Fortean Categories: Definitions for Classes of Anomalies

amarok2005

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#1
When I got it into my head to write about anomalous phenomena, the problem was where to begin? I decided to start from the ground up, with definitions of what sort of things I'd be writing about.

The first thing Charles Fort would say would be "There can be no definitions, because nothing has ever been defined." Still, I've started looking into the literature, seeing how other writers have classified and defined anomalies. I might add that my definitions are not terse dictionary entries but chatty discussions of what various anomalies are. Well, here are the first few:


MEMORAT. William Montell, in his Ghosts Along the Cumberland, notes that some of the legends he passes on to us are more than folk tales. They are memorats “because they are often first-hand experiences” (p. 14). He further defines memorat as being an account of “supernatural or unnatural creatures and happenings” (p. 219), so an anecdote about doing the laundry or shopping would not count. Therefore a memorat is an account of a paranormal, supernatural, or fortean occurrence actually witnessed by the informant.

I always referred to a person’s story of what happened as a fortean “report”, but some informants, true enough, have to have stories coaxed out of them. I will continue to use the words “report” and “memorat” interchangeably, however.


PHANTASM. Frederic W. H. Myers tries to define the sorts of reports the Society for Psychical Research collected into the monumental 1886 volume Phantasms of the Living. He classes them as apparition reports, but not apparitions of the dead, and he further adds: “And these apparitions, as will be seen, are themselves extremely various in character; including not visual phenomena alone, but auditory, tactile, or even purely ideational and emotional impressions. All these we have included under the term phantasm” (p. ix)

Should we write a book categorizing ghosts, hauntings, and other psychic experiences, we’d probably have examples for a spectrum of definitions, from vague “phantasms” to crisis apparitions to the most over-the-top poltergeists, so it’s good to have a name for our “lowest” category. I always used the word “impression” for these vague phenomena, and I will probably use the terms interchangeably.


SUPERNORMAL. “I have ventured to coin the word ‘supernormal’ to be applied to phenomena which are beyond what usually happens – beyond, that is, in the sense of suggesting unknown psychical laws. It is thus formed on the analogy of abnormal. When we speak of an abnormal phenomenon we do not mean one which contravenes natural laws, but which exhibits them in an unusual or inexplicable form. Similarly, by a supernormal phenomenon, I mean, not one which overrides natural laws, for I believe no such phenomenon to exist, but one which exhibits the actions of laws higher, in a psychical aspect, than are discerned in action in everyday life.” So Frederic Myers explains in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. III, p. 30 (reprinted in Phantasms, p. xvii). Since he was writing of telepathy and other psychic powers, he used the word “psychical”; nowadays we would define “supernormal” as a phenomenon apparently overriding any so-called laws of nature or physics. “Para-“ also means “beyond”, so this definition could work for “paranormal” as well.


WESSEXING. After some philosophical rambling at the beginning of The Book of the Damned, Charles Fort starts throwing accounts of strange falls at the reader: black rains, red rains, giant snow flakes, gelatinous substances, and ever more curious materials. Red rains, in Britain and Europe at least, were blamed on dust drawn up by whirlwinds, which mixed with raindrops in the clouds. A fall of red dust in February 1903 particularly interested Fort due to its immense scope:

Jour. Roy. Met. Soc., 30-56:
"That, up to the 27th of February, this fall had continued in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Austria; that in some instances it was not sand, or that almost all the matter was organic: that a vessel had reported the fall as occurring in the Atlantic Ocean, midway between Southampton and Barbados. The calculation is given that, in England alone, 10,000,000 tons of matter had fallen. It had fallen in Switzerland (Symons’ Met. Mag., March, 1903). It had fallen in Russia (Bull. Com. Geolog., 22-48). Not only had a vast quantity of matter fallen several months before, in Australia, but it was at this time falling in Australia (Victorian Naturalist, June, 1903) – enormously – red mud – fifty tons per square mile."

On April 2, 1903, a Mr. E. G. Clayton read a paper before the Royal Chemical Society concerning a local fall of the red dust. He had examined the substance and suggested that it was “merely wind-borne dust from the roads and lanes of Wessex.” Fort thereupon coined the phrases “the Wessex explanation” and “wessexing”: An attempt to explain away an extremely widespread unusual occurrence by diminishing its size or extent to fit one’s solution, “to interpret the enormous in terms of the minute.” (pp. 33-35)


Fort, Charles Hoy. Complete Books of Charles Fort (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 1974).

Montell, William Lynwood. Ghosts Along the Cumberland: Deathlore in the Kentucky Foothills (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1975).

Myers, Frederick, “Introduction,” in Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred, ed. Phantasms of the Living (New Hyde Park, NY: University Books, 1962).
 

fortist

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#2
SUPERNORMAL. “I have ventured to coin the word ‘supernormal’ to be applied to phenomena which are beyond what usually happens – beyond, that is, in the sense of suggesting unknown psychical laws
This is a problematic definition: of course terms such as "anomalous", "supernatural" and "paranormal" are all parasitic upon our understanding of just what is natural and normal; and this understanding is itself highly contingent. As Fort pointed out, the phenomena he is concerned with are "quite ordinary occurences". They are simply disregarded and ignored - or, in his terms, "damned". In the truest sense, there is nothing "super"-natural or "para"-normal "out there" in the world. So, as Fort says, there is nothing to define. However, whilst we keep within our epistemological categorical systems, which are (by pragmatic necessity) quite narrow, we will have "anomalies". But, in the realest possible sense, there are no such things.

Ian
 

amarok2005

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#4
I have to admit I grew up with definite ideas of what was "normal" and "natural" and what was not, at least from a materialistic/scientific viewpoint. I read mostly science-type books when I was quite young, and I was irritated by fairy tales and cartoons and the like, which described very unlikely events! (I recently attended a showing of the original 101 DALMATIANS, and when Pongo says something to the effect of "If I should live to be one hundred . . .", a boy in the audience carefully explained to his mother that dogs don't live that long. I remembered saying that very same thing at age six or seven!)

So there is the point-of-view factor of what is fortean, anomalous, or what-have-you. A devout Christian who has a vision of an angel might admit it's not an everyday occurence, but it would not be anomalous to him or her. I also re-invent the wheel a bit whenever I write: Did I write a time machine story, I probably would have to explain what a time machine was, and even what time travel was. Thus, did I write a book of forteana, I would probably act as if the reader has never heard of such things. So my definitions (if I come up with more) will be aimed at people unfamiliar (in general or by inclination) with anomalies -- i.e., events considered anomalous to the materialistic/scientific world view.
 

amarok2005

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#5
I think I'll make up a few terms just for my own pleasure. They may not be useful in any scientific or referential fashion; they exist to describe little "quirks" I've noticed in forteana.

DIVING BOARD -- I decided on this term after returning to Phantasms of the Living and reading only a few pages.

Beginning on page 64 of the University Books edition we are told of the psychic adventures of Mrs. Medora C. Adams. One evening, while entertaining visitors at an "at home", she tried to receive impressions from a young man she had never before met. She suggested that he had just sold a parcel of land to a man named O'Brien. This was completely incorrect, but the woman accompanying the man -- also unknown to Mrs. Adams -- said "That is very strange, for I sold a piece of land to-day to a man named O'Brien." On another occasion, as Mrs. Adams and her nephew were watching troops depart (during the Spanish-American war), Mrs. Adams' gaze fell upon "a little woman with a faded shawl over her shoulders." She was suddenly sure the woman was named Smith, and that she had been born in Dumfries, Scotland. Mrs. Adams' nephew accosted the woman and verified the information as true.

We are given other accounts of minor telepathic events in letters from Mrs. Adams and various witnesses. Then, in her own account, just before signing off, Mrs. Adams adds:

"When a girl I was often followed on the street by both men and women who later told me that they could not help it. And once at the theatre I was admiring a lady's gown through my opera glasses. A few moments later the lady in question came to where I was seated and said that she was dominated by an impulse that she could not explain."

And so ends Mrs. Adam's letter. This bizarre aside left me hanging. Did she possess some Pied-Piperish ability to control people? If she concentrated, could she have forced them to do more complicated things against their will? In a comic book story, she might have gone on the conquer the world!

(Can you imagine what would happen today if a man followed a little girl all over town for no apparent reason? "Honest, Officer, some strange force is dragging me after that little girl." "Right! Off we go, you perv!")

It just seemed like this statement could have led to a whole new line of inquiry for the SPR. Instead they move on to some story about a housekeeper losing a latchkey. Mrs. Adams' claim just hangs there like a diving board over a pool.

Several pages along in Phantasms we come to a case listed as "transferred emotion" (what is nowadays called empathy rather than telepathy). One Donald Hutchinson of Lowestoft wrote in, stating that he had been invited to see the Observatory at Cambridge on Saturday, October 14, 1911. On that Friday Mr. Hutchinson had the sudden intense feeling that some disaster would take place, and he took out insurance on himself. This feeling appeared late in the day, and he had some trouble getting the matter taken care of, but he was insistent. This was despite the fact that he had motored all over England and Scotland for ten years without ever having an accident, and that he had never felt any need for insurance before.

To prepare for his long journey, Mr. Hutchinson rose at 4:15 AM to dress. Soon he heard his six-year-old son crying for him upstairs ("it was a most unusual thing for the boy to wake up at that hour of the morning"). Hutchinson climbed to the boy's room, and the boy threw his arms around his neck, begging him not to undertake the journey. Hutchinson writes that he carefully kept his anxiety over the trip to himself, and that his son had not been told "anything very much about" the affair.

Hutchinson could not comfort the boy, so he took him down to his wife as he finished dressing. The boy fell asleep again after Hutchinson left.

And that's it. Once again we are left hanging, as if at the edge of a diving board, waiting to hear of a horrible accident. PotL notes that the story is presented for the boy's empathy, but that it reads like many of their premonition tales -- except nothing happened.

Three or four pages after this letters from a woman called "E.M." are printed. On February 3, 1889, E.M. woke with the conviction that a man she knew in America was mailing her a marriage proposal. She was thoroughly convinced of this despite the fact that she believed him to be engaged at the time. Indeed, on Feb. 13 she received a letter from him stating that he had decided to marry an American woman (E.M. had turned down his proposal the previous autumn).

On the 15th, as E.M. expected, a letter arrived asking for her hand in marriage. Her correspondent could not bring himself to propose to the other woman. The letter had been written about the time E.M. woke with her impression on the 3rd.

A minor account of an apparent psychic influence, all well and good. E.M. goes on to say that she has, in fact, never had a dream that did not come true -- except one that recurred about once a year:

"I wake up dreaming that a man with red hair and a red beard is leaning over my bed with a knife in his hand. Sometimes he has hold of my shoulder. For some minutes after I am awake I still seem to see and feel him, his hot breath coming on my face . . . It is always the same face, and I cannot -- since I first had the dream about six years ago -- conquer my horror of red-headed men . . . I have tried moving my bed to another part of the room, but the dream still comes."

And that's all. Would you have been surprised if a postscript stated that E.M. had been murdered recently by a man with a red beard? Well -- we never find out. Hopefully not, but again I felt like I'd come abruptly to the edge of a diving board.
 
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