By Kate Summerscale
I actually put this book on hold before it was released thinking it was a fictional tale, so I was a bit surprised when it arrived. This is the true story of a Hungarian ghost hunter researching phenomena in England prior to WWII. Nador Fodor worked for the International Institute for Psychical Research, when in 1938, he encountered Alma Fielding, an average, middle-class housewife. Alma’s life had been turned upside down by poltergeist activity including objects flying through the air and various sorts of items appearing as apports. The case became famous in England as multiple papers vied for the story. Fodor had his own suspicions and worked diligently to discover how Alma might be producing some of the happenings. He does catch her doing some things, but others remain completely inexplicable.
This was the era of Freudian psychology, and the UK was gripped by fears of a second, paralyzing war, no one wanted. The author does a wonderful job centering Alma’s case in its historical setting. Fodor takes up the trail of Alma’s deeper, hidden consciousness. What was hidden behind her everyday appearance? A lot as it turns out. How does a person’s unprocessed trauma, grief, and unacknowledged loss mix in the psyche and materialize in daily life? And what does that mean for all of us?
Kate Summerscale worked with Fodor’s original case notes and interviewed some who knew Alma. The case is fascinating but what is even more so, is the impact the case had- although not many realize it…
Eventually, Nador Fordor sought out and received a letter from Sigmund Freud supporting the likelihood of his conclusions about Alma’s case. Fodor went on to practice psychoanalysis in New York. In 1951, he coined the phrase, “poltergeist psychosis”- where a mental shock can release a poltergeist personality. Fodor felt that the objects leaping into life were caused by Alma’s feelings where the poltergeist acted as her agent. (Hey folks- this is mind over matter…) Fodor’s account of Alma’s case was published in On the Trail of the Poltergeist (1958). Fodor acknowledged that from a clinical point of view, BOTH Alma’s hoaxes and authentic poltergeist activity pointed to a real human who was suffering.
This new understanding of poltergeist phenomena would emerge in the culture through books and movies. Fodor served as a consultant on the movie for Shirley Jackson’s book, The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Jackson was familiar with Fodor’s theories and used them in her portrayal of Eleanor Vance. Eleanor was portrayed as sane, experiencing weird things around her. Modern portrayals of hauntings from Carrie to The Babadook, allow for many interpretations- often combining real and imagined, psychological and supernatural.
Decades after Fodor’s work, his ideas on trauma have become commonplace. Central to Alma’s story, was the idea that a horrific trauma could be wiped from her consciousness. Today, the recovery of traumatic memory remains problematic, but acknowledged. The book provides an interesting window into the power of the subconscious and the time period Alma’s story emerges.
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