Taken to the Limits, Part 1. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia New Series 23, July 1986, pp. 3 – 12.

The origins of this study go back to the beginnings of my association with MUFOB, as an attempt to understand the emotional power behind the extreme scepticism of authors such as Patrick Moore. It is perhaps also a meditation on my own childhood night terrors.

In analysing human societies, anthropologists have often found it useful to study the interaction between human beings and wild nature. They have chosen to call these two realms ‘habitat’ and ‘wilderness’. A term such as ‘habitat’ implies far more than a geographical settlement: it is the ‘fenced in’ [1] zone of rational, ordered life; the domain under the control of human reason and ingenuity – the known, the familiar, the ordered and tame. It is the world of “daylight reason and commonsense”. ‘Wilderness’ therefore is the opposition to the rational, ordered world. It is the world of untamed nature outside the boundaries of habitation, the domain of the unknown, of passion and sexuality, of ‘the unconscious’, the secret heart of things, chaos, disorder and the ‘supernatural’.

Habitat is forged out of wilderness and chaos by a sustained effort. The attitude of the Fipa of Tanzania is typical of many agricultural societies, traditional Christendom, and much contemporary rationalism. The world is divided into the principles of open rationality, symbolised by the head, and secret sexuality, symbolised by the loins. The ideal of the community is the subduing of the forces of nature: this task is delegated to specialist ‘doctors’.

However, the community is haunted by fear of the apostate doctor, who will ally himself with those natural forces he is supposed to subdue. He is black-hearted, carried about upside-down by his wife while working evil in the village, can assume the shape of wild beasts such as leopard or hyena, and commands the bush creatures to invade the huts of his victim. [2]. Powers such as these were later attributed to Dracula.

The fear that the special guardians of a culture are secretly in league with the forces destroying it, and are guilty of violating society’s most sacred taboos is still a very present one. Thus members of the State Department were accused of being communists by McCarthy; doctors and clergymen (guardians of our bodies and souls) are accused in Parliament of being child-molesters. (An excellent example of the ambiguous nature of the ‘doctors’ who guard habitat against wilderness is provided by the ‘benandante’ or ‘good-walkers’ of 16th-17th century Fruili in Italy. These were people born with a caul, who when summoned by an angelic bedroom-visitor, went out in OOBE form to defend the crops against bands of witches. The inquisition finally turned the benandante themselves into witches).

The Victorians held similar attitudes to the Fipa. The task of civilisation was to subdue ‘animality’ by ‘reason’. The 18th century enclosures of ‘wilderness’ common spaces was speeded up; habitat in the form of canals and railways thrust deeper into the wilderness; the internal proletariat was subdued by Methodism, temperance, sabbatarianism, factory discipline, the new borough and county police forces; bull baiting, ale-house brawls, etc. were to be replaced by ‘rational recreations’ such as lectures on steam-hammers at the Mechanics Institute, Public Libraries, and vicarage tea-parties with lantern-slides of the Holy Land. Imperialism and missionary activity subdued the ‘dark continent’. Both the aboriginal inhabitants of the colonial territories and the urban poor were ascribed sub-human, ‘animal’ status, and were seen as savage beasts to be tamed. Darkest Africa was paralleled by darkest England [3 a,b, 4].

The scientist was one of the leaders pushing habitat progressively out into the wilderness. However, in the eyes of many some scientists, Darwin particularly, and later Freud, played the role of ‘traitor’, reminding humankind of its essential physical and psychological wildness. The evil scientist was to replace the witch as the ‘dark doctor’ of the imagination.

The sociologist and theologian Peter Berger has discussed this precarious habitat. His habitat is the whole cosmos of ordered, meaningful, socially constructed reality, which he calls the nomos. He argues that

“[In] marginal situations [such as] commonly occur in dreams and fantasy [there] may appear on the horizon of consciousness haunting suspicions that the world may have another aspect than its normal one; that is that previously accepted definitions of reality may be fragile or even fraudulent. Such suspicions extend to the identity of self and others. Every socially defined reality must face the constant possibility of collapse into anomie. The marginal situations, paramount amongst them death, reveal the innate precariousness of all social worlds. Every nomos is an area of meaning carved out of a vast mass of meaninglessness, a small clearing in a formless dark, always ominous jungle. [From] the perspective of the individual the nomos represents the bright ‘day-side’ of life tenuously held onto against the sinister shadow of the ‘night’. Every nomos is a edifice erected in the face of potent and alien forces of chaos [which] must be kept away at all costs. To ensure this every society develops procedures to assist its members to remain ‘reality-orientated’” [5]

To Berger the primary act of ‘reality-orientating’ is the parental reassurance that “everything is all right”, that there really are no terrors in the night, or at least that they do not hold power, and that the world is ultimately rational, orderly and even comforting. That such a reassurance can be give at all in good faith is for Berger evidence of a transcendent meaning to the universe – a ‘rumour of angels’. Much of the power of the supernatural in both ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ lies in the apprehension that the reassurance is fraudulent and that:

“… the terror of the dark which we all have, more or less, from which every child suffers [and] which is, to a certain extent, shared by animals, even by insects [is sustained by] in every truth, a terrible reality … that evil and horrible things lurk about us in the still, weird hours of the night, that there are truly ‘powers and principalities’, a true tyranny of the dark.” [7]

The defence against these ‘evil and horrible things’ from the internal and external wilderness can take extreme forms. There are the obsessive rituals described by Arthur Guirdham as being carried out by patients who felt they were being threatened by objective evil. [8] As Ernest de Martino argues [9] what is at stake in marginal situations is our very sense of being-in-the-world and the very foundations of reality. In tribal societies the ‘promise’ in the world is maintained through the shaman’s ritual. In modern, Western societies it is perhaps guaranteed by parents, priests, scientists, doctors and the whole of bureaucratic education. In our highly structured, literate world we at least have the partial illusion of having a secure reality. For those in cultures where much of day-to-day life is insecure, reality may be more fluid, allowing magic and miracles or occur.

In tribal societies the ‘promise’ in the world is maintained through the shaman’s ritual; in modern, Western societies it is perhaps guaranteed by parents, priests, scientists, doctors and the whole of bureaucratic education

In the Berger/de Martino viewpoint the chaos is literally awe-full, and humankind erects boundaries between itself and the chaos. Nomoi are dikes against infinity and ultimate chaos [10]. It is hard to resist Bernice Martin’s critique that Berger is almost wholly negative [10]; indeed there is an equally important tradition that sees the wilderness as the ‘true’ reality, that of habitat as somehow fake.

This is the view of another East African tribe, the Lele [1]. The Lele are hunters who live in villages that are hot and dusty in the dry season, unpleasantly hot in the wet. They view the village life, with its complex game of social relationships, as inauthentic and subordinate to the forest, the source of all good things, and the zone of  “the secret anarchic heart of man in relation to his fellows” and the “hidden, communal side of man’s nature”. (Or at least Lele men feel this, for the forest is the preserve of men, and to hunt in the forest is a penetration of a secret, feminine place). For the Lele, human affairs are controlled by mysterious forces in the non-human realm of the forest; mediated by the minghe, the spirits that live in the deepest part of the forest farthest from human habitation, or by the sacred pangolin.

Parallels in our own history include medieval Christendom where ‘this world’ is but a poor reflection of the transcendent world of Heaven and Hell; or the Romantic vision of the free, natural man, bound by the chains of society.

A central theme of many cultures is the need to enter the wilderness to gain wisdom and return to the zone of habitat. As Duerr puts it: “In order to live within the order… in order to be consciously tame and domesticated, one had to have lived in the wilderness. One could only know what inside meant if one had been outside ” [1].

In order to explore this theme further an extremely useful guide will be the anthropologist Victor Turner’s concept of liminality. Turner derives his thesis from Arnold von Geunep’s study of rites of passage. In such a rite there are three stages:

1. Separation from the ordinary world
2. Margin – stripping of the previous identity and ritual grinding down of individual differences
3. Aggregation – period of reintegration.

Turner calls the central marginal phrase the liminal period (from Latin, limen – a margin or threshold). The liminal period is a betwixt and between time, the ‘time between time’, a period of flux and transition.

During liminality the neophyte is ground down, made anew, granted special powers. Liminality is often compared with death, being in the womb, invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, wilderness, and eclipse of the sun and moon. In contrast to the outside world of hierarchy, status and structure, those in the liminal period experience society and social interaction as spontaneous, immediate, relative and undifferentiated, and reflecting the deep generic bond between individuals. This experience Turner labels communitas as opposed to the outside world of status or societas.

Turner lists a set of features separating liminality from status society:


  1. Transition
  2. Totality
  3. Communitas
  4. Equality
  5. Anonymity
  6. Absense of property and status
  7. Nakedness or uniform clothing
  8. Sexual continence or orgy
  9. Total obedience
  10. Sacredness


  1. State
  2. Partiality
  3. Structure
  4. Inequality
  5. System of nomenclature
  6. Presence of property and status
  7. Distinction of clothing
  8. Nuclear sexuality
  9. Obedience only to superior rank
  10. Secularity

Pure communitas, experienced as sacred sharing and total community, cannot be planned, it is spontaneous, ‘magical’. Attempts prolong it by creative ‘nomative’ or ‘ideological’ communitas tend to lead into a ‘fall’ into ‘structure’, which tends either to fall apart ‘when prophecy fails’, or to become rigid, highly authoritarian structures.

By now of course the reader will realise that the wilderness, the ‘dark secret heart of things’ the source of man’s ‘hidden communal being’, is the place of communitas.

In today’s society, liminality is diffuse, and will usually only display limited aspects of itself as defined above. Thus recent historical examples of liminality can be seen in such apparently polar opposites as conscripted military service and hippie communes. Most liminality occurs spontaneously, as in courtship, bereavement and reactions to traumatic and marginalising situations.

In the contemporary world liminality may affect the whole of society. Martin argued that the nineteen-sixties were a period of collective liminality: indeed as liminality is the zone of flux and transformation, the whole of our ever-changing society can be regarded as liminal. Being even bolder we might argue that what T. S. Kuhn calls revolutionary science is a prime example of liminality.In the liminal state individuals are either ecstatically expelled from the socially constructed world of status, structure and commonsense into the wilderness to be transformed or bring back power from outside; or the fences of habitat are breached to let the power in. There must be creative balance between societas and communitas, as Turner argues:

“Spontaneous communitas has something ‘magical’ about it [but] it is no substitute for lucid thought and sustained will. On the other hand, structured action swiftly becomes arid and mechanical if not if those involved are not periodically immersed in the regenerative abyss of communitas… Societas is not merely the chains in which man everywhere is bound, but the very cultural means that preserve the dignity and liberty as well as the bodily existence of every man woman and child. From the beginning of man in prehistory it is the very mark of man. That is not to say that spontaneous communitas is merely ‘nature’ [it] is nature in dialogue with structure, married to it as a woman is married to a man” [11]

Liminality therefore is both dangerous as well as addictive, as well as liberating and creative [12].

It seems to me that Turner and his commentators have not emphasised some points. Liminality is usually – if not always – associated with altered states of consciousness, often in traditional societies pharmacologically induced. The similarities between classical liminality and the hypnotic state are obvious. Spontaneous liminality in our culture is best associated with drunkenness. Liminality is often associated with a heightened sense of reality – either an ascent into ecstatic heights or a plunge into abysmal depths: the experience is “more real than real”. In positive communitas the participant feels immense euphoria, power: “great was it that morn to be alive”. Positive communitas seems associated with the ‘crash’ of the wilderness into societas, negative communitas associated with pre-planned ritual.

Turner and commentators also point out that there are, within society, those who are more or less permanently marginal – despised minorities, outcasts, fools, jesters, deviants, and above all, the shaman. Bernice Martin sees the rock star as the major liminal figure of our time, an inheritor of a tradition, according to Rogan Taylor [13], going right back to the shaman. As we have seen the shaman is precisely the ‘doctor’ who guards the borderlines of habitat, who has established a rapport with the incomprehensible, disease bringing forces of nature. He is the one who ventures out into the transforming wilderness of the underworld to guide those who are experiencing spontaneous liminality, and in his seances brings liminality and communitas into the structured habitat.

The shaman is often regarded as a deviant personality, a marginal figure – the outsider, dreamer and visionary, who “must go to another world to live in this one” [13]. It is clear that the shaman blends into the neccessary deviant who “draws people together in a common posture of anger and indignation to express anger and bear witness against the deviant” [14]. The rituals by which the deviant is judged and the places to which he or she is confined contain many features of liminality – courts are places of ordeal and examination, prisons and asylums enforce liminal features such as uniformity of dress and deprivation of will and property. The denunciation of the deviant creates an open declaration of the bounds and values of habitat. The deviant must enter the wilderness so that those left behind will appreciate the benefits of habitat, and control the dark, wild side of their own nature, lest they too be cast out.

Because rapid social change is itself a form of liminality [10, 13] it is profoundly disturbing: “to defenders of ‘structure’ all sustained manifestations of communitas will appear dangerous, anarchical and must be hedged around with prescriptions and prohibitions” [11) Under these circumstances certain kinds of deviant individuals and behaviour become symbolic demonic witch figures, whose very existence poses a threat to the integrity of habitat. They become 'folk devils', the incarnation of society's ills, hounded by the press [15,16]

Those with a high stake in the maintenance of structure are liable to launch moral crusades which often seek to maintain the traditional cultural values of society [17]. Such movements will often appeal to those sections of the community who see their economic or cultural status declining. The victories of the moral crusaders are often symbolic ones: for example it was sufficient for the Yankee puritans who sponsored the Prohibition amendment that “[they] had been successful in getting their law against the challengers publicly proclaimed, and it was their law the ‘drunk’ and ‘such people’ had to avoid.” [18]

The reader will immediately perceive that the Condon Enquiry and CSICOP are moral crusades.

Moral crusaders such as temperance reformers or anti-pornography campaigners see themselves as defending core cultural habitat values such as order, sobriety, rational-ity, self-restraint and respect for traditional values, against the forces of antinomian chaos. The reader will immediately perceive that the Condon Enquiry and CSICOP are moral crusades.

The Condon Enquiry was set up at a time of major student protests in the United States, and at a time when the status of the scientific community was suffering rapid decline. Condon explicitly linked his critique of ufology and pseudoscience with a rejection of permissive educational values:

“A related problem to which we wish to direct public attention is the miseducation in our schools which arises from the fact that many children are being allowed, if not actively encouraged, to devote their science study time to the reading of [sensationalised] UFO books and magazine articles … we feel that children are educationally harmed by absorbing unsound and erroneous material … not merely because of the erroneous nature of the material itself, but also because such study retards the development of a critical faculty with regard to scientific evidence, which to some degree ought to be part of the education of every American … Therefore we strongly recommend that teachers refrain from giving students credit for school work based on the presently available UFO books and magazine articles.” [19]

By the time CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal – now known as CSI, Comitttee for Scientific Enquiry) was set up ten years later the status of the scientific community had fallen even further. CSICOP was in effect an association of the elite constructors and guardians of the socially constructed habitat of status society, which looking back at the quote from Turner, we can see was uniting against the encroaching forces of anti-nomian communitas symbolised by the ‘occult’ rivals to scientific orthodoxy, and the threatening nature of the anomalies themselves.

The anomalies challenged by CSICOP and other ‘sceptics’ are not the kind of technical anomalies with which scientists regularly deal, and with which they maintain an exclusive understanding. No, they are major ‘existential’ anomalies which share a common explicit or implicit denominator, in that they challenge the whole scientific-historical process active in the West since the seventeenth century. This is essentially a process of progressive ‘tidying-up’, enclosing and disenchanting the natural world. These anomalies also challenge the associated metaphysic of ‘possessive individualism’, which asserts the autonomy and power of the individual against the forces of wilderness. They are phenomena which the linear historicism of the Judeo-Christian tradition had already condemned as ‘pagan’ – pertaining to the wild world outside the gates of the celestial city. Both the rationalist sceptics and the romantic believers derive the motional power of their arguments from this rage of the anomaly as the disruptive but creative outsider.
Charles Fort equated his damned and excluded phenomena with the damned, excluded, marginalised, permanently liminal underclass of society, who have the licence to mock the rich, powerful and respectable.

The carnival dance of the marginalised lumpenproletariat, the successors of the shamans [23] is compared to the ‘Furious Horde’ of the dead visiting the community at certain seasons. For Fort, these damned data are what is excluded as habitat forges itself out of chaos. They are part of the primal messiness and are constant reminders of the temporariness, partiality and precariousness of this habitat of fixed structures. At any moment they may gatecrash our reality party bringing reminders of the wild world beyond the walls.

There are a range of terrors which our community half-recognises as the wild forces come in from the bush. Take the continuum hooligan/vandal [21] — poltergeist [22,24] — demonic possession [25, 26], in which the forces of wilderness invade, in turn, the city streets and outer habitat, the interior of the home, and lastly the inner sanctum of the personality.

The hooligan or vandal is frequently called an ‘animal’, their behaviour ‘mindless’ or ‘savage’. The hooligan threatens ordered society and mocks its structure; they break property, symbols of human ingenuity and creativity. So do poltergeists, whose activities are seen as a savage rampage in which the orderly world of the household is overturned. The demoniac represents the most frightening image of all, for the demoniac is wholly taken over by the forces of wild nature and is reduced to a pre-human, even pre-mammalian level, and becomes a ‘break in the fence’ by which the forces of the wild insinuate themselves into the community.

To understand the full import of the image of the haunted house as a ‘disorderly house’ on the sort of people who corresponded with the early SPR, we must remember that the house as secure habitat was the sign of respectability, of emergence from the wilderness of the rough masses, from whose cheerless habitations escape was to the gin shop and music hall. The ghost, the insistent voice of ‘history’ refusing to remain buried, threatened a reversal of the historical, progressive habitat-creating process, and a reversion to the wilderness of the unacknowledged ancestors.

Continue to Part Two >>>


1. DUERR, Hans Peter. Dreamtime; concerning the boundaries between wilderness and civilization, Oxford, Blackwell 1985.
2. WILLIS, Roy. Man and Beast, Hart-Davis, Mac-Gibbon, 1971.
3. For these general topics see also any social and economic history; of special interest are: STORCH, Robert D. (Ed.) Popular Culture and Custom in Nineteenth Century England, Croome Helm, 1982 and CUNNINGHAM, Hugh. Leisure in the Industrial Revolution, Croome Helm, 1980.
4. Some of these themes are discussed in: DUDLEY, Edward and NOVAK, Maximillian E. The Wildman Within, Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
5. BERGER Peter. The Sacred Canopy: elements of a sociological theory of religion, Doubleday, 1969.
7. CARRINGTON, Hereward. True Ghost Stories. Werner Laurie, 1916.
8. GUIDHAM, Arthur. Obsession, Spearman, 1972.
9. DE MARTINO, Ernest. Magic, Primitive and Modern, Stacey, 1972.
10. Derived from the account of Bergerian thought in: MARTIN, Bernice. A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change, Blackwell, 1983.
11. TURNER, Victor W. The Ritual Processes, Routledge, 1969.
12 This account of liminality was compiled from references 10 and 11, and from MELTON, J Gordon and MOORE, Robert L. The Cult Experience, Pilgrim Press, 1982.
13. TAYLOR, Rogan P. The Death and Resurrection Show; from shaman to super-star, Blond, 1985.
14. ERIKSON, Karl. Wayward Puritans Wiley, 1966.
15. COHEN, Stanley. Folk Devils and Moral Panics, MacGibbon & Kee, 1972.
16. CHIBNALL, Steve. Law and Order News, Tavistock, 1977.
17. WALLIS, Roy Salvation and Protest, F. Pincer, 1979.
18. ZURCHER, Louis A and KIRKPATRICK, R George. Citizens for Decency Univ. of Texas Press, 1976.
19. CONDON, Edward U. ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’ in Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, Bantam, 1969.
20. FORT, Charles. Book of the Damned.
21. PEARSON, Geoffrey. Hooligan; a history of respectable fears, Macmillan, 1983.
22. GAUL D, Alan and CORNELL, A. D. Poltergeists RKP, 1979.
23. OWEN, George, Can We Explain the Poltergeist?, Helix Press, 1964.
24. ROLL, William G. The Poltergeist, Star, 1976.
25. CRAMER, Mark, The Devil Within, W H Allen, 1979.
26. GOODMAN, Felicitas D. The Exorcism of Annelise Michel, Doubleday, 1981.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>