Nothing mysterious

According to folklore, Hallowe’en is the time when ghosts, goblins, two-legged beasties and things go bump in the night. Every Manitoba city, town, village and hamlet has its share of reported “things that go bump in the night.”

As a teenager, a visit to “The Heath,” a small graveyard along Willow Creek southwest of my hometown, was a must on Hallowe’en. The Heath was the zenith of spooky to our young and fertile imaginations, because it was a dark  and eerie place where tendrils of mist climbed upward from the ground to engulf headstones and visitors.

The point of the annual pilgrimage was to make sure there were plenty of easily-frightened teenage girls on hand and then regale them with tales of the spirits that haunted the hollow. The more preposterous the story, the better. 

As the climax of the tales of ghostly apparitions  neared, it was one person’s job to hurl a previously concealed rock against some solid object. The thud the rock made was the signal for spirits to rise from their unpeaceful slumber. Actually, the point wasn’t to raise the dead, but to scare the girls. The shrieks that arose soon turned to laughter as everyone came to the conclusion that it was joke rather than proof that the dead were stirring in their graves.

I’m not sure how many people believed that The Heath was actually haunted, but there are plenty of people around the world who, as Mulder from the X Files would say, “Want to believe.” This willingness to accept the unacceptable is used to great advantage by so-called psychics, astrologists and spiritualists.

Among the duped have been some people one would expect to have a little more common sense, including the creator of Sherlock Holmes and well-respected 20th-century Winnipeg professionals and their wives. Even Canada’s longest-serving prime minister wasn’t adverse to occasionally chatting with his dead mother and dog. Mackenzie King also evoked the spirits of dead PMs such as John A. Macdonald and Wilfred Laurier to provide him with advice.

The magician, James Randi, whose stage name is the Amazing Randi, has become somewhat of a television celebrity by debunking so-called physic phenomena in the tradition of the world’s most famous illusionist, Harry Houdini. 

On the James Randi Educational Foundation website, Randi writes about “the art of cold reading,” used by popular pyschics such as Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh and John Edward, who have made their career by appearing on TV shows such as Larry King Live on CNN.

The cold reader asks some vague questions and then waits for a reaction from his or her subject. Invariably, the subject provides the answer that the cold reader needs to manifest his or her psychic abilities. For example, once reader Van Praagh was provided with information that a woman’s husband had died in hospital — he used 26 questions to finally obtain the husband’s name — he asked the following:

Reader: “Did your husband linger on in the hospital, or did he pass quickly?”

Subject: “Oh, he died almost immediately!”

Reader: “Yes, because he’s saying to me, ‘I didn’t suffer. I was spared any pain.”

As Homer of The Simpsons would say, “Doh!”

Randi has also tested so-called cold readers by adopting a blank expression and not answering any of the questions they pose. 

But, every reader was stumped, and each of them said to Randi, “I’m not getting anything. We’ll have to try another time.” Of course they’re not getting anything, since they haven’t been provided with all the necessary information from unwitting subjects.

“I’m amazed at how much death affects people who undergo the process,” wrote Randi. “It makes them really stupid and forgetful. Whenever I’ve asked any psychics — or spiritualists — to contact my paternal grandmother, it seems she doesn’t remember such basics as the name of her husband, or the name of her church — both important elements of her life while she was ‘here.’ Now that she’s ‘there,’ her rather prodigious intellect has left her quite completely.”

Death, specifically the millions killed during the First World War and the need to address the sorrow of relatives, led to the spread of spiritualism in the first half of the 20th century. Its most famous adherent was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned the Sherlock Holmes novels. Doyle, whose son died during the war, said that “the sight of world which was distraught with sorrow and which was eagerly asking for help and knowledge” led to his commitment to spiritualism. 

On a visit to Winnipeg in 1923, he made a point of looking up Dr. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, who hosted seances at his Henderson Highway home (now a heritage site). Elizabeth Poole, the medium who entertained the doctor’s crowd, was said to be able to conjure up spirits who could tap out messages and move objects around.

The author wrote in Our Second American Adventure that those in the Hamilton home “placed their hands ... upon the table ... It was violently agitated, and this process was described as ‘charging it.’ It was then pushed back into a small cabinet made of four hung curtains with an opening in front. Out of the table came clattering again and again entirely on its own, with no sitter touching it ... like a restless dog in a kennel ...” 

“... Winnipeg stands very high among the places we have visited for its psychic possibilities,” enthused Doyle after his visit. “There are several Spiritualist churches and a good number of local mediums of good repute.”

What happened in the Hamilton home bears some resemblance to the sleight of hand we practiced in our youth. When everyone was engrossed in the stories we were telling (think about the atmosphere of a seance), the distraction was enough to allow someone to toss the rock against an object and startle others into believing something was going bump in the night. It wasn’t exactly a polished trick, like the Winnipeg medium’s offerings, but it was effective. 

One of the great contradictions of Doyle’s belief system was that he became a friend of Houdini, who used his illusionist training to debunk every medium he encountered, duplicating their tricks of the trade without the help of spirit guides.

Upon Doyle’s death on July 7, 1930, the Margery Group of Boston, named after the woman who served as its medium, attempted to contact the famous author as he passed into the spirit world. According to Margery Crandon’s husband, their regular spirit guide, Walter, “for the first time in over three years ... did not come through. A perfectly reasonable explanation was given by Mark, one of Walter’s helpers ... He said, in effect: ‘Walter is busy as one of a reception committee to a great Spirit, newly arrived.’” 

Of course, the great spirit was Doyle.

The magic of Hallowe’en is not the acknowledgement of things that go bump in the night, but the spirit of fun it evokes — even our youthful trickery was done in the spirit of a good-natured Hallowe’en prank. Hallowe’en is children going from house to house, laughing and shouting, “Trick or treat!” It’s really an uncomplicated cavort about the neighbourhood by earth-bound children who are not hindered by the mysteries of the world around them — it takes adults and their strange goings-on to muck up the fun.