Sunday, 30 October 2011

I almost don’t believe in the supernatural – but the world’s a bit boring without it

Arthur Guirdham
Here’s a startling theory: the reason different children suffering from “night terrors” often describe being menaced by the same demonic figures (little blue grinning men seem particularly prevalent) is that those demons genuinely exist as separate entities - but we lose the power to see them as we grow older.

Creepy or what! (Maybe less so now, as it’s the central plot device of that amusing animated children’s film, Monsters Inc.)

Back in the 1970s, when I was trying to come up with plots for horror novels, I read several books by Arthur Guirdham, who wrote about the Cathars, reincarnation, past-life regression, ESP - and demons. So, you’d conclude, just another credulous, acid-addled, Californian New Age nutjob willing to swallow and rehash any old nonsense in order to replenish his supplies of lentils, joss sticks, patchouli oil and Moby Grape LPs – or some seedy charlatan willing to peddle lies to the acid-addled in order to keep the Bells flowing.

Well, not quite. Guirdham was a distinguished British physician and psychiatrist. Educated at Keble College and trained at Charing Cross Hospital, he went on to become senior consulting psychiatrist at the Bath Child Guidance Clinic. Of course, none of this means he wasn’t bonkers or dishonest, but it makes it slightly less likely.

It was Guirdham who came up with the "demons are real" theory – I remember finding it quite disturbing when I read it some 30 years ago.

There are, of course, many theories to account for supernatural phenomena, but they all pretty much fall into one of four main categories: (1) we imagine them (2) they're objectively real (3) they're the  result of interpreting natural phenomena incorrectly (4) they're real, but created (projected?) by our minds (3) they're the result of deliberate fraud.

I’ve had at least three possibly supernatural experiences in my life – two could fall into any of the above categories, while the third could have been anything apart from fraud.

Part of me would like it all to be nonsense. There’s something initially tempting about the image of a crisp, clean, shiny, scientific, Dawkinsian world where everything has a straightforward causal explanation. But then you start thinking about gulags and death-camps and suicide bombers and sex-murderers and people who torture children and animals - being able to explain all that away by reference to demonic forces rather than our own seemingly infinite capacity for evil seems positively comforting.

And then there’s that rather mean, thin quality possessed by purely mechanical “stuff and nonsense” theories: frankly, they make the world a more boring place. Does anyone, apart from professional scientists and/or those without any imagination feel relieved when told that a UFO sighting was down to marsh gas or a rogue weather balloon? I always feel vaguely disappointed. A few years ago, we visited Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, allegedly the site of a prolonged Close Encounter of the Third Kind involving American military personnel stationed there (events since debunked and supported in roughly equal measure). The woods had a distinctly creepy atmosphere, but that might have been because I’d recently read Turn Left at East Gate, an account of the supposed incidents. If the skeptics had their way, I might not have experienced that little thrill and, God knows, we all need our little thrills.

Similarly, I once read a book called Supernatural, in which a mildly skeptical British journalist visits a series of sites where supernatural incidents have been recorded (with some surprising results), at my sister-in-law’s semi-isolated Cornish cottage – parts of which date to the thirteenth century. That resulted in a very shivery week: it was fun!  

And nothing will quite match rereading M.R. James’s ghost stories in the middle of the night in a converted hunting lodge in Essex, near an eldritch lake and a ruined, bat-infested Norman chapel: didn’t sleep much that week, to be honest.

As for that noisy house in Worthing … well, I’ll leave that for another time.

I admit there are vast swathes of esoteric belief that hold no attraction for me - Mayan crystals, any form of numerology, theosophy, coded bibles etc. But when it comes to commonly-reported supernatural phenomena such as ghosts, UFOs, foresight, poltergeists, slipping into the past, phone calls from the dead, inexplicable disappearances (or even more disturbing, unexplained appearances), telekinesis, ESP, remote viewing and the idea that evil clings to certain places and houses, I’ll try keep an open mind.

Of course, I know, almost for certain, that these phenomena are explainable. But it only needs one of them to turn out to be truly inexplicable – and the world’s instantly a more interesting place: for me, at least.

And if you ever come across a book by Arthur Guirdham, do take a look - whatever your beliefs: he was a bold thinker and an excellent writer.


  1. I know being an Anglican communicant doesn't entail much these days...but doesn't believing Christ died and rose again on the third day count as believing in the supernatural...or have I missed something?

  2. Yes, well, it's a fair point, Your Eminence. But I don't think many Christians would consider events arising from God's decision to interfere directly with the laws of Nature to be the same sort of thing as random but persistent seeming contraventions of those laws - ghosts and poltergeists etc.: the first suggests that the eternal is able to interface with the temporal, and has all sorts of implications for religious faith, while the second (to me at least) merely suggests that our understanding of the laws of Physics is incomplete.