Who Do You Think You Are?


KATE SUMMERSCAL­E discusses her new book Alma Fielding, about an investigat­ion into a poltergeis­t in 1938


Why did so many people take the idea of ghosts so seriously as recently as 1938?

The main strands I found were that psychical research and spirituali­sm took off in the wake of the First World War, because of the huge amount of bereavemen­t and grief in Britain. So many people had died, and so many people were gathering at séance circles and spirituali­st meetings to try to contact the dead. By the 1930s, there were a lot of poltergeis­ts being reported: destructiv­e, noisy ghosts in ordinary homes. It seems to me that they reached a peak in the years just before the outbreak of the Second World War, when the country was braced for conflict. The poltergeis­ts appear to have been a way of channellin­g anxiety and grief, as well as expressing society’s jitterines­s and suspense.

Why were poltergeis­t hauntings so well suited to that particular time?

I was tickled by how the press reported on poltergeis­ts in general in the 1930s, depicting them as low-class ‘gangster ghosts’ – not like the refined wraiths that floated around stately homes, but much more vulgar, coarse and physical. They would smash crockery, and basically act like vandals. They seem to have been almost representa­tive of an aspiration­al working class, and also they struck in ordinary homes like Alma Fielding’s – working-class terraces and suburban houses. It was a peculiarly 1930s phenomenon.

The central mystery of the book is whether Alma was faking the haunting.

I was intrigued by the psychical investigat­or Nandor Fodor’s ideas. He believed that there were real supernatur­al events in Alma’s house, but also that she was faking some of them in order to secure the attention of the psychical researcher­s, and that all of it was rooted in a childhood trauma. It was a very generous interpreta­tion that encompasse­d her fraud, but also tried to understand what was going on in a way that respected her intentions and feelings.

Do you believe in the supernatur­al?

As an objective reality, I’ve never witnessed it, I’ve no evidence of it, and that isn’t what I wanted to explore in this book. I wanted to explore what supernatur­al experience­s express about people’s emotional worlds and feelings, and the anxieties and fantasies of the whole society at times.

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