Graham Higgins Illustration - Literate Graffiti Dept.


January 1, 2011

1-1-11 Ghosthunters


…Not yet ten hours into the new decade that will take a couple of years to settle into becoming The Teenies. This year I shall take momentary pleasure from writing 9-10-11 and 13-12-11 on the class whiteboard and like a rare alignment of planets, the Remembrance Day one-minute silence will fall on the 11th hour of 11-11-11.

Last night we launched a couple of paper flying lanterns with memories of the past year written on them and were rewarded with the sight of ours joining a growing number of glowing balloons following the prevailing wind. I gripe about the growth of Greeting Card and Merchandising festivals, notably the import of the American Hallowe’en and its cargo-cult of barely understood trick-or-treat customs. I don’t know when the flying lantern made its first appearance in the High St. shops; until someone declares their carcasses minor acts of eco-vandalism, like the toy helium balloons launched in charity balloon-races, I shall look forward to sending next year’s lantern to its Valhalla.

Thanks here to Sue Jones for remaining a kind, funny and (almost) painlessly acute critic and commentator. I’ll spend a little more time on that invitation to adopt a particular form of church doctrine (other interpretations and customs are available) here rather than in follow-up comments.

I agree – who could be ‘against’ communities of goodwill and co-operation?

In conversations with Muslim women who’ve adopted the everyday traditional ‘modest’ clothing I’ve altered my view that it represents a subservience to masculine authority and I can see how it might represent a visible ‘not in my name’ response to some of the tacky values and behaviour presented as women’s ‘liberation’. Similarly, church membership can be a collective rejection of the operative reality that general wellbeing will be sustained by stimulating the economy: in currency we trust.

So if belief in a personal God who speaks to us promotes altruism and secure well-being, where’s the problem? Some do it with affirmations or pantheist neo-paganism, some may wear crystals to achieve the same result even if I can’t help thinking of Dumbo clutching The Magic Feather until he’s forced to realise that he can fly without it.

On a human, humane, humanist (the faithful would say ‘merely’ humanist) level, who really cares what might lead someone to recognise our mutual involvement in a collective human society? It’s a useful thought exercise to imagine how we might explain our behaviour to some curious and detached third-party who knows the facts (not least the fact that human beings are historically and notoriously weak and wobbly creatures). It’s as well to realise that although we’re at the top of the food-chain on this little planet we shouldn’t develop a sense of entitlement.

I’ll return to the ‘myths’ about the Christian faith as described by my friend in his tract. He, I should say, is active in his community, talented and serene, apart from his driving sense of obligation to gather church attenders, to ‘lead them to God’.

To begin elsewhere, this holiday season was often in the four-channel past a chance to see out-of-the-way TV, thrown into the schedules to bulk out the afternoon and late-night viewing. Now with oodles of channels and Sky-plus recording and viewing-at-leisure it’s astounding to find that sometimes there’s still nothing worth watching.

This is also the season of preparations for visitors and visits and of odd half-hours of flicking through TV filler like those celeb-magazines in the doctor’s waiting-room. The content is unremarkable, leaving you free to look at the format. Given that trade fairs are dedicated to the licensing of TV formats you note the characteristic features that will be intrinsic to any foreign-territory adoption.

So… a hiatus in Christmas frivolling found me doing the inventory on ‘Ghosthunters’ : a ‘reality’ hybrid of Scooby Doo and Blair Witch.

The episode kicks off with a consultation between the director of a psychical research unit and a client describing the unexplained phenomena occurring at the location-of-the-week. This is all very earnest stuff, intriguing but just another day at the office for the research team. A small fleet of black vans loaded with surveillance tech sets off, filmed from kerb-level.

In this episode a touring Titanic exhibit had unsettled night staff with the familiar sense of ‘presences’ and anomalous cold spots and noises. An initial recce by the team is accompanied by a commentary in which the phrases ‘some people believe that…’/ ‘there is a theory that…’ feature routinely. No-one is actually claiming that this therefore represents a fact other than that someone’s speculated on possible constructions, maybe the scriptwriters. There is a theory, for instance, that ‘psychic entities draw energy from their vicinity, causing the atmosphere to cool.’ I leave the reader to sort out what any of this might actually mean. The best I can say is that it’s grammatically sound, constructed from appropriate semantic place-markers.

The team deploy assorted vid, sound and heat-detection recording devices to capture any unusual phenomena for later study, and patrol the exhibition space using the irresistably spooky night-vision cameras which render everyone in shot pallid and hollow-eyed. They discover a cold-spot about four feet high using the more homely method of putting their hand into it and taking it out again with ‘can you feel that?/ yes I can’ corroboration.

The big moment comes when two of the researchers, seated on the floor to await developments, first sense a presence in an adjoining room and discover by shouting that it’s not another member of the team. The camera records one of them getting up and going to look and then returning to report that there’s no-one there. Pretty convincing I’m sure you’ll agree.

Then, as they both decide to move on, one of them appears to slip and fall on his seat again, reporting that he’s felt a firm but not hostile hand on his shoulder pressing him back down.

Later, in the segment where the team are shown reviewing the data (this features an example of the head-of-research rejecting an unusual heat-sensor reading as probably mundane, establishing his objective-skeptical credentials) they revisit the phantom-hand incident and repeat the description of the firm-but-not-hostile pressure in case you missed it before the ad-break. They also introduce a sound-recording which ‘sounds like’ someone is saying ‘Ple-ease sta-ay’. We note that this interpretation comes before they play the hissy sound-clip that might not otherwise sound like more than a pneumatic wheeze. There is some speculation about what the entity might mean by this – already it’s assumed that something is trying to say something.

In the finale, a review of the evidence with the organiser of the exhibit presents the phenomena with a further repetition of the restraining-hand sensation in case latecomers to the programme might confuse the shot with someone merely stumbling in an attempt to get upright. The client declares this startling and the team recommend that they do further research when the exhibit moves to another location.

By the time the credits roll the possibly inexplicable remains resolutely inconclusive, but this is hardly the point. The Haunted House narrative arc has been successfully concluded in time for the sponsor’s message.

Consciously watching the unfolding of the format and the semiology of the visual signifiers seems a quite reasonable application of scepticism here. Ghostly experiences seem to have been a part of human self-consciousness for as long as we developed it. Similar phenomenology has been stimulated by the application of strong electromagnetic fields to the brain (Greenfield) and vivid deja vu created with intra-cranial electrodes (Penfield). Such research doesn’t explain the effects ‘away’ but at least suggests that metaphysical interventions aren’t a necessary factor.

Before I return to the substance of the faith-tract I want to say that if a degree of analytical process is appropriate and healthy when applied to UFO’s, conspiracy narratives and fairies, sales-pitches and news broadcasts, it’s reasonable to examine the claims and truth-conditions of statements about the ‘truth’ of faith-statements.

M’colleague Sue is probably prudently wary of attracting the attention of the faithful fired by the example of the wrathful smiting and afflicting Yahweh of the Old Testament rather than the reflective and allusive teaching of Jesus ben Joseph. Those are poor advertisements for the transforming power of faith and give me no incentive to follow their example.

“Do not think of knocking out another’s brain because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago” – Horace Mann.

  1. In fact you’ve got me backwards there, squire. It’s the decent people who need their faith that I am wary of upsetting unduly, not the wrathful sort. Someone whose faith is consoling them, and/or whose church is supporting them through difficult times, or someone whose faith makes them able to help others, is not someone I want to plague with doubts. That’s the reason that I am cautious online and with strangers.

    Comment by Sue Jones — January 1, 2011 @ 6:11 pm
  2. OK, I’m with you on this, though there’s a section later in this booklet that specifically addresses this ‘merely comforting’ view of faith. That’s the problem with humanists. You may think you’re being accommodating but you’re just being dismissive. I have to keep repeating that the author is a decent, caring citizen, a guy whose musical skill I admire . What’s in debate here is the Truth claims he feels duty-bound to advance. The text invites you to get in touch with any questions (‘excuses’) you may have and these are some of mine.

    Comment by admin — January 5, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

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