by Christopher Laursen
Exploring the Extraordinary is an annual
conference that recognizes and discusses
extraordinary things – a wide range of them –
that occur in people’s everyday lives.
interview | studies & events
Hannah Gilbert and Madeleine Castro
on Exploring the Extraordinary
April 24, 2013
Dr. Hannah Gilbert and Dr. Madeleine Castro co-founded Exploring the
Extraordinary (EtE), and it's held every September in York, England.
Currently, they are preparing the fifth conference, scheduled for 20-22
September 2013. Last year, I made it to York to present at this
conference while doing archival research in England - and it truly was an
incredible experience. A variety of interdisciplinary scholars, artists, and
people from around the world who are simply passionate about the topic
presented and were in attendance, sharing some of the most innovative,
open-minded ideas that I have come across in a conference
environment. Furthermore, registration for the event is quite
inexpensive, and you get to experience the grand spooky spaces of the
old city of York while you stay there.
Here is a small sampling that shows the diversity of speakers at the
conference in 2012:
Cal Cooper, a parapsychology graduate student at Northampton
University who has garnered well-deserved attention with his follow
up on D. Scott Rogo and Raymond Bayliss's research in
Telephone Calls From The Dead.
Sara MacKian, a senior lecturer in Health & Well-Being at Open
University, who recently published her book Everyday Spirituality.
Visual artist Sarah Sparkes on the organization of the multimedia
series GHost Hostings held in London.
Anthropologist Christel Mattheeuws on ceremonies for the dead
Writer and shamanistic healer Zoë Brân who took conference
attendees on a shamanic journey.
The energetic "ghost excavator" John Sabol on innovative new
methodologies of conducting interviews with spirits through live
electronic voice phenomena interviews.
The study of paramusicology with Melvyn Willin, including people
who channelled deceased musicians.
The full list of all speakers in all conferences is on the EtE website.
I had a chance to catch up with Hannah and Madeleine as they
prepared for the fifth conference being held in Autumn 2013 about the
concept of EtE and how it's been going.
Christopher: First of all, a sincere congratulations for making it to the
fifth Exploring the Extraordinary conference this coming September. It
really is an incredible endeavour. Can you tell me a bit about how EtE
came to be, including what inspired it? And, of course Extraordinarium
gives some clues as to the influence of the concept of extraordinary
things and experiences as a subject of study, but I'd like to hear your
take on it.
Hannah & Madeleine: Thank you very much! We had no idea when we
started our annual conferences that they would be so successful, and
that we'd end up networking with such a wonderful array of researchers
who share our passion for this area of research. It’s been a real joy.
It’s that passion for research which has been the driving force behind
EtE. As researchers we recognise the importance of the extraordinary
for many people in their everyday lives. We have also been keen to
ensure and argue for the fair, respectful treatment and representation of
those who report extraordinary experiences. Historically, much of
mainstream academia (unfortunately, this is still the case in some
contemporary contexts) has sought to undermine the significance of
studying the extraordinary. However, thankfully, there are increasing
numbers of researchers share both our interest and our belief in equity
in this field. We have always wanted to do
our bit to support these researchers (and
others interested in the field with a non-
judgemental approach), because we think
it’s vitally important and the papers on our
conference schedules reflect this. When
EtE started, one of our primary aims was
to create a supportive network for
researchers who may feel somewhat
isolated because of their research
interests. Studying extraordinary
experiences can present significant
challenges in the research and academic
environment, due to a tradition of disbelief
and sometimes ridicule regarding
extraordinary topics. We’ve both been
lucky in that respect, though we have also
both encountered ‘tutting’ or ‘eye-rolling’ in
response to our respective fields of study.
Michael Brown's reflections on how his
peers viewed his research into New Age
channelling is humbling: they were unable
to understand his interests, and some
even assumed he was 'going native.'
There are few subjects where you get the
same level of ‘concern’ except perhaps
criminal underworlds! Brown's book is
fantastic, and it is saddening to think that
some people may be put off researching in
this area because of this kind of reaction.
Also, academia alone can be difficult. Doing a PhD is likely to be a very
challenging process, much of which is unexpected and potentially
isolating. Battling demons and sometimes quite crushing moments of
inadequacy or doubt appear to be fairly common experiences during this
time. So if we can do something small but meaningful in terms of
offering a space that is supportive, which emphasises encouragement
and sharing ideas respectfully (rather than putting people down as a
exercise in intellectual prowess), then we are doing at least some of
what we set out to do. Some of the most meaningful feedback we've
had from conference delegates was how the atmosphere at the
conferences is friendly, safe, supportive and encouraging. This is one of
the things that makes all the hard work worthwhile!
Hannah: When I started my PhD there were few recent sociologically-
orientated studies of mediumship. This was exciting, but also
challenging as it felt like journeying into the unknown with few footholds.
I was constantly looking up papers, contacting academics to find out
more about what they were doing, and I discovered this world of
amazing research that, to be honest, became like a warm coat that I
could wrap up in when I doubted myself or struggled to conceptualise
what I was looking at. Having colleagues to work with during PhD
research is a godsend, and it really cements how important it is to be
able to discuss your ideas with like-minded people.
What has long seemed to be missing was an interdisciplinary setting
that was specifically about the extraordinary - not just the paranormal for
example, but something that combined all those things that transcend
the mundane. From a personal perspective, I found my own research
interests increasingly difficult to define in specific categorical terms, and
could see its relevance is a whole range of different arenas. Mediumship
is often labelled as paranormal, but that does it a disservice. I think its
far more complex than that. I think EtE is about opening doors... and
having fun while sharing our knowledge and experiences, of course.
Madeleine: I think my natural inclination intellectually is to be a little
butterfly-like. I have quite eclectic interests (e.g. contemporary
spiritualities, transcendent and mystical experiences, dreams, feminism,
methodology) and I tend to flit across disciplines, so I think the
importance of a context that was interdisciplinary was high. Having an
environment in which we can support others, hear about and discuss
our own and others’ work but also constantly be surprised, challenged
and introduced to new perspectives and new material is a privilege
Christopher: What did the first conference look like compared to the
one this past September? How would you say things have developed in
those first four years?
Hannah & Madeleine: The first conference was a much smaller event -
a one day event that took place in a room in the Sociology Department
at the University of York. It was a lovely event, with a good buzz. We'd
wanted to start reasonably small to see how it would go, what the
interest level would be, as well as the practical experience of running
such an event, which was new to all of us. An email list had been
operating for just over a year, and we were keen to start running annual
academic conferences. As it happens, others were equally enthusiastic,
and by the next year we'd received enough submissions to cover two
days. This was also due to popular demand for a longer conference with
more time for networking with other delegates. These increased again
the following year, with more and more international participation. In the
third year, we included an exhibition, to encourage links with artists, and
exhibited some wonderfully creative pieces.
Christopher: What have
some of the surprises been
in the conferences for you?
Unexpected outcomes, if you
Hannah & Madeleine: The
enthusiasm and breadth of
the submissions we've
received over the years has
been a very pleasant
surprise indeed! From a
practical perspective, there
were various hiccups
associated with venues,
services and problems with
accessing some university
spaces. This meant that we
were often preoccupied with
the logistics of the early
conferences and things
didn’t always run as
smoothly as we'd like (and
made us very keen for a
glass of wine at the end of
the day!). We moved to the
Holiday Inn in 2011, which
made things so much easier.
Finding such a friendly,
helpful venue has been
another pleasant surprise, and it's a joy to work with them. We now get
much more involved in the intellectual aspects of the conference, which
we love, as well as keep an eye on how it’s running.
Christopher: Related to that, can you tell me about how scholars of
different disciplines mix, and how those who don't work in academia fit
Hannah & Madeleine: Good question! On the whole, this works well.
What seems to unite conference speakers and attenders alike is a real
passion and interest in the extraordinary, and an eagerness to hear what
people have to say. In our experience, the distinction between
academics/non-academics isn’t a huge hurdle. We're keen to promote a
supportive atmosphere at our conferences - we want our conferences to
be places where people feel able to try out ideas, where students feel
comfortable presenting (perhaps for the first time). That doesn't mean, of
course, that everyone agrees with each other. It would be very dull if
they did! Rather, there is a level of respect for what people do. It hasn't
been something we've needed to enforce, EtE tends to attracts open
minded individuals who are there to learn, discuss and debate, not
Christopher: Who have been some of the key proponents of the
concept? Are there other conferences or gatherings that resemble the
Hannah & Madeleine: When we started out there was nothing like EtE
out there. There were other funded organisations such as the SPR
(Society for Psychical Research) and the PA (Parapsychological
Association) interested in psychical research and parapsychology, but
we wanted to be much broader. Plus we are not, and never have been
funded. We don’t get paid to do this, we do it for the love of the
extraordinary! Our strength is probably the interdisciplinary nature of our
conference, and its focus on the 'extraordinary' which is diverse and
eclectic, rather than only the paranormal, for example. Many other
conferences and events tend to be more specific. As for similar events,
we are fairly sure we’re unique (though others are doing great events
too). For instance, ASSAP have started doing 'Seriously Strange'
conferences which include a good range of topics on the anomalous.
Christopher: You have an upcoming conference: EtE 5. Can you tell
me a bit about why people should consider attending?
Hannah & Madeleine: If there are people out there who are either
researching extraordinary topics or who have an interest in this area and
are open to interdisciplinary discussion in a supportive and friendly
environment, then this is the conference for them! As always, we have a
great mix of papers and some fantastic speakers. The draft schedule will
be published on our website http://etenetwork.weebly.com/ in a couple
of weeks with details of how to register. In the meantime if people are
interested in us they can join us on Facebook – Exploring the
Extraordinary – or sign up to our email list or get in touch via
Christopher: If secrets can be revealed, where would you like to see
the interdisciplinary studies of the extraordinary - and EtE itself - go?
Hannah & Madeleine: To infinity and beyond? Perhaps not... it would
be nice to see a continuing development of interdisciplinary approaches
to the extraordinary, and a burgeoning field of researchers who are
genuinely passionate about what they do and looking to open new doors
to enquiry. Certainly, other groups and organisation are helping this to
happen - its a very exciting time to be involved in such research.
With regards to EtE... we'd like to see it continue to provide annual
conferences, perhaps branching into other kinds of events in the UK and
elsewhere. At the moment we both have other work commitments that
are paid! However, we both still harbour a dream that one day there
might be funding for EtE, perhaps even as research institute... We can
dream! And we're always open to suggestions about things we could do!
STUDIES & EXPERIENCES
OF THE EXTRAORDINARY
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WHAT IS EXTRAORDINARIUM?
Extraordinarium is a Digital Press & Journal
in which we journey through the extraordinary,
the fantastical and the supernatural. It is
curated and edited by Christopher Laursen.
The extraordinary consists of moments,
events, and things that unexpectedly catch us
off guard - changing how we see the our lives.
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rethink everything! Read more about the
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EXTRAORDINARIUM’S CHRISTOPHER LAURSEN
& PAUL CROPPER DELVE INTO THE BALDOON
MYSTERY IN FORTEAN TIMES
(FT 315, JUNE 2014).