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What in the Weird? Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers

  In Britain back in the nineteen-eighties, if you wanted to scare yourself when you were of a tender age, then the best way to go about it would either be to watch a video nasty should you be able to get hold of one, or take an alternative route: dip your toe into the world of the weird. You could borrow a book on ghosts or UFOs from the local library and read it late in the evening, just before you went to bed, for a guaranteed restless night, but television was an option as well, and one of the most certain methods of feeling the chill of the uncanny was to catch an episode of Arthur C. Clarke's documentary series about the paranormal. In 1981, he made his programme Mysterious World, heralded each week by the revolving crystal skull and its echoing, bombastic synth theme tune which more or less informed you, prepare to be terrified.

Now, Arthur was a great collector of strange stories with a true life twist, but he didn't necessarily believe them, indeed ever the pragmatist he was always on the lookout for a scientific explanation. As an author of many science fiction novels and dabbler in inventing (satellites have him to thank for some of their hardware), he took the same rigour to the technology and rationality there as he did with his interest in oddities, therefore each episode took a pattern of us being told of the incident on the subject of the show, then Clarke popping up from his home in Sri Lanka to inform us that he had a better idea of what actually happened. Yet what was memorable was that none of what he said was in the slightest bit reassuring, because you'd just seen and heard eyewitness accounts of something really scary.

That first series was a minor sensation from Yorkshire Television, an ITV company, or at least it was among the young folk impressionable enough to watch each instalment with the hairs on the back of their necks standing up, so in 1985 it was deemed successful enough for a follow-up series to put the wind up viewers once again. This was no longer the Mysterious World, which had taken in the likes of Bigfoot, UFOs and unexplained archaeology, it was The World of Strange Powers, more interested in psychic phenomena, ghosts and the like, but no less unnerving for its audience. Also gone were newsreader Gordon Honeycombe on narration duties, with a different newsreader, Anna Ford, brought in for that capacity, no less respected in her field and giving proceedings the air of authority that subtly told you, "it's all true!"

In the first episode, premonitions were the subject, showing how various terrible disasters were predicted by those who were involved, or simply would watch horrified as their nightmares came true on the news bulletins. One of the last survivors of the Titanic was interviewed about how her mother's conviction the ship would sink saved her life, the famous Flixborough tale of the woman who saw a bulletin telling of a plant explosion on TV hours before the incident took place was related, and a bureau recording predictions was highlighted, with some happier yarns of folks winning big by betting on their premonitions. What they don't tell you about are the predictions that don't come true, of course, which must outnumber the ones that do; Arthur puts it down to coincidence or the power of the subconscious making connections we barely understand.

Next up, according to the title is "Things That Go Bump in the Night", another way of saying poltergeists, presumably not so called because not everyone would know what that was (despite there being a hit movie of that title in then-recent years). Clarke advises us to approach these cases with open-minded scepticism, but even he cannot concoct a rational explanation for many of the accounts here, aside from the ones which were proven fakes, with documentary evidence. But the tales of the houses in a quiet Birmingham street afflicted for years (at time of broadcast) by an unseen attacker throwing pebbles at their windows, leaving the police baffled no matter how far they investigated, or the Hamburg office whose teenage junior was apparently the focus of an entity that phoned the speaking clock incessantly and made objects fly around (we see footage of a swaying light when she passes underneath) are truly bizarre.

Thirdly was the extra-sensory perception, or ESP episode, which was something of a comedown in terms of the fright factor but had some interesting tales to tell nonetheless. Arthur admits to being disenchanted with the whole matter, despite the fact that he is intrigued by the scientific explorations into it, but he complains they had been going on for so long with very little concrete evidence that couldn't be explained away by coincidence, so the experiments we do see, under laboratory conditions, are more geed along by faith in the phenomenon in the first place. There is a Professor Denzil Dexter-esque scientist who tries out the abilities of young children and comes to the conclusion they are born with the power but lose it as they age, but you're just as well to enjoy the yarns of mothers sensing their offspring are in danger, or sympathetic pains across thousands of miles.

Fourth up was the instalment most likely to make your skin crawl, all about stigmata, that is the instance of devout Catholics who display the wounds of Christ on the cross on their bodies. If you were at all squeamish, the sight of all these photographs and footage of people bleeding from their palms and other places was very likely to make you squirm, along with the tour round the room of the most celebrated stigmatic of the twentieth century, Padre Pio, which includes a clear box of his scabs. Clarke points out the wounds as historically recorded for crucifixion are not the same as those demonstrated by these afflicted, which must be cause for suspicion - it will always convince the believers, but the fact remains these wounds could very easily be self-inflicted in a misguided religious fervour or even simple fraud. Worth noting was that this also included an interview with a non-Catholic, non-white stigmatic.

Next, a sturdier guarantee of sleepless nights, the episode concerned with ghost stories where ordinary folks described their meetings with the apparent spirits of the deceased, and perhaps more unknowable entities. It kicks off with a supernatural tour of Chicago, complete with tour guide, then we get the more personal accounts such as the family whose house was haunted by Ma Barker, the notorious gangster - they could hear her walking around and also the sound of her gambling den - then the man who unwittingly picked up a phantom hitchhiker only to have him disappear minutes after he sat in the passenger seat, and a woman whose council house was haunted by a faceless monk that stood at the foot of her bed at night. In addition, the celebrated first-hand account of the man who saw the Roman soldiers in a York cellar is welcome, but Clarke has his theory about all these things: could the human eye "see" images conjured by the brain?

For the sixth part, a not unconnected theme, on mysterious photographs. This begins by reuniting Ted Serios and Jule Eisenbud, an alcoholic and a psychatrist respectively, who became a minor sensation some years before when Ted claimed he could make his thoughts appear in photographs. To do this he used a rolled up piece of paper, which critics accused him of hiding a transparent slide so as to make the images of buildings miles away, sometimes in other countries. On trying to recreate their efforts, '85 Ted merely captures pics of his screwed up face, which doesn't speak to his ability. Next up a proven fake, the Cottingley Fairies, where two Yorkshire girls fooled the world - including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - they had photographed fairies at the bottom of their garden, but were in fact cardboard cut-outs (though they asserted fairies were indeed true). Then a lab examines ghost snaps, proclaiming the Newby Church horror real (it is now known to be fake).

Programme seven was all about reincarnation - have we lived before? Here Clarke got to stay local for the first ten minutes, as in Sri Lanka there is a widespread belief, and he shows us newspaper reports that regularly show up detailing children who believe they have been someone else in a past life. A resident reporter takes us through the tale of a six-year-old girl who claims to have been a member of a family considerably more well off than her own mother can provide, which may give rise to suspicions the narrative does not voice. It does however voice misgivings about past life regression under hypnosis, proving that the details recalled under those conditions are not reliable, either because they've been read about and forgotten except subconsciously, or simply invented - one man is almost comical as he relates experiences of the Crimean War, and a party where Californians dress up as their previous incarnations is less than convincing.

Then a reminder the World of Strange Powers didn't always mean general scariness, as eighth up were the dowsers. This begins with Arthur drenched in a Sri Lankan monsoon, telling us how his adopted homeland has not much need for this practice, but also that it could be vital in other, more drought-hit areas of the planet. Basically all you need is a bent twig, or a couple of rods, or a pendulum to hold, and it should be able to tell you if there is water beneath the ground when they move; not just water, either, as we follow an oil prospector who has dowsed for black gold across Illinois with a remarkable success rate. Off to Danville we go to meet a convention of dowsers (Alan Hawkshaw's music makes it clear he thinks they're hicks), but uh-oh, here's arch-sceptic James Randi to stage a contest where he demonstrates dowsers were only correct a pathetic 12% of the time. Clarke is more open-minded where water is concerned, though accepts luck may be a feature.

Following that, we return to freak out the squeamish; this episode is ostensibly about fire walking, but it commences with a study of how the religious can apparently put up with incredibly pain during their pilgrimages and holy celebrations, in this instance by pushing spikes through their faces, throats and chests, or hooks into the skin of their back and suspending themselves from them. Then scientists try to work out why they are not affected, and naturally work out a scientific explanation, including an almost comical looking experiment. The fire walking is subject to rigorous examination as well, with loads of shots of various people walking barefoot over searing hot coals, but by and large feeling no ill effects. Predictably, there's a Californian self-help group who uses the process for personal growth, but in the main it’s the Sri Lankan practitioners who Arthur highlights, along with a German doctor; a bunch of theories are offered, all of them believable.

Tenth in the series was certain to make Derren Brown furious, relating stories of spiritualism and people who claim to receive messages from the dead. Although there are plenty of believers - the programme took a visit to the Spiritualist Church headquarters in London and its meetings looked well-attended - the sceptics are seen to have much to accuse them of, not least because the Fox sisters who started the practice back in the late eighteen-hundreds admitted they were frauds, and there are plenty of accounts, some given here, of charlatans fleecing the gullible by pretending to talk to their dead relatives. Not one of the examples captured here looks convincing, from the vague transmissions to the frankly terrible psychic painter who says he is channelling great artists or the woman who writes out whole novels broadcast from classic authors. That said, Clarke does end on a yarn he says challenges his scepticism.

Episode eleven was wrapped up in voodoo and curses, asking if it is possible witchcraft can deliberately end someone's life. We start, as often, in Sri Lanka (I suppose it was handy for the camera crew after filming Clarke's introductions) where we see various ceremonies designed to cast out evil spirits or indeed afflict their presence on an enemy, a practice that is seen to exist across the world, with anecdotes from Africa and North America, where we settle in Charleston to investigate so-called roots magic. There psychiatrists and doctors are interviewed, and they may not believe in it but their patients often do, so it is convenient to put it into play when they think a curse or hex is the reason for their ailments. Arthur tells us he believes that such things can exist, but are not necessarily supernatural: if the victim believes enough, then their body will demonstrate the effects regardless of reason, therefore they must know they've been cursed beforehand.

Twelfth was more or less twenty-six minutes of debunking, as the psychics were under scrutiny, specifically those who claim to be able to move and affect objects with their minds. Inevitably, the footage of Uri Geller bending spoons on the David Dimbleby 1973 magazine show is included, for that was where most people became aware not only of him as a celebrity, but the whole phenomenon of mental metal mangling, though as we hear it had been around since the 18th century, a popular parlour trick. And there’s the problem, there's nothing the psychics do that couldn't be explained by the use of trickery, indeed it's a lot easier to use sleight of hand than it is to use your actual mind, and every example we are shown here comes across as mere deception, hence the equally inevitable presence of James Randi, scourge of the psychics, with his exposé of the practice. And yet, people still believe no matter how often they’ve been proven fooled.

Finally, Clarke rounded up the series with a verdict on the investigations and reports he had brought us in this series. Yet another tour of Sri Lanka follows, with our host traipsing around to meet various astrologers and numerologists who he says are still an important aspect of life in the country, in spite of them happily opening a research base in his name there recently. He says he finds this adherence to superstition charming, but later admits he believes most of the paranormal to be "rubbish", and provides a chart on his computer (because it was the eighties) to tell us where he places the subjects on a credibility scale from +5 to -4, with fire walking at the top and spiritualism at the bottom. Although he's wrapping things up, there’s still time for a couple more stories, a short one with a vicar who found a large hole in his church path that vanished when he returned to board it up, and a longer one about a timeslip where holidaymakers stayed at a French hotel that didn't exist.

Network have released this series on a two-disc DVD set, and it still stands up today as both entertainment and of scientific worth, if rather lightly. It also proves there's nothing new under the sun given these subjects are still debated to this day, with little progress made in the truth about ghosts for example. Obviously only the most uncritically credulous mind would accept all of this without question, and you'd expect Arthur would disapprove of that anyway, but as a programme offering up the "what if?" conundrums his three efforts (a further one arrived in 1994) were minor classics.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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