Unexplained Mysteries


by anthonynorth on October 7th, 2007

Ghost Busters

We are all aware of the modern Ghostbusters. Made famous by the film of that name, they have gained a reputation as showmen and, at times, fantasists. Sometimes this is deserved, whilst at others, not so. Today, they exist in their thousands, creating voluntary investigation societies all over the world. Often doing a great job in assisting those who have been ‘haunted’, the original ghostbuster was undoubtedly Harry Price.


Price became most famous for his investigation and ghostbusting of the one time most haunted house in Britain, Borley Rectory. At the beginning of the 19th century the house was the home to one Rev Henry Bull, an eccentric who was thought to be a bit of an occultist. When the Rev Eric Smith moved into the Suffolk rectory in 1928, he claimed to see spectral nuns, coaches and headless men. Intrigued, Price, went to investigate, and continued to visit the rectory for years. By the time the Rev Lionel Foyster and his wife Marianne moved into the house in 1930, Borley Rectory was manifesting classic poltergeist phenomena, including materializations, strange noises, floating furniture and inexplicable fires. However, it was always suspected that Price, a ghost buster, or a hysterical Marianne, were behind the events. For instance, a reporter who was pelted with pebbles found Price’s pockets full of them. Eventually the rectory burnt down, and in 1956 the Society for Psychical Research published a devastating report, blaming acoustics and wind vortices for much of the phenomena.


Price was a short, stocky, balding Londoner, born in 1891. A natural showman and publicist, he had a lifelong interest in stage magic and did a variety of jobs before dedicating himself to research at the age of forty. Dismissed as a charlatan, he nonetheless pioneered modern techniques of ghost watching (he was the first to use cameras), and he amassed an invaluable library of data on the subject. Price brought to the subject an open mind tinged with a scientific approach, and is rightly thought to be the first psychical researcher in the modern sense, uninhibited by the stuffiness of the Society for Psychical Research. And he brought to the public attention some amazing psychic superstars. Typical was Eleanora Zugun.


Eleanora was a Rumanian peasant girl. At age 13 she found some money whilst going to her grandmother’s. She bought sweets with it and her grandmother told her it was devil money and she was naughty. The devil would no doubt possess her. The next day, poltergeist phenomena surrounded her, beginning with a rain of stones on her house. Her family sent her to monks to be exorcised, but they made her worse, a ‘spirit’ going on to possess her, leaving weals on her skin. A researcher from Vienna heard of her and took her to live in Vienna. Price met Eleanora here in 1926 and took her back to London. Unhappy, the spirit became antagonistic and began attacking her, pulling her hair and leaving bite marks on her body. By 1927, Eleanora was 15 and the phenomena ceased.


Similar mind over matter abilities were achieved by two other of Harry Price’s projects, the Austrian born brothers, Willi and Rudi Schneider. Their mother had a fascination for Spiritualism and often brought out the Ouija board. Around 1919, when Willi was 14, he had a go and the board spelt out the name ‘Olga’. Coming to the attention of researcher Baron von Schrenck-Notzing from Munich, Willi did over a hundred seances in which he would go into a trance and produce classic poltergeist phenomena including tappings and spirit manifestations. At times, ‘Olga’ would dance. In May 1922 Price met the Schneider brothers, testing Willi ruthlessly, including covering him with luminous pins so he couldn’t cheat in the darkened rooms he operated in. However, Willi’s talents were on the decline. At eleven, Rudi’s were just beginning. And by 1925 he was carrying out seances in which spirits regularly appeared - one spirit appeared 30 times in one session - and levitating objects. By 1932 the powers had deserted both brothers and they returned to obscurity.


We can see from the above cases that Price was not only a Ghostbuster, and indeed, neither are most ‘ghostbusters’ today, investigating any phenomena that comes their way. And this can sometimes be a burden rather than a gift. Harry Price discovered this to his own cost. A witty, imaginative and ambitious man, he was often accused of being easily fooled; and the public accused of being easily fooled by him. At times this may, or may not, be the case. For instance, a 1969 re-examination of the ‘Borley’ report that did him so much damage went a long way to clearing him of any malpractice, but was not widely publicized.


The problem with getting to the bottom of ghostbuster Harry Price is that, whilst he may have been ‘imaginative’ at times, his detractors were equally ‘imaginative’ in putting him down. Price represented a form of research and investigation that was increasingly alien to the new type of researcher arising at the time – the parapsychologist, retiring to the laboratory to attempt to see if phenomena existed through statistics and experiment. My own view is that such practices may be important in validating certain elements of phenomena, but can never really prove anything because phenomena is spontaneous and usually a product of high emotion. Such elements cannot be replicated in a laboratory. Hence, once spectacular phenomena fails to appear in the laboratory, a skeptical attitude arises that they don’t exist in the first place. And researchers such as Price must be charlatans or fools. But thankfully, by the time of ghost buster Price’s death in 1948, he had established a tradition of research that, yes, may at times be unorthodox and silly, but remains a beacon to keep phenomena in the public eye – and provides pathways to understanding that the more skeptical professionals would do well to follow. Knowledge, you see, is about trying to understand a mystery. Not running away from it. And for the former, everyone who has ever experienced something they do not understand should offer a thankyou to the legend that is Ghots Buster Harry Price.

© Anthony North, October 2007

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