This fortnight I've been lucky enough to get a special text interview with Richard Holland, editor of Paranormal magazine and author of Haunted Wales. Continuing our loose "pure paranormal" trilogy we're going to be discussing poltergeist phenomena and what might be the cause of such activity. (You can read my piece on the timeslip experience here)
Richard Thomas: First things first. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this, I'm sure you're always busy with the magazine so the whole BoA team really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview. I'm sure our readers will enjoy it too.
From reading Paranormal magazine, I understanding you had a childhood encounter with a poltergeist yourself. What sort of things happened and how did you deal with it?
Richard Holland: As poltergeists go, I guess it was fairly tame in that it almost entirely limited itself to audio effects, most particularly a tapping on the wall above my bed which I found very unnerving, even threatening. I think the worst thing about it was this atmosphere that would build up at night before it manifested. One night it groaned at me out of a darker patch in the dark above my brother's bed. That was horrible. But it would also do things like mimic people walking around upstairs when there was no one there this on sunny afternoons. On one occasion it mimicked the sounds of my brother's footsteps running towards where I was kneeling down by a bed where I had a board game laid out, and it kind of knocked me over. That is to say, I found myself lying on my back, but I was placed gently on the floor and felt no hands touching me. That was the most dramatic thing. You ask me how I dealt with it, but I didn't really. It came in two waves and then just went away for good.
Richard Thomas: Do you think this sparked your interest in the paranormal or do the origins of your interest lie elsewhere? I know that, like me, you're a big Doctor Who and Hammer Horror fan, do you think that might have played a large part too?
Richard Holland: It obviously helped spark my interest in the paranormal, although it's also left me with a nervousness of the subject, too! I was never tempted to carry out vigils in 'haunted houses', partly because I knew my imagination might run away with me and partly because I believe that I might be asking for trouble inviting something unwanted, if you know what I mean.
But I suspect I'd have been interested in the supernatural anyway, because I've always loved monsters and weirdness ours was very much a Dr Who family back in the 60s/70s and I already loved dinosaurs at a time when it wasn't as obvious a thing for small boys to be into as it is now. When I was 5 my dentist asked me: 'And what do you want to be when you grow up?' Expecting 'fireman' or something. 'A paleontologist', I promptly told him.
Richard Thomas: Looking back on it now, I think my own interest in these subjects lie in three things really: my interest in Sci-Fi, my own personal little brushes with the paranormal, and, last but not least, my father's interest in Graham Hancock's theories and other esoteric type subjects. Were any of your parents or other family interested in the paranormal at all when you were growing up?
Richard Holland: No, my parents weren't interested in the supernatural at all. My father read a lot of good quality sci-fi but he was one of those blokes who, instead of learning from it that all things are possible, used it as a prop to his untrained wannabe scientific outlook. He was a member of the Humanist Association and a big fan of Carl Sagan et al. He'd hate what I'm doing now for a living. My mum is much more open-minded about such things and recalls seeing a white lady glowing a vivid white sitting on the end of her bed when she was a child in the Blitz. She doesn't think of it as an 'angel' either it terrified her!
Richard Thomas: Back to the subject of poltergeists, there seems to be two main schools of thought on what might be responsible for such phenomena. The first, of course, is that we are really dealing with the spirits of the dead, and the second (and probably far more interesting) is that we could be dealing with the psychic abilities of the living. Personally, I think it could very well be both, but what are your thoughts on the subject? (You might want to expand on what the different schools of thought are and include some examples of cases in your answer.)
Richard Holland: I'm not sure well, who is? But the feeling of a presence has stayed with me, that there was something trying to get at me in some unidentifiable way. I'm not sold on the 'wild talents' concept entirely for that reason. Nor does a lot of poltergeist behaviour tally with a conscious, reasoning spirit why spread marmalade down the banisters or lay flowerpots out in a line on the kitchen floor like the Pontefract polt did? When I was at university I read about bacteriophages, viruses so primitive that they can barely be called life at all. They attach themselves to bacteria and pump in their RNA. The rest of it, a protein shell, drifts away. The RNA recodes the bacterial DNA and lo! two viruses where once there was one bacterium.
It made me wonder about a primitive consciousness, scarcely a mind at all, just a mass of electrical discharges that floats about and like the phage can only exist in any real form by latching onto a human mind. Perhaps puberty makes our brains susceptible to such encroaches. Perhaps similar twilight entities answer our subconscious needs according to our current superstitious beliefs become fairies when we believe in fairies, then aliens when we believe in aliens. Perhaps they created some crop circles, too. More recently, I've been getting interested in the Islamic concept of the Jinn, incorporeal spirits created out of 'smokeless fire' at the same time as Man, and living alongside us. That comes quite close to what I've been groping at.
Richard Thomas: Anyone interested in "ghosts" and the like should have heard of the famous Enfield Poltergeist. What are your thoughts on that case and as a writer/researcher from Wales do you think there is a Welsh equivalent? If not maybe you could share some of the more compelling Welsh ghost stories you've heard of or researched.
Richard Holland: I don't think I really have anything to add to the Enfield story. It seems like a genuine one to me. I remember the story appearing as it happened in the Daily Mirror about the time I had my polt. The 'dirty old man' who spoke through one of the girls might have been an example of the Jinn-type thing I was chuntering about above. Part It, part Her. I'm sure in another culture, priests/wise women/ village elders or whoever would have got rid of the bugger with a couple of rituals. In ours, though, that family had to suffer months of indignities and fear. There isn't really a Welsh equivalent but I was pleased to find a first-hand account of a poltergeist outbreak preserved in a letter dated 1812 in the Flintshire Records Office. The St Asaph farmer who was suffering from it wrote to his landlord about it. 'That night it was so terrible that the women left the house and went to a neighbour's house and it threw stones, bricks and the like that they had no quiet to milk by throwing dung up on them' etc etc. Great stuff.
Richard Thomas: It was probably nothing, but I've seen objects fly through the air seemingly without explanation. Also, recently my dad told me that a woman from where he works thinks she has a poltergeist. How common do you think poltergeist type phenomena might really be?
Richard Holland: Much more common than people realise. After all, I didn't tell my family about what was happening to me, although one or two people, like my younger brother who shared a room with me, experienced it, too. But it took me a long time to tell my parents. I wonder how many other frightened kids there are who just don't talk about it. Also, I'm sure a lot of the 'just one of those things' experiences people have regularly are related phenomena. Putting something down then being unable to find it moments later, only for it to turn up exactly where you thought it was and had checked and checked and checked That sort of thing. The Missing Biro Phenomenon. 'Eerie Indiana' had an episode about it, I seem to remember.
Richard Thomas: Whatever people might believe, there is no doubting the very real fear this type of phenomena can cause. What is your advice to people who think they are living in a house with a poltergeist?
Richard Holland: Talk about it! Let it become part of family life and try not to be scared of it. Laugh at it good-humouredly. Shout at it if it does something really irritating or frightening. That seems to help defuse them. There's certainly no point getting in a priest/exorcist and most mediums should probably be avoided. You never know, a nice quite person from your local Spiritualist Church might be some good, but it's a risk things often get worse. Alas, there are no experts.
Richard Thomas: This interview will be the second piece in a loose paranormal trilogy I've been working on. My first instalment in the trilogy was on the timeslip phenomenon and the last will be on what is called the "stone tape" theory. Do you have any opinions or thoughts about these two genres of esoterica?
Richard Holland: 'Time slip' is a very loaded phrase, isn't it? I suspect a lot of time slips might be ghosts of what people have previously seen and otherwise experienced rather than someone falling through the 'timey-wimey things' of Stephen Moffat's Dr Who. It might fairly be suggested that many apparitions are ghosts not of the person himself per se, but the ghost of what someone else has seen. This might explain the dramatic appearances of some ghosts they are not that former person playing out an emotive incident or the moment of their death, it's the witness to it who has created the ghost through their shock at seeing the incident. This wouldn't perhaps explain the detailed ladies of Versailles walking about for ages type experience although they might just have got caught in a groove of someone else's previous existence for a while.
As for the 'Stone Tape': it's a very engaging idea but with no science as yet to back it up (not that anyone's really tried, of course). But we don't necessarily need stone whatever happened to Ether? I can accept Ether as an abstract concept some form of energy/interdimensional glue we have no knowledge of as yet (like electricity, magnetism, radioactivity and radio waves in their day all around us but unperceived till science caught up). Perhaps it's dark matter? A psychic material on which impressions of personalities and/or emotions can be imprinted or fossilised in, and which our brains can connect to for reasons we simply don't understand if reasons there are. Much of it might be totally random, like so many ghosts an old horse and cart manifesting briefly, or somebody pottering about an old ruin with their legs disappearing into the ground innocuous and meaningless.
Richard Thomas: Tell people about your books and how to get the excellent Paranormal magazine.
Richard Holland: Well, I've written five books on Welsh folklore/ghostlore. These are mainly 'stocking fillers', not great scholarship to be honest, just a collection of yarns culled from various sources, including correspondence through various newspaper columns I've written over the years. I did work very hard on 'Haunted Wales' (Landmark, 2005), though, and I'm not showing off when I say it's the best book on Welsh ghost-lore in print. I delved into lots and lots of old and obscure sources to write that, finding trends and then putting the whole lot into a gazetteer so that people could read the ghostly folk stories from their region, many of which hadn't seen print for up to 200 years. I also researched Welsh fairy-lore and witchcraft in depth but decided the work to put that into book form wasn't worth the reward. Maybe when I'm retired.
In the meantime, I have my blogsite and Paranormal Magazine to keep me busy. Paranormal is devoted to the whole gamut of the supernatural, mainly ghosts but including UFOs, cryptozoology, magic, ESP and the rest. It's all about phenomena no mediums or New Age stuff. Regular writers include Nick Redfern, Karl Shuker, Janet Bord, Nigel Watson and the guys from the CFZ, and this month I added Brad Steiger and Colin Wilson to the roster.
I'm very proud to be involved with such excellent people and also to chat to new writers (new to me, that is) like Jimmy Lee Shreeve and Mark Greener. Visit us on www.paranormalmagazine.co.uk if you want to buy one online to try it out, you'll be glad to know postage is free in the UK, so it costs no more than buying it in the shops.
Richard Thomas: Thanks mate. Hope we can do this again sometime, maybe a Sci-Fi Worlds interview where we could talk about Hammer Horror, Doctor Who and other cult Sci-Fi.
Richard Thomas, BoA UK Correspondent and Columnist.