By Michael D. Winkle
“How fading are the joys we dote upon!
Like apparitions seen and gone.”
-- The Reverend John Norris, Collections of Miscellanies (1678)
According to that monumental study of telepathy, Phantasms of the Living, Great Britain’s Society for Psychical Research learned of an interesting new phenomenon in 1882, not long after the organization was founded. Edmund Gurney and Frederic Myers, "as Hon. Secs. of a Literary Committee," called on the general public to send in reports of apparitions and other unusual occurrences. "We were struck," writes Myers, "with the great predominance of alleged apparitions at or near the moment of death." [p. xxviii]
The concept of the spirit still existing after physical death has been known to all peoples since time immemorial, of course, and the idea of the dead appearing to the living has been equally widespread. However, "the idea of apparitions at the time either of death, or of serious crises in life, has no established vogue." [p. 101] The SPR received numerous reports of what are now called "crisis apparitions," but rather than forming a well-known motif in legend and folklore, the events seemed to be regarded as isolated anomalies even by the percipients. As Myers observes, "to many persons with whom we have conversed on the subject we find that the very idea of such phenomena is practically new; and that ‘apparitions’, whether delusions or realities, have always been considered by them as apparitions of the dead." [pp. 101-102]
Myers and others held these "new" stories in high regard for the very reason that they were unknown in the literature: the witnesses were not "seeing" something they might expect to see due to religious, superstitious or other belief-systems. The survey seemed to be a phenomenological recognition of a new class of paranormal activity, drawn from the raw material of reported cases.
Over a century later, in 1988, the Society once again called for reports from the public by distributing "A Questionnaire on Psychic Experiences." Of 1,129 questionnaires given out, 840 were returned completed. This is not a large sampling as statistical analyses go, but one feature stood out after only a cursory examination of the reports. While apparitions of the dead were as common as ever, there was not a single crisis apparition in the survey. Author and survey creator D. J. West notes that "the absence of [even] a single death coincidence from the accounts received is suggestive evidence that incidents of that kind have become rarer in Britain than they were a century ago." [p. 200]
Why would that be? Less emphasis on the afterlife in the modern world? Easier communications? A simple phone call can inform loved ones that somebody is on the verge of death. Perhaps psychic messages from the dying are no longer necessary, and the ability is atrophying in modern humanity. Yet, as West notes, death, danger, and disaster still hold sway in premonitions and dreams, so "why they should have become rare among apparitional cases remains puzzling."
There is still the observation that crisis apparitions seemed to be unknown before the nineteenth century. Could it be that some paranormal phenomena come in waves -- that is, manifest themselves more commonly in some eras than in others? Future researchers might cast an eye on the general histories of precognitive dreams, poltergeists, and other events. One never knows what patterns might emerge from the raw material lying forgotten on dusty library shelves.
Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred, et. al. Phantasms of the Living (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1962 ).
West, D. J. "Pilot Census of Hallucinations," Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 57, Part 215 (April 1990), pp. 163-207.
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