W. H. Salter

William Henry Salter

1880-1969. Went to Trinity College, Cambridge, with a Classical Scholarship in 1899, took a first class degree in 1901, turned to read Law, and was called to the Barin 1905. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1916, to become a member of its Council three years later. From 1920 to 1931, a very difficult financial period, he served as Honorary Treasurer; and from 1924 to 1948 he was Honorary Secretary. He was President from 1947 to 1948. He made many contributions to the SPR Journal and Proceedings, and published two admirable books, Ghosts and Apparitions (1938) and Zoar (1961).

From Zoar, or The Evidence for Psychical Research Concerning Survival
(1961, Sidgwick and Jackson, London).

Chapter 5: Haunts and Poltergeists

- W. H. Salter -

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          NOTHING IN the realm of the "psychic" or "occult" arouses so much popular interest as Haunted Houses. I have been told that enterprising travel agencies in America hold out as one of the principal attractions of a visit to the United Kingdom the prospect of seeing our historic ghosts. If any of our visitors have come here with this intention, they are likely to be disappointed, and to find that neither the frequency nor the accessibility of our ghosts is as great as they had expected. In fact their own continent has produced examples not inferior, in Nova Scotia in the past, and more recently on Long Island.

Haunted Houses are much more numerous in fiction than in fact, and more thrilling too. I do not number among them houses where the husband having had a stomach-ache in the night, or the wife having mislaid the saucepan or finding a chimney smoke, promptly calls in the aid of the nearest journalist, to be followed, according to their inclinations, either by one of the local clergy or a medium from a neighbouring town. This is an imaginary psychic incident, but each item of it could be paralleled from my own, and doubtless many other investigators' experience.

Not all cases reported are on the face of them as trivial as this. Some suggest the most lurid possibilities which however fade away on examination. The psychical researcher cannot however afford to throw into his waste-paper basket all the reports in letters or newspaper cuttings that come to him, as there is an off-chance that every now and then something may be happening that will repay his attention, provided some knowledgeable person is on the spot before the pitch is hopelessly queered.

There are two main types of occurrence in a house or other locality, that are not clearly distinguished in the public mind. The first is of recurrent phantasms, visual, auditory or tactile, not different apart from their recurrence from those discussed in the two preceding chapters, none of the experiences being demonstrably objective in the ordinary material sense. The second is of noises, breakages and displacements of objects, and the like, often recurrent and, wherever a test is possible, found to be materially objective. Rarely the two types overlap, phantasms of the kinds mentioned being observed in connection with materially objective phenomena. Occurrences of the first type are known as "haunts", of the second as "poltergeists".

Among cases of haunts in which no demonstrably physical phenomena are reported, none is of greater interest than the "Morton" case, so called from the fictitious name under which the family concerned preferred to be known. It occurred in Cheltenham and was investigated by Myers, who knew that town well. He interviewed the head of the family during the period of the manifestations and, a few years later, he questioned several of the percipients. In the Prefatory Note to Miss Morton's report of the case in SPR Proc. VIII he writes:

"In this case it is observable that the phenomena as seen or heard by all the witnesses were very uniform in character - even in the numerous instances where there had been no previous communication between the percipients. I have found no discrepancy in the independent testimonies, when collected"

except, he adds, the inability or unwillingness of an old gentleman, a neighbour, to remember an incident six years old of which there is a written record made shortly after its occurrence.

The house was built about 1860, and the Morton family moved in at the end of April 1882. The first manifestation took place towards the end of June in the same year, when a daughter, Miss R. C. Morton, then aged 19, saw an apparition. She was the principal percipient in the case and prepared the report printed in SPR Proceedings ten years later. The apparition was of a tall lady dressed in black, the impression being of widow's weeds. By the light of a candle Miss Morton saw her standing at the head of a staircase. The figure began to descend the stairs, but at this point Miss Morton's candle burnt out. In the next two years she saw the figure again about half-a-dozen times, and on the 29th January 1884 she spoke to it twice, but the figure disappeared without making reply. She also heard light footsteps. Some of her experiences she recorded at the time in letters to a friend, which are quoted in the report. Two other sisters and a brother, at the time a boy of 7 or 8, each saw the figure several times in the period between 1883 and 1887: some of the appearances are said to have occurred in daylight. Written statements were obtained from these two sisters and the brother, and also from two servants. Noises of various kinds were heard.

Miss R. C. Morton made several attempts to test the possible materiality of the apparition. A camera was kept in readiness and some exposures made. These failed, as was. only to be expected in the poor light in which most of the apparitions took place. Thin cords were stretched at various heights, across the stairs and the figure was seen to pass through them. When Miss Morton cornered the figure and attempted to touch it, it vanished. These facts are all good evidence that the figure was not made of our common clay, but would be consistent either with the astral-etheric hypothesis, or with the view of apparitions set out in the preceding chapters. It is a curious feature of the case that Miss Campbell, the friend to whom Miss Morton first spoke of the apparition, herself saw the apparition "telepathically" as she puts it, on the night when Miss Morton first spoke to the figure. She was at the time at her home in the North of England, quite a hundred miles from Cheltenham. It was Miss Campbell who had suggested to Miss Morton that she should speak to the figure on its next appearance, but she could not of course have known when this would be. The only reason for regarding Miss Campbell's experience as "telepathic" would be the correspondence in dates, which, though curious, is not conclusive.

The evidence in this case, though not perfect, must be classed as good. The principal percipients, who were members of the Morton family, were of good education and intelligence, and made a favourable impression on Myers when he interviewed them. It would have been better if others besides Miss R. C. Morton had made written records at the time, but even so we must suppose that the printed account represents the facts in their main outline at least. The figure mostly appeared and disappeared indoors in conditions that, in this and other respects, practically rule out the possibility that a living person was mistaken for a phantom. On the other hand, the apparition was not veridical. It conveyed no knowledge to the percipients which they did not already possess. It was not recognised. There were only the flimsiest grounds for connecting it with any previous occupant of the house. If it had appeared to one percipient only, there would have been nothing to differentiate it from the general run of apparitions that, for no obvious reason, just happen.

Miss Campbell's experience may perhaps help towards finding an explanation. If it was not, as she thought, due to telepathy, it may have been due to suggestion aided by chance. Her own advice to Miss Morton might have stimulated her to have a visual hallucination, and the correspondence in date is not outside the range of chance-coincidence. After Miss R. C. Morton's first experience had become known to other members of the Morton family, ordinary suggestion might induce hallucinations in them.

There are also a few cases of recognised apparitions being seen in the same building by more than one person independently and at different times. Thus in a case investigated by the SPR (Journal XIX, 262) a Rector was seen in his church by the caretaker about a year after his death. He spoke to her. (It will be understood that the third personal pronoun, "he", is used without prejudice in place of a clumsy periphrasis such as "The figure resembling the late Rector".) About four years later the wife of the then Rector saw the former Rector in another part of the same building. She knew his appearance from photographs, but did not know of the caretaker's experience. Both appearances were in daylight, which makes it improbable that an actual living person was mistaken for an apparition of a dead man. But as neither percipient received any information they did not already possess, the experience was not veridical. The fact that the caretaker both "saw" and "heard" the voice of the late Rector does nothing to prove her experience other than hallucinatory, since several cases of simultaneous hallucination of more than one sense were reported to the Census Committee.

In the poltergeist cases, where the occurrences are materially objective, three possible causes have to be considered: they may all be in operation in a single case. The first is normal, non-human agency: animals, especially rats, wind, water-pipes, and, as Mr. Lambert has recently stressed, pressure by tidal water or underground streams. The second is paranormal activity, operative through some person who is in a sort of way a medium. The third is deceptive imitation of paranormal activity, often, but not always, by a sub-normal adolescent.

As to the first sort of cause, it has long been recognised that rats, wind and water-pipes can produce noises odd enough to baffle a household. Mr. Lambert points out that a substantial number of poltergeist cases have been reported from places where the action of tidal and subterranean water would be likely to be strong, especially at certain times and seasons. To establish a poltergeist in the opinion of the household and neighbours it would be essential that the effects of the action of the water should be noticeable by them, but the action itself not. This would limit the supposed psychic phenomena to noises of various kinds, and small breakages and displacements.

Many phenomena, however, are on record that could not be explained by direct action of water, either because they are too big to have been so produced without thrusting the cause on the attention of the household, or because they are of a kind that no geophysical disturbance, large or small, could have caused, the writing on the walls in Borley Rectory, for instance. As to such cases Mr. Lambert argues that geophysical causes started noises or small movements which the household could not explain, and so triggered off other phenomena of a different type or on a larger scale, the direct agency for which was human.

Though non-human causes are beyond doubt at work in some cases, it is the human activity which is the most important, and the question is whether it is ever paranormal. It is generally agreed that there is one human agent, or more than one, whose removal from the scene would at once be followed by the cessation of the disturbances, and further that the agent, or if there is more than one, then one of the agents, is very frequently an adolescent, mentally or physically sub-normal, but that he is occasionally a sub-normal adult, and occasionally also an adult who is neither mentally nor physically below the average. Is the agency of any of them a case of genuine mediumship, or is it invariably deceptive, whether consciously or subconsciously?

Where the person is neither mentally nor physically subnormal, the phenomena are in my view always fraudulent, and designed to further some plan, such as to frighten an unwanted member of the household into quitting, or, as in a case I looked into some years ago, to prevent the purchaser of a house taking up residence and evicting a family of squatters.

The hypothesis that the phenomena were simulated through the agency of a sub-normal adolescent was put forward by Podmore, one of the authors of Phantasms, in 1896 after an examination of all the poltergeist cases which had then been investigated by the SPR. To call it, as has often been done, "the naughty little girl theory" is not quite fair, not only because the disturbances were sometimes focused on boys, and, as later research showed, on adults too, but because the whole point of Podmore's view was that the state of mind that prompted the causation of the disturbances was different from the wilful naughtiness of a healthy child. Podmore may have ridden his hypothesis too hard, but I am sure he was on the right track.

The strains which puberty places on even a healthy child are immensely intensified if the child is not up to the mark in mind or body, tubercular perhaps, or a cripple, or mentally defective. He is compelled to forego some of the fun that he sees other boys and girls of his own age enjoying. But he can find some compensation for this if by a little trickery he can fool, mystify, perhaps, frighten his parents and other seniors by making them believe they have to deal with occult, sinister forces. If the parents make enough ado about his performances he may himself come to believe that they are genuine and sinister. "Begun in fun, continued in fraud, and ending in fright," was the summary of the report on one case, and might apply to many more.

It is not necessary to work any very recondite piece of deception to fool the sort of household where these things usually happen. When poltergeists occur, as they occasionally do, in intelligent families, a little psychological knowledge and increase of affection to the child will probably put a rapid end to the trouble.

The word "trickery" may he thought to beg the question. Is there never anything paranormal? It is not possible to, prove that there never is, because it is extremely rare for a critical observer, who knows what trickery can effect, to be present when the phenomena are occurring. He is lucky if he can get a first-hand account of them soon after their occurrence from an eye-witness who may know little about trickery but is at any rate intelligent. Informed opinion is not unanimous, but the weight of it seems to me to be strongly against the paranormal. One should not however call the trickery of sub-normal adolescents or adults fraud, reserving that word for the conduct of persons who have fewer claims on our sympathy.

As an instance of the complex situation that may be found in a poltergeist case, take the disturbances in a London house which aroused great interest about thirty years ago. The house stood near the course of an underground stream, but this fact and its possible significance were not realised at the time. There is some evidence that, before disturbances began inside the house, stones were thrown at it from adjoining property. Three generations lived in the house, including a senile grandfather, aged 85. The first disturbances in the house consisted of the throwing of small, hard objects, such as potatoes and lumps of coal, The grandfather was a constant target for these. Later on, larger objects were thrown about the kitchen, and furniture was upset and smashed. Among the members of the household were a son, aged forty, who had had brain-fever as a child and still suffered from frequent headaches, and his nephew, fourteen, a delicate, shy-looking boy who had been under treatment for nervous trouble. From the report of representatives of the SPR who paid several visits, it would appear that both son and grandson might have been responsible for causing disturbances, and that the son might have been actuated by a desire to frighten the old man out of the house. Disturbances however continued during the son's absence, and could all, in the view of the SPR representatives who kept the grandson under careful observation, have been caused by the latter. No more definite motive for his causing them could be found than is usually traceable where an adolescent is the centre of trouble of this kind. There was also a free-lance investigator, who visited the house at this time. During his visits remarkable things happened which the members of the household who were not themselves under suspicion attributed to him.

Occasionally a poltergeist case, after the typical disturbances, is reported as developing apparitions. In poltergeist cases which are free from suspicion of deliberate deception there is a characteristic psychological situation not usually found among percipients of apparitions. It is therefore desirable to look closely into the reports of apparitions seen in poltergeist cases. Who .claims to have seen them? Is it certain that whoever is causing the disturbances is not also fabricating reports of apparitions in order to arouse still greater interest and to make the whole affair conform more closely to the popular notion of how a ghost should behave?

At Borley the process was reversed. A case which had run for several decades, with apparitions, real or supposed, but no phenomena that, whether genuine or not, were certainly physical, suddenly breaks out into physical phenomena of various kinds continued for several years during which the occupants of the Rectory entirely change. Both the change from apparition to poltergeist, and the continuance of the poltergeist phenomena, notwithstanding change of occupant, are so unlike what the psychical researcher's experience of other cases would lead him to expect, as to call for a thorough scrutiny of the evidence.

This it received in Vol. 51 of SPR Proceedings in a report based on most careful examination of the available evidence, written and oral, conducted over several years. I visited the Rectory during the first year of the Foyster incumbency, and interviewed both the Foysters, and went there twice later after they had left. I have not the slightest doubt that the report gives a true picture, in general, of the haunting, and only regret that here and there the tone is so biased as to detract from the force of the commentary.

Henry Bull who built Borley Rectory in 1863 lived there till his death in 1892. He was succeeded by his son, Harry Bull who died in 1927, but for several years, 1911 to 1920, did not live at the Rectory, which was occupied by his sisters.

The reputation of the Rectory for being haunted was started by the visions of Henry Bull, a notable eccentric. There is no reason to suppose they were anything else than subjective hallucinations. For the whole of the two Bull incumbencies and the first few months of that of their successor, the Rev. G. E. Smith who became Rector in 1928, the reputation for haunting was increased by rustic credulity, perhaps a little mild hoaxing, and the misinterpretation of ordinary sights and sounds. On the 10th June 1929 a journalist, invited by Mr. Smith, visited the Rectory, heard many marvels but saw none.

Two days later all that was changed most dramatically. The journalist returned, bringing with him Harry Price, who later wrote tip the haunt in two books. On this occasion thick panes of glass fell from a roof, splashing them both with splinters. They saw a glass candlestick hurtle past their heads, pebbles come tumbling down the stairs, and so on. For this startling development there is only one reasonable explanation, namely that these occurrences were deliberately faked by Harry Price. This suggestion will not appear improbable to those who know how later he manipulated and distorted other people's evidence as to events at Borley, or who have followed his conduct in other matters, the circumstances, for instance, of his exposure of Rudi Schneider.

In October 1930 the Rev. L. A. Foyster, a cousin of the Bulls, took up residence at the Rectory, accompanied by a wife much younger than himself, whose first experience this was of life in a small, remote, English village. Between then and January 1932 ostensibly paranormal phenomena occurred in great number and astonishing variety, including voices, apparitions, odours, throwing of objects, overturning of furniture, and, not least remarkable, the appearance of messages on walls and pieces of paper. The Rector, a charming and cultivated man, but not in conversation showing much sign of worldly wisdom, wrote it all down with great care. There is no doubt that some at least of the phenomena, the messages for example, were faked by Mrs. Foyster, whose apparent motive was to worry her husband into giving up the living. When it became clear that he would not do this, the phenomena ceased.

It is unnecessary to describe the events after the Foysters had left, while Harry Price was tenant of the Rectory, which had ceased to be used as such. The place was invaded week by week by groups whose hunger for sensation much exceeded, in most cases, their competence as investigators. Nor is it worth while to waste time over reports of still later events. Populus vult decipi, and through Harry Price, Mrs. Foyster and some organs of the Press it had at Borley its heart's desire.

So much doubt attaches to apparitions reported as seen in connection with occurrences of the poltergeist type that it is useless to speculate whether they are to any degree material. No qualification as to materiality is needed regarding the candlesticks hurtling through the air, the furniture knocked about, and so on. These are material in the ordinary sense of the word, and so introduce something which had no place in the accounts of apparitions discussed in Chapter III. Their natural affinity is with the physical phenomena of the sťance room, with which the next chapter will deal. Before however leaving the subject of apparitions I will summarise my views on them and on their bearing on the problem of survival.

The number of reported instances of apparitions and of cognate auditory and tactile experiences is enormous. (For the sake of brevity I will mention only the visual experiences, the apparitions: they are the most numerous and what is said about them applies in general to experiences of the other two kinds.) Several volumes would be required to set them all out with an adequate comment on the evidential, psychological and other points each of them raises. For the purpose of deducing general principles they can be considered as conforming to various types. This becomes much clearer if one insists on a high evidential standard, the rules governing which are such as commonsense dictates: they have been stated shortly in Chapter III. Rigid adherence to them is in practice a counsel of perfection, but cases which deviate substantially should be discarded in the formulation of principles.

I have attempted above to describe the main types, giving examples with comments, and have also set out and commented on several cases that have come to be regarded as "leading cases" on the various topics under discussion. It will doubtless be suggested that if other casts had been chosen a different moral could have been extracted from them, but that the cases chosen are leading cases few will probably deny. For information as to the frequency or scarcity of different types of apparition reliance has been placed on the three collections already specified, Phantasms of the Living (1886), the Census Report (Proc. X, 1894) and Mrs. Sidgwick's paper in Proc. XXXIII (1923). Since that date there has been a great reduction in the number of experiences of all kinds reported. This probably implies a reduction in the number of actual experiences, and not merely of reports of them, and a Census on the same scale today might very likely show figures different from those of 1894. There is however no reason to suppose that the relative proportions of the various types would differ so much as to affect the propositions set out below:

(1) It is not uncommon for sane and healthy people to see apparitions while believing themselves to be fully awake.

(2) Nothing is at present known as to whether sane and healthy persons when they see apparitions of the kind described in this and the preceding chapters are in any particular physiological condition. Hallucinations, but of a quite different kind, may be produced by disease, alcohol, drugs or the electrical stimulation of the brain.

(3) Nothing is known as to the psychological conditions in which the great majority of such apparitions are seen.

(4) A small proportion of such apparitions show a correspondence with external events of which the percipient had no normal knowledge and which he could not infer by any normal reasoning. These are called "veridical".

(5) Statistics applied to the particular class of veridical apparitions known as "death-coincidental", i.e., occurring within twelve hours before or after the death of the person seen, show that the correspondence is not due to chance, and accordingly that it requires some paranormal explanation.

(6) Veridical apparitions are therefore objective, as corresponding in some way to things external to the percipient's normal knowledge or inference, but they are not objective in the sense of consisting of anything physical or material in the usual meaning of those words: they do not, e.g., leave any material after-effects.

(7) Most human apparitions are clothed. This is more reasonably explained by supposing that the whole apparition, including the clothes, occurs as a mental image than on the view that it is a quasi-material replica of a person of flesh and blood.

(8) Realistic veridical apparitions stand at one end of a series of experiences at the other end of which stand veridical intuitions devoid of sensory imagery. Any explanation must he such as will explain the whole series of experiences-realistic, semi-realistic and symbolic visions, "borderland" cases, dreams and intuitions. Between apparitions and events of a definitely physical or material kind there is no continuous series, no connecting link such as a supposed intermediate semi-material substance: see sub-clause 17 post.

(9) The series of veridical experiences that ranges from apparitions to intuitions can most satisfactorily be explained if all of them are considered as presentations to the percipient's conscious mind of telepathic impulses received by his subconscious from another person who is connected with it visually or in some other way, according to the type of experience. It is convenient to call this person the "agent" without necessarily implying that his activity is telepathic. Presentation may be by a realistic, semi-realistic or symbolic hallucination (as to which see p. 31 above), or be completely without externalisation.

(10) The basic idea of telepathy is transfusion of minds rather than transmission of ideas, as is most clearly shown in "reciprocal" experiences.

(11) A telepathic impulse may remain latent in the percipient's subconscious, certainly for a short time, but it is not known for how long. Veridical apparitions seen shortly after death may therefore be the result of telepathic impulses from the agent while alive, and the same is possible, though less probable, when a considerable time has elapsed. The length of time between death and experience cannot be taken as by itself decisive for or against activity by a living agent.

(12) If an apparition conveys to the percipient information as to matters outside his normal knowledge or inference or that of any other person from whom he can be reasonably supposed to have derived it telepathically, and if the matters in question relate to things that have happened since the agent's death, that is evidence of the agent's survival in the way and to the extent that information obtained under the like conditions through a medium would be, but not otherwise. Cases of this type are, as might have been expected, rare.

(13) Apparitions of the same agent may be seen at different times by different percipients, and the conditions in which this happens vary. If the later percipients have no knowledge of the earlier percipients' experiences, and especially if the apparitions are seen, as in a "haunt", in the same place, there is something odd requiring explanation. These cases however are seldom veridical or suggestive of the activity of a recognisable dead agent, or of any material or quasi-material being.

(14) Poltergeists are an altogether different type of occurrence notwithstanding occasional reports of apparitions being connected with typical poltergeist disturbances.

(15) If there are any well established cases of veridical apparitions being seen simultaneously by more than one percipient, they are so rare as to make it impossible usefully to argue as to their cause. In considering reports of them large allowance must be made for misinterpretation of natural persons and objects, and for the influence of the words or actions of one percipient on the others.

(16) Collective percipience is no guarantee of the local presence of any person or object consisting of any kind of matter (or quasi-matter) for which there is satisfactory evidence.

(17) Apart from apparitions, whose nature is now under discussion, the evidence for the existence of a substance intermediate between mind and matter derives from various types of "physical phenomena" and the statements of the mediums through whom these are produced. In the next chapter I give reasons for considering this evidence unsatisfactory.

(18) The main bearing of apparitions on the problem of survival is indirect. As examples of telepathy and part of the evidence for that faculty they help to show that mental processes are not entirely conditioned by bodily ones, and might therefore continue in operation after the death of the body. A few cases in which information as to events after the agent's death is paranormally conveyed by an apparition add support to the survival hypothesis, but it is the nature of the information and not its conveyance by an apparition that matters. Otherwise apparitions tell neither for nor against survival.

I put forward these propositions as my personal opinion, without claiming that sufficient proof of all of them has been adduced. Of many of them in the present state of our knowledge complete proof, or disproof, is not possible. They seem to me however to be such as are indicated by a broad view of the best available material.

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