The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

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.

Alma Fielding

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.

Nandor Fodor

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.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverUltimately, 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.

Aliens in the Mind

A 6-part radio drama first broadcast at the start of 1977, Aliens in the Mind just about fits into the category of “kids with mind powers” that has become a bit of a theme on Mewsings. The reason I say “just about fits” is that the actual kid with mind powers, Flora Keiry, is pretty much a secondary character, the focus of the narrative being on the lead duo of brain surgeon John Cornelius and Professor Curtis Lark of the New York Institute of Paranormal Phenomena (played by Peter Cushing and Vincent Price), so this isn’t about the inner experience of a kid with mental powers in the same way as, say, The Chrysalids or Carrie.

The story starts with Cornelius and Lark arriving on the Hebridean island of Luig, to attend the funeral of their medical-school chum, Dr Hugh Dexter. There they find that not only were the circumstances of Dexter’s death somewhat suspicious, but he left them a hidden message, a record of his discovery that the island is the breeding ground for a new, mutant species of human. Most of these, having passed through an adolescent phase of mental disorientation known as “the Island Sickness”, become indistinguishable from other human beings, with no special powers. But a small number — perhaps only one at a time — become “controllers”, who can transmit telepathic orders which instantly turn the other, heretofore dormant mutants into mindless zombies bent on obeying the controller’s command.

Cornelius and Lark realise that Flora, an eighteen-year-old who never emerged from the mental disorientation stage of the Island Sickness, and so who has the mental and emotional maturity of a much younger child, is just such a controller, and manage to get her off the island and back to London to see if they can work out what’s going on. This, though, is only the start of a plot that soon moves into conspiracy thriller territory, bringing in Manchurian Candidate-like ideas of brainwashing as a means of achieving political ends.

Only a few months before, British TV had seen another take on The Manchurian Candidate, this time in the shape of Robert Holmes’s The Deadly Assassin serial for Season 14 of Doctor Who. The funny thing about this is that Aliens in the Mind, though not scripted by him, also came from Robert Holmes.

According to Richard Molesworth’s biography, Robert Holmes: A Life in Words, Holmes first came up with the idea behind Aliens in the Mind in 1967, when he submitted it as an idea for a TV series entitled Schizo. He then repurposed it as a possible Doctor Who script in 1968, around the time of writing his second adventure for the series (The Space Pirates), this time calling it Aliens in the Blood. Again, it failed to catch. He finally managed to get it commissioned in 1975 as a radio play, and intended to write it while on a Mediterranean holiday, only to have his wife fall ill, after which he had to spend all his spare time till his Doctor Who duties began again looking after her. As a result, Aliens in the Mind (as it was now titled) was scripted by Rene Basilico, with Holmes receiving a credit for the idea. (It’s a real pity he never got to write the scripts himself. Holmes loved a double act and created some of the most successful secondary characters in the classic era of Doctor Who, most notably Jago and Lightfoot from The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It would have been wonderful to hear what he’d have done with Cushing and Price.)

Although she’s not the main character, Flora still lives through the experience of your average “kid with mental powers”. From Firestarter to Stranger Things and The Institute, it’s the eternal fate of such kids to fall into the hands of scientists who want to study them, and who usually end up treating them as less than human. If Cornelius and Lark weren’t our main characters — and weren’t played with such suave charm as Cushing and Price bring to them — it would be easier to see just what they put poor Flora through. When she gets distressed and has doubts about leaving the island with them, they drug her. They take her to a psychiatrist who tries to hypnotise her, without telling her this is what they’re doing. Most of all, the pair make all the decisions for her, in the confidence that they, of course, are doing everything for her own good, despite the distress and danger they put her in. It would have been a quite different story if Flora had been the focal character. As it is, her personal story comes to something of a disappointing end as the series shifts out of weird SF and into conspiracy thriller territory for the final two episodes. (And ending with a Midwich Cuckoos-like opening out onto the wider stage: if this is happening here, what about the rest of the world?)

It’s a fun serial, mostly thanks to Cushing and Price, who are given some (but not enough) friendly UK-vs-US badinage, as well as for its Doctor Who-ishness (a Brigadier is brought on near the end, and you just know he ought to be the Brigadier). Plus, its mix of political paranoia, distrust of corporations, interest in mind-powers — and, sadly, its unexamined sexism — place it very much in the 1970s culturally.

Flora is an interesting example of the “kid with mental powers” who’s both very powerful and emotionally immature, meaning she uses her abilities as a toddler might, with all a toddler’s impulses of childish enthusiasm and sudden fear, plus a complete lack of self-control, leading, without her intending it, to endanger herself and others. It’s a pity the story wasn’t more about her; but it’s also a pity we never got to see more adventures from Cornelius and Lark as played by Cushing and Price. And it would have been great to hear them scripted by Holmes himself.

Escape to Witch Mountain

Kids with psychic powers have become a bit of a theme on Mewsings, one that often goes hand in hand with kids-as-aliens (The Midwich Cuckoos), kids-plus-aliens (Chocky), kids-from-the-future (Sky), and kids-as-the-next-stage-in-human-evolution (The Tomorrow People). If nothing else, kids with psychic powers are often treated as aliens (or less than human, anyway) because of their differences (The Institute, Stranger Things, The Morrow books), and as a result their stories are often about a quest for a new home where they truly belong (The Chrysalids, Morrow) or at least an escape from the dehumanising situation where they’re being held (The Institute, Stranger Things).

I realised recently that my first encounter with the idea of psychic kids was probably Disney’s 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain. It’s an adaptation of Alexander Key’s 1968 novel of the same name, and was a fairly successful film at a time when, I’ve read, Disney was in a bit of a creative and commercial slump. Certainly, it’s fondly remembered, and coming out as it did a short while before Star Wars would have meant it was a science-fictional kids’ film on hand to feed a generation of suddenly science-fictionally hungry kids, which must have helped.

I’ve long thought of the kids-with-psychic-powers “boom” of the 70s and 80s as being driven by the youth-centred social revolutions of the late 60s, as the theme packs in so many hippie ideas, ideals, and preoccupations, from the (literal) empowerment of the young and the villainisation of the establishment, to a belief in dormant psychic powers, beneficent aliens, and the desire to escape from a materialistic society. The theme was around before then (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was 1955, Zenna Henderson’s People stories were in magazines from 1952), but I think of it as being driven into the wider culture of films and TV thanks to creators inspired by, or at least touched by, those late-60s ideals.

I don’t really associate Disney with revolutionary ideas, though (the exceptions seem to be more about the fight against individual tyrants than criticising the socially-sanctioned tools tyrants use, such as King John’s exorbitant taxation in Robin Hood, or the Master Control Program’s restrictive security policies in Tron). And I don’t think either of the first two Witch Mountain films (Escape was followed by Return from Witch Mountain in 1978) have much in the way of social comment to make, and by the time of the 2009 reboot, Race to Witch Mountain, any elements that were once revolutionary (the fact that the government is the film’s main villain, for instance) had by then become so established as to be conventions rather than convictions. But they’re fun films, and still contain almost all of the elements of the other kids-with-psychic-powers stories I’ve mentioned.

This may make it look like Return from Witch Mountain is somewhat hauntological… It’s not.

Escape to Witch Mountain starts with siblings Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) arriving at an orphanage after the death of their adoptive parents. Tony can move things with his mind (though he generally has to be playing the harmonica to do it), while Tia can communicate telepathically with Tony, and with animals, and has precognitive flashes. Although they have a conversation about the need to hide their powers so as not to be ostracised, they don’t make much of an attempt to do so. Confronted by a bully and surrounded by the other kids in the orphanage, Tony thinks nothing of blatantly using his powers to win the fight. And none of the kids (except the defeated bully) seems to care much. But the film isn’t really about the alienation of being different, it’s about how fun it would be to have special powers. The main villain, greedy millionaire Aristotle Bolt, wants to use Tia’s precognitive powers to increase his already excessive wealth, but it’s only towards the end of the film, when the kids’ flight has led them to more rural areas, where a hick sheriff and hunting-mad locals think that because the kids are headed for Witch Mountain they must be witches and can be shot rather than captured, that there’s any real sense of danger.

In the book, Tony and Tia are more evidently different. Both have light-coloured hair, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Their story in the book is a bit more grim (the orphanage is run by a cynical matron, and the fight with the bully involves a home-made knife), the main villain isn’t a rich capitalist but a communist agent, and Tia can’t speak except telepathically to her brother and animals. They are helped first by a nun, then by a Catholic priest, Father O’Day (who is turned into widower-with-a-camper-van Jason O’Day in the film).

Tony and Tia’s powers seem to have no limits in the films. There’s none of the sense, as with Stranger Things’ Eleven’s nosebleeds, that using their powers takes something out of them, and by the second film Tony is using his telekinesis to keep multiple people and heavy objects flying in different orbits all at once, as well as lifting trains and trucks and a massive weight of gold, and can even perform technically demanding tasks such as meddling with electronic circuitry, or making a car window reflect enough sunlight to blind his pursuers.

Although released in 1975, Escape to Witch Mountain feels like an early 60s film. The kids are trusting of all adults, are sweetly innocent (left to themselves, they use their powers to put on a telekinesis-powered puppet show), and the perils are mild. There’s a reassuringly trustworthy adult to parent them through most of their journey. Return from Witch Mountain feels a bit more 70s, though largely in the surface details (the music — funky wah-wah’d guitar and rock flute — and the fashions — Tia’s very sharp, very red, short trouser suit — for instance), and the few touches of 70s grit are highly Disneyfied. (Tia, for instance, is helped not by a reassuring adult but a denim-clad street gang of kids, though they’re a gang who only think of themselves as tough and streetwise, while clearly being anything but, and are quick to realise that really they want to go to school.) Both films were directed by John Hough, who also directed Twins of Evil for Hammer (and in the second film he’s joined by Hammer actors Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as his villains).

Things have certainly changed by the time of the 2009 remake of Return, Race to Witch Mountain. The idea of alien visitors with psychic powers has picked up too much cultural baggage, and this is very much a post-X-Files, post-Close Encounters film, with hazmat suits, media interest, plenty of references to conspiracy culture, and a Terminator-style alien robot assassin to make up for the lack of visual cool in the two alien kids looking just like humans. The main difference in feel to the previous two films is that the kids — called Seth and Sarah this time — feel very much like aliens. They speak in stilted English, know a lot more than the humans that help them, and are emotionally distant for most of the film. (They also have different powers from Tony and Tia. Sarah can read anyone’s mind, while Seth can alter his molecular density, to pass through solid objects or become solid enough to stop a car. He doesn’t have telekinesis, though.) The point of audience identification now isn’t the kids, but what the SF Encyclopaedia calls the “action hero as exasperated dad”, in the form of harassed cab driver Jack Bruno, played by Wayne “The Rock” Johnson. This film isn’t about being a kid who’s different and has cool super powers, it’s about being a single dad, having to juggle a low-paid job, a regrettable mob past, and a pair of demanding teenagers (alien teenagers, no less). It feels less like a kids’ movie, more a movie about having kids.

The Witch Mountain films (and there were a few other TV remakes, including one intended as a pilot for a series that never got made, as well as a jokey Blair Witch take-off directed by Ike Eisenmann (Tony from the original films)) don’t really say anything new or profound about the kids-with-psychic-powers theme, and in fact do a very good job of not including any of the deeper or more painful aspects of these stories (that it’s all a metaphor for being a sensitive, alienated child in a world that doesn’t really care, as exemplified by Carrie). But they were certainly part of the popularising of the idea, preparing a generation of kids to absorb the deeper themes of the likes of Chocky, ET, and perhaps from them to The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, and so on.