THE DREAD OF THE SUPERNATURAL
The Spectator ~ 7th of August 1897.
WE wish the Psychical Society would one day attempt an analysis of what, for want of a better word, we must call the dread of the supernatural. Both those who believe and those who disbelieve in the notion that the veil between this world and the other is capable of being lifted agree in one thing. They all recognise the fact that most people feel fear, or something akin to fear, at what they believe to be the occurrence of supernatural phenomena. There is here, therefore, a piece of ground which may be explored without any begging of the question as to whether the fear is caused by real ghosts or by trickery, by rats and water-pipes, or by genuine glimpses of the people of another world. One would like to know whether the fear felt is akin to that experienced when a man is frightened by a runaway horse or a fire or any other imminent risk of life, or whether it is something different in kind. Speaking broadly and without any minute consideration of the facts, one would say that ghost-fright did differ in kind from the fright that comes from active danger. Most people have, we imagine, at some time or other in their lives experienced that eerie, uncanny, creepy feeling which is associated with the possibility of contact with the supernatural. Yet few would declare that it was in any sense connected with the dread of loss of life or limb. The man or woman who wakes up in the middle of the night and hears strange noises - thumps, raps, clangs, and creakings - or sees or feels the touch of unseen hands, is probably very frightened, but the sense of bodily fear is not present. There is no dread of being killed. People in the agony of terror caused by dangerous accidents constantly call out that they are going to be killed, but we doubt if that is ever the case in fright caused by haunted houses. Possibly this difference may be said to be due to the fact that the dread of the supernatural is not nearly so acute as that caused by the imminent risk of death, People, it may be argued, only imagine themselves to be frightened of ghosts as women pretend to be frightened of mice. In neither case is the fright quite genuine. It is only want of self-control, and could be mastered in an instant if the will-power were in proper order. Unfortunately for those who argue thus there is plenty of evidence to show that occasionally the dread of the supernatural produces very serious results. On the whole, we should say that more people had been frightened out of their wits by what they believed to be supernatural phenomena than by accidents involving great risk to life. It is not often that one hears of insanity caused even by the prolonged agony of shipwreck. The fear caused by what is supposed to be a supernatural agency seems, then, to have in it some element not found in ordinary fear. If and when the haunting phenomena cause fear they seem to give a shock of quite special keenness.
Another strange thing about the dread of the supernatural is its greater power of transmission. One may, no doubt, read about hairbreadth escapes with a pleasing thrill of danger, and very sensitive people may find it "trying" to hear how the hero of a mountain climb crawled along a ledge of rotten rock with a two thousand feet drop below and a sheer wall of cliff above, but no one is really terrified by this in the way that sensitive people are terrified by reading or hearing ghost-stories. People susceptible to such impressions not unfrequently find themselves in the position of Sir Walter Scott and Hannah More, who sat up telling ghost-stories till they were both afraid to go to bed. Unquestionably the fear which we call "creepiness" is much more easily kindled at second hand than the good honest dread of having one's skull split. Yet another curious fact about the form of fear we are discussing is its admitted unreasonableness and want of sufficient cause apparent to account for it. If a man is asked why he is afraid of standing in the line of fire when soldiers are shooting, or of doing any other dangerous thing, there is no sort of mystery about his answer. He tells you at once, 'I am afraid of doing this or that because I don't want to be killed.' If you ask him why he is afraid of sleeping in a haunted room, as in many cases he undoubtedly will be, even though perfectly sane and sufficiently brave, he will be unable to tell you. He will probably declare that he does not believe in ghosts, and does not believe, indeed, in any supernatural phenomena being permitted. Yet he will, if he is honest, add that there is no sort of uncertainty about his objection to sleeping in a room believed to be haunted. He may say, of course, that he could force himself on good grounds to submit to being frightened, but he will not deny the fright. If you ask him, further, what are the consequences of which he is afraid, he will, as we have said, be unable to tell you. He will admit that there is no fear of the figure said to haunt the room injuring him in any possible way, and he will laugh at the notion of low voices, or loud explosive raps, or touches from cold fingers doing him bodily damage. In the end, indeed, he will be forced to admit that what he is really afraid of is being frightened. 'Experience tells us that these things, whatever they are, cause a very unpleasant form of terror in the human mind, and experience is backed up by a strong instinctive feeling in most men's minds. I don't know in the least why these things should cause alarm, but as they do I intend to avoid them.' - An adequate explanation, if you will, for avoiding haunted rooms, but clearly a very different reason from that which makes a bad rider avoid getting on the back of a buck-jumper. His dread is fundamentally the dread of physical injury.
There is yet another very curious fact connected with the dread of the supernatural. It often seems as if people were afraid of ghosts in an inverse ratio to their belief in their existence. The convinced spiritualist sees no difficulty in believing that ghosts and haunted houses are true, and feels little fear at the thought of encountering them. The man who disbelieves wholly in ghosts, and sincerely thinks that everything can be explained by the operation of natural laws, will, on the other hand, frankly admit that he is so foolish as not to care about sitting alone at night in a haunted room about which he has heard "some very curious things indeed." Though they are no doubt things which he believes can be explained, he confesses to be unwilling to try his nerves gratuitously. On the other hand, it not unfrequently happens that people who are not disposed to be satisfied with the materialistic explanation of what are called psychical phenomena, and who even lean to a supernatural solution, are by no means easily frightened by hauntings, either visual or audible. A curious example of this well-ascertained fact may be seen in Miss Freer's paper in this month's Nineteenth Century. We have dealt with that paper elsewhere, and only wish to notice on the present occasion one point. Though she personally experienced, or thought she experienced, for we by no means regard the matter as proved, many most strange and weird phenomena - she not only heard but saw - she says with evident sincerity that she cannot understand how any sane person could object to go alone at any hour of the day or night into the so-called haunted portion of the house with which her article deals. How is this to be accounted for? How are we to explain the fact that people who see and hear, or fancy they see and hear, very strange and inexplicable sights and sounds, and who are not prepared to say they are natural and ordinary occurrences, are less disturbed than those who are convinced that there is nothing at all in the talk about supernatural phenomena? Possibly the answer should be something like that which Coleridge gave to the lady who asked him if he believed in ghosts, - "No, Madam. I have seen too many of them." It may be that people who habitually see and hear what they believe to be abnormal sights and sounds are not frightened because they have seen so many of them and so got accustomed to them. This explanation, of course, cuts both ways. The sceptic in matters psychical may fairly say:- 'These things are seen with perfect composure by persons who are subject to illusions because they have been accustomed for years by some accident of vision or temperament to hallucinations. When, however, a normally constitutes man is made subject to an illusion either by being influenced beforehand by thrilling accounts of what he is likely to see, or else by some curious set of accidents and coincidences, it is only natural that he should be much more disturbed in body and mind. He does not possess the tolerance for illusions which belongs to those who habitually experience them. Again, the perfectly healthy organisation abhors and resists illusions, and therefore when it is subject to them by some accident the reaction is very strongly marked.' On the other hand, it may be argued that seers and mediums, crystal-gazers and other "sensitives," have a natural faculty for experiencing psychical phenomena, and their imperviousness to fear may be put down to the fact that they are not subjected to what is, as far as they are concerned, an abnormal strain when they see and hear what Miss Freer tells us she saw and heard. Into the respective merits of these theories we could not attempt to enter even, which we doubt, were it likely that any result could be achieved by following either of them. Abstract speculation upon points of this kind is seldom, if ever, fruitful. There remains, however, the very curious fact of the dread inspired by phenomena believed to be supernatural, and this we hold to be worth investigating. It is certainly not a weakness of which mankind has any reason to be proud, and if it could be proved that men can overcome it by systematically accustoming themselves to it there would be reason for rejoicing. People thus trained would obviously be much better qualified to examine into psychical phenomena than those who are likely to be overcome by accesses of fear.
There is yet another explanation of the mystery surrounding this dread of the supernatural which may be worth considering. It may be that man has been endowed with this almost universal horror of the supernatural because he was not meant to peep behind the veil. It can hardly be doubted that mankind is general would not be doing their true work if they were perpetually engaged in efforts to lift the veil. For what purpose was the veil interposed if not to prevent such prying? But granted that it would be a hindrance to man's development to traffic with the other world, or to learn too much about it first hand, would not man be very likely to have developed a keen instinctive horror of any contact with the unseen world, just as many animals have an instinctive horror of plants that will injure them? Be that as it may, it is at any rate certain that man's fear of the supernatural has prevented him from dealing with the unseen world as he would have dealt with it under other conditions. Had not the fears and the doubts born of fear which gather round what we call the supernatural prevailed to distract, and even to prohibit, his attention, can we doubt that something would have been settled one way or another as to the intellectually irritating and degrading phenomena of haunting, and as to "the mutterings and peepings" of the sensitives who have been at work since the world began? Unquestionably the dread of lifting the veil has enormously hampered investigation. It has tended to put everything on a wrong footing. There would have been very little progress in botany if nine hundred and ninety-nine botanists in every thousand associated the sense of fear and dread with the phenomena of their science. The question that remains over is, of course, the question, - Ought we to take this instinctive dread as a warning, and ought we therefore to turn our heads resolutely away from all investigation? On the whole we think not. It is a warning, but a warning to investigate coolly, wisely, prudently, and sparingly, rather than not to investigate at all. It is quite possible that in the end the modern forms of investigation will prove as futile as the old, and that we shall only arrive at the well-worn conclusion that there is a residuum of the unexplainable below a great deal of ignorance and imposture; but it is also certain that man will continue to insist upon investigating every dark place in his prison-house. That being so, the investigation had better be as thorough and as little prejudiced as possible. Besides, knowledge enters by a hundred unexpected doors. Who knows but that the Psychical Society, while it is looking for ghosts, may not discover some new law of acoustics or of motion, or find some physical explanation for the fact that if a man sees a figure at his bed's head, and knows it to be a man, he is not frightened, while if he really thinks it is not a man but a ghost, he is as likely as not to be terrified out of his wits? Why so many of us should be afraid of things which we know will, under no circumstances, do us bodily harm, and which most of us sincerely believe have no existence whatsoever, is in any case a very curious problem.