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Ghosts & Poltergeists

In response to:

Paranormal Companionship from the February 16, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

I have just seen Martin Gardner’s attack [Letters, NYR, February 16] on my two articles in The Oxford Companion to the Mind, which, with his usual level of polemical courtesy, he dismisses as “rubbish.” He also refers to me as “England’s leading journalist of the occult, and a firm believer in ghosts, poltergeists, levitations….”

It might surprise Mr. Gardner to know that I am not particularly interested in “the occult.” In 1969, I was commissioned by Random House to write a book on the subject, and I started out from a position of total scepticism convinced that it would turn out to be mostly fraud and wishful thinking. However, I did something that Mr. Gardner would not dream of doing: I actually studied the facts. At that stage, I still rejected ghosts, poltergeists and the rest, and tended to believe that most paranormal phenomena—for example—telepathy—are simply due to “unknown powers” of the unconscious mind. Twenty years of studying the evidence has convinced me that ghosts and poltergeists cannot be dismissed as delusions. Yet, oddly enough, I don’t give a damn one way or the other. It wouldn’t worry me in the least—although it would greatly surprise me—if Mr. Gardner turned out to be completely correct in his across-the-board scepticism.

For the record, I should state that Mr. Gardner and I were once friends. This ceased when I directed a few extremely mild criticisms in my book on Wilhelm Reich, at his attitude of rigid scientific dogmatism. Mr. Gardner very promptly and angrily broke off the relation and has periodically continued to attack me in his books.

It seems to me a pity that two fairly balanced and reasonable people should not be able to agree—or agree to disagree—about whether paranormal phenomena are entirely fraudulent and nonsensical. Unfortunately, Mr. Gardner has no interest in rational discussion. I think I could describe his attitude as sticking both fingers in his ears, tightly closing his eyes and screaming over and over again: “I don’t believe, I don’t believe!”

Personally, I don’t give a damn whether he believes or not. The facts are there to prove that his attitude is narrow and dogmatic.

What strikes me as so interesting is that when Mr. Gardner—and his colleagues of CSICOP—begin to denounce the “Yahoos of the paranormal,” they manage to generate an atmosphere of such intense hysteria, reminiscent of a medieval Inquisitor denouncing heresy, or Hitler fulminating against the Jews. They seem unaware that the heresy-hunting mentality is the reverse of the open-minded curiosity that has led to all the great scientific discoveries.

Colin Wilson
Gorran Haven, Cornwall

Martin Gardner replies:

Colin’s coy claim that he is not particularly interested in the occult is impossible to swallow. When his 608-page book The Occult outsold any of his earlier volumes, he quickly followed it with a 667-page tome, Mysteries, packed with more of the same garbage. He edited a twenty-volume set, A New Library of the Supernatural, that includes two crazy books by himself: Mysterious Powers and The Geller Phenomenon. The latter book extolls the spoon-bending talents of the Israeli mountebank Uri Geller. Wilson’s Poltergeist! is an impassioned defense of the reality of ghosts. More recently Colin has churned out a dozen or so more books promoting pseudo-science and the occult. They include The Psychic Detectives (on paranormal crime detection), Frankenstein’s Castle, Rudolf Steiner (the anthroposophist), G.I. Gurdjieff, Life Force, The Laurel and Hardy Theory of Consciousness, and The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries. “Forty-two amazing true cases,” says the last book’s jacket, “of psychic powers.”

The man is obviously obsessed by the occult, with an ignorance of science exceeded only by his ego and a compulsion to believe in all things paranormal. Here is how I described him at the end of chapter twenty-nine, “Colin Wilson Prowls Again,” in my Order and Surprise:

The former boy wonder, tall and handsome in his turtleneck sweater, has now decayed into one of those amiable eccentrics for which the land of Conan Doyle is noted. They prowl comically about the lunatic fringes of science, looking for ever more sensational wonders and scribbling ever more boring books about them for shameless publishers to feed to hungry readers as long as the boom in occultism lasts.

Colin says that he and I are “two fairly balanced and reasonable people.” Sorry, old bean. That applies to only one of us.

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