Index to This Site

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Phantom Leopards and Collective Hallucinations

     If several people see the same thing, the assumption is that it has an objective reality. Since every mind is independent, a collective hallucination is virtually a contradiction in terms. The closest thing to it would be group hypnosis: as in one of those performances in which members of the audience are hypnotised together and told to visualise a given scenario. Just the same, I dare say that it would work only at the overall level - that if you interviewed the subjects after the event, you would find that they saw what the hypnotist told them to see in general, but that the details would vary according to each individual's imagination.
     Nevertheless, it appears there are times when an entire group can get themselves "psyched up" to have the same visual hallucination, provided it is simple, and this should be factored into any investigation of the alleged paranormal. We shall look at a few examples, starting with the most dramatic.
     For a dozen years following World War II, Harry B. Wright alternated between his dental practice in Philadelphia, and travelling the world investigating the workings of witchdoctors in primitive societies. It was thus inevitable that his path would lead into the heart of darkness, to the centre of the complex religion of which Haitian voodoo is merely an anaemic offspring: Dahomey. Now the independent republic of Benin, it was then a French colony, and prior to that, an indigenous state as monstrous as the Aztec Empire, but less civilised, with a king commanding an army of fanatical women warriors and ruling a kingdom based on war, slavery, and widespread human sacrifice. (You think I am being sensational? Then you know little about the pre-colonial history of West Africa.)
     Arriving in the old capital of Abomey, Wright made friends with a descendent of the former kings, Prince Aho, and an elderly guide called Ngambe. Having agreed to take him to a ritual in the "Convent of the Leopard", they lead him through the museum of the royal family, including a chamber paved with human skulls, and to the nearby "convent": a collection of huts so cunningly concealed that, without the assistance of a guide, the stranger would pass within a few feet and fail to see them.
     In a clearing by the entrance of the "convent", they came across a group of women in a deep trance, the faces of each concealed with a veil of cowrie shells. Ngambe frankly told him that the trance was effective because of their implicit belief that they were possessed by the spirits. This was the culmination of their three weeks' trance, during which it had been so deep that could not even perform normal bodily functions without assistance.
     As the drums began to beat, the women were swept up into a frenzy, uttering loud, incoherent cries and throwing themselves into an unstructured, chaotic dance. Blind to their surroundings, they would bump into each other, fall over, then rise and continue. The compound was filling with a surging mass of onlookers, and as the drumbeats dropped in tempo and sound, the fetish priests came out to present the chickens and goat which now replaced what had once been a human sacrifice. Prince Aho whispered to Mr Wright that he was about to witness the merging of humans and leopards. If any leopards appeared, it was imperative that he neither touch them, nor depart, as that would raise the anger of the leopards.
     The chief priest now sung a low, dirge-like song, and as the pitch rose, a beautiful women moved into the clearing, stark naked except for a string of cowrie shells around her neck, and another around her waist. In a deep trance, "possessed", she began to dance gracefully to the quickening beat of the drums.
     She was tall and beautifully formed, with strong limbs and arms, wide shoulders and high, full breasts. Her ebony skin flowed in the flickering lights of the firebrands; and above and around her the tree bent over her in an unearthly majesty, so that she seemed to dance in a great ball of dim light.
     Suddenly she stopped and looked around. Then she called out some words in a low, musical voice. The drum beat was almost stilled, leaving only a faint reverberation in the air, and Aho tugged at my arm.
     "Look!" he exclaimed, in an ecstatic whisper. "Do you see the two leopards walking beside her?"
     The moon had risen over the trees, giving a milky glow to the darkness beyond the range of the firebrands. The girl was only a few paces away, yet I saw no leopards.
     The eyes of the natives, however, seemed to follow not only the girl but the space immediately around her, as if there was something which they could see, but which was invisible to me.
     Aho kept pressing my arm.
     "Do you see - there are five more leopards behind her!"
     I did not know whether he was in earnest, or was carrying out a practical joke at my expense. But when Aho suddenly said, urgently, "Step back, or you will touch them!" I decided he was not joking. Whatever might be the physical truth of the matter, Prince Aho thought he saw leopards.
     The chief fetish priest began to sing, louder than before; and the drum beat grew in volume and tempo. Suddenly I felt as if my eyes had started out of my head. Just beyond the girl, on the edge of the shifting light, I saw the shadow of an animal; and before I had time to express my wonder, a full grown leopard glided into view. It might have been my imagination; and if it was, I have more imagination than I thought I had. Two more leopards appeared behind the girl, stalking majestically across the clearing, and the three disappeared into the shadow of the trees.
     What was more astonishing than anything else - and in a way, nerve-shattering - was that I distinctly saw that one of the leopards had a chicken in its mouth.
    "You saw them!" Aho exclaimed triumphantly, his pudgy face turned squarely towards me.
     The prince spoke a few more words to him, and before he knew it, the ceremony was over, and the audience dispersing. Even so, when a woman bumped into a dancer, the latter shouted to keep her away, lest she tread on her leopards' tail, so presumably they were still visible to her.
    Mr Wright said that, to that day, he did not know what he saw, but if it wasn't three leopards, it was a good facsimile of them. So, unless three real leopards sneaked in, summoned by the ceremony - and I would not rule it out completely - then he was inspired to have a visual hallucination as a result of the hypnotic effect of the ceremony. In any case, it is clear that the native audience and participants experienced a collective hallucination. I wonder just how the whole process started in the first place.
Reference: Harry B. Wright (1957), Witness to Witchcraft, Souvenir Press, chapter 9 (pp 114-118 of the 1964 Corgi edition)

     Let us now look at a simpler case: the events in a church at Limpias, close to Santander, Spain in 1919. They were originally investigated by Prof. A. Encinas of Santander University, who then consulted with Prof. E. R. Jaensch, a specialist in eidetic imagery. I shall quote the summary by D. H. Rawcliffe:
     The hallucinations in question were remarkable for their limited variety. They were concerned almost entirely with pictures of saints. The saints had moved and carried out various actions, including stepping out of their panels. Their eyes also were observed to move and certain of the pictures appeared to drip blood. Naturally, when such reports spread, people for miles around flocked to the church where the "miracles" were taking place and stood gazing by the hour at the pictures. Jaensch writes that hundreds of sworn statements, including those of many educated and professional persons, bore witness to the reality of the hallucinations.
     The hallucinatory "epidemic" lasted for many days. In such cases the scenes inside the church are of interest. The audience gazes at the pictures and from time to time someone will point a finger and cry out that the eyes are moving or that a drop of blood has appeared and is running down the saint's face. Others look eagerly and add their own exclamations and confirmations; others fail to observe anything unusual.
    Note the three cardinal features: mass excitement, simple hallucinations, and the objects visible to some but not others.
     In that case, we could probably add the celebrated "Miracle of the Sun" at Fátima on 13 October 1917, in which the sun was seen to "dance" and produce various lighting effects, but in a manner idiosyncratic to the witness. It need hardly be added that, miracle or no miracle, it would not be possible for the sun to move - or rather, the earth to wobble - and the effect not to be witnessed over the whole half of the world in daylight.
Reference: Chapter 7(iii) of D. H. Rawcliffe (1952), The Psychology of the Occult. (Republished in 1959 as Illusions and Delusions of the Supernatural and the Occult, and later as Occult and Supernatural Phenomena. This work is the debunker's bible and, although he "doth protest too much, methinks", I would regard it as essential reading for anyone wishing to research the paranormal and avoid the pitfalls.)

     Using the criteria of some members of a crowd failing to see what others see, we might include the angels of Kirtland. The early days of Mormonism witnessed remarkable scenes of mass enthusiasm. John Whitmer, who was the church's official historian during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, recorded the following, disapprovingly:
     For a perpetual memory, to the shame and confusion of the Devil, permit me to say a few things respecting the proceedings of some of those who were disciples, and some remain among us, and will, and have come from under the error and enthusiasm which they had fallen.
     Some had visions and could not tell what they saw. Some would fancy to themselves that they had the sword of Laban, and would wield it as expert as a light draggon; some would slide or scoot on the floor with the rapidity of a serpent, which they termed sailing in the boat of the Lamanites, preaching the gospel. And many other vain and foolish maneuvers that are unseeming and unprofitable to mention. Thus the Devil blinded the eyes of some good and honest disciples.
     Of course, these, as well as many other instances, were not collective hallucinations, but simply individual idiosyncracies. However, they reveal the sort of atmosphere which prevailed when the original Temple was inaugurated at Kirtland, Ohio in 1836. On that occasion, President Frederick G. Williams arose and announced that an angel had come in through the window and sat down between him (Williams) and Joseph Smith's father, and remained there during the prayer.
     One would assume that such an event would have been so clear and evident that no announcement would have been necessary. Nevertheless, another member of the congregation, Ebenezer Robinson specifically stated:
     President F. G. Williams bore record that a Holy Angel of God came an sat between him and J. Smith sen. while the house was being dedicated.
     We did not see the angel, but the impression has evidently obtained with some, that we did see the angel, from the fact that different persons, strangers from abroad, have called upon us and expressed gratification to the above circumstance. We told them they were mistaken, that we did not see the angel, but that President  F. G. Williams testified as above stated. We believed his testimony, and have often spoke of it both publically and privately.
     Likewise,  when President David John gave the eulogy at the funeral of  Myron Tanner, he stated:
Bishop Tanner told me that he saw angels ascending and descending during those days, and that he called his mother out to see them, but his mother could not see them, although he saw them plainly.
     Strictly speaking, it is unclear whether there was more than one witness on any individual occasion. However, it does appear that the visions were induced by the atmosphere and expectations of the time.
Reference: Full documentation can be found on pp 60-61 of Jerald & Sandra Tanner, Mormonism - Shadow or Reality available from the Utah Lighthouse Ministry. See other references to angels and visions here.
     Finally, we may look at the following example of the effect of imagination and suggestion on a susceptible mind.
     According to Selwyn James, one of the most memorable experiences of his childhood occurred in 1928, when he was aged seven and "already a veteran non-believer in Santa Claus, and suspicious of the well-meant nonsense adults use to ingratiate themselves with children." His older brother was a playmate of the offspring of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so, one day he tagged along to the Doyle residence. He met the famous author in a room filled with model soldiers in a magnificent diorama of the Battle of the Somme, and the "gentle-hearted man" explained to him all the details of the regiments.
     Then, as dusk fell, he took him out into the garden to see the fairies. Sensing the boy's scepticism, he told him that you must fervently believe in fairies and pixies. As James related:
     The garden was hushed: it was that hovering instant when time seems to pause and take a breath before plunging into night. I don't remember precisely when it was that I believed. Perhaps when a fire-fly lit up the tip of my nose, or when a bird or bat fluttered past my head. Maybe it was the pressure of Sir Arthur's huge hand around mine that brought on the wondrous feeling of belief.
     I soared with him into a magical world where fantasy is real, where anything is possible. It was a world from which a part of me never came back. Yes, I saw the pixies and fairies as plainly as anything I had seen before or have seen since. A childish hallucination? Perhaps. But with my kindly teacher at my side, I discovered the limitless quality of the human imagination.
     One is bound to wonder whether Doyle himself saw anything. James reported that he was perfectly serious in his discussion about fairies, and he was known to be a believer. Despite his reputation as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was a bit of a crank, who was a strong follower of spiritualism, and eight years before, he had been taken in by the Cottingley fairies hoax. Perhaps he himself regularly saw fairies and pixies in his rhododendron garden.
Reference: Selwyn James (1961), My precious gift from Conan Doyle, The Reader's Digest, June 1961, pp 25-29, condensed from the original article in the North-Western Evening Mail, 22-23 March, 1961.


  1. You might be right Malcolm but setting aside personal experience two things make me wonder.

    First of all we have the example of synesthetes who upon reporting hearing sounds and seeing colours or seeing numbers and experiencing exotic smells were routinely dismissed during much of the last two centuries as time wasting incorrigible liars and fantasists or delusional and dispatched to the nearest branch of Bedlam.

    Then we have the example of the basketball game watchers who though instructed to pay particular attention completely failed to notice the man in the gorilla suit strolling through the middle of the game.

    This's even true of ordinary everyday life some people can see what others simply can't.

    A few months back a friend was about to screw up some paper and throw it in the bin.

    "What the hell're you doing?" I screeched.
    "It's just one of Ellie's scribbles..."
    "Scribbles? It might look like that to you but it's actually something very akin to those slightly embellished matchstick men fashion designers dash off in two seconds flat for their cutters."

    Two months later "OMG I've just been to the parent teachers night and her new art teacher's telling me how incredibly talented she is! I didn't have a clue!"

    A more prosaic example.

    One night me mate parked his car by a street light and I said "What colour's your car?"
    "Look again..."

    "Okay let's try this a different way...what colour's that car?"
    "Ooh can't tell the street light's drained all the colour out it...looks sort of off white with a hint of khaki maybe."
    "Okay now tell me again what colour's your car...?"

    "Oh my god y'can't tell can y'u...all these years driving at night and I never noticed that effect once."

    I tried the same trick when he got a brown car and he still made the same mistake.

    Everyone tends to concentrate on the supposedly few people who see things supposedly not there but there're far more people who don't even notice things that ARE there.

    For some reason this blindness seems to be the human condition and it's why I suggest critters like judges gradually become redundant and get replaced by more souped up critters like prophets.

    Or as someone else once put it "That's why I speak to them in parables because while they look they look and listen they don't actually see or hear."

    1. I could provide other examples. Most of us go through life seeing, but not observing. Basically, we focus on what we assume are the important, or fundamental aspects of the scene, and filter out the pheripheral aspects. I don't suppose we could operate effectively if we didn't.
      In the case of the basketball audience, when told to pay particular attention, they paid attention to the game to the detriment of everything else. But if someone had drawn their attention to the man in the gorilla suit, they would have seen it.
      In Harry Wright's case, however, he didn't fail to see the leopards because he was focusing on the dancer; he initially failed to see them when his attention was twice drawn to them, and he was told to step back in order to avoid them.
      So ... if whole groups of people are seeing things that aren't there, and failing to see things that are there, how well can we rely on our senses?

  2. Interesting stuff. I have thought similar things about the big cat phantom sightings for years. Part of the same continuum with Bigfoot, 'aliens' and fairies.

    However I would take it further, it is not only a case of believing is seeing, but the world of the Imagination, of the collective unconscious has a reality that extends over and beyond itself, into the world of matter - the world of mind and physical reality cannot so easily be separated, the lines are blurred and overlap in mysterious ways. If there are any lines at all. There is a heady literature on this subject as we all know and it is beyond a mere comment to a blog article, so will leave off. Ultimately we are left with mysteries, since the world and depth of the mind remain largely impenetrable and shrouded in enigmas. In other words, saying it is all in the mind, begs the question. Yes but what do we mean by mind/Mind and how does mind and matter interact exactly?

    It is interesting that in occult lore, there is a tradition that 'phantom cats' are considered the 'dwellers at the threshold'. That is they are the guardians of the 'daemonic realm' or the underworld or whatever name you want to call the invisible world of spirits and the like. They are the protectors at the borderland between this world and the one beyond and being at the borderland, sometimes they slip right into our world. Or perhaps we slip into theirs? I think those young West African 'leopard dancers' vision is closer to the truth of things than the so-called hard-headed Western scientist.