Kate Summerscale has previously written about one of the earliest detective-led crime cases in Britain, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), but here turns her attention to a different type of investigation, in the world of between-the-wars paranormal research. Her “detective” is Nandor Fodor, a Jewish Hungarian journalist working for the International Institute for Psychical Research in London. As the book opens, he has come under flack from the psychic press for being too unsympathetic to spiritualism to properly investigate the mediums, poltergeists, and other phenomena (including Gef the Talking Mongoose) he’s looked into. Fodor hit back, launching a libel case against Psychic News, not just because his position at the International Institute required him to be impartial, but because he was genuinely open to belief in such things (having had some ghostly experiences as a child). The trouble was, he combined a willingness to believe, with the rigour and honesty necessary not be hoodwinked.
So, when some plausible-sounding and dramatic poltergeist activity at a house in Thornton Heath came up, he leapt at the chance to secure this as an exclusive for the Institute. Les and Alma Fielding were in bed, both under the weather (Les had had all his teeth removed, Alma had kidney trouble) when a glass threw itself across the room and shattered. This was but the first of many objects moving, often violently, in the house over the next few days, which had been witnessed by Alma, Les, their teenage son Don, and their lodger George. Fodor began investigating, and was soon convinced the poltergeist phenomena were genuine. If so, this was the chance he needed to prove he wasn’t simply intent on debunking psychic phenomena — and thereby win his case against the Psychic News and keep his job at the Institute.
Pretty soon, Alma Fielding — around whom the poltergeist activity centred — was paying regular visits to the Institute’s London offices, where she’d be thoroughly body-searched by female staff before entering a séance room and performing a variety of psychic stunts, all the time under the observation of witnesses. At first it was poltergeist phenomena — the sudden appearance of small, random objects, including live mice and an antique necklace, as well as the breakage of tea-cups, chairs suddenly falling over, and so on — but Fodor encouraged her in other directions, too. Alma proved to be a medium, able to go into a trance and let her spirit-guide Bremba talk through her. All the while, Fodor was wary of being tricked, and most of what Alma did smacked as much of stage magic as psychic ability. For instance, Fodor and some others took her on a trip to the seaside, during which they visited Woolworths and Alma tried on a ring at the jewellery counter. She gave it back and they all left the shop. But while walking along the road afterwards, an empty film tin Fodor had given Alma began to rattle, and when they opened it, they found the ring. Fodor wasn’t sure whether to be alarmed they’d just psychically shop-lifted, or amazed at what had happened.
One of the troubles with books about poltergeist phenomena, I find, is they often turn into protracted lists of random objects appearing, breaking, or flying across the room. It was no doubt fascinating, even frightening, to witness, but when read about it becomes tedious. Freud, who read and approved Fodor’s write-up of the Fielding case, nevertheless complained that “Some of the evidential detail was tiresome”, and I can’t help agreeing.
Inevitably, Fodor catches Alma in the act of throwing an object that was meant to be one of her poltergeist’s “apports”. An X-ray taken before a séance session reveals several objects hidden in her underwear. As though to keep one step ahead and remain interesting, Alma began exhibiting scratches on her skin caused by her spirit guide’s pet tiger. She tells Fodor of night visits by a vampire, and shows him the wounds…
The Haunting of Alma Fielding chimes in with some of the themes I’ve been looking at on this blog, though in fiction rather than fact. For instance, stories about psychic kids, in which children with unusual powers are chased, captured or held by unscrupulous scientific types, and studied in a lab, usually in a very dehumanising way. (Eleven in Stranger Things, for instance, or the boy in Stephen King’s The Institute.) Or the similar situation in ghost stories (The Stone Tape, for instance, and at least one episode of The Omega Factor), where investigators lay out every variety of measuring instrument to try and capture a haunting. Both of these situations come together in the real-life investigation of Alma Fielding and her unusual phenomena.
Except that Nandor Fodor is nothing like those ruthless fictional scientists. Whereas, say, the psychic investigator in the 2011 film The Awakening is utterly intent on doing nothing but debunk all the mediums and ghosts she comes across, Fodor is not only all-too-willing to believe, but is capable of more than the black-and-white, imposture-or-not style of thinking you’d expect. When he catches Alma surreptitiously throwing a small gemstone and pretending it was a psychic “apport”, he doesn’t take this as immediate evidence that everything about her case is fake. He knows his “psychic” subjects are unusual people, at the mercy of strange drives, and that they might feel the need to add to their genuine phenomena with bursts of fakery and showmanship:
“In psychical science, one fraudulent act did not invalidate all of a medium’s claims. The transcendent and the tawdry were often united in one psyche.”
Fodor, in fact, is just as fascinated by the new science of psychoanalysis, and brought its ideas to bear on his psychic investigations. He was ready to believe the psychic phenomena he was investigating were real, but was also interested in finding out if they were driven by — and perhaps entirely explained by — the psychology of the people they centred on. He entertained the idea that certain kinds of intense psychological conditions might cause objects to move, break, even appear, without the need of an external “ghost” or poltergeist. Equally, he thought the whole thing could be imposture, but unconscious imposture, so that Alma might, for instance, really believe it was a poltergeist that caused her tea-cup to fling itself across the room, when it was simply herself — her unconscious self — flinging it, as the expression of some psychological drive or process hidden to her.
Fodor comes across, sometimes, as a little boy in wonderland. Confronted by one of Alma’s suddenly-appearing objects, he’s able to appreciate the wonder of what she’s just done, whether it’s a genuinely psychical event or a skilled magic trick she’s doing for his benefit. He is – unlike all those clipboard-wielding scientists who attach electrodes to Eleven and make her try to kill a cat with her mind-powers — genuinely concerned about Alma’s mental and physical health, going to the extent of recruiting her spirit guide, during a séance, to make sure she eats enough. When her experiences turn darker — when she starts telling tales of being visited by a vampire at night — he wonders if his investigation isn’t doing more harm than good, and that it may be uncovering something darker within Alma herself:
“Fodor believed that Alma’s apports and elaborations had stemmed from a feverish wish for change, escape, self-expression, but they had also ushered in unbidden experiences, such as the visits of the incubus and vampire, that were rooted in her past.”
The idea that traumatic memories could be so deeply buried as to be hidden from the conscious mind, yet come out in unusual and even violent ways, was new at the time. But Fodor began to suspect it was tied in with the cases of psychic phenomena he was investigating:
“A ghost was the sign of an unacknowledged horror… There were no words, so there was a haunting.”
Which sounds like it might have been taken from Bessel van der Kolk’s book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score:
“Many traumatized children and adults simply cannot describe what they are feeling because they cannot identify what their physical sensations mean… Traumatic events are almost impossible to put into words.”
Ultimately, Fodor moved to New York, trained as a psychoanalyst, and wrote on the paranormal cases he’d investigated from a psychoanalytical point of view. Because of this, he was brought in as a consultant when Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House was filmed by Robert Wise in 1963, and met Jackson, who told him she’d read his books. And this is another theme I’ve looked at in this blog: the ties between the early classics of modern horror and the discovery of the darker levels of the psyche in the work of early psychoanalysts. Fodor, it seems, was there, dealing with the actual real/not-real thing, and thinking about it in the same terms.
In The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Summerscale ties the rise of poltergeist activity in Britain between the World Wars (and there seems to have been a deluge of it) with growing tensions in Europe. In newspapers of the time, headlines about hauntings ran alongside images of the screaming face of Adolf Hitler on another rant. She also emphasises the intimate aspects of Fodor’s investigation of Alma, how often, for instance, his checking of her body for hidden objects, or the need to hold her hands to be sure she wasn’t throwing things, led to so much physical contact and attention. She also ties poltergeist phenomenon to another aspect of the age, Surrealist art, with its unexpected juxtapositions and inconsequentialities. The spirit world has its trends, too, it seems, and poltergeists, perhaps, were the Modernists of their kind, speaking as they did of trauma and fractured narratives (sudden breakages of objects, sudden eruptions into normality), the banality of modern life (focusing as it does on so many day-to-day objects like tea cups, spoons, plates), the apparent meaninglessness of human life (how all these bizarre breakages, bangs, and crashes ultimately mean nothing, and provide no message), all pointing to something deeply disturbing beneath it all, but unsayable in any other way — like The Waste Land, but written in broken crockery rather than fragments of verse.