Review: Presence: The Strange Science and True Stories of the Unseen Other – Ben Alderson-Day

Ben Alderson-Day, Presence: The strange science and true stories of the unseen other. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2023. 285 pp. ISBN: 978 1 5261 7350 8

Anyone familiar with the content of the RERC archive will know something of what is sometimes referred to as the ‘sense of presence.’ Further back in time, William James knew of it too, devoting a haunting chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience to the study of a type of experience he dubbed ‘The Reality of the Unseen’ and including the following extract of a much longer testimony as an illustration of its key feature:

‘Quite early in the night I was awakened…I felt as if I had been aroused intentionally, and at first thought some one was breaking into the house…I then turned on my side to go to sleep again, and immediately felt a consciousness of a presence in the room, and singular to state, it was not the consciousness of a live person, but of a spiritual presence. This may provoke a smile, but I can only tell you the facts as they occurred to me.’

Indeed, such ‘facts’ abound, as Ben Alderson-Day’s absorbing study amply reveals. They often occur in the company of other phenomena also, and it is in extending his study to encompass these that gives Presence such an impressive wideness of scope. For, as the author notes throughout, it is not simply that such things are sensed, but that they are heard and otherwise interacted with also, including – sometimes – in eerily tactile ways. Hence, for example, in the book’s opening chapter, the author considers presence as an aspect of voice-hearing. Again, the source of such presence is invisible, yet there is often a sort of accompanying ‘cloud of pure identity’ – as one of his interviewees put it – that goes with it.

So what might such a strange ‘cloud’ really be? Ben Alderson-Day is an Associate Professor in Psychology and a Fellow of the Institute for Medical Humanities at Durham University but his ‘presence odyssey’ quickly reveals to him that his journey in search of understanding cannot be restricted to just one field. Hence, Presence encompasses religion, spirituality, philosophy, psychiatry, anthropology, history, neuroscience and child development, to name but a few of the perspectives included. One chapter considers Tulpas and the possible relationship of their creation to that of the creation of an imaginary friend during childhood. Another considers felt presence experiences in relation to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia with Lewy bodies. Another considers the ’bedroom invader’ phenomenon and its possible relationship to sleep paralysis and other hypnopompic states. And yet another examines the experience of the sense of presence in relation to the research of the Society for Psychical Research and exploration into the sensory experiences of the deceased. Given the author’s background, experimental psychology is never far from the scene and Presence builds much on the work of others in the field. It also benefits considerably from a wealth of interview material which is sensitively and effectively integrated throughout.

Despite coming away with the keen sense that Presence had raised more questions than it answered, some things had become clear to me by the end. As Alderson-Day demonstrates, even the ordinary everyday sense of ‘selfhood’ is itself a complex construction, and the argument that we might be feeling, essentially, the presence of ourselves during such unusual experiences is one which clearly fascinates and to a certain extent persuades the author. The ineffability of presence-experiences complicates analysis also (a fact which will be singularly unsurprising to long-standing students of anomalous experience), as does the author’s by-the-end overturned notion that ‘a single story would ultimately emerge’ to explain everything. It doesn’t, of course, but Presence does, at least, make a brave attempt to uncover one.

Given the impressive ambition and detail of the book it seems churlish to point out its omissions but omissions there are. The chapter on ‘bedroom invaders’ would have benefitted considerably from the inclusion and consideration of David Hufford’s classic folkloristic analysis of supernatural assault traditions as found in his seminal study, The Terror That Comes In The Night. It might also have gained by incorporating some of the research into UFO abductions by John Mack and others. Likewise, the chapter on Tulpas might have been fruitfully supplemented by some consideration – and, perhaps, testing – of the ‘conjuring up Philip’ experiments carried out in Toronto in the early 1970s: experiments which, as far as I am aware, have yet to be repeated.

Given the impressive number of questions surrounding the sense of presence that Ben Alderson-Day takes up, I was also puzzled by some of the rather obvious issues that Presence fails to address. Early on, for example, in the chapter on voice-hearing, the author notes with some regularity how negative the voices are. Why might this be? What may it be telling us about the source? That it is simply a matter of an inner voice being externalised? Or might this often crushing negativity be revealing something else? Similarly, the plurality of the voices sometimes heard has also often struck me as worthy of more analysis than Alderson-Day allows. Why so often the ‘we’ as opposed to the ‘I’? Recently I was conducting a study-group and one of the members – ‘John’, as I shall call him – was a voice-hearer. Throughout the ninety-minute long session the voices were talking to him continually, and, unbeknownst to me, John was duly listing everything that they were saying. At the end he showed me his list. Every statement started with ‘we.’ It puzzled me then and puzzles me still.

Overall, however, Presence is a fine study and a worthy addition to a complex and fascinating field. It is extremely well-written too.

This review first appeared in De Numine Issue 76, Spring 2024, pp. 23 – 4