In Occult Experiments in the Home (the book), I relate a story of how, meditating one evening, I heard a woman’s voice saying I’m done! I’m done! which was so clear it broke my concentration.
I immediately felt that this experience could mean that someone I knew had died. But I mentioned it no one because, at the time, my partner’s mother was seriously ill . However, I noted it in my diary.
The next day at work it was announced that a member of staff had died the previous evening, but this person was male and alive at the time I heard the voice. In the days that followed my partner’s mother made a good recovery, so I thought no more about it.
Around this time a letter arrived at the building where I lived, addressed to ‘Mrs G.’. No one of that name lived in the building. There was no return address on the envelope, so after a few days I opened it and returned it to the sender. It emerged that Mrs. G., the addressee, it was the sister of Ms M., an elderly woman who lived in the flat below mine. It was a letter of condolence.
Only by this accidental route did I discover that Ms M., my neighbour, had died. Ms M. was a very private person, but she had recently asked if she could call on me for help if she needed it. I was very happy to keep an eye on her. (I suspected at the time that she was scared of collapsing in her home and not being found.) In the book my account of this incident ended as follows:
I’ll probably never know the exact date and time at which Ms M. passed away in hospital, but the date on the letter suggested it would have been on or close to the day I heard the voice… Ms M.’s bedroom was directly below the room in which I was meditating. (Barford 2010: 76)
I have recently been reading books that discuss ‘crisis apparitions’. I was intrigued by how the Society for Psychical Research decided to impose an arbitrary limit of 12 hours around the time of a person’s death, so that an apparition of that person experienced either 12 hours before or after their death was considered a crisis apparition (i.e. the apparition of a living person) rather than as an apparition of the dead (Peach 1991: 45).
Into what category of apparition did my experience of the voice fall – if any? Was Ms. M dead or alive at the time I heard the voice? As quite a few years have passed since the incident, I decided it was perhaps time to dig a little deeper.
The entry in my journal was written on February 14th, 2007, and states that the voice was experienced at 6pm on February 12th. The journal entry seems to have been triggered by the coincidence between the voice (reported in my journal as sounding like my partner’s mother) and the death of the male staff member at work. An entry dated February 25th reports my discovery that Ms. M had died, after I had opened the letter. It also notes that the letter itself was dated February 17th, prompting my conclusion that Ms. M must have died close to the experience of the voice.
Last week I went to the register office for a copy of Ms. M’s death certificate. It revealed that Ms. M died on the 15th. She was alive at the time I heard the voice, and would be alive for another three days.
So – where does this leave us? In cases of ‘crisis apparitions’ is there really anything causal at work? Or is it just that we have an unrelated sequence of experiences or events on which it is possible to hang a certain narrative structure?
In this case, a voice was unexpectedly heard, and was later (re-)attributed to someone who happened to live nearby and happened to die roughly around the same time. Considering that Ms. M died three days after the voice was experienced, and that the voice was not recognised as hers at the time but ‘identified’ only in retrospect, it seems that the null hypothesis has probably won the day.
And yet… the cause of death on the certificate offers a fillip: it states that Ms. M suffered a heart attack (myocardial infarction) on the 12th. The day on which the voice was heard could have coincided with the last day that she was conscious, but whether 6pm coincides with her last moment is beyond the limits I would consider it appropriate to research.
Am I irrationally stretching my preferred narrative across all available hooks? I am enabled to do so, to a certain extent, because (as the SPR researchers seemed to recognise with their 12-hour fudge zone) ‘death’ and ‘crisis’ are malleable terms.
Commonly, and ultimately in this case, an apparition is a subjective experience, which can only be shared by putting it into some kind of narrative. Like all our most intimate experiences, it can mean only what we decide to say about it, unless we say nothing at all. But who is there that seriously believes the most intimate experiences in our lives should be regarded as the least meaningful?
Barford, Duncan (2010). Occult Experiments in the Home: Personal Explorations of Magick and the Paranormal. London: Aeon Books.
Peach, Emily (1991). Things that Go Bump in the Night: How to Investigate and Challenge Ghostly Experiences. London: Aquarian Press.