteen-year-old sister. On a business trip nine years later this gentleman, alone in his hotel room, had a brief but extraordinary vision of his sibling. “She appeared as if alive.” It was noon, the sun shone. He had been wide awake. Amazed by what had occurred, the fellow suspended his trip to go in person and tell his family what had happened. He mentioned that on the right side of his sister’s face he noticed a red scratch. On hearing this observation “my mother rose trembling to her feet and nearly fainted away.” She had never told anyone that while attending to her deceased daughter in her coffin she had unintentionally scratched her face, but covered it with powder. “A few weeks later my mother died, happy in her belief she would rejoin her favourite daughter in a better world.”
Another eerie account was relayed in an 1892 paper entitled “Record of a Haunted House” by a woman who wrote under the pseudonym R.C. Morton. She is described by Myers as “a lady of scientific training” who was “preparing to be a physician.” The writer recalls her family moving into their home in April 1882 when, shortly thereafter, an apparition of “a tall lady, dressed in black” began making periodic appearances about the house and surrounding property. Various family members and servants occasionally saw the woman and also heard her footsteps. “The apparitions were of exactly the same type, seen in the same places and by the same people, at varying intervals.” In her memoir of the haunting, Morton reported that the specter seemed to have eventually departed the premises.
Whether one subscribes to a religious or spiritual belief in an afterlife, keeps an open perspective or holds that all such tales reek of overactive imaginations or plain old poppycock, the perennial intrigue and attraction of the uncanny cannot be denied. It was the abiding hope of Myers that parapsychology could provide inroads to the serious exploration of areas long dismissed or thought beyond the reach of empirical analysis.
In his words: “Could a proof of our survival be obtained, it would carry us deeper into the true nature of the universe than we should be carried by an even perfect knowledge of the material scheme of things. It would carry us deeper both by achievement and by promise. The discovery that there was a life in man independent of blood and bone would be a cardinal, a dominating fact in all science and in all philosophy. And the prospect thus opened to human knowledge, in this or in other worlds, would be limitless indeed.”
May your All Hallows Eve be a soulfully safe and happy one!
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