It’s supposed to be the furthest thing away from science. The supernatural is meant to go unexplained, ghosts, spirits and demons appearing in mirrors and around dark corners in decrepit houses when the witching hour occurs. And for the most part, we’re content to keep it that way; why go sticking our very vulnerable human necks where they don’t belong when countless pieces of folklore and works of film have told us exactly what happens to the curious?
The Poltergeists and Exorcisms of the past have shown that calling forth the dead brings bad results, but some people can’t help but want to dabble in the occult anyway in a desire to connect with the dead. It’s been inherent since childhood. We’ve broken out the Ouija boards at sleepovers, invoked the presence of Bloody Mary in pitch-black bathrooms with our biggest scaredy cat friends and attempted séances in our rec rooms. In our shared experiences with the paranormal, the presence of spirits is able to be explained away by whatever makes the most sense – or whatever helps us sleep at night. In many cases, the house where the paranormal activity is taking place is very old and home to the grave of the spirit tormenting the haunted. Or, you know, the house is plopped on top of an ancient burial ground and the spirits are wreaking havoc on a nice suburban family because their graves have been displaced.
Perhaps the afflicted really had success with a Ouija board or read from a necronomicon they found lying around in their creepy, dusty basement. But could a ghost really be just summoned out of thin air by our own volition, not by spells and incantations, but by scientific method and experiments? When households are plagued by poltergeist and wicked demons, are they really just prisoners of their own negative energy?
In 1972, a group of researchers in Toronto decided to prove just that in the most awful of experiments possible; their experiences are the basis of the upcoming film The Quiet Ones, and from the sound of their trials, the title is extremely ironic. The idea that ghosts being figments of our imagination is nothing new. But the idea that we can manifest ghosts ourselves, using our minds, was something else entirely. The researchers at the Toronto Society for Psychical Research (TSPR) believed that they could prove that ghostly apparitions and the movements usually blamed on poltergeists were actually caused by negative human energy through a series of experiments.
They brought together a group of normal citizens that didn’t believe in the paranormal – like a housewife, a college student and a bookkeeper – and under the lead of Dr. A.R.G. Owen, a member of the Department For Preventative Medicine and Biostatistics at the University of Toronto, they became known as The Owen Group. The Owen Group conducted what was known as The Philip Experiment. They simply created a fictional character that they dubbed “Philip” and gave him a backstory in order to give weight to the tragic way in which he “died.” Their biography was partly based on facts for the time period that they assigned to their character, but also had ample fiction tossed in to keep things interesting. Some sample facts about Phil:
“Philip was an aristocratic Englishman, living in the middle 1600s at the time of Oliver Cromwell. He had been a supporter of the King, and was a Catholic. He was married to a beautiful but cold and frigid wife, Dorothea, the daughter of a neighboring nobleman.”
The Owen Group then commissioned a sketch of their guy, in order to put a face to the spirit for when they potentially made contact. Their next step was more than just a waiting game; they got down to business by sitting in a room actively talking about Philip, meditating on his “being” and attempting to create hallucinations of his apparition. Some members of the group occasionally reported feeling a presence, but nothing major happened during the several months that this occurred. So they changed their tactic to mimic a séance, and results came rapidly.
Soon, the table was flying across the room, lights were flickering and team members were reporting whispering in their ears. Mysterious mist would appear in the middle of the room and disappear just as soon as it came. Cold breeze would flutter in and out and loud rapping would sound when they’d ask for Philip. Did they really DIY a ghost?
Measures were taken to prove that none of the participants were making the moves themselves, and legend spread. To this day, The Owen Group can only assume that they created a spirit themselves through energy and experimentation. At this point, it’s just up to us to believe them. It puts a whole new perspective on things. This is a game changer. Could the fates of our favorite horror movie protagonists simply been sealed by their bad attitudes and vivid imaginations?
Maybe if Katie and her sister had stopped digging around in the occult when they were children and focused on happiness, they wouldn’t have been plagued by demons throughout the entire Paranormal Activity franchise. If the family living in the Amityville murder house had just taken a moment and calmed the hell down, they could still be cruising out on that gorgeous lake enjoying the sunshine. Jack Torrance just needed another drink from the Overlook’s bar and a break from his novel to cure his writer’s block to get rid of Grady. Maybe if Haley Joel Osment had just learned to keep his emotions in check, The Sixth Sense wouldn’t have even happened.
It will be interesting to see the reaction to The Owen Group’s findings played out on the big screen (however many liberties are taken) in The Quiet Ones. The ghost-based movie has been on the upswing in the horror genre over recent years – blame the massive popularity of Paranormal Activity – and films like it are continuing to pop up. Found footage, paranormal and demonic activity are en vogue. Gone are the days of the slasher and the murderous villain luring the bikini girls away from their tents to their doom – at least in this moment. Will a movie that loses a little bit of the magic of the haunting take away the allure of the supernatural? Maybe people still want a horror that they can’t see coming.