Monday, January 10, 2011

A Journalist's Prospective on the Paranormal by Michael Clarkson

Writing a book on the paranormal can be a considerable risk for a veteran writer who has been considered mainstream, or traditional, in his work and his thinking. In many people’s eyes, there is still a stigma attached to writing books on poltergeists, ghosts or UFOs.

I know.

A writer for The National Post, a national newspaper in Canada, used this against me in reviewing another book I recently had published on the late classical pianist Glenn Gould (The Secret Life of Glenn Gould: Genius in Love, ECW Press). She insinuated that my credibility was in question because I had dared to write a book on poltergeists.

The review went across Canada in The National Post and many of its affiliate newspapers, probably hurting sales for the Gould book.

But I don’t apologize because in a way I know where she comes from. If someone comes to me and swears that ghosts exist, I might pull a skeptical face.

However, I would stress that I don’t believe there’s solid proof for them, but I would not say I don’t believe in them.

As well, some of my family members have scoffed at me because, they said, how could I tarnish the serious investigations on police and health-care issues with a book on the paranormal? Yes, I suppose it is a diversion for a writer who has been heavily into hard-core reporting for four decades.

Yet, I’ve also been a risk taker (I’m living in a homemade wooden fort during these winter months for a story), as long as the subject is worth it. In this regard, I think poltergeists should get a serious look.

I always try to keep an open mind because there are so many things about our universe -- and about the human mind -- that we are just beginning to understand. To make a blanket statement denouncing things we can’t necessarily explain makes us look foolish when new evidence appears.

While there is no solid evidence poltergeists exist, I believe that there are enough credible eye witness reports in my book to suggest they do indeed inhabit our planet, albeit they are fleeting, frustrating and difficult to pin down.

I have written a number of books relating to the mind/body’s fight-or-flight system and I believe that poltergeists may have some connection to the amazing mental and emotional capabilities of that adrenalin-based power, which is hardwired into each one of us.

The topic of poltergeists has fascinated me for a long time, even before 1980 when a young man who had been the center of such a case came to my house in Niagara Falls, Ontario, to talk about his experience. Since then, I have been following with added interest as such cases pop up from time to time in the media and in scholarly publications. During the past five years, I have been closely examining the cases which appear in my book.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on poltergeists, but as a journalist, I’m always looking for reasonable proof for things like extra sensory perception, UFOs or ghosts. For my book, I reviewed 75 poltergeist cases and interviewed more than 100 witnesses, parapsychologists, psychologists, university professors, magicians and skeptics. To be sure, some of the cases raise as many questions as they provide answers and others may seem to have holes in them, or be the result of trickery. And yet, if we are too quick to toss out everything, we might miss some intriguing stories, and theories on the edge of science.

Poltergeists are difficult to prove. They are said to often involve adolescents or teenagers, who may be prone to trickery or at least to creating attention for themselves. As well, families involved in reported poltergeist activity are often embarrassed, reluctant to let parapsychologists into their homes.

From ancient times to the Amityville Horror case on Long Island in 1974 to the Harry Potter books and movies to a family in Ireland abandoning their home in 2010, poltergeists have intrigued people. They were reported as early as 858 BC in a farmhouse in Rhine, Germany, where an unseen force reportedly threw stones, shook the walls, moved objects and produced loud banging noises.

However, many people are skeptical about early poltergeist investigations, which were sometimes conducted by superstitious researchers, who might have too easily jumped to conclusions. Even the celebrated murder and poltergeist/haunting case in a house in Amityville, which was made into the book and movie, the Amityville Horror, was believed by many people to be fraudulent.

It is said that hundreds of millions of people in America believe in the supernatural in some form. A 2003 Harris Poll of more than 2,000 Americans revealed that 90 per cent believed in God, 89 per cent in miracles, 68 per cent in the devil, 51 per cent in ghosts, 31 per cent in astrology and 27 per cent in reincarnation. In 2005, a Gallup poll showed that belief in haunted houses declined with age; 56 per cent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 believed while only 26 per cent of those 65 and over did. In Britain, a 2004 survey showed that 42 per cent of people believed in ghosts.

After reviewing the cases for my book, I narrowed the description of a poltergeist, taking direction from what the contemporary investigators, such as William Roll, believe – that the poltergeist is an unusual form of energy produced most often by a young person. However, others believe that ghosts or demon possession is responsible. Although each case has its own characteristics and idiosyncrasies, here are the trends I have found. The cases generally have:

· Dramatic events, such as unexplained knocking, electrical malfunctions and movement of objects and furniture. Occasionally reported are levitation of objects, electrical appliances working without power and stones falling apparently from nowhere. Infrequently reported are strange voices, apparitions, strange odors, cold spots and water formings.

· A poltergeist agent, usually an adolescent entering puberty, immediately around whom the strange activities occur. He or she is usually quite intelligent.

· Some sort of repression or frustration of the poltergeist agent by others in a home.

· A high level of stress in the household, prior to the start of the poltergeist activity and continuing through the case.

· A mischievous or destructive intent on the part of the agent, rather than a downright malevolent intent, although about a dozen people have been injured, but none seriously, in the cases in this book.

· A life span for a case of one week to several months.

One of the solid facts in my book is that at least 51 police officers around the world – in 17 cases since 1952 – claim to have seen poltergeist activity up close. More than a dozen of them were assaulted by what they said was a poltergeist, but none were seriously injured, and no one was charged. One officer even pulled a gun on an “unseen force.” The eyewitness accounts of these officers, taken from published reports and from interviews I conducted, seem compelling.

If The National Post reviewer reads those facts, she may not be so quick to denounce it.

Is poltergeist activity, also known as recurrent spontaneous psycho kinesis or RSPK) that rare? We may all have some form of its special powers.

A respected scientist, Professor Robert Jahn, Dean Emeritus of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Princeton University, believes many people can sometimes move things with their mind (psychokinesis, or PK). He says he has proven in laboratory experiments that PK exists, at least on a small scale. “The (poltergeist) cases are so rare and happen under such awkward circumstances, it is hard to set up research to investigate them,” he says. “There’s no doubt, however, that they do exist. William Roll has investigated them and I trust his work. The effects seen in his cases are substantial. You can’t dismiss it.”

In striking cases, people like Sarah S., a pseudonym for a woman in my book, claim to be able to be connected to both RSPK and PK. Sarah believes she has been from time to time the center of unconscious RSPK, in which lights mysteriously go on and off and furniture moves when she is upset at her husband.

She is now trying to consciously harness this energy by making a homemade pinwheel move with her mind. Recently, she made the wheel move for me while I was interviewing her on the computer program Skype. I was impressed.

And I shall continue to write about people like Sarah, even at the expense of cynical reviewers.

Michael Clarkson is a non-fiction author and professional speaker who has spent 37 years as a print journalist, winning numerous awards for his investigative pieces, including the Canadian National Newspaper Award twice. He was a finalist for the U.S. Health Care Award in 1995 for his investigation of prescription drug abuse in Alberta, Canada.

As a police reporter, he was twice nominated for the Michener Award for public service in Canada and in 1980, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his story about reclusive author J. D. Salinger, who he met twice in New Hampshire. Clarkson has also been a sports reporter interviewing famous athletes such as basketball legend Michael Jordan and golfer Tiger Woods.

Three of his books are on fear – Competitive Fire, Intelligent Fear and Quick Fixes for Everyday Fears, which have been published in the United States, Canada and in Europe. His latest (2010) is The Secret Life of Glenn Gould, about a famous classical pianist.

He has been interested in poltergeist cases for many years, and has interviewed many witnesses, parapsychologists and skeptics for this book. He has also studied the body’s fight-or-flight system for years and believes it may contribute to the poltergeist phenomenon.

Clarkson was born in Preston, England, but has lived in Canada most of his life, including Calgary, Niagara Falls and Toronto. He currently lives with his wife, Jennifer, in Fort Erie, Ontario, near Buffalo, N.Y. and has two sons, Paul and Kevin.

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