When the Spirits Write

The Automatic-Writing Phenomenon—Benign or Ill?

When my brother-in-law told me that his mother, Hazel, had penned part of a mysterious novel, I was naturally curious. When I saw Hazel at a Christmas party, I asked her about the book and she somewhat reluctantly explained that around 1981, while watching television, she had a sudden urge to start writing a story—a story having to do with outer space. She had had no real interest in the subject and had no prior interest in creative writing. “But I felt compelled to write,” Hazel stressed.

Words began flowing from Hazel’s pen, including many technical words that had no meaning to her. Her husband retired for the night, and when he awoke the next morning Hazel was still writing. “I had lost track of time,” she continued. “I had no idea it was already morning.” She didn’t know what she had written, and when she read it, she didn’t completely understand it.

Over the next few months, the urge to write would continue to come upon her. She would resist until it became too strong. “It was frightening,” Hazel said. She had written dozens of pages when one day she felt compelled to visit an observatory near her city. There, she encountered many of the terms in her book, terms which previously had no meaning to her. Some years later, she was reading a newspaper and came upon the term “black hole,” which was also in her book. She said she had no idea what that referred to.

When Hazel mentioned her strange experiences to her fundamentalist pastor, she was informed that whatever was happening to her was demonic and that she should immediately cease and desist, which she did. I inferred that her hesitancy to talk about her “occult” experience was because she saw it as an admission that she had been an agent of the devil, however unintentional it was.

Hazel’s mysterious experiences did not end there. Some years later, at around age 60, she suddenly discovered that she had artistic ability and decided to polish her painting skills by enrolling in some art classes. However, when she realized that the classes were negatively affecting her artistic ability, she discontinued them.

The mainstream psychologist would explain Hazel’s experiences as latent talents making their way from the deep recesses of the subconscious mind to the conscious—the subconscious having absorbed and stored bits and pieces of information from movies, books, and other sources over the years. Believers in reincarnation might see it as knowledge from a prior life somehow breaking through from the subconscious (the soul) and influencing her. As with Hazel’s pastor, many religionists would see it as the work of the devil, even if there was no indication of malicious or evil intent in her story. Those subscribing to the teachings of Spiritualism would say that Hazel had mediumistic abilities and was unknowingly channeling a deceased astronomer. They call it automatic writing.

“Automatic writing, I may explain for those unfamiliar with the term, is writing that is written by the hand of a person which is not under control of his conscious mind,” William T. Stead, a British journalist who went down with the Titanic, explained. “The hand apparently writes of itself, the person to whom the hand belongs having no knowledge of what it is about to write. It is a very familiar and simple form of mediumship.”

Addressing the subliminal theory of the psychologist, Stead, an accomplished automatist who claimed to receive communication from a deceased friend named Julia, wrote that he could not believe that any part of his unconscious self would deliberately practice a hoax upon his conscious self about the most serious of all subjects, and keep it up year after year with the most sincerity and consistency. “The simple explanation that my friend who has passed over can use my hand as her own seems much more natural and probable,” he asserted.

In her 1918 classic, The Seven Purposes, author Margaret Cameron described her sensation in automatic writing as “comparable to that of holding a quiet, live bird, wrapped in a handkerchief, its energy muffled but palpable. Sometimes this sensation of a current from without is communicated to the hand and arm, sometimes only to the fingers.”

Sidney Dean, a member of Congress representing Connecticut from 1855 to 1859 and later a journalist and author, wrote to Professor William James of Harvard describing the strange writing that seemed to be coming from his hand but not from his brain. “Some of it is in hieroglyph, or strange compounded arbitrary characters, each series possessing a seeming unity in general design or character, followed by what purports to be a translation or rendering into mother English,” he explained to James. “I never attempted the seemingly impossible feat of copying the characters. They were cut with the precision of a graver’s tool, and generally with a single rapid stroke of the pencil. Many languages, some obsolete and passed from history, are professedly given. To see them would satisfy you that no one could copy them except by tracing.”

Dean stressed that the writing was his but the dictation not of his own mind, some of it involving knowledge foreign to him, generally dealing with life and life beyond death, each chapter signed by some person who lived on Earth. “Sentences are commenced without knowledge of mine as to their subject or ending,” he told James. “In fact, I have never known in advance the subject of disquisition.”

Dean also considered the subliminal hypothesis but rejected it, because so much of what he wrote conflicted with his own beliefs or were things he had had no experience of or exposure to. “No, the easiest and most natural solution to me is to admit the claim made; i.e., that it is a decarnated intelligence who writes.”

In spite of the resistance by church authorities, William Stainton Moses, a Church of England priest, found himself writing things that were in conflict with his beliefs and church dogma and doctrine. “I sat at my desk, and the first part was written. I presume I then passed into a state of unconscious trance. The next thing I remember was standing in spirit near to my body, which was seated holding the pen before the table on which this book was placed. I looked at it and the arrangements of the room with great interest. I saw that my body was there and that a thin line of light joined me to it. Everything material in the room looked shadowy, and everything spiritual seemed solid and real.

Moses clairvoyantly saw the communicating spirit standing behind his body with his own hand over his, and he saw other spirits in the room at the same time. “Through the ceiling streamed down a mild, pleasing light, and now and again rays of bluish light were shot down on my body. When this was done, I saw the body jerk and quiver. It was being charged, as I may say. I noticed, moreover, that the daylight had faded; and the window seemed dark, and the light by which I saw was spirit-light. I could hear perfectly well the voices of the spirits who spoke to me. They sounded very much as human voices do, but were more delicately modulated and sounded as though from a distance.”

As Moses observed his handwriting, it was explained to him that it was not so much that the spirit was using his hand as it was the spirit was impressing his mind. “[It] was done by directing on to the pen a ray which looked like blue light. The force so directed caused the pen to move in obedience to the will of the directing spirit. In order to show me that the hand was a mere instrument, not essential to the experiment, the pen was removed from the hand and kept in position by the ray of light which was directed upon it. To my great surprise, it moved over the paper and wrote as before…I do not remember the return to my body. I am perfectly certain as to what occurred, and report it simply and without exaggeration.”

Probably the most famous and studied case of automatic writing was that of Pearl Curran of St. Louis. First from a friend’s Ouija board, then a pencil, then a typewriter, flowed the writings of a spirit identifying herself as Patience Worth, a seventeenth century English woman. In some of her scripts, she used Anglo-Saxon words that are no longer part of the English vocabulary but were verified by researchers as having existed at one time. According to Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, a psychologist who studied Curran, Patience Worth’s writing “displayed original genius, enormous erudition, familiarity with literature and history of many ages, versatility of experience, philosophical depth, piercing wit, moral spirituality, swiftness of thought, and penetrating wisdom,” qualities and characteristics which were totally foreign to Pearl Curran, who had only an eighth-grade education. Moreover, Curran was often witnessed talking to others as her hand was recording.

Perhaps the most accomplished automatist of the twentieth century was Geraldine Cummins of Ireland. In the Introduction of The Road to Immortality, published in 1953, Beatrice Gibbes described the method employed by Cummins. She would sit at a table, cover her eyes with her left hand and concentrate on “stillness.” She would then fall into a light trance or dream state. Her hand would then begin to write. Usually, her “control” (spirit guide) would make some introductory remarks and announce that another entity was waiting to speak. Because of her semi-trance condition and also because of the speed at which the writing would come, Gibbes would sit beside her and remove each sheet of paper as it was filled. Cummins’ hand was quickly lifted by Gibbes to the top of the new page, and the writing would continue without break. In one sitting, Gibbes stated, Cummins wrote 2,000 words in 75 minutes, whereas her normal compositions were laboriously put together, perhaps 800 words in seven or eight hours.

Gibbes mentioned that she witnessed the writing of about 50 different personalities, all claiming to be “dead,” all differing in character and style, coming through Cummins’ hand.

In that book, Cummins sets forth the communication purportedly coming from Frederic W. H. Myers, a pioneer of psychical research who died in 1901, during the period 1924 to 1931. The entity identifying himself as Myers explained the difficulty in communicating by means of automatic writing. “The inner mind is very difficult to deal with from this side,” Cummins recorded. “We impress it with our message. We never impress the brain of the medium directly. That is out of the question. But the inner mind receives our message and sends it on to the brain. The brain is the mere mechanism. The inner mind is like soft wax; it receives our thoughts, their whole content, but it must produce the words to clothe it.”

Myers went on to explain that success in sending the thought through depends on the inner mind of the automatist, which must contribute to the body of the message. “In other words, we send the thoughts and the words usually in which they must be framed, but the actual letters or spelling of the words is drawn from the medium’s memory. Sometimes we only send the thoughts and the medium’s unconscious mind clothes them in words.”

Myers also communicated that when discarnate beings want to communicate through a sensitive, they must enter a dream or subjective state which detaches them from the memory of concrete facts in their past lives. “Further, if we communicate directly through the medium, though we often retain our personality, our manner of speech, we are frequently unable to communicate through the medium’s hand or voice many exact facts about our past career on Earth, sometimes not even our own names.”

If several “New Age” magazines are any indication, there are a number of people today who practice automatic writing, though neither Science nor Religion has any interest in what the purported spirits have to say. Science doesn’t recognize a spirit world, so it can be nothing more than imaginative daydreaming, while Religion still heeds the words in the Old Testament saying that “the dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5) and that we should not be consulting the “dead” (Deut. 18:10). The fact that the New Testament says that we should “test the spirits, as to whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1), “discern” the messages (1 Cor. 12:10), and “hold on to what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21) does not, strangely, seem to conflict with the Old Testament passages in the minds of most Christians.

If spirits are really behind automatic writing and if the seemingly credible spirits can be believed, the more advanced spirits have a much more difficult time communicating than those at lower levels because they are existing at such a high rate of vibration relative to the Earth vibration. These advanced spirits, some messages relate, have to use spirits at lower levels of vibration to relay their messages to humans; and these messages are sometimes distorted in the process by the lower-level spirits, who do not properly grasp the message. The message might be further distorted as it is filtered through the medium’s mind. It seems well established in psychical research that such filtering can color the message toward the medium’s preconceived beliefs.

Indications are that devious “earthbound” spirits, which are still very close to the earth vibration, can easily interfere in the communication process and even masquerade as deceased relatives and friends. Hence, the same warning usually given to people about using the Ouija board applies to automatic writing. It is not something to be played with.

“I know of no mode of spiritual intercourse that is exempt from a moral taint—no kind of mediumship where the communication may not be affected by the mind of the instrument,” John Edmonds, looked upon as the first true psychical researcher, offered in an 1853 book (the “instrument” being the medium).

Edmonds, who served as Chief Justice of the New York State Supreme Court, spent 23 months investigating mediums. “There are false communications which are not intentionally so,” Edmonds explained, “some arising from a mistake of the spirit who is communicating, and some from the error of the medium who has not yet so studied himself as to be able to distinguish the innate action of his own mind from the impress of spirit influence.” Edmonds went on to say that “sometimes timidity and diffidence will color and sometimes vanity and fanaticism distort the teachings of the spirits.”

The spirits who communicated, Edmonds further pointed out, were not on equal footing. They varied significantly in advancement. “Some are more, and some less, ignorant than others; some more prudent and careful; some more zealous and inconsiderate; some impulsive and rapid, and some calm and deliberate; in fine, with every conceivable variety of attribute and faculty. Of necessity, the communication from each of these must be affected, as all human intercourse is, by the peculiar characteristics of each individual.” In effect, Edmonds stressed, those receiving the messages must discern the messages.




Reading the Handwriting on the Wall

Rembrandt’s 1635 oil painting, Belshazzar’s Feast, depicts the story from chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. A feast by the Babylonian king is dramatically interrupted by the appearance of a disembodied handwriting on the wall. The message, which the Bible says was unreadable to the Babylonian wise men, resulted in a call to the prophet Daniel, who translated it as “Thou art weighed in the balances and found wanting;” a prophecy of Belshazzar’s impending doom.

Rembrandt shows the message apparently in Aramaic, which, like Hebrew, is written in right-to-left rows, not in right-to-left columns, as painted. “To read the handwriting on the wall,” has referred, ever since, to a perception of looming danger.



By Michael E. Tymn