Old Hat, New Hat

Michael Goss
Magonia 40, August 1991

Blame your editor. His BackPage invitation to Magonia readers to predict the next Great Unexplained Phenomenon set me a-thinking… Set me a-thinking that each successive Great Unexplained Phenomenon which rises from the obscurity of being known to the freakish few to becoming the possession of the millions.

Becomes a craze, a talking point, a trend a pollutant of the airwaves, breeds a spawn of conferences and specialist magazines – poses on the cover of Newsweek, gets sniped at in Private Eye, blunders onto Wogan, struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard of on breakfast TV no more. Well, a thing like that leaves casualties behind it.

The chiefest casualty being the previous month’s Great Unexplained Phenomenon. If this really is a culture where everyone can expect a turn at being famous for a quarter of an hour (less advert breaks) the paranormal has no right to demand preferential treatment. It may be possible, even, to lay down a set of general rules governing the rise and fall of Great Phenomena.

In semi-logical order, and no more than that: paranormal phenomena breed one upon the other in the sense that popular awareness of newly (mass) publicised ones is conditioned by how well-digested the preceding ones were. Past-life regression makes more sense – seems more credibly, arguably – if you have been exposed to popular articles on hypnosis. Materialisation as a concept arises, though not inevitably, from more humble seance-room phenomena. The Greys of Zeta Reticuli are less likely to be shown the door to your boggle-threshold if you condone CEIVs, and that in turn may depend on how you reacted to CEIIIs, as Andy Roberts’s article in Wild Places [1] proved triumphantly. ‘Boggle-threshold’ is a good metaphor, a coining of Renee Haynes I think, although someone is bound to tell me I’m wrong. It expands thanks to the activities of all the previous boggles. We are more likely to believe and accept if we believed and accepted the last time.

Quasi Rule 2: strictly speaking there are no `new phenomena’, merely variations on old ones. This theoretical distinction isn’t always clear to general audiences, or to newspaper editors, who tend to treat aspects on phenomena in isolation. A phenomenon incapable of variation becomes, in neo-Darwinian terms, obsolete. It need not drop out of existence; it will have its practitioners, its students and others who are prone to say with time that it has been unjustly neglected. Loss of mass audience doesn’t invalidate.
I have long suspected that there was more to mesmerism than is covered by the term hypnosis; SPR investigator Brian Nisbet produced some intriguing ESP-Spiritualist evidence by the ostensibly outmoded means of table-tilting as late as the 1970s. But what the phenomenon loses is its charisma; quite likely it will pass into a coelacanth-style afterlife, without anyone having explained it satisfactorily. But now, nobody cares about explaining it, the real thrust, the excitement, has focused upon something now. the direction of studies in that particular field lie with the new phenomenon, not the old… possibly or most probably.

Three: to take off into the empyrean – to make the Wogan show for instance – the Phenomenon must offer audience participation. What Uri Geller did on Dimbleby you may be able to do. Your grandmother found strange things happened when she went to that Spiritualist medium. And you? You’ve no need to stop at reading about this stuff - you can become involved, you can experience. “The Sunday People experiments with Uri at 12.30 p.m.”, announced The Paper With Guts (sic) on the front page of its 25 November 1973 edition. “Mind-bender extraordinary Uri Geller wants your help today. So stand by with any old bits of metal (for) the biggest experiment in extra-sensory perception ever staged”. At the appointed hour Uri (in Paris) would concentrate hard on whatever metal objects the 15 million People readers across Britain happened to be holding… The results filled up a page of the gutsy paper’s next issue, but did not, I fancy, impress the SPR.

Turning the pages of my 1973-1975 scrapbooks past the gellerian plethora, I’m daunted by the sheer amount of coverage given to audience-participation psychic phenomena. But I am equally fascinated at the way in which (spoon-bending revivals not counted) each phase of paranormal trend-riding drops out of sight, upstaged as it were by the next. Time then for another attempt at laying down the law.

Four: the public, upon whom the Phenomenon relies for its vitality, has an ill-defined but limited span of concentration. It becomes eventually bored, satiated. The paranormal may portray itself as an entity more important to our mental and spiritual future or to our scientific knowledge than, say, John Travolta or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, yet it is as subject to over-exposure as they. Editors, producers have to gauge both the incipient appeal of a phenomenon and its rate of exponential decay: when to play a trend for all it’s worth and when to drop it.

The foregoing is too simple, I’m aware: it ignores the fact that while same portion of the audience stay faithful to the Phenomenon, it is equally likely that new and younger audiences will come along and rediscover it. At a modest level, true-life ghost stories (essentially a conservative form) are perennially popular. There are still people who find fire-walking a vibrantly exciting topic, just as there are still people who will not miss an episode of Neighbours or a home game of West Bromwich Albion. The focus’s heady days of fame may be past, but they may come back. Or try this: during my spell as a secondary-school teacher, I was recurrently bemused at teenagers’ delight in rediscovering the sub-surface arts of what they called weeja and ipnertism. Perhaps my coelacanth gibe was misplaced. After all, someone else’s old hat may fit you nicely.

Talking of which, is there anyone out there who goes in for hat-turning? Since a prerequisite is a top-hat, I’d guess not. Punch, ever-alert to 19th century social fads was pretty firm about it though: “It is necessary to get a hat” it declared in the caption to a typically immobile 1850ish cartoon entitles ‘The Hat-Moving Experiment’. Deadpan instructions to this latest craze in drawing-room psychical research followed: “Two or more persons place their hands on the rim thereof, the little fingers of each person being in contact. In about twenty minutes or half an hour or perhaps more, the hat will begin to jump, and revolve rapidly.”

How? Why? The ‘Song of a Hat-Turner, By One who was Moved in the Highest Circles’ explained:
Some say the actions muscular,and some it is galvanic,
While others call it humbug in a scientific way;
And some there are assign it to an agency Satanic;
And vow the Devil’s in it if there’s not the deuce to pay.
Yet all around my hat I still persist in turning,
Unheeding what the sceptical and scientific say:
And tho’ perhaps a character for verdancy I’m earning
I’ve nothing else to turn for whiling the time away.
Hat-turning was a short-lived sensation, nothing more than an embryonic stage in the life history of Spiritualism. What we need to appreciate is how enthusiastically it was greeted. Punch had ample room for the craze and even more for its coterminous near relation, table-turning, whose M.O. epidemic popularity and ephemerality it also borrowed from the hatters. The allure of table turning may be appreciated from three comments: one made when it was yet a novelty, the others some time after it had subsided.

In those days you were invited to
`tea and table moving’ as a new excitement,
and made to revolve with the family like mad
round articles of furniture

In contrast with the American-import label attached to Spiritualism, table-turning appears to have migrated to England from Europe, where the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townsend found it: “The fashion spreads from the cottage to the throne. The Emperor of Russia is reported to be engaged less in devising how to get Turkey than how to make tables revolve. Is the Emperor of Austria supposed to be in strictest conference with his minister? Not a bit of it! He is turning tables. Even of the Pope it is whispered that, when he was represented as playing at billiards ... this was only a deceit way of expressing that he really was not making the balls spin, but the table itself?” [2]

So to England where a species of valediction to table-turning was pronounced by The Yorkshireman as early as 1856. It was, said the writer, an evening party regular of “some two or three years ago… In those days you were invited to `tea and table moving’ as a new excitement, and made to revolve with the family like mad round articles of furniture.” In those not-so-distant days, then, table-turning had been revolutionary in more senses than one.

By 1894 Andrew Lang was speaking of it as being “deserted like croquet and… even less to be regretted.” Sic transit… Spiritualism did not require gyrating hats and tables by then. It was a movement whose history reveals a pulsating pattern whereby a Phenomenon advances in a series of evolutions, each of which constitutes a phenomenon in its own right – and in the public consciousness. In its earliest English phase (as introduced to us by Mrs Hayden in 1852, one of the first ‘big name’ American mediums or, if you prefer, ‘Yankee conjurers’) it offered discreet communications with the departed through rappings.

This effect soon became a subsidiary, and a minor one at that, overtaken by more dramatic phenomena: by table turning, by other major PK-like manifestations, by apports, by automatism (the planchette, “another source of amusement, mysterious and novel” was here by 1867) [3], by materializations, slate-writing. Each advance was, in some senses, a loss. Phenomenon heralded as the core of a new science, lost their impact. It is tempting to see the ‘greater Phenomenon – Spiritualism as a whole – to have reached its evolutionary zenith. Comfortably placed though it is today, it appears to have lost its emotional impetus. Ufology took up the running a couple of decades ago: “I’m beginning to think Spiritualism’s future lies firmly behind it”, writes Kevin McClure.

But them Spiritualism itself had effortlessly and uncaringly upstaged animal magnetism just when the so-called ‘Science of Life’ was entering a new phenomenal phase as electrobiology (1851). And animal magnetism (or Mesmerism, to use a term that gradually rose to dominance) had in turn ridden in on the back of phrenology. When we consider that a cheap edition of George Combe’s `bump-reading’ text The Constitution of Man sold 100,000 copies in Britain alone we can be sure that phrenology was no minor sensation. In fact it evolved as an artifact of lecture-demonstrations, literature, coteries and controversy which Mesmerism took over in the late 1830′s, early 1840′s. Phrenology became alternative-science-as-popular-participator entertainment – as did Mesmerism. The parallels are remarkably consistent, so too the pattern of old phenomenon being overtaken by new. The danger, as Chauncey Townshend saw it, lay in the superficiality of the public:

“Let a Mesmerist tell the marvels of his experience; people prick up their ears. Let him speak of the humble utility of Mesmerism; people look down to the ground. Talk of clairvoyance; they at least start. Talk of cures; they yawn. They want the marvellous…” [4]

By now (1854) Spiritualism was giving it to them. In the long-term view Mesmerism – the focus of what some critics just three years previously decried as a mania, the focal point of evening-party entertainment and pantry ‘experiments’ which threatened to destroy Victorian edicts on rationality or propriety – was not capable of resisting the challenge. Spiritualism was more exciting, more daring, more stimulating. And easier to practice, evidently. The animal magnetists who had thrown verbal brickbats at Braid for his deglamorization of their art (hypnotism, he called it and no magnetic fluids were involved) collected them up again, borrowed the outraged moral stance of those who has criticised and attacked them, and assailed their Spiritualist rivals. A bastard version of the true magnetic power, a dangerous delusion, impious and unseemly: few had much mercy to spare for the spirit-rappers. That did not save them. Upstaged again. Caught in public wearing old hat.

Let’s remind ourselves: Mesmerism, courtesy of Braid, transmuted into hypnosis and survived; as far as popular sensation is concerned, the 1890′s witnessed an amazing revival of the Science of Life (still occasionally referred to as animal magnetism or Mesmerism), partly due to a fin de siécle explosion of interest in occultism and more, I suspect, to Du Maurier’s lachrymose best-seller, Trilby. It is foolish to draw fat, felt-tipped lines between phenomena or to vote any one of them an irredeemable fossil. Called on to review a bibliography on phrenology for Fortean Times a year or so back, I was forced to concede that phrenology is not the deadest of dead pseudo-sciences, it has adherents – look closely and you will see definite signs of respiration.

And yet, and yet. Limiting the argument to the proposition that mass public enthusiasm has a part to play in phenomenal evolution, I could not foresee any major development out of either hypnosis per se nor Spiritualism. As for ufology, you know more than I do. Could it be that with the subterranean Greys of Andy Roberts’s article we are reaching the point where Something else is ready to get up on the stage and give us a number? I just know that I wouldn’t want to be an agent for a good old down-the-middle UFO abduction manuscript nowadays.

  1. Andy Roberts, ‘Subterranian Homesick Greys’, Wild Places, no. 2 (1991), pp. 14-21
  2. Chauncey Hare Townsend. Mesmerism Proved True. (1854) p. 121.
  3. Townsend, op. cit., p.110
  4. Andrew Lang. Cock Lane and Common Sense. (1894) p.332
  5. 'J' in Once a Week, 26 October 1867, makes it clear that the planchette was no novelty in America. the following week, in response to a reader’s enquiries, OAW gives two London addresses where the new toy was available. A book entitled Planchettes; of the Despair of Science, was reviewed by The Athenaeum on 15 May 1969. The reviewer agreed with the title.