The Vanishing Mysteries of the Ghost Club - Pacific Standard

The Vanishing Mysteries of the Ghost Club

Ostracized by science, the world's oldest paranormal research organization clings to a vanishing sense of wonder.
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A.A. Watts and Sir William Crookes, two early leaders of the Ghost Club. (Photo: Ghost Club)

“It did happen. Sorry, but it did. It happened. It’s true.”

The man speaking is thin and frail, with a wispy gray comb-over. He hunches forward in his seat, arms crossed awkwardly over his lap. But his voice is impassioned and defiant.

At this monthly meeting of the Ghost Club—the world’s oldest paranormal research organization—Guy Lyon Playfair holds the floor and the attention of the crowded lecture hall in south London. He’s answering a question about a recent television adaptation of the Enfield Haunting, the 1977 poltergeist investigation—demonic voices, levitating children, self-moving furniture—of a home in Enfield, England, that established him as a hallowed figure among paranormal enthusiasts.

“Poltergeists challenge everything we think we know about physics, psychology, time, and space—you name it—and the evidence has been piling up for at least a thousand years, possibly longer.”

“I’ve bounced that [haunting] off all sorts of hot-shot physicists,” he continues, “and they all look vaguely into the distance and say, well, we cannot discuss these things with miserable lay people like me.” He pauses for a breath, looking and sounding exhausted, as if just the memory of so many dispiriting conversations is more than he can bear. Then he rushes on: “And I’m sorry, but I think it’s time that this sort of evidence is faced up to. Poltergeists challenge everything we think we know about physics, psychology, time, and space—you name it—and the evidence has been piling up for at least a thousand years, possibly longer, back to ancient Greece and Rome and so on, and yet it is still being giggled at by these stupid skeptics.”

The assembled audience murmurs excitedly and rustles in their seats. Sensing their enthusiasm, Playfair closes in bravura fashion: “I think it is really not worth arguing with these people, and I have stopped doing it.”

The crowd erupts in a boisterous cheer.

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The world of spirits and the world of science have long been at odds. They are mutually suspicious communities and have often viewed each other—especially on the part of science—with ridicule and disdain. Ghost Club members see this prejudice as unfair and short-sighted. At a pub gathering after Playfair's talk, David Saunderson, an affable, ruddy-cheeked Australian, notes the irony.

“People clump all things like this into fairy stories,” he says, sipping a beer. “But several hundred years ago they didn’t believe in electricity, even though we could see it in the sky and feel it in our jumpers.” He gestures toward the sky with a look of exasperation. “We know there are things up there—radio waves, neutrinos, Wi-Fi—even if we can’t see them. It’s the spiritual part of the paranormal that gets dismissed. But science today was magic in the past.”

Saunderson is not the first to feel caught between the allure of belief and the tug of progress. In 1917, the German sociologist Max Weber gave a lecture entitled “Science as a Vocation,” in which he argued that the modern world is defined above all by “disenchantment.” “There are no more mysterious incalculable forces that come into play,” Weber said. Spirits, magic, and mysticism had been de-throned by mathematics, science, and technology—rationality triumphing over superstition.

In the century since Weber’s lecture, the pace of modernization, bureaucratization, and secularization in Western society has only increased. Where once the world was “a great enchanted garden,” in Weber’s memorable phrase, it is now more like a carefully calculated math equation. The results have turned miracles into practicalities and conveniences, from vaccines and iPhones to virtual reality and the Higgs boson. But for Playfair, Saunderson, and other members of the Ghost Club, that same progress has left something more demoralizing in its wake: a deep sense of disenchantment. As the world is mapped, quantified, and understood, there is less and less space for mystery and wonder.

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The Ghost Club was not always so threatened by the steady march of science and technology; in fact, the Club once embraced it. Founded in 1862, the group's original brief was to expose fraudulent mediums and clairvoyants by applying experimental rigor to supposedly otherworldly powers. Membership was kept purposefully low—just 82 members in the Club’s first 52 years—and the group attracted such luminaries as Charles Dickens, W.B. Yeats, and Arthur Conan Doyle. During the Club’s early years, the post-industrial world was awash in startling and groundbreaking discoveries, from germ theory to evolution and entropy. The idea of a paranormal realm hardly seemed more ludicrous than any other advancement—it was just one more area into which science could fruitfully expand.

But today, a sense of siege is pervasive and palpable among Club members. For Playfair in particular, this sense of persecution is well-earned, the result of a life spent on the receiving end of countless jeers and dismissals, personal and professional. In 1977, Playfair and another investigator, Maurice Grosse, arrived in Enfield, England, to investigate the haunting that would become their legacy. A year later, Playfair presented his findings from the Enfield Haunting to the Second International Society for Psychical Research Conference at the University of Cambridge, which a century earlier had been the founding location of the Ghost Club. It was to be his moment of greatest triumph, the pinnacle of nearly a year of constant investigation and reporting; instead, he was laughed out of the room.

His book about the haunting, This House Is Haunted, received a brutal review in the London Review of Books: “This is not a book for sensitive souls,” the reviewer wrote, “nor is it a book about them.” When Playfair talks today about “po-faced psychologists” and “militantly aggressive” skeptics, it is not hard to catch the tinge of resentment that lingers in his voice.

His voice rises. “The mountain gorilla was dismissed as folklore until 1904. And the giant squid was filmed only recently. People don’t believe until suddenly they do.”

In recent years, the Club has grown to include 100-plus members of all ages from all over the world. The group’s meetings, held about once a month in central London, are an eclectic mix of graying flower-children, young sci-fi fans, and buttoned-up office workers, each with an interest in a different niche of the paranormal world, from magic and UFOs to possession and dousing. Not all members have had a paranormal experience, but most have had a feeling—a glimpse out of the corner of the eye, a cold shiver—that they couldn’t explain.

What unites them is both curiosity and camaraderie. Many Ghost Club members feel spurned by the progress of modern science. “Theoretical physicists can write papers on a particle that no one has ever seen, but that can be inferred,” says Richard Freeman, a goateed, heavyset cryptozoologist. “But we write a paper on an animal that hasn’t been seen and become pariahs.” His voice rises. “The mountain gorilla was dismissed as folklore until 1904. And the giant squid was filmed only recently. People don’t believe until suddenly they do.”

This idea—that the passage of time will one day vindicate their beliefs—leaves Ghost Club members stranded in an intellectual no-man’s land. They see the mainstream scientific community as perniciously closed-minded, even as they long for science to embrace their work, as it has embraced other previously outlandish theories throughout history.

Sarah Darnell, the Club’s gregarious general secretary, found herself gravitating to the paranormal after a career working among the dying in hospitals and nursing homes. “There were a lot of unexplained things that happened in my career,” she says. “Shadows, whiffs of perfume, whispers of things that have come before—all of us who worked in the place saw and accepted these things.” For Darnell, the Ghost Club is a place to explore a lifetime of experiences that science refuses to address. “I think there’s too many things to understand,” she says. “It’s a shame scientists just pooh-pooh it. There are so many people who’ve had experiences they can’t explain. There has to be something.”

The gulf between the Club’s reflexive defensiveness and stated passion for open-minded inquiry can generate an awkward dissonance. The Ghost Club proudly cites its roots among academics at the University of Cambridge, including several Nobel Prize winners, and after the Playfair event several attendees note in hushed whispers that two members of the Club are scientists employed at the CERN laboratory in Geneva—though these two scientists would prefer their colleagues not discover their ties to the Club. At the same time, Playfair rages against skeptics “who are only in it for the money,” as if there were fortunes to be made disputing paranormal research. “These so-called skeptics never question or examine anything,” he says. “They’ve got all the answers. The world operates according to Darwin and Richard Dawkins, and anyone like me who brings other evidence simply has to be eliminated.”

In fact, the skeptics seem to keep getting ever more aggressive, Playfair says, “because they realize they’re losing.”

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Not all Ghost Club members share Playfair’s sense of persecution. As the Group’s website is quick to emphasize, “The Ghost Club is an informal, democratically run club of genuinely open-minded members and it should be stressed that unlike many similar organizations interested skeptics are always welcome.” Neil Spring, a charismatic young public relations executive with tousled hair and an easy smile, feels that “anyone with an interest in science should pay attention to organizations like the Ghost Club.” Spring lectured to a meeting of the Club when his novel about a team of paranormal researchers was published, and he has continued to attend events as a “happily open-minded” member. “The believers only have to be right once,” Spring says, “and the changes to material science could be immense. It’s the duty of any fair-minded person to listen.”

“There’s this false notion that the world is all mapped and explained,” says Freeman, his voice a mix of indignation and dejection. “But it’s not. And I think it’ll be a sad day when it is.”

But most members are seeking something more than intellectual stimulation. They are hungry for refuge, whether intellectually or emotionally. Maurice Grosse, Playfair’s partner in the Enfield investigation, was thrust into paranormal research when his daughter Janet was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1976. He joined the Ghost Club hoping for a way to contact his deceased daughter, and came upon the Enfield poltergeist. The case was too close to Grosse’s own life to resist: The alleged Enfield poltergeist afflicted another young British woman named Janet, and the case became an outlet for his grief.

The Club also serves as a more general source of hope: hope that mystery still exists, that there are still new adventures to be had. “There’s this false notion that the world is all mapped and explained,” says Freeman, his voice a mix of indignation and dejection. “But it’s not. And I think it’ll be a sad day when it is.”

“It’s hard to talk about it without sounding crazy,” admits Mark Salmon, a bald, nervous Ghost Club member with kind eyes. “That’s why I like the club. You can talk about weird shit. Everyone’s story is weirder than the last.” The same enthusiasm means “we’re fair game in a lot of ways,” Salmon says. “We’re told you have to respect other people’s religions, cultures, and beliefs,” but the paranormal does not enjoy the same ideological politeness. “When you’re going off on your own way, you’re more open to attack,” says Salmon, with a resigned shrug and a quiet laugh.

The Club’s investigations officer, Derek Green, is a Scot with a warm, boyish grin and a love of musical theater. He can still recall, in his thick burr, the first time he saw a ghost: He was 14, sitting alone in a school classroom, reading while his father worked down the hall. He looked up, and “there in the classroom was a tall gentleman. He had a white shirt on, he had black trousers on, and he had a teacher’s black gown.... I can’t say exactly how long he was there—to me, it felt like a minute, but it wasn’t a minute. He was standing and I could see his face, his features.” The experience was troubling, bewildering, and fascinating all at once, and it cemented a belief in the paranormal that he holds to this day: “You have to be there,” he says. “You’ve got to experience it.”

Yet no experience, however vivid, is ever enough to satiate the desire, the need that draws in people like Green. “What keeps the Ghost Club and organizations like it going is that a lot of people are desperate to try to experience something, to get an answer,” he says. “The problem is that once you join, you might be privileged enough to experience something or have something happen and think, wow, what happened there? But at the end of it, you still don’t have an answer.”

But for members of the Ghost Club, the organization remains the surest path to something that science cannot touch. In his 1917 lecture, after explaining the idea of disenchantment with the modern world, Weber arrived at the question of what was left to believe. “Tolstoy has given the simplest answer,” Weber said, “with the words: ‘Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: “What shall we do and how shall we live?'”

In this quest, members of the Ghost Club see themselves as part of a vanguard, seeking answers in territory where others refuse to tread, either out of incredulity or closed-mindedness. “I do get angry sometimes when people are very quick to dismiss [the paranormal],” Green sighs. “I’ve had arguments with people in the past who, when you talk about it, immediately dismiss it without letting you get a chance to explain. I end up just saying to the people, if you want to dismiss it, that’s fine.” He pauses, and his tone takes on a new seriousness. “But I always finish by saying to them, if you ever experience anything in the future that you can’t explain, come back and talk to me.”

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Demon Week is Pacific Standard's series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.

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