Andrew Lang (1844–1912) Author of more than 70 books and hundreds of magazine articles on classical subjects, mythology, folklore, anthropology, psychical research and religion. A scholar by training, an artist by inclination, and a writer by profession, Lang believed passionately in both Psychical Research and anthropology, and never lost an opportunity to point out the relevance of each to the other.
Andrew Lang was born in the town of Selkirk, near the Scottish border with England, on March 31, 1844. Intellectually precocious, he learned to read when he was only four years old. Fairy tales were among his favourites, and he later wrote that as a youngster, he “knew all the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and every ghost in Sir Walter Scott.” No special incident seems to have triggered his interest in the paranormal. It was simply something he grew up with—perhaps not surprising, given the place and time.
When he was 10, Lang was sent to Edinburgh Academy, a preparatory school, and at 17 he went to St. Andrews University. Two years later, in 1864, he was admitted to Balliol College, Oxford. Upon graduation in 1868, he accepted a teaching fellowship at Merton College. There he stayed until 1875, when he married Leonora Blanche Alleyne, moved to London, and embarked on his journalistic career.
Lang contributed an important article on Apparitions to the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1875). In this, he argued that veridical apparitions were not satisfactorily explained as coincidental but suggested that crisis apparitions, which are seen about the time of the agent’s death, were telepathically induced hallucinations, an argument very close to that which was to be made 11 years later by Edmund Gurney in Phantasms of the Living (1885). Although he did not discuss his own experience, Lang’s views may have been influenced by an apparition he had observed a few years earlier, in 1869. He had seen an Oxford professor standing by a streetlight in front of the college where he had taught at the same time this man lay dying elsewhere.
In Cock Lane and Common Sense (1894), Lang championed the work of both anthropologists and members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) (which had been founded in 1882), even while he chided them for ignoring each other’s data. His title was taken from an 18th-century London poltergeist case (see Cock Lane Ghost), which Lang showed to be strikingly similar in form to cases reported from tribal societies around the world. The book met a chilly but predictable response from both sides. Anthropologists continued to reject the idea that there was any substance to claimed paranormal experiences, while psychical researchers replied that strictly anecdotal accounts such as those commonly reported by anthropologists could not hope to reach a satisfactory standard of evidence. Evidence of belief or experience alone was not the same as establishing paranormality.
The Book of Dreams and Ghosts (1897) was aimed at a more general audience. Lang brought together a variety of real-life ghost stories from throughout history and around the world, arranged in chapters that progress from dreams and visions to hallucinations, apparitions, and Hauntings. He included a chapter on WRAITHS, as he called the apparitions of living persons. Again he did not comment on his personal experience, but it is perhaps noteworthy that Lang had seen such an entity himself. This was a girl, a relative of his, whom he saw dressed in blue, crossing a brilliantly lit hall. Although he called out to her, she said nothing, and he went on in to the dining room, where he found her dressed in white, seated at the table.
In The Making of Religion (1898), based on his series of Gifford lectures at the University of Edinburgh, Lang renewed his attempt to bring psychical research and anthropology together. He also discussed his own crystal gazing experiments. After some number of trials with different people, he discovered one woman, whom he called “Miss Angus,” who was able to see in the crystal the image of a person or scene related to a person who was present with her at the time. The images Miss Angus saw were not necessarily in the mind of the sitter, and might contain veridical information not known to the sitter at the time. Thus, they suggested the operation of some extensive network of telepathy, what today would be called Super-PSI. This led Lang to doubt the evidence for Survival After Death from the trance communications of Leonora Piper, which some SPR researchers found convincing.
Lang was one of the most widely read writers of his day, and he reached both the public and scholars. It is of some significance for the SPR, therefore, that he never lost the chance to publicize its work. Although Lang never succeeded in bringing anthropology and psychical research together in the way he would have liked, he did much to raise awareness of the issues. He was the principal contributor of articles on psychical research topics to the great 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910), and W. H. R. Rivers, an anthropologist of stature, wrote that thanks to Lang’s efforts, psychical research was no longer a disreputable field of study.
Lang showed in his handling of his case material that he was aware of appropriate standards of evidence, and thus earned the respect of the SPR as well. Although he was late in joining the Society (he did not join until 1904), he contributed many articles to its publications, including one on the “voices” of Joan of Arc (later incorporated into his book, The Maid of France, 1908). He was elected president of the SPR in 1911.
In 1901 Lang saw a third wraith, which he described in the Monthly Review for March 1903. But he regretted that he had had so few such experiences. In one of his magazine articles, he wrote, “I have passed nights in a haunted castle, with the whole of the haunted wing to myself, and that when I was young, ill, and over-worked: I have occupied the ghostly chamber where the original of Dickens’s Miss Haversham lived and died in her mouldy bridal raiment; but in spite of expecting with fear and trembling all sorts of horrors, I never saw or heard anything to establish the existence of a Bogey.”
A few months before his death, Lang saw his final apparition: his family’s Death Omen a monstrous cat. He died on July 20, 1912, of a heart attack, while on a visit to his native Scotland, and was buried in St. Andrews.
- Cocq, Antonius Petrus Leonardus de. Andrew Lang, A Nineteenth Century Anthropologist. Tilburg, Netherlands: Zwijsen, 1968.
- Gauld, Alan. “Andrew Lang as a Psychical Researcher.” Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR)52 (1983): 161– 76.
- Green, Roger Lancelyn. Andrew Lang: A Critical Biography. Leicester, Eng.: Edmund Ward, 1946.
- Haynes, Renee. The Society of Psychical Research, 1882–1892: A History. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1982.