In January 2017 I visited the Society for Psychical Research archive in Cambridge to look up some references to the ghost hunter Nandor Fodor, a Hungarian emigré who had been a pioneer of supernatural study in London between the wars. I wanted to know more about Fodor’s investigation of a housewife called Alma Fielding, a poltergeist case from which he deduced, to the horror of his colleagues, that repressed traumatic experiences could generate terrifying physical events.
I had seen several references to Fodor in the catalogue to the SPR archive, but I didn’t expect to find anything directly relevant in its files: he had investigated Alma for a rival organisation, the International Institute for Psychical Research, whose papers were said to have been destroyed by German bombs. But when the documents were delivered to the university library’s manuscripts room, I discovered that they were Fodor’s original International Institute papers. The SPR must have acquired the smaller organisation’s archive when it was disbanded in the 1940s. To my delight, one of the files turned out to be Fodor’s dossier on Alma, mistakenly catalogued as a holding on ‘Mr’ Fielding. The manila folder contained the documents that the Institute had confiscated when it expelled Fodor in the autumn of 1938: transcripts of Alma’s seances and of his interviews with her, lab reports, X-rays, copies of her contracts, scribbled notes, sketches, photographs of the damage wrought by her poltergeist in her house and on her body. The pages were dense with facts and figures: measurements, times, dates, weights. This fat folder of evidence seemed a wonderful object: a documentary account of fictional and magical events, a historical record of the imagination. I hoped it would explain the radical link that Fodor had made between suffering and the supernatural.
In the taxi from Cambridge railway station to the library the next day, my driver asked me what I was researching. I told him that I was studying psychical material from the 1930s. Was I an expert? he asked. No, I replied, I was new to it. He told me that, as it happened, psychical research was his speciality. He had read widely in the subject and had become pretty good at the clairvoyant skill of ‘remote viewing’. Sometimes he annoyed his girlfriend by calling her at work and telling her what she was doing, or which sandwiches she had chosen for lunch. I asked the driver when this started. He said that his great-grandmother had been a medium. He said that I wouldn’t believe the things that he had seen in the spirit world: dragons, monsters – everything that I had read about in stories. We drew up outside the library and he turned in his seat to face me.
‘In fact I’ve got one with me right now,’ he smiled, ‘hanging round my neck.’ It was an amphisbaena, he said, a two-headed snake. According to Greek myth, the amphisbaena is the spawn of blood dripped from the Medusa’s head. It feeds on corpses and its two mouths spew poison.
Why’s it there? I asked, looking at the cab driver’s bare neck and laughing a little uneasily. Protection? ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Healing.’
THE GHOST HUNTER
‘Nowadays, we find that nearly everything comes from within – from our subconscious self’
Agatha Christie, ‘The Red Signal’ (1933)
The crack in the teacup
At his office in South Kensington on Monday 21 February 1938, Nandor Fodor opened a letter from an East End clergyman of his acquaintance. The Reverend Francis Nicolle wanted to alert him to a poltergeist attack in the suburb of Thornton Heath, just south of London, which had been the subject of a report in that weekend’s Sunday Pictorial.
‘I wonder whether you have seen it?’ wrote Nicolle. ‘Unfortunately the actual address is not given.’ The minister thought that the haunting sounded even more remarkable than a similar case in east London that he had helped Fodor to investigate that month.
Fodor, a Jewish-Hungarian journalist, had for four years been chief ghost hunter at the International Institute for Psychical Research. He loved his job, which required him to investigate and verify weird events, but the spiritualist press had recently turned against him. The bestselling weekly Psychic News accused him of being cynical about the supernatural and unkind to mediums, charges that were so damaging to his reputation as a psychical researcher – and his future in England – that in January he had sued for libel. He was now desperate to prove his sincerity and his aptitude: he needed to find a ghost.
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