The Unexplained Revisited: Extra-Sensory Perception

Unexplained 1Welcome back for another return trip to the legendary 1980s partwork magazine The Unexplained. Having witnessed UFOs, let’s take a look at the second article of the first issue…

“[E]xtra-sensory perception is a fact – but one still shrouded in mystery” is the confident declaration that precedes Roy Stemman article on ESP. The piece opens by introducing us to psychic researcher Stanley Krippner, who claims that when he was fourteen years old he had a sudden conviction that his uncle was dead; moments afterwards, his mother received a telephone call announcing that the uncle in question had passed away. Stemman uses this account to explore three hypothetical varieties of ESP: was it a case of telepathy, Krippner having somehow read the mind of the individual making the telephone call? Was it clairvoyance, the boy having sensed the death without directly communicating with anyone’s mind? Or was it precognition, Krippner having seen into the future and picked up his subsequent conversation with his mother? Stemman also floats a fourth possibility – that the dead uncle’s spirit communicated with Krippner – that belongs more to the study of mediumship and life-after-death than to ESP.


Of course, there is also the fifth possibility that the incident was just a coincidence, but the article does not spend time on this matter. Coincidence, albeit a remarkable one, can also explain the next anecdote, one arriving courtesy of Professor F. S. Luther: one night his wife dreamed of giving a book about Ralph Waldo Emerson to a friend; the same night, that friend dreamed of receiving the book from Mrs. Luther; and the next day, Mrs. Luther chanced to open a magazine on an article entitled “The Homes and Haunts of Emerson”.


The article goes on to discuss the work of Dr. J. B. Rhine (1895-1980), who coined the term “ESP”. Rhine’s experiments used Zener cards, which showed a set of standardised symbols – square, circle, cross, star, three wavy lines – that could, theoretically, be discerned by individuals using ESP, even when the faces of the cards were hidden (this experiment was memorably sent up in Ghostbusters). The results of Rhine’s experiments were, on the surface, promising; a man named Linzmayer showed a particularly impressive knack for identifying the cards.


The article gives generally favourable coverage to Rhine’s controversial work, but is rather less accommodating towards Dr. D. G. Soal, who carried out similar research. As the article notes, Soal’s former colleague Gretl Albert testified that she saw him manipulating data, while a later study by Betty Markwick called attention to significant flaws in his methodology.

Stemman concludes that “the Soal case is a sad chapter in the chequered history of parapsychology” while optimistically stating that “as we will see in future articles, the evidence of extra-sensory perception has grown stronger.”


Stemman continues his investigation in the second issue (serialising articles was common practice at the magazine; so while I plan to cover it in generally chronological order, I’ll have to go back and forth a bit). The article starts off with anecdotes about two people – Isabel Casas in 1980; Canon Warburton in 1883 – who reportedly had dreams or visions of indicating, correctly, that people they knew were in danger.

Stemman then namechecks a few researchers in the field of telepathy: F. W. H. Myers (who coined the word “telepathy”), Sir William Barrett, Rene Warcollier and Sir Oliver Lodge. Once again the article includes a note of caution, pointing out that Lodge’s experiments involving two girls who could allegedly read each other’s minds had a significant success rate only when the girls were touching each other, suggesting that they may have been using some sort of code.


Next on the agenda is a celebrity believer: Upton Sinclair, who claimed that his wife was able to receive telepathic impressions of his drawings without looking, a topic he wrote about in his 1930 book Mental Radio. The article reproduces a few of the drawings by the Sinclairs before returning to the work of J. B. Rhine; Stemman brings up one of Rhine’s detractors, Bernard Riess, who initially tried to debunk Rhine’s claims but later became less skeptical — the abstract of Riess’ paper on ESP can be seen here.

Under the subheading “ESPionage!”, Stemman discusses the case of the USS Nautilus, an American submarine that figured in a French news story of the late 1950s. According to the report, telepathy had been successfully established between a crewmember and an agent on shore – a claim that was dismissed by the US Navy. This official denial did not prevent Soviet parapsychologist Leonid Vasiliev from welcoming the alleged experiment as a positive sign regarding research into telepathy.

Stemman is impressed by the experiments of biophysicist Yuri Kamensky and journalist Karl Nikolaiev, saying that the results “provided overwhelming evidence of communication between the two men”, and hails Douglas Dean as a Western counterpart to these Russian researchers.


ESP is a slightly tricky topic for a magazine like The Unexplained. The series is very visual, and made its name with photographs of flying saucers, yeti footprints and the ashy corpses of SHC victims, all backed up by vivid prose narratives. Although the magazine does its best to provide eye-catching illustrations for these two articles, with images of Zener cards and people tinkering with enigmatic electronic devices, the simple truth is that ESP is not the most visually appealing topic. What we’re left with is a whistle-stop tour of various incidents relating to extra-sensory perception, with little space to properly examine them. Those inclined to believe will find their appetites whetted; but skeptics will respond to the whole thing with a dismissive shrug.

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