Exploring the Afterlife

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Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, King's College, London

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Ghostly Encounters: A Review

Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life by Dennis Waskul with Michele Waskul, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2016. Xi + 166pp. References, Notes, Index, Plates, Appendix. £20.99 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-4399-1289-8.

Dennis Waskul, a Professor of Sociology at Minnesota State University and his wife, Michele, an independent scholar, state clearly in their Preface that Ghostly Encounters is intended as an academic book based on ‘reflexive ethnographic fieldwork’ of reported experiences of ghosts and hauntings. They travelled extensively in the American mid-West interviewing people who reported first hand encounters with ghosts and where possible visiting the sites of the alleged hauntings. In a few cases where participants preferred not to meet face-to-face, written accounts were accepted. Their university did not permit snowballing techniques, in which participants can recommend others who are then approached directly, so they were dependent on advertising for respondents who they approached them. The results are related to existing academic literature and then packaged very much for a general, rather than solely academic audience.

 For those familiar with writer
and historian Ian Wilson’s 1995 volume In Search of Ghosts, the ground covered is similar (and even the cover images are almost identical). Both start with descriptions of initial scepticism followed by the story of a personal ghostly encounter. In the Wilson’s case he and his wife were staying with friends in Abercrombie House, New South Wales, Australia, and didn’t know at the time that the room they were sleeping in had a reputation for being haunted. During the night both Ian Wilson and his wife became aware of someone standing beside their bed, breathing audibly, as if trying to attract their attention. When they turned the on the light the sound faded, only to return when they switched it off again. Tired from their journey and wishing to sleep, Wilson remembered the story of a haunting he had read about in which a ghost was banished by invoking the Holy Trinity. He thought he would try something similar and mentally said a prayer releasing the ghostly presence. Much to his surprise this seemed to work. In the Waskuls’ case they were in bed at home when Dennis saw a wispy-white cloud come through the window and blinds into the corner of the room, and then send out tentacles towards him. Two short sentences came into his mind as he watched the apparition, “I will tell the truth. I will tell the story right”. In the Wilsons' case Ian had already been commissioned to write a book on ghosts when the experience occurred. The Waskuls were well into their research at this point. In neither instance did they feel afraid. The result of this encounter for both writers was to subtly shift their perspective on the subject matter of ghosts. It is perhaps significant in both cases that the authors were already engaged with the topic when these experiences took place, although in most of the instances of hauntings described there was no prior expectation of a ghostly encounter.

Ghostly Hauntings is divided into five, fairly brief, chapters with an Appendix describing the methodology used. The first chapter presents ghosts as a ‘cross-cultural and transhistorical’ phenomenon and simultaneously as ‘uniquely modern’ (p.18). What is meant here is that while stories of ghosts are universal the notion of the supernatural depends on a post-Enlightenment definition of the natural order. They make the point that while ghosts in popular imagination are a largely visual phenomenon, the spectre is only one way that spirits of the dead (if that is what they are) can make their presence known. They are as likely to be audible, either directly as in the Wilsons’ experience, or though manipulating objects, making knocks and bangs, scratching on walls, or turning electrical appliances on and off. They might also make the living feel as if they are being touched or even choked, manipulate the temperature or otherwise give the impression of being watched. The experience may be individual or shared, lending the haunting a perception of veridical objectivity. In the second chapter, first-hand accounts of ghostly encounters are interwoven with interviewees interpretations of what has occurred, placing the experience within a North American cultural context in which popular interest is combines with scepticism. Several interviewees were nervous of being perceived as mad or deluded or sought ordinary rational explanations for their encounters. Chapter Three, with numerous quotes and examples from the research data, attempts a typology of ghosts, listing intelligent hauntings, residual hauntings, anniversary and historical hauntings. Forms of ghosts are divided into apparitions (visible ghosts), phantasms (a visual appearance in a dream or altered state of consciousness), wraiths (a person who visits the living around the time of his or her death), poltergeists (noisy or restless ghosts), specters (a threatening or menacing ghost) and phantoms (a specter occurring in a dream). Each chapter ends with an extended case study, in this case of a child ghost named Madison who communicated with both the informant and her younger sister independently when they were a similar age to the ghostly girl. The ghost identified herself a previous occupant of the house, and could be manipulative and jealous, a disturbing ‘friend’ for a young child.

Chapter Four takes a rather different direction with an account of Loon Lake Cemetery in Minnesota, a sad story in which the reputation of the site as haunted gave ghost hunters carte blanche to destroy and desecrate it. A Nineteenth Century inhabitant of the cemetery (unjustly) acquired a reputation as a witch. Legends of ghostly and supernatural goings on at the site were promulgated and repeated in local legend and in print. Descendants of the accused are still working to clear her name, and the chapter is included as a cautionary tale against revealing the locations of supposed hauntings. Chapter Five tackles the central questions of epistemological and ontological relativity and certainty. It is generally taken for granted in the social sciences that truth is contingent on perspective, culture, history, symbolic frameworks, and so on. In other words, truth is epistemologically relative. What about the ontological ‘reality’ of ghostly phenomena? The study is not directly studying ghosts but people’s accounts of ghosts. The personal experience recounted at the start of the book did, however, have the effect of opening the author’s mind to the possibility that the accounts they collected are based on actual occurrences, and that they may involve the spirits of the dead, rather than being psychological projections or hallucinations.

Waskul, like Ian Wilson before him, ends the book end with a conversation with a medium and an unusual occurrence that suggests that some people may have privileged access when it comes to communication with the dead. Dennis Waskul was warned that he was in danger of inviting a spirit attachment, and subsequently experienced some inexplicable phenomena, including his wedding ring disappearing from his hand and reappearing some hours later on the step of his office, and a poltergeist taking control of his laptop, deleting messages before he could read them. Waskul mentions mediums, religious specialists and paranormal investigators as a resource for communicating with troublesome ghosts (but not spirit release therapists). I also wonder if Waskul was aware of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) journals and archives, or the six thousand first-hand accounts of spiritual experiences, including encounters with ghosts, in the Alister Hardy archive, as he claims that with the possible exception of Diane Goldstein’s 'Scientific Rationalism and Supernatural Experience Narratives' in Haunting Experiences (2007), his is probably the first empirical study of reported first-hand experiences with ghosts (p.150).

Despite an apparent lack of awareness of earlier research, Ghostly Encounters is an interesting and lively read. As it is based almost exclusively on first-hand accounts (unlike the Wilson volume) some of the problems involved in checking the veracity of second-hand accounts are avoided (although the first-hand accounts are only as good as the memory and narrative ability of the interviewees). For those who are sceptical it is hard to argue with first-hand experience. The possible interpretations of these experiences are set in their cultural context, while acknowledging the similarity of ghostly narratives across time and culture. For those familiar with the topic there is little that will come as a surprise or seem particularly original, but the volume can serve as a very useful introduction to ghosts and hauntings for the inquisitive and discerning general or student reader.

Goldstein, Diane, Sylvia Grider, and Jeannie Thomas. (2007). Haunting Experiences: Ghosts in Contemporary Folklore. Logan: Utah State University Press.

Wilson, Ian. (1995) In Search of Ghosts. London: Headline.

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Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Psychic Self

I gave a presentation called The Psychic Self at the Exploring the Extraordinary 7 Conference in York.  I wanted to examine what tools there might be in the anthropological toolkit when we look at notions of the self as an unbounded, connected energy field rather than a discrete, isolated individual body. I use contemporary witchcraft and spirit possession and spirit release in Western societies as ethnographic examples of this extended psychic self. It is all very well, as proponents of the 'ontological turn' in anthropology propose, to treat our research subjects with respect, be open to their world view and allow their realities to unsettle our own (in unspecified ways) when the research subjects are on the other side of the world. When they are in fact fellow Western educated, post-Enlightenment, friends and neighbours, maintaining that opens and respect seems to be more challenging. Using Jeanne Favre-Saada's work on witchcraft in Normandy and my own research on spirit release practitioners, I suggest some ways of approaching the material. These include incorporating elements of critical realism (Grabber), the experiential core hypothesis (Hufford) and cognitive empathetic engagement (Bowie). The text of the talk, in case it does not reproduce with the slides, is also included. The slides, text and conference report are also available on  Scribd via my Academia.edu sight.

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Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Mechanics of Spirit Communication

Video of a presentation I gave on the Mechanics of Spirit Communication at the Exploring the Extraordinary Conference at Gettysburg University, USA in March 2014.

One of the criticisms levelled at purported communications with spirits is that we don't know how the process works. The mechanics of spirit communication are outside currently understood scientific paradigms and the content of the messages is often suspect or inaccurate. In this talk I examine the process of spirit communication as seen both from the perspective of the person, or in the case of electronic transcommunication, the machine, that receives the message and fromthe perspective of the spirit communicator. The reported difficulties from the spirit side of working through a physical or clairvoyant medium, or of trying to impress their message through dreams and seeming coincidences, for instance, can help us appreciate why spirit communication might not always be accurate or complete. This fact in itself should not be seen as casting sufficient doubt to dismiss the entire process. What emerges is a picture of experimentation on 'both sides', a dynamic process which has and will continue to grow and develop over time.
PAPER PRESENTED AT EXPLORING THE EXTRAORDINARY'S 6TH ANNUAL CONFERENCE IN GETTYSBURG, 2014. For more information about Exploring the Extraordinary's annual conferences, please go to etenetwork.weebly.com
For more information about the Afterlife Research Centre, please go to afterliferesearch.co.uk/
Read Fiona's 'Exploring the Afterlife' blog at exploringtheafterlife.blogspot.co.uk/
For more information about Dr Fiona Bowie and her work, please go to kcl.academia.edu/FionaBowie

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Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Explorations in Life, Death and the Afterlife

In May and June 2015 I was invited to give a series of three talks on the afterlife in my Anglican parish. The invitation that was printed in the church magazine is reproduced below. At the bottom of the page is a link to a folder with the Powerpoint slides and handouts for the talks, and my reflections on the process.

Explorations in life, death and the afterlife
A series of three talks on the theme of life, death and the afterlife, with Dr Fiona Bowie
The topics covered will be:
(1)   Journeying Through Death:  Looking at how different religions and cultures have approached death and its role in life and a look at so-called ‘near-death’ experiences.
(2)   The Life Beyond This Life:  Looking at accounts of life beyond physical death and beyond this physical world.
(3)   Finding our life’s purpose and plan: Exploring the ideas of whether life is random and meaningless.  Does life have purpose and a plan and continuity beyond our physical existence?
The approach is experience-based and exploratory, and does not promote any particular religious or secular viewpoint.  The aim is to provide information and material for personal reflection and growth rather than to look for definitive proof. There will be time for discussion.
·       When: Tuesday 28 April, 5 May & 19 May 2015, 7.30pm-9pm
·       Where: Church Hall
·       Refreshments will be available

All are welcome.  In order to have some idea of numbers it would be useful if you could let either the vicar or Fiona (Bowie) know if you are hoping to attend. For further information or to register your interest, please contact Fiona Bowie:  fiona.bowie@kcl.ac.uk

Fiona Bowie is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College, London. She is trained in social anthropology and has taught at the Universities of Wales and Bristol in the UK, at the University of Linköping in Sweden, and at the University of Virginia in the USA. She is founder of the Afterlife Research Centre: http://www.afterliferesearch.co.uk. Fiona currently supervises PhD students, gives talks and conference presentations, writes books and articles, and runs workshops on afterlife themes.

From the Vicar
The sessions provide people of Christian faith, non-Christian faith and no faith opportunity to come together as fellow sojourners in this life to speak honestly and listen attentively to each other on matters of life and death and what may lie beyond.  It is a chance to share experiences and ask questions people may have, some of which may not easily fit into my/our own belief system.
These sessions could potentially be found in any University or College in the UK.  As such the material is usually addressed in an academic context.  However, by offering these sessions in a church building my hope is that we recognise the wide variety of experiences people may have encountered and pastoral concerns that may arise from them.
Finally, a disclaimer to say that the content of these sessions is not designed to propagate the Christian faith or any other faith but an open point of meeting, reflection and discussion.

To view the slides, handouts and reflection on the talks click here.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Role of Experience in the Origin and Development of Religion - Dr Fi...

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Life after Death? Experiential Themes in Afterlife Narratives

A talk, with slides by Fiona Bowie, given at the Emmanuel Centre, University of Leeds, on 20th March 2015. The event was a public symposium organised by Dr Mikel Burley as part of the Immortality and Human Finitude project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The title of the day was Life after Death? Perspectives from Philosophy, Theology, Anthropology and Literature. The other speakers were Revd Dr Michael Armstrong, Dr Mikel Burley, Jack Hunter and Dr Matthew Treherne. The sessions were chaired by Dr Mikel Burley, Dr Tasia Scrutton, Professor Robin Le Poidevin, and Dr Fiona Bowie. 

Abstract: In this talk I discuss a methodology for studying the afterlife that bridges both scepticism based on a positive materialism and methodological agnosticism on the one hand, and complete relativism and uncritical acceptance on the other. It is based on cognitive, empathetic engagement, and can be seen as a kind of thought experiment in which the ethnographer acts 'as if' what she or she learns is true. I then sketch out some of the areas in which universal experiences of the supernatural or non-ordinary reality (from the perspective of Western science)  seem to underly religious and popular belief systems. This includes near-death experiences, shamanism and mediumship, reincarnation and after-death contacts.

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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Studying "Non-Ordinary Realities": A Roundtable Discussion

Round-table discussion chaired by David Robertson, with Fiona Bowie, Bettina Schmidt, David Gordon Wilson and Jonathan Tuckett. Posted on the Religious Studies Project website 20.10.2014.
Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (who also also recently published on the paranormal) as a follow-on from last year’s episodes from Esalen on the paranormal in Religious Studies (produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter – part 1 here, and part 2 here).
Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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