Virtual Banality

John Rimmer
Magonia 48, January 1994

If any psychosocial explanations of the UFO and abduction experience are valid, then we need to assume that it is fairly commonplace for the human brain to create realistic alternative worlds, in which cognition is replaced by, as Peter Rogerson has called it, a kind of virtual experience . We must also accept that this virtual world is, to the percipient, absolutely, totally, completely real, with no doubt whatsoever in their mind as to the physical, real-time nature of the experience they are recalling.

And further, we must assume that this dramatic mental phenomenon happens to people who are, in every other respect, completely normal, and not just to a section of the population who can allegedly be distinguished via a few psychological tests or simple-minded public opinion polls. Only having accepted this as the psycho- half of the equation, can we then go on in our typically Magonian way to speculate wildly about the -social side of things.

To accept that these kinds of virtual experience do happen, and are not symptoms of any particularly abnormal mental condition, it would help if we stepped back a moment from the high-strangeness cases which are usually discussed in this context, to see if we could find any low strangeness cases where the mechanism of the experience can be examined free of contentious or bizarre content. So how convenient that your Editor has come across a case which is not a high-strangeness abduction case, but rather an example of high banality in the reported content. In this case, the mechanism is the message.

I suppose we never usually come across high-banality cases, because no one ever considers them worth while reporting to people like you and me. I was fortunate in that this experience happened to a colleague at work, who mentioned it casually in conversation, knowing of my interest in odd things . In accordance with our policy of witness anonymity, I will call this person Val – not the famous Val of Peckham; perhaps she could be Val of Beckenham – someone I have worked with for many years, and who is in every respect normal with no personal or family history of paranormal experience.

The event occurred in September of 1993. Val and her husband had gone to bed and were asleep when the phone rang at about 2 o’clock in the morning. The call was from her husband’s office asking him to come in to undertake some emergency work on a mainframe computer. Although not a frequent occurrence, he is sometimes the designated emergency contact for computer problems and has had such calls before; the circumstances were certainly not unprecedented or alarming. He set off for the office, leaving Val trying, with some difficulty, to get back to sleep. After a while she decided she was not going to sleep, so got up, turned on a light outside the bedroom door and started to watch a small TV that was kept in the bedroom. Eventually she did drift off to sleep, waking later to find that both the television and the light had gone off. She tried to switch on a bedside light but found it would not work. After a few muttered imprecations about a power cut she heard her husband’s car returning, so got out of bed and peered through the bedroom window in time to see his car pulling into the driveway at the front of the house.

This is where reality began to take a knock; the house doesn’t have a driveway. At this moment Val comes to the rather perceptive conclusion that she is in the middle of a dream – or as those of us in the know would say, a hypnopompic state, or type-one false awakening. Val decided that in these circumstances the best thing to do would be to go back to bed, pull the bedclothes over her head and try to go back to sleep, which indeed she does. Now most words in that last sentence have hypothetical quotation marks around them, as we must assume that Val was tucked up in bed throughout her virtual experience . Later, she woke up again to find the light and TV still on and everything back to normal. So that was it: the world’s most boring paranormal experience – if Val will forgive me saying so. But is there anything that we can learn from this experience that may be obscured in other, more sensational reports?

Val was keen to make the point that, until she saw the physically impossible layout of the garden in front of her house she had no reason to believe that this was anything other than a physical event happening in real time. And in telling me about this she made a couple of very interesting points: if she hadn’t heard the returning car, and had just gone straight back to sleep she would have been very puzzled talking to the neighbours next day about the night’s power cut. She would have been adamant that it had happened, they would have been pointing to electric clocks which were still showing the correct time. And more interestingly, she pointed out to me that her grandmother had died some months earlier. What if she had woken to see her grandmother standing at the end of her bed, and maybe conducted a conversation with her? The whole experience had been so real that in such an eventuality it would have been, in her words, absolutely impossible for anyone to convince me that I had not seen her ghost . It was only by seeing something that she knew was completely physically impossible – the overnight transformation of her front garden – that her sense of logic was able to convince her subconscious that this was not a real physical experience.

Now, what else would have been needed to convince her of the non-physical nature of her virtual experience . Seeing a dead relative would not have convinced her, she admitted that. Ghosts are, after all, socially acceptable, in this country at least. Real-life ghost experiences may be met with some degree of scepticism, but they are not usually taken as a symptom of mental imbalance – in other cultures they may be more or less acceptable. I suspect that the USA does not offer quite the cultural acceptability of ghosts that Britain does – do our American readers agree? How about seeing an alien or UFO? Would Val have accepted that? Hard to say; she feels that the virtuality of the experience was so realistic that she may have done so. It seems likely that the alien and abduction scenario has gained a degree of cultural acceptability to the extent that a visit from abducting aliens is considered more likely than the possibility that a front garden can be relaid overnight. After all, as Val would be quite at liberty to point out, she does work with a person who publishes a magazine devoted to considering just that possibility!

Long time MUFOB/Magonia readers will remember the case of Miss Z which Peter Rogerson and I investigated in 1973 and reported in MUFOB new series 4, 1976. Here was a parallel experience to Val’s. Miss Z woke to find three strange alien figures, and some sort of large vehicle, at the foot of her bed. This was only one of a range of strange visions experienced by Miss Z and other members of her family. Here the basic virtual experience was overlaid by a range of contextual references ranging from leprechauns to spacemen. Miss Z was understandably unclear as to the nature of her experience: its reality was as undeniable as Val’s, but the content of the experience was assaulting and at times breaking through the limits which Miss Z could accept as real. Whilst unwilling to accept the physical nature of the figures and objects she saw, she was unable to reject the physical reality of the circumstances in which she saw them.

So, far from being the world’s most boring paranormal experience, Val’s excursion into virtuality is of great interest. Nobody would, I assume, want to argue for the physical reality of the events that Val described, and propose the creation of a new paranormal event: the Transient Driveway phenomenon, in which front gardens are mysteriously covered in concrete overnight, only to be restored to their grassy state in the morning, although we have at least one absolutely reliable witness to such a phenomenon.

So is there a level of absurdity when we should start doubting that such accounts represent actual physical reality? No. It seems more likely to me that in Val’s experience we have the basic mechanism on to which is attached the whole paraphernalia of anomalous experienced phenomena, the tales of ghosts, or grey abductors, or journeys beyond the valley of death. And this experience happened to a normal human being, sane and healthy, in an unstressed situation, disturbed by nothing more than a broken night’s sleep. How much more, then, would many of the people we see as percipients in abduction cases, troubled by ill-health, family tensions, abused, rejected by their peers, build on this basic mental template? Almost anything: any complex structure of vision and belief, structured according to their culture, their society, their education, personal hopes, fears and imaginations, all arranged to produce the dramas that are performed nightly on the bare stage of virtual experience.

A follow-on to this article appeared in my Editorial Notes to Magonia 71 (June 2000), again describing a puzzling story from a work colleague:

Another curious example of ‘Virtual Experience’ has come my way. You’ll remember we’ve previously published details of a few of these ‘paranormal’ experiences in which people have discovered that a situation they believed to be completely real was in fact a fantasy. I’m particularly interested in those which are almost content-free, with none of the traditional elements of ghosts, abductions, other-lives, etc., so there is no particular motivation to believe their ‘reality’. Whereas people are inclined to defend emotionally their sighting of their late Great Aunt Agatha, who’s going to get worked up about a concrete driveway that never was?

The latest story to come my way has a rather more dramatic narrative than the ‘virtual banality’ I’ve written about before, but the content proves to be so absurd that the percipient readily accepts its unreality – but there is a curious twist in the tale.

A colleague is, like me, the librarian at a suburban public library. A few weeks ago she was woken in the middle of the night by a phone call from the security officer at the local council offices: ‘People have invaded the main street here and are rioting. It’s all under control, but we’re just ringing to let you know what’s happening.”

“What a pointless phone call”, thought my friend, and went back to sleep. Not for long though, as another call came through: “They’re moving off in the direction of your library, but its OK, you don’t need to do anything, we’ve got it all in hand.”

Now awake she went downstairs to the bathroom. Then made herself a drink and sat and drank some of it before going back to bed and falling asleep again.

When she woke in the morning there’d been no more phone calls, but she did notice the bedside phone was displaced, so she dialled 1471 to get details of the last incoming call. This proved to be a call from early the previous evening which she remembers receiving. The unexpected twist to this story is that when she got downstairs in the morning, there on the table was the unfinished drink that she had remembered making during one of the presumably fantasy episodes! Needless to say, on arriving at work she found there had been no ‘invasion’ or any other security problem.

So which part of this curious episode was ‘real’, which was ‘fantasy. The making of the drink had happened, but had it happened as she remembered it? Had she actually got out of bed at all? Had the drink been left over from the previous evening – forgotten about, then incorporated into the dream episode? She is sure this was not the case. So the likeliest explanation is that the whole experience is a fantasy, and the experient, in a somnambulistic state - never repeated before or since -  got out of bed at some time during the night, went downstairs and made a drink.

But is her ‘memory’ of this episode an actual memos of her physical actions at the time or a separate dream episode which matches the ‘physical evidence’ only in retrospect’?

If this sort of complex virtual experience can happen to someone in an unstressed situation – the library where she works is not in an area which experiences trouble from gangs of youths, for instance, a circumstance which might have given cause to fears of `invasion’ – how much more impenetrable are the mechanisms which produce an abduction report from a confused and vulnerable person.

And if even a comparatively simple narrative can raise so many questions, how much more open to doubt and debate are the complex and confused tales of abductions’? And how much of the ‘physical evidence’ in these cases could have been produced by the same processes which led to the strange episode of my colleague’s abandoned drink’?

My colleague may now be able to claim this dream was a very early precognition of real events, as rioting did in fact break out in the main street - in Croydon - eleven years after her dream, in the London disturbances of August 2011!