Parapsychology is full of anecdotal accounts of strange occurrences, which cause many people to simply shake their heads in disbelief.1 The phenomena of parapsychology grade into the mysteries and miracles that are the boon and bane of much religion. After all, to use a Christian example (and in no way am I making a statement about Christianity per se), not only can Jesus and the saints perform miracles, but so can Satan and his cohorts!
When it comes to the question of whether or not parapsychological phenomena are real, for many people the stakes are high, as the answer has the potential to confirm or deny their worldview. Some are incredulous when it comes to telepathy, even though it has been statistically demonstrated time and again in laboratory settings, whereas the credulity of others stretches much, much further.
In popular culture often the reality, or not, of the paranormal (viewed popularly as “miracles”) is seen as confirming, or refuting, one of the fundamental tenets of many religions, namely life after death. As the late parapsychologist and University of Virginia (Charlottesville) psychiatrist Dr. Ian Stevenson (1918 – 2007) wrote,
Some persons can segregate beliefs about different aspects of non-material existences and events. This would be particularly likely to be true of persons who have made a special study of psychical phenomena…. However, I think that members of the general public do not usually make such a distinction. For most of them, a belief in life after death almost entails a belief in miracles, such as the phenomena described in the Bible, and also a belief in what we call paranormal cognition. Conversely, members of the general public who do not believe in life after death are also likely to be skeptical about all kinds of paranormal phenomena, the recognition of which would imply for them a soul that would survive bodily death.2
The Incredulity Meter
I am absolutely convinced that telepathy is real, even if a somewhat fickle and uncontrollable phenomenon. Given the choice between a telephone and telepathic rapport to communicate an important and specific message, I will use the phone. In my opinion there is nothing miraculous about telepathy, although how it occurs remains a mystery (there is still no generally agreed upon theory as to the mechanism for telepathic transmission).3 I should note, however, that I always attempt to maintain a healthy skepticism about any particular claim of telepathy (it is human nature to be disingenuous, or to fool one’s self), but there are plenty of well-documented cases of telepathy in the literature, and I have had my share personally.
My incredulity meter really begins to perk up when it comes to physical parapsychological phenomena, such as psychokinesis and levitations, materialisations of solid substances out of “thin air,” or the ability to withstand physical trauma, such as walking on hot coals or applying extreme heat or fire directly to the skin without damage. Lacking good, indeed virtually impeccable, documentation for certain extreme feats of this nature, I instinctively dismiss them as nonsense, or at the least remain agnostic.
Of all the cases that register high on my incredulity meter, however, some are classics and though they may boggle the imagination, it is difficult to dismiss them. Here I will focus on particular aspects of two such celebrated examples from the history of parapsychology, one from the seventeenth century and the other from the nineteenth century. They are, in the opinions of some, intimately tied to religious beliefs and the concept of miracles.
The Flying Saint
Saint Joseph of Cupertino (San Giuseppe da Copertino, 1603-1663; born Giuseppe Maria Desa in Cupertino, southeastern Italy) was considered rather dull witted (in modern terms, he may have suffered from learning disabilities), and said to possess a violent temper (a point we will return to). Joseph was extremely pious, however, and became a Franciscan friar. Joseph exhibited various mental psychic phenomena; for instance, it is said he was aware of the thoughts of penitents and knew if they were not fully honest and forthright during confession. Due to his mental deficiencies, he could learn only a small amount of material at a time. When preparing for exams he simply studied one specific topic, and then prayed that that would be the very subject, of all possible subjects, that would be asked of him – and so it was. Was this an example of precognition, or was Joseph telepathically influencing or accessing (perhaps unconsciously) the examiners in terms of the questions they would put to him?
Joseph was also said to have the power to heal the sick. But it was his bodily levitations, his literal flights in the air, that he is most famous for, and which by many are considered to be absolutely mysterious and miraculous, either justifiably earning Joseph the appellation of Saint (he was canonised in 1767), or in the skeptic’s opinion dismissal as either a fraud, or at the least someone who incited hallucinations among those witnessing the supposed levitations. At first glance, St. Joseph’s flights rank high on my incredulity meter.4
Although we are separated from St. Joseph by three and a half centuries, and his time still contained a strong element of superstition and anti-scientific sentiment (after all, the Inquisition was in full swing during Joseph’s lifetime, persecuting Galileo in 1633), it is still difficult to dismiss all of the varied eyewitness accounts of Joseph’s flights. Reportedly the first levitation was in his hometown of Cupertino during an outdoor procession on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Joseph took off, flying over the crowd. After it was over, in embarrassment, he fled to hide in his mother’s house. From then until the end of his life, Joseph experienced uncontrolled fits of bodily levitation. Various minor incidents could potentially initiate a levitation: a casual remark about the wonders of God, or viewing an image of the Virgin Mary, could send Joseph into ecstasy, and then with a loud sob or cry he would fly into the air.
His reported flights were not trivial. On one occasion he flew from the middle of the church to the high altar, a distance of forty feet, and remained there for about fifteen minutes before descending. He once flew over the heads of bystanders to reach a statue of the Immaculate Conception, and then flew back again over their heads once more. Another time he reportedly flew eighty yards, over a pulpit, to a crucifix.5 During another levitation he ended up in a tree, and once he came out of his trance he was unable to get down until a ladder was fetched. On several occasions he carried another person up with him, holding them by the hand or hair.
Although it is “only” eyewitness testimony (but what else can we have from the seventeenth century?), it is incredibly varied and consistent, and Joseph’s levitations were not always viewed positively. Indeed, his superiors often found Joseph to be an embarrassment. His unannounced flights during solemn ceremonies could cause a disruption. Once floating before the altar holding the Holy Sacrament, his sandals fell off. Joseph was at times banned from choir practices, public masses, and even from meals with his fellow friars. Joseph and his “miracles” attracted a huge following, and especially later in his life, the church authorities periodically attempted to place him in seclusion. In my mind, these facts only reinforce that the levitations may well have been genuine. Prominent witnesses to Joseph’s levitations were the High Admiral of Castile, Spanish Ambassador to the Papal Court (his wife fainted at the sight); John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick (who converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism as a result of witnessing Joseph levitate); and Pope Urban VIII (during a papal audience Joseph fell into ecstasy and levitated).
The Inquisition and Poltergeists
What do we make of Joseph’s levitations? Could they have been genuine? They are difficult to explain away as hallucinations on the part of the witnesses. Furthermore, they hardly fit the mold that would be expected of stories tailored to aid in the canonisation of a beloved friar. Due to the publicity he attracted, in 1638 Joseph was investigated by the Inquisition in Naples, but cleared of any wrongdoing. Joseph’s levitations were undisciplined, uncouth (he apparently cried out at the start of each incident), and disrupting to those around him. What is really pertinent in my mind is that Joseph is not the sole example of such levitations, for similar phenomena are reported widely in medieval church accounts, popular folklore, and in ethnographic accounts of “primitive” peoples and their myths.6
Joseph’s levitations strike me as perhaps a form of self-directed “poltergeist” affliction. Derived from the German, meaning a boisterous or noisy ghost, typical poltergeist incidents include strange noises (scratching, raps, knocks, banging) and the movement of objects. In a typical poltergeist case objects inexplicably fall off of shelves or get thrown through the air even when nobody is close enough to reach them, and no physical means are apparent that could have caused the objects to move.
As the physicist and early psychical researcher Sir William Barrett wrote in 1911, “Of the genuineness and inexplicable nature of the phenomena there can be no manner of doubt, in spite of occasional attempts at their fraudulent imitation.”7
It appears that in most cases the affected objects are not being moved by spirits or ghosts, as traditionally believed, but unconsciously via paranormal means by a living person, someone who is typically emotionally or psychologically disturbed, with unresolved repressed feelings of deep guilt or fear, and intense “hysterical” tendencies. The poltergeist instances swirling around such a person are a sort of unconscious acting out and externalisation of the emotions.
Interestingly, very similar types of poltergeist phenomena have been described for thousands of years in different cultures on different continents;8 such facts lend credence to the idea that poltergeist instances are genuine (and I will admit that I have witnessed a mild poltergeist instance first-hand). Modern researchers, such as Dr. William G. Roll,9 have intensively studied various modern poltergeist cases and it is clear that the paranormal movement of material objects against the forces of gravity and inertia is real (that is, objects are levitated) and such movements follow general patterns (as would be expected of a genuine set of phenomena).
I believe that Joseph was a psychologically disturbed, highly conflicted, individual prone to extremes in temperament. This is evidenced by his reported fits of rapture and ecstasy, as well as his occasional violent temper (even the saints can have bad days, I suppose). His own frustration with his apparent learning disabilities and mental limitations probably added to his troubles. Joseph also suffered from cataleptic or epileptic fits, convulsions, and severe attacks of depression (melancholia, as it was called10). Joseph, I suggest, did genuinely levitate. I hypothesise that Joseph was essentially the centre of what we might now refer to as poltergeist activity (or to use the more modern terminology, recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, RSPK), but in his case the activity (the levitation of objects, or an object) was directed unconsciously toward his own physical body. Joseph basically inflicted the levitations upon himself.
The Levitations of Home
In the nineteenth century the famous Scottish (though raised in America during his childhood) spiritualistic medium Daniel Dunglas Home (1833 – 1886) was known for his bodily levitations, as well as levitations of other objects, in séance settings.11 In one famous instance, Home reportedly went into a trance and was levitated out a window about seventy feet from the ground, observed to be floating in the air outside an adjacent window (seven and a half feet from the first window), and then glided in through the second window feet first.
The well-known English physicist and chemist, Sir William Crookes (1832 – 1919; he was knighted in 1897), a careful laboratory experimentalist (among other things, he was a co-discoverer of the element thallium, invented the Crookes radiometer, and developed Crookes tubes), carried out investigations of D.D. Home and other so-called mediums. Crookes witnessed Home levitate numerous times, as he describes in his own words:
The best cases of Home’s levitation I witnessed were in my own house. On one occasion he went to a clear part of the room, and, after standing quietly for a minute, told us he was rising. I saw him slowly rise up with a continuous gliding movement, and remain about six inches off the ground for several seconds, when he slowly descended. On this occasion no one moved from their places. On another occasion I was invited to come to him, when he rose eighteen inches off the ground, and I passed my hands under his feet, round him, and over his head when he was in the air. On several occasions, Home and the chair on which he was sitting at the table rose off the ground. This was generally done very deliberately, and Home sometimes then tucked up his feet on the seat of the chair and held up his hands in full view of all of us. On such occasions I have gone down and seen and felt all four legs were off the ground at the same time, Home’s feet being on the chair. Less frequently the levitating power extended to those next to him. Once my wife was thus raised off the ground in her chair.12
The reported incidents of levitation by Home, both of his own body and objects around him, are numerous, reported by many witnesses, and they fall into a larger pattern including not just St. Joseph. As the early psychical researcher and Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang (1844 – 1912) wrote,
…when we find savage ‘birraarks’ in Australia, fakirs in India, saints in mediaeval Europe, a gentleman’s butler in Ireland, boys in Somerset and Midlothian, a young warrior in Zululand, Miss Nancy Wesley at Epworth in 1716, and Mr. Daniel Home in London in 1856-70, all triumphing over the law of gravitation, all floating in the air, how are we to explain the uniformity of stories palpably ridiculous?13
Other than mechanical tricks, such as concealed strings, wires, and rods (which, in my opinion, really strain credulity as an explanation for the best cases of levitation in the likes of Joseph or Home – I hardly think Crookes would have overlooked a mechanical apparatus and they seem out of the question for Joseph), a classic “explanation” for levitations is that of “excited expectation” and “mass hallucination” on the part of the duped observers.
Addressing this theory, Lang received the following information from Mr. Hamilton Aïdé (a member of the nineteenth century London literary scene):
The argument of excited expectation and consequent hallucination does not apply to Mr. Hamilton Aïdé and M. Alphonse Karr… Both were extremely prejudiced against Home, and at Nice went to see, and, if possible, to expose him. Home was a guest at a large villa in Nice, M. Karr and Mr. Aïdé were two of a party in a spacious brilliantly lighted salon, where Home received them. A large heavy table, remote from the group, moved towards them. M. Karr then got under a table which rose in [the] air, and carefully examined the space beneath, while Mr. Aïdé observed it from above. Neither of them could discover any explanation of the phenomenon, and they walked away together, disgusted, disappointed, and reviling Home.14
So, might at least some (if not all) of Home’s levitations have been genuine? Possibly. And possibly they were due to self-inflicted poltergeist-type manifestations. My sense, reading about his life and career, is that Home, like Joseph, suffered from various emotional and psychological issues, and it is documented that he was the focus of classic poltergeist manifestations during his youth. It is often stated that Home was never caught in any fraudulent behaviour. This is true to a point. In fact there were allegations of fraud made against Home, but these were investigated explicitly, and thoroughly, shortly after Home’s death by the meticulous psychical researches W.F. Barrett and F.W.H. Myers, who concluded “…we have found no allegations of fraud [italics in the original] on which we should be justified in laying much stress.”15
Besides his levitations, Home was also well known for his ability to handle hot coals with immunity, and even to be able to transfer this ability to observers around him.16 Home could perform such feats as holding a handkerchief in his hand, and place a hot piece of charcoal on it, taken directly from a burning fire, and yet the handkerchief would not burn. Crookes studied these fire phenomena intensely, even subjecting such a handkerchief to laboratory analyses afterwards to test for fire retardants, but found nothing unusual. Likewise, hot coals applied to St. Joseph’s body had no effect when he was in an ecstatic trance.17 Indeed, incidents of handling hot charcoal, coal, and other hot objects, walking on fire, and other “ordeals by fire” are widely reported in the ethnological literature18 and in that sense are nothing unusual, but are they genuine or simple conjurers tricks?
In 1959 the psychiatrist Berthold Eric Schwarz, M.D., investigated first-hand fire ordeals among members of a fundamentalist Christian sect, known as The Free Pentecostal Holiness Church, found in the rural mountain regions of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. On numerous occasions Schwarz observed church members place their hands and feet in kerosene flames with immunity.19
In one instance, shortly after washing his hands (thus presumably precluding the possibility that they were coated with a fire retardant or non-conducting substance), an individual smeared fuel oil on his hands and feet, and held them in a flame for over ten seconds, but they did not burn. He poured a pool of oil into his cupped hand and attempted to light it with a torch, but it only flickered and would not burn. As a control, Schwarz reports that both an iron poker and a wooden dowel sprinkled with the fuel oil burst into flames when the torch was brought to them, and Schwarz himself could not keep his own hand closer than three centimetres to the torch flame for more than one or two seconds without pain or being burnt. Other examples of fire handling reported by Schwarz include:
On three occasions, three different women held the blaze [from kerosene or fuel oil torches] to their chests, so that the flames were in intimate contact with their cotton dresses, exposed necks, faces and hair. This lasted for longer than a few seconds. [This is very similar to the immunity to fire that Home was said to be able to impart to handkerchiefs, clothing, and people. – Note by Schoch.] Twice, at separate times, one of the ‘most faithful of the saints’ slowly moved the palmar and lateral aspects of one hand and the fifth finger in the midpoint of an acetylene flame… He did this for more than four seconds, and then repeated the procedure, using the other hand…. Once this saint, when in a relatively calm mood, turned to a coal fire of an hour’s duration, picked up a flaming ‘stone coal’ the size of a hen’s egg and held it in the palms of his hands for 65 seconds while he walked among the congregation. As a control, the author could not touch a piece of burning charcoal for less than one second without developing a painful blister.20
Although he did not observe it directly, Schwarz was told that during winter services the young girls would hug red-hot stovepipes and pass around hot glass lamp chimneys with immunity. The key to these miracles, at least according to his informants, was that one must be in a trance and truly believe that no harm will occur. When not entranced, even members of the sect suffer burns. Schwarz recounts a couple of examples. A male congregant was applying a kerosene torch to his hand with no ill effects, until he noticed that a piece of the wick was breaking off. This caused him to come out of his religious trance and he suffered a burn only in the one spot where the flame had touched his skin post-trance (the areas where the flame was applied to his skin during the trance were not affected). In a similar manner, a female congregant who had often handled hot glass lamp chimneys with immunity developed blistering burns when, one night when the electric power at the church failed, she reflexively grabbed a burning kerosene lantern hanging on a wall. She was not in a trance state at the time and so suffered.21
Are levitations and fire ordeals real? Is there something more to them than simple conjuring and fraud? If so, how do we explain what is happening? Mysteries and miracles? Do such phenomena support certain religious beliefs, or the value of faith? Do we need to extend our common sense concepts of what is possible? I will refrain from making pronouncements but, to quote the title of Professor Archie Roy’s book on the paranormal, I have “A Sense of Something Strange.”22
1. Parapsychology is the study of paranormal psychical phenomena such as direct mind-to-mind interactions (telepathy), precognition, and the possibility of mind-over-matter phenomena (also known as psychokinesis). For an introduction to parapsychology, see Robert M. Schoch and Logan Yonavjak, compilers and commentators, The Parapsychology Revolution: A Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psychical Research, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008.
2. Ian Stevenson, “Thoughts on the Decline of Major Paranormal Phenomena”, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 57, part 215, pp. 149-162 (April 1990); quotation from p.155.
3. See discussion of, and evidence for, telepathy in Schoch and Yonavjak, 2008.
4. For information on Joseph’s life and paranormal feats, see Brian Inglis, Natural and Supernatural: A History of the Paranormal from Earliest Times to 1914 (Revised Edition), Dorset: Prism Press, 1992; Andrew Lang, Cock Lane and Common-Sense, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894; Montague Summers, The History of Witchcraft, New York: The Citadel Press, 1970 (originally published 1956).
5. Lang, 1894, p.104.
6. Lang, 1894; see also, Andrew Lang, The Making of Religion, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1898.
7. William F. Barrett, “Poltergeists: Old and New”, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol.15, pp.36-40 (1911); quotation from page 37 and reprinted on page 103 of Schoch and Yonavjak, 2008.
8. Lang, 1894, 1898; Caesar de Vesme, A History of Experimental Spiritualism, Vol. 1, Primitive Man(translated from the French by Stanley de Brath), London: Rider and Co., 1931; Caesar de Vesme, A History of Experimental Spiritualism, Vol. 2, Peoples of Antiquity (translated from the French by Fred Rothwell), London: Rider and Co., 1931.
9. William G. Roll, “Poltergeists, Electromagnetism and Consciousness”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, vol. 17, no. 1, pp.75-86 (2003); reprinted in Schoch and Yonavjak, 2008, pp.105-122.
10. Lang, 1894, p.102.
11. For general information on the life and mediumship of D.D. Home, see W.F. Barrett and F.W.H. Myers, “Review of D. D. Home, His Life and Mission, by Madame Dunglas Home”, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol.4, pp.101-136 (July 1889); Stephen E. Braude, “The Fear of Psi: It’s the Thought that Counts”, Darklore vol. 2, pp.98-111, 266-267 (Brisbane, Australia: Daily Grail Publishing, 2008); Hereward Carrington, The Physical Phenomena of Spiritualism, Fraudulent and Genuine, Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., 1908; William Crookes, Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism, London: J. Burns, 1874; David Fontana, Is There An Afterlife? A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence, Blue