One Step Beyond: ‘Alpha: Probing the Paranormal’, 1979 – 1980

Exhibit / January 22, 2018

Object Name: Alpha magazine
Maker and Year: Pendulum Publishing Co. Ltd., 1979-1980
Object Type: Magazine
Image Source: The author
Description: (Richard McKenna)

In one of the first episodes of BBC Scotland’s epochal 1979 paranormal drama series The Omega Factor, the program’s psychic protagonist can be seen sitting in his modish Manchester flat, leafing through a magazine with an aquamarine cover. The cover illustration shows a trombonist, the tubes of his instrument drooping in an evocation of psychokinetic metal-bending. That magazine was Alpha, a short-lived British bimonthly publication, six issues of which were released between 1979 and 1980. Its bombastic subtitle and mandate was “Probes the Paranormal.” Sold in “W. H. Smith and all major newsagents” as well as by mail order, it called itself “essential reading for believers and sceptics,” and cost the fairly exorbitant (at the time) price of 60 pence, enough for four pints of milk or almost two pints of beer at the pub. For comparison, weekly programming guide TV Times cost 15p and sci-fi monthly Starburst cost 50p.

Alpha appeared in an interesting moment: this was a period when paranormal interest was at its peak, both in the general population and within British academia. Despite widespread unemployment and ongoing industrial action by the trade unions, income in Britain continued to rise, and many of the generations born during and after the war—who had benefited from the free education and opportunities the country now offered—were becoming interested in the culture of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. This culture included the supernatural, which tied in nicely with the “occult explosion” of the 1960s: hence Alpha‘s audience, which putatively approached the publication with a mixture of open-mindedness and healthy skepticism (which, in retrospect, often looks like jaw-dropping credulity).

Alpha arrived between two partworks: BPC Publishing’s seminal Man, Myth & Magic (1970), and Orbis Publishing’s The Unexplained, a full-color weekly (50p) launched in 1981 to be assembled into volumes in binders embossed with enigmatic jigsaw pieces. Positing itself less as a work of populist curiosity and more as a journal for the serious and skeptical student of the paranormal, Alpha‘s tone was unlike that of either.

The editorial in the first issue read:

The rapid advance of science and the growing reliance of our society on technical wonders like computers and lasers have not dealt the expected death blow to belief in paranormal phenomena. Indeed, there has been something of an explosion of interest in the mysteries of time and space. Old enigmas, like ghosts and poltergeists, have been joined by new ones, such as metal bending and UFOs.

Is that interest no more than escapism? Or does it mirror a genuine and justified belief that there is much more to life than meets the eye?

In addition to the somewhat portentous announcement that “Alpha is forming a premonitions bureau,” the issue included an interview with Michael Bentine, at the time better known to the general public in the UK for being a member of the Goons (the surrealist radio comedy troupe that had made Peter Sellers famous), in which he revealed his interest in the supernatural as well as his friendship with the then-omnipresent Uri GellerSubsequent numbers included articles on hypnotic regression (with writer Gabrielle Donnelly describing a return to the 17th century) and the ganzfeld experiments of Cambridge University psychologist Carl Sargent (who later abandoned parapsychology for a career writing role-playing games), Soviet weaponization of parapsychological research, and the Reverend Jack Jennings on the possible consequences of alien contact for Christianity. Alpha‘s interviewees included New Age musician Steven Halpern, Professor John Taylor, the increasingly disillusioned author of 1975’s Superminds (the anecdotes in New Scientist magazine’s review of the book provide valuable insight into the psychology of the paranormal investigator), and psychic wunderkind of the day Matthew Manning, pictured lounging against his orange Lotus Eclat 521 “with a cassette of Rod Stewart in the tape player,” should his credentials as a creature of the 1970s be required.

The magazine was initially well-funded enough to be able to afford the above-mentioned wrap-around cover illustration of the trombonist by Brian Grimwood, an influential artist often credited with having “changed the look of British illustration.” Grimwood presumably didn’t come cheap, though the incongruous product placement of Heineken beer (part of a campaign that also featured Mr. Spock and J.R. Ewing), otherwise unmentioned inside, possibly offset some of the costs. The two-color covers of subsequent issues, however, which more closely resembled some university journal on applied physics, were vastly less eye-catching. The adverts inside Alpha—which grew increasingly thin on the ground as the magazine traversed its brief lifespan—ran the gamut from biofeedback machines, the Skywatch UFO detector, and the 1979 Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit, to Dianetics and CLENS hand soap; and there was also a brief section of classifieds, including one from a “researcher” asking for experiences “involving ESP/dream telepathy in sexual situations.”

Alpha‘s articles are written in earnest, pseudo-academic prose, and the overall mood is very much that of a scientific journal: with its measured, solemn tone, and complete lack of chuminess, dismissive hauteur, or postmodern histrionics, it seems as distant from the present day as an article by Madame Blavatsky. Another peculiar thing is a complete lack of the now-ubiquitous conspiracy theorizing, a reminder of how once upon a time the study of this type of thing was, in some ways, perceived as existing on the peripheries of “official” culture, as opposed to being antithetical to it. It’s an artifact from another time entirely, a world where “I enclose a cheque/postal order for…” was a standard procedure for mail order—a world where Trinity College Cambridge could donate £300 to a new study of Borley Rectory, “the most haunted house in Britain.”

In fact, looking at Alpha now, the most striking thing about it is the lineup of titled professors who crop up in its pages (something that had also been the case with Man, Myth & Magic), proof of the respectable interest the field was accorded at the time. As hard to credit as it might seem from the standpoint of today, a part of the scientific community clearly felt that the paranormal was not to be dismissed in toto as retrograde superstition or fantasy, but was at least deserving of rational investigation. Adding to the spooky credibility of the magazine are the stamps on the covers showing that they were previously the property of ASSAP (the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena), a “scientifically-orientated educational and research charity and learned society dedicated to a better understanding of anomalous phenomena.”

Without ever actually bothering to ready any of it, eight-year-old me adored Alpha: the very fact of its existence seemed to sanction the reality of the glorious madness contained in its pages, and I’m left with the powerful impression that it served the same purpose for many of its adult readers. Looking at it now, nearly 40 years on, I’m struck by a question and a reflection. The question is, just what were the relative proportions of quackery, self-deluding credulity, and informed interest behind the popularization of these ideas? The reflection, instead, regards the way those ideas and the mindset that facilitated them have developed in the meantime. After the conspiracy-driven narratives of The X Files rekindled interest in the paranormal, those belief mechanisms began to mutate into what we see now: something resembling an aggressive desire to replace reality with the excitement of an alternate, elusive world of victimization and paranoia, allowing its adherents to deny the legitimacy of whatever elements of the real world they, for whatever reason, struggle to accept.

One thought on “One Step Beyond: ‘Alpha: Probing the Paranormal’, 1979 – 1980

  1. Pingback: We Who Are Alive: The End Times On Screen

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