The seven of us settled down in comfortable chairs around a wooden table and placed our hands lightly on its surface with our fingertips touching one another. We were told that this unbroken circle would generate a circle of energy that the spirits would use to help communicate with us. The room became quiet and the medium who lead the seance went into a light trance-state, then called out to our departed loved ones.
I sat in rapt anticipation, looking furtively through half-closed eyes around the room for some sign that a spirit was present. I noticed that most people’s eyes were closed. I was certain that they were in deep thought about their loved ones. There was not a sound in the room except the soft ticking of a clock that hung on the wall which only heightened the sense of waiting and anticipation.
Suddenly, the table began to vibrate almost imperceptibly under our fingertips, then light tapping sounds were heard from various parts of the room. These sounds started in one corner of the room, then quickly moved to the opposite corner. Soon, the tapping was all around us, even on the ceiling. There were more than a few surprised exclamations when the tapping started, and the sense of anticipation and excitement in the room increased considerably. The medium directed the spirits to answer her questions by tapping once for Yes, twice for No. As she asked her questions, the answering taps could be felt directly on the table. Sometimes there were more than two taps which confused us, but the medium assured us that this was simply an indication that the spirit either didn’t have an answer for us, or that a yes or no answer wasn’t appropriate. Of course, I kept half-an-eye open to make sure the medium wasn’t somehow generating these sounds herself, but I could see no indication that trickery was involved.
After a while, the vibrations under our fingertips faded away to nothing, and the tapping suddenly stopped. We removed our hands from the table, and everyone exhaled audibly. There were a lot of smiles all around, and many said that as the seance was going on they could actually feel the presence of their loved ones in the room. One woman said that she even caught a whiff of her mother’s favorite perfume.
Even though I was a seasoned ‘ghost hunter’, it was an exciting experience for me. And why wouldn’t it be? I had actually been in the presence of spirits, ghosts if you will. Or was I? Always the skeptic, I have to ask myself if something else could be responsible for the ghostly tapping and the sense of a spiritual presence? Is it possible that because all of us were so excited about the possibility of contacting a spirit, we actually made it happen? Did our heightened anticipation, hope, fear, excitement all contribute to the creation of the activity we witnessed? Did we collectively make a ghost?
In September of 1972, a group of eight people from the Toronto Society for Psychical Research asked themselves the same question--Is it possible to make a ghost? Not to conjure up a spirit, but to actually create a ghost ‘from scratch’ so to speak. The experiment lasted over a year, and in the end it seems that they actually did it. They made a ghost.
Before we get into the specifics of the experiment, we first need to understand the Tibetan Buddhist concept of tulpas. “A tulpa is an entity created in the mind, acting independently of, and parallel to your own consciousness. They are able to think, and have their own free will, emotions, and memories.” (1) The tulpa is essentially a thoughtform--a creation born from focused concentration, expectation, imagination and visualization.
In the early 20th century, Belgian-French Buddhist Alexandra David-Neel claimed to have observed the practice of creating tulpas while spending time in Tibet. In her writings, she described tulpas as ‘magic formations generated by a powerful concentration of thought’. (2) She said that all humans have the power to create tulpas, and that ‘once the tulpa is endowed with enough vitality to be capable of playing the part of a real being, it tends to free itself from its maker’s control’. This freedom happens naturally just as a child is able to live apart from its mother after leaving the womb. David-Neel claimed to have created a tulpa in the image of a cheerful monk who developed a life of its own and accompanied her on her travels. Unfortunately, it became evil and David-Neel had to destroy it by means of six months of intense concentration.
If you’ve ever read Mary Shelly’s book, Frankenstein, you’ll notice some eerie similarities between the characters in the book and David-Neel’s tulpa. Creation involves a far-reaching moral obligation. The creator is fully responsible for his creation, and it is his duty to care for it. But what do you do when your creation becomes evil? After all, the creator is also responsible for the actions of his creation and how they affect others. When looked at in this way, the creation of a tupa can’t be taken lightly.
Jewish folklore speaks of the golem, an anthropomorphic being created from mud or clay. Although golem are said to be human-like, and they take on a life of their own after they are created, no golem is fully human. They lack the ability to speak, and because they are made from the earth, they can’t go among humans without being recognized for what they actually are--inhuman.
It’s believed a golem could be created by total concentration induced by combining certain letters of the Hebrew alphabet during a special ritual. After writing the Hebrew word for ‘Truth’ down a piece of paper, it would be placed in the mud effigy’s mouth or forehead which would bring the golem to life. The golem could be destroyed by altering the word ‘Truth’ to read ‘Death’.
In a book published in 1748, rabbi Jacob Emden wrote, "I'll mention here what I heard from my father's holy mouth regarding the golem created by one of his ancestors. When he saw that the golem was growing larger and larger, he feared that it would destroy the universe. He then removed the Holy Name that was embedded in his forehead, thus causing him to disintegrate and return to dust.(3)
As we take a close look at the Philip experiment, we begin to see that it was actually an experiment in creating a tulpa.
The Toronto Society for Psychical Research assembled a group of seven of its members to be part of the experiment. Although all were obviously interested in psychic research, none claimed to have any psychic gifts. The group, under the guidance of poltergeist expert Dr. A.R.G Owen, was made up of people from a variety of backgrounds: an industrial designer, the former chairperson of MENSA, an accountant, a housewife, a bookkeeper, a sociology student, and Dr. Owens’ wife. Psychologist Joel Whitten also attended some of the sessions, but he was not actually a member of the group.
The group’s first task was to create a totally fictional character. Working together, they came up with a biography of someone they named Philip Aylesford, a thirty-year-old aristocratic Englishman living in the mid 1600s. He was married to a beautiful but uninterested wife, Dorothea. One day Philip was out riding on the boundaries of his estates when came across a gypsy encampment. There he saw a beautiful gypsy girl, Margo. He instantly fell in love with her and brought her back to his estate where he kept her as his mistress. She lived in the estate’s gatehouse, and the two carried on their passionate affair in secret. Eventually Dorothea became suspicious and discovered that her husband was having an affair with Margo. She accused the girl of witchcraft and of stealing her husband. At Margos trial, Philip remained silent because he was afraid that he would lose both his reputation and his possessions. Margo was found guilty of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Afterward, Philip was so stricken with remorse and guilt at not having defended Margo that he ended his own life by throwing himself off of the battlements of his castle.
As you can see, the biography they concocted was filled with drama, and like all good ghost stories, ended in tragedy. To further solidify the group’s image of Philip’s, one of its more artistic members drew a picture of him. One member of the group even traveled to England to photograph the area where Philip ‘lived’.
Once everything was in place, the group met weekly for over a year to talk about Philip as if he was a real person. They meditated on the details of his life and tried to visualize him as clearly as they could. Although the transcripts of those sessions are not readily available, I’m sure the group elaborated on the details of Philip’s life as they went along, giving it as much drama and emotion as possible. Just imagine Margo’s terror as she is roughly tied to the stake atop the huge mound of kindling and firewood. Picture the throngs of spectators in frenzied anticipation of her execution, and of Margo’s pleas for mercy as the flames grow closer and closer, until they finally lick the bottom edge of her skirt, igniting it and engulfing the terrified girl in flames. Imagine Philip’s nightly walks along the battlements of his castle, his head in his hands as he sobs uncontrollably at the thought of what he failed to do to save the life of the woman he loved. We can almost see Philip staring over the edge of those same battlements, bright stars overhead as he finally throws himself down upon the rocks below in total despair.
After meeting for over a year, the group still hadn’t received a sign of Philip’s presence. Although some members felt as if he was in the room with them, they still hadn’t received any type of communication from him. So they decided to change direction by attempting to contact Philip by conducting a seance. They sat around a table surrounded by Philip’s portrait and photographs of the type of castle Philip would have lived in, as well as objects from the 1600s. They dimmed the lights and placed their fingers lightly on the table, much like people did in the Victorian era to contact spirits by ‘table-tipping’. Finally after a month of trying to make contact this way, a slight vibration was felt under the groups’ fingertips. In the weeks that followed, the table began to rock back and forth. Finally, a single knock was heard on the table.
The group was eltated. They asked Philip to knock once for Yes, twice for No. Addressing the spirit only by the name Philip, they began to ask him questions. Through yes and no knocks, Philip answered questions that matched the group’s fabricated biography. He also added other details that were not part of the group’s original vision of Philip. Interestingly, some of these details were found to be lacking in historic accuracy.
“Sometimes someone would forget that Philip could only answer yes or no, and a question would be asked that required a different type of answer. When this mistake was made, Philip would invariably produce scratching noises. One one occasion, during a good session, one of the group jokingly asked Philip to give a rap under each person’s hand at the table. Philip took the request literally, and each member felt a loud rap under his or her hand at the same moment in time.” (Ghost Stories of Ontario, John Robert Columbo, p123)
Because the table was the only way that Philip communicated with the group, participants in the seances were frisked to make sure that they were not using artificial means to produce the knocking sounds or to make the table move. And move it did! It tipped, rocked back-and-forth, slid from side-to-side, and balanced on one leg. It even moved when no one was touching it. Once, it moved all the way across the room on its own and became stuck in the doorway as it attempted to exit the room.
In addition to moving the table, Philip also made the room’s lights dim on demand. When asked to restore the lights to their original brightness, Philip obliged without hesitation. Cool breezes were also felt around the table. Like the dimmed lights, Philip could produce these whenever asked. Some claimed to have heard whispers in response to their questions, but these were never captured on audio.
The group claimed that the table felt different when Philip was communicating with them, describing it as feeling ‘electric’ and ‘alive’. A few times, a fine mist was seen covering the center of the table. One of the most astonishing things that the group reported was the table becoming so animated during a session that it would literally rush over to meet latecomers to the sessions. Occasionally, it even moved across the floor and trapped members in the corner of the room, much to the surprise of those whose hands were on the table.
The experimenters went to great lengths to show that none of them were responsible for the rapping sounds on the table. The volunteers knocks were even recorded and compared to Philips’ knocks. There were differences, the most notable being that the vibrations from Philip’s knocks died away more quickly than those of the volunteers.
The grand finale of the experiment was a seance conducted before a live audience and filmed as part of a television documentary. That night, Philip performed beautifully. Besides the table tappings, lights blinked off and on, and sounds coming from various parts of the room, the table completely levitated a half-inch off of the ground.
One of the original goals was to have the spirit of Philip actually materialize. Unfortunately, this never happened. But the amount of activity that the experiment yielded gave the group far more than they ever imagined was possible.
There certainly was an amazing amount of activity, but did the experiment actually prove that the group created a ghost? Not really. The activity at the seances was so similar to poltergeist activity that many believers in the paranormal feel that another spirit probably ‘sat in’ on the sessions and simply played along with the scenario. Others believe that because Philip only had knowledge available to the group, all of the answers came from their subconscious. But that doesn’t account for the actual sounds of the knocks, or the moving table. Or does it? Is it possible that the human mind is so powerful that it can move objects and make sounds even when it is unaware that it is doing so?
Recently, Dr. Robert G. Jahn, head of the laboratory of abnormal studies at Princeton University, proved that the human mind can affect material objects. After thousands of experiments involving hundreds of men and women of all ages and professions, many subjects were able to move a pendulum placed under a transparent plastic cap. Five were able to move the pendulum regardless of their distance from the object.
In the end, it’s impossible to know for sure where the phenomenon witnessed during the Philip experiment emanated from. Follow-up experiments by other groups did not have as spectacular results as the original. Maybe it was the chemistry of the original group that created an atmosphere that encouraged a great amount of telekinetic activity. Or, perhaps the group actually DID create a ghost named Philip; a seventeenth-century nobleman doomed to roam the earth riddled with guilt at having done nothing to save the woman he loved from death’s fiery embrace.