Sunday, 4 April 2010
Skeptics in the Pub: Unnatural Predators by Jourdemayne at Winchester
Skeptics in the Pub is a rational, scientific, anti-woo and brilliant informal pub/lecture series that takes place in many towns across England and now in other countries. There aren't any in Wales yet, but would anybody be interested in setting one up? I haven't a clue about how to do the finances side, possess no audio equipment and have no idea of a venue - but I expect I could ask speakers along and think up topics. Let me know.
I have just been to the Hampshire Skeptics on 1st April, advertised by Crispian - who also made it possible for me to come along. Apparently there is going to be a great one on 12th April in Westminster, to celebrate Simon winning his appeal - I am plotting ways to get there! The speaker was Jourdemayne, on the subject of unnatural predators. No, hang on, let me mention my journey there. I was nearly late for the train - it and I arrived on the platform at the same moment. They never looked out or unlocked their doors - so I wasn't able to get on! I don't know why they stopped at all. I screamed like a banshee and ran after them when they started moving again, because trains from my neck of the woods are only every 2 hours. But they just went off as if I wasn't there. (I hope the passengers told them.) Fuming, I went back to the car to call Crispian and tell him I'd be two hours late. He was busy, so after a moment or two I switched on the engine and drove 15 miles to a station on a different line, which runs at alternate hours to mine. So I was only delayed by an hour most of the way, then got lucky in Reading and delayed even less! An exceedingly annoying, expensive and stressful mishap, though, as you can imagine. Oh, and to cap it all, I opened Crispian's car door onto my face, giving myself an attractive red mark and quite a sore cheek that hasn't got better yet.
But meeting Crispian and several other great skeptics, catching up with Edd, and, of course, Jourdemayne's deliciously gory, funny and thought-provoking talk, was worth all that a hundred times over.
"Jourdemayne", by the way, was burnt at the stake in London in 1441. Very knowledgeable, she also knew a bit too much dark stuff and was accused of witchcraft. Her namesake's real name is Deborah Hyde. Deborah does some acting, but informed us that "acting is a very silly job" and she mostly does behind-the-scenes work such as make-up artistry. She has got into special effects such as vampires and zombies, and for many years has been researching this sort of folklore and how it gets started. "Unnatural Predators", the title of her talk, is also the title of her book which hopefully will be coming out soon.
My first surprise of the evening was when she put up one of the Psalms that states that each of us should live "three score years and ten" (it was my impression that life expectancy had been increasing for the last few hundred years). When someone dies before this age of seventy, there's a sense that something unnatural caused this. And when you grow up enough to become aware that other people have a consciousness like yours - that they think and feel as much as you - it is impossible to forget; and it is rather easy to treat objects and such phenomena as if their behaviour towards you was deliberate, as Deborah showed:
Historically, explained Deborah, there are three times of great danger and high mortality, which are: during epidemics; during childbirth (for women); and during infancy. It is these times around which a great deal of superstition evolved and grew.
One way society often faced - and still faces - things it doesn't like is scapegoating. For example, a particular individual or group or phenomenon may be blamed; and the others may go through rituals to cleanse and protect themselves. (It was all I could do not to make a choice remark or two about certain US and UK politicians regarding illegal wars.) Death itself is usually depicted as some kind of conscious being.
Most people on this world and, of course, nearly everybody historically, never had access to the scientific method. The scientific method basically means: test everything properly, and use nature itself as an arbiter of what is wrong and right. It does not allow for arbitrary invention; it requires things to be checked and checked again; it is a self-correcting discipline. It's brought us to our modern way of life. But it's very counter-intuitive, and you need a lot of education before you can start acting with that as your guide, rather than instinct.
Especially when your own psychology and biology is geared up towards very powerful sensations - about which more anon.
Deborah told us, with great relish, about some of the "unnatural predators" in folklore: the zombie, the vampire, the werewolf, and the Dracula-esque. The idea of the dead walking around reached Europe when there was a dispute between the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman empires over some land, and an Austro-Hungarian chap (though wasn't this centuries before Austria and Hungary became a dual monarchy? - or did they do it in medieval times as well?) went to a village where an epidemic was raging and the locals warned him that the dead were extremely dangerous. It seemed that several people would wake up in the middle of the night in terror and report that those who had recently died had come back and sat on them, sucked their blood, raped them, or attacked them in some other way.
One problem these people had was when dead bodies did not decompose as expected. For example, if buried when the ground was frozen, there would be two results: firstly it would be very hard to dig a deep grave; secondly the body would, of course, be preserved. Blood would freeze in the heart, and thaw in the spring only to leak out wherever - for example at the mouth, hence the stories about vampires sucking blood!
Even more grotesque and terrifying was during the times of the Plague, which usually peaked in the summer (due to the increased rat population) and bodies had to be dumped in mass graves. Dead bodies give off heat as they begin to decompose, same as anything decomposing like piles of leaves and compost heaps; imagine a mass grave of them all giving off heat together! Body parts such as intestines would sometimes explode, spattering blood and guts around; the force of this could move them, too. It would also have made the most ghastly noises. Hence stories about the dead "chewing" in their graves, not to mention of course walking about.
(A few years ago the New Scientist's Last Word ran a question and answer column, "Grave Concern", about why dead bodies sometimes do not decompose. In warm, dry soil, bodies - especially plump ones - can turn to adipocere or "soapy" tissue, made of fatty acids and salts, rather than rotting. This didn't come up, but seemed worth mentioning.)
But what about people's experiences of actually seeing, or sensing, the presence of these people?
Deborah told us about sleep paralysis and how a lot of research has been done on it. As we go to sleep, several "switches" get turned off in a specific order. When sleep paralysis, lucid dreaming or sleepwalking occur, some switches are turned off but not others, or the order has been messed about with (this is how I understood it, anyway). She asked how many of us had ever woken up to find that we couldn't move, perceived our surroundings (the bedroom) correctly - but that it was accompanied by, for example, the sense of a malevolent presence in the room or a frightening hallucination. A few of us had. Fewer than average, she remarked (the area of the pub where we were sitting was packed). "The Nightmare", by Henry Fuseli, could well be interpreted as the effect of sleep paralysis:
In more modern times, sleep paralysis is often associated with such phenomena as UFO visits or abductions; in medieval times a recently dead person or a zombie would be the unwelcome visitor. It also often accompanied a crushing sensation on the chest, as if something was sitting there. It usually occurs when the sufferer is lying on the back. (Aha! I thought - since I don't like to sleep on my back, and I have never had this in full.) The back of the brain actually seems to feel the pressure of the back of the skull. Again, there may be some evolutionary basis in this - for most animals, to be supine is a very dangerous position as the defenceless belly is exposed; so of course they avoid it. (My cats will certainly confirm that.) Incidentally, Elaine Morgan makes a well-thought-out case that this is why sex is so difficult for our species compared to other animals: an approach from the front, for example, is a direct sign of aggression among many primates, and young orang-utan females are often terrified and defensive when approached for mating face-to-face.
Anyway, it seems logical that when the dead were so feared, it should be they who were the demons during sleep paralysis. Indeed, if one person reports that their demon was such-and-such who died last week, and then you saw somebody as well, you and people you tell will probably conclude that it was the same person.
Sometimes the consequences of incorrect conclusions from frightening events can be tragic. Deborah told us about the idea of changelings. It was believed that fairies' children were weak and sickly, and fairy mothers had a habit of swapping their own children for human children and putting the babies they left in disguise. This would presumably account for childhood diseases and other disorders, such as failure to thrive - and perhaps things like autism; who knows? Some parents were told to treat their cuckoo baby well, so that the fairy would bring up their own baby well in return. Others were told dreadful things such as to place the infant on a red-hot shovel and put it in the fireplace in the hope of sending it up the chimney. Tragically, I think she said as late as the nineteenth century a few families still did this - though it was seen as a crime by then.
Deborah also told us about a Malaysian equivalent of the zombie that none of us had heard about: the penanggalang! She is a woman who is not (yet) dead, but who, at night, detaches her head - with entrails still attached - and flies around the village looking to suck blood and the life from babies. The houses' windows do not have glass, and the penanggalan has a tongue like a proboscis to reach the baby with. (They grow plants around the windows to try and catch her. I wonder if they've ever caught any?) Needless to say, Deborah wants a full scale model to display in her office.
Update: The above is a Penanggalang, e-mailed by Deborah just now. Many thanks! It was commissioned for the Unnatural Predators card set and was drawn by Floyd Jones-Hughes.
To the left is a model from a photograph in W. W. Skeat's 'Malay Magic' of 1900. Many thanks for both.
It was a great lecture, after which we took a break and then had an even better questions and answers session. (Incidentally, I got asked by two members of the public what Skeptics in the Pub is exactly - and found it very difficult to define.)
Deborah's father asked the first question, and what a trouble-causer he was being too: "Did an unnatural upbringing contribute to an interest in unnatural predators?" I'm so glad nobody in my family has ever been to any of my talks!! (She first became interested when she got up on a chair to get down one of the few books in her house she wasn't allowed to read, and it was about the dark arts.)
She was asked more questions about folkore, such as werewolves - I asked if the business about garlic and silver and so on was a recent film-maker addition. She said no: for example, garlic is pretty smelly, like the dead, so this was a "like cures like" attitude (good job I wasn't sitting next to anyone I knew or I think they and I would have nudged each other until we'd wet ourselves laughing!); and garlic is also quite a good antibiotic, so it was actually a form of hygiene as best people could do. Someone also asked why people didn't burn the bodies they feared so much; the answer was that very little fuel was usually available, and burning was usually reserved for important people.
Someone asked if she believed that, for example, Africa with its current fashion for witch-hunts, is going through the same episode as Europe went through in medieval times. Deborah said probably yes: many people there won't have much access to education or the scientific method. She also told us that there is a strong correlation between superstition and times of social unrest. For example, she said, there was a great deal when Protestantism took over from Catholicism in the UK: before, the homeless were sent to the monastery to get bread, but afterwards, they were your Christian brother and you had to look after them - "so they went from someone to be pitied to a pain in the arse".
But most of the questions were about sleep paralysis and other personal experience.
There were several questions about sleepwalking. An amusing lady asked what is going on when she suddenly leaps out of bed and says something like "I can't find my little blue pony" and hunts for it for five minutes before gradually waking up. I think we concluded that this was a form of sleepwalking! Another good question was: is it true that you shouldn't wake a sleepwalker? Deborah replied that it's not dangerous, as in it won't hurt them - but it can be a terrific shock. (My mum has never got over the story of a little girl climbing a tall crane in her sleep, and the rescue team having to get her down again without waking her.) Another hand shot up in the air: "As a sleepwalker, I beg you never to wake us up suddenly, it's absolutely terrifying!"
I asked a question which, ten years ago, I'd have found intensely personal and would have left me feeling desperately vulnerable, but which I could now ask as a matter of cheerful scientific curiosity. When I was twelve years old I was finding things very difficult at a rough school, so it was quite a stressful time. As I said earlier, I never had the experience of sleep paralysis (which makes me a little jealous!) - but I certainly did sense the "malevolent presence" a lot at age twelve, and occasionally for the next few years. It was always when I was alone, and it was always right behind me - unless I was in bed, in which case it was always in the darkest places, such as the shadows around the window. It was usually at night, though occasionally would seize me during the day. I was never 100% fooled: deep down I knew it was a lot of nonsense. (I think I was a born skeptic; I had decided by about age 5 that the idea of God was rather implausible.) I remember reading for the first time about mental illness and paranoia in a science textbook when I was 13, and spending the next three years worrying about that. Even so, I might have forgotten the whole business had I not incorporated it all into a story I wrote for a long time a few years after that.
The audience listened with interest and laughed sympathetically when I told them about the worry - although I hope it was clear that I myself found my younger fears funny now! Deborah told me that it did not sound like sleep paralysis, though some of the switches may have gone off in the wrong order - but, crucially, a very powerful experience like that can come back very easily, without the special triggers, and especially in a time of stress. The mind is very creative, after all. Fascinatingly so.
She was asked - to everybody's eager enjoyment! - if she had any tips on inducing a lucid dream. Lucid dreams are closely associated with sleep paralysis, though are not the same thing (for example, you are not conscious in a lucid dream, though you are aware that you are dreaming). She recommended avoiding what she tactfully termed "pharmaceutical help", as that reduces your own control over the situation. She recommended deliberately messing up your sleep patterns: four hours' sleep, then two hours of wakefulness, using your brain, going on the Internet for example (no, the two are not mutually exclusive!) and a cup of coffee. Then lie on your back, as described above for sleep paralysis. And although this sounds initially like woo, it makes a lot of sense: because it's very common to sense a "thing", a presence, or feel something crushing your chest, practice feeling love and acceptance towards it so you don't get frightened. For example, convince yourself that it's your cat or your bunny rabbit. (As it turned out a beautiful tabby cat gave me plenty of practice in putting up with her turning round and round and round and round and round and round on my tummy that very night!) Once you're practiced enough, people assure me, you can do whatever you want in a lucid dream. I shall certainly go on a trip round the Universe, if I ever make it!
After the lecture, while Crispian was putting away the audio equipment, Sean Ellis - @ofquack - popped over to chat with me about the "malevolent presence". He said that it's very commonly felt, which didn't surprise me at all. He also told me that it's been given a name by some - "the shadow people" or something like that. I said I'd Google that, which I must admit I haven't yet; but his remarks on it directly tallied with my experience. For example, he said, it's always right behind your head. I remarked that it probably has an evolutionary basis - if you're under stress in the wild, as our race was for a lot longer than it's been "modern", stress probably means there might be a lot of predators about. "Exactly," said Sean, "if you're wrong, the only problem is you get a bit scared; if it's the other way round, you'd get eaten. So better to have a false positive."
Which has a great deal of significance, if you ask me, for people who believe in unproven medicine!