Manfred Cassirer
Magonia 36, May 1990.

‘Delusion’, says the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is a process that entails elements of ‘imposing or being imposed on’; a ‘false impression’ or an unfounded ‘opinion’ There is a distinct feeling of malaise. So what about `illusions’, with which they are often confounded? These are supposed to have an underlying physical stimulus, though the dictionary suggests that here also `deception’of some kind, if not the very same delusive process, may be at work.
At the very least illusions trigger off a false belief regarding the nature of the object perceived.

Ecstatics and mystics, who are are prone to such alleged deviations from sanity have not always been good news for the Church. The more spectacular antics of saints who insisted on disruptive activities like flying about during Divine service were frowned upon rather than encouraged by their superiors: the whole whole business was more embarrassing than edifying.

A crucial aspect of the scenario was one of doubt, since there was a strong suspicion in the minds of theologians of diabolic involvement. Well might the enlightened Renaissance Jesuit von Spee wonder how the poor judge was expected to “distinguish between the vision and reality”. At a psychological level, scholars were aware that one could easily be tricked by hysterics and mountebanks. Joseph of Copertina (whom we have previously discussed (Magonia 28, January 1988) was as above suspicion as was, proverbially, Caesar’s wife. As an accredited candidate for canonisation he could be excused for floating about the choir (even if looked on askance by the vergers), whereas Magdalena Crucia of Cordova rising above her station – in an as too literal sense – narrowly escaped the stake [1]

Mental balance is not inconsistent with occasional misperceptions among otherwise healthy people; in extreme cases they may turn out to be as weird and unrealistic as green angels or cats of the same colour, and phantasmal sights can be triggered off by obscure processes. They am usually the visionary’s `private property’, but some (e.g. at Fatima) are shared. The exclusiveness of UFO abductions is familiar ground. Historically witches felt threatened by demonic apparitions to which third parties (like their judges) were insensible. Remy did not consider this a good reason for disbelief since they would still complain of demonic affliction when on the point of being burnt. [2] But Remy denied that they could raise the dead, who only appeared to be alive. [3]

Int post-medieval England and America ‘spectral evidence’ was the judicial linch-pin in trials for sorcery. It was twofold either evidence that the accused had actually been seen at the striacium or ‘witches Sabbath; or evidence of someone having appeared in spectral form to do harm, usually in the guise of an animal-shaped imp. If in human likeness it recalls the ‘phantasms of the living’ of psychical research, but with the additional element of malice aforethought – an example of premeditated crime rare in modern accounts.

Entranced and possessed, the victim might show surprising paranormal powers. Uncorroborated accusations, however ludicrous, were taken seriously with dire consequences. But conscientious judges were uneasy about contradictory testimony that the supposed culprit had been seen at the striacium while asleep at home! It was conflicting evidence of this kind that gave rise to misgivings on the part of the judiciary.

To fuel the confusion it was feared that the untiring Agent of all that dismays and misleads honest men and women could with his limitless cunning fabricate a ‘sulphurous’ impersonation by the temporary creation of a convincing lay-figure defying detection. At the most primitive level of deception that notorious servant of the Lower Region, the canny Isobel Gowrie, put a broom into her conjugal bed to take her place whilst she was absent elsewhere! Such infantile tricks delighted the simple, but evoked derision in more sophisticated quarters. Among the religious, “Theresa Higginson was persuaded that her outward form was assumed not only by her guardian angel but on several occasions by the devil.” [4}

Increase Mother would have it that 'The devil makes witches to dream strange dreams of themselves and others". This is not a far cry from Lewis Caroll's Red Queen. nor indeed (shorn of its mythological trappings) from Schrenck-Notzing's 'exteriorised dreams' by which his physical mediums brought into temporary existence phantom figures more or less tangible.

On the debit side it was argued that the whole sorry business be dismissed with costs as a delusion and confabulation. Thus the good and humane Bishop Hutchinson complained of folk being tricked by an 'internal image' devoid of objective existence: a theory to please Tyrell, the great champion of the nonphysicality of apparitions, had he ever delved into the murky waters of witchcraft.

One salient point at issues was as usual a theological one: whether the Almighty would permit the guiltless to be 'framed'; and much of the incident discussion is pertinent to the quest for the physical component of phantom figures, whether manifesting as spontaneous phenomena - in which case the data do not favour it - or of the embodied entities of yesterday's seance-room for materialisation, where the evidence pouts in that direction.[5] An Elizabethan narrative illustrates some of the problems of our main theme.

Since there had been a series of crimes in a certain house defying explanation, a night-vigil was kept. In the early hours of the morning a ‘revered matron’, the ‘most noble lady of the town’ was prevented in the nick of time from murdering a cradled infant. There was no question of mistaken identity. In view of her status this could clearly be none other than a case of impersonation: a diabolic trick to implicate an innocent party, [6]

Anglo-Saxon victims of witchcraft seem anyway to have quite a flair for identifying phantasmagorical simulacra during hysterical seizures, and in naming their physical counterparts even when blindfolded. They knew ‘all about’ their supposed tormentors, but Hutchinson questioned the legality of such evidence, which he dismissed as the ‘fantastic notions’ and ‘sickly visitations’ of ‘crack-brained girls who left the lives of innocent men naked without defence.’

Notwithstanding the steady decline of belief in demonology in the course of the eighteenth century, [7] there were even half-way old-fashioned scientists like Jean Pontes who “could not wholly cast aside the authority of the past.”(8) In as far as hallucinations and delusions were acknowledged, they were considered to be supernaturally induced rather than as natural states of temporary psychological aberration.

Bridget Bishop, a malicious and terrifying
crone who practised the Black Arts
The Restoration scholar and writer Joseph Glanvill still clung to a false dichotomy of ‘ghosts’ as either the shades of the dead (i.e. revenants) or the ‘deceits of a ludicrous demon’, and some of the statements to the courts cannot fail to raise a wry smile at the expense of the simp’white and black rope’ – no laughing matter as far as the inhabitant of that cottage was concerned. [9] Still, there is always the curious episode relating to that archetypal witch Bridget Bishop, a malicious and terrifying crone who practised the Black Arts. Richard Coman testified that she, together with another, had invaded his bedchamber. Coman was in bed with his wife and, since a light was burning, presumably still awake. These two uninvited and uninviting spectres made themselves available for a repeat performance the next night when, as in the case of an ordinary haunting the poor man was almost thrown out of bed.

A relative of his then joined the fun to observe at first hand. Not, it is true, without some verbal suggestion the newcomer was strangely affected and suffered a spell of aphasia. The fact that the experience was shared (there was still another witness) reinforces the validity of the observations, such visitations being then invariably attributed to sinister causes. [10]

The phenomenal aspects of this account are worth considering. Except in haunted houses or places, apparitions are usually seen once only, and to be favoured with the sight of more than one phantom at any tine is rare outside the UFO-related encounter. The SPR Census of Hallucinations of 1894 concludes that where there are two or more persons present, about one third share the experience – with the surprising proviso that the vision is most probably an illusion inspired by a ‘real’ object. [11]

The immediate stimulus may be, it was thought, either mental suggestion or verbal suggestion. The investigators favoured mental suggestion on the grounds that there is experimental evidence for telepathically produced hallucinations.

In a recent study by Green and McCreery, apparitions show occasional divergence with regard to the ‘object’ in view. This also, as we shall presently see, happened in the case of Joseph Bailey and his wife, whose psychic experiences, characteristically contaminated with demonic features, are nonetheless instructive. On their way to Boston, Mass., the couple approached the residence of one John Procter, then in prison on a charge of witchcraft, when Bailey catches sight of the said Procter (or his double?) looking out of the window and Mrs Procter standing in the doorway. However, all Mrs Bailey sees is “a little maid at the door”. Still en route the husband comes across an unidentified female, again invisible to his spouse.

Hansen rightly insists on the quality of the evidence, apparently given in all good faith, with due attention to detail and without glossing over discrepancies. Were it not for the hallucinated(?) figure of the girl seen by Mrs Bailey her husband’s adventure in the paranormal could be attributed to a morbid condition, of which there is some indication in the narrative. Of course his failure to see the girl (if physically present) might be due to an altered perception. The spectral woman who approaches him later turns into a cow; a transmogrification that agrees with seventeenth century – but much less with present day – belief structures. Even so, similar things are alleged to happen closer to our own times in an SPR account. Mr John Barrett is amazed by a sheep-like creature evaporating before his very eyes in bright sunlight. Elsewhere one hears of a calf with glowing eyes that simply fades away like an old soldier, and of a canine looking beast turning into a black donkey. [12]

In 1853 a most unorthodox white rabbit was seen in the West Country. Given an unkind kick it prudently dematerialised at the double, but “the old woman who was suspected was laid up in bed for three days afterwards unable to walk about.” [13]

The African explorer Harry B. Wright was fairly sure that he had witnessed lycanthropy. [14] Earlier Mirandola had defied popular opinion by disbelieving in something so patently absurd, just as Remy was to disown expressions of mythomania like metamorphosis of man into wolf (Wright’s had involved leopards). But whereas Mirandola envisaged “deceits of the devil”, Remy explicitly denounced hellish “sensory delusion and glamour”, liable to “disrupt human perception” to the point at which men were sure that they had actually seen and heard what was purely imaginary.

In the notorious Malleus Malificarum the authors denounce the ‘heresy’ that “the imagination of some men is so vivid that they actually see figures and appearances which are but the reflection of their thoughts, and then they are believed to be apparitions of evil spirits or even spectres of witches.” Experience shows that visions of this kind are spontaneously generated and scholars like Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82)) realised that those most eager to sea them are by and large the least likely to do so [15] just as the misguided simpleton who tries to attract Satan’s attention is almost bound to be unsuccessful. On the other hand, the Fiend has an unpleasant habit of forcing himself on the good and saintly by inducing horrid shapes and nightmares on their virginal field of vision. [16]

Squire Mompeson can be quoted as an example. A man of upright character he became the innocent victim of an exasperatingly tedious geist who played ‘unlucky tricks’ on him and his family. [17] Doors opened of their own accord “with a noise as if half a dozen had come in and pressed who should come in first, and walk about the house.” This insubstantial cavalcade, imperceptible to sight, one might be inclined to dismiss as an auditory aberration foisted by a persistent syndrome of paranormal impressions, were it not that at another time the same household was afflicted by a regular invasion of half-seen phantoms consisting of “a great Body with two glaring Eyes, which for some time were flared (upon a servant) and at last disappeared”, evidently to everyone’s considerable relief.

If this is considered too weird, then what are we to make of Cotton Mother’s spectral jig one Christmas Day? A patient of his, Mercy Short, is said to have been taken unawares by a company or troop of spirits who “said that they were going to have a dance, and immediately those who were attending her most plainly heard and felt a dance as of bare-foot people upon the floor, whereof they are ready to make oath before any lawful authority.” [18]

It is clear from Mather’s additional note that he is not just telling a tall story. In fact there is a close parallel from modern times. [19] Together with similar strange but well-attested material it suggests a diminishing line of demarcation between delusions and hallucinations on the one hand and a more objective and tangible mystery on the other. This borderline element, hard to embrace even within the semi-miraculous realm of the paranormal, is one which, in my opinion it would be arbitrary to reject out of hand.

  1. Lea, H. C. History of Witchcraft. Yoseloff, New York, 1957, p.563.
  2. Ibid., p.263
  3. Ibid., p.610
  4. Thurston, H. Surprising Mystics, Burns Oates, 1951, p.179
  5. Cassirer, Manfred. The Evidence for Materialisation. (unpub. MS), 1983
  6. Kittredge, G. L. Witchcraft in Old and New England, Harvard 1928, p.223. This could be accounted for in terms of dual personality, if this unsubstantiated and uncorroborated tale is to be credited.
  7. Scarre, G. Witchcraft and Magic in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Europe, Macmillan, 1987, pp.54ff.
  8. Lea, H. op. cit., p.1376
  9. Gurney, E. Phantasms of the Living. Truebner, 1886, p.174
  10. Baine, R. M. Daniel Defoe and the Supernatural. University of Georgia, 1968, p.88
  11. Proceedings of the SPR, Vol. X.
  12. Moss, P. Ghosts Over Britain. Elm Tree Books, 1977, p.160.
  13. Davis, R. T. Four Centuries of Witchcraft. Methuen, 1947, p.196
  14. Wright, H. B. Witness to Witchcraft. Transworld, 1964, p.117
  15. Davis. op. cit., p.109
  16. Thurston, op. cit., p.180
  17. Hansen, C. Witchcraft at Salem. Arrow, 1971. p.205
  18. Mather, C. The Wonders of the Invisible World. J. R. Smith, 1862.
  19. Schrenk-Notzing records an even more ridiculous incident (a skeleton that danced the tango) in Shrenck-Notzing, A. Phenomena of Materialisation, Kegan Paul, 1920. Maurice Barbanell, the well-known founder and life-long editor of Psychic News narrates how he danced with a materialised figure which he knew not to be the medium.