The status of the old-fashioned ghost story has, within the past ten years, perceptibly changed. Formerly, by the credulous generality of people, it was almost universally accepted without reason and without critical examination. It was looked upon as supernatural, and supernatural things were neither to be doubted nor reasoned about, and there the matter ended.
On the other hand, the more learned and scientific, equally without reason or critical examination, utterly repudiated and scorned all alleged facts and occurrences relating to the subject. "We know what the laws of nature are," they said, "and alleged occurrences which go beyond or contravene these laws are upon their face illusions and frauds." And so, with them also, there the matter ended.
In the meantime, while the irreclaimably superi stitious and credulous on the one hand, and the unco-scientific and conservative on the other, equally without knowledge and equally without reason, have gone on believing and disbelieving, a large number of people - intelligent, inquiring, quick-witted, and reasonable, some scientific and some unscientific - have come to think seriously regarding unusual occurrences and phenomena, either witnessed or experienced by themselves or related by others, and whose reality they could not doubt, although their relations to ordinary conditions of life were mysterious and occult.
In the investigation of these subjects some new and unfamiliar terms have come into more or less common use. We hear of mind-reading, telepathy, hypnotism, clairvoyance, and psychical research, some of which terms still stand for something mysterious, uncanny, perhaps even supernatural, but they have at least excited interest and inquiry. The subjects which they represent have even permeated general literature; the novelist has made use of this widespread interest in occult subjects and has introduced many of the strange and weird features which they present into his department of literature. Some have made use of this new material without knowledge or taste, merely to excite wonder and attract the vulgar, while others use it philosophically, with knowledge and discrimination, for the purpose of educating their readers in a new and important department of knowledge and thought.
Amongst the more scientific, societies have been formed, reports have been read and published, so that in scientific and literary circles as well as among the unlearned the subject has become one of interest.
The object of these papers will be briefly to tell in connection with my own observations, what is known and what is thought by others who have studied the subject carefully, and especially what has been done by the English Society for Psychical Research and kindred societies.
When an expedition is sent out for the purpose of exploring new and unknown regions, it is often necessary to send forward scouts to obtain some general ideas concerning the nature of the country, its conformation, water-courses, inhabitants, and food supplies. The scouts return and report what they have discovered; their reports are listened to with interest, and upon these reports often depend the movements and success of the whole expedition. It will easily be seen how important it is that the scouts should be intelligent, sharp-witted, courageous and truthful; and it will also be evident that the report of these scouts concerning the new and unknown country-is much more valuable than the preconceived opinions of geographers and philosophers, no matter how eminent they may be, who have simply stayed at home, enjoyed their easy-chair, and declared off-hand that the new country was useless and uninhabitable.
The outlying fields of psychology, which are now the subject of psychical research, are comparatively a new and unexplored region, and until within a few years it has been considered a barren and unproductive one, into which it was silly, disreputable, and even dangerous to enter; the region was infested with dream-mongers, spiritualists, clairvoyants, mesmerists, and cranks, and the more vigorously it was shunned the safer would he be who had a reputation of any kind to lose.
Such substantially was the condition of public sentiment, and especially of sentiment in strictly scientific circles, fourteen years ago, when the English Society for Psychical Research came into being. The first movement in the direction of systematic study and exploration in this new field was a preliminary meeting called by Prof. W. F. Barrett, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and a few other gentlemen on Jan. 6,1882, when the formation of such a society was proposed; and in the following month the society was definitely organized and officers were chosen. The first general meeting for business and listening to reports took place July 17th of the same year.
The persons associated in this society were of the most staid and respectable character, noted for solid sense, and a sufficient number of them for practical work were also trained in scientific methods, and were already eminent in special departments of science.
Prof. Henry Sidgwick, Trinity College, Cambridge, was President; Prof. W. F. Barrett, F. R. S. E., Royal College of Science, Dublin, and Prof. Balfour Stewart, F. R. S., Owens College, Manchester, were Vice-Presidents, and among the members were a large number of well-known names of Fellows of various learned and royal societies, professional men, and members of Parliament, altogether giving character to the society, as well as assuring sensible methods in its work. Among the subjects first taken up for examination and, so far as possible, for experimental study, were the following: -
(1) Thought-transference, or an examination into the nature and extent of any influence which may be exerted by one mind upon another, apart from any generally recognized mode of perception or communication.
(2) The study of hypnotism and the forms of so-called mesmeric trance.