I have recently been re-reading A magician among spirits by Harry Houdini. Chapter 12 of the book is titled Investigations Wise and Otherwise. It follows a chapter on the by-products of spiritualism where he delves into the darker side where people used spirit communication as excuses for committing crimes of murder through to the deception and lengths some mediums went to in order to deceive their clients. While the book was written in 1924, I couldn't help but apply the following to the current modern-day field of paranormal investigation. I have often wondered what Houdini would think of paranormal investigation in the 21st Century and perhaps this is the closest we will get.
Spiritualism has been the cause of much discussion
between men of science, men of magic, and believers in
the “Spirit World.” Countless investigations, wise and
otherwise, have been held in most of the countries of the
globe. Many of them have been made by fair-minded,
unbiased men; men who delved deep into the unknown
with a clear conscience and whether successful or not were
willing to give the world the result of their probings.
Men who were not afraid to admit that their experience
was not sufficient to cope with the medium’s skill and
years of training and that they had been fooled. But
there have been other so-called investigators who have
attended seances wishing to be fooled and as “the wish is
father of the thought” they have been misled.
What these investigators see done and what they think
they see done are in reality two entirely different things
and by the time they start to write their experiences there
are usually complications. I rarely believe a full hun-
dred per cent the explanations I hear or read. It is to
be said to the credit of the investigators that they do not
deliberately make misstatements but the nature of the
brain is such that it is almost impossible to avoid mal-
observation and these mal-observations are the curse of
It is the second paragraph here that sticks out to me the most. While he is speaking specifically about attending seances and observing or investigating psychic mediums, I can't help but apply this to modern-day paranormal investigation. What we see and what we think has happened is often very different to what has actually happened. Our perceptions can differ. Our memory recall can fail us. Houdini mentions that he rarely believes the full extent of a person's explanation because it is simply not reliable. In a lot of ways, this is also quite prevalent in the paranormal field - especially when forms of evidence are presented on social media. There is that part of us that says well if we were not there, then we don't know the full circumstances and rightly so. We are getting a small snapshot of a much bigger picture and are being asked to blindly accept it as it is.
This famous quote from Houdini frames quite a lot of my research and is literally the inspiration behind the Stuff Paranormal Investigators Need To Know Series. As mentioned above, investigators are not deliberately making incorrect observations or assumptions. It is quite simply how our brains are wired. As paranormal investigators, researchers, ghost hunters or whatever we want to call ourselves, it is important that we recognise our shortcomings. The biggest often being our way of thinking.
While our brain can work against us, it can also work in our favour. This is where some education and knowledge can come in. If we are aware of how our brain works and are aware of how easily we can be deceived by the way we think, we can start to see things as they really are. We also have to consider, that our brain is capable of so much more and while Houdini used his brain to attempt to debunk a lot of things, we also have to wonder if it is our brain that is the cause of certain phenomena in the first place. We look at telepathy, psychic projection and the like and our brains become even more complex and intriguing. As skeptical as Houdini was, he very much wanted to believe. Belief is much easier for some than it is for others for various reasons. We need to be open to conversations and dialogue. It is not about one-upmanship or proving the other wrong. It is much bigger than us. In fact, it is not about us at all ...... or is it?
You can access a free public domain copy of A Magician Among Spirits here.
Cover Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
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