Right now I'm reading a book by Tom Harrison called Life After Death - Living Proof. The book recounts numerous seances held in the 1940s and '50s by Tom's mother, a British trance medium named Minnie Harrison, who purportedly had the ability not only to communicate with the deceased but to materialize them in physical form.
Sounds crazy, I admit. It's one thing to claim that the spirits of the dead can speak through a human channeler, but another thing to say that these spirits can actually materialize and walk around the seance room, shaking hands with the sitters or hugging them, signing their names, and giving small gifts.
Although I think many paranomal phenomena are genuine, I have been skeptical of materialization mediums. Many of these mediums have been exposed as frauds. And typically they operate under conditions that do not inspire confidence - in darkened rooms, or hidden behind curtains out of sight of the sitters. The rare photos taken of "materialized" entities often look fake, a fact that only encourages more skepticism. All of this has led me to be very wary of this area of psychic exploration. In fact, I wrote two online essays (here and here) criticizing a particular materialization medium who used the name "Eva C."
So when I started Tom Harrison's book, I was in a rather critical frame of mind. Not that I was skeptical of Mr. Harrison himself; he comes across as entirely sincere, deeply devoted to his mother, and convinced of the reality of what he and his fellow sitters observed. But people can be sincere and still be mistaken.
My first thought was that maybe the alleged phenomena were hallucinations. Did the group of sitters want to believe in Spiritualism so badly that they convinced themselves they were seeing something that wasn't there? But this hypothesis was immediately dashed by the infrared photos and tape recordings taken of the seances. These visual and audio records at least establish that something was going on in that room. You can't take a photo or make a tape recording of a hallucination.
Next, I considered the possibility that Minnie Harrison was faking the phenomena by impersonating the "spirits." Other materialization mediums have been caught doing this. Once the medium is ensconced in her "cabinet" (usually a corner of the room veiled by a curtain), she can change into a disguise and then emerge in the role of someone's late sister, aunt, etc.
But I was wrong again. It turns out that a cabinet was used only for the later seances. In the earlier ones, Minnie Harrison was seated with the other sitters in a circle. The room was illuminated by red light - dim light, but adequate to see Minnie even as the materialized spirit moved about the room. In other words, Minnie could not have been playacting as a ghost, because she and the ghost were visible simultaneously.
Could one of the sitters have served as Minnie's accomplice, leaving the circle and impersonating a spirit? No. The same red light that showed Minnie in her seat showed all the other sitters, too. Besides, the room was very small, and when eight or more sitters were present, no one could have left the circle without being noticed.
All right. Then Minnie must have had an accomplice who was not part of the circle. Some other person, unknown to the group, entered the room after the seance had begun.
Again, this explanation fails. The room had only a single door, and it was locked from the inside. Further, the door could not be opened until the person sitting closest to it had moved his chair away (as I said, the room was small). There was a window, but it was sealed with blackout material. And the red light would have revealed anyone trying to enter.
But maybe the secret accomplice entered the room before the seance, and was hidden there the whole time? It seems impossible. The room in question did not belong to the Harrisons, but to friends of theirs, the Shipmans. It was, in fact, just a tiny room at the back of a store. The accomplice would not have had access to the room unless the Shipmans were in on the plot. Moreover, the room does not appear to have offered any place to hide. There was no closet, no bathroom.
Sometimes the apparitions were said to have "built up" from the floor and then melted away into the floor when they departed. This naturally raises the possibility of a trapdoor, opening perhaps on a basement or crawlspace. But again, the hypothesis fails. The floor was carpeted, making it highly unlikely that a trapdoor could have been concealed. And unless the Shipmans were in on it, how could Minnie and her hypothetical accomplice have cut a trapdoor into the floor?
Other observations made by Tom Harrison and the other sitters make all "normal" explanations even more untenable. At one point, a materialized entity told Tom that, to save energy, she had not bothered to materialize her legs. Tom took a look and, he says, saw that the entity indeed had no visible legs. Some of the entities supplied information unknown to anyone in the circle, which was later verified. "Apports" (objects transported as if by magic from place to place) would show up in the sitters' homes after the entities told them where to look.
Guest sitters frequently joined the circle. Many dozens of people witnessed these phenomena in weekly sittings that extended over more than a decade. If fraud were the answer, surely someone would have spotted it.
There is also the question of motive. If Minnie were defrauding her friends on a weekly basis, what was she getting out of it? She charged no money for her work and accepted no gifts or contributions. She was ill with cancer and suffered through several operations, so she often would not have had the strength to carry out elaborate deceptions. She sought no publicity and received none.
And yet ... the mind boggles at the notion that the spirits of the deceased were actually assuming physical form in the back room of the Shipmans' store. The very idea seems beyond belief.
At the end of his book, Tom Harrison cites Sherlock Holmes' famous observation that, when all other explanations have been eliminated, whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth. If the Baker Street detective was right, then I'm left with the conclusion that my earlier skepticism about materializations was unwarranted.
Or as the physicist J.B.S. Haldane once quipped in a very different context - the universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.
(This post was slightly edited after its initial publication.)