Book Review | The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

Are ghosts real? Are there truly beings that haunt us, moving objects and making the old floor boards creak? Can houses be haunted? Or people? The Haunting of Alma Fielding is presented as a “true ghost story”, written in the style of narrative journalism. Dr. Fodor, one of the central personalities in this narrative account, is determined to find out the truth of these questions. Over the years, and with the backing of a scientific institute studying psychical phenomenon, Dr. Fodor unmasks one fraudulent medium after another in an endless quest to find the exception; a medium who truly possesses psychic powers. So when he hears of Alma Fielding, Dr. Fodor jumps at the opportunity to study her case.

What begins as a psychical study into the haunting events that seem to follow Alma around soon turns into something far more closely akin to psychological evaluation. Is Alma truly haunted? Or has she convinced everyone, including herself, that she is special? In an attempt to break away from societal standards set in place around women, Alma acts out ludicrous displays of the paranormal, and Dr. Fodor is convinced that it is all tied to a dark history of family trauma, sexual abuse, and mental illness.

Unfortunately for Dr. Fodor, he concludes that Alma is indeed faking. What appeared to be objects flying across rooms and mysterious items turning up in her pockets turns out to be advanced legerdemain and kleptomania. A switch in tactics must be employed to spare the sanity of a woman suffering from what we now refer to in modern days as dissociative identity disorder, or DID. Instead of continuing his psychical research, Dr. Fodor tries to help Alma remember the tragic events of her past that led to such a shattered present.

The book was an interesting read packed full of real details pertaining to psychical research during the 1930s. The concurrent theme of a mounting war helps rationalize the rise in a society’s desire to speak with spirits. According to experts at the time, the increase in interest in paranormal activities usually coincides with a society’s descent into wartimes, poverty, or general decline. Another interesting theme discussed in the book was how interest in the paranormal is often associated with poorer social classes. To paraphrase, the book claims that

believing in ghosts was a poor man’s sport.

this seemed to fit Alma’s lifestyle. Growing up in a moderately poor household and then marrying not far above her station, Alma always felt trapped. Trapped by her socioeconomical class but also by the rule of women as household pets. She wanted to be free from those confining and boring restrictions, and so acted out in the only way she knew how.

I was reminded of the Umbanda of South America while reading this book. Below are two videos that show possession by spirits in the Umbanda religion. There are several different spiritual archetypes, including indigenous Brazilians, the spirits of those who died enslaved, children, deceased ancestors, horsemen known as gauchos, sailors, and trickster spirits, to name a few. (This list taken from wikipedia.)

May I point out, I understand this video is old and has misinformation pertaining to Umbanda. I place it here simply to help readers conceptualize the possession process by these spirits in this religion. Remember that the anthropologists who filmed this documentary tried to create a narrative for Umbanda religion in a way that outsiders would understand. The main point of bringing this up is to illustrate the many different spirits that these religious practitioners become possessed by.

It was also interesting to note the discussion of multiple personalities expressed by Alma Fielding. In modern times, we now refer to this as having dissociative identity disorder, as mentioned above. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness,

“Dissociative disorders are characterized by an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory”.

National alliance on mental illness

Alma Fielding seemed to be so disjointed in her personality that she claimed to have no memory of stealing objects, and could not explain phenomenon such as her frequent object manifestations, known as apports. Some of her apports were as astounding as producing living animals such as birds or snakes out of seemingly thin air. Unfortunately for Dr. Fodor, either intentionally or not, Alma was in fact not psychic. Only deeply troubled by a traumatic past and desperate for attention and escape from her ordinary life.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness goes on to state that the symptoms of dissociative disorders include:

  • Significant memory loss of specific times, people and events
  • Out-of-body experiences, such as feeling as though you are watching a movie of yourself
  • Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide
  • A sense of detachment from your emotions, or emotional numbness
  • A lack of a sense of self-identity

Alma seemed to suffer from all of these symptoms. As we came to better understand psychology and the inner workings of the brain, instances like Alma’s became better recognized and identified; not as psychical phenomenon, but for what it really was, which was a mental illness.

This book got slammed on Goodreads for various reasons, primarily that it was boring. And to those people, I must ask what they were expecting from a book that claims to be a “true ghost story”. I found the information packed into this book to be enlightening, drawing a portrait of a world vastly different from today’s, in which the hunting of ghosts was still trying to find its place within the world of hard science. Today, we now mostly accept that ghosts and hauntings are to remain in the realm of fiction as there has been no hard evidence gathered to suggest that such phenomenon actually exist in any measurable way. The narrative journalist style that Kate Summerscale uses throughout was the perfect medium in which to tell this story, offering readers a look into not only the interpersonal experiences of the people but also the overarching political climate of the 1930’s. All of which helps justify why the societies of the 1930’s were so keen on accepting and exploring the notion of psychic phenomenon as a hard science.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a must read for anyone who has ever had an interest in ghost hunting, ghost stories, or anyone who is interested in mental health issues. The plot of the book, although it is non-fiction, slightly parallels the premise of The Haunting of Hill House (Fictional) in the psychical research performed. Overall a great read full of historic information and plenty of mystery surrounding this real-life case.

Happy reading,
The Literary Kat

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