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Thursday, 11 August 2016

On Pixilation and Poltergeists

[T]he Brownies stole the philibeg off me, along with sark, jacket, and vest, and left me naked except for hose and brogan. (Marjorie T. Johnson, 2014, Seeing Fairies, Anomalist Books, p 268).
     That was the experience of Adam Campbell Hunter at Glen Oykel in 1938. He had gone for a long walk, taken off most of his clothes to sunbathe, and placed a stone on them to keep them from being blown away. After a while, he walked 50 yards to the top of the hill, came down, and found his clothes had disappeared! The boulders used as landmarks were still very obvious, the rest of the landscape was empty. Then follows the amusing story of his coming home nearly naked, and of the search party's valiant attempts to discover the clothes until they suddenly turned up right where he had left them, visible from a distance of 200 yards, despite the whole area having been gone over with a fine tooth comb immediately before.
     Mr Hunter had just suffered an extreme example of something I'm sure we've all experienced. An object, usually small, disappears, only to turn up in the last place you would expect it or, more baffling, in plain sight in a place which had already been searched several times. No doubt there is a conventional explanation in the vast majority of these cases. Nevertheless, some of them appear to defy any rational explanation. I sometimes joke that the world is hard to understand for people who don't believe in gremlins, but ... what if it's not a joke?
     Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover that the Fortean Times have coined a word for it: pixilation - not referring, of course, to the physics of digital photography, but to the tricks traditionally ascribed to the pixies or, in Mr Hunter's case, the brownies. Let us examine, therefore, the most outrageous examples reported.
     We can start with the letter from Claire Blamey of Great Yarmouth in 1994. The previous year, her workplace bought a kiln, and since then the items in the kiln room had developed a tendency to disappear, only to reappear in a spot which had been searched only moments before. Six years later, R J Heaton, of Leeds told about working in a television library where the same things happen. They referred to the phenomenon as "The Heavenly Props Department".
     Of course, no individual incidents were mentioned by these two people. Mazda Munn was more specific. She was on holidays on a Scottish island writing a short children's story. Suddenly, she had an idea on how to improve her artwork, so she opened the flightcase in which she kept all her equipment when not in use. The two large erasers were missing. She emptied and repacked the case three times. Still missing. But when a friend returned from the village shop with a new eraser, she opened the case and - voilà! - there were the original two in plain sight in their proper compartments. And what was the book she was writing? "Maologan the Boggart", about a mischievous spirit who plays tricks on people.
     To make things more interesting, later in the day she told the story to another woman. That woman took off her wedding ring and put it on the table in the caravan. It disappeared. A major search failed to uncover it, but the next day she awoke to find it on top of a book beside her bed in her tent.
     Keys are a favourite target for the phenomenon. Helen Humphrey told about living in a four-story house in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the ground floor of which consisted of only the living room, kitchen, and hall. One day her husband came home for lunch as usual, and put his keys on the hall table. They disappeared. He had only been in the ground floor, so they had to be there, but a thorough search - even in the fridge! - failed to locate them. But a few days later they turned up right in the middle of the wooden floor in the living room.
     Phoenix Rhiannon told about running a shop on the Isle of Wight, when the keys of an understairs cupboard, which usually sat in the lock itself, went missing. Some days later, she was trying to force the lock with a screwdriver, when the keys fell to the floor, touching her hair on the way down. There was nothing it could have fallen from.
     These things aren't unique to the U.K. Kate Brett of South Australia reported how the back door key, which was never moved from the inside lock, mysteriously went missing. She and two guests searched high and low, and eventually regrouped to plan further searches, when they heard the sound of a key falling. There it was in the middle of the kitchen floor. Every person was at least three feet away, and there had been nothing above it but the bare ceiling.
     Even more dramatic was the experience of Graham Oxley in Dumfries. He had put down a lock and a set of heavy old keys, and when he came back, the lock was still there, but the keys had gone. He and his wife, the only people in the house, searched and searched to no avail. A little later they sat down on the only two chairs to eat lunch when, out of nowhere, the keys were thrown across the floorboards by an invisible hand, skidding to a halt just a few feet away.

More Weirdness
     Mrs Barbara McCann told about discovering her son's inhaler on the table, in full view. Nothing unusual about that, you might say, except that was living with friends 12 miles away in order to attend university. Also, she had tidied up the table a few minutes before, and it hadn't been there then. She was supposed to meet him for lunch that day, so a few minutes later he phoned to confirm the arrangements. He then asked her to bring his spare inhaler, because his normal one had gone AWOL. "I can't understand it," he said. "It was just here on the table ..." And yes, the spare one was in the drawer where it was supposed to me. Perhaps the other one had been lonely.
    In 2004 a woman called "Anon" described going down from London to the Fontwell Park races the previous Sunday. All that day she had been wearing prescription sunglasses, with her regular spectacles in a case in her pocket. She did, however, use the regular spectacles for about 15 minutes during the day when it clouded over. On the way home, she reached into her pocket for the regular spectacles, but they had gone. However, after stopping to eat, she found the glasses in the pocket of the car door, and assumed they had been put there absentmindedly. But then it turned out that they were not the glasses she had set out with in the morning, nor the ones she had worn briefly during the day, but a spare pair she normally kept at home. However, they were now in the same case she had had with her all day: an unmistakable one which was battered, and of a different colour to all the rest. Somehow, the glasses had swapped themselves around. At the time of writing, the original pair was still missing.

Ask and It Shall be Given Unto You
     One wonders whether Anon's desire for the spectacles somehow made them appear. At any rate, you shouldn't be surprised if, in desperation, people decide to ask Them, the powers, the spirits, the phenomenon for help. Steve Leggett of West Sussex told how, in July 1996 he had been looking everywhere for a pocket-sized survival kit which he hadn't seen since February. At last, he stood at the bottom of the stairs and shouted: "Can I have my survival kit back please? I don't mind where it turns up, as long as I get it back within the next few days." Strangely enough, later in the day he had to go into the attic, and he felt "drawn" to a box full of pieces of wood. And there it was!
     Now, we may hypothesize that his action had somehow jogged his subconscious memory about a previous act of absentmindedness. However, it turned out that the first aid kit, which normally sat on a shelf in the living room, had previously gone missing, so his wife suggested he ask for that as well. He did. A few minutes later he went to the boot of the car to get something else, and there it was right in the middle of the boot.
     He said that, after that, they got into the habit of asking for the return of lost items, and even persuaded a coworker to do the same. They found it worked.
     Yorkshireman Martyn Renton reported how things regularly disappeared and reappeared, though it never happened to anything valuable. One day, when he was alone in the house, a horse brass hanging from a nail on the wall simply disappeared. Time passed, and one day when he was again alone, and short of cash, he went around hunting for loose change down the backs of chairs. In a chair he had recently checked for another item, he discovered the horse brass - although he hadn't even owned the chair when the horse brass originally vanished. It got to the point where his family would ask the "Little People" for the return of lost items, and they usually obliged within a few minutes. Then he added:
     While I was writing this letter, the phone rang. I slid the pen into the spiral binding of the notepad and made sure it was clipped in. Pens are a favoured target of the Little People. When I returned, the pen was gone. I lifted the pad and checked the entire desktop to no avail. I asked the Little People to return the pen. I left the room and returned after a few minutes. The pen lay on top of the pad. I am currently the only person in the house.
     Londoner Garrick Alder assumed that all this was complete nonsense. Then one day his sister spent the best part of a weekend hunting for a big bunch of lost keys. Eventually, as a last resort, Garrick suggested they ask Them for them back. So together they addressed the empty room: "We don't care where they are, we'd like them back, please." Then they sat down and purposely thought no more about them.
     Ten or fifteen minutes later, his sister glanced at a pile of papers they had recently rifled through. A few seconds later, she glanced back, and did a "double take" when she saw the keys had suddenly appeared there.
     Richard Tomkinson faxed his story. He was a pawnbroker, and whenever a thorough search by the staff failed to locate a missing item, he would ask "the fairies" for help. The request had to be spoken clearly in a tone recognizing the playfulness with which they were removed. As he put it:
At first, I did this as a fortean jest, not expecting a result; but how many times does this approach have to work before the evidence leads to an admittedly unlikely acceptance of the phenomenon?
     Zvi Ron taught the college-aged boys the study of the Talmud in the Old City of Jerusalem, where books often went missing, lost, or interchanged. Having read stories similar to the above, he devised "The Porch Trick". The student would go to the porch overlooking the Western Wall and say out loud: "Master of the Universe, I want to study but I can't find my book. Please help me get my book back." Mr Ron said he had never had to use the trick himself, but the 20-odd students who had would always find their book again, generally in a place where they had searched repeatedly. He would tell them to use it only for the Talmud, not for lesser items, lest they abuse the forces involved, and only after first conducting a thorough search.

Poltergeist Lite?
     If I have gone into more detail than usual above, it is merely to demonstrate that it is not just run-of-the-mill absentmindedness or practical joking which we are talking about. But when I first read these accounts, I immediately thought of another, more dramatic, better attested paranormal phenomenon: the poltergeist.
     The word means "racketing ghost", and it was traditionally ascribed to mischievous spirits. Recently, however, it has tended to be relabeled "recurrent spontaneous pychokinesis" or RSPK ie objects moved by a person's emotionally disturbed unconscious mind - what I once described as a "psychic tantrum" . If you accept that interpretation, then you will have to accept a whole range of things which are counter-intuitive. Firstly, it means that the unconscious mind has incredible abilities which can never manifest themselves to that extent consciously. It also means that, while the conscious mind is quietly minding its own business, its subconscious can go outside to find stones to throw at the house, or to another room to locate objects to bring within range, or even go out and have fun while the conscious mind is asleep. It can also apparently cause solid objects to pass through solid barriers, or even appear or disappear into and out of thin air. Also, despite the unconscious malice underlying many social relationships, it very rarely harms anyone. Dangerous objects will miss a person by inches, or halt in mid-air, or land softly.
     Thus, I would feel much more comfortable with the discarnate spirit rather than the RSPK hypothesis. However, we must face facts. In the vast majority of cases (but not always) the poltergeist focuses on a particular individual, and this individual tends to be undergoing emotional turmoil (but often that is just assumed). Also, poltergeists can generally not be exorcised. (And yes, other evil influences can be exorcised.)
     Then there were the famous Batcheldor and "Philip" experiments. Basically, in the 1960s a psychologist called Kenneth Batcheldor gathered a group of experimenters to recreate a classic séance, and discovered they could cause the table, not only to tilt, but to levitate and move around the room. Building on this the following decade, a team led by Iris Owen set about conjuring an imaginary ghost called "Philip". And to make sure that the experiment wasn't marred by a real ghost, they agreed upon a life story which contained contradictions. The upshot was the production of typical spiritualist rapping and tapping, which were most pronounced for questions for which the team had already agreed on the answers, whether true or false. More to the point, spectacular "poltergeist" movements of the tables and chairs also occurred - right under the an array of TV cameras and the eyes of scholars.
     Thus, it is hard to deny that the subconscious mind can produce psychokinetic effects which mimic some of the classic poltergeist activities, even if the more extreme activities have not been confirmed. So let us examine a few examples.
     While most poltergeist infestations last only a few weeks or months, a few individuals are what Harry Price called "poltergeist mediums" around whom the phenomenon manifests for years, wherever they go. One such person was Liz Fleming, alias "Caressa", a Canberra prostitute. Apart from the usual poltergeist manifestations, she could actually ask the "spirits" to perform, and they would oblige. The requests did not have to be verbal; the "spirits" could read her mind - another sign that it was really her subconscious mind at work.
     Things also had a habit of appearing and disappearing. Then, one day, the investigator interviewed one of her clients, Ray just five minutes after an extraordinary event. Just after arriving at Liz's house, and no doubt preoccupied with the idea of her services, he realized he had locked his keys in his truck. No problem, declared Liz, and asked "Matt" (one of the spirits) to retrieve them. Suddenly, they dropped, apparently out of nowhere, onto the bedroom floor. Liz's receptionist confirmed it. There was no natural way, insisted Ray, that they could have got into the house, but you will surely notice a similarity to some of the "pixilation" accounts.
      In the period 1955 - 1957, a series of remarkable, and well documented, poltergeist infestations spread from one Western Australian Aboriginal settlement to another, like a cold. These, I have to emphasize, were not hunter gatherers practising a traditional lifestyle, but fringe dwellers living like white people, but at a lower level. One family, the Dicksons, named their polt "Uncle Bobby" after a deceased relative who was a bit of a character. They could ask "Uncle Bobby" to throw an object and "he" would oblige. Once, when a baby's dummy disappeared, a woman announced that that was disgusting, and the dummy came back instantly.
    On several occasions "Uncle Bob" performed a party trick more-or-less on demand. Before the family sat down for dinner Mr. Dickson would mark several coins and put them aside, then ask everyone to look under their plate to make sure there was nothing there. At the conclusion of the meal a marked coin, usually a florin, would be found under every plate. (Healy and Cropper, p 77)
      Another poltergeist medium was an Indian boy called Damodar Ketkar, as was, to a lesser extent, his brother. A German language teacher, Miss H. Kohn made a thorough investigation and recorded a vast number of inexplicable events, among which was the following:
     As a test, she left her room at 3.30 pm. leaving on the table a glass bottle of Swan ink inside a tightly closed screw-top aluminium "safety"' inkpot, which she hoped would defeat the "spirits". No such luck! Immediately before she returned at 5 pm, the ink was spilled all over her room, but the aluminium container was missing.
I involuntarily looked upwards, as so many objects have been seen to descend from above ... I called out jokingly: "I do hope the spirit will throw back the pot, it cost me one rupee eight annas!" No sooner had I finished speaking, than I saw the missing inkpot appear in mid-air, at a distance of roughly six inches from the ceiling of my room. It fell on to the bed. I rushed to examine it, and found it as tightly screwed on as when I had closed it that afternoon. (quoted in Roll, p 34)
     Taken all in all, my impression is that "pixilation" is a manifestation of the same unconscious psychokinesis underlying the poltergeist phenomenon, but on a weaker scale. That would suggest that, asking for the lost property to be returned might be successful in the short term, in the long term it might end up reinforcing the phenomenon. For that reason, I haven't been game to ask for the sock which went missing between the washing basket and the dried clothes basket. I don't want to start anything!

But in case you think it is all cut and dried ...
     In 1989 Prof. David Fontana, a psychologist from the University of Wales, investigated a poltergeist infestation in a small engineering workshop in Cardiff. The phenomena, which the victims christened "Pete", had already been active for two years, and no individual acted as the obvious focus. All the usual poltergeist activities occurred. In addition, the staff were able to get "Pete" to provide objects virtually on command. When the boss spoke of recording the events, a pen fell beside him, followed by some headed notepaper from the floor above. When he jokingly asked for money, old pennies and halfpennies appeared from a collection in the office. But when he asked for a sovereign, a Jubilee sovereign arrived from a drawer in his home. Later, three old 1912 pennies appeared from a source unknown. On other occasions, a staff member asked for money, and rolled up £5 notes, to an ultimate value of £70. (In hindsight, I don't think asking for money was a good idea, because it meant the rightful owner, wherever he was, had been deprived.)
     What makes this case special is that, on three occasions during the period when the phenomena were winding down, this same staff member saw the apparition of a small boy.  
     Now we must go to the account provided by Mrs Denny Casely, as published in It Happened to Me!, vol. 2, pp 62-5. She, her husband, and five-year-old daughter moved into a flat in an old Victorian house, which turned out to be haunted. Her daughter used to see, and talk to, a man called Robber Jones. Lights would go on and off by themselves. A young couple who stayed overnight in the lounge found the TV and stereo turning themselves on even when they were unplugged. Mrs Casely suffered prolonged periods of depression and anxiety while alone in the house. Rooms would suddenly go cold for no obvious reason. Also, both she and her husband used to see apparitions of their daughter while she was asleep. This is really strange. In another article I recorded apparitions of living people, but never as part of a haunting. More to the point, items of Mrs Casely's jewellery used to go missing, only to turn up in place a day later.
     Then my husband began to have his own experiences. One morning, he laid his wallet on the bedside table only to discover it was gone when he was ready to go to work. We both searched all over and he became very agitated. At this point, I felt somewhat relieved that it wasn't just me going bonkers, and screamed out loud in the room, "Just put the wallet back! We don't like it here! We don't want to stay here any longer than we have to!" Both my husband and I stepped into the hallway and shut the door. We waited for a beat, and then opened the door to find the wallet sitting on the table, just where he said he had left it.
    That evening, he tried an experiment. He took the batteries out of the TV remote control and shouted: "If there is a ghost in here, turn off my TV. I wanna go to bed." It did.
     So there you have it: pixilation, poltergeists, hauntings. Nothing is straightforward once you lift the lid on the paranormal. Perhaps there are two lessons to be learned:
     1. You should not play around with forces you do no understand; and
     2. Be very careful what you ask for.
     Here is another angle on the phenomenon.
     Prof. Swords described his own experience, and provided other information.
     Also, the new fairy census uncovered a case of a missing zipper which was discovered in the hands of a little man, who vanished when challenged. (There has always been a tradition that these things are tricks of the fairies.)

Pixilation: It Happened to Me!, volume 2, pp 87-98, and volume 5, pp 131-132. (These Magbooks are published by the Fortean Times, and recount the experiences reported by their readers. I wrote a review of the first volume I discovered.)
Poltergeists: Terry White (1994), The Sceptical Occultist, pp 63-77 of the 1995 Arrow edition (the Cardiff poltergeist, and "Philip")
Tony Healy and Paul Cropper (2014), Australian Poltergeist, Strange Nation, chapters 2 and 4 ("Uncle Bobby" and "Caressa")
William G. Roll, 1972, The Poltergeist, citing the 1976 Star Book paperback.


  1. I've had a couple of experiences similar to these. I put them in a blog post a while back- everything is true, and is how I remember it. Odd Tales of my life

  2. Entire species and cultures can be relocated by invoking the gods of dislocation.
    Hell, stuff shows up where and when it will. Tends to leave a fairly nonlinear fossil record, and remnants on other planetary bodies that have no business being there.
    I suspect bits and pieces end up in frozen orbits, and way down deep.

    Physical and temporal dislocation probably is some combination of retarded and haunted.
    Of course, any macroquantum event would hardly seem classical, upon further investigation.

  3. I had a variation on the "missing sock" error. I had two identical sets of metal rods, used to assemble two identical metal dog crates. The set that was in storage went missing. I looked all over for them, but they never did turn up.

    I have bad luck with "pairs" of things - two similar, but not-quite-identical objects. When I cracked the left pedal on one bicycle, the left pedal on my other (spare) bicycle immediately became cracked. When I bought a new washing machine, at first it malfunctioned in the same way as the old washing machine, until I broke out the warranty. When I bought a different car, the windshield started leaking in the same place as my old car.

    If we are living in a computer simulation, I would have to put this down to bad programming, or over-zealous pruning of redundant data to save system resources. I call it the "sock" error. Of course, if I really did believe we were living in a computer simulation, the obvious explanation for a poltergeist or spirit would be a hacker.