Books about fortean phenomena tend either to examine the study from the cold, dispassionate distance of the sociologist, or from the blinkered, tunnel-visioned insider’s perspective of the believer or sceptic. It’s rare for an author to take the position of what we could call Schrödinger’s Fortean, in which one can study the field simultaneously from within and without, thus gaining an intimate understanding of the unusual, often bizarre dynamics of our chosen arena while also being aware of its relationship to the wider culture.
In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, George Hansen manages to do this admirably, and with enough gusto and enthusiasm to carry the reader through 400 pages that encompass trickster mythology, all manner of paranormal phenomena and their attendant personalities, sociology, anthropology, folklore, semiotics, even literary theory. It’s a bumpy, disorientating ride at times, and Hansen’s conclusions remain open to multiple interpretations, all of them sure to be as refreshing and controversial to the hard-nosed skeptic as they are to the literalist believer. Naturally it’s an essential read for the serious fortean, and one that could just revolutionise the way you think about the phenomena that so fascinate us.
Tell us something about your background and how you came to write your book.
I was employed full time in parapsychology laboratories for eight years -- three in Durham, North Carolina and five in Princeton, New Jersey. Early on, I met Marcello Truzzi, a founder and cochairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal (CSICOP). He resigned from the Committee a year after it began and then started the journal Zetetic Scholar. Marcello was a sociologist and also a magician. He stimulated my interest in skeptic-vs-proponent debates and in the topic of conjurors in psychical research.
My published papers in the refereed parapsychology journals cover experimental work, mathematical statistics, methodology, controls against fraud, and field research on ghosts. Most of the funding for the laboratory work was provided by private sources, but a small portion came from a U.S. intelligence agency. All the research I was involved in was open, that is, unclassified, though at least some was monitored by intelligence personnel.
During the late 1980s I became interested in the UFO phenomenon, and as I studied it, I began to see the extensive overlap between the U.S. government's UFO and remote viewing programs.
Both UFO and psychic phenomena are frequently enmeshed in a matrix of trickery and deception. At some point I knew that a theoretical understanding of this conjunction should be developed, so I began collecting material on the trickster figure of mythology.
In 1993 I read about the concepts of liminality and anti-structure in anthropology, and many ideas immediately clicked into place. I spent the next eight years researching and writing the book.
You accuse parapsychology and ufology – as movements – of ignoring issues of trickery and deception in their fields of research. What has the response from the "paranormal" community been to your book? I can imagine that the nuts 'n' bolts ufologists and abductionists were not best pleased! How about the parapsychological research community?
The nuts-and-bolts ufologists who head the major U.S. UFO organizations are a bunch of old white guys. They simply don't understand alternative perspectives. On the other hand, the members, who subscribe to UFO magazines and attend conventions, are typically much more open to paranormal approaches. For instance, our local UFO group in New Jersey has regular presentations by ghost researchers.
Only one major parapsychology journal has reviewed my book so far, and that was favorable. I don't expect too many parapsychologists to understand much of the book. Many are trained as psychologists or physicists, and that training often hinders thinking about larger issues. Also, the parapsychology research community in the U.S. is rapidly aging. I'm not particularly popular for some of my ideas, and I've been suspected of being a CSICOP spy, which, I'm sure, CSICOP would find hilarious! I hope to find a more receptive audience with younger researchers and newcomers.
You discuss the case of folklorist Barre Toelken, whose deep studies of American Coyote trickster mythology brought numerous incidents of high strangeness into his life. Has your research into these areas induced any strangeness in your own life?
As I was doing the research, I became dimly aware of similar ideas concurrently developed in independent, disparate fields. After the book was written, my awareness grew. But the synchrony was not limited to ideas. For instance, the years 1908-1916 and 1964-1968 were periods of pandemic UFO waves. I didn't know that until after my book was published and I happened to read a masters thesis on UFOs by NASA administrator Diana Hoyt.
Jacque Vallee and John Keel were doing some of their most innovative work during the later interval. The 1960s culminated in the 1969 publication of Vallee's Passport to Magonia, Charles Tart's Altered States of Consciousness, Victor Turner's The Ritual Process, and Edmund Leach's Genesis as Myth, and Other Essays. Those fertile intellectual periods coincided with UFO waves!
What do you think can be done to raise the reputation and visibility of parapsychology today? It strikes me that, certainly in this country, there are plenty of keen, youthful students but not enough facilities to cater for them.
Those who wish to take a pro-psi position and achieve a respectable status in academe should not attemp to directly engage psi phenomena in the field or laboratory. Collecting reports after the fact and studying belief are much safer strategies. Ian Stevenson and Bruce Greyson use this method at the University of Virginia. Their research program is about the only one that has been academically institutionalized effectively in the U.S.
As part of your discussion of government disinformation, you raise suspicions about the closing of the government's remote viewing project. Given the miniscule - for a military programme - amounts of money, and the apparent levels of success that the programme achieved in its heyday, it seems incredibly unlikely that they would abandon the project completely. Are you aware of "freelance" remote viewers still doing government and military work. I know that Prudence Calabrese, with whom I took some RV lessons, claims to have been approached by the FBI post 9/11.
You say that you took lessons from Prudence Calabrese. Did she teach you how to taste Bill Clinton's penis?
Oh yes, on her web site she boasts of teaching people to do just that. She also trains women to have orgasms with remote viewing.
Have you ever tried to approach Richard Doty to discuss his role in forming the vast UFO culture in the late '80s and early '90s. Do you know of anyone who has? He must either be rather pleased with himself, or deeply distressed by the Pandora's Box that he unleashed on the world - or unleashed itself, using him as a medium!
I did contact AFOSI Colonels Richard L. Weaver and Barry Hennessey who were aware of Doty's UFO activities. In fact, the CIA confronted them both about Doty. I don't think it was an accident that Weaver was later selected to oversee the infamous Air Force report on Roswell, which cleverly sidestepped Doty's contributions to the Roswell myth.
Is Western culture, if such a monolithic concept can be said to exist, in any danger of absolute disenchantment, or is the trickster too strong a force to be reckoned with?
For instance, mainline Protestant theologians today find questions about the reality of miracles to be extremely embarrassing. They have little comprehension of the supernatural, and their churches are in steep decline. On the other hand, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity accept miracles, and those denominations are flourishing in the U.S.
A variety of forces assure that absolute disenchantment does not occur, though the long-term trend is in that general direction.
You discuss "bounded" (psi experimentation, mediumship, ritual magic etc, where people actively seek to engage with anomalous phenomena) and "unbounded" (spontaneous) paranormal experiences. You have worked in parapsychology for many years - have you experimented with other forms of bounded instigation of the paranormal, or induced marginality? In your experience is it common for parapsychologists to experiment with, for example, ritual magic? I'm aware of a fascinating nexus of people experimenting in these areas, particularly in the '70s, many of them very well known in other fields like the "father" of ufology J Allen Hynek, for instance.
It's my impression that in the last couple decades neo-pagans and others involved with ritual magic have strived for acceptance and respectability. This has been accompanied by a downplaying of the efficacy of magical ritual, sometimes demeaning it with psychological explanations.
As new religions work to become respectable and integrate themselves with the secular world, the divine intrudes less and less. John Wesley had some understanding of this dynamic, and in fact, Max Weber drew upon Wesley in formulating his ideas in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
What about the trickster within the political arena? It strikes me that politics and politicians fit all the descriptions for trickster figures while, paradoxically, operating deeply within, even controlling, the bureaucratic structure of society. Some also utilise charismatic authority, complicating matters even further. Do you think that having such complex figures running a country gives more power to trickster-reality? Could it be that such people, unconsciously are keeping the forces of rationality at bay by constantly destabilising international relationships and generating periods of global uncertainty when the trickster can ride again!
Trickster concepts can illuminate the hostilities between Islam and the West. The U.S. is the superpower, whereas Iraq and the Taliban are underdogs, and thus they will display trickster qualities.
Trickster analyses could be extensively applied in these situations.
You mention the fascinating idea that the conscious mind might actively seek to limit psi function as a form of defence against an information overload effect that might lead to destructive and unbridled paranoia. If we are constantly swimming in a sea of destructuring "idea-plasms" and thought energy, might such controls be essential in a society such as ours? If this is the case, do you think that this is something that might have evolved species-wide over time? And would you say it is dangerous to try to encourage one's own psychical abilities?
You asked if it's dangerous to encourage development of psychic abilities. There are side effects of strongly functioning psi, and most laboratory researchers want to deny them. The instabilities in the lives of government-trained remote viewers should be cause for concern. Their training and implementation of RV was quite intense. Most people casually trying to develop their abilities don't become so heavily involved, and the risks are less for them. Like most things, it's a matter of degree.
The Trickster and the Paranormal is available from www.xlibris.com and the usual online booksellers.