Higher Powers

A New Natural History of the Supernatural
By Lyall Watson
Hodder and Stoughton, 296 pp.

On Aug. 24, 1984, the Amtrak Silver Meteor set out from Miami en route to New York. At 7:40 p.m., the train hit and killed a woman who was fishing from a bridge. Less than two hours later, it collided with a truck in South Carolina. Given a fresh crew, it continued north, but at 1:10 a.m. it struck a tractor-trailer on a crossing at Rowland, N.C., derailing two passenger cars and sending 27 people to hospital.

Once again the crew was replaced, and once again the train moved on, until at 2:37 a.m. in Kenly, N.C., it smashed into a car at yet another crossing. Despite the fact that there was nothing physically wrong with its machinery, Amtrak 117 was declared a Rogue Train and never finished its journey.

A string of unhappy coincidences? Perhaps. But it is anecdotes like this, piled one on top of another, that Lyall Watson uses to argue that there is something decidedly odd at work in the world, something that (shudder) cannot be rationally explained. Gather round folks, because Mr. Watson is back with more Eerie Tales for grown-up empiricists.

In 1977, Billy Milligan was arrested and charged as the “Campus Rapist” who had been terrorizing Ohio State University. He was found to be a dramatic example of multiple personality, housing no less than 24 different characters of both sexes and various ages. And he might have been dismissed as merely another sadly shattered mind, except for the curious abilities of his sub-personas. Arthur, who spoke with a British accent, not only demonstrated extensive knowledge of physics, chemistry and medicine, but could read and write Arabic fluently. Another, who identified himself as Ragen, was skilled in karate and fluent in Serbo-Croat. Billy Milligan, who housed the characters, could do none of these things and had never had the opportunity to learn them.

In the mid-1970s, physicists Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff began a series of experiments on “remote viewing” at the Stanford Research Institute. A pair of researchers would journey to a site selected at random (a marina, a water reservoir) while, isolated in a sealed chamber in the laboratory, a “sensitive” subject would try to describe where the researchers were, simply by calling up mental images. The experiments scored direct “hits” 66 per cent of the time, and ostensibly the results have been reproduced in 46 subsequent studies.

Megalithic sites such as Stonehenge have long been known to be more than merely symmetrical monuments: many are attuned to astronomical events, and therefore display a sophisticated cosmology on the part of their architects. Since the late 1970s, however, a group of Oxford scientists has found that a number of them possess some baffling physical properties. At certain times, ultrasound readings in the vicinity of the stones increase inexplicably. Geiger counters appear to detect periodic flares of beta-radiation. Other spots register as unduly “cool,” as though the stones are somehow screening out background ultrasound and other radiation.

Fifteen years after he first surveyed the strange goings-on of the psychic world in Supernature, Lyall Watson – biologist, broadcaster, borderline heretic – returns with an update, Beyond Supernature, a sort of greatest hits album of the paranormal. It is a book to turn hard-minded scientists livid with rage; those who tilt continually at the windmill of irrationality will denounce it as tabloid sensationalism trumped up for the hardcover crowd.

Certainly, Watson’s interests have a good deal in common with the science coverage of the Weekly World News – clairvoyance, telekinesis, poltergeists, out-of-body experiences – but where the tabloids simply plumb the supernatural as a source of startling narratives, Watson means to use it to tweak our blind faith in science itself. As a journalist he is a muckraker, not a scoundrel, intent on muddying our heroic portrait of scientific rationality by pointing to precisely what science not only cannot explain, but has difficulty explaining away: the wealth of cultural myths and urban rumors about saintly miracles, precognitive dreams, ghostly apparitions, telepathic contact and a host of other phenomena science either denies or dismisses.

It’s not, of course, that science denies the belief in the paranormal, any more than it denies the belief of tribal peoples in magic. But whatever the sociological use of occult rituals in traditional societies, and whatever the power of symbols and beliefs in human communities, science denies that the magic actually works.

For it to do so, there would have to be a hidden power – one that could act at a distance, move objects, see into the future, influence the course of disease. It is the stuff that pipedreams are made of; and it is Lyall Watson’s heresy to suggest that it exists, that there might in fact be something to all this talk of doppelgangers, Ouija boards and spoon-bending.

In an apt twist, his case is helped by the emergence in the post-war years (and primarily in the United States) of studies that have interrogated the paranormal with at least the urge to scientific rigor, on the assumption that if the methods can be shown to be sound the findings will be equally convincing.

Hence it seems that poltergeist activity is not the result of a mischevious spirit, but is most often associated with a disturbed or repressed adolescent. Only 24 per cent of these cases last longer than a year; objects move about in almost two-thirds of them; half involve rapping sounds, but windows and doors open and shut of their own accord in just 12 per cent; only eight per cent, intriguingly, reveal detectable fraud and only one in a hundred can be attributed to natural causes.

But the most conspicuous finding of such studies, as Watson himself agrees, is how resistant the paranormal appears to be to scientific inquiry. The controlled conditions required by science seem to strangle the cultural milieu the supernatural needs in order to work, and even those few clear results obtained in the laboratory have been notoriously difficult to replicate elsewhere.

The skeptic will insist that what scientific rigor prevents is not the actions of the supernatural but the delusions of organised credulity, and if the experiments cannot be repeated then what they purport to detect does not exist. And, indeed, Watson is in a peculiar position, defending the reality of phenomena that cannot be “known” in the usual sense, and that cannot be readily exploited for power or profit. But on the other hand, who can resist a volume jam-packed with well-told tales about things that could not possibly happen, but did? A supremely rational society – one in which the supernatural holds no fascination, because its creepy antics are universally dismissed – would be an immeasurably cheapened place, not an improved one: it would be a society without ghost stories.

And where would literature be without the gothic novel, or television without The Twilight Zone? And what would science be without a few skeletons in the closet? Beyond Supernature will be best enjoyed when read by flashlight on nights when one cannot sleep.eg

  • Montreal Gazette February 21, 1987