Ronald Pearsall

Pearsall was a journalist, British Council lecturer, army lecturer, and social historian. His essays and reviews have appeared in many periodicals, and he made a special study of the Victorian period. He was also a member of the Society for Psychical Research.

Collective Hallucinations

- Ronald Pearsall -

          'COLLECTIVE HALLUCINATIONS,' wrote G. F. Stout, 'though their existence is guaranteed by the Psychical Research Society, are of rare occurrence, and stand much in need of explanation.[1] The Society was certainly happier about them than were psychologists and physiologists, and it had three possible theories. Either transference from one percipient to another came through the senses, or through telepathy, or else the hallucinations were of supernatural origin. In the Census of Hallucinations there were ninety five instances of collective visual hallucination against 992 instances of unshared. There were thirty-four cases of collective auditory hallucinations, of which five occurred to people in different rooms.

[1] Manual of Psychology by G. F. Stout 1913: p. 554.

A few words need to be said about this Census. Although many of the collators were men of probity, the field-workers were recruited on an ad hoc basis, and their reports were governed by a number of arbitrary factors. Timidity encouraged many of the census-takers to flinch asking the awkward questions, laziness meant that many of the answers were reported in a botched fashion. A grab-all-opportunities enthusiasm on the part of the instigators of the Report, meant that there was little statistical consistency in the samples, and the fact that there were eager census-takers in Brazil resulted in lop-sided geographical coverage. The actual figures, therefore, serve as a guide, but can in no way be looked upon as authoritative. The chief value of the Census lies in the written statements made by the percipients.

There is no novelty at all about shared illusions, the financial future of a conjuror being dependant on them, and many of the so-called collective hallucinations were unquestionably similar illusions.

A fruitful source of collective hallucinations that the Census did not draw on was the spiritualist séance. When the politician and journalist Labouchere was at a séance, a piano is reported to have passed through the wall. Labouchere asked how it was that the other people had seen it but not him, and he was told that he was not sufficiently sympathetic. Similarly meetings of black magic enthusiasts encouraged collective illusions, such as those who operated in Dublin in the 'nineties, 'a whole colony of them of the most iniquitous kind. They are great mesmerists and blackguards, but picturesque in their hideous costumes of black cloth which covers all but their eyes'.[2]

[2] W. B. Yeats by Joseph Hone 1942: p. 70.

Collective hysteria especially in closed communities such as convents, hospitals, prisons, and asylums, frequently resulted in collective hallucination, particularly amongst the women. As Benjamin C. Brodie noted, the primary factors in hysteria were 'fear, suggestion, and unconscious simulation'. In his notebook for the date February 3rd 1871, Dr Crichton-Browne commented that two of his patients independently and without communication with each other developed the delusion that the earth was 'of soft and spongy consistency like jelly or blanc-mange, and that by the exercise of a little force they will be able to sink down into it and end their sorrows. They both allege that they find the hard stone floor of the lobby spongy under their feet'.[3] One of them tried jumping from the top of steps to effect this purpose. During the witchcraft scares of the later middle ages and after, collective hysteria followed by collective hallucination contrived to put to death many innocent women.

[3] The Doctor Remembers by Dr J. Crichton-Browne 1938: p. 94.

Many of the higher-powered mediums had a centre-piece during their sessions, shaping a séance like a theatrical performance. One of D. D. Home's set pieces was the handling of red-hot coals in front of an audience. One such performance was noted on May 9th 1871 by Professor William Crookes: 'After stirring the hot coal about with his hand, took out a red-hot piece nearly as big as an orange, and putting it on his right hand, covered it over with his left hand, so as to almost completely enclose it, and then blew into the small furnace thus extemporised until the lump of charcoal was nearly white-hot, and then drew my attention to the lambent flame which was flickering over the coal.'[4]

[4] Proceedings SPR 1890: p. 103.

Crookes confirmed this in a letter to Mrs Honywood. Home 'delicately pulled the lumps of hot coal off, one at a time with his right hand, and touched one which was bright red'. Home's demonstration of his powers was reported by Mrs William Tebb to one of the most astute of psychical investigators, Frank Podmore. Home 'put his hands over a flame ... held the flame close to his eyes...'[5]

[5] Modern Spiritualism by F. Podmore 1902 2 vols II p. 264.

There were no fire tricks when the conditions were 'too positive', when there were uninvited witnesses, and where the witnesses had too little faith. It would be a clever conjuring trick to produce not only a glowing coal (which conjurors' suppliers would easily do) but flames and heat. Home's fire trick might well be a classic example of expectation heightening the sensibilities and producing an hallucination. The trick was not a one-off; percipients were aware of previous viewers' experiences, and this combined with the awe in which Home was held - and it must be remembered that Home was never caught out during his long career as a professional medium - made it difficult for the believers not to appreciate the phenomena Home was gently urging on them, the flames, the heat, the combustibility of coal. The first of all ingredients for collective hallucination is sympathy, and Home achieved this by the simple method of excluding the unsympathetic from his circles.

In 1887 a full-scale investigation into spiritualism was launched in America. The Seybert Commission was perhaps the most objective investigation of the phenomena during the nineteenth century, and the British equivalent, the report by the Dialectical Society, compared ill with it. One of the Commission's members was Dr H. H. Furness of the University of Pennsylvania:

Again and again, men have led round the circles the materialised spirits of their wives, and introduced them to each visitor in turn; fathers have taken round their daughters, and I have seen widows sob in the arms of their dead husbands. Testimony such as this staggers me. Have I been smitten with colour-blindness? Before me, as far as I can detect, stands the very medium herself, in shape, size, form and feature true to a line, and yet, one after another, honest men and women at my side, within ten minutes of each other, assert that she is the absolute counterpart of their nearest and dearest friends, nay that she is that friend.

This was affirmed by Frank Podmore in Telepathic Hallucinations. 'It seems difficult to place any limit on the untrustworthiness of human testimony, especially in cases where the emotions are involved, or where there is occasion for edification.'

The most succinct appraisal is that of T. H. Huxley: 'The rule of common sense is prima facie to trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor that love of the marvellous which is inherent to a greater or less degree in mankind, are strongly concerned; and, when they are involved, to require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.'[6]

[6] Collected Essays by T. H. Huxley 1893-1895 9 vols V p. 226.

The séance situation illustrates how easily the credulous mind interprets an event or an object when it is craftily guided. The cases mentioned in the Census of Hallucinations are of a different order; some of them are evidently telepathic (a word coined about the period of the Census), some prompted by suggestion.

In 1884, Mrs Greiffenberg and Mrs Erni-Greiffenberg, were at lunch. One of them suddenly looked beneath the table, the other enquired if she had dropped anything, receiving the answer, 'No, but I wonder how that cat can have got into the room?' Beneath the table was a large white Angora cat. The women got up, opened the door, and the cat circled the table and went out, down a passage where it turned, faced them, and dissolved away like a mist. The same cat reappeared the following year. It dissolved away at the door to the cellar. Both women testified to the appearance, describing it as 'uncanny and gruesome'.

Is self-interest involved in the propagation of this story? Or were the percipients victims of what medical writers scathingly called religious insanity, and even if they had seen nothing, thought it worth while in the cause of the occult to pretend to the compilers of the census that they had? Where there was money and a career in the supernatural at stake, there were many whose scruples about the truth were overcome, and the train of 'investigators' and 'mediums' who vamped up their material was depressingly large. Some of the revelations of sharp practice on the parts of allegedly scrupulous men and women have only recently been published, and had the collectors of information been aware of this, no doubt they would have subjected their cases to a greater scrutiny. One bad egg in a clutch makes the rest suspect, and significant case-histories, without cautious treatment, become aimless anecdotage.

The collective hallucination reported by Mrs Charlotte Goodhall has the advantage that her account was scrutinised, and she herself was interviewed, by Frank Podmore who was certainly no fool.

In 1873 or 1874 - Mrs Goodhall was writing in 1890 - she and her daughter were driving in a low pony carriage on the northern outskirts of London. Mrs Goodhall suddenly 'saw a figure, dressed in black from head to foot, advancing; it appeared to glide along'. She said to her daughter, 'Oh, do look at that strange figure!' The figure passed to the left of the carriage on the grass within two yards, and as it did so it turned its face their way 'and of all the fiendish faces it was the most horrible you can imagine; its garments seemed to train behind it'. Her daughter looked back at it. The figure watched them go, then disappeared.

Podmore visited the Goodhalls in 1892, ascertaining that the hallucination had been seen in all but full daylight (though the original statement reported that it was a summer evening), that Mrs Goodhall had had two or three auditory hallucinations, and that Miss Goodhall was still unmarried. Miss Goodhall recalled that the face was coarse and had a large mouth, that the figure looked like a man in women's dress. If it had been a real figure it could not have disappeared, as the distance to the hedge was too great.

The Society for Psychical Research was not too happy about this case, stating 'we require clearer cases to prove the fact of collective hallucination'.[7] Distances are difficult to judge from a moving vehicle, and the Goodhalls did not return to ascertain whether there was a gap in the hedge through which the figure can have darted.

[7] Proceedings SPR 1894: p. 312.

An interesting case from 1879 was investigated by Myers in 1891. A wife was awoken suddenly, saw at the end of the bed a white form 'without features visible', and sat up in bed. Her husband also awoke. 'What is that?' asked his wife. He saw 'indistinctly a white figure, unrecognisable, which at once vanished'. The husband got out of bed, made sure that there was no moonlight effect as the shutters were closed and no white garment to create a stimulus. The same kind of fleeting experience occurred to two young women, guests of the Archbishop of York; one of them saw 'a white figure fly through the room from the door to the window' as they lay in bed. The other heard 'an angel singing'. The white figure was interpreted as an angel, no doubt because of the status of their host.

Collective hallucinations prompted some very fancy theorising. F. W. H. Myers suggested this: 'When two or three persons see what seems to be the same phantom in the same place and at the same time, does that mean that that special part of space is somehow modified? or does it mean that a mental impression, conveyed by the distant agent - the phantom-begetter - to one of the percipients is reflected telepathically from that percipient's mind to the minds of the other - as it were secondary - percipients?'[8]

[8] Human Personality by F. W. H. Myers 1904: 2 vols I p. 263.

Myers preferred the former theory, but it would seem to most objective observers that a modification of space, if that means anything at all, is an unnecessary complication. A point which Myers pursues at great length has more appeal; it may be 'that the continuous dream-life which we must suppose to run concurrently with our waking life is potent enough to effect from time to time enough of dissociation to enable some element of the personality to be perceived at a distance from the organism'.[9]

[9] Ibid I p. 263.

The idle phantasies of imaginative young girls in strange environments, a starting-up from sleep and the mixing of dream images with dimly picked-out shapes and reflections, worry about a dying person and an interior image projected - such hallucinations have little of the occult about them. Yet there are some that puzzle, conforming to no easy category. In 1882, a Major W. of Conon Bridge, Ross-shire had a strange shared experience:

'It was the month of August; rather a dark night, and very still; the hour, midnight; when before retiring for the night, as is often my custom, to the front door to look at the weather. When standing for a moment on the step I saw, coming round a turn in the drive, a large close carriage and pair of horses, with two men on the box. It passed the front of the house, and was going at a rapid rate towards a path which leads to a stream, running, at that point, between rather steep banks. There is no carriage-road on that side of the house, and I shouted to the driver to stop, as, if he went on, he must undoubtedly come to grief. The carriage stopped abruptly when it came to the running water, turned, and, in doing so, drove over the lawn. I got up to it; and by this time my son had joined me with a lantern. Neither of the men on the box had spoken, and there was no sound from the inside of the carriage. My son looked in, and all he could discern was a stiff-looking figure sitting up in a corner, and draped, apparently, from head to foot in white. The absolute silence of the men outside was mysterious, and the white figure inside, apparently of a female, not being alarmed or showing any signs of life, was strange. Men, carriage, and horses were unknown to me, although I knew the country so well. The carriage continued its way across the lawn, turning up a road which led past the stables, and so into the drive again and away. We could see no traces of it the next morning - no marks of wheels or horses' feet on the soft grass or gravel road; and we never again heard of the carriage or its occupants, though I caused careful inquiries to be made the following day. I may mention that my wife and daughter also saw the carriage, being attracted to the window by my shout. This happened on the 23rd of August 1878.'[10]

[10] Phantasms of the Living by Edmund Gurney 1885: 2 vols II p. 194.

Frank Podmore visited the house in 1884, being sufficiently intrigued to make the long trip to Scotland. Major W. impressed him. Podmore saw where the carriage was supposed to have turned, finding barely enough room for a carriage to go let alone manoeuvre, noting that the grass was soft and sappy. The house itself was in a peculiar situation, on a peninsula, three miles from its neck, very desolate, no villages or hamlets. The corroboration of the major's wife he also noted. Perhaps the whole family was crazed and that was why they were living in isolation; there is no mention of servants - pity, as they were an observant breed; or maybe the carriage had some legitimate journey, though it would need a wayward driver to mistake the route in such an isolated part of the world, and in any event even the most churlish of drivers encountering the major and ploughing up his lawn would have made some pretence at civility. But, of course, the lawn was not ploughed up.


The Table Rappers by Ronald Pearsall (London: Book Club Associates, 1972).

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