Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases, by A. D. Cornell and Alan Gauld


Before the Society for Psychical Research had an online encyclopaedia it published short handy practical guides to particular topics.  Notes for Investigators of Spontaneous Cases (this new edition from 1968 is completely different to Guy Lambert’s 1955 SPR booklet with the same title) was written by ‘ADC’ and ‘AG’, Tony Cornell and Alan Gauld.  It provides guidance, based on their extensive experience, for the psychical researcher dealing with cases happening outside a controlled setting.  The authors begin by noting that many reported to the SPR turn out to have ordinary explanations.  Of those without an obvious cause, they list the types of ostensible phenomena they consider the most significant: precognition, spontaneous extra-sensory perception (clairvoyance and telepathy), out-of-body experiences, and of course apparitions, with various sub-types, and poltergeists.  Cornell and Gauld indicate how blurred the lines between the last two can be.

After a brief outline of each type they move on to list steps the investigator should follow.  The first is to become familiar with the relevant literature, a fundamental many ‘ghost hunters’ these days ignore.  Having acquired such knowledge, there are procedures to be followed in all cases which may have some paranormal element, such as to interview and assess witnesses, undertake a site visit, and obtain signed statements.  After ruling out, where possible, ordinary causes, the task is to learn more about the phenomena.  This entails ensuring the account has not been exaggerated and testing the validity of the claim, drawing on newspapers and other records as well as witness statements.  On completion a detailed report should be lodged with the SPR.

It is unlikely that evidence for paranormality can be obtained from cases which have ceased and where no records have been kept, so the advice is primarily aimed at dealing with ongoing poltergeist and haunting cases.  Documentation is key, along with attempts to witness phenomena.  The difficulty of the latter should not be underestimated and teamwork is preferable to a solo effort.  Brief guidelines for vigils are given, along with a list of recommended equipment.  A section on the automatic monitoring of a location clearly indicates that as early as 1968 Cornell was thinking of the sorts of apparatus which would eventually be integrated into his SPIDER initiative.  The authors suggest that the use of a medium, or better several working independently whose impressions are compared, could prove useful in generating data.

A series of visits are recommended in gauging the importance of the case and it is vital not to jump to conclusions prematurely.  The authors list examples of natural causes, which are many and varied, including one that happened to me – the creaking of floorboards in sequence because of changes in temperature, which had the unnerving effect of sounding like someone walking across the bedroom above my head while I was alone in the house.  Cornell and Gauld note that some explanations seem obvious when pointed out, but events can be blown up by an imaginative (or nervous) person or as the result of suggestion.  The possibility of hoaxing and practical jokes must always be borne in mind, but also that there could be a mixture of fraudulent and genuine activity.

The booklet ends by touching on the reassuring approach investigators should adopt and the contrast between them, wishing a phenomenon to continue to allow them to study it, and householders, who want it to cease so their lives can get back to normal.  A few words are said about press relations, and finally the need for flexibility in any investigation, a willingness to learn from experience, including mistakes.  ‘The prime requisites of an investigator are patience, humour, an open mind and the willingness to make a large number of fruitless excursions.’

There is much sense in these 17 pages and while to some extent outdated (I’m not sure tying a ‘suspect’ in a person-centred case to a chair with a bag over their head would go down well these days), this booklet, along with others published by the SPR, still have value to the historian of psychical research.  They deserve to be better known and I have argued they should be included in the SPR’s (or rather Lexscien’s) online library.  If those interested in seeing them more widely available were to write to Lexscien perhaps that would stimulate its directors to get their scanner out and expand the online library’s content with these fascinating documents.


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