Book Review: The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale

The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story…

SHORTLISTED FOR THE BAILLIE GIFFORD PRIZE 2020

About the Book:

London, 1938. Alma Fielding, an ordinary young woman, begins to experience supernatural events in her suburban home.

Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical research – begins to investigate. In doing so he discovers a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed.

With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of historical narrative non-fiction Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.


My Thoughts:

This was quite a fascinating read. Written in the style of narrative non-fiction, The Haunting of Alma Fielding is a ‘true ghost story’ in the sense that it examines an investigative case from the 1930s in which a woman was haunted by a poltergeist. Using the original case notes, the author has put together a truly compelling book that explores the link between psychology and the supernatural played out against the historical backdrop of a nation gripped by fear and loss.

The investigator for this case was a man named Nandor Fodor, who, as the author puts it,

‘was entranced by the idea that individuals contained secret worlds, hidden from themselves, and that supernatural events might be stories to interpret, symbols to decode.’

This book gives a detailed background of Fodor, which aids greatly in understanding what he was trying to achieve concerning Alma Fielding. His interest in Psychical research began early in his adult life, whilst working in New York.

‘He read about spiritualism, a religion that emerged in upstate New York in the middle of the nineteenth century, and about the Society for Psychical Research, founded in England in 1882 to establish a science of the ‘supernormal’. Spiritualists held that the dead survived in another world, and could communicate with the living. Psychical researchers investigated weird experiences to find out whether they were governed by spirits or by natural laws that were not yet understood.’

By the time he moved to Britain, his interest in the field was cemented and his adopted nation proved prime pickings for ghost hunting and the study of mediums.

‘Spiritualism was big business in Britain. Three quarters of a million Britons had been killed in the Great War, and another quarter of a million in the influenza pandemic that followed. Thousands of spiritualist séance circles were established by their widows, widowers and sweethearts, mothers and fathers and children. The faith offered ‘something tremendous’, said Conan Doyle, ‘a breaking down of the walls between two worlds… a call of hope and of guidance to the human race at the time of its deepest affliction.’

I have to say I find this all utterly fascinating from an historical interest point of view. I’m not particularly superstitious myself, but in reality, some of this comes down to fear more than scepticism. Fodor’s interest lay in making connections between the supernatural and trauma, so his research and experiments dipped into psychology regularly. In fact, he consulted with Freud on Alma’s case and was pleased with himself when Freud concurred with his theories. Fodor was a bit ahead of his time though, and quite aggressive in his drive to prove his case, so the majority of his colleagues were put off by the connections he was attempting to make.

‘A ghost was the sign of an unacknowledged horror. It indicated a gap opened by trauma, an event that because it had not been assimilated must be perpetually relived. There were no words, so there was a haunting.’
~~~
‘In effect, Fodor’s psychical research had transmuted into a study of abnormal psychology; he was suggesting that supernatural power was a function of mental breakdown.’
~~~
‘Fodor had noticed that supernatural events were unusually able to communicate the splintering and contradiction of a traumatic experience.’
~~~
‘Since the 1980s, researchers in the psychology of supernatural belief have found a correlation between childhood trauma and adult experiences of paranormality. People who have been sexually abused as children are unusually likely to report supernatural events. Psychologists speculate that damaged children learn to use fantasy as a form of escape, while their desperate wish for control generates delusions of psychic power.’

Specifically on Alma Fielding, what an interesting case this was. There was evidence of both fraud and the unexplained and in essence, no one was ever really able to determine the entire truth of the matter. Fodor was certain as time went on though, that Alma had repressed abuse from childhood.

‘Alma had a strong masochistic drive, Fodor observed: she played a double role, as aggressor and victim. But then he, too, had taken a double role, as Alma’s champion and her inquisitor. In the course of the investigation, their relationship had acquired a sadomasochistic shape, admiration and desire becoming entangled with secrecy, deceit and control.’
~~~
‘In Fodor’s account, both Alma’s eerie experiences and her fraud were explained by the damage done to her in childhood. His theory made haunting consistent with psychoanalysis: not a counter-argument that suggested that some gifted individuals could make contact with another world or with their subliminal selves, but a proof of the uncanny power of repression.’

Interestingly, the author makes a connection within Alma’s case that Fodor seems to have overlooked: the loss of her child to tubercular meningitis at age one. She also miscarried twins late in pregnancy. These losses had a profound effect on her and there were clear connections between anniversaries of the deaths and supernatural incidents occurring. Alma had also had incredibly bad luck with her health and had had multiple operations under anaesthetic, including a mastectomy, and by her own accounts, each of these operations had been traumatic, along with the ongoing health issues surrounding them. Perhaps Fodor was right about the trauma connection, but barking up the wrong tree about the origin of the trauma. Again, something that no one will ever know, but it certainly was interesting reading all about it.

☕☕☕☕


Thanks is extended to Bloomsbury for providing me with a copy of The Haunting of Alma Fielding for review.


About the Author:

Kate Summerscale is the author of the number one bestselling The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2008, winner of the Galaxy British Book of the Year Award, a Richard & Judy Book Club pick and adapted into a major ITV drama. Her first book, the bestselling The Queen of Whale Cay, won a Somerset Maugham award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread biography award. Kate Summerscale has also judged various literary competitions including the Booker Prize. She lives in north London.


The Haunting of Alma Fielding
Published by Bloomsbury Circus
Released 29th September 2020

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