Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Telepathy – more often known, today, as ESP - is thought of as the most common of all paranormal phenomena. Yet, at the same time, it is also one of the most problematic, in being contrary to what science tells us about mind and the universe. To science the mind is disconnected from other minds and the universe. Hence, any ability for mind to mind contact is impossible. The nearest such instant communication will come is, they advise, text messaging.
THE WILKINS SHERMAN EXPERIMENT
One of the most impressive cases of ESP involved explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins and researcher Harold Sherman over 68 nights during an Arctic expedition (1937-38). As arranged, in the Arctic, Sir Hubert would spend some time each evening thinking about the day. Back in New York, Sherman tried to put down Sir Hubert’s thoughts, his impressions then given to researcher Gardner Murphy to be kept until notes could be compared. How well did this test do? On one night Sherman thought of ping-pong balls. Sir Hubert had played ping-pong that night. On another night he thought the team had had some rare wine. Sir Hubert confirmed later it was blueberry. On another occasion Sherman thought Sir Hubert had been on an early flight to Saskatchewan but was forced to land because of bad weather at Regina. Here, he attended a party in an evening suit. Unlikely? Sir Hubert’s notes later confirmed every detail to be correct. The evening suit had been leant to him.
Scientific study of ESP began in earnest at the turn of the 20th century. Sir Oliver Lodge was an early experimenter, eventually producing two girls who seemed to be able to read each other’s minds. However, their success declined rapidly when they were not holding hands. By the 1930s, American writer Upton Sinclair began tests with his wife in which he would sketch little drawings and try to transmit them to her. In one test he drew a volcano whilst his wife produced a beetle. Was this a miss? Both images were of a long, thin squiggle with an inverted ‘v’ at the bottom. It was about this time that plant botanist J B Rhine got involved in providing a new methodology for research. Throughout the 1930s he worked at Duke University with Zener cards - a twenty five card pack with five sets of images. Whilst one person would turn over a card, another person would attempt to identify what it was. Over a series of many runs the degree of success could be expressed statistically. If this statistic was above chance, then it was indicative of ESP being involved.
By the 1960s it became obvious that testing could better occur if the subject was removed from normal information input, aping trances and other altered states as attributed to mediums. Parapsychologists Stanley Krippner and Montague Ullman achieved this at their Dream Laboratory at the Maimonides Medical Centre, New York. Subjects would go there to sleep. Meanwhile, an experimenter would stare at a picture in another room. When the sleeper approached REM sleep he would be woken up and asked to describe his thoughts. The following morning he would be shown a series of pictures. Some subjects were repeatedly successful above chance. By the 1970s American researcher Charles Honorton advanced the process of testing by developing the Ganzfeld, still used in tests around the world today. Here a subject is relaxed and placed in a state of sensory deprivation - usually white noise played through headphones and half ping pong balls taped over eyes.
In this state he is required to concentrate on another subject in another room, who, as in the Dream Laboratory, is looking at a number of target pictures, selecting one for particular attention. The relaxed subject then talks about the images that come into his head, which are then compared to the target picture. Again, there have been many successes against chance.
THEORIES OF ESP
The problem with ESP is that it seems to conflict totally with how science sees the world as working. Early SPR member Dame Edith Lyttleton realised this when she said: ‘Telepathy does not merely bridge space, it annihilates it - space becomes an irrelevance’. Various physical theories have been proposed for ESP over the years. Two central ideas are that information is carried on either radio-like waves or chemical messengers such as macrophages which connect cell tissue; or pheromones, which can best be explained as airborne hormones. However, it is unlikely that either of these ideas will ever bear fruit. Other researchers refer to psychologist Carl Jung and his theory of a collective unconscious. To Jung, underlying the personal unconscious we have a connection of minds, through which collective images and impulses can rise into the personal conscious. This vehicle has often been used as a possible mechanisms for ESP. Unfortunately, whilst it is attractive as a concept, and certainly has importance for human psychology, it holds no scientific credibility in itself.
A UNIVERSAL SYMPATHY
The physicist David Bohm theorised that the universe was holographic in nature, in that information is composed of a field that can be accessed by any part of the universe. To Bohm, this happened because the universe bends in on itself to such an extent that - at an information level - the particle and the universe are one and the same. Such an idea is presented because of the accepted ability of a subatomic particle to simultaneously affect another regardless of the distance between them.
This known annihilation of space is not applied to ESP by science for they argue that quantum effects cannot infiltrate into normal existence. But nowadays this argument is becoming unconvincing, mainly due to the discovery of microtubules. A cell, including brain cells, have been shown to have a cytoskeleton made up of the protein, tubulin. These microtubules are so small that it has been theorised that they could react at a subatomic level, thus allowing quantum properties into brain processes. It has even been theorised that microtubules could be tiny on/off switches, forming a kind of computer to process subatomic effects.
Concepts exist in the universe, and in the cellular construction of life, that could conceivably allow information flow instantaneously throughout the universe. Similarly, experimentation has shown that, when outside information is reduced, allowing the mind to concentrate on itself, this flow of information is more accessible. It seems, therefore, that telepathy, or ESP, may not be as problematic as was once thought. Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the most problematic part of the phenomenon is the general mood towards denial in science itself.
When we think of monsters we automatically think of Dragons, of maybe King Kong, or perhaps the Loch Ness Monster. Through myth, media or mystery, such monsters almost become part of our psyche. However, there is another category of monster – creatures, or even strange people, who seem to invade the world briefly, and then disappear, becoming nothing but a puzzle at the extremities of paranormal literature. Let’s have a few examples.
DEMON AND GASSER
One night in April 1977 a teenager was driving near Dover, Massachusetts, when he saw an entity with large head, protruding eyes, long, thin limbs and peach-coloured skin. Two hours later, another teenager saw the same entity. The following night, what became known as the Dover Demon was seen by another teenager for one last time. Researchers subsequently matched the entity to the pygmy Mannegishi, a mythological creature believed in by the nearby Cree Native Americans. Several decades earlier, in September 1944, the residents of Mattoon, Illinois, were terrorised for nearly a fortnight by a Mad Gasser, a tall, dark-clad man with a tight-fitting hat. First seen as a shadowy figure outside houses, the gasser eventually squirted something into people’s bedrooms, resulting in temporary paralysis.
Occasionally, paranormal literature throws up a case so incredible that we either dismiss it as fantasy, or edge towards the idea that demons and possessions are a reality. The facts are just so fantastic, rational inquiry is often forgotten. But are we right to either dismiss or accept? Or is it possible that rational explanations can be placed upon the subject within an overall cultural explanation of phenomena? I opt for this middle ground.
Consider the case of Anna Ecklund, born into a religious family from the American Midwest about 1882. Believed to have been abused by her father, at fourteen, she showed signs of possession involving acute sexual fantasies. A monk from Wisconsin was called in, who exorcised her in 1912, claiming she was possessed by the Devil. Failing, she reverted, being possessed until age forty six. Eventually being taken in once more by monks, she threw a fit and for over three weeks swayed between unconsciousness and erotic behaviour, including copious vomiting, levitating and speaking in strange voices. Eventually her body went rigid and the possession was over.
Robbie Mannheim - the believed influence behind The Exorcist - was similar. Just before an aunt died, she and Robbie tried to contact spirits on a Ouija board. After her death, his behaviour changed, the boy swearing incessantly. Strange disturbances then began in the house, and cuts appeared on his body. His parents called in a priest who said he was possessed. Exorcisms were attempted, but each time Robbie got worse, attacking one priest with a bedspring, resulting in a hundred stitches. On Easter Monday 1949, Robbie woke up and his demon was gone.
THEORIES ON ENTITIES
The idea that entities can possess the person was accepted as fact through most of human history. In 1917 teacher Max Freedom Long began a study of the Huna of Hawaii. His work confirmed the belief. The Huna believe that, rather than being an individual, man has three separate selves; the low, middle and high self. Long identified these as the unconscious, conscious and superconscious mind, the latter being the region of possession. Canadian psychiatrist Dr Adam Crabtree would see it differently. During therapy he would create entities. Typical was depressive Sarah Worthington. During therapy Crabtree asked if she ever heard voices. Saying she had, he asked her to recall them. Her persona then changed, becoming confident and she had a different voice. Crabtree asked who this possession was. It turned out to be her grandmother, who seemed to have problems of her own. Using this form of psychodrama, Crabtree treated Sarah by psychoanalyzing her grandmother.
In the above we have two separate and distinct ideas upon possession. In the former, we see the possibility of the human mind having higher levels of consciousness, whilst in the latter, we see the possibility of entities being ‘split-off’ aspects of mind. This aspect is seen in the phenomenon of multiple personality, where the mind can seem to fragment into a number of different ‘personalities’, taking it in turn to inhabit the host. Could an amalgamation of multiple personality and the possibility of higher consciousness be merged to produce a credible theory of possessions such as Ecklund and Mannheim?
One well accepted theory of multiple personality is that it does not exist, as such. Rather, we have a chaotic mind coming upon a therapist, or idea, that it exists. Hence, a form of role-play comes into being, the patient playing to the therapist. In this way, a form of transference has occurred, with the therapist validating something that comes into being purely because of his validation. But what, exactly, is involved in such role-play? What part of the mind does the therapist’s bidding? It is interesting that each personality displayed seems to exhibit a particular emotion of the host. Hence, could it be that, in multiple personality, the role-play revolves around specific emotional traits within the mind?
Emotions tend to be chaotic things. But more than this, whilst an emotion may be expressed for a variety of ‘personal’ reasons, the actual nature of various ‘emotions’ seem to be identical in all people. Hence, could emotions be of the ‘species’ rather than the person? If so, then we can see a ‘communal’ element of mind being tapped in multiple personality, suggesting that its similarity to possession is greater than we think, with an actual ‘outside’ entity being manifested. Carl Jung gave us a similar concept in his ‘collective unconscious’ – a mind below the ‘personal’ with ‘communal’ traits. And these traits included ‘archetypes’, or shared personality types such as the Child, Sage, Trickster and Hero. Could we therefore argue that, in multiple personality/possession, we are dealing with an archetype as entity?
A SUGGESTIVE CULTURE
Jung’s archetypes also include all manner of symbols, and together with the personality archetypes, we can see the collective unconscious expressed in mythology and society. It is almost as if ‘culture’ itself is an expression of this communal aspect of mind, but within the world we experience. Culture can, of course, come in many forms. An on-going culture can be built-up over millennia, as the ideas and communal symbols are passed down from generation to generation. Such a cultural form can be suggestive in the extreme. After all, if it is an outside expression of the inner mind, it would be, as one would be in sympathy with the other. And possibly so, too, with the ‘archetypes’ that transcend both.
THE DEMON LET LOOSE
If we return to the above cases we can ask what would be the reaction, in terms of culture, of a suggestive, possibly disturbed person being told that they were being possessed? Bearing in mind the cultural legacy inherent in the suggestion, combined with the authority of the priests who are enforcing the concept, can we imagine this person being very good and, as in the role-play involved in multiple personality, exhibiting the behaviour expected of him? And as the cultural expression increases, reinforcing the displayed entity’s existence, we can imagine an emotional archetype out of control, and a ‘possession’ in existence that is ‘communal’, in that it is ‘other’ than the personal mind. And as its ferocity increases, and the patient is further reinforced towards ‘possessed’ behaviour, we can also imagine the priests being similarly infected by the role-play suggested by the possession. And in such a cultural feed-back loop, the exorcists see what they think they’ll see.
A wise seasoned parapsychologist used to say, 'some of my best friends are ghosts!' 'Really?" I thought to myself. That is quite a statement and one showing bravery and understanding of the unknown. To have come to a point in one's investigative and curious life to feel that way, must have an underlying hidden meaning.
Perhaps this individual, as many others, may also feel that ghosts are better to 'hang around' then some humans. I wouldn't doubt it as I wouldn't doubt anything in the occult and paranormal. Oh there are topics I snicker at because that's my opinion, but on the whole I don't joke about the dead and beyond. I don't joke about what happens when we pass also known as crossing over.
I believe Jon Edwards really coined that term when his show was picked up. Something magical happens when the soul detaches from the body and whisks off into an invisible realm where it can eventually go back and forth between Earth and the Afterlife world. Those are spirits who were lucky enough to peacefully leave their once human existence to go on and continue another way of living. However, for those trapped by terrible causes of death, causes whether they created them or not, become the walking dead!
These pour souls are the ghosts I speak of. Society is very wrapped up in the notion of 'well, if you can't see it then it doesn't exist!' Just like if we don't look at the car accident as were driving by, it didn't happen and there will not be a terrible impression made upon us. Unfortunately life does not work that way. You have to look at some point and you may not like what you see. How an individual deals with a difficult situation depends on many factors and everyone has to do it their own way. So, when one comes across a ghost or a haunting which always leads to a ghost, there are many questions and openings to be explained and answered.
Paranormal investigators are also called PIs, parapsychologists, scientists, ghost hunters, ghost chasers call them what you will, all aim for the same goal. They are all after the same thing...ghosts, ghosts and more ghosts. With today's technology in the ghost hunting business, it certainly has paved an easier path for those forming their own societies, groups and organizations to document real material of the existence of ghosts. This material is evidence that is coming in the form of EVPs, photography and video, motion detectors, temperature readings and digital everything. But, the one thing that any ghost hunter and medium will come across, is something that no piece of equipment could ever pick up on.
The sensation is a feeling and uneasiness that something or someone is in the room with you. A dense space of cold thick air surrounds your entire being and you can't breath. You can't move and you don't know how to react. Somehow your thankful you're not alone on your hunting because this feeling regardless of your experience and gadgets is very personal and can be very dangerous. There are evils that do exist as well as good. When you purposely walk into an environment where you know there is an entity waiting, perhaps more then one, be prepared to feel.
Brace yourself as you acknowledge the reality of this ghost who was once one of the living. Knowing what it was like to be a person now stuck between their old world and a place where they can't call home. Some ghosts just don't want to go and therefore will roam the Earth forever never at peace. Some ghosts are not ghosts at all and the evil I speak of. And some ghosts are happy to move along with your assistance, as they were waiting for your arrival to release them.
Can you begin to imagine what these lost souls must even experience? Stop for a moment with all the investigative research and think, is it possible they feel but differently then when once alive? There's anger when you hear some EVP recordings, as there is kindness in messages in EVP recordings. Based on that theory, I would have to lean in the direction of yes, they feel. So, going on that then imagine what torture it must be like to linger confused, disoriented and stuck in a rut.
For those ghosts that experience this, they are the saddest ones of all. For the evil that purposely wants to stay in our environment, they must go because no good can come of their roaming. Ghosts are what I feel most of us do not want to become when we cross over. But, we can't be in charge of our destinies in the 'how to die well department,' unless we bring that on ourselves. And even then, I feel that was predestined as well.
If you believe there is a God or a higher source at work, then you'll understand we have free will and accept that we must accept our fated paths. That is why it is crucial to live each and every day to the fullest and be kind to your family, friends, children, pets and communities'. Let the person in front of you pass while driving to the store. Don't be pushy in line and wait your turn, even if the person ahead of you maybe 1000 years old. You'll get there eventually. We all get there eventually; it just depends on what is meant to be for each of us. And I hope none of you including myself become ghosts, trapped here bidding a time which ticks and tocks forever. Always be well-Alexandra Holzer.
Young Thomas Darling returned home from a hunt to Burton-¬on-Trent, England, one day in 1596, whereupon he suffered a series of fits and visions. Claiming to see angels, he was also being stalked by a green cat. In his more lucid moments, he told of having a ‘run-in’ with an old woman with three warts on her face. Neighbours recognised the description of one Alse Gooderidge, a local woman who had long been suspected of witchcraft. Hauling her before a judge, she denied the charge, but was nevertheless convicted. She died in prison before her sentence of hanging was enacted. As for young Thomas, he was eventually exorcised of his demons by one John Darrel.
WITCHES, WITCHES, EVERYWHERE
Pittenween, a small fishing town in Fife, Scotland, experienced a more intense period of witch hysteria in 1704, when Patrick Morton claimed that many townsfolk were followers of the Devil. He claimed Beatrix Laing sent imps to plague him. When she refused to confess, she was imprisoned for five months, dying soon after release. Another accused - Thomas Brown - died of starvation, whilst Janet Cornfoot fled to a friend. In January 1705 a mob found her. She was beaten, stoned, and eventually crushed to death. Other accused were freed when it was discovered that Morton was lying, although no action was taken against him. Sometimes witch sites can become tourist attractions, such as Wookey Hole, a limestone cavern near Wells in Somerset. It was believed to be the home of a witch who kept a goat and kid as her familiars. The villagers of Wookey were terrified of her and asked for help from the Abbot of Glastonbury. He sent a monk who sprinkled her with holy water. She turned to stone, believed to be a peculiarly shaped stalagmite in the cavern. In 1912 the caves were excavated and the bones of a Romano-British woman were found, along with a dagger and the bones of a goat and a kid.
THEY EXIST, DON’T THEY?
The above are typical of thousands of cases of witchcraft between the 14th and 17th centuries throughout Europe. Both the local populations and established authorities were convinced of the existence of witches in every community, cavorting with a whole host of satanic demons in order to cast spells and bring about events of benefit to themselves. Of course, witchcraft goes back much further than the 14th century. Indeed, it goes back to before recorded history began. But it was only at this time that it was brought to prominence due to concerted efforts to stamp it out. Prior attempts HAD been made. In England, St Augustine had successfully converted a number of pagan kings to Christianity in the 7th century. But ridding the English population of their pagan ways proved more difficult. And the longest survival of such paganism was witchcraft.
Throughout the land, local shaman-like individuals - later to become known as witches - venerated nature through animal sacrifice and ritual around certain enchanted trees and wells. To break these religious practices, wells were eventually incorporated into Christianity and most forests became the private estate of the kings, thus denying them to the local population. King Alfred was the first king known to condemn witches to death, but a still superstitious establishment did little to enforce such sentences, reverting to fines when an obvious case of witchcraft came to light. The practice did, infact, receive a boost with the arrival of William the Conqueror and the Normans, with continental strains of pagan ceremony intermingling with that of the Britons. A later descendant, William Rufus, is actually believed to have been pagan rather than Christian. However this situation was to change dramatically with the Medieval witchhunts.
OF THE PEOPLE
Witchcraft is distinctly different to the allied practice of Magic. Although both involve pagan influence, Magic is a ritualistic craft, using texts, elaborate paraphernalia and high ceremony. Witchcraft requires none of these. Magic can best be seen as the aristocratic practice of paganism, whereas witchcraft is essentially the magic of the people. And in this respect, it is significantly different, providing a rich tradition of folklore. For instance, when Susanna Edwards and two friends began visiting a neighbour, Grace Barnes, from Exeter, they hoped their visits would help her recover from illness. Unfortunately, Grace began to get decidedly worse and died. A physician immediately suspected witchcraft, and Edwards and her friends were arrested. Admitting later that they made Grace’s condition worse by pinching her, Edwards also admitted that the Devil had ‘carnal knowledge of her body’ after meeting him - a Man in Black - and selling her soul for his guardianship. The Exeter Witches, as they became known, were hanged in August 1682.
ACCUSATIONS AND INSANITY
A witch trial occurred in Faversham, Kent, in 1645, when Joan Williford confessed to signing a pact with the Devil in her own blood after meeting him in the form of a small dog. Selling her soul to gain revenge over one Thomas Letherland and his wife, for twenty years she claimed to work with a familiar, who once deposited an enemy in a cesspool. She also named three other accomplices, including Elisabeth Harris, who was said to have cursed a sailing boat after her son had died in it. The boat disappeared soon afterwards. Found guilty, the Faversham witches were executed. Accusations of witchcraft were always useful when someone had to be got rid of, and one of the most prominent people helped on their way in such a manner was Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Obsessed with having a son, Henry was annoyed when Anne produced a daughter and then a son died during pregnancy. Rumours of Anne’s infidelity were legion, and the fact that she had a rudimentary sixth finger on her left hand began rumours of sorcery. Had Henry been bewitched into marriage by this unsuitable wife? Henry ignored the rumours, but when she was no longer useful to him, her supposed witchery became part of her trial for treason. She was executed in May 1536.
Incidences such as the above were cleverly altered to form a stereotype of the witch. The modern stereotype takes two forms. Based upon the fairy tale image, or the Shakespearean witches in MacBeth, we see them as evil old crones with warts and pointed hats, laughing hysterically as they stir the cauldron before hopping onto the broomstick for a quick flight. Or alternatively, they are sex mad heathens who gather in covens at the dead of night, strip naked and cavort a while before getting down to the real business - a perverted orgy. Both these stereotypes are incorrect. The fairy tale image can be traced back to early Christian propaganda, determined to show what were, in reality, village ‘wise women’, usually practising herbal medicine and forms of divination, in a bad light. As to the naked ritual - known as going ‘Skyclad’ - this is a recent innovation.
Gerald Gardner was the biggest influence of this image of modern witchcraft. A British civil servant, he spent much of his early life in Malaysia. In 1939 he claimed to have been initiated into a coven in the New Forest, going on to form his own in 1953 with initiate Doreen Valiente, following the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951. Virtually creating a new religion from the ‘Old Religion,’ he claimed ancestry from a long line of witches and put together his ‘Book of Shadows,’ essentially a composite of Crowleyan magic, British ritual and eastern mysticism. A natural British eccentric, he caused a split in modern paganism, his own blend appealing to the 1960s freedoms of nudity and free love.
Alex Sanders eclipsed and cheapened Gardner’s work, becoming known as the ‘King of the Witches’ during the 1960s Born in Manchester in 1916 to a drunk father, he became a witch as a child, when his grandmother supposedly initiated him into her tradition, which she claimed to have carried through her line since the 14th century. Teaching him magic, herbalism and allegedly having sex with him, she helped propel Sanders to wealth and fame as he pulled rich converts into his coven. Marrying Maxine Morris in 1967, they held ritual with thousands of devotees, them naked, Sanders in a loincloth. Becoming a celebrity, he also claimed to cure many illnesses, including cancer, before dying in 1988. Sanders was sensationalist - explaining why his perverted version of witchcraft became a stereotype. Much more true to the tradition was famous and respectable witch, Sybil Leek. English by birth, she claimed to be initiated into a coven by her aunt, continuing a line going back to the 12th century, celebrating the Old Religion. Becoming a High Priestess, she emigrated to America in 1964, becoming a celebrity on the US media with her own radio show and a restaurant called ‘The Cauldron.’ With a flair for healing, she saw her work as important to use her powers to deflect evil in the world.
As we can see from the above, witchcraft has been at the heart of human experience from as long as history can remember. It has fuelled a rich tradition of folklore, and continues to this day. In recent centuries, science has been on the rise, offering new ‘spells’ to mesmerize us. But regardless of the success of science, witchcraft, and the paganism it came from, continues to fascinate. Branded as evil by the Church, and mere superstition by science, I suspect it will survive both. For at the heart of witchcraft is a simple truth – we are compelled to wonder at things unknown; and place fantastic ideals upon them.
We are all aware of the witch, and all too often the subject comes in for ridicule. As an antidote, perhaps we should take a look at the witchhunts. From Medieval times onwards witches came in for much persecution. The European witchhunts began in 1275 and existed sporadically up to the last execution in Poland in 1793. The first known execution was that of Angele de la Barthe, a sixty year old woman who was accused of having intercourse with the Devil and giving birth to a flesh eating monster. Living on a diet of dead babies, it was argued, Angele either kidnapped and killed them, or dug them up from graves. She was burned at the stake at Toulouse.
Estimates regarding the number of victims of the witchhunts vary widely. At the extreme, as many as nine million burnings and hangings have been suggested. Although a more viable, and widely accepted estimate is 200,000. Slow to start, the persecutions reached what can be called epidemic proportions towards the end of the 15th century. Pope Innocent VIII can be identified as the central instigator of the persecutions when he wrote his ‘Summis Desiderantes Affectibus’ of 1484, including the following: ‘It has recently come to our attention … (that) … many persons of both sexes, unmindful of their own salvation and deviating from the Catholic faith, have abused themselves with devils male, and female, and by their incantations, spells and conjurations, and other horrid charms, enormities and offenses, destroy the fruit of the womb in women.’
The declaration was followed by the announcement that the professors of theology, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, were to be made inquisitors of such heretical depravities. The result, two years later, was their 250,000 word book, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, or The Hammer of Witches. Detailing the conditions under which witchcraft thrived, how the craft is practised, and how judicial proceedings, torture and sentencing should be carried out, the American historian George Lincoln Burr described it as ‘the terrible book which has … caused more suffering than any other work written by human pen.’ Published shortly after the invention of the printing press, The Hammer of Witches achieved great fame, running to dozens of editions in several languages. The craze became most rampant in Germany. One town - Bamberg - turned the persecutions into an industry when, in 1627, it built the Hexenhaus; a specially constructed prison for suspected witches. Containing two chapels, torture chambers and cells for 40 witches, some 400 suspects passed through in a single four year period. With the exception of Germany, Catholic countries indulged in the persecutions more than Protestant. At times whole countries seemed to be geared to building fires to burn those in league with the Devil. Torture was usually sadistic, and those accused had little chance of escaping the stake.
THE ENGLISH PERSECUTIONS
England was, perhaps, less infected than other countries. Apart from the odd rise of mania, witches usually got away with a ducking. Even at its height, the persecutions did not involve the stake - in England witches were hanged. But even here Elizabeth I passed a witchcraft Act in 1663. The final form of this act was not repealed until 1951, when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. The witchhunts allowed a particularly nasty form of sadist to rise. In England a puritanical failed lawyer called Matthew Hopkins proclaimed himself Witchfinder General in the 1640s. He and his henchmen roamed the eastern counties demanding fees from terrified and superstitious local nobles for ridding their area of witches. Furthering his entreprenurial spirit, he would tie up suspects and throw them into lakes and rivers. If they drowned they obviously had no supernatural powers to save themselves, so they were innocent. If they floated, they were witches and were hanged. Hopkins’ power declined after an attack on him by a Huntingdon clergyman in 1646, highlighting his methods of torture, which were illegal in England at the time. However, in his brief career Matthew Hopkins managed to kill several hundred suspected witches.
Hopkins was a puppy compared to some of the sadists wreaking havoc on continental Europe. Take, for instance, the German Jesuit, Peter Binsfeld, who thought that light torture was no torture at all. His methods were obviously successful, for he saw some 6,500 men, women and children to the stake. Pierre de Lancre did such a good job in the Basque country that the French King Henry IV eventually made him a state councillor. At one stage he became convinced that all 30,000 residents of one district were witches. There was a mass exodus from the area, but he still managed to put 600 to death in a four month period. The French lawyer Jean Bodin brought an intellectual bent to his art as well as sadism. Formulating a legal definition of a witch as ’someone who, knowing God’s law, tries to bring about some act through an agreement with the Devil,’ he particularly enjoyed participating in the torture of young children and invalids. He was constantly annoyed by how quickly the condemned died at the stake, and wished he could devise a slower, more painful death for them. But the question must be asked, why did the witchhunts occur in the first place?
One undeniable fact concerning the witchhunts is that most persecutors were men and most victims were women. This has led many commentators to come to the conclusion that the reason for the persecutions was a male dominated establishment’s need to put down women. However, whilst this is undoubtedly a major reason, the mentally ill, the deformed and loners were also persecuted. Throughout European history until the Burning Times - as the witchhunts became known - most villages had a ‘wise woman’ - a relic of the pre-Christian nature religions, showing that most Europeans, away from the establishment, remained pagan. Some women held a degree of authority in their villages, which was undoubtedly contrary to the Christian hierarchy. The persecutions can here be seen as political, with the Church determined to stamp out any form of belief contrary to Christianity.
As the Church turned the villagers against the ‘wise women’, persecutions would become inevitable. The idea that witches could cast spells would have led the villagers to blame her for any local natural disaster such as a bad harvest or a prominent citizen becoming ill. As such, we can see the need to scapegoat as endemic in Medieval society, the Hammer of Witches simply validating an impulse that was already present, turning the persecutions into a national pursuit rather than simply local. The form of persecution itself fuelled the practice. The vast majority of the accused confessed to witchcraft. One explanation for this is that they WERE witches. But the more probable explanation was that the severe torture produced the confession in order for it to stop.
As Jesuit Father Friedrich Spee advised in his ‘Precautions For Persecutors,’ 1631, all that was required to find witches was torture, for even if applied to Jesuits, confession would automatically follow. The fact that, often, a confessed witch was strangled before burning rather than being burned alive - the fate of those who didn’t confess - would also be instrumental in the confession. Torture tended to be eased if the accused named accomplices. Sometimes such namings even led to a pardon. As such, the accused would give the names of all they were associated with, whether innocent or guilty. Many gave names of dozens more ‘witches’, causing mass witch trials, sometimes convicting thousands of witches in the space of a couple of years. This process gave the people the impression that witchcraft was rampant, further fuelling the need to burn more and more.
Such a process can best be identified in the Salem witch trials in New England, USA, beginning in 1692. Beginning with a number of children going hysterical after hearing Voodoo tales by the slave, Tituba, the girls went on to name people they didn’t like as witches. Taken into custody, these people accused others to save themselves, and before the madness was stopped, hundreds had been arrested and nineteen executed. The Salem witch trials are a perfect and well documented vehicle for showing how society can seem to self destruct into superstition and hysteria. And sometimes the process was sparked off by that frail human emotion, jealousy. For in a time when people believed so much in dark powers, it was easy for a person to implicate an enemy in demonic practices. A word here, a word there, and the local population would do the rest.
One such case that lucky backfired was that of Edmund Robinson in 1632. Feeling malice towards his neighbours and wanting power over them, he taught his eleven year old son to start telling a story of finding two dogs in a field which refused to hunt a hare for him. Tying them to a bush he began to whip them, whereupon they turned into an old crone and her imp. The local population believed the youth and Robinson said that his son could detect a witch at a glance. Taking the boy around the local churches, he identified 17 ‘witches’ who were then tried and found guilty of witchcraft. However, a sceptical judge took the condemned to London where they were examined by one of Charles I’s physicians. Finding no evidence of ‘black arts’, the Robinson boy was summoned and questioned. He broke down and admitted the fraud. The accused were pardoned. It is not known what happened to Robinson. The British King James I was perhaps the last monarch to fuel the witchhunts, writing a famous ‘Daemonologie’ attacking witches. For following him the idea began to circulate that witchcraft was simple superstition. And perhaps, above all other reasons, this idea hit the nail on the head. For the simple fact is that to the people of the time the Devil, and all the malevolent forces he could invoke, were real. And the village ‘wise woman’, whether real or imagined, was tarred by this same despicable brush.
In his definitive book Explore Phantom Black Dogs, English author and researcher Bob Trubshaw wrote: “The folklore of phantom black dogs is known throughout the British Isles. From the Black Shuck of East Anglia to the Mauthe Dhoog of the Isle of Man there are tales of huge spectral hounds ‘darker than the night sky’ with eyes ‘glowing red as burning coals.’ The phantom black dog of British and Irish folklore, which often forewarns of death, is part of a worldwide belief that dogs are sensitive to spirits and the approach of death, and keep watch over the dead and dying. North European and Scandinavian myths dating back to the Iron Age depict dogs as corpse eaters and the guardians of the roads to hell. Medieval folklore includes a variety of ‘Devil dogs’ and spectral hounds.” And while the image that the devil dog or phantom hound conjures up is that of a sinister beast prowling the villages and towns of centuries-old England, it is a little known fact outside of students of the phenomenon that sightings of such creatures continue to surface to this very day.
Interestingly, one area that seems to attract more than its fair share of such encounters is a sprawling mass of dense forest in central England known as the Cannock Chase—a strange and eerie location that has also been the site of numerous encounters with UFOs, Bigfoot-like entities, and strangely-elusive “Big Cats.” Indeed, among the folk of the many small villages that sit on the fringes of the Chase—or that, in some cases, can be found deep within its wooded depths—tales of the diabolical hounds of hell are disturbingly common.
Late one evening in early 1972, a man named Nigel Lea was driving across the Chase when his attention was suddenly drawn to a strange ball of glowing blue light that slammed into the ground some distance ahead of his vehicle, amid a veritable torrent of bright, fiery sparks. Needless to say, Lea quickly slowed his car down. As he approached the approximate area where the light had fallen, he was shocked and horrified to see looming before him, “the biggest bloody dog I have ever seen in my life.”
Muscular and black, with large, pointed ears and huge paws, the creature seemed to ooze menace and negativity, and had a wild, staring look in its yellow-tinged eyes. For 20 or 30 seconds, man and beast faced each other, after which time the “animal” slowly and cautiously headed for the tall trees, never once taking its penetrating eyes off the petrified driver. Somewhat ominously, around two or three weeks later, a close friend of Lea’s was killed in an industrial accident under horrific circumstances; something which Lea believes—after having deeply studied the history of Black Dog lore—was directly connected with his strange encounter on that tree-shrouded road back in 1972.
In the early to mid-1980s, reports began to surface from the Cannock Chase of something that became known as the “Ghost Dog of Brereton”—a reference to the specific locale from which most of the sightings originated. Yet again, the dog was described as being large and menacing, and on at least two occasions it reportedly vanished into thin air after having been seen by terrified members of the public on lonely stretches of road late at night.
In direct response to an article that appeared in the Cannock Advertiser during the winter of 1984–85 on the sightings of Brereton’s infamous ghost dog, a resident of a local village wrote:
“On reading the article my husband and I were astonished. We recalled an incident which happened in July some four or five years ago driving home from a celebration meal at the Cedar Tree restaurant at about 11:30 p.m. We had driven up Coal Pit Lane and were just on the bends before the approach to the Holly Bush when, from the high hedge of trees on the right hand side of the road, the headlights picked out a misty shape which moved across the road and into the trees opposite.
“We both saw it. It had no definite shape, seeming to be a ribbon of mist about 18 inches to 2 feet in depth and perhaps nine or ten feet long with a definite beginning and end. It was a clear, warm night with no mist anywhere else. We were both rather stunned and my husband’s first words were: ‘My goodness! Did you see that?’ I remember remarking I thought it was a ghost. Until now we had no idea of the history of the area or any possible explanation for a haunting. Of course, this occurrence may be nothing to do with the ‘ghost dog’ or may even have a natural explanation. However, we formed the immediate impression that what we saw was something paranormal.”
Possibly relative to the tale of the ghost dog of Brereton was the story of a man named Ivan Vinnel. In 1934, as a 12-year-old, he had a strange encounter in his hometown of nearby Burntwood. The sun was setting and Ivan and a friend were getting ready to head home after an afternoon of playing hide-and-seek. Suddenly, however, the pair was stopped dead in its tracks by the shocking sight of a ghostly “tall, dark man,” who was “accompanied by a black dog” that had materialized out of a “dense hedge” approximately ten yards from the boys’ position. Both man and beast passed by in complete and utter silence before disappearing—quite literally.....