What if ghosts were just a means of talking about trauma?
Since listening to The Battersea Poltergeist and reading The Most Haunted House in England, I have become somewhat obsessed with the array of paranormal ‘research’ organisations that sprang up after the golden age of Victorian Spiritualism.
My obsession is fuelled, in part by some thoughts I had in the aftermath of reading Merlin Coverley’s Occult London. One of the eras discussed in that book is the period in which ceremonial magic became popular enough that London became home to a number of occult orders whose leaderships were continuously beefing and falling out with each other resulting in the formation of yet more occult orders. As someone who most emphatically does not believe in magic, I find it rather hard to understand how these various orders not only managed to remain afloat financially but also gained enough cultural cachet to still be spoken of more than a hundred years later.
Looking back at the antics of Crowley et al, that whole cultural moment makes a lot more sense once you realise that Edwardian ‘magicians’ were basically a hybrid of poet, performance artist and social media influencer. They would sit in their studies and use artistic flair and classical educations to come up with these weird books full of odd and overly-symbolic practices. They would then go out to dinner in a variety of cloaks and hats, behave like complete tits, and attract the attention of enough bored upper-middle class people to start earning an income from selling books and subscriptions to organisations that were basically the Freemasons for Victorian hippies. Technology changes as do trends but there will always be art-grifters and if Aleister Crowley were alive today he would be all over Tiktok screaming about how you need to protect yourself from bad vibes by learning the secret techniques that are embedded in his forthcoming YA horror novel. Remember to like and subscribe.
Though remnants of the Edwardian magic scene can be found in the on-going existence of organisations like the O.T.O., that historical moment did eventually come to an end. The same is true of the Spiritualist movement, whose membership is said to have peaked around the end of the 19th Century. Often described as a form of religion, Spiritualism was more like a network of weird cults whose membership would pay to support a medium who would in turn allow them to communicate with their deceased loved-ones. While an explanation for the decline of Spiritualism is beyond the scope of this review, a lot of people who were Spiritualists in the Edwardian and Victorian periods would spend the 1920s involved with paranormal research associations such as the Society for Psychical Research and in order to understand the pre-War ghost-hunting scene you need to understand why people were looking for ghosts and what people got out of participating in investigations.
Nowadays, the people who make their living as ghost-hunters can most definitely be understood as paranormal-themed performance artists in the grand tradition of Crowley. However, while it may make sense to view the like of Harry Price as Edwardian Alex Jones-style charlatans who may or may not have believed what it was they were selling, I think there is room for a more nuanced view of psychical researchers, if only because describing ghost-hunters as frauds tends to paint the people who turned to them for help as nothing more than gullible fools and I think there was a bit more going on than that. For example, I am reminded of The Battersea Poltergeist’s depiction of Harold ‘Chib’ Chibbert as a man so desperate to find evidence of the afterlife that he continued visiting a supposedly haunted house long after its teenage faker had grown-up and moved on. What we need is a more nuanced understanding of ghost-hunters and the people who use them, one that is sceptical of their methods and conclusions without necessarily painting them as out-right frauds. Kate Summerscale’s The Haunting of Alma Fielding offers just such a perspective.
Kate Summerscale is kind of a big deal. Educated at some of the most expensive and exclusive schools on the planet, she successfully made the transition first from journalism to true crime writing and then on to a broader literary remit for which she has won multiple prizes and served on multiple juries. She is, as the French say, ‘Le Gratin’. Her style can be characterised as an elegant yet accessible hybrid of journalism and literary fiction in so far as she goes out, researches real world events, and then produces fictionalised accounts of said events that draw out not just the facts of the case but also the kind of character studies and psychological subtleties that you’d expect from a literary writer. In other words, she’s exactly the kind of author you’d turn to if you wanted to understand the psychological forces at work not just in psychical research but also in the people whose hauntings the researchers were purporting to investigate.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding is set some time after the schism that split psychical research off from the remnants of Victorian spiritualism. In fact, the book is set in the immediate lead-up to World War II and its emotional contours are very reminiscent of films like David Lean’s Brief Encounter in so far as this is a book about a woman who feels very deeply but cannot afford for those emotions to be visible in public.
The book opens by introducing us to the figure of Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian legal scholar who moved to New York in the 20s to work as a journalist before acquiring a reputation for debunking fraudulent mediums. By the time the events of book begin, Fodor was associated with a number of psychical research bodies but the fact that he was better at debunking mediums than detecting ghosts made him something of an outcast. Given that there has been an attempt to portray bodies like the Society for Psychical Research as well-intentioned if somewhat eccentric scientists, it is worth remembering that most psychical research organisations were run by veterans of the Spiritualist movement and so investigators were expected to strike a balance between rigor and outright scepticism. It was one thing to debunk obvious frauds whose chicanery brought mediumship into disrepute but it was quite another to debunk respected mediums in a way that might make people question the existence of ghosts. As of the late 1930s, Fodor was already on the outs with a number of different organisations and was accused in print of persecuting mediums. This meant that, in order to remain a part of the psychical research community, Fodor needed to find a ghost that he could believe in.
Enter Alma Fielding.
Fielding was a middle-class woman from Croydon who claimed to be living in a haunted house. After reaching out to a local newspaper, two journalists arrived at her door and are said to have witnessed objects flying across the hallways behind her. Acting in concert with the International Institute of Psychic Research, Fodor began to investigate Fielding’s claims but what started out as a simple ghost-hunt rapidly morphed into something far more telling and modern.
Summerscale’s book is written in a way that manages to strike a fine balance between emphasising the weirdness of the Fielding case without necessarily sensationalising its details. The result is a book which, though not necessarily frightening, is certainly weird. At first, Fodor and his co-investigator (referred to throughout simply as “the countess”) struggle to explain how Fielding might be making things appear, disappear, and fly across the room. However, as the interviews drag on, the haunting becomes less about flying objects and more about Fielding’s relationship with the Other Side.
As Summerscale argues in a piece she wrote for the Guardian, Fodor approached this haunting with his faith in spiritualism already on the wane. Despite having once been a member of the London Spiritualist Alliance, Fodor had grown increasingly sceptical about the possibility of communicating with the other side. Mediums, he believed, were not contacting the afterlife but instead were using their (real) psychic powers to manifest aspects of their own unconscious. Though less widely popularised than competing paranormal theories, the idea that ghosts are psychic projections that merely happen to look like the spirits of the dead was an idea that rode the rising tide of popular belief in psychic powers. In fact, early editions of Colin Wilson’s book Poltergeist! drew extensively on those ideas only for later editions to walk the theory back as fashions changed and the idea that some humans might have psychic powers came to be seen as less credible than the idea that the human spirit might survive physical death.
After spending a few sessions dodging tea-cups and scratching their heads over clever bits of sleight-of-hand, the researchers settle into a groove of putting Fielding into a trance and chatting with her spirit guide, a masculine presence who is able to say that the things that Fielding cannot. At first, the interviews revolve around trying to test Fielding’s spirit guide as a way of authenticating the haunting. However, the more time Fodor passes with fielding, the more he comes to use the spirit guide as a means of piercing the veil of politeness and getting to grips with Fielding’s actual feelings.
If this makes Fodor sound less like an occult detective and more like a psychotherapist then you have successfully landed on the conclusion that Summerscale seems to have intended. Indeed, The Haunting of Alma Fielding puts forward a vision of psychic research in which the role of the psychic researcher was primarily that of therapist in an age before the popularisation and institutionalisation of psychotherapy. In other words, when Fielding is talking about being haunted, she is actually talking about feelings that cannot be squared with her existing identity. As a middle-class woman living in Croydon, Fielding was not allowed to talk about being unhappy or frustrated and she certainly could not talk about traumas she may or may not have experienced as a child.
The historian of science Rachel Maines has argued that vibrators were developed as part of an effort to make money from the treatment of hysteria. According to Maines, up until the 19th Century, one of the most common ways of treating hysteria was for doctors to masturbate their clients in an effort to provoke a hysterical paroxysm that would in turn alleviate the other symptoms of hysteria. By the end of the 19th Century, ideas about female hysteria were becoming more complex and better integrated into emerging theories of mental illness and psychological dysfunction but, to paraphrase William Gibson, the future was not equally distributed and so the terrain of female psychological dysfunction was actively contested by traditional medicine, the emerging field of psychotherapy, sexual liberation and a load of weird superstitions.
By virtue of her gender, her class, her background, and her geographic location, Alma Fielding could not seek treatment for the causes of her psychological problems. She knew that she was not sick and so could not go to see a doctor. She was not the wife of a Viennese aristocrat in the 1920s and so could not undergo psychoanalysis. With no one else to whom she could turn, Alma Fielding reached out to psychical researchers and these people responded to her problems by sitting her down and listening to her for months on end.
Fodor is an interesting figure in the histories of both Spiritualism and psychical research as he seems to have recognised that the writing was on the wall for communicating with the dead. He recognised not only that those practices had lost credibility, he also recognised that a lot of what mediums and psychical researchers used to do was now being done by people such as psychoanalysts. Indeed, the final act of The Haunting of Alma Fielding revolves around the push-back that Fodor experiences when he tried to integrate psychoanalytical techniques into psychical research and ‘explain’ the haunting with reference to what he suspected were repressed traumatic memories of childhood sexual assault. There’s even a lovely moment right at the end of the book when Fodor receives a benediction from a dying Sigmund Freud.
This vision of the psychic investigator as therapist rather than detective makes a lot of sense when you go back and look at a lot of ‘classic’ hauntings such as the Battersea Poltergeist, the Enfield Haunting, and the Black Monk of Pontefract which all revolve around young women from working and lower-middle class backgrounds who simply would not have been in a position to seek help for their psychological discomfort. Under this model, the role of the psychical investigator was never to ascertain the truth or falsity of paranormal claims but rather to listen and to provide a relatively ‘neutral’ language through which socially unacceptable feelings might be voiced and discussed. Under this model, ghosts are neither spirits of the dead nor psychic projections but rather convenient fictions created in order to allow the subject to distance herself from feelings that she is not yet psychologically ready to accommodate within her existing sense of self.
The Haunting of Alma Fielding will fascinate anyone with an interest in either psychical research or the history of psychoanalysis as the story is quite deliberately positioned on the overlapping border between the two sub-cultures. As a ghost story, the book is more weird than scary and so probably shouldn’t be read as a work of horror but even then, the book’s vision of what psychical research was actually about should inspire not only a new generation of ghost stories but also a wholesale re-interpretation of ghost stories past.