ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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A Hand in the Dark
by Maurice Townsend

It is not often that a researcher actually gets to witness an apparently paranormal phenomenon. When the phenomenon concerned is one widely thought to have died out decades before it is even more extraordinary. Did I really hold a disembodied hand?

It is a spring evening in the early 1980s. In an unremarkable street in a seaside town in southern England a group of people is meeting with an unusual purpose. They meet in a room set aside for this specific purpose. They sit down on chairs set out in a rough circle and the lights are put out. A tape of lively music (mostly from an earlier era) is played and the participants talk freely and animatedly in spite of the serious purpose of the meeting.

Before long things are starting to happen. A 'trumpet' (actually a cardboard or wooden cone) with luminous paint on it appears to rise and fly around the room. Various other objects are heard to move about in the dark - apparently without normal human intervention. The most interesting events, however, are the voices. Strange, strained voices talk from various points in the room - usually not near any of the sitters. The voices engage in conversation about the world of 'spirit' and the universe in general. Advice and information is dispensed to the sitters.

Modern Physical Mediumship

What is interesting about this account is that it contains apparent physical mediumship in the 1980s, decades after it was supposed to have died out. In fact, there were several physical mediumship groups around in the 1980s but they kept their activities quiet in the main. It is likely that physical mediumship has been going on quietly ever since its original invention. Another interesting aspect of the above account is that it was being attended by several psychical researchers, including me. A great number of extraordinary and seemingly inexplicable occurrences were witnessed (including apports, messages written on paper and blackboard, lights and breezes and materialisations like the one described here) over a period of several years. It is unusual for researchers actually to witness such events; more often they must rely on second-hand testimony for their material.

The group started as a Spiritualist development circle. It did not get very far until a journalist was invited to attend. On the night he first arrived all sorts of amazing, strange events took place. The man, who had no particular interest in the subject, appeared to be a physical medium. Whenever he was present, the full gamut of physical mediumship phenomena would take place. When he could not make it, virtually nothing of any physical nature took place (though mental mediumship was still practiced). Various researchers were fortunate enough to be allowed to attend and were amazed at what they found.

This article is concerned with one particular incident which has stuck in my mind ever since. At first it seemed very impressive evidence. Then I thought it less convincing as time went by. This often seems to happen with paranormal phenomena - others have also reported it too. Perhaps over the years more and more prosaic theories occur to the researcher and the event seems to shrink in significance as time goes by. Or perhaps it just seems weirder and weirder over time and sceptical thoughts tend to predominate. Eventually one seems almost embarrassed to talk about it. Recently I decided to look into the incident once again and try to decide once and for all whether it constituted good evidence or not.

The Hand in the Dark

I quote here from my account written just a couple of hours after the incident:

'Right from the start of the seance people were being touched and the chalk and board moved. I could not believe it was [the medium] because he was heard to speak in his place when people were audibly being tapped at the other end of the room.

A warm hand was thrust into mine ... briefly. It was so warm and obviously solid that I naturally assumed it was someone next to me. Everyone denied it! That started me worrying. Next time I was ready for it. While my left hand tried (unsuccessfully) to restrain the hand, my right arm 'swiped' the space behind the hand vigorously. There was nothing there! This apparently solid, warm, human hand was attached to nothing at all.'

The question is: did I really hold a disembodied hand? It certainly seemed like it at the time (I was understandably shocked at the time), but over the years I have had more and more doubts.

Possible Explanations

So, what alternative explanations are there to a 'psychic hand'? Could it have been some sort of 'fake hand' or possibly someone nearby? Apart from the fact that I knew and trusted the people there, the hand was clearly human and alive. A 'fake' hand could not have simulated all the many muscles in a real hand. Robot engineers have yet to design a convincing simulated hand of this type. Also it was warm, not cold as one might expect from a 'dummy' hand. It reacted in a very lively, realistic way. Indeed it struggled to get free. During the 'swiping' incident I said nothing and the conversation continued normally amongst the rest of the group. No one seemed to be aware that I was wrestling with a hand in the dark! Certainly there was no obvious sound to indicate that I was struggling with a person nearby, whether a sitter or intruder, as well as a hand.

There was also the matter of 'swiping' behind the hand. At the time this action convinced me that the hand was not attached to anyone. Recently though I have wondered if it might have been possible for someone to sit or stand at a suitable angle so that my 'swipe' would have missed the attached arm. Thinking about it, though, there are objections to my 'someone from an odd angle' theory. Firstly, the hypothetical person involved would have needed to know that I was going to 'swipe behind' in order to avoid it. Secondly, the hand withdrew away from me, in the direction where any attached arm would have had to be (also the area I swiped).

Finally I tried to reconstruct the situation to see if it was possible for someone to position him or herself so that no 'swipe behind' could find their arm. The only way it was possible to avoid a swipe was by being positioned almost behind where I was seated. This means it would have to be the person sitting next to me as no one could have stood or crouched there (the chair being in the way). However, it was noticed that reaching out from this position left the hand noticeably twisted. I remember the hand being perfectly straight, as if extended by someone in the middle of the circle. Also it pulled away into the centre of the circle, which would be impossible for someone standing behind me.

Postscript

The article above was written in 1994. Physical mediumship remains a rare phenomenon today. After the incidents described, ASSAP bought an infra-red video camera that could have recorded, and probably explained, such incidents. Unfortunately, the circle stopped before the camera could be used. Such equipment is now easily obtained and not that expensive, though it was unusual at the time. Should anyone else find themselves in a similar situation, they should certainly try to use infra-red video, if possible. Unfortunately, mediumship groups may object to the use of infra-red video as they did in the Scole Group investigation by the SPR in the 1990s. It is a pity as it would be an invaluable aid in this difficult research field.

Scientific research has also moved on since 1994. It has now become apparent that the visual and touch senses in the brain are not directly connected. It means that, without visual confirmation, you may sometimes not have an accurate idea where your limbs are. For instance, if your arm is hidden behind a screen and you can see a rubber hand in front of you and someone strokes both with the same movement, you may feel that the rubber hand is your own! Something like this strange illusion (the 'rubber hand illusion') may be responsible for out of the body experiences (OOBEs). In the case here, it is now obvious that I could not really have been sure if I had really swiped the space behind the hand. Indeed, I could not have known for sure where the hand being touched was. In conditions of total darkness we cannot ever be completely sure where our limbs are unless they are in contact with a known landmark. Sadly, it seems, it is only too easy for our senses to be fooled in such circumstances.