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“You have to have an idea of what you are going to do, but it should be a vague idea” – Pablo Picasso


Hell’s bells?

We like the astonishing.  We like the miraculous.  We like the revolutionary.  And we love a good mystery.  At least when someone is telling us a story.  I could gather folks around the campfire and relate the epic saga of my uneventful trip to the supermarket to find a decent peach.  Are you not entertained?  We prefer predictability in our day-to-day existence, but when we want something to distract us from the monotonous ennui of working for the man and the mundane responsibilities that constitute the bulk of our existence, give us our daily strange phenomena.

Alien abductions, Bigfoot encounters, pissed-off poltergeists, vanished high-tech civilizations, and worldwide conspiracies by shady organizations offer the luxurious transcendence of small lives lived in small spaces by our relatively small minds.  What if it were true?  The question itself allows our imaginations to scale heights and plumb depths of what it means to be human.  Outrageous claims sell more TV shows and books than the gods of small, anomalous things.  Not that I’m knocking this economic reality.  Got to make a living, and people who get down on other people’s hustles generally do so because it impinges on their own hustle.  I myself admit to no hustle, unless one considers neurosis a kind of dodge.  Tales of werewolves, vampires, specters, and extraterrestrials resonate with our will to believe that everything we’ve been told is wrong.  Which is obviously untrue.  Clearly only about half of everything we’ve ever been told is wrong.  We’ve even given a name to phenomena that are difficult to explain, but nonetheless fall into the category of the preternatural.  Forteana.

When someone asks you about the contemporary difference between “the paranormal” and “the Fortean”, you can now give an answer.  The paranormal is the shocking stuff that people are actually interested in. The “Fortean” is how most folks concerned with such things seem to refer to the cataloging of the vast array of phenomenal or noumenal occurrences that just don’t fit, and are consequently dismissed as outliers, and promptly ignored or shelved in obscurity since hundreds of reported blood rains through the centuries just don’t amount to much.  It might have rained blood. Many times.  In many places.  Then it stopped.  We’re not sure.  Doesn’t matter anyway.  Nobody’s life was affected, unless it was considered portentous at the time and they called off the upcoming invasion, in which case they were just playing the odds.  One may reasonably ask why the likes of Charles Fort and his modern analog William Corliss went about the task of scouring literature for innocuous and minor instances of weirdness.  Thinking about this leads me to drink.  Drinking leads me to ruminate.  Rumination leads me to theorize.  It’s my version of scientific method.

Confession time.  I was not significantly less obsessive-compulsive as a child than I am as an adult.  Being born will do that to you.  Most terminally well-adjusted folks then go on to a measure of misspent youth and proceed into a calm and respectable adulthood without concerning themselves terribly with things that go bump in the night.  Monsters, aliens, and fish falls are for closets and therapy sessions 30 years later.  Or that’s what we tell ourselves to keep those disorderly wolves at bay, knowing all the while that hungry critters and the unexplained lurk in the shadows, awaiting an opportunity to become an anomaly expressed.

There’s something defiant about an anomaly of the Fortean kind.  It’s like the James Dean of physical phenomena, a true “rebel without a natural cause”.  And like Dean, they die as they lived, prematurely, only to occasionally be nominated for phenomenal status posthumously.  It helps to age backwards.  Start life as an old man and gradually regress into infancy.  This works as a sort of regression with authority – an unlearning of decades of imprinting and common-sensical understandings of the universe.  We start life with a philosophy.  We end life with a prayer, except for the bold few whose philosophy is to end life without a prayer.  Pretty nervy move at death’s door, so we usually give them props like Voltaire, who is apocryphally said to have responded to a priest who asked if he was ready to “renounce the devil” as Voltaire lay dying, by blithely observing, “This is no time to be making new enemies”.  I wonder if people whose last words are hilarious get some sort of special dispensation in the afterlife?  Heaven’s nightclubs are said to be cool.  Just don’t go blue.  You’ll never work in that town again what with your New York Values.

Now, I’m tempted to use the old commentator’s stand-by explanation for a non-sequitur “but, I digress”.  Sadly, just realized that this presumes I “-gressed” in the first place.  I don’t especially like to gress.  It leaves a stain.  Nonetheless, the conclusion I’ve reached is that strange phenomena of epic proportions give us elements of the comic and tragic that we crave.  Our preference is to be emotionally and intellectually moved at scale.  Little anomalies are just that.  Little.  Unimpressive.  Easily explained away through Rube Goldberg theorization encompassed by our currently accepted narrative.  No Jedi ever said, “I feel a minor, barely perceptible disturbance in the Force, as if somebody stepped on an ant”.  It’s not like a planet was just destroyed.  The ant, of course, is rather put out. And if you feel somebody is stepping on all the ants simultaneously, sweating the small stuff seems prudent.

For instance, phantom bell-ringing has a proud history in the annals of Forteana.  Nobody dies.  No dire messages are communicated.  Nothing really happens and it all just goes away.  It’s diligently recorded by the monomaniacal, and everybody else forgets that strange things were briefly afoot.  Case in point, Major Moor and the Bealing Bells.

In 1834, we have the remarkable case of “Bealing Bells,” investigated and related by Major Moor, F.R.S. Here, day after day for nearly two months, the bells of the house were continually ringing in broad daylight, no known cause being discovered; the bell-wires were in full view and a careful watch kept, until at last Major Moor was thoroughly convinced the ringing was by no human agency; the inmates were driven from the house and the mystery never cleared up (Barrett, 1911, p208).

British soldier and Indologist Edward Moor (1771–1848), known for his book The Hindu Pantheon, an early treatment in English of Hinduism as a religion, published a little book in 1841 called Bealings Bells, wherein he describe the bizarre episode that occurred at the respectable old manor called Ewshott House in Hampshire where he resided briefly.  Over the years Ewshott House, like many ancient manors in merry Old England, had hosted its fair share of hauntings, but Major Moor decided to personally investigate and describe the inexplicable bell-ringing that occurred while he was in the neighborhood.

On the 2nd of February, 1834, the housebells at Bealings, near Woodbridge, in Suffolk, the residence of Major Moor, F.R.S., began to ring violently—sometimes singly, sometimes three or more together—without any apparent cause. They continued so to ring at intervals until the 27th March, when the disturbances finally ceased. The cause was never discovered. The evidence for this singular outbreak is at first hand; it is practically contemporaneous, being based on notes made at the time and written out in full at intervals within a few days of the occurrences; the witness is a Fellow of the Royal Society, who devoted, on his own showing, much time and ingenuity to the search for a cause for the manifestations, and who recorded with scrupulous care the atmospheric conditions and the readings of barometer and thermometer during their progress. If the evidence then fails to impress us as it undoubtedly impressed Major Moor, it is because Major Moor himself gives us good cause for distrusting his competence as a witness. He is practically the sole witness, and from the outset he had made up his mind, not only that the phenomena could not be explained, as he justly points out, by “the known laws of the electric theory” or the expansion of metals by rise of temperature, but that they were inexplicable by any cause known to science; for on February 5th, 1834—that is, three days after the bell-ringing began—he writes: “I am thoroughly convinced that the ringing is by no human agency”, and later he repeats his conviction that the bells “were not rung by any mortal hand.” That this conviction rested on grounds wholly insufficient, and that Major Moor was the kind of man who could make a strong-sounding statement of this kind without fully realizing its meaning, is shown by the fact that in the interval he had admitted the possibility of the bell-ringing being due to trickery. But he gives us other and stronger grounds for discounting his testimony. Though he devoted many pages to describing the courses and the attachments of the wires, the state of the atmosphere, and so on, Major Moor never tells us of whom his household consisted, and never describes a single occasion on which, when they were all gathered together in his presence, the bell-ringing occurred. He boasts, indeed, that he took no such precautions against trickery. A writer in the Ipswich journal had made the sensible suggestion that Major Moor should begin his investigations by gathering all his household into one room and posting trustworthy friends round about the house. Major Moor, in quoting the letter, adds, “I did not in any way follow the advice therein offered.” Major Moor’s testimony is freely quoted by Spiritualists and other advocates of the Poltergeist theory; but in fact the book might plausibly be interpreted as a gentle satire on those who are ready, on such evidence as that here offered, to believe in supernormal or even unfamiliar agencies (Podmore, 1902, p29-30).

You may find it odd to quote this passage in its entirety as it is so disparaging of Major Moor’s competency as an investigator, but fear not gentle reader, there is good reason – it is entirely typical of the responses to the minor, and seemingly unimportant strange phenomena we term “Fortean” as to bear reproduction.  Major Moor is declared a “bad” and “motivated” investigator despite previously having been regarded as a respectable scholar, and rigorously recording data such as atmospheric conditions and temperature.  He is said to be the “sole witness”, when in fact there were numerous witnesses. What they actually mean is that the unwashed masses don’t count in the grand scheme of things.  Trickery is suspected, although it would be a sustained prank (over 50 days) with no purpose whatsoever, unless an extremely helpful servant foresaw a kickback from the publishing of a pamphlet.  Now, all these are possibilities, but they are asserted without much evidence, and the suggestion is made that Moor was actually a satirist (or would have made a good one).  The phenomena is largely not addressed as the investigator is presumed to be too flawed, despite previous respectability.  Sound familiar? Perhaps this was indeed a hoax perpetrated by Moor, but the Major went on to collect numerous reports from manor houses around the country of similar phantom bell-ringing phenomena.

Is there some idle supernatural agency out there dedicated to incessant, phantom bell-ringing for no discernible human purpose whatsoever?  Over the centuries, the reports are legion if one cares to trawl through obscure journals and rarely read literature.  I’ve got my beret on.  I’ve got my brandy.  Let’s get ready to philosophically rumble!

Why is it so easy for skeptics to dismiss unexciting sorts of strange phenomena, particularly when they occur countless times throughout history?  May I suggest it has everything to do with the “Sorites Paradox”.  The fundamental issue is the difference between “being” and “seeming”, or more succinctly, skeptics find it easy to dismiss phenomena that are vaguely predicated.  Okay, that wasn’t succinct.  Let’s try again, marshalling the insights of 4th Century B.C. Greek philosopher Eubulides of Miletus.  If you have a heap of sand, and you remove one grain of sand, is it still a heap?  Of course it is.  Rinse and repeat.  How many grains of sand do you have to remove before a “heap” is no longer a heap?  Alternatively, if I start with one grain of sand, and keep adding additional grains, when does it become a heap?  If I can find you 10 inexplicable occurrences of phantom bell-ringing out of 500, is that a heap of phantom bell-ringing?  This conundrum leads directly to what is called “the continuum fallacy” that plagues science and skeptic scientism when it directs its attention to strange phenomena, that is, logically erroneous rejection of a claim simply because it is not as precise as one would like it to be, ignoring the possibility that there are a continuum of states beyond binary existence or non-existence.

The beauty of anomalistics is its embrace of paradox as a means to explore knowledge, whereas skeptic approaches generally regard paradox as failure or disproof (or some weird kind of hippy quantum mysticism).  Perhaps we should take note that Niels Bohr once said, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox.  Now we have some hope of making progress”.  Make your heaps.  One grain, two grains, 1000 grains.  So, who does the phantom bell toll for?  It tolls for you, my friend.  Or maybe not.  Supernatural phenomena pride themselves on being vague and mysterious.  They hear the chicks dig it.

Barrett, William, Sir, 1844-1925. Psychical Research. New York: Henry Holt, 1911.
Britten, Emma Hardinge, d. 1899. Nineteenth Century Miracles: Or, Spirits And Their Work In Every Country of the Earth. A Complete Historical Compendium of the Great Movement Know As “modern Spiritualism”. Manchester: W. Britten, 1883.
Ingram, John Henry, 1842-1916. The Haunted Homes And Family Traditions of Great Britain. London: Gibbings & co., ltd, 1897.
Moor, Edward, and Bernard Barton. Bealings Bells: An Account of the Mysterious Ringing of Bells, at Great Bealings, Suffolk, in 1834; and in Other Parts of England: with Relations of Farther Unaccountable Occurrences, in Various Places. Woodbridge, England, 1841.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. The Debatable Land Between This World And the Next: With Illustrative Narrations. London: Trübner, 1871.
Podmore, Frank, 1856-1910. Modern Spiritualism: a History And a Criticism. London: Methuen & co., 1902.