Wyrdsmiths: Psychokinesis: The sound of silence

The popular British magazine The Unexplained was one of many groups in the late 1970s and early ’80s to attempt to put the Batcheldor/Brookes-Smith methodology into practice – usually with the assistance of the indefatigable Julian Isaacs. As described on the back page of The Unexplained 106, the magazine’s ‘success’ was far from spectacular, but the article still provides useful information from a magical-technology perspective – if only to show the importance of following the instructions!

Psychokinesis (PK), or mind over matter, is a controversial subject, even among parapsychologists – but PK ‘sitter’ groups are flourishing. Inspired by Julian Isaacs’ outspoken championship of the SORRAT group’s remarkable phenomena (see page 1210 of The Unexplained), three members of The Unexplained staff, Lynn, Annie and Frances, decided to form their own PK group in November 1981. It turned out to be a disappointing experience, but several valuable lessons were learned.

The group, augmented by Richard, a scientist, Patrick, a civil servant, and Robert, a waiter, was launched in style: Julian Isaacs met the beginners over a glass of wine and gave his best advice – the benefit of his vast experience in setting up successful PK groups. He said the atmosphere to aim for was an informal, chatty, jokey one. The PK would then happen almost incidentally.

The group decided to meet every Monday evening and to try an updated version of the 19th-century parlour game of table-turning, but without the Victorian belief that spirits were responsible. Annie had witnessed spectacular table levitations as a guest at another sitter group; Lynn had, as a teenager, often heard paranormal rapping; and the others had a strong interest in the parapsychological aspect of weird happenings.

Richard donated a fine kitchen table – but the problem was where to meet. The ideal place would have been someone’s cosy sitting room, but everyone seemed to live in inconvenient or to the others downright inaccessible places. Finally, the group had to settle for the conference room in Orbis House, the Covent Garden home of The Unexplained. This turned out to be perhaps the group’s major error.

The trouble with trivia

The first meeting very quickly showed up the difference between theory and practice. It was all very well to set out to be ‘informal and chatty’ but whern it came to it, it had all the spontaneity of reacting to a quizmaster’s ‘you have two hours in which to be informal and chatty starting now‘!

But in a darkened room, hands lightly on the table, the group doggedly chatted about trivia. Only a few minutes into that first session loud scrabbling noises emitted from one corner of the room, such as those made by a mouse rummaging in a paper bag; they were disproportionately intrusive.

‘A mouse’ said the group as one. Lynn poked around in the corner whence the sounds came. Isaacs said later that in such cases one should never get up and investigate, nor even mention the disturbance. The idea is that if you ignore it, the PK will react like a spoilt child, becoming noisier to force itself onto your attention. As it was, the investigation revealed no mouse, no paper bag and no mousehole – and, apparently, so common is this scrabbling sound in PK groups that investigators have dubbed it ‘the scratchings’.

After the first session some members of the group warily reported strange raps and thuds on walls and roofs at home – and on one occasion even on the roof of a train – but this was perhaps being over-credulous. Isaacs had, however, warned the group to expect PK anywhere, at any time.

After this first mild excitement a pattern soon emerged; one or another member of the group fell by the wayside, the others meeting in the Orbis conference room in an increasingly pessimistic frame of mind. Besides this, there were other distractions such as cleaners hoovering in the corridor outside.

One thing after another

Various techniques were tried to enliven the proceedings – including ending some sessions with the use of an ouija board, or alternating periods of chat with periods of deep concentration; but apart from a few creaks and rustles, there was only the sound of silence – and the table moved not at all.

By mid-March 1982 interest was obviously waning. In a last-ditch effort to save the experiment, the group discussed the possibility of trying the create a ‘Philip’-type entity (see page 1021, The Unexplained). Briefly this caught the group’s imagination; this created ‘ghost’ was to be called Piqué, and live in the future. But hearts were not really in it, and in late March the group folded.

The experiment, pathetic though it was in some ways, could at least be assessed and analysed. The main obstacle to success had been the meeting place, which was not conducive to a relaxed atmosphere, and the flitting from attempted table tilting to ouija board and so on had been a mistake. And the experiment had been given only five months; the SORRAT group, after all, had met for 16 years before they achieved their spectacular phenomena!

But the group was not completely disillusioned; everyone agreed that, given the right conditions, they would be willing to give it another try.

[The article above, from The Unexplained 106, is copyright ©1982 Orbis Publications, London.]

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