“Harry Price: Ghost Hunter” (TV movie, reviewed)

Harry Price (1881-1948) was unquestionably the premiere paranormal investigator of early-mid 20th century England.  This excellent website devoted to his career and legacy should be required reading for anyone interested in the ghost racket.

This 2015 ITV telemovie is very loosely based on Neil Spring’s HP-inspired novel, The Ghost Hunters (2013). In effect, being filtered through two different fictional media, the detail of the movie’s plot admits only a little historical accuracy; but of course, as a work of fiction it makes no claim of documentary realism and can only be fairly judged on its own merits.

The story opens with HP (Rafe Spall) conducting a dramatic seance at a home in London during, or very shortly after, the First World War.  As it then transpires, Price has gimmicked the sitting for maximum spooky effect.  Clearly, he is riding high as a ghost racketeer – until, shockingly, a disturbed young soldier who has bought into Price’s line of afterlife patter commits suicide right in front of him.

(Cut to the opening titles, a nice montage of the tools of the ghost-hunter’s trade – ’20s-vintage cameras, phonographs, metronomes and other such apparatus.)

Several years later, a sadder and wiser Harry Price has changed tack and is making his living as an investigator of seemingly paranormal phenomena, with the cloud of his former charlatanry hanging heavily about him.  He is hired to investigate the strange case of Grace Goodwin (Zoe Boyle), the young wife of fast-rising Liberal MP Edward Goodwin (Tom Ward); Grace has recently been discovered wandering the streets of London, naked and disoriented, and seems to be suffering from a case of ghostly possession.

Price visits the couple’s home and quickly learns that it is a former workhouse.  Sarah Goodwin’s strange visions seem to revolve around the ghost of a young boy who died there many years before.

HP is assigned the couple’s maid, Sarah Grey (Cara Theobold) as an assistant and discovers her to be a natural skeptic and a shrewd detective in her own right.  Sarah has her own reason to distrust psychic mediums; her mother is a seance groupie, spending money they can’t afford in a series of attempts to contact her late husband.  The point is effectively made that mediums, for all their frequent chicanery, were often the closest thing to therapists available to ordinary people during the early 20th century.

In an interlude from the main action, Price disrupts and debunks one of these public seances, for all the good it does; the true believers in the audience boo him off the stage and then the angry psychic strikes a nerve in aggressively cold reading Harry backstage, provoking Harry to knock him down.  Eventually, we gather that Harry’s wife was sadly lost to insanity and that Harry seems to blame himself for not being able to help her.

Harry and Sarah proceed to puzzle out clues and mysteries towards discovering the real source of Mrs. Goodwin’s bizarre behaviour, calling upon the additional help of two of HP’s associates as the case becomes ever more convoluted.

Albert Ogoro (Richie Campbell) is a chemist by day and faux-voodoo witch-doctor by night.  His main function in the story, other than to provide chemical analysis, is to illustrate another perspective on the ethics of the ghost racket.  From Albert’s point of view, his clients are in such desperate straits that, if his sham-shamanism offers them some comfort, what’s the harm?  He applies that logic in “assisting” Harry during a late-night vigil at the Goodwin home, but in this case his trickery (in the form of a rather implausible mechanical spider device secreted inside a grand piano) does no particular good.

Vernon Wall (Lewis Reeves), a hard-nosed young reporter who clearly has some unresolved “history” with Harry, nevertheless also agrees to help and tracks down a former secret lover of Mrs. Goodwin’s, whose presence in the Goodwins’ lives seems to have sparked the current dire situation. As it transpires, the politician is insanely possessive of his wife and, upon discovering her infidelity (and that she was pregnant with another man’s baby), he began secretly dosing her with home-brewed barbiturates, causing her to miscarry and then suffer terrifying hallucinations as she withdrew from the drug.

Goodwin reacts violently when Sarah confronts him with the truth and knocks her unconscious.  Very curiously, as she comes to, she seems to see the same ghostly young boy who has been haunting Grace Goodwin.  Charitably, it might be assumed that Sarah is now so deeply involved with the case that her imagination conjured a spectral child; less charitably, this vision reads as an incongruous “maybe it’s all true after all” cop-out on behalf of the writer.  There’s no time to worry about that, though, as Mr. Goodwin has gone berserk and is attempting to drown his wife in the bath tub – but Harry Price arrives in the nick of time and saves the day.

The story ends with Harry inviting Sarah, who is now out of a job, to become his full-time assistant.  She says she’ll think about it – leaving the way open for their adventures to be continued in some form, perhaps as a regular series …


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Seven ibangs out of ten for this effective, atmospheric and well-acted ghost-hunter procedural.

The Folklorist: The Cottingley Fairies

The Folklorist presents this accurate and very nicely produced mini-documentary on the famous Cottingley fairy hoax, including re-enactments of Frances and Elsie staging the photographs with their cut-out paper fairy pictures.  The winking “maybe it was true after all” tag at the end grates a bit given the nature and history of the Cottingley case, though arguably it’s very much in the spirit of things given that Frances never completely came clean.

Derren Brown Demonstrates “Table Turning”

Mentalist, illusionist and arch-skeptic Derren Brown here provides a spectacular display of the ideomotor phenomenon, whereby imagination and expectation influence subconscious muscular action.

Prepped by Brown’s dramatic stage management, his “subjects” begin to inadvertently and unevenly apply pressure to the table-top, causing it to shift and rock.  As their emotional excitement at this seemingly supernatural phenomenon increases, and as they are exhorted to “follow” the table’s movements, their efforts become more cohesive while remaining involuntary, guiding the table around the floor in accordance with Brown’s subtle cues.

Almost identical “tests” were carried out in numerous 19th and early 20th century seance parlors, with the table’s apparently paranormal movement being taken as physical evidence of the presence of otherworldly spirits.

“Fairy Tale: A True Story” (review)

This is what really happened; in 1917, and again in 1920, two rural English schoolgirl cousins went into the local woods and took photographs of paper cutouts shaped like fairies. All historical evidence suggests that the girls intended nothing more than a simple, silly prank, which then spiraled out of their control. As one of them said, much later in life, “I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun. I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in – they wanted to be taken in.”

“They” were the True Believers; Theosophists and Spiritualists, wonder-seekers championed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who took the Cottingley fairy photographs as clear proof of the existence of the supernatural. To a nation reeling from the devastation of the First World War, the photographs offered a glimmer of hope “beyond the veil”; if fairies were real, then perhaps death did not equal the extinction of identity.

Fairy Tale: A True Story is a clever, subtle and deeply compassionate examination of the nature of faith and skepticism during this very turbulent time. Each major character has his or her own perspective on the fairies. To Sir Arthur, for example, they represent the possibility of life beyond death and the vindication of his own father, who spent many years confined in a “lunatic asylum” and who frequently painted and wrote of seeing fairies.

To arch-skeptic Harry Houdini, who fought hard to expose the exploitation of the bereaved by fraudulent mediums, they represent a clever magic trick; an ultimately harmless and charming illusion.

Gardner, the Theosophist, comes up with increasingly far-fetched, pseudo-scientific theories about the fairies’ true natures.

To the comically nasty and cynical reporter, Mr. Ferret – who is, other than Houdini, the only adult who figures out how the photographs were actually produced – the fairies are a juicy story, perhaps part of a conspiracy orchestrated by Sir Arthur.

Several charming sequences show actual fairies flitting about, the director wisely leaving it ambiguous as to whether these scenes are intended to be taken literally, or more in the poetic spirit of Peter Pan’s urgent plea to “clap if you believe in fairies!”

It is also implied that the girls themselves come to realize the power of their own myth-making, as when they are shown making a solemn “vow of fairy secrecy”, which can either be interpreted as a promise not to reveal the magical secrets of real fairies, or as a promise not to reveal the simple trickery that has accidentally deceived the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and so many others. At several points, when they are asked point-blank “are the fairies real?” by people for whom belief in fairies is clearly of great emotional importance, they exchange knowing looks before kindly nodding their heads.


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Nine ibangs out of ten for this underrated modern classic.

Madame Alberti’s Science of Flight (1931)

Madame Alberti's science of flight

On a crisp April morning in 1931, a sturdy, middle-aged woman strode purposefully up a hillock overlooking the Spot Pond reservoir outside Boston, MA. Judging the wind conditions and checking that the newsreel cameras were rolling, Madame Helene Alberti adjusted her wings and prepared to launch herself skyward.

Born in Chicago in 1874, Madame Alberti had enjoyed some success as an opera singer and, occasionally, as a burlesque queen, at the turn of the 20th century. By the late 1920s, her singing career well behind her, she had developed a passion for rediscovering the “ancient Greek laws of cosmic motion”. This was a system of metaphysical culture that, she fervently believed, would ultimately allow humans to run tirelessly, lift tremendous weights and even fly like birds. If her latest experiments bore fruit, she planned to establish a school for instruction in her system.

As she explained to a Boston Herald reporter, “cosmic motion” was predicated on several key principles. First was the concept of “engines”; major nerve ganglia in certain parts of the body, most importantly the abdomen, the solar plexus and the base of the spine. These were engines in the sense that they generated energy to produce movement. To extend the analogy, the “ignition key” was the exertion of willpower, because, Madame Alberti reasoned, these nerve centers are connected to the brain and can thus be controlled by the mind.

The second major principle involved the understanding that atoms, including, obviously, those that made up the human body, were largely empty space. As Madame Alberti described it, quoting Dr. Arthur A. Noyes:

Under the atomic theory of the structure of all substances, atoms are mostly holes. They are made of positive and negative charges of electricity, and the number grouping the weight of the charges, determine whether the atoms are the helium, which lifts the dirigible Los Angeles, or tin, or something else.’

As further proof that this theory has sound basis, Dr. Noyes points out that the whole structure of modern chemistry, which is creating articles by synthetic processes, has been erected upon it. Illustrating the emptiness of an atom, he said that if an atom of helium were to be magnified so that its centre or nucleus could be teed up on a golf course, the electrons which compose the remainder of the atom and which are supposed to revolve around it, would be on the green 200 yards away. In between would be tremendous forces of attraction and locked-up energy, which, however, are no more tangible than empty space.

Searing in mind, then, these tunnels or spaces between the molecules of the body, you can with the right thought contract the body to a state of solidity, and with relaxation expand it to a state or feeling of thin air without weight. You can take possession of your own body and make it obey your will.

Centralize your thought. Relax the whole outer body — wear it as a garment. Now, from that center begin to move, letting the force within you raise you up; feel yourself filled with energy. Now let it out slowly in rhythm; again, sideways, expanding the universal laws of forces around, above, beneath, and on either side of you.

The bodily motion of human flight was not, as some people conceived it, that of flapping the arms with wings attached to them, but of rhythmically rocking the torso back and forth. This would not be a purely muscular effort; the “engine” in the chest would pull the body forward and the one at the base of the spine would draw it back, and so on, ad infinitum. Put on wings – constructed to aeronautical principles – turn on the motive power, and up you go, just like an airplane or a bird.

Madame Alberti had, in fact, tested a set of wings as early as 1929. She and a young female assistant had made their way to Spot Pond early in the morning, before any curious bystanders might be about. Unfortunately, a strong wind had been blowing that day and their experimental wings, which had not been constructed in accordance with the latest aeronautical standards, eventually collapsed in the gale. Madame Alberti reported that she had, however, felt appreciably lighter while running with the wings, which was surely a sign that she was on the right track:

I have proved to my own satisfaction that these old Greek laws of motion, once understood, can be made to work today. I believe they can be made to hold practical value for us. That is what I am trying to demonstrate. If they have no practical value, they are no good.

I firmly believe the day is not far distant when we will be able to entrust our bodies to the air in the same manner and in the same degree of safety as the swimmer yields his body to the water, breasting the air currents with the same confidence as he does the tides. And I have solid reason for my belief in the actual accomplishment of a runner under my training, who has, when going at a great speed, run a few paces in the air without his feet touching the ground.

I am not speaking boastfully, but in my teaching I have yet to find a man as strong as myself or who can do some of the things I can do now, for I am stronger today than ever in my life before. I can walk farther, lift heavier weights, and I have more endurance than when I was 20 or even 30 years old. By using the inner force from the Center, I can push over a whole line of people. So can anyone if he will make use of that inner force in moving around instead of using the outside of the body only.

Undeterred by the merely mechanical failure of her home-made wings, Madame Alberti approached an elderly gentleman by the name of Sanders, who was a resident at the Odd Fellow Home in Concord, New Hampshire. Mr. Sanders eventually constructed a truly robust set of wings made out of spars of ash wood, covered with a strong cotton duck fabric and securely attached to a body harness.

Madame Alberti's science of flight

All was now in readiness, and so, accompanied by several somewhat bemused but obviously affectionate young assistants, a newsreel team and photographers, Madame Alberti again set out to prove her theories.

The newsreel copywriters were unkind:


BROOKLINE, MASS. – Mme. Helene Alberti, concert singer of Boston, turns from her thrushlike warbling to another phase of avian endeavor – soaring by arm power. Using hills of estate as testing ground, she and male pupil spring gaily into the air, flutter canvas propellers assiduously and go into nose dives promptly.

Sadly, it seems as if Madame Alberti’s system did not survive this ridicule, although perhaps it would be nice to think that it simply went underground. In any case, she lived a long life, passing away peacefully in 1962, at the respectable age of 88 years.

Madame Alberti's science of flight

Note – an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog.  It is re-used here by permission.