While a lot of people investigate and go looking for paranormal activity, what if you could create it yourself using only the power of your mind? In 1972, a group of Canadian parapsychologists set out to do just that. Their aim was to ‘create’ a ghost to prove that the human mind could conjure a spirit through expectation, imagination, and visualization. There was even a movie made inspired by this case called 'The Quiet Ones'.
The experiment was led by a world-renowned self-proclaimed expert on poltergeists, Dr. A.R.G Owen. His goal was very simple. Create a group of people (none of which were mediums or sensitive to the paranormal) and have them use their collective thought to see if they could conjure a ghost to appear. The Philip Experiment was born.
The first phase of the experiment was to create a fictional character who would become the ghost. In order to do this, a backstory needed to be created. Dr. Owen came up with the name Philip Aylesford and gave him a very tragic backstory which keeping in line with a lot of ghost stories, ended with a sad and tragic death.
“It was essential to their purpose that Philip be a totally fictious character. Not merely a figment of the imagination but clearly and obviously so, with a biography full of historical errors”
Dr A.R.G Owen - Conjuring up Philip: An Adventure In Psychokinesis by Iris M Owen (1976)
The story they created says that Philip was an Englishman from the 1600s. He was a supporter of the King and of Catholic religion which was very common for that period in time. He married the daughter of his neighbour who was a very attractive woman but had a very cold and frigid personality called Dorothea. One day Philip went out riding his horse. Near the boundary of his property, he came across a Gypsy campsite. He met a beautiful Gypsy girl with dark enchanting eyes. Her name was Margo and it was love at first sight. He secretly brought her back to live in the gatehouse near the stables of Diddington Manor which was the home he shared with his wife.
Philip was a pretty happy guy. He had his cake and was eating it too! His wife Dorothea may have been beautiful, but she also was not stupid. She worked out that there was someone else living on the property. She found and confronted Margo (the Gypsy mistress) and accused her of witchcraft and stealing her husband. Remember back in those days any sort of 'sin' was considered to be a spell of seduction cast by a woman and treated as witchcraft. Keeping with this theme, she was put to trial. Philip was too scared to defend his beloved Margo at the trial and speak the truth as he feared losing his possessions and damaging his reputation. Margo was then found guilty of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Not long after the trial, Philip was overcome with remorse. Unable to forgive himself, each day he would pace up and down along the battlements of his castle in despair. One day, Philip's body was found at the bottom of the battlements where he had thrown himself in an act to forever rid himself of the guilt he carried.
The story itself is a summary based on the extract created by a participant of the experiment named Sue who was a former Nurser for the Canadian armed forces. The next step of the experiment was to choose the people to make Philip’s story come to life. As I mentioned before, it was important to the experiment that ‘everyday’ people were used for the experiment. One could potentially argue that having a medium for example could be either an unfair advantage or perhaps they could even be attracting activity just by sitting in on the experiment. There were a total of 8 participants who were a part of this conjuring experiment. Sue was a part of it of course, as was Iris M Owen who was the wife of Dr. A.R.G Owen. She would go onto author the book - Conjuring up Philip: An Adventure In Psychokinesis by Iris M Owen (1976) which is where the majority of the information from this experiment was gathered across the many publications and websites where you will read about this story. Al and Lorne were both Engineers, a student called Sidney, Lorne’s wife Andy, housewife Dorothy and accountant Bernice. It wasn’t their careers however that defined them. They had interests from philosophy through to astronomy making the group quite diverse. The group was overseen by Dr A.R.G Owen and Dr. Joel Whitton – a psychologist. Margaret Sparrow a former chairperson of MENSA was also involved in the project.
Initially, the group put together to conjure Philip would meet on a regular basis in an informal setting. They would sit around, with the lights on and talk about Philip. They had his picture and notes about his life and talked about him. They used his picture and focused on it. They used meditation techniques and tried to imagine Philip in their mind to see if they could make him 'appear. They tried this for a full year starting in September 1972. This brought no results apart from a couple of members saying they felt his presence around them.
After reading the work of psychologist Kenneth J. Barcheldor which discussed the 19th-century séance type settings, Iris M Owen thought this approach could help. It was thought at the time that some of the group were having a difficult time meditating on Philip knowing that he didn’t in fact exist.
Each member proceeded to bring in a trigger object of an item that they thought Philip might have liked. They brought in pictures of the castle and imagined that this was the Castle that Philip might have lived in. They sang songs that they thought Philip may relate to, the most notable being '99 Bottles of Beer'. One of the most important changes they felt was successful in the experiment was that they duplicated what would be a typical ‘séance’ atmosphere, dimmed some lights, lit some candles, and called upon Philip to come forward. It seemed this new method worked. Whilst Philip did not come forward as a full-bodied apparition that they could see, what they did receive appeared to be intelligent knocking responses (known as rapping) on the seance table they were using.
The first time it happened, it was more like a vibration on the table. When one of the group members questioned if maybe it was Philip, they received a knock to indicate he was there. They then established and asked Philip to use the one knock for yes and twice for no method. So how did they know it was Philip responding to them and their questions? Their evidence was that they asked 'Is this Philip?' and received one knock meaning yes.
After the initial contact, it seemed with every session, Philip's communication became stronger. They felt they learned a lot about Philip from his knocking responses. What they found to be interesting was that Philip did not seem to know the questions to answers that they did not know - which convinced them that it was indeed Philip they had conjured from their collective consciousness. Simply put, if they didn't know the answer, Philip wouldn't either. As Philip became stronger, he was able to start moving the table and was apparently capable of levitating the table. Sitters reported seeing a mist over the table that they would see move across the room when someone entered the room as if it was greeting them. He was also capable of dimming the lights on command. In order to 'prove' this to the world, there was a final seance held in front of a live audience of 50 people and a documentary was broadcast on National television. Supposedly the table levitated during this session but it was not caught on camera. Here is a link to the video.
The experiment itself has been heavily criticized for relying on spiritualist techniques that can be manipulated by a person such as table rapping and table-turning. Dr. Owen however, felt it was a success. So much so that more experiments followed. A new group of sitters and new fictional characters were created. There was Lilith a French Canadian spy, Sebastian a medieval alchemist, and Axel a time traveler from the future. All were successful in their minds. What is worth noting, in these experiments is that they did not work on the first try. It took 5 weeks for Lilith to come forward. Perhaps it really did work. Let's not forget the group of sitters were not just your average person that was interested in the paranormal. They were parapsychologists who look for the rational. They experienced things they claimed they could not explain. They thought it worked so well to the extent that they recreated this experiment several times. When I talk to investigators about the experiment, pretty much everyone I have spoken to has said there is some merit to it. When they have tried elements of this experiment during an investigation out on the field, they have had results. While it is not to the detail of the above, they seemingly were able to get it to work within a night. It doesn't work every single time of course, but when it does work, it has them scratching their heads with excitement.
I have a couple of theories here as well as possible alternatives that I think are worth exploring. I'm not saying it didn't work or that it doesn't work, but as an investigator, we have to look at other possibilities as well. I have tried this experiment as well as others that are inspired by or based on the concept of this experiment. All of them work on the pretense that a group of people together, can get something to happen by merely concentrating and using the power of their minds. In doing this, one would have to recognize how much the power of suggestion could also influence this experiment. Depending on the tools you are using to measure the experiment let's look at the Philip experiment as an example. Table rapping or knocks were used to determine the answer to yes or no questions. Apart from the fact that it is of course possible that someone could have been faking the knocks (as an investigator it is something we have to acknowledge when we are not there to witness it) any sound or knock could be incorrectly interpreted as a response from 'Philip'. Investing so much time, energy, heart, and soul into a project, you obviously believe in it that much that you want it to work. Did they want it to work so badly that every sound, every cold breeze was quite possibly normal in nature, but they perceived it to be paranormal? If one person in the room is excited by the activity, it doesn't take long to get caught up. I was recently talking to a colleague about this very thing. I can stand in a room where nothing is happening, and by using my body language and excitement, I can completely change the feeling and atmosphere in the room and suddenly everyone is caught up in a moment where nothing has actually happened.
Another possibility could be that perhaps another spirit has taken the opportunity to communicate and assumed the identity as Philip. One of the things I know I have noticed in my time of investigating the paranormal is that when you start investigating and the moment you turn on a piece of equipment, it is like you are setting off a beacon to say I’m here talk to me. How do we know that a spirit is not using the opportunity to communicate? We have spirits that we communicate with on our investigations all the time. A lot of the time we assume it is a particular person perhaps the old owner of a building. So we call them by that name. Maybe it isn't them, but they are just answering to that name because they want to communicate. I often for some reason have people think my name is Sharon. Sharon to me sounds nothing like Sarah yet a lot of times people think not long after we are introduced think that my name is Sharon. Sometimes at the end of a conversation, I hear them say "ok bye Sharon" or refer to me as Sharon and you know what? Sometimes it is just easier for me to let it go and for that 5 minutes, my name is Sharon because I don't want to have an awkward conversation to correct them. When you think about it, during an investigation a spirit cant really correct someone and say "sorry my name is not Philip my name is Rob and I'm from across the road". Perhaps a medium would be able to identify this, but an important point to remember with this particular experiment is that no mediums/psychic or sensitives were used as sitters so no one could use their abilities to confirm who it was they were talking to.
The Philip experiment itself highlights for a lot of people what they believe a haunting truly is. In fact, if you have been reading this blog, you will know that this has a huge influence on what I think about the paranormal. This is what makes this such a significant experiment when it comes to paranormal research. From my perspective, I think about when you go on a ghost tour or a paranormal investigation. You are often told stories of the spirits you are trying to communicate with. There is always quite a bit of detail. I am going to use Annie from Black Rock House (a location I visit often) as an example. She is a spirit that we believe we communicate with. How do we know her name is Annie? It is the information we have received through our communication. Her story sort of formed on its own from what would now be over 100 investigations as well as people piecing the story together. Her story is that she was in her 50's and that she passed in her sleep. She wasn't aware she had passed and was upset that no one was acknowledging her when they walked in the room. She liked to bake bread and likes people to hear her story. At the beginning of the investigation, we go into Annie's room and talk about her story in detail. This is a common practice in a lot of public investigations. By going into a room and telling her story at the beginning of the investigation. we are almost conducting our own Philip experiment. The group is concentrating on her story and we are asking questions related to her story because we know from our experience that it gives us answers. Maybe Annie is actually a product of our collective consciousness in that room? This would fit in with the experience of a lot of 'haunted' locations, especially those investigated on a regular basis. There is always a narrative and a few 'resident' spirits that the investigators like to communicate with. Are we really communicating with them or is it a product of our own mind creating the activity?
Maybe a lot of what we experience in terms of paranormal phenomena is really just our very own Philip experiment …. We are just unaware that we are the participants!
Conjuring up Philip: An Adventure In Psychokinesis by Iris M Owen (1976)
Conjuring up the Owens: A tribute to Iris M Owen and A.R.G Owen by John Robert Colombo (1999)
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