Old Hat, New Hat.
Michael Goss

From Magonia 40, August 1991.

Blame your editor. His BackPage invitation to Magonia readers to predict the next Great Unexplained Phenomenon set ma a-thinking…


Set me a-thinking that each successive Great Unexplained Phenomenon which rises from the obscurity of being known to the freakish few to becoming the possession of the millions – becomes a craze, a talking point, a trend a pollutant of the airwaves, breeds a spawn of conferences and specialist magazines – poses on the cover of Newsweek, gets sniped at in Private Eye, blunders onto Wogan, struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard of on breakfast TV no more. Well, a thing like that leaves casualties behind it.

The chiefest casualty being the previous month’s Great Unexplained Phenomenon. If this really is a culture where everyone can expect a turn at being famous for a quarter of an hour (less advert breaks) the paranormal has no right to demand preferential treatment. It may be possible, even, to lay down a set of general rules governing the rise and fall of Great Phenomena.

In semi-logical order, and no more than that: paranormal phenomena breed one upon the other in the sense that popular awareness of newly (mass) publicised ones is conditioned by how well-digested the preceding ones were. Past-life regression makes more sense – seems more credibly, arguably – if you have been exposed to popular articles on hypnosis. Materialization as a concept arises, though not inevitably, from more humble seance-room phenomena. The Greys of Zeta Reticuli are less likely to be shown the door to your boggle-threshold if you condone CEIVs, and that in turn may depend on how you reacted to CEIIIs, as Andy Roberts’s article in Wild Places [1] proved triumphantly. ‘Boggle-threshold’ is a good metaphor, a coining of Renee Haynes I think, although someone is bound to tell me I’m wrong. It expands thanks to the activities of all the previous boggles. We are more likely to believe and accept if we believed and accepted the last time.

Quasi Rule 2: strictly speaking there are no `new phenomena’, merely variations on old ones. This theoretical distinction isn’t always clear to general audiences, or to newspaper editors, who tend to treat aspects on phenomena in isolation. A phenomenon incapable of variation becomes, in neo-Darwinian terms, obsolete. It need not drop out of existence; it will have its practitioners, its students and others who are prone to say with time that it has been unjustly neglected. Loss of mass audience doesn’t invalidate. I have long suspected that there was more to mesmerism than is covered by the term hypnosis; SPR investigator Brian Nisbet produced some intriguing ESP-Spiritualist

 evidence by the ostensibly outmoded means of table-tilting as late as the 1970s. But what the phenomenon loses is its charisma; quite likely it will pass into a coelacanth-style afterlife, without anyone having explained it satisfactorily. But now, nobody cares about explaining it, the real thrust, the excitement, has focussed upon something now. the direction of studies in that particular field lie with the new phenomenon, not the old… possibly or most probably.

Three: to take off into the empyrean – to make the Wogan show for instance – the Phenomenon must offer audience participation. What Uri Geller did on Dimbleby you may be able to do. Your grandmother found strange things happened when she went to that Spiritualist medium. And you? You’ve no need to stop at reading about this stuff - you can become involved, you can experience. “The Sunday People experiments with Uri at 12.30 p.m.”, announced The Paper With Guts (sic) on the front page of its 25 November 1973 edition. “Mind-bender extraordinary Uri Geller wants your help today. So stand by with any old bits of metal (for) the biggest experiment in extra-sensory perception ever staged”. At the appointed hour Uri (in Paris) would concentrate hard on whatever metal objects the 15 million People readers across Britain happened to be holding… The results filled up a page of the gutsy paper’s next issue, but did not, I fancy, impress the SPR.

Turning the pages of my 1973-1975 scrapbooks past the gellerian plethora, I’m daunted by the sheer amount of coverage given to audience-participation psychic phenomena. But I am equally fascinated at the way in which (spoon-bending revivals not counted) each phase of paranormal trend-riding drops out of sight, upstaged as it were by the next. Time then for another attempt at laying down the law.

Four: the public, upon whom the Phenomenon relies for its vitality, has an ill-defined but limited span of concentration. It becomes eventually bored, satiated. The paranormal may portray itself as an entity more important to our mental and spiritual future or to our scientific knowledge than, say, John Travolta or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, yet it is as subject to over-exposure as they. Editors, producers have to gauge both the incipient appeal of a phenomenon and its rate of exponential decay: when to play a trend for all it’s worth and when to drop it.

The foregoing is too simple, I’m aware: it ignores the fact that while same portion of the audience stay faithful to the Phenomenon, it is equally likely that new and younger audiences will come along and rediscover it. At a modest level, true-life ghost stories (essentially a conservative form) are perennially popular. There are still people who find fire-walking a vibrantly exciting topic, just as there are still people who will not miss an episode of Neighbours or a home game of West Bromwich Albion. The focus’s heady days of fame may be past, but they may come back. Or try this: during my spell as a secondary-school teacher, I was recurrently bemused at teenagers’ delight in rediscovering the sub-surface arts of what they called weeja and ipnertism. Perhaps my coelacanth gibe was misplaced. After all, someone else’s old hat may fit you nicely.

Talking of which, is there anyone out there who goes in for hat-turning? Since a prerequisite is a top-hat, I’d guess not. Punch, ever-alert to 19th century social fads was pretty firm about it though: “It is necessary to get a hat” it declared in the caption to a typically immobile 1850ish cartoon entitles ‘The Hat-Moving Experiment’. Deadpan instructions to this latest craze in drawing-room psychical research followed: “Two or more persons place their hands on the rim thereof, the little fingers of each person being in contact. In about twenty minutes or half an hour or perhaps more, the hat will begin to jump, and revolve rapidly.”

How? Why? The ‘Song of a Hat-Turner, By One who was Moved in the Highest Circles’ explained:

Some say the actions muscular,and some it is galvanic,

While others call it humbug in a scientific way;

And some there are assign it to an agency Satanic;

And vow the Devil’s in it if there’s not the deuce to pay.

Yet all around my hat I still persist in turning,

Unheeding what the sceptical and scientific say:

And tho’ perhaps a character for verdancy I’m earning

I’ve nothing else to turn for whiling the time away.

Hat-turning was a short-lived sensation, nothing more than an embryonic stage in the life history of Spiritualism. What we need to appreciate is how enthusiastically it was greeted. Punch had ample room for the craze and even more for its co-terminous near relation, table-turning, whose M.O. epidemic popularity and ephemerality it also borrowed from the hatters. The allure of table turning may be appreciated from three comments: one made when it was yet a novelty, the others some time after it had subsided. In contrast with the American-import label attached to Spiritualism, table-turning appears to have migrated to England from Europe, where the Rev. Chauncey Hare Townsend found it: “The fashion spreads from the cottage to the throne. the Emperor of Russia is reported to be engaged less in devising how to get Turkey than how to make tables revolve. Is the Emperor of Austria supposed to be in strictest conference with his minister? Not a bit of it! He is turning tables. Even of the Pope it is whispered that, when he was represented as playing at billiards… this was only a deceit way of expressing that he really was not making the balls spin, but the table itself?” [2]

So to England where a species of valediction to table-turning was pronounced by The Yorkshireman as early as 1856. It was, said the writer, an evening party regular of “some two or three years ago… In those days you were invited to `tea and table moving’ as a new excitement, and made to revolve with the family like mad round articles of furniture.” In those not-so-distant days, then, table-turning had been revolutionary in more senses than one. By 1894 Andrew Lang was speaking of it as being “deserted like croquet and… even less to be regretted.” Sic transit… Spiritualism did not require gyrating hats and tables by then. It was a movement whose history reveals a pulsating pattern whereby a Phenomenon advances in a series of evolutions, each of which constitutes a phenomenon in its own right – and in the public consciousness. In its earliest English phase (as introduced to us by Mrs Hayden in 1852, one of the first ‘big name’ American mediums or, if you prefer, ‘Yankee conjurers’) it offered discreet communications with the departed through rappings. This effect soon became a subsidiary, and a minor one at that, overtaken by more dramatic phenomena: by table turning, by other major PK-like manifestations, by apports, by automatism (the planchette, “another source of amusement, mysterious and novel” was here by 1867) [3], by materializations, slate-writing… Each advance was, in some senses, a loss. Phenomenon heralded as the core of a new science, lost their impact. It is tempting to see the ‘greater Phenomenon – Spiritualism as a whole – to have reached its evolutionary zenith. Comfortably placed though it is today, it appears to have lost its emotional impetus. Ufology took up the running a couple of decades ago: “I’m beginning to think Spiritualism’s future lies firmly behind it”, writes Kevin McClure.

But them Spiritualism itself had effortlessly and uncaringly upstaged animal magnetism just when the so-called ‘Science of Life’ was entering a new phenomenal phase as electrobiology (1851). And animal magnetism (or Mesmerism, to use a term that gradually rose to dominance) had in turn ridden in on the back of phrenology. When we consider that a cheap edition of George Combe’s `bump-reading’ text The Constitution of Man sold 100,000 copies in Britain alone we can be sure that phrenology was no minor sensation. In fact it evolved as an artifact of lecture-demonstrations, literature, coteries and controversy which Mesmerism took over in the late 1830′s, early 1840′s. Phrenology became alternative-science-as-popular-participator entertainment – as did Mesmerism. The parallels are remarkably consistent, so too the pattern of old phenomenon being overtaken by new. The danger, as Chauncey Townshend saw it, lay in the superficiality of the public:

“Let a Mesmerist tell the marvels of his experience; people prick up their ears. Let him speak of the humble utility of Mesmerism; people look down to the ground. Talk of clairvoyance; they at least start. Talk of cures; they yawn. They want the marvellous…” [4]

By now (1854) Spiritualism was giving it to them. In the long-term view Mesmerism – the focus of what some critics just three years previously decried as a mania, the focal point of evening-party entertainment and pantry ‘experiments’ which threatened to destroy Victorian edicts on rationality or propriety – was not capable of resisting the challenge. Spiritualism was more exciting, more daring… more stimulating. And easier to practice, evidently. The animal magnetists who had thrown verbal brickbats at Braid for his deglamorization of their art (hypnotism, he called it and no magnetic fluids were involved) collected them up again, borrowed the outraged moral stance of those who has criticised and attacked them, and assailed their Spiritualist rivals. A bastard version of the true magnetic power, a dangerous delusion, impious and unseemly: few had much mercy to spare for the spirit-rappers. That did not save them. Upstaged again. Caught in public wearing old hat.

Let’s remind ourselves: Mesmerism, courtesy of Braid, transmuted into hypnosis and survived; as far as popular sensation is concerned, the 1890′s witnessed an amazing revival of the Science of Life (still occasionally referred to as animal magnetism or Mesmerism), partly due to a fin de siécle explosion of interest in occultism and more, I suspect, to Du Maurier’s lachrymose best-seller, Trilby. It is foolish to draw fat, felt-tipped lines between phenomena or to vote any one of them an irredeemable fossil. Called on to review a bibliography on phrenology for Fortean Times a year or so back, I was forced to concede that phrenology is not the deadest of dead pseudo-sciences, it has adherents – look closely and you will see definite signs of respiration.

And yet… and yet. Limiting the argument to the proposition that mass public enthusiasm has a part to play in phenomenal evolution, I could not foresee any major development out of either hypnosis per se nor Spiritualism. As for ufology, you know more than I do. Could it be that with the subterranean Greys of Andy Roberts’s article we are reaching the point where Something else is ready to get up on the stage and give us a number? I just know that I wouldn’t want to be an agent for a good old down-the-middle UFO abduction manuscript nowadays.


1. Andy Roberts, ‘Subterranian Homesick Greys’, Wild Places, no. 2 (1991), pp. 14-21
2. Chauncey Hare Townsend. Mesmerism Proved True. (1854) p. 121.
3. Townsend, op. cit., p.110
4. Andrew Lang. Cock Lane and Common Sense. (1894) p.332
5. J in Once a Week, 26 October 1867, makes it clear that the planchette was no novelty in America. the following week, in response to a reader’s inquiries, OAW gives two london addresses where the new toy was available. A book entitled Planchettes; of the Despair of Science, was reviewed by The Athenaeum on 15 May 1969. The reviewer agreed with the title.

The French Pterodactyl: a Fortean Folly.
Mick Goss

From Magonia 21, December 1985

When Professor Challenger wanted to prove to zoological sceptics that pterodactyls weren’t extinct after all, he merely arranged an expedition to an unknown plateau in the Matto Grosso and caught one. The sight of the gargoyle-faced nightmare filling London’s Queens Hall with the “dry, leathery flapping of its ten-foot wings” and with a “putrid and insidious odour” as it circled overhead left Challenger’s enemies in no doubt: the pterodactyl tribe most certainly was not extinct!

 But of course this was only a fictional scene in a novel: the climax to the evocatively-titled The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And as Challenger’s pterodactyl quitted the Queens Hall via an inadvertently open window and was last seen over the Atlantic apparently homing towards South America, we’ve two good reasons for not seeing it in any museum. But what possible explanation can there be for the amazing absence of the French pterodactyl?

The French Pterodactyl – let us use that term rather than the more general ‘pterosaur’ that is applied today – was, in the words of the Illustrated London News for 9 February 1856, a “discovery of the greatest scientific importance”. This value judgement did not prevent the report from being relegated to an obscure corner of the weekly where it could have been easily missed. Those who did not miss it learned the following.

Workmen engaged in cutting a railway tunnel through the Liassic rocks at Culmont, Haute Marne were breaking up an enormous block of stone when “from a cavity in it they suddenly saw emerge a living being of monstrous form.

“This creature, which belongs to the class of animals hitherto considered to be extinct, has a very long neck, and a mouth filled with sharp teeth. It stands on four long legs, which are united together by two membranes, doubtless intended to support the animal in the air, and are armed with four claws terminated by long and crooked talons. Its general form resembles that of a bat, differing only in its size, which is that of a large goose. Its membranous wings, when spread out, measure from tip to tip three metres, twenty two centimetres. Its colour is livid black; its skin is naked, thick and oily…”

Few modern readers would have trouble tying this French ‘discovery’ in with the prehistoric creature that Conan Doyle (just over half a century later) depicted turning a zoological meeting into a near riot. In case some Illustrated London News readers werenot so well up in recent zoological researches – and especially those concerning the fossilized oddities of remote antiquity – the reporter made things a good deal easier for them:

“On reaching the light this monster gave some signs of life, by shaking its wings, but soon after expired, uttering a hoarse cry. This strange creature, to which may be given the name of a living fossil, has been brought to Gray, where a naturalist well versed in the study of palaeontology, immediately recognised it as belonging to the genus pterodactylus anas.”

With a pertinent reminder that the sedimentary strata holding this unique relic dated it at “more than one million years”, the article ends. The epoch making specimen had become the property of Science, leaving its discoverers with only the mute testimony of that cavity in the stone block it had but lately filled with airtight precisions. Today we have even less evidence of the famous French Pterodactyl; for all the use Science appears to have made of it, the thing may as well not have existed. Which is only to be expected, because the French Pterodactyl did not exist.

"The skies of this Lost World would be strangely empty without these snaggle-toothed, bat-caped creatures"
“The skies of this Lost World would be strangely empty without these snaggle-toothed, bat-caped creatures”

More miraculous than the preservation of the Culmout anomaly is the way in which the story surrounding it has survived the eroding powers of time. From a secluded end-of-page slot in a Victorian weekly it has become a Fortean classic, a favourite of the ‘Amazing Unexplained Mysteries’ school. Writers hard pressed for material are prone to resurrect the Pterodactyl as mercilessly as the tunnel-builders in the original Illustrated London News.

In some ways the reluctance shown by both writers and readers to discard the story is wholly comprehensible. We want to believe in the kind of Lost World called forth in Conan Doyle’s novel and in the films based on that powerful motif. We want to retain the merest sliver of hope that somewhere the prehistoric monsters of our childhood reading may be holding out in spite of the scientists’ disbelief. Any evidence is avidly seized upon, be it a reported sighting of a saurian in West Africa or the lesson of the coelacanth. If a fish that was already old when the first dinosaurs were born could survive and remain unknown as a living form until as late as 1938 – can’t we entertain hopes for the still more exciting creatures we’ve grown up with since our infant reading days?

The skies of this Lost World of printed page and cinema screen would be strangely empty without the snaggle-toothed, bat-caped animals we know as pterodactyls. They are among the best- or most widely-know members of the prehistoric menagerie and among the first to be discovered, scientifically named and studied. Even as early as 1843 a by no means credulous naturalist like Edward Newman, editor of The Zoologist, could ponder on the mysteries of these animals which he rather defensively liked to think of as “marsupial bats”.

Modern researchers would hardly blink at propositions which Newman admitted were not only controversial for his time, but unlikely to sway zoologists from the opinions of palaeontological heavy-weights like Cuvier and Buckland. He correctly guessed that ‘pterodactyles’ were a large and diversified group encompassing insect-eaters, fish-eaters and meat-eaters. His theory that they may have been clothed in hair has apparently been borne out in one case and appears likely to apply to many more, if not to all; he also seems to have been moving towards the position held by many today that the pterosaurs were warm-blooded animals. But how many would go along with his gently-dropped bombshell:

“I merely hint as a matter of surmise… that the race may yet probably exist; that representatives of the fossil pterodactyls may yet be found amongst the bats that abound within the tropics. Species or even genera become extinct, but it rarely happens that a vast group like the pterodactyls is wholly lost, and left without a representative”.

If this article had not fixed its sights on one celebrated report of a pterosaurian survivor a good deal closer to home than the tropics, some fascinating material that goes part-way to justifying Newman’s outrageous idea could be analysed. The native traditions from various parts of Africa might be examined; the ‘Pteranodon’ sightings half buried inside a spate of ‘Big Bird’ reports from Texas in early 1976 would be spot-lighted. Not least interesting amongst these was the circumstantial account of three San Antonio elementary-school teachers interviewed by Fate’s Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman. It see doubly strange that such sightings of what had formerly been called the largest Pterosaur known to science should come so close in time and space to the announcement of the fragmentary remains of a new and even larger specimen discovered at Big Bend National Park in the same state. (With an overall estimated wingspan of up to 39 feet, Quetzalcoatlus represented a genuine upstaging of Pterandon’s 26 feet. Both make the French Pterodactyl of 1856 seem insignificant at a miserly ten-foot-plus from tip to tip.)

But it my be more profitable to concentrates on pterosaurs and the Victorians. In the intellectual climate of their period – in the very language of that period – is the key to the fact that the French Pterodactyl could only have been a playful hoax.

The Victorians had a profound respect for Science with a capital S: not purely for its practical applications, but in the abstract too. It this meant the creation of an atmosphere of ‘seriousness’ in which the foundations of many 20th Century sciences were laid, it also bred a suspicion that academicism was taking too much of the wonder out of life. The often pedantic and dogmatic tone of many scientists – an intolerance towards anecdotal evidence from unqualified observers, for example – was also offensive to outsiders. One way of evening the score was to perpetrate hoaxes which took in (or burlesqued the manner of) these self-appointed experts.

No area of science at this juncture was more fluid than zoology. By 1856 there were still discoveries to be made, exciting new animals amongst them. Palaeontology was still a developing and controversial field; Owen had only coined the term ‘dinosaur’ as recently as 1841 and the major percentage of large, sensationally-bizarre prehistoric animals with which we populate our own visions of primeval landscapes would remain unknown for another 30 years. Above all, these sciences had not yet reached a point where the observations of intelligent but untrained amateurs were totally excluded.

So on the one hand there was the optimistic hope that new forms were to be discovered and on the other a growing rigidity of scientific attitude which stated that the opinions of the professional scientist could not be contested. In this climate any incident which restored the sense of wonder by contradicting the dogmatism of the experts assumed huge importance. It is no coincidence that some of the most ambitious hoaxes which found their way into the early-Victorian publications featured some aspect of zoology.

As the opinions of Edward Newman indicate, the pterosaurs were a legitimate object of speculation. For all practical pur-poses they were scarcely known in 1856 and the ones which attract most attention today – Pteranodon, for instance – were still buried in the rocks. The first, discovered in c.1784 and properly described by Cuvier in 1801, came from the fine lithographic limestone of Solnhofen in Bavaria which was to become famous as the cemetery of these ‘flying reptiles’. Dimorphodon, a cumbersome looking pterosaur whose appearance seems to have influenced Conan Doyle’s impressions of what pterodactyls looked like, was found at Lyme Regis by England’s famous fossil-hunter Mary Anning in 1828. However the public did not see reconstructions of it until almost 50 years later. Popular awareness of what a prehistoric animal was supposed to have looked like is of crucial significance, as we’ll consider in a moment.

To the annoyance of most professional zoologists and palaeontologists, the fossilized evidence of the prehistoric world led encouragement to certain ‘irrational’ beliefs that they could well have done without. Most patent of these was the hypothesis that perhaps the great saurians were not a memento of bygone days but the living, breathing answer to certain conundrums that men of science had signally failed to explain. The Great Sea Serpent was less an object of derision if you presented it as a plesiosaur that had survived for millions of years in the deep and unexplored ocean. And if reptilian monstrosities were being unearthed in the world’s quarries, was it not just possible that the tales of living toads found immured in blocks of stone or coal – a phenomenon reliably reported by numerous observers, it seemed – were far less unlikely than zoologists would admit-?

The infuriated scientists shouted “No!” to both propositions, yet the propositions would not go away. As late as 1915. E. Ray Lankester – the man whose popular lectures and book on Extinct Animals (1906) had done so much to inform laymen on what the prehistoric menagerie looked like in the flesh – was still combatting the idea that toads-in-stone were marvellously preserved survivors entombed when their ‘prisons’ were laid down millenia ago. Lankester was the “gifted friend” whose “excellent monograph… the standard work” was acknowledged by Professor Challenger (and hence by Conan Doyle) in The Lost World, but he was no friend of the ‘prehistoric survivor’ theory. Having forcefully pointed out that these imprisoned amphibia had not even evolved when the sediments and coal measures said to contain them were laid down, he styled the concept as worthless as:

“… the similar but perhaps bolder  statement indulged in from time to time by an inventive transatlantic Press… that some workmen blasting a rock in quarries at Barnumsville were astonished by the escape from a cavity within the solid rock of a large flying lizard or pterodactyl which immediately spread its wings and flew out of sight.”

Several Fortean writers have shared Lankester’s belief that a connection exists between toads-in-stone stories and the French (and possibly other?) pterodactyl(s); but not his conclusion on the invalidity of those accounts. If we choose to disagree with him, however, we have to concede it sheerly amazing that the unique specimen identified so positively by the “naturalist well-versed in the study of palaeontology” is not the star exhibit in some world-famous collection. As far as the Illustrated London News report goes, it did not spread its wings and fly out of sight, as per Lankester, but it should have been available for study and acclaim. Only it most clearly wasn’t. Inconceivable thought – could someone have … mislaid it?

pterodactyl-1“People don’t stumble upon enormous discoveries and then lose their evidence”, Tarp Henry cautions Malone, when he mentions that Prof. Challenger lost a freshly-deceased pterosaur carcase in a boat accident, “Leave that to the novelists.” But supposing we could accept that evidence – including French pterodactyls -  can on occasions go missing, The story contains enough errors to destroy its own credibility even so.

Taking the Illustrated London News account as a starting point, a modern-day palaeontologist would frown with bewilderment at the description of the French Pterodactyl. As a journalistic attempt it might pass muster, but as a scientific guide to the animal it is hopeless – and the few details emerging from it are very ambiguous. The size (“which is that of a large goose”) and wingspan (“ten feet plus”) make it sound suspiciously larger and hence more dramatic than any specimen completely known at the time, but they are not beyond the realms of belief. “Naked, thick and oily skin”, however is a lot less likely; it would have provided no insulation against heat-loss in flight. Back in 1856, though, ‘pterodactyles’ were always depicted in reptilian nudity because no-one had yet found evidence to support the widely held modern view that some kind of hair or down covered their bodies.

These complaints aren’t simply academic trivialities. The French Pterodactyl does not sound right for our times because the animal it describes doesn’t match the picture we have of pterosaurs. But it is perfect for the picture of pterosaurian morphology that prevailed at the time the account was written. The typical pterosaur of the 1850′s was a repulsive combination of bird, bat, lizard and medieval dragon – a gargoyle come to life. The loathsomeness of this unappetizing blend was stressed at every opportunity till it attained an almost metaphysical dimension, with added disgust arising from the indecent nakedness of the monster.

This is the pterosaur described by the Illustrated London News’s man in France: not a real impression of an actual living creature, but a mechanical attempt to reproduce a standard (and to us anachronistic) portrait conforming with readers’ expectations. But the errors caused by the attempt to translate into words the popular imagery of the day do not stand in isolation when we examine certain literary/artistic standards of the society that produced the report. As fitted one of the ‘golden ages’ of popular literature, early Victorians had keen ears for language and (perhaps even more so) an eye for double meanings to words. Puns – many of them too dreadful, forced or elaborate for our taste – proliferated; in certain circumstances they were held to be the height of witticism. With the same grand catholicism that could be found in most areas of 1850′s life and culture, readers loved not just the puns that only a classically-educated person could be expected to construe, but likewise ones based on slang and street-talk.

For a researcher in the 1980′s this kind of playing upon words can be an etymological maze. The sense of a joke may depend on some piece of slang which has been defunct for over a century and therefore almost as unintelligable as Martian. Classicals puns may be less formidable to a student of Latin or Greek, but even there no defence exists against the ‘macaronic’ pun where the double meaning is at one or more stages removed, perhaps from one language to another, via a third.

The French Pterodactyl account contains clues illustrative of all kinds of Victorian punology. There is aa straightforward slang pun and a Latin pun leading into the convoluted two-language ‘macaronic’ variety. In fact, the main clue depends heavily on a subtle movement from Latin to French and thence to contemporary slang – not an easy process to anticipate as you read a purportedly-authentic newspaper report!

In his Strange Creatures from Time and Space (1975) John Keel has outlined the ingenious suggestion that the motive behind the Culmont story may have contained a flavour of nationalistic pride: a hoax to put France’s old rivals across the Rhine into the shade. Quite likely recent finds at Solnhofen and the burgeoning fame of that South German site may have given some Frenchmen grounds for jealousy. Nor is it impossible that some Gallic hoaxer decided to go a giant step beyond Germany’s stony remains of pterosaurs by offering the savants something far better – the tantalizing hint of a living one. Even so, he or she had a perfect understanding of the kind of linguistic wizardry required to ‘sell’ the story to the British newspapers. Despite the French news agency credited at the end of the ILN report, this could have been a quite ‘British’ affair, with clues inbuilt to entertain the cognoscenti who were so vulnerable to the challenge of these punning games.

Few of the books which have lifted the story verbatim from the ILN bother with the original title to the piece: ‘Very Like a Whale’. In chosing this pithy piece the magazine wasn’t quoting Hamlet gratuitously, but letting everybody know how they felt about the veracity of the story. Then as now, British readers knew that a ‘whale’ of a story was a ‘whopper’, something too big to be swallowed (i.e. believed). And the complete phrase was, by the 1850′s, applied liberally to anything considered to be far less than probable. That was how the ILN regarded the French pterodactyl; no doubt readers were expected to take it in the same spirit.

But even without that title, the text contained a sophisticated philological multi-pun that must have given its inventor more than one chuckle of satisfaction.

The palaeontologically-aware naturalist of Gray, we are told, lost no time in identifying the unwholesome-looking, newly-expired corpse as that of Pterodactylus anas. Every specific name attached to an animal – here ‘anas’ – has a meaning which can be translated from the original Greek or Latin. This meaning can be descriptive, or may commemorate the name of a place or person, perhaps the animal’s discoverer.

Pterodactylus anas is not one of the species listed in Henry Govier Seeley’s authoritative Dragons of the Air (1901) which concentrates on the more important specimens found during the previous century; nor could the Natural History Museum locate it as a superseded term. Yet ‘anas’ must have some meaning.

Indeed it has, though when we take down any comprehensive Latin dictionary the results don’t seem to promising. ‘Anas’ simply stands for ‘duck’ – the bird not the verb; on the face of things a description presumably based on the size of the pterodactyl, as there’s little to choose between a duck-sized bird and the ILN’s assertion that the specimen was the size of a large goose.

But there is more to it than that. Besides being Latin for duck, ‘anas’ was the root for several other words for that bird in European languages, notably French – le canard. Here is where the punster comes into his own, for in English popular speech, ‘canard’ has a highly amusing meaning: it means ‘false news’ or ‘hoax’.

The French have been talking about “halfselling a goose” – a venture so self-evidently impossible as to stand for fooling somebody – since the early seventeeth century. The derived use of the more compact ‘canard’ had certainly crossed the Channel to Britain before 1850. At the time of the ILN story it was becoming an increasingly common expression in print. The ILN’s ‘whale’ of a tale could just as easily have been called a duck of a yarn or an exercise in old-fashioned duck salesmanship, French-style.

Quite conceivably the punster whose choice of ‘species-name’ was a direct comment on the bogus quality of their own story never expected the thing to achieve very much. It might indeed delude a few gullible ones and perhaps generate enough curiosity for those stuffy, patronising experts to find themselves on the end of many time-wasting questions about living pterodactyls. The modestly-cultivated reader with his classical education would hover for a few minutes, but soon would be wearing a broad grin as he saw the pterodactyl for the ‘canard’ it really was. The inventor wouldn’t have dared imagine this little fabrication would last for over a century and continue to retain a place in the Amazing Mysteries literature of the 1980′s. For if the joke is on anyone, it has to be on us. What the Victorians were offered as a jest, we have taken as solid, mirth-free fact. We have swallowed the whale, and half-bought the duck…

One reason for this state of affairs is that we don’t share our so-literate-forefathers’ love of puns. Nor is Latin seen any longer as an inevitable acquisition of schooldays, which makes us even less likely to to see the point when a writer tells us in one breath that a living pterodactyl is on offer, and in the next that it belongs to a certain species named the Pterodactyl Hoax! We are locked still more firmly to straightforward assessments – a thing being either Fact or Fiction – by reading the account in Fortean or Riplyesque books which encourage us to believe it’s Unbelievable but True.

Having considered all that, there is something endearing about the French Pterodactyl that makes us want to believe in it. The most incredible aspect of the story is that it not only survives but shows no sign of vanishing into dinosauric extinction.


Jumpers and the Killer Monk of Beachy Head. Michael Goss

From Magonia 55, March 1996

Go to the N19 district of London, ask someone the whereabouts of Suicides’ Bridge. Unless that person is a stranger like yourself, the chances are heavily in favour of your being directed there right away. No painful brow-furrowing or other symptoms of urgent memory-searching, no doubt or vagueness; the answer will be with you in an instant.

Everyone in this part of North London seems to know that the metal-railed bridge carrying Hornsey Lane over the Al between Archway and Highgate is … Suicides’ Bridge. Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below: you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide. If the fall didn’t kill them, the traffic surely must… But perhaps you will be told the story I have heard on three occasions (and from three different people) concerning an unsuccessful jumper whom neither fall nor traffic accounted for. He plummeted onto the Al and lived. Lived on a permanent cripple, for he landed on his feet so that his legs were crushed and shortened concertina-fashion by the impact. It may be true, for all I know. More certainly the people who tell the story talk as if it was – and with a sort of macabre pride.

Suicides’ Bridge is remarkable chiefly because it is a high place with a sheer drop which an unusually high number of people in and around N19 are alleged to have selected as their point of exit from this world. Asking why so many have chosen this place and not somewhere else may seem redundant. It shares with other suicide venues dealt with in this article certain features that a suicidal person might regard as practical recommendations. Besides offering the aforementioned sheer drop to near-certain oblivion, it is accessible; you can get there easily – just walk onto it and once on you will find little or nothing (and probably nobody) to stop you from jumping off.

And once word gets around that a particular place is associated with an unusually high suicide rate – once this has passed into popular credence and perhaps, as in N19, into popular parlance, so that place will be colloquially known as Suicide Bridge, Pool, Leap or whatever – the likelihood is increased that would-be suicides will accept it in exactly these terms. Some will try to make use of its advertised facilities, thereby reinforcing the image. Given time and repetition of events, a species of suggestion might operate to which even persons uncursed by thoughts of self-destruction might succumb. Somebody finding him- or herself at this place might suddenly become oppressed by its associations – might spontaneously and without premeditation jump to their deaths.


Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below: you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide

 Yet apparently it takes more than being in a high place with a sheer drop to endow a place with the nominal, popular title of being a Suicide venue. Dr Jacqueline Simpson, current President of the Folklore Society, tells me that in Worthing there are three very similar multi-storey car parks. One of these has been favoured by potential (or actual) suicides, logging by her guess perhaps a dozen over a twenty-year period; the other two, despite being to all intents and appearances just as suitable for that purpose, have no comparable record (either no suicides whatsoever, or at most just a few). [1] Similarly, I recall that at one time Waterloo Bridge stood out from all competitors spanning the Thames. If you wanted to jump off a London bridge, you went to Waterloo. Again: why?

“Why did he do it? He had everything to live for…” If suicide is an act from which we attempt to distance ourselves – as we do, not always but frequently; if we profess ourselves unable to understand why a particular person killed him- or herself; and if we mutter sadly that the reason is lost in that individual’s private self, then the mystery is magnifies when we see so many people committing suicide, at different times but in the same place. What looks in individual cases like a private psychological mystery may now appear a general, metaphysical one. So we may begin to speculate that there could be Something about those places that encourages – no, forces – folk to commit suicide.

Our forefathers would have understood this. They would have been able to attach a name to the entity who urges humankind to self-destruction; wasn’t it known that suicide could only come from the prompting and tempting of the Devil? That certainty declines alongside the decline of belief in a quasi-material Satan. One of the great ironies about Spiritualism’s rise in the 19th century was a revivification or refinement of the old belief that suicide was a product of external, disembodied influence, a phenomenon that occurred at the instigation of demonic spirits, savage revenge-bound ghosts and elemental forms which might or might not hold some relationship to the other, more tractable varieties.

“I have … touched on the power of suggestion by Elementals, who, when being the spirits of those who have committed suicide or have been murderers or particularly evil-livers, seek to lure to destruction anyone who comes under their malign influence”

wrote Jessie Adelaide Middleton. [2] Hers was a personal approach, but not untypical of what many Spiritualists believed. And suppose these murderous spirits, or something like them, haunted certain high and lonely places, mesmerising the susceptible – and perhaps the less susceptible, likewise – into acts of self termination! Wouldn’t this explain the way so many suicides seem to “cluster” at particular, notorious locations?

One of the finest exponents of this idea was Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965), author of more than thirty books of ghost stories. That total, by the way, ignores almost as many pieces of outright fiction and historical studies; it relates purely to what he claimed were true ghost stories. A goodly number of these starred a familiar hero, an endangered but undaunted investigator who rolled up his sleeves and took on the most malevolent phantoms imaginable in hand-to-hand combat. This sterling figure was none other than Elliott O’Donnell.

Vengeful, malevolent phantoms were an Elliott O’Donnell speciality and he had a particularly fine line in terrible elemental spirits who haunted pools, streams and crags, luring the unsuspecting to their doom. It is possible that he owed this preoccupation to an episode during his Dublin undergraduate days when, according to him, he was throttled by a homicidal phantom (not for the last time, either; O’Donnell seems to have suffered more than most ghost-hunters from spirits with a capacity for GBH). It is still more likely he copped it from the literary trend popularised by William Hope Hodgson in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1913) or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, two elementally challenged occultist detectives whom O’Donnell appears to have been determined to act in real life. [3]

There is the chief and obvious difference between O’Donnell and Carnacki or John Silence: he was real, they weren’t. His first-person testimonies may have been as fictional as theirs – one hopes! – but they were no less amazing. And there is some magic about O’Donnell’s writing that has made people want to take him at face value.

I don’t dwell upon Elliott O’Donnell for the pleasure of contemplating his fascinating larger-than-life persona, nor yet for the fun of calling him a wonderful liar, which isn’t an appropriate term to use when you are dealing with one who valiantly extended the great tradition of the Victorian First-Person-Attested Ghost Story well past its sell-by date. In my case, it would be crass ingratitude to write of him like that; I can’t forget that at the age of fifteen I thought his Trees of Ghostly

Dread the best book ever written. My motive is that for some time I suspected him to be the originator of a story which typifies the way that recurrent suicides are blamed upon occult influences: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head.

Jutting into the Channel near Eastbourne, Sussex, Beachy Head is a high place and one with a terrible reputation for suicides. The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide”. That conditioned my feelings towards Beachy Head for ever more. It was only a matter of weeks ago when researching this article that I realised that I had never questioned this scenario. That Beachy Head had an unhealthily high suicide rate I didn’t and couldn’t doubt – but was it really as high as everyone seemed to pretend?

So I rang Eastbourne Police and asked – hesitantly: was it true that Beachy Head had or has a larger-than-usual number of suicides? The person at the other end plainly thought she was dealing with a fool. “Yes. A look in the newspapers will tell you that.” Not having the leisure to do so in any meaningful depth, I will quote some figures given by a journalist writing in 1976. According to him, Beachy Head averaged ten deaths a year, of which six would be ‘clear cases of suicide’; accidental falls, according to the same source, ‘are rare’, making the former figure a cautious under-estimate. [4]


 Jutting into the Channel near Eastbourne, Sussex, Beachy Head is a high place and one with a terrible reputation for suicides. The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide

Rising to some six hundred feet at its tallest, Beachy Head might need nothing else to recommend it to would-be suicides. Notwithstanding, the large number has been tentatively blamed on the vengeful spirit of a monk left homeless when his monastery was sacked by Henry VIII’s officers. Hunted down mercilessly, shackled and hurled from the cliff, he is now supposed to haunt the Head, malevolently enticing susceptible victims to leap to their deaths.

Just when the Killer Monk stepped forward to provide a supernatural explanation for the Head’s deadly consistency is hard to establish. He does not appear to figure in any of the great Victorian or Edwardian collections of “true ghost stories” and, as I said before, at one time I suspected him to be another of Elliott O’Donnell’s productions, carrying as he does that writer’s trademark by being a merciless, malevolent spirit who seeks awful revenge upon the living. The truth is, though, that the only reference to Beachy Head I have found in O’Donnell appears at the start of chapter XXXIII in Haunted Britain (Rider, 1948). This doesn’t deal with any malevolent monks but (c/o an account published ‘some years before the last war’ by the Sunday Chronicle) with a filmy-white female figure seen by four people in the act of precipitating itself from the cliff edge. ‘A remarkable feature in many of the Beachy Head tragedies, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained, is that when the bodies of suicides have been found, the left shoe has been missing,’ concludes O’Donnell. As far as I am aware, no other investigator picked up that detail. It could be the key to everything.

Had Elliott O’Donnell a better tale than this to tell, he would surely have told it. Had he known anything of the Killer Monk in 1948, he would surely have been on his case. Still, we are talking about an author of too many titles (and of too many ephemerally published ones) for most researchers to hunt down. I would not be totally surprised to learn that the Killer Monk managed to creep into one or two of them; as it is, I can only repeat I have found no sign of him and have to conclude therefore that he came from somewhere else.. .probably.

Significantly, though, at least two accounts from now-defunct popular magazines point to an episode that may have promoted the “Killer Monk” image. [5] I have not found this story elsewhere, but knowing how such magazines routinely go to previously published accounts for their material I suspect there exists a much longer version which theirs helped to “feed back” into wider circulation. For certain, the Killer Monk incident enabled these writers to dramatise the fierce and fatal image that Beachy Head evokes for press and public alike.

The story dealt with the climax of an exorcism on Beachy Head in 1953, an event attended by one hundred people who gathered beneath wooden crosses and then illumination provided by the flashing of the lighthouse below. The real drama came when medium Ray de Vekey cried out that he “saw” a “bearded man … with a flowing robe with a cowl, like a monk … He is calling us a lot of fools .. Fools, I will sweep you over!”

Mr de Vekey began to struggle towards the cliff edge and had to be restrained from going over it. Later he would allege that he had been pulled or lured to this certain destruction by an ‘elderly monk with black markings on his habit and his arms and legs in irons’. His consolation was a sure feeling that the evil influence had been driven from the place. Tragically and bathetically, just three weeks later the headland claimed yet another victim.

This incident alone offered to give useful form and substance to the as yet ill-defined and unnamed Horror of Beachy Head. The Monk was a comprehensible personification of evil; he assigned cause to a series of separate acts of self-murder which, inevitably, might otherwise have been self-contained mysteries. The legend’s internal logic showed that the putative Monk had a terrible motive for his actions; through him, the victims had a motive for theirs. It all made sense.

And yet he does not appear to have succeeded in establishing himself as a popular sort of folk-demon. By this I mean that the Killer Monk of Beachy Head never became a widely circulating story. Being unable to find more on it than I have used to write the foregone summary, I asked Jacqueline Simpson whether she had heard this or any other legend of the kind concerning Beachy Head. As a keen and informed student of Sussex folklore (not to mention being authoress of The Folklore of Sussex, Batsford 1973) she seemed well placed to comment, the more so as she resides about fifteen miles westward along the coast from the monk-haunted head-land. 

Dr Simpson replied that she had heard no legends of any kind of ghost haunting Beachy Head – was unaware of any published reference to such – and added that none of the people to whom she had passed on my enquiry had heard of it, these including an enthusiastic collector of Sussex lore and books as well as a man with a long-standing investigative interest in the paranormal events of that county. Even allowing for the possibility that earlier folklore writers may have shunned placing so unsavoury a subject as suicide before their readers, she was inclined to regard the Killer Monk as a quite recent phenomenon, a quite-recently invented story and most likely no older than the de Vekey seance. The possibility that he was essentially invented by Ray de Vekey escaped neither Dr Simpson nor myself.

The Killer Monk of Beachy Head has all the indications of being a modern legend, then, but he cashes in on two antique motifs. The story is one of many exploiting the dramatic possibilities of the Dissolution with its cast of dispossessed monks and abbots. This epic drama has been a resource of folk-narrative for centuries; the Dissolution can be invoked as background for tales of tragedy and violence or more specifically as the rationale for a haunting. Most of all, it explores the belief that the injury and insult inflicted on the Church and its followers at this time would be sternly, strongly avenged. Usually this takes the form of a curse on those who usurp Church property; the new owners of the alienated abbey are prostrated by financial ruin, their children die in tragic accidents, the family line is extinguished etc. But here the revenge is more direct and a lot more physical.

In summary: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head is a modern legend whose precise source is unknown to this writer, but one which, on the evidence assembled here, was most likely a promotion of journalists around 1953. This nightmare-figure professes to explain the Head’s proven bad record of suicides, constituting itself around popular awareness that the place has such a record and the suspicion that it is sufficiently abnormal to require an abnormal explanation. In structure, it utilises a motif which is traditional (the curse of the Dissolution) but also literary – the latter by reference to concepts found in O’Donnell and most notably those relating to the immaterial existence of violent “elementals” whose sole pleasure lies in the destruction of humans. Ultimately, the Monk does not explain Beachy Head’s record, but testifies to the old credo that suicide is so aberrant an action that it must come about as a result of external and supernatural influences.

We can call him a bit of a failure, too. Melodramatic as he is, the Killer Monk does not appear to have penetrated Sussex folklore, oral or printed, to any appreciably deep level. I would have little excuse for writing about him were it not for the way he fits into a pattern which traces a narrative trend in the visualisation of suicide.

The Killer Monk is a symbolic expression of what we would like to blame suicide upon. Like the old-time Satan, he is supposed to be an immaterial enemy who operates on a mental level, tempting victims to jump off a high place. But he is also a Maniac figure, a disembodied version of what can be found in more contemporary legends which also offer to solve the mystery of why certain places are contaminated by so many suicides. The London Underground, which according to a BBC documentary suffers a couple of reported suicides each week, [6] has or had its own Platform Maniac whose dark doings I described back in the May 1985 issue of Magonia and more recently in Folklore Frontiers. [7] The Platform Maniac is not depicted as a ghost or disembodied entity – far from it: he is made all the more horrible for being human (and utterly, psychotically insane). Yet in practical terms he is as insubstantial as a phantom. Even his penchant for shoving victims to their doom beneath oncoming trains is in full conformity with the muscular activities of the ghosts and “elementals” that O’Donnell wrote about. From traditional ghost to modern urban maniac is but a short … step. (I nearly wrote “jump” there.)

Then I am reminded of The Golden Gate Murders, a 1979 movie which has been shown several times on British television. Set around San Francisco’s most famous feature (which no one needs reminding is also infamous as one of the world’s most popular sites for suicide attempts) the film stars Susannah York as a nun who teams up with a detective to investigate the death of a priest. Like many before him, he is thought to have ended his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge; the nun insists that not even the most depressed Catholic priest would commit the deadly sin of suicide. In its unassuming way, the plot explores our reluctance to believe that anyone could do such a thing, even if we don’t regard suicide as a deadly sin in the heroine’s strict Catholic terms. it also airs our suspicion that when a particular place becomes notorious for the numbers who do so, what looks like self-murder is in fact murder by Entity or Entities Unknown.

Susannah York was right, as it turned out. I hope I’ll spoil the pleasure of nobody who has yet to see the film if I give away that the priest did not jump off the Golden Gate Bridge: like all too many of those who went before him, he was pulled or pushed off. And by a veritable urban maniac who resides in the secret; steely recesses of the great structure.

The suicidal were once thought victims of the Devil’s temptation. Your modern Maniac is no psychologist and doesn’t bother with enticement, suggestion, mesmerism or anything like that. He simply grabs hold and pushes.


1. Personal communication (9 September 1995) from Dr Jacqueline Simpson, whom I would like to thank for information and comments on which I have drawn in this article. On the anomaly of why one of these car parks should be so distinguished Dr Simpson has no theory, although she notices that the fact it is opposite the offices of the local paper might influence the choice of someone wishing to exit with a certain amount of publicity.  

2. Jessie Adelaide Middleton, The White Ghost Book (Cassell 1916). The remark is made in context of (or advertisement for) the existence of similar suicide-ghost stories in her other books.

3. Richard Dalby’s ‘Elliott O’Donnell’ in Book and Magazine Collector 22 (December 1985), pages 38-43, offers an excellent short introduction to the life of the man who was, despite formidable competition from the likes of Harry Price, Britain’s best-known ghost-hunter. Best of all, it gives what the writer claims is a complete bibliography of O’Donnell’s work – a canon of such vast extent as to deter the hope of ever finding, let alone reading, all of it.

4. Anthony David (see note following)

5. Anthony Davis. ‘Curse of Beachy Head’, Titbits, 29 January-4 February 1976; Paul Grant, ‘Is Beachy Head Haunted by a Killer Monk?’, Weekend (no date, but some time in 1975). Any discrepancy in my version is likely to have occurred as a result of combining these two accounts.

6. I quote this figure – which I hope is an average – from a BBC documentary of the London Underground which was shown on 17 May 1989. The interviewee spoke of the investigation of these suicide reports as “a messy job but someone’s got to do it”.

7. Michael Goss, ‘The Maniac on the Platform‘, Magonia 19 (May 1985), pages 3-6 and 22; ‘September 1994: the news isn’t very good‘, Folklore Frontiers 23 (October 1994), pages 3-6. The latter was inspired by a report in The Guardian (13 September 1994, page 3) of a belligerent and plainly deranged man’s attempt to push a woman under a train at London Bridge station. For a more free-ranging study of legendary assailants, see my The Halifax Slasher and Other ‘Urban Maniac’ Tales’, a paper originally delivered at the Perspectives on Contemporary Legend Conference, Sheffield, 1988 and subsequently published with revisions in A Nest of Vipers. Perspectives an Contemporary Legend Vol. 5, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (Sheffield Academic Press 1990), pages 89-111.





Blue is the Colour: The Hypno-Show Controversy. Michael Goss

From Magonia 53, August 1995

“Y’know… Hypnotism is Not Just About People Making Fools Of Themselves On Stage,” confides the head-and-shoulders caricature, speaking word balloon-wise from the bottom right foreground of the “Biff Weekend” cartoon strip. “It’s Also About Flogging Videos.” (1)

Sure enough, there are the self-help home-hypnosis videos cascading down from the top of the frame like comic gifts from a benevolent Creator. But as far as many of us are concerned, hypnosis is not about them. It is about shows in which our conspecifics make fools (nay, prats) of themselves, with more than a little help, we’re led to believe, from a vibrant young man who is billed as a stage hypnotist. (Brief digression in acknowledgement of political correctness: I dare say there are also vibrant young women stage hypnotists, but they don’t seem to make the headlines. Again, my remark should not be construed as evidence of prejudice against vibrant, not-so-young stage hypnotists, though it’s true they don’t get on TV so often) (2) 

The aforementioned head-shoulders/bottom-right-foreground Biff caricature had a more than accidental resemblance to Paul McKenna. As purveyor of both self-improving home-hypnosis videos and a superior TV-friendly hypno show (reputedly watched by 12 million viewers each week) he has earned the tribute of being turned into a cartoon caricature. This isn’t a comment on his act, nor upon the man himself. What it means is that he’s so well known as to be instantly recognised even when reduced to cartoon character format. If Mr McKenna’s rise to celebrity and (also reputedly) astronomical wealth is unparalleled in the annals of TV history, it is mainly because he was the first to crack the televisual tabu against broadcasting shows such as his. In consequence he has become a household name. Another, more predictable consequence has been the swarm of stage hypnotists (vibrant, male, young or youngish) anxious to acquire some of what he’s got vis-a-vis the celebrity, the cash, the overall kudos. This is where the trouble starts, if it starts anywhere… 

The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna is, as I just wrote, TV-friendly – which means it is tailored to be suitable for TV and specifically for peak-viewing times. What he makes his subjects get up to is seldom more than risqué; if you want something more “adult”, try Brookside. ‘Adult’ shows are what many of his would-be, yet-untelevised rivals earn their living from. When not billed as ‘comedy hypnotism’ (to distinguish it from ‘tragic hypnotism’, of course) their acts may be advertised by that very term: adult. Some titillate with by-lines like: “not for the easily outraged” – nudge-nudge, wink-wink… say no more. (3) Basically, these are acts that span the gulf between the sexually implicit and sexually explicit.  

Taking the susceptibility, amenability or even the collusion of volunteers for granted, the content of a hypnotic stage act may seem unpredictable: determined or limited, that is, only by the inventiveness of the performer (and perhaps what or how much he thinks he can get away with). In practice, it tends to be the very opposite – predictable or predictable within a little. As Paul McKenna once admitted, all the performer can present are variations upon certain well-known themes. Certain stunts with or without minor variations have become stereotyped ingredients of hypno-shows: The X-Ray Specs (where giant lens-less joke spectacles cause subjects to ‘see’ everyone about them in the nude), negative hallucination scenarios, the When You Wake Up You Will Be Elvis/Madonna/Michael Jackson, et cetera. (4) When it comes to sex routines, aficionados may expect the following: 

  • Being More Than just Good Friends with a Stranger: this has to be classed as potentially embarrassing for the subject(s) but otherwise innocuous. Even safe-as-milk TV shows may feature suggestions which have entranced volunteers cuddling or fondling one another, unscreened variations may involve more vigorous gropings, fumblings, kissing. As the wily hypnotist may word the suggestion so that the focus of each subject’s amorousness is the person beside them – and as that person may belong to the same sex – this shades over into:
  • Homoerotic Behaviour: again, TV performers may engage in modified versions of this, male is told to stroke another’s knee… and so forth. (For maximum effect, pick two macho types for this experiment. Oh, won’t they look disgusted at themselves and each other when you snap ‘em out of it?!) The macho-man is also useful for: 
  • Cross-Dressing: the subject is handed female attire (the saucier the better) and puts it on in the hypnotically inspired belief he’s getting into his own clothes. Illustrative example: one recently reported show ended with “a tattooed trawlerman” in fishnet tights and Basque; for good measure he was told to respond to a musical cue by leaping into the air with a cry of, “I believe in fairies”. (5) .The direct opposite to having subjects dress in specially provided and uproariously inappropriate clothes is to have them take off their own, hence:
  • The Striptease: this, as far as I’m aware, is not judged suitable for television although mostly restricted to (a) male subjects only who even then (b) strip down to their underpants only and (c) usually as a finale to the show. (Perhaps once you have reduced a bunch of guys to their underwear, the audience won’t expect you to cap that achievement. There again, they might hope you’ll try.) In some venues, however, the strip may continue and become absolute, witness the reported comment of one subject’s embarrassed girlfriend: “You saw everything when Jack took his clothes off.” (6) A kind of sexual-discriminatory code operates to protect female subjects from exposing themselves in the same way or to the same extent. Still, under the ever-popular hypno-illusion they are the World’s Greatest Stripper, they may lose all except bra/pants and some reports speak of women going topless. (7) Arguably and assuming he could find a subject who would comply, a hypnotist who went beyond these sartorial confines would be risking more than a few cancelled bookings. However, he could always fall back on good old:
  • Simulated Sex: most definitely not suitable for TV as we know it today and an easy target for journalists composing one of the “sick sex hypno show” pieces in which this article of mine is interested. Subjects engage in what critics of 1920s Negro dance styles referred to as ‘dry screwing’ with a variety of unlikely objects, in which cuddly toys frequently figure. In one case summarised by Magonia, the female victim thought she was enjoying the services of Patrick Swayze when in fact what she was enjoying was whatever services you can expect from an inflatable doll when you haven’t taken your clothes off. (8) On the same (low) level is:
  • Oral Sex: well, not really, but the female subject who thinks she is sucking at a lolly/ice cream is actually gobbling away at a vibrator. (9)

Before the atmosphere steams up completely, a few things ought to be conceded. These reports all come from papers consciously, industriously and mayhap deviously constructing “sick sex porno-hypno show” articles. This may not disbar them as evidence, but it should be taken into account. More important are the non-hypnotic suggestions of those who claim that hypnosis has little if anything to do with anything that the subjects do (or did … or are alleged to have done). Their argument would be that nothing occurred here that might not have occurred without hypnosis. Also, there is a difference between acted-as-if (simulated) acts and actual, for-real (performed) acts. Even agreeing that some hypno-shows may include volunteers who are capable of gross exhibitionism, people who don’t need to be hypnotised to perform in a “hypnotic” manner – admitting also that for them hypnosis may be a fair excuse for behaving irresponsibly and coarsely – I would still question a too-general application of this hypothesis. 

Let’s leave that difficult question for the moment. The published evidence affirms that certain stage hypnotists spice up their acts with routines which are sexually implicit or explicit.

In most cases, the sexuality remains a hint. The hypnotist implies he can make his subjects do anything (‘sexual things’) but is careful not to risk putting that notion to the test. This is a sort of verbal lubricity, the audience being invited to think that if the performer can get his volunteers to behave as outrageously as they are seen to do then he could also get them to do a lot more outrageous (‘sexual’) things besides. Such appears to have been the ploy utilised by the hypnotist re-christened by the Sun of 12 January 1994 ‘Watt Sleaze’. His opening address to the audience implied he was willing to live up to such a soubriquet, holding out the promise that anyone who took part might have their greatest sexual fantasies realised. “If you want a sex orgy”, the headline quotes him as announcing, “well shut the doors and start right away.” (10) Disappointingly from the reporter’s point of view, perhaps, nothing in the act that followed came close to the orgiastic. The performer merely pointed the audience’s collective imagination in one direction and then headed off in another.

Elsewhere, though, stage hypnotists appear to sell the idea of their power over the subjects by frankly sex-orientated routines. It is hard to think otherwise about a recent Sunday Mirror report of an ‘adult’ show staged by Alex Tsander in which we are told of women instructed to think they were having sex on a train, copulating with a pink toy elephant (not that the colour makes much difference), having the biggest orgasm of their lives and licking the hypnotist’s boots every time he cued them with the word, “Grovel”. (11)

It was, in the opinion of Dr Sue Blackmore who accompanied the reporters, “a tawdry display of manipulation”, wherein the hypnotist “exploited his power for too long… Many of the tricks seemed designed for his own gratification”, and were “more like humiliation than entertainment”. Then we have the delightful scene in which, by way of a change, the hypnotist became the one to suffer from an induced suggestion. Under the spell of thinking that he was negotiating a future booking, he handed the undercover reporters “a sick album of snaps of his past stunts at pubs, clubs and private parties”, encouraging them with the promise that if hired, “I can make it as blue as you like”. 


Ever since the days of the animal magnetists, stage hypnosis has passed through cycles of popularity. Each has been accompanied by recriminations and accusations of harm to volunteer-victims.

There is a possibility that the performer thought he had to sell himself – thought that his supposed customers wanted it blue and wouldn’t book him unless he could prove that, as in the Chelsea FC song, Blue is the Colour. What the future holds for acts like his, though, may bring blues of the old-fashioned sort. 

Ever since the days of the animal magnetists, stage hypnosis has passed through cycles of popularity. Each has been accompanied by recriminations and accusations of harm to volunteer-victims. Currently we are seeing the latest and greatest manifestation of this two-way process, with reports of traumas, severe mental disturbances and emotional as well as occasional physical harm done to subjects. (12)

There is no point in pretending this is a non-issue. There is no point in pretending that hypno-act volunteers deserve whatever they get purely because they are volunteers and have therefore exposed themselves to avoidable risks. There is no point in pretending there are no risks or that all the reported cases of harm, physical and emotional, are fabrications. things have started to go wrong. 

 A name of someone for whom it went wrong, allegedly – a name which crops up like a memento mori whenever the press engage in another minatory treatment of stage hypnosis – is that of the late Sharron Tabarn. Her obituary reads: age 24, mother of two – volunteered as subject in unlicensed pub hypno-show at Leyland, Lancashire; instructed by hypnotist that she would awaken from her trance as if 10,000 volts had passed through her (or words to that effect). Found dead in bed five hours later. Coroner’s verdict: epileptic seizure, death by natural causes.

I have been working quite hard to avoid saying that Sharron Tabarn died as a result of that hypnotic suggestion. I feel safe in saying that something of that kind was implied, however, since practically every account I have seen of the case has already done so. Mrs Tabarn’s mother, Margaret Harper, went further than that. Pointing out that her daughter hadn’t suffered a seizure before, she was quoted as stating that “Hypnosis brought on her fit”. Mrs Harper went on to launch the Campaign Against Stage Hypnosis, an organisation which has become increasingly prominent as the newspaper coverage of the hypno-show controversy progresses. This, of course, owes much to the way journalists target useful, quotable persons and organisations when researching their material – persons to whom they can say, “What is your reaction?” and get a usable, quotable reply. (We often get the feeling that the interviewer has a better-than-vague idea of the answer before the question is asked; also that the person concerned has been chosen to respond to that question because the interviewer already has a better-than-vague idea of what the answer will be.) Another obvious source for “reaction quotes” on hypno-shows, was, of course, Paul McKenna. Towards the proposal to implement a ban on stage performances he was, unsurprisingly, not sympathetic, even when reporters laid the fact of the Tabarn case in front of him. “It’s like saying that because only one restaurant is responsible for food poisoning, all restaurants should be banned.” (13)

Mr McKenna’s opinion was sought again in November 1994 when an out-of-court settlement made 25-year-old Ann Hazard about £20,000 richer, though most would agree it was a poor return for what happened after she’d volunteered as a subject during a stage hypnosis show at Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre some six years before. (14) At one point in the performance, Mrs Hazard asked hypnotist Robert Halpern if she could use the lavatory and was allegedly told to go by the quickest route or exit. (15) Hypnotised subjects sometimes respond with dreadful over-literalness to suggestions. It appears that in Mrs Hazard’s case taking the ‘quickest exit’ involved jumping off the four-foot stage, whereupon she broke her leg in two places. 

Unable to follow her sports interests, given over to moods of irritability and to nightmares, she decided to take legal action. This was not without precedent. In March 1952 a 23-year-old shop assistant named Diana Rains-Bath had brought an action for negligence and assault against a stage hypnotist and had won damages, though the sum eventually awarded to her wasn’t the sort that anyone could retire on. (16) As already mentioned, the Hazard affair ended in an out-of-court settlement – and also a press conference and more calls for a ban on stage hypnosis. Glasgow Council had already pre-empted this, vetoing such displays in all halls and theatres under its jurisdiction. More significantly, the case strongly implied that in future stage hypnotists might be held liable for any proven harm incurred by folk who took part in their acts.

By now it was evident that some newspapers were on the lookout for scandalous, if possible lubricious hypno-stories, inviting readers to contact them at once with personal anecdotes of “life-changing” experiences at stage shows. Typically, these invitations were appended to articles critical of hypnotic entertainments in tone if not in direct statement and it was understood that when they talked about “life-changing” experiences, they meant ones which had changed somebody’s life for the worse.

When challenged by the media on the subject, stage hypnotists have an endearing way of agreeing that there are rascals who ignore local licensing requirements and guidelines, the 1952 Hypnotism Act and much else besides. They freely admit there are a few who get volunteers to perform unsuitable and sometimes dangerous stunts. But of course, the interviewee scrupulously declares that he is not one of the reprehensible band. So far, one of the few stage hypnotists who might say that and be believed was also the best known, Paul McKenna.

Ignoring a few less-than-mesmerised TV pundits, the press had always been good to Paul McKenna. Most found him an ideal subject for cosy ‘human interest’ articles. In the best tradition of celebrity journalism, we heard all about his Kensington flat, his days as a disc jockey, his girlfriend (how he proposed to her – and where); even the man who made his waistcoats came in for a mention. (17) Interest in TV’s latest star was sustained between the end of his first series and the start of the next (autumn 1994) by carefully timed articles of this homely kind. On 1 July 1994 a Sun ‘exclusive’ by Peter Willis announced that McKenna had just clinched a £2.5 million, two-year deal with ITV (designed, it was said, to prevent his defection to the BBC) which would enable him to branch out – “hypnotism will take a back seat for now as he concentrates on more widely ranging family shows”. (Of these, we’ve seen no sign so far.) October brought another Sun ‘exclusive’ revealing that he was holding secret hypnotherapy sessions to combat the Duchess of York’s stress and also her recurring weight problem. (18) In all this time, no hint of scandal. As we’ve seen, McKenna’s only contact with anything resembling it took the form of well-considered ‘reaction quotes’ arising from other folks’ alleged misfortunes or misdemeanours. Writing about him in Fortean Times that same year, I remarked on the odd fact that there’d been so few complaints about him. That disguised the truth, which was that I hadn’t heard of any at all. (19)

Making such a statement probably brought down a curse on me, on Paul McKenna or upon both of us. With his second Carlton TV series at the end of its Monday night run, the dailies for 14 December 1994 named him in the context of what sounded a notably serious hypno-scandal which took on added significance from the coinciding announcement of a governmental decision to review the rules relating to stage hypnosis performances.

Chris Gates (aged 26) had allegedly been transformed from a robust fishing and martial arts enthusiast to someone with the mental state of an eight-year-old after having taken part in a McKenna show at High Wycombe the previous March. Acting and presumably believing he was only eight, the sufferer couldn’t be expected to furnish the press with much information on the matter, but his girlfriend could and did. On stage, Mr Gates had responded to instructions to become a ballerina; he had taken part in one of the most popular seen-on-TV McKenna routines, a spoof version of “Blind Date”. But according to his girlfriend, he had also been left unattended in a ‘regressive’ state throughout the show’s interval and thereafter suffered a noticeable psychiatric deterioration. He complained of headaches – of being scared of God – of someone controlling his thoughts – of voices in his head. He refused to wash his hair or to hang clothes in his wardrobe for reasons plainly outside the realms of rationality. Hospitalised at last for (it was said) acute schizophrenia, Mr Gates was described today as, to all intents, an eight-year-old needing adult supervision and whiling away his time with puzzle-books. (20)

Solicited for ‘reaction quotes’ yet again (but under somewhat less positive circumstances than usual) Mr McKenna denied ever having used regression techniques on stage. He also pointed out, quite legitimately, that Mr Gates’s mental troubles might have surfaced even had he not taken part in the High Wycombe show: “He ‘blames hypnotism’” ran one attributed remark, “but there was never any evidence to prove that.” Evidence notwithstanding, the implied relationship between the two events – between Mr Gates taking part in the hypno-show and the onset of his mental disturbances – seemed suspiciously causal. This was heightened, arguably, by a Charing Cross Hospital consultant psychiatrist’s opinion that the “emotional impact” of the trance may have triggered the subsequent breakdown.

There was an element of glee in some quarters that at last someone had “got something on McKenna”. (Too brash, you see – too self-satisfied. Too successful.) His figurehead role in his profession – and let’s remind ourselves that the public has come to identify Paul McKenna with stage hypnosis and vice versa – gave the allegations immense weight as regards the campaign to ban such shows. How this episode will affect his career as a mass-entertainment celebrity remains to be seen. At the time of writing (February 1995) we are waiting for news of the Government’s assessment of the rules regulating hypno-shows. It seems likely that changes will be introduced; the future for the McKenna wannabees isn’t bright and the Man himself may have to make a few revisions to his act. The question, as always, comes down to whether new laws need to be implemented or whether existing ones could be more effective if they were more vigorously enforced.

For instance and limiting discussion to ‘sick sex hypno-porno shows’ – aren’t these events already covered by existing laws? I confess to being quite confused by all this. What follows are a few random and quite likely refutable thoughts on the topic.

Suppose for a moment that the Hazard case had been settled in court instead of outside one. Suppose also that the verdict had been the same, that is, in favour of the complainant. (As it might have been: the Rains-Bath case could provide a valid precedent, showing as it does that injured subjects can win damages from a hypnotist.) Since it appears that hypnotists can be held liable for actions performed by their subjects against their own safety or against their own interests, could the latter be construed to encompass sexual acts carried out as per hypnotic instigation which the subject retrospectively felt were damaging to his/her emotional health or social status? If so, might a woman pointed out in the streets of her home town as someone who’d publicly simulated sex with a fluffy pink elephant sue on grounds of emotional harm or similar?

I suppose she would have to show that, in a normal state of consciousness sans the specific hypnotic instruction, she would not have simulated sex with said fluffy elephant. That connects with one of the most recalcitrant questions concerning hypnosis: can or can not a person be made to carry out acts other than what would or might be performed in his/her normal state of consciousness? Again, the act of volunteering to be hypnotised might be taken as consent to the act – unless (in a form of diminished responsibility plea) the subject counter-argued that she consented only to the act of being hypnotised, not to the act which came out of it, responsibility for which is down to the suggester, the hypnotist.

So the volunteer-subject argues that she did not know what being hypnotised would lead her into. Might it not be shown that the act of attending an ‘adult’ show and of volunteering to take part in it was tantamount to prior awareness? That anybody attending such a show would have some inkling of the things she might be involved in as a result of volunteering, so that in effect the subject acquiesced in a process which carried a strong possibility of emotional distress?

The Hypnotism Act 1952 clearly states that a licence is required from the local authorities controlling other forms of entertainment before an exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnosis can take place. (21) Prosecutions arising from contravention of this or other parts of the Act seem rare. Licensing authorities vary in their willingness to think hard before granting hypno-show authorisation; Westminster Council is said to be diligent about examining the content of each performers act but others appear to be less bothered. It has been suggested that not all performers and/or promoters are aware of the need to obtain such a licence and that some quietly ignore it; the Leyland (Lancashire) show in which Sharron Tabarn took part was described in at least one press report as “unlicensed”.

All this may be incidental, beyond indicating that stage hypnosis is regulated under existing entertainment licensing laws. Other laws, notably those regarding public decency, govern what may be staged in places to which the public are admitted. I’ve been talking about suggested actions of a sexual nature; this, after all, is what press coverage of “sick sex hypno shows” presents as one of the chiefest causes for concern. Are these shows not covered by those laws? Realistically, perhaps, those laws may be unenforceable. They may be too expensive in terms of legal costs to be enforced. Many pub striptease acts play fast and loose with the laws of pornography, for example; the offenders could be prosecuted but (unless someone complains strenuously) they seldom are. The same might apply to some stage hypnosis shows.

In any event, all these finicky little problems go away if we follow a particular trend in current thinking about hypnosis, namely that hypnosis doesn’t really exist. A few paragraphs back, I slipped in the phrase, ‘normal state of consciousness‘, the understanding being that the hypnotic state is not normal, but ‘altered’ or somehow ‘different‘. The school of thought just alluded to proposes that it isn’t. “Hypnosis may stand as a term of convenience, but it is not a genuinely distinct state. You may even consider it to be a “cultural invention … a fantasy, like the belief that you are possessed by the devil”. So says Dr Graham Wagstaff of Liverpool University in an interview with a rather unconvinced Peter Hillmore (22)
Dr Wagstaff is not the first researcher to suggest that ‘hypnosis’ is an invention (and perhaps an unnecessary one); the experimental work of Theodore X. Barber in the 1960s aroused considerable discussion as to the extent to which the phenomena put forward to establish the discrete character of the hypnotic state could be duplicated, even simulated, by non-hypnotised persons.
But it is Dr Wagstaff who has emerged as a leading proponent of the idea that we may not need to consider hypnosis as anything more than a spurious name for a collection of psychological mechanisms, not as an authentic or unique condition. Speaking in an edition of Equinox just before Christmas 1994, he went as far as to say that before too long the word would have dropped out of usage and the concept itself out of sight. Along with it, presumably, would go any notion of prosecutions or regulations to do with hypnosis. You can’t prosecute and don’t need to regulate what does not exist.

So hypnosis does not exist – the stage volunteers aren’t hypnotised – the routines they perform are not “hypnotic”. If there is no concession to the idea that “hypnotic suggestions” are carried out in a state other than normal, surely any indecent act performed is punishable, the offender blatantly transgressing the “Indecency Laws” and without any extenuating excuse, such as the averral that they would not have performed that act in a “normal state”?

Equinox: The Big Sleep was a good programme, if you ignored the unhappy attempt to capitalise on the title by staging it as a Chandler PI case complete with sardonic Marlowesque voice-over. Dr Wagstaff was one of the best things on it, especially in a segment where he replicated a number of ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ hypnotic stunts with a man who was not hypnotised. (He freely confirmed that he wasn’t. Ah, but perhaps he’d been hypnotised to say that. Ah, but Dr Wagstaff affirmed that he hadn’t.) The biggest obstacle to his propositions gaining more attention is that most of us persist in wanting to believe that hypnosis is a genuinely unique state. Stage performers owe their living to that attitude. We get a buzz out of supposing that subjects do what they do because of hypnosis, even if sometimes we harbour a few suspicions that they may only be ‘acting’ or ‘pretending’ to be hypnotised. 

The Big Sleep also had Dr Wagstaff at a Blackpool hypno-show and interviewing some of the people who’d taken part as volunteers in it. Since hypnosis doesn’t exist, evidently, it follows that people can’t be hypnotised – so what had caused them to do all the crazy things they did? Compliance … task motivation … et cetera. Dr Wagstaff went over this when he talked to Peter Hillmore, making the point that TV shows like The Generation Game prove “many people are more than happy to make fools of themselves to please the compere”. Does this mean that Bruce Forsyth is really a hypnotist? Is Paul McKenna really Bruce Forsyth? While you’re about it, savour the televisual irony that one of the more amusing routines in the last series of ‘he Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna’was a spoof version of… The Generation Game’.

But then Peter Hillmore came back with what sounds a nice objection pointing towards a distinction. In The Generation Game contestants know what they are doing is making them look ridiculous; they laugh at themselves as they do it. In hypno-shows you rarely see participants laugh at themselves. The laughter is directed at them and they often appear confused by it. Or as Mr Hillmore wrote, the volunteers “continue with their absurd actions in spite of the laughter, not because of it”. (24) 

One more thing: as the audience, we are doing the laughing – not merely condoning the act, but encouraging it. If we’re worried about hypno-shows, we ought to remember that we aren’t forced (or hypnotised) to watch them. There is evidence that audiences, familiarised through what they have seen on TV or elsewhere, expect to be shown certain tricks like the now cliched “X-Ray Specs” routine. ‘All Your Favourites’, promised a poster for a hypno-show in Thurrock recently – implying that we not only knew all about hypnotists’ routines, but have connoisseurs’ preferences among them. Performers sometimes admit to feeling the pressure of their public’s expectations. “Audiences love it”, said Andrew Newton of his men-stripped-to-underpants trick. “When I used to do late-night spots in Liverpool, they used practically to demand it.” (25) And there are some venues where the audience demand tricks more audacious than that. Outside TV’s enchanted circle, more overt sexual stunts may become standard items. People want to see them and they aren’t happy if they don’t. The hypnotist who doesn’t oblige, the hypnotist who doesn’t come up with the simulated sex routines, risks being the hypnotist who doesn’t get many bookings.

Is there a case for redefining where the responsibility for what goes on at ‘hypno-porno’ shows lies? Is there a need for new laws to control what goes on or might go on at these shows? Is this all a waste of time, because hypnosis doesn’t exist?

Is there a lawyer in the house



1. Guardian Week-end supplement, 11 Feb. 1995, p. 6 

2. Female stage hypnotists do not appear to have been over-prevalent at any period in entertainment history. In Mystic London (1875) the Rev. Charles Maurice Davies writes of seeing a Miss Chandos, “a very pretty young lady indeed, of not more than 18 or 20 years of age” with “a Mystic crop of long black curls, which waved about like the locks of a sibyl” and his phraseology suggests there were others who, like her, bid for popularity on the mesmeric public-lecture circuit at this time. Miss Chandos evidently made adroit use of her girlish charm: “When she asked for volunteers I thought the room had risen on masse”, wrote Davies (slightly miffed that he was too far back from the stage to get a go). “Everybody wanted to be mesmerised.” Perhaps the best-known and most successful female stage performer is or was Pat Collins, who enjoyed Hollywood modishness in the early 1960s and capped it with a cameo role in Divorce American Style (where she hypnotises Debbie Reynolds, of all people). 

3. “Not for the easily outraged”: as mentioned in ‘The Human Zoo’ columnist Jon Ronson’s “It’s a trance of a lifetime” (Guardian Weekend, 31 Dec. 1994) which followed an evening at FiFi’s Palace of Dance near Dudley with rubber-clad stage hypnotist Alexxx. 

4. The X-Ray Specs routine was popularised (if not actually invented) by the American George Kreskin. Practically all stage hypnotists currently performing have incorporated it into their acts. Negative hallucinations are ones which prevent the subject from seeing (or appearing to see) any object which the hypnotist designates as invisible, e.g. as where the performer suggests that he himself or some other person will be invisible to the subject. A good way to create the illusion of things moving psycho-kinetically.

5. “Lads Strip for Gay Bathtime” (Sun, 11 Jan. 1994, pp 22-23). This was part of that paper’s three part end amazingly sexsational exposé of stage hypnosis.

6. David Jack, “How hypnotist made my man strip naked for sick sex show …as shocked crowd watched” (Sunday People, 1 May 1994, pp 10-11). Ah, but how many of them walked out? Among the other alleged hypnotic indiscretions of this subject was a confession that he wished his girlfriend would get on top more often and “do more of the work”

7. Until comparatively recently (in most venues, at least) the World’s Greatest Stripper involved female subjects in no-thing more outrageous than mimicking a bump and grind routine, the hypnotist specifying “… but you will not take off your clothes”. (This was traditionally accompanied by a knowing took that told the audience that unless he’d said that, the subject certainly would have taken off her clothes.) In an interesting but questionable incident at the Wallasey nightclub Tramps in 1980, two females instructed to dance to that old favourite “The Stripper” were said to have ignored the hypnotist’s injunction and actually went much further than many professional striptease artistes and had to be hustled off stage (“The Stripnotist”, Sun, 23 June 1980, p. 11). The fact the volunteers were both go-go dancers may or may not have some bearing on these events. Ironically, the hypnotist reported here as distraught (“It was awful… I just want to forget all about it.”) and as taking a pride in having a “family” act was Les Power – a name which featured in the same paper’s “sick sex hypno show” series of Jan. 1994.

8. As reported by John Rimmer (Magonia 51, Feb. 1995, p. 20), taken from the Sunday People, 24 Dec. 1994. (interesting sexological point: can an inflatable doll ever be used for anything other than simulated sex?)

9. Allegedly featured (and condemned, of course) in the Alex Le Roy act described by Chris Blythe in the Sun’s “Dirty Trancing”, 10 Jan. 1994. Mr Le Roy’s tete-a-tete with the reporter elicited much boasting of sexual conquests accredited to hypnosis. By contrast, Andrew Newton’s with Gary Bushel) for the Sun ‘s TV Super Guide (no date, late 1994?) produced the complaint that “The pubs are full of third-rate hypnotists ripping off my act” and also the threat of taking Paul McKenna to court for pirating his ideas. However, it also included a cautionary tale of an unnamed hypnotist whose typically unprofessional act included the vibrator/oral sex stunt.

10. This was the last of the three-part Sun expose cited in Note 5 above.

11. “Hypno show began as fun but it ended in sex shame”, by Hilary Knowles and David Rowe, Sunday Mirror, 18 Dec. 1994, pp 14-15.

12. Since at least 1983 several newspapers have quoted Dr Prem Misra, a psychotherapist who to some extent specialises in treating the negative after-effects of stage hypnosis performances. See, for example, Anthony Howard’s ‘Blunder the Spell!’ (Daily Mirror, 2 March 1994, p. 3) where Dr Misra was said to have handled sixteen ‘severely disturbed cases’ among hypno-show volunteers. This article was published just prior to Dr Misra’s appearance on BBC1′s Here and Now programme in which the dangers of such shows provided the theme.

13. Daily Mirror, 29 March 1994, “The show must go on says McKenna”; cf. “Paul: Stage Ban is Unfair”, by Caroline Sutton, 2 April 1994 – possibly the Sun

14. Many national papers for 4 November 1994 carried reports on this case; my summary uses material from the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Sun of that date.

15. The career of Robert Halpern, perhaps the most oft-publicised Scottish stage hypnotist, has provided the theme for numerous press reports, including some which make him sound worthy of the cliché ‘no stranger to controversy’. It appears a matter of fact that his shows revived the declining fortunes of Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre; in its 4 September 1980. issue The Stage & Television Today (p. 3) credited him with achieving 95% capacity audiences in the 1400-seater venue over the traditionally dead summer season. Occasionally criticised by older members of his own profession but something of a folk-hero amongst younger Glaswegians, Mr Halpern suffered from a general concern over possible bad after-effects among hypno-show volunteers (News of the World, 24 April 1983, p. 3) and more recently a series of eight scheduled London performances was terminated after just three shows when Westminster City Council reacted to alleged complaints of sexual innuendo, etc. (Sunday Scot, 26 May 1991.)

16. In March 1952 at Sussex Assizes, shop assistant Diana Rains-Bath sought damages for negligence, breach of contract and assault from American stage hypnotist Ralph Slater relating to her participation as a volunteer in one of his Brighton Hippodrome performances in 1948. It was alleged that during the show Slater had jerked her head sharply and painfully forward (presumably to rehypnotise her – Miss Rains-Bath had spontaneously slipped out of trance at the time) and had also forgotten to cancel the successful suggestion that she was a baby crying for its mother. Miss Rains-Bath was subsequently treated for depression and anxiety neurosis by Dr J S Van Pelt of the British Society of Medical Hypnotists who, it transpired, was mounting a campaign against stage performers. This was one detail emergent from the lively exchange between the doctor and Mr Slater, who took over the conduct of his own defence when his counsel withdrew, being unable to concur with the direction in which Slater wished the defence to proceed. Miss Rains-Bath was initially awarded £1,000 damages on the negligence plea, £107 special damages and £25 for assault. However, in July 1952 a Court of Appeal overturned the negligence plea award, allowing only that for damages to stand and in December that same year it was announced that Miss Rains-Bath had dropped the special damages claim. The case is believed to have been a factor in the passing of the 1952 Hypnotism Act which received the Royal Assent on 1 August that year and became operative on 1 April 1953. Most national dailies carried reports of the hearing; this summary is compiled from those in The Times, 1, 12, 14, 21, 25 and 27 March, 20 July and 13 December 1952.

17. “Star Paul Casts A Spell On His Friends” (People Magazine, 21 November 1993, pp 12-13) was composed almost entirely of snap-quotes from persons close to Paul McKenna professionally or socially. In case you were worried about it, the tailor of the McKenna waistcoats at this period in his life was Tom Gilbey.

18. Sun, 20 October 1994, pp.26-27. If we believe the reports of certain papers (which a lot of us don’t) this was not the Duchess of York’s first experiment with hypnotherapeutic weight-loss. Claims of similar ‘secret treatments’ (though not with Mr McKenna) were made in November 1986 – and subsequently denied. Come to think, I haven’t seen any actual confirmation of these more recent (Sun) claims, either.

19. ‘The Hipster of Hypnosis‘, Fortean Times, 74, April/May 1994, p. 53.

20. This summary includes Pascoe Watson’s ‘McKenna’s Trance Left My Boyfriend Like A Child’ (Star, 14 December 1994, p. 11) and – more detailed, if only because there were more pages – ‘My Man Became A Child After McKenna Hypno Act‘, by Roger Kasper and John Chapman (News of the World, 18 Dec. 1994, pp. 13-15)

21. Clause 1 (1) states that “any authority in an area empowered to grant licences for the regulation of places kept or ordinarily used for public dancing, singing, music or other public entertainments of the like kind” shall also have the power “to attach conditions regulating or prohibiting the giving of an exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnotism on any person at the place to which the licence relates”.

22. ‘Peter Hillmore’s Notebook‘, The Observer, 29 January 1995, p. 25

23. Theodore X Barber, Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach. New York, Van Nostrand, 1969. In his first chapter of Hypnosis for the Seriously Curious, (New York and London, W W Norton, 1976, paperback edition, 1983) Kenneth S Bowers provides a review of the evidence that hypnotic behaviour can (in his words) be faked.

24. Cf the remark from Dr Prem Misra (note 12, above): “The fun is always at the expense of the individual.” I think it may be legitimate to point out that when interviewed in the wake of their hypno-performances the majority of volunteers affirm that they enjoyed the experience, even if they are now aware of having made themselves look a trifle foolish.

25. Roger Tedre, ‘Hypnotism takes the country by trance‘, The Observer, 6 November 1994, p. 13. Andrew Newton was perhaps the first of the ‘younger generation’ of stage hypnotists to attract national publicity. Apart from the success of his late-night Liverpudlian shows (see main text) he managed to obtain a licence that enabled him to become the first hypnotist to perform on a central London stage in 35 years (“All eyes on the hypnotists seeking West End fame”, The Observer, 16 January 1987) and ushered in the TV boom from which Paul McKenna benefited greatly with a one-hour, one-off ITV programme in December 1993. He now has his own series on Sky TV.

The Phantom Hitch-Hiker on Public Transport. Michael Goss

From Magonia 22, May 1986magonia-22


Hitch-Hiker legends are still handled according to the model promoted by Richard K. Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey, whose California Folklore Quarterly paper not only brought the wide distribution of this itinerant road ghost to the attention of other collectors, but also brought it to heel – in the sense that the four main versions of the legend defined by them provided a workable means of classifying each fresh example as it occurred [1]. (For readers new to the game, these variants were: 

    • Version A – the Hitch-Hiker identified as the spirit of a deceased road accident victim who haunts the scene of her demise and usually on the anniversary of that terminal event;
    • Version B – the Hitch-Hiker, who may well be an old woman or a nun, vanishes after uttering some sort of prophecy;
    • Version C – another deceased girl, often encountered at a dance or bar, who borrows some article of clothing from the ‘witness’ which he later retrieves from her grave;
    • Version D – the Hitch-Hiker is a deity, e.g. the Hawaiian goddess Pele.

The popularity and logicality of this classification scheme doesn’t prevent researchers from realigning material to demonstrate other common patterns or submotifs, however. As just hinted, a new or newish category looks at the way in which the Hitch-Hiker eschews the normal privately-owned vehicle and boards a public one – a bus or taxi.

Unless ghosts are endowed with either a spiritual indemnity from fare paying or a spectral season ticket, these excursions on public transport seem to imply that, technically speaking, the beings concerned are not true hitch-hikers. The whole point of thumbing a ride, as many would agree, is that you aren’t going to pay for it; whereas these ghost appear quite willing (again, technically speaking) to conform to custom by handing over their cash. In practise, as we are about to discover, they frequently find ways to avoid this expense – ways that would leave human free-riders dumb with envy, if not with disbelief. Additionally, folklorists perceive too many points of uniformity between these yarns and the more typical Hitch-Hikers to allow the motif to set up as an independent story. Rather, the Phantom Hitch-Hiker on Public Transport is a variant form and moreover one which could have been predicted. the virility, relevance and continued popularity of the tale as a whole depends on its ability to update certain details, one technique of which is to portray the Hitch-Hiker travelling by means of the most common (and credible) kind of transport pertaining to the age and culture against which the story is set. Hence, the bus or taxi is a perfectly legitimate ploy.

I was reminded of this thanks to a cutting from the Sunday Express of 16th February 1986 (p.2) forwarded to me by Bob Rickard of Fortean Times. Now the Sunday Express has a decided fondness for the Hitch-Hiker, chronicling his or her latest stopping-off points wheresoever on the globe they may occur; in the space of just seven weeks in 1979, for example, it gave us two near-classic specimens: the adventure of Roy Fulton outside Dunstable being upstaged by motorcycle cop Mahmood Ali’s confrontation with the vengeful spirit of the beautiful Nessera Begum at Peshawar, Pakistan. Contin-uing its tradition of picking up more Hitch-Hikers than are dreamed of by the average foaflorist (or motorist), the Express now had this little gem to unleash on its readers:


Taiper: A Taiwan bus company near Tainan, 200 miles south of Taipei, has been forced to cancel the evening run to an isolated village because of a ghost. Passing through tall, shadowy, sugarcane fields, the driver picked up a young girl passenger, but by the time the bus journey ended the girl had vanished. The company’s other frightened drivers insisted a Taoist priest exorcise the haunted vehicle before it was used again.

Connoisseurs of the Phantom will relish this latest addition to the canon. Not only because it is always pleasant to be able to mark up a new locale among the already diverse settings registered for the story, but because it has certain elements which, without being absolutely unique, help it to escape the overall stereotyping that usually accompanies the Hitch-Hiker narrative. The careful, slightly artificial scene-setting – ‘an isolated village… tall, shadowy sugar cane fields’ – creates a sort of ‘Orientalised Gothic’ effect which subsumes claustrophobia and menace; unlike most Hitch-Hiker venues in, say, the United States or Britain, the incidents is placed away from crowded civilisation in the night-time haunts of all imagin-able kinds of inhuman forces and beings. Malaysian stories are also rich in ‘wilderness’ settings; a lonely strip of road through dense forest is the most likely place for a driver to be thumbed down by a Hitch-Hiker.. .and she may easily turn out to be a langsuyar or vampire spirit. The final note about the Taoist exorcism is another nice orientalizing touch.

But the very fact that the ghost has created work for Taoist exorcists is a clue to the fact that the Hitch-Hiker has taken on a fresh role: it is now an agent of localised hysteria. Formerly its impact was confined to one person, namely the motorist-hero who stops for the girl at the

roadside. The shock element, the hero’s realisation that she is no girl at all but a supernatural being, may be implicit in these more typical stories – we would naturally expect the hero to be ‘shaken up’, even if the narrator omits to inform us of as much – or overt, as when we hear that he took to his bed soon afterwards with a high fever, went insane, died… or all three. (A common fate for victims in Beardsley and Hankey’s Version C tales, incidentally, and virtually inescapable if you meet a lang-suyar.) But that is the personal fate of a single person; the Hitch-Hiker presents no threat to the community en masse. The Taiwanese case is one of several recent stories to depart from this comfortable ethos. Here we read of a fear that severs a [vital?] communications link between Tainan and the ‘isolated village’ once night descends: a situation which conjures forth Jim Corbett’s remarks about the siege-mentality that grip-ped Indian jungle settlements when a man-eating tiger was on the prowl.

The malevolent, disruptive influence of the ghost seems to me a fairly modern or novel feature of Hitch-Hiker stories. It has surfaced a few times in European examples, usually taking the form of some statement suggesting that a species of localised hysteria is rife, corroborated by allegations that motorists have been panicked into acts of dangerous driving. At Griefnau, Germany in 1973, a police chief was said to have imposed a ban (and £200 fine) on spreading the story of an ominous old lady in black – one of the prophecy-and-vanish school – who made one witness almost swerve into an approaching vehicle and terrified parents into keeping their children off the road regardless of whether it was night or day. Better still, the young male Hitch-Hiker whose prophetic powers were limited to an announcement of the Second Coming allegedly inspired drivers at Ekenassjon, southern Sweden to “speed down the road without stopping for traffic signals, police said. Or they go miles out of their way to avoid what they call the ghost’s favourite cross-roads for hitching a lift”. (Guardian 31 October 1980, but papers from the USA to Japan carried the same story, presumably as a Hallowe’en filler). It will be intriguing to see if this submotif of Hitch-Hiker Menaces Community – always a remote community, notice: – undergoes any further development.

The Taiwanese Hitch-Hiker’s trend towards public transport cannot be seen as a totally modernist or modernizing piece of innovation. In their original 1942 paper Beardsley and Hankey give an undated version from Du Quoin, Illinois where two lads bringing a bus from one town to another through a rain-storm stop to pick up a girl in white; she vanishes routinely after letting slip her address which they subsequently visit (also routinely) to learn that she has been killed in a car-crash four years previous. (In fact the bus is about the only original feature in this yarn). More ingenious is the tale sent to me by Paul Screeton in response to my appeal for Hitch-Hiker material a few years back [2].

The girl-ghost flagged down a United bus driven by a Mr Weatherall at a place called Pittington End near Haswell Plough, Co. Durham, requesting to be dropped at Sherburn Hill and apologising for the fact that she’d no money to pay her fare. Mr Weatherall reasoned that the young lady had been “put out” of a car (by a frustrated boyfriend?) and took pity on her penniless plight – a charitable act ill-repaid, when he found the passenger had vacated the moving bus. Not surprisingly the terrified man was glad when other people got on shortly afterwards. It’s interesting to read that although the witness claimed to have heard a story about a girl who had died in a tragic accident in this area, the police could not confirm the rumour… nor for that matter, had they previously heard anything about this Phantom Hitch-Hiker.

Another ghostly passenger who travels free of charge is an old lady dressed in a dark grey cloak: an apparition seemingly less place-bound than the average spectre, according  to Jack Hallam’s description of her activities [3]. Perhaps bored with her perambulations around the ruins of Oxney Court overlooking St Margaret’s Bay near Dover, she has been known to venture out onto the Deal road where she was once picked up by a double-decker. In a novel variant upon the mundane techniques of fare-evasion, she went upstairs and vanished before the conductor could collect her money. But in the next specimen the phantom spurns such paltry behaviour; she vanishes, of course, but not before handing over her fare which (as Steve Moore pondered when passing the relevant clipping on to me) may disappoint tourists. This short item is from Singapore’s Straits Times of 22nd May 1956 and another example of Hiker Hysteria. Malay women in Kampong Mahmudiah and Jalan Mariamah (Johore Bahru) are supposed to have cultivated the habit of locking their doors every evening at 7 p.m. for fear of a supposed ghost, a very beautiful female who used strong perfume. She was seen (and very likely smelled) boarding a bus from the town centre, buying a ticket, taking a seat… but somewhere near the Malay graveyard en route for Kampong Mahmudiah she disappeared. Eastern stories are highly prone to mentioning graveyards as Hitch-Hiker embarkation or disembarkation points – a rather theatrical element which is meant to arouse the readers’/listeners’ sense of unease and prepare him for the supernatural denoument – and generally assigned to the ‘C’ variants of Beardsley and Hankey. Police spokesmen, whom folklorists regard as ‘authority figures’ invoked to inject a specious credibility into urban legends are apparently available in Eastern climes also, but the quoted comments which end the article make it plain that there was no official cognisance of these disturbances. The reference to a perfumed, vanishing spectre brings to mind a Malaysian case testified to by Weekend reader Cedric Davidson-Acres, who claimed to have encountered his silent, frangipani-scented and needless to add disappearing Hitch-Hiker amidst the forested roads to Kedah Bridge [4].

But when the Phantom Hitch-Hiker travels by public transport, it is more usually by taxi. Ignoring citations of taxi drivers duped by Gary (Indiana’s) celebrated Cline Avenue Ghost [5], early cases include Beardsley and Hankey’s two prophetic nuns-in-cabs (Case 18: Chicago 1941; Case 19: San Francisco 1942), both of whom were ‘identified’ when dropped at their respective convents; in the SF version the driver identifies his erstwhile passenger from a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary (“After the sister explained the identity of the statue, he went to the police-station to check his sanity”. Where else would you go to check your sanity?).

The same folklorists’ Example 33 offers an undated Washington variant in which a deceased woman travels home by taxi every anniversary of her death – leaving her bereaved husband to answer the driver’s ring at the doorbell, relate the harrowing story… and pay the fare as well. in 1941 Haruo Aoki heard a similar tale from a Guntaku Cab Company employee, the scene this time being the Korean city of Kunsan [6]. The driver has to pick up a cashless girl at the municipal crematorium – hmm: suspicious in itself – and takes her to a (named) hardware store, into which she goes on the understanding that she will reappear shortly with the fare for her trip. “Because Mr Shimo had kept a store at the same locality for many years and was a respected citizen, the driver waited outside without any misgivings”. . . until his patience frays at the girl’s failure to come back. On knocking at the door the hero suffers the doom of a typical Version C witness: there is a sob-story from the bereaved mother and the identification of the absconded fare from a picture of the deceased upon the wall. Oh yes, and the driver dies (of shock?) not long afterwards.

The inference is that the Kunsan story was an American import to Korea and this may also account for the ‘Nightwalker of Nago’, another taxi hailing Hitch-Hiker represented in a spate of cabbie stories from around Neha, Okinawa in the early 1960s [7]. The Nightwalker, a woman in her twenties, with close-cropped hair and black slacks, always appeared on a mountain road between the US Marines’ Camp Schwab and the fishing village of Nago, to which she asked to be taken. According to several taxi-drivers (who are, for once, named) she said nothing else before vanishing in the approved mysterious manner. As such it is one of those oddly truncated Hitch-Hiker stories in which the phantom simply appears and then disappears – a purposeless procedure which is anathema to her folklore relatives, who value their identity enough to give drivers sufficient clues like addresses for them to discover it in due course. There is no indication of her motive beyond that: no connection with a tragic accident, no identification-data and, unfortunately, no hint that the researcher tried to challenge the assumption that the tale was more than another piece of relocated folklore.

On a more comic level is another Malaysian example courtesy of Steve Moore and Bob Rickard yet again [8]. Before the scented ghost of Johore Bahru had time to leave footprints (or tyre-marks) a 64-year-old ‘driver’ named Lam Huat of Kuala Kangsar was entering into a financial transaction of a very unfruitful kind with a lovely young woman who wanted to be taken to a spot near the – wait for it. – Hokkien cemetery, to which end she hoped to hire his trishaw; an ethnic equivalent of the taxis we have been considering. Lam, who’d been sitting on the kerb wishing he had just a few cents for a cup of tea, didn’t think it odd that the girl weighed so little and when the mile-long journey to the cemetery gate was over he gladly pocketed the two dollar-notes she gave to him. Pedalling back to town scarce able to believe his luck, old Lam examined the cash. Horror of horrors – shades of faerie gold – the two notes were burnt scraps of paper, crumbled ashes: The Straits Times reporter observed that Lam trembled as he displayed them.

Perhaps he should have expected nothing better, since Steve Moore pointed out to me that the burned paper obviously demonstrates that the ghost had paid Lam in ‘spirit money’, or cash burnt at some Eastern funeral rites to make it serviceable for the dead. Even so, it seems a shabby trick to play on an elderly trishaw-man, who could hardly offer the charred bits of paper in payment for his cup of tea.

A great part of the Hitch-Hiker’s charm is the way in which each reworking of the story is told in a charmingly artless way which suggests that nothing like it has ever been spoken nor heard anywhere, anytime before. Let’s close with a ‘Report from the Readers’ contribution in Fate, December 1983, which possesses this endearing quality. The Fate reader was Swarnakamal Bhattacharyya of Parangas, West Bengal and the narrative which he found in a local paper dated 21 April for the preceding year is my first clue that the Phantom Hitch-Hiker has thumbed a ride as far as India.

The Hiker – this time a tall, robust man in khaki uniform – was wont to hail a taxi after midnight and occupy the back seat, from whence he whispered to the driver, “Nothing to fear”. Which was extremely debatable, since the moment that the taxi slowed to round a bend near the Calcutta Racecourse the man at the wheel would notice the backdoor opening “and the phantom would slip out and disappear” (Why? He could have vanished just as easily and more spectacularly from where he was. Why did he need to alight before doing it? Oh, never mind).Detectives [sic] didn’t wax enthusiastic when they received the first report of the kind; it was only when ‘two or three’ other taxi-drivers complained of identical-sounding misadventures that they took to the trail and for lack of clues among the living ‘shifted their attention to the land of the dead’. It was recalled by ‘an old experienced officer’ that an Inspector of Armed Police had been killed on the spot where the ghost was reported to wait for a lift and, wonder of wonders, his description tallied with that reassuring cab-hailer.At this juncture the writer refers to the Hindu tradition that the souls of accident fatalities ‘suffer terribly in the other world and the detective recommended the performance of religious rites to ensure the salvation of the afflicted soul’. Would that our police…

So far Swarnakamal Bhattacharyya had done a good job in telling a quite conventional Hitch-Hiker story with a sprinkling of improvisations – the driver’s observation of the cab door opening is unusual, although there is something like it in one of the Uniondale, South Africa tales. But his conclusion showed a nice disregard for folklore tenets, where hitch-Hiker victims are traditionally anonymous and not available for further comment: he flourished a named person who had well and truly met the apparition and was prepared to talk about it. Or rather, he nearly succeeded in doing so

In reality, taxi-driver Ali of Behala, Calcutta could only presume or assume that the figure he’d seen at the haunted spot in 1975 was the Hitch-Hiker everyone was talking about in 1982. It did not attempt to stop his cab and for all we know he may not have been any kind of phantom whatsoever. Still, he had been asked if he’d ever seen one ‘on this or any other road’ and… well, the Figure was the best he could do by way of a positive answer.

No man is a hero to his valet, nor most likely to his wife – especially when he starts rambling on about road-ghosts he has met. Ali’s spouse responded to his confidences with a rebuke and a critical query as to whether he’d been drinking. “‘Believe me”, vouched the man who almost picked up a phantom Hitch-Hiker. “I had not touched a drop – but without saying a word, she poured cold water on my head”‘.Serve him right. Phantom Hitch-Hikers should be seen and not heard – unless you are a folklorist, when the reverse applies. Or something like that.

References for the Curious:

  • 1. BEARDSLEY & HANKEY, ‘The Vanishing Hitch-Hiker’, California Folklore Quarterly 1:4 (October 1942) pp. 303 ff.
  • 2. SCREETON, Paul. ‘Tales of Phantom hitch-hikers’ The Mail (Hartlepool) 31 Oct. 80.
  • 3. HALLAM, Jack, The Ghost Tour, London, 1977.
  • 4. ‘Mystery of the Beautiful Hitch-Hiker’ Weekend, 29 Nov. 1978.
  • 5. GEORGE, Philip Brandt, ‘The Ghost of Cline Avenue’, Indiana Folklore V:1 (1972), pp. 56 ff.
  • 7. HARUO AOKI, ‘A Hitchhiking Ghost in Korea’, Western Folklore, XIII (1954), pp. 280 7. ‘The Phantom Hitchhiker of Okinawa’, Fate, July 1961.
  • 8 ‘Old Lam felt for the cash and shivered – he’d carried a ghost’, Straits Times (Singapore) 2 May 1956. [They don't run titles like that in our papers, do they?]

To buy Mick Goss’s book on the phantom hitch-hiker click here: Evidence for Phantom Hitch-hikers


Shito-Dama, the Japanese Fireball Spirit. Michael Goss

Originally published in Magonia 24, November 1986.  

The Japanese spirit world is populated by a strange crew; there are teasing, shape-changing entities known as kitsune or ‘fox spirits’ which delight in deceiving lone travellers; there are bird-faced tengu in the forests, and half-human, half turtle kappa in the deep ponds. And of course there are the ghosts of the departed who cling obsessively to the things left undone or uncorrected in their earthly existence. These phantasms have amused Western readers ever since folklore retailers like Lafcadio Hearn and A. B. Mitford made the mythologies of Japan accessible to non-specialist audiences. Yet the shito-dama, the ‘fireball spirit’ remains a largely unpublicized quantity. 

In Japan more than anywhere else in the world, spirits of the departed tend to harbour strong feelings on justice. Above all, a ghost is unlikely to rest until the wrongs which led to its being deprived of a physical existence have been put right. Take as an example the unhappy and vengeful spirit of 0 Same – she died of a broken heart for the love of a handsome priest – who was blamed for the great Tokyo fire of 1788 that killed 180,000 inhabitants. She was protesting from beyond the grave about the way that her fine dress (presented to the temple after her death) had been sold. After two young female owners had died of lovesickness not long after acquiring the second-hand garment, the dress was judged to be possessed and a ceremonial exorcism-by-burning arranged. In the course of this a mysterious wind whisked a burning sleeve into the rafters, causing the conflagration which fire-conscious Japanese narrators claimed was one of the worst in the history of mankind. 

History, mythology and supernatural revenge on the living – including those not directly responsible for and probably not even born at the time of the original offence – rank high in this and other tales garnered towards the end of the nineteenth century by Richard Gordon Smith. During nine years in Japan where he was chiefly engaged in collecting natural history specimens for the British Museum he had unusual opportunity to talk to fishermen, farmers, priests and children, drawing from them folk material which might otherwise never have reached the west. Much of it featured ghostly apparitions and none of it was more puzzling than the fireball-like spirit that informants styles shito-dama. 

Though he never saw one for himself, Smith encountered belief in shito-dama on several occasions and in several places. One such instance happened on a visit to Lake Biwa, the famously-beautiful stretch of water in the southwest of the main island, that is named after the traditional four-stringed lute-like instrument of Japan. 

One of the lesser attractions of Biwa-Ko – not one of its ‘Eight Beauties’ celebrated by Japanese poets – was the small settlement of Seze. As Smith indicates, the ‘settlement’ amounted to little more than the lakeside cottage of a very old fisherman and his three sons who owned and operated “an immense fish trap which runs out into the lake nearly a mile, and is a disgrace to all civilized ideas of conservation”. the family had apparently acquired the rights a century or more before from the local daimya (lord). 

Though a little bewildered to find a visitor – and a foreigner! – interested in simple tales that even his sons didn’t care to hear nowadays, the elderly fisherman had a few ‘truths’ (or as we’d say, folk yarns) concerning his part of the lake. First and most intriguing of these was the shito-dama or ‘Spider Fire of the Spirit of the Dead Akechi’. Rooted in local history, the fireball was a fact as far this aged narrator was concerned: “a curious and unpleasant thing” that he had seen at first hand – evidently too close and too often for his comfort. 

The fireball was seen on the lake in wet weather, began the narrator, and it was ‘The Spirit of Akechi’. Whether Smith realised it or not, the old man must have been referring to the daimyo Akechi Mitsuhide, familiar to generations of Japanese as ‘Shogun of Thirteen Days‘. Akechi was famed for an act of revenge and rebellion; he had waited five years before rising against his liege-lord Nobunaga whom he held responsible for the death of his mother and he capped the encompassing of his enemy’s death by proclaiming himself Shogun or military dictator (and effectual ruler) of Japan. From the time of his rebellion to his total defeat by Nobunaga’s right-hand-man Hideyoshi Toyotomi and thence to his death in 1582, Akechi had enjoyed a paltry 13 days of glory, hence his popular title. 

Historians say that Akechi Mitsuhide died en route for the safety of his Sakamoto castle, massacred at the hands of a peasant mob in the village of Ogorusu. Smith’s informant had a more romantic version of that event which invested cold fact with picturesque overtones dear to the heart of folk-narrators and audiences everywhere … at the expense of actual cold fact itself. These overtones were the staple twin-elements of Japanese popular lore: betrayal and supernatural revenge.

According to the fisherman, Akechi had built his now-ruined castle at the foot of Mount Hiyei and when the time of his reverses came he held it against a siege by the far larger forces of Hideyoshi. The castle might well have remained untaken had not a fisherman from Magisa told the besiegers the secret of its water supply. Once this lifeline was cut the garrison had no choice but to capitulate; Akechi and most of his men took the honourable way of forestalling the inevitable by committing suicide. 

As already pointed out, this version of Akechi’s bloody end doesn’t square with the sober biographical details given in standard texts like Papinot’s Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan. More interest though, is the way that it lent itself to interpretation of a menacing local phenomena. For it was said that ever since the betrayal and death of Akechi: 

“…in rain or rough weather, there has come from the castle a fireball, six inches in diameter or more. It comes to wreak vengeance on the fishermen, and causes many wrecks, leading boats out of their course. Sometimes it comes almost into the boat. Once a fisherman struck it with a bamboo pole, breaking it up into many fiery bits, and on that occasion many boats were lost… That is all sir, that I can tell of it – except that often have I seen it myself and feared it” 

As a meteorological phenomenon – a literal fireball, perhaps, or ball lighting which is seen only in certain rough-weather conditions – the shito-dama of Akechi sounds quite believable. More important is the way in which something that could possibly be a natural phenomenon has been interpreted as a supernatural one. Certain aspects of this process seem peculiarly adapted to the prevailing cultural beliefs against which the story is told; the shito-dama’s purpose is revenge on fishermen because to this class belonged the man who in distant time offended against a dominant social law – namely, loyalty to one’s lord. The spirit does not distinguish between innocent fishermen and the descendants (if any!) of the guilty one: all fishermen are guilty and hence legitimate subjects of its supernatural vengeance. That this rationale is founded on a non-existent or literally incorrect piece of history doesn’t matter.

At the same time, the basic motif – a supernatural light over water commemorating a past homicidal tragedy engineered by betrayal of accepted human standards – is not uniquely Japanese. The shito-dama of Akechi bears comparison with themes implicit in Rhode Island’s ghostly classic, the so-called ‘Palatine Light’. 

As described by one resident of Block Island in 1811, the light appears about half a mile out to sea: sometimes small, like an illumination from a far-off window, at other times reaching the heights of a fully-rigged sailing ship. Whatever its source, the oft-cited accounts indicate that the light was regularly reported throughout the nineteenth century and (more specifically) was just as much a reality for the residents of Block island as the Akechi shito-dama was for the Seze fishermen. Also like their Japanese counterparts, the islanders usually attributed it to the paranormal – and to a piece of spurious criminal history.  

The Palatine was supposed to have been a Philadelphia-bound immigrant boat lured onto Block Island in 1752 by wreckers who slaughtered the helpless survivors and set the vessel on fire. Since that day, ran the yarn, the blazing ship appeared sporadically offshore to testify to that foul and inhuman deed.

Local historians have proved quite confidently that there was no foul deed – at least not on the islander’s side, and not even a ship named The Palatine. It is thought that the story derives from the wreck of the Princess Augusta in 1738 (not 1752) with 350 refugees who came from the German districts of the Upper and Lower Palatinates. The ship struck a hummock off Block island, and the local inhabitants were almost wholly responsible for saving some of the immigrants despite the inexplicably callous behaviour on the part of the Princess Augusta‘s commanding officer; the ship eventually drifted away and sank after hitting a rock. Since she did not catch fire there seems no logical connection between the burning “Palatine light” and the ill-fated ship, save for the folk-rationalisation that the allegedly paranormal radiance at sea marked the fiery fate of a vessel which had come to be equated with the genuine wreck of 1738. As we have seen, Japanese folklore furnished similarly dubious reasons for the Akechi fireball to seek revenge on fishermen, quite ignoring the historical fact that Akechi had more reason to hate the land-based Ogurusu peasants than the boatmen of Seze.

The crux of the Akechi story is the way in which it shows how a rare but universal phenomenon – here, some kind of fireball – has been interpreted according to folklore conventions on the supernatural. For the fishermen it was not merely a random ball of light, but none other than a shito-dama.  

Richard Gordon Smith wrote: “So much evidence have I got from personal acquaintances as to their existence, and even frequent occurrence, that I almost believe in them myself”. The shito-dama seems to have been such an integral part of Japanese beliefs that it is surprising to find so little on it from western commentators. Smith felt that the shito-dama was an astral spirit that could wander the earth after death. As such, this specifically Japanese form relates to a widespread tradition that some part of the human organism may survive death and be visible in or around the locality in which that terminal event took place. Japanese readers would have had little difficulty in understanding (and believing in) the pallid lights or “magnetic effluvia” said to have been witnesses by nineteenth century clairvoyants in graveyards. 

Smith’s informants divided shito-dama into two categories: some were of ’roundish tadpole shape’, others ‘more square fronted’ and ‘eyed’ as in the case(s) of those belonging to a deaf man and a fisher-girl seen by two to three dozen people at Tsuboune near Naba. His hunter assistant Oto of Itama claimed that he and his sons had seen the shito-dama of a dead woman that was something like an egg with a tail. At Toshishima a number of elderly men testified that the shito-dama belonging to a carpenter had been red, but more typically witnesses spoke of a smoky white phosphorescence. 

Although shito-dama were firmly held to be manifestations of the human spirit, they were not to be confused with conventional ghosts of the dead. Generally speaking Japanese ghosts are always recognisably human in form. The shito-dama was nothing more than a moving light, perhaps an abstract of the human spirit. At the same time it might be seen alongside a more representational phantom. In Smith’s ghoulish record of ‘A Haunted Temple in Inaba Province’ the shito-dama hovers and buzzes as it leads “the luminous skeleton of a man in loose priest’s clothes with glaring eyes and a parchment skin!” The narrative makes it clear that both apparitions belong to the same murder victim. 

A kind of limited intelligence directs the shito-dama’s peregrinations. In common with haunting ghosts the world over, its actions seem defined by obsessive preoccupying thoughts, of which revenge or the desire to reveal the whereabouts of its mortal remains are usually paramount. Again, it may continue in an attempt to carry out some important act left unfinished by death. 

The folk-tales collected by Gordon Smith were told and retold to him principally for their entertainment value. Then as now Oriental ghost stories can be enjoyed for that alone; they have a quaintness and charm of unfamiliarity that is hard to resist. But what does the shito-dama tell us about the Japanese approach to the paranormal? And has it any relevance to our own approach to that topic? 

At folktale level a phenomenon which may sound to us uncommon but natural has been taken as something spiritual – a visual symbol of the soul, the astral body, or some other element that survives bodily death. The shito-dama stories also have a moral or educative value aimed at the living. The phenomenon is intended to reinforce a deep-rooted ethical teaching that binds humans and society. Overt or implicit, these underlying factors are loyalty and duty. Betrayal of trust – a terrible failing in a hierarchical society like that of Japan – brings evil consequences not merely for the individual but for those about him. Thus the fisherman who gave away his lord’s secret and caused his death drew supernatural retribution on unborn members of the class to which he belonged in the Akechi tale.

These interpretations may seem irrelevant to cultures outside Japan, yet the shito-dama has a much deeper significance than that, for it reveals the remarkable uniformity of believer response between peoples set apart by vast barriers of geography and custom. Ostensibly the gulf between feudal Japan and pre-20th century Britain is beyond compromise. It may be misleading to over-value similarities between cultures which could arguably be sheer accident, but folklorists have always been impressed when two remote cultures yield evidence of beliefs which suggest a common mode of interpreting unknown phenomena. So it is revealing when the attitudes of Smith’s shito-dama narrators are placed beside British rural traditions concerning wandering, unearthly-seeming luminescences known variously as ‘corpse-lights’ or ‘corpse-candles’. 

Technically, the corpse lights discussed in the following paragraphs were believed to be different from the corpse candles spoken of in many parts of Britain, but most especially in Wales, The ‘candle’ was a moving ball of light said to presage a coming death in the community, often it was supposed to have belonged to someone who had already ‘passed on’ and in this case it was said to manifest in welcome or in warning to a person whose death was imminent, interestingly, some East Anglian corpse lights were described as red, like the shito-dama of the Toshishima carpenter 

Here again the phenomenon can be summed up as an eerie nocturnal ball of light or flame which tradition asserted was the soul of a deceased person. The corpse light was particularly prone to wander when the departed had been the victim of an undisclosed, unpunished crime and could not rest until this issue had been acknowledged and resolved. As in the Japanese material, opinions differed on the dangers posed by these itinerant lights: some were thought to bear no malice to the living, whereas others were to be avoided at all costs. 

The parallels with Smith’s legends go much deeper. Folklorist Baring-Gould heard that a flame seen dancing over fields and hayracks one harvest time was believed to be the soul of a young man who had helped bring in the hay last year but had since died from consumption. Perhaps the spirit wanted to assist in the communal harvesting of the parish. Equally – and given the critical nature of this annual event when every available hand was expected to turn out – it may have responded out of a post-mortem sense of social obligation. As late as the 1920′s rumours of corpse-lights sprang up in the wake of a well publicized and sordid British murder. Clearly the victim’s spirit was prosecuting its claim for justice, just as the buzzing shito-dama of the Inaba temple drew attention to “the bones of a priest who had suffered a violent death and could not rest”.

These similar beliefs of uncomplicated (often unlettered) working people have suffered comparable attempts at rationalist, deflating explanations. Corpse lights were dismissed by the learned as fungoid luminosity, spontaneously-igniting marsh gas, or both. The origins of the shito-dama could take in these answers as well as meteorological or geological hypotheses. Neither rationalisation process has completely convincing results and neither can gainsay the ease with which folk-audiences insisted the phenomenon were spiritual, paranormal manifestations. Evidence of so-similar interpretations of fireballs among cultures so remote and segregated from each other – ideas which could not be borrowed nor exchanged from one to the other – indicates that despite ethnic differences people respond to the unknown in standard ways. That the British and Japanese should both interpret a species of ‘fireball’ in terms of spirit survival is no coincidence and it matters more than the undeniably distinct cultural lines along which those races have developed. 

Parapsychologists may ponder that across the world folk-ghosts have a quality which goes beyond narrative form and convention. If every nation interprets its ghosts in ways that encapsulate some essential approach to life, it could explain why so many supernatural motifs are common to people who have no (or at best limited) contact with each other until long after those motifs had evolved. The unhappy ghost which demands justice for its unpunished murder is not necessarily a disseminated story: it walks the countries of the globe because Man has a strong sense of justice and hates to think that murder can go unpunished. And Man also hates to think that death is the end, so much so that a luminous fire in the night stands for the visible survival of his soul. 

Perhaps the fisherman from Seze was right. Richard Gordon Smith asked his for curious legends. The old man replied that he could tell him a few ‘truths’.