More than a quarter of a century has passed since a couple of psychologists named Theodore X. Barber and Sheryl Wilson first published their important study into the central role that a percipient’s fantasy life plays in the nature, frequency and detail of the paranormal claims they make. According to this theory, ‘fantasy-proneness’ (the term Barber and Wilson coined to describe such imagination-driven experiences) directly correlates with – and to a large extent explains – a wide variety of unusual and psychical experiences, including the propensity to see ghosts, hear voices, and undergo close encounters with UFOs and entities of various exotic varieties.
The critical point, according to Barber and Wilson, is that the ‘fantasy-prone personalities’ they identified were liable to blur the divide between imagination and reality, allowing the former to intrude into the latter in ways that made their imaginary experiences seem quite real. The pair went on to list a total of 14 indicators of fantasy-proneness, and suggested that individuals who experience six or more of these could be labelled “fantasy-prone”. These 14 indicators are:
(1) being an excellent hypnotic subject, (2) having imaginary playmates as a child, (3) fantasizing frequently as a child, (4) adopting a fantasy identity, (5) experiencing imagined sensations as real, (6) having vivid sensory perceptions, (7) reliving past experiences, (8) claiming psychic powers, (9) having out-of-body or floating experiences, (10) receiving poems, messages, etc., from spirits, higher intelligences, and the like, (11) being involved in “healing,” (12) encountering apparitions, (13) experiencing hypnagogic hallucinations (waking dreams), and (14) seeing classical hypnagogic imagery (such as spirits or monsters from outer space).
Barber & Wilson’s work was published, somewhat obscurely, as “The fantasy-prone personality: Implications for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena” across 50 pages of A.A. Sheikh’s Imagery: Current Theory, Research and Application (New York: Wiley, 1983). The new hypothesis was picked up fairly promptly by both the skeptical and Fortean communities; Joe Nickell and Robert Baker have both used the concept to reassess the testimony of witnesses who have claimed to have been abducted by aliens, while Peter Rogerson, in an article published in Magonia in 1986, pointed out its relevance to the study of all sorts of strange phenomena. I devoted six pages to the same subject in Borderlands (1996), noting that the authors “suggest that fantasy proneness stems from a failure to abandon childhood immersion in fantasy and imagination, and that it is more likely to be common among those who enjoyed particularly complex and rewarding fantasy lives during their infancy.”
Rogerson neatly summarised Barber & Wilson’s findings as follows:
The authors found that of twenty-seven women, rated as ‘excellent hypnotic subjects’ in a study, all but one had profound fantasy lives, the fantasies often being of an hallucinatory intensity. The authors suggest that there is a small percentage of the population (about 4%), who although otherwise perfectly normal, fantasise much of the time. They experience these fantasies ‘as real as real’, and exhibit syndromes such as an ability to hallucinate voluntarily and profound hypnogogic imagery, as well as presenting superb hypnotic fantasy related performances and vivid memories of life experiences. They also claim, at least, talents as psychics and sensitives.
For all this, frustratingly, very little further work on the concept appears to have been done by academic psychologists. Yes, there have been half a dozen or more follow-up studies, but all of these have been comparatively small-scale, and my own reading suggests that the notion of fantasy-proneness has tended to be accepted in the academic community without much investigation, still less detailed studies to confirm the hypothesis. This is very disappointing, since Barber and Wilson’s original work was based on a startlingly small sample – fewer than 30 people. This makes it possible to doubt the validity, or at least the universality, of the pair’s conclusions, and indeed a number of hostile and critical responses to the theory have been published in UFO and psychical research journals, mostly in the US.
Bearing all this in mind, I was particularly interested to discover the other day just how closely one of the most notable figures in nineteenth century English literature fits the model of the fantasy-prone personality. Emily Brontë, as is well known, was one of three literary sisters, living with their father in a Yorkshire parsonage in the first half of the nineteenth century. The eldest of the three, Charlotte Brontë, produced Jane Eyre (and three other inferior novels); the youngest, Anne, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Emily, the middle daughter, of course became famous as the author of Wuthering Heights, by common consent one of the most powerfully imaginative and original works of fiction in the English language.
Very little indeed is known of Emily’s life; she was by far the most reclusive of the three Brontë sisters, and aside from three very brief interludes – a few months at school, a short period spent learning French with her sister Charlotte in Brussels, and an abortive career as a school teacher – she spent the whole of her life at home, working latterly as housekeeper to her father. According to Juliet Barker, whose excellent family biography The Brontës (London: Phoenix, 1995) I turned to over the Christmas holidays, the biographical information that survives for Emily would not fill two sheets of paper. The same few anecdotes tend to be repeated everywhere one looks, but from these emerges a picture of a young woman (she died at 30) who was self-contained and almost entirely self-reliant. Emily Brontë appears to have had no friends whatsoever, nor the least interest in making any; her wants in this respect were entirely satisfied by her family and her imagination. Her chief recreation was solitary walking on the Yorkshire moors. She hated imposing herself or any of her problems on others – in perhaps the best-known anecdote concerning her, Emily was bitten by a dog whilst walking and, concerned that the animal might have infected her with rabies, strode home, walked to the kitchen fire, seized a red-hot poker from the flames, and self-cauterised her wound. According to Barker (p.198), “with characteristic fortitude, Emily told no one of the incident until all danger of infection was past, fearing that her family might over-react and make an intolerable fuss of her.”
Too much is made of the isolation of the Brontë family – as Barker points out, their home in Haworth was not in some isolated village high on the Yorkshire moors, but close to the centre of a bustling small industrial town. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of the Brontë oeuvre owes much to the peculiar circumstances of the children’s infancies. With their brother, Branwell, the three girls created two distinct paracosms – Charlotte’s and Branwell’s was called Angria, while Emily’s and Anne’s was Gondal – sparked originally, it seems, by the gift of a box of wooden soldiers from their father. The four siblings ploughed huge quantities of energy and creativity into these imaginary worlds, writing hundreds of thousands of words of imaginary chronicles and poetry about the characters and the places they invented.
So far so comparatively usual. What makes Emily Brontë’s imaginary world of such great interest is that it extended, apparently, well past childhood, and indeed consumed a large portion of her life. As Barker points out, she appears to have continued to “play” at the Gondal saga right up until her death, continuing even after her collaborator, Anne, at last began to tire of it. It is even fairly well accepted among literary scholars that the apparently firmly Yorkshire-based tale of Wuthering Heights is in important respects a novel set in Gondal.
Here is what Juliet Barker has to say about Emily’s fantasy life. You may want to bear in mind the indicators of fantasy-proneness suggested by Barber and Wilson while reading it:
Both sisters were at home when Charlotte returned. Emily had been happy enough running the household but living in the imaginary world of her own creation. [p.363]
[Emily] not only seems to have set out [for Brussels] with absolutely no intention of making friends, but was so uncompromisingly self-centred that she incurred positive dislike. [p.392]
Emily… was mentally absorbed in Gondal. In February 1844 [when she was 24], she began to collect her poems together, extracting them from their prose tales going back as far as 1837 and copying them out into one notebook which she entitled ‘Gondal Poems’ and another which she left untitled [thought by some scholars to have been intended as a repository for poems of her own experience]. In fact, there was no hard and fast distinction between the two… She would continue copying her poems into the volumes until May 1848, suggesting that her obsession with Gondal continued right through the publication of Poems with her sisters in 1846 and Wuthering Heights in 1847. [p.435]
Emily and Anne left home on 30 June , travelling on the newly opened Keighley line to Bradford, where they changed trains for Leeds and then York. Emily’s description of the holiday, which she included in her diary paper written a month later on her twenty-seventh birthday, is fascinating evidence of her priorities:
Anne and I went on our first long journey by ourselves \together/ – leaving Home on the 30th of June – monday – sleeping at York – returning to Keighley Tuesday evening sleeping there and walking home on Wednesday morning … and during our excursion we were [the Gondal characters] Ronald Macelgin, Henry Angora, Juliet Augusteena, Rosobelle Esraldan, Ella and Julien Egramont Catherine Navarre and Cordelia Fitzaphnold escaping from the Palace of Instruction to join the Royalists who are hard driven at present by the victorious Republicans –
While Anne had been so moved by her first glimpse of York Minster that she had recorded it in her diary paper four years earlier, Emily mentions none of the sights she had seen for the first time. Clearly, the opportunity to indulge in a Gondal ‘play’ with Anne meant more to her than anything else she had seen or done on their brief trip. Though it was at least thirteen years since the creation of their imaginary world, Emily, at almost twenty-seven, had lost none of her enthusiasm for Gondal, acting out the roles of its heroes and heroines with as much gusto as when a child. [pp.450-1]
Emily externalized her imagination; her poems and stories did not seem to her to inhabit her head, but were played out before her as if they were creations independent of her control. She was simply a passive spectator who could visualize so strongly that she only wrote what she actually saw. [p.482]
Having spent so much of her life at home, Emily had always been the most dedicated to, and involved in, her imaginary world. There was no perceivable break between her Gondal writings and her novel… The obvious conclusion is that Emily, unlike her sisters, made no attempt to break with the world of her imagination. [p.502]
Clearly, we know far too little of Emily Brontë to hazard any guess as to whether or not she might have made a good hypnotic subject, or was at any time involved in “healing”. It seems fairly obvious from the above, however, that this literary Titan certainly did (3) fantasize frequently as a child, (4) adopted a fantasy identity, (5) experienced imagined sensations as real, (6) had vivid sensory perceptions, and perhaps (10) received poems, messages, etc., from spirits, higher intelligences. Given the intensely fragmentary nature of our knowledge of her life, it is remarkable indeed that we can be reasonably sure that four, perhaps five of the indicators of fantasy proneness were manifest in Emily Brontë.
One wonders what she might have experienced, and what she would have written about, had she grown up 150 years later.