‘Marjorie Johnson, Shaman of Suburbia’ by Simon Young

The story of Marjorie Johnson (1911-2011) is fascinating. Her primary legacy is the book Seeing Fairies, but, as recounted here, her interactions with the faeries took many paths and she may legitimately be seen as a mystic, and perhaps even a modern shaman, albeit a very unusual one. She also became secretary of The Fairy Investigation Society, a role now inhabited by Dr Simon Young. Simon has written extensively on faerie folklore and currently teaches at the University of Virginia Program (Siena, CET), Italy. This article appeared originally in the newsletter of The Fairy Investigation Society (no. 7, 2018), a twice yearly publication available to members. Membership is free, and deadbutdreaming strongly recommends readers head over to the website and sign up. The newsletters are always packed with faerie data, from a vast range of perspectives. And the FIS website is also excellent, including a downloadable version of the 2017 Census, which updates the accounts of faerie interactions from Seeing Fairies with over 500 modern testimonies from around the world. Thanks to Simon for permission to republish this article here.

At first glance her life seemed so normal. Marjorie Johnson, Nottingham’s fairy woman, was born in a lower middle class street, in 1911. She would die, a hundred years later, having lived through the Somme, the Blitz, the Cuban Missile Crisis and 9/11, in the same terraced house on Brooklands Road, Carlton. Stability was an essential part of her remarkable development. Not only did she live in the same building, she lived, for much of that time, with the same individuals. Mum and Dad had an idyllic marriage: a prized family possession were the courtship letters between the two. Then, there was sister Dorothy, nine years older, who would become Marjorie’s soul mate: neither married and neither seemed to have had any inclination to do so. The worst that could be said about this family was that perhaps it was too happy, too self-contained.

The outlines of Marjorie’s life suggest a buoyant normality: not quiet desperation, but essential satisfaction. She had met D.H. Lawrence and Freida as a young girl: the writer and his lover had come over for tea. Later in life, she worked in a law firm as a secretary. Her sister Dorothy worked, meanwhile, as a professional pet painter and travelled around the country to undertake portraits. Marjorie had the typical quotient of outside interests: she was, for example, a passionate member of the anti-vivisection league, and became a vegetarian; she and her sister kept dogs; she also was interested in gypsy culture. She was universally liked by those who knew her: again and again in talking or writing to her acquaintances the words ‘kind’, ‘good’, or ‘considerate’ come up. The closest Marjorie came to decadence was that she, later in life, would allow herself a tipple of Baileys in the evening. Oh and then there were the fairies…

There is no easy way to say this but Marjorie Johnson, from very early in life, until her death heard, saw and conversed with fairies. Sometimes they were glimpsed out of the corner of her eyes. Sometimes they came in dreams. Sometimes she believed that the fairies were sending her messages: for example, a series of dead birds in the garden were interpreted as the fairies wanting her to bury their animal friends. Once she was pushed on a beach by invisible hands: a sea nymph was apparently angry that she had tried to take a shell. On another occasion the fairies played tricks on her and she lost an important letter only for it to turn up in a place she had already looked for it. With the right expectations we could perhaps all convince ourselves, on grounds like these, that we have fairies in our lives. Things go missing but then are found. You slip on the sand while trying to reach a shell. There is an ornithological murrain and bird corpses appear in the garden. A bee or a butterfly glimpsed in the loaming becomes a fairy on patrol.

But Marjorie’s experiences were often stronger, and more difficult to explain away. She once, for instance, stood by while a fairy procession passed in front of her and was invited to join the fairies in their feasting: she declined because she was worried about being made to eat their food. In advanced middle age Marjorie, was misled by fairies at a cemetery and came face-to-face with a fairy house that then vanished. On yet another occasion she watched fairies running to and fro in the street and dancing, getting ready for a summer solstice festival: they warned her telepathically not to approach. Then, when Marjorie wanted to buy some land for gardening a fairy came to tell her not to, shaking its finger energetically: thanks to the fairy Marjorie was able to rent the land for practically nothing and saved a good deal of money. In these cases it would be difficult for someone to live these experiences without a schizophrenic condition or access to hallucinogens; neither of which, needless to say, featured in Marjorie’s life.

Marjorie had always seen fairies. An old friend of the family confirmed that as a toddler, in the Great War, Marjorie had babbled about the colours of fairies she saw among the flowers. However, Marjorie’s most significant fairy experience came when she was six. We know about the experience because, aged twenty-five, Marjorie wrote about what she had seen to the letters page of a then much-read national magazine, John O’London’s Weekly, where a number of readers had contributed their own fairy experiences:

On this particular morning I was lying in bed enjoying the early morning sunshine which streamed in through the low, open window, when suddenly I felt compelled to sit up in bed and turn my eyes to the empty fire grate. There, on a filmy cobweb on the bars, sat a strange little creature. It seemed quite unafraid and, from the broad grin on its face, appeared to enjoy my observation. At first I just kept still and stared, and it blinked back at me with a blank expression which showed very little intelligence. Soon I had to satisfy my childish curiosity by climbing out of bed. The elf immediately disappeared. I climbed back, and when I turned round it was perched in the same place. This disappearance and reappearance continued until I brushed away the cobweb. I never saw the nature sprite again.

The elf episode was, for Marjorie, a wake-up call. As we shall establish, below, many people and perhaps especially young children have experiences of this kind. But very few twenty-five year olds are ready for their name to appear under an account like this in a national publication, particularly in the stifling and judgmental Britain of the late 1930s. Marjorie, as noted above, was repeatedly described as ‘good’ and ‘considerate’ by friends, but she also had a steely resolve. She would not ignore the evidence of her senses. Here it is worth stressing that a small part of the population do see impossible things: ghosts, fairies, monsters, aliens…. The first great survey of the paranormal, the wonderfully named ‘Census of Hallucinations’, began in Britain in 1889 and 16000 people, from all runs of life, were interviewed. Of those interviewed about ten percent had had a striking paranormal experience in their lives. Since then there have been other surveys. Some have put the number of visionaries in our society as low as five percent, others as high as twenty percent. It is possible that the number contracts or grows according to factors within a given society: totalitarianism, war, hardship, busts and booms… But what is clear is that, in every society, a small, but not a vanishingly small, part of the population have supernatural experiences. It is also interesting that many of these have frequent supernatural experiences; there seems to be a predisposition in certain individuals to have visions and unworldly meetings.

This all makes sense in terms of evolution. These five, ten or twenty percent are likely the men and women who were supposed to become sibyls and druids, soothsayers and healers in early societies; the elders who painted dreams onto cave walls, or who worked miracles in the first human villages. These were the spirit-folk who would speak to the ancestors. They would bring wisdom and cohesion to the tribe. They would give medical relief, with herbs and by ‘faith’. The problem is that, again in evolutionary terms, these visionaries no longer have a straightforward role in a world dominated by automated machines and by the internet. There is, then, the danger that the mystic tendency has become like our tail-bones, a relict of a previous epoch, which has no relevance to us today. This is why most people with such dangerous ‘gifts’, conscious of the potential for embarrassment or even humiliation, ignore or hide them.

Yet Marjorie Johnson had, already by her mid twenties, decided to be defined by her fairies. We know, for example, that aged twenty-three, two years before she wrote to John O’ London’s, she made a bamboo pipe and took it out to play to any fairies she might happen upon. There is an extraordinary photograph of Marjorie in 1934 kneeling in the ferns at Castle Rising (in Norfolk) and playing passionately to something invisible: she looks like a snake charmer without the cobra. A smudge of light on the negative is described, on the back of the photograph, as ‘Nature spirits veiled in ectoplasm’.

Marjorie was at it again a few days later, playing as she and her sister Dorothy strolled through the countryside, and when she reached a copse of trees the fairies answered with music. Marjorie being Marjorie she stopped and wrote the notes down: she would later, always thorough, get a composer to give proper notations to the fairies’ riffs and harmonies.

Why is it that Marjorie embraced mysticism, when most of the visionary ten percent try, in the twentieth and twenty-first century, to turn off this part of their hardwiring? The first reason was her family. There is no clue that there was any special interest in the paranormal in the Johnson household, though Marjorie later wrote that her mother had premonitory dreams. But Dorothy had seen fairies, too, as a child and continued to do so through her life: even if with less frequency than Marjorie. As a young child Dorothy had lost a ring in some woods outside Nottingham. After asking the fairies to help her find it she returned to the wood at twilight and, in her own words, ‘I was able to discern in the dim light the ring moving towards me about a foot above the ground, as if floating on air or being carried by some invisible being, and, as I watched, it dropped at my feet.’ Dorothy, Marjorie later revealed, had also seen the elf in the fireplace – she had been fifteen: the sisters had been sleeping in the same bed when the elf had appeared and Marjorie had nudged her sister awake.

Had the parents perhaps fostered, then, a belief in fairies? It seems unlikely. Marjorie believed that her mother had once seen a fairy. While washing Mrs Johnson had thought she saw, at the upstairs bathroom window, a tiny face peeping through. But there is no suggestion that the Johnson parents had any interest in small men or winged sylphs or, indeed, knew anything about supernatural forces. There is not even any sense of strong religious beliefs in the household. Their most important contribution to Marjorie’s development was that of providing a loving and understanding environment while the girls grew up. Some imaginative Victorian and Edwardian children were punished for ‘lies’ or simply mocked into conformity. As one of Marjorie’s later correspondents put it: ‘It is so nice to know that someone else has seen fairies besides myself. I saw them when I was a child, but I was laughed at so often that gradually I ceased to go where they were, and did not speak of them again….’

This was not how such things worked in the Johnson household. This is Marjorie’s description of Dorothy’s first fairy experience and her mother’s model reaction:

[A] fairy had appeared in front of [Dorothy] in the old orchard when she was a small child and I was not yet born. It stood smiling at her – a dainty little fairy dress with silvery wings. It had a pretty coronet on its head, and in its hand was a wand with a tiny, twinkling star on top. My sister said she was so thrilled that she ran up the garden path to fetch Mother, who hurried back with her, but of course, by then, as usually happens, the little creature had disappeared. But Mother knew from Dorothy’s joy and excitement that she was telling the truth. We were very lucky in having wise parents who never scoffed at us or crushed our excited outpourings, but always found time to listen understandingly to what we had to say.

Marjorie was born, then, into a tolerant and imaginative family. However, she had another advantage, she was born at just the right time, the time that a new kind of fairy was emerging into the British imagination. In the nineteenth century there had been two kinds of fairies. There were the rather frightening fairies that ‘infested’ the most rural and isolated regions of Britain and Ireland, stealing children and cursing crops: it must be remembered that just sixteen years before Marjorie’s birth a woman, Bridget Cleary, had been burnt in County Tipperary because it was believed that she was a fairy. These traditional fairies were viewed, by almost everyone who cared to write about them, as unhappy fossils of medieval (and in Ireland Catholic) barbarism. Then, there was the sugar plum fairy, a proto-Tinkerbell in children’s books, in art and, perhaps most importantly, in the theatre. These were the priggish white winged fairies of the Victorian imagination, fairies that are still with us today in Disney films and toy franchises: these fairies, it goes without saying, were understood not to be real. They were like our unicorns or dragons.

Had Marjorie Johnson been born in Nottingham in, say, 1850 she would doubtless have had visionary experiences, but she would not have described those experiences with the word ‘fairy’. After all, the fairies in her children’s books would not have been living things; and she would have had no contact with the scary fairies of Wales or northern England. Her experiences would have been difficult to situate or she might have been taught the word ‘ghost’. However, in the late nineteenth-century, a third fairy emerged, the spiritualist fairy. The spiritualists were a breakaway Christian movement and they are most famous today for their energetic efforts to contact the dead with rapping in darkened rooms. As spiritualism developed, though, and particularly in the branch of spiritualism called theosophy, there was an attempt to reduce the entire universe to supernatural mechanics. Yes, there were the spirits of the dead, said the theosophists. But there were also ‘elementals’, forces that inhabited flowers, rocks and other objects in the natural world. These ‘elementals’ were, it was argued, what our ancestors had called ‘fairies’.

This idea burbled gently away at the end of the nineteenth-century in spiritualist books and occasional newspaper columns: impressing several important figures, not least W.B. Yeats, whose fairy visions were based, in part on traditional lore and, in part, on theosophy. It became more and more commonplace in the early twentieth century. Then, the idea went mainstream after the First World War with the Cottingley fairy photographs. In 1917 two girls from Cottingley in West Yorkshire, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith, saw and photographed fairies. We now know that these photographs were faked by the girls. But when they were published in 1920 and 1921, after theosophists had publicized them, the photographs divided opinion. Those who did support their authenticity, among them Arthur Conan Doyle, did so, on the basis of the spiritualist idea of fairies: these were nature spirits from the beck at Cottingley, caught on camera for all the world to see.

Marjorie saw her cobweb elf in 1917, the same year as Elsie and Frances took their first photographs. It is not impossible that she had already picked up, from school or friends, the idea of ‘nature spirits’. But by the time she wrote to John O’London’s Weekly, in 1936, she had very definite ideas about fairies and these ideas were theosophic. In fact, in the letter to John O’London’s she quotes, approvingly, Geoffrey Hodson, a theosophist, who had gone to Cottingley to look for the fairies with Elsie and Frances; and who had published accounts of his fairy encounters elsewhere. Hodson memorably claimed to have met a nature god on Hellvellyn in Cumbria, among many other visionary experiences. Marjorie, then, by her mid twenties had not just decided that she could see fairies: she had also found an explanation for this mystical force. She would remain true to that explanation for the rest of her life and she would even project it backwards onto her early experiences. She came to believe, for example, that the elf she had seen aged six was actually the nature spirit of a rambling rose outside her window. It had presumably crept in, having decided to treat the cobweb as an improvised hammock. The remarkable thing about Marjorie is not that she had a personality programmed to having these experiences; in that, as we have seen, she was far from being alone. But, rather, what is striking is that her personality survived, where many others conformed to modern ideas about what the senses should and should not do. Marjorie had grown up in a family where these experiences had been accepted. The society she had grown up in had also, even if only as a minority opinion, attempted to explain what Marjorie was seeing and Marjorie enthusiastically took up this explanation. But, with a happy childhood, and books on theosophy, she would have led a very lonely and frustrating existence in her terraced house in Nottingham, sustained only by her sister. Marjorie, though, made a concerted effort to find others like herself. She clutched at every chance: and this was, remember, a young woman with a gift for friendship. So after she had published in the John O’London’s Weekly she reached out, through the editor, to those who had written in with their experiences. Some of these became pen friends with whom Marjorie would have a decades-long correspondence. She would also write to Geoffrey Hodson, a man she stoutly defended against charges of fakery in the 1980s  and the 1990s. It was not that she joined a tribe. There wasn’t one. She painstakingly created her own around a fairy totem.

1936 was a special year in Marjorie’s life not only because of the John O’ London letter. It was also the year that she began to collect fairy accounts in a systematic way, ‘cuttings of true experiences’: Marjorie loved the word ‘true’. She wanted not only to live as a fairy seer (the term she used for herself and for others with her gift of fairy sight) she wanted to educate society more generally. ‘[A]s I grew older’ she wrote many years afterwards, ‘I became filled with a burning desire to keep the Fairy Faith alive and to know more about this fascinating evolution that runs parallel to and merges with our own.’ Her clippings collection got bigger as did her contacts with other seers and the idea slowly germinated that she should publish a book of these encounters between human- and fairy-kind. But there was a problem. Would the fairies approve?

Folklorists will tell you that fairies do not enjoy publicity. In fact, in traditions from all over Europe the fairies punish or abandon those who betray their confidences. The typical story goes like this: a child becomes friends with the fairies who leave a coin at a certain tree every day for their favourite. But the child is bullied, by a parent or sibling, into revealing where this small fortune comes from. The child tells the secret, and the fairies immediately cease to leave gifts and want nothing more to do with the child. This was Marjorie’s greatest concern. She apparently had personal relations with some of the fey, her ‘familiars’ to use a witchcraft term, her ‘spirits’ thinking of shamans, and she did not want to risk a break in the relationship. She was not receiving money, but she was receiving insights and direction.

To talk about a relationship with the fairies might seem bizarre, but though Marjorie did not know this, there were strong British precedents for what she was experiencing in the 1930s and the 1940s. We know that in the Middle Ages and in the early Modern period, and as late as the nineteenth century in Scotland and Ireland, certain men, and particularly women claimed to have relations with fairies, communicating with these fairies for the good of their communities. These reports, especially in the early period, often come out in witch trials or ecclesiastical records where cunning men or cunning women were investigated for holding unorthodox religious opinions. There is, indeed, the suspicion, one that has been articulated by a British historian of witchcraft, Emma Wilby, that many ‘witches’ who were executed in England and Scotland, in the early modern period, were not devil worshippers, but fairy seers, who got on the wrong side of authority.

A striking case, and one with some relevance to Marjorie was Joan Tyrry of Taunton, who, in 1555, was called before the diocesan court in her home city. There she revealed that ‘the fairies taught her such knowledge that she getteth her living by it’: her powers of healing animals and people and picking out witches from among her neighbours, depended, by her own testimony, on the local fairies’ good will. Joan was let off but told to stay away from the fairies: she was lucky, a century later she might easily have been executed. Joan, though, was bereft. She replied that this staying away from the fairies would not be a problem because now that she had revealed fairy secrets, her magical neighbours would want nothing more to do with her. It is remarkable to see two individuals separated by about four hundred years with the same gifts and the same problem, the desire to respect the fairies’ confidences.

Let us give, in her own words, Marjorie’s negotiations with the fairies, because it is the only time that she reveals in writing her private communications with these spirit guides. The word ‘deva’, in what follows, is a Hindu word that had been adopted by theosophists in the late nineteenth century:

One day in the 1940s, I was thinking seriously about [publishing a book on fairies], but was a bit apprehensive as to whether the fairies themselves would like it, and I wished I could obtain their consent. That night I went to bed thinking about it, and early the next morning I had a wonderful true dream. Standing in front of me was one of the higher devas, or ‘Shining Ones,’ and I had never before seen such a vision of loveliness. She glowed with light; her hair was long and golden; her gown was flowing and opalescent; and the aura, which surrounded her, coruscated with all the colours of the rainbow, I christened her ‘Iris,’ and felt she was a Guardian of the Fairy Borderland. She was standing in front of a symbolic filmy curtain of gauze, which she drew aside and beckoned me through, so I knew I had been accepted. She was showing me some interesting things when something – perhaps a sudden noise – made me waken, but not before she had impressed on me that whenever I saw the rainbow-flash of her aura I was to ask the person who might be next to me in a street, shop, or other building, etc., if he or she had, or knew someone who’d had, any fairy experiences.

So the deva fairy had not only given Marjorie permission to gather accounts, she had given her a magic power to do so as well. Whenever Marjorie was to see someone with a ‘rainbow flash’ around them she was to ask about fairies. And Marjorie, as she put it, ‘plucked up my courage to do it’. Her rainbow informants represented a goodly range of  men and women: one can only imagine their bewilderment as the earnest middle-aged woman bustled towards them. There was a concert pianist, a man at a printer’s shop, someone at a meeting, a clairvoyant housewife and ‘a tourist in the porch of Coventry Cathedral’, among many others. The deva’s advice proved good. All were able to talk to Marjorie about fairies, with Marjorie naturally keeping notes. Marjorie was a shaman in the age of the printing press. She would collect ‘true’ accounts of fairies and, then, publish them. She now had her life mission.

Marjorie was helped towards this goal, in 1950, by a new and exciting role that was offered her. In that year, aged thirty-nine, she became secretary of the Fairy Investigation Society. The FIS was a body that had been founded in 1927 by a number of theosophists and bohemians in London. It had fallen apart by 1932. But, after the Second World War, one of its original members, Quentin Craufurd, a naval commander and scientist, refounded the organisation and recruited Marjorie, recognizing her talent, her energy and her convictions. Marjorie was responsible for welcoming new members – the only condition for membership was a belief in fairies – and for bringing out the FIS newsletter, an occasional publication that detailed new sightings and fairy projects. The FIS was, in terms of its members, a remarkable organisation: there were just over a hundred in the rosters including several famous men and women. Walt Disney, for example, was a fairy believer and was on the FIS lists. So was Lord Dowding, the man who had won the Battle of Britain for the RAF, and who, later in life, wrote an introduction to a fairy seer book. Walter Starkie the controversial Irish author, who wrote entertaining descriptions of his wanderings with the Roma in eastern Europe, had also signed up. There was, then, a marvelous crop of lesser known eccentrics. Take Daphne Charters, a fairy seer who attempted to create a fairy League of Nations. Ithell Colquhoun, a gifted occultist and artist. Naomi Mitchison, a fantasy author, whose reputation has risen in the last years. There was Wellesley Tudor Pole who founded the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, where many Britons still go to see fairies, and there was, moving down into the C list of celebrities, June Kynaston, author of Nude Dancing for Health.

Addresses were shared in the newsletters and members were encouraged to get in touch with each other. Indeed, group visits were organized. Marjorie, in one of her letters describes a holiday where four members met in Iona in the Hebrides to look for fairies. Marjorie herself responded with her sister Dorothy to a call from Lincolnshire about some elves that had been seen in a forest there in ‘a very rudimentary phase of development’. In 1956 she took two field trips and saw a fairy dog and a ‘green, shapeless, ectoplasm mass’, which she interpreted as an ‘embryo elf’. Marjorie may have become a fairy administrator but she was still given to strong mystic fits. In the late 1960s, about ten years after her investigations on the east coast, she was at her house when she had a vision of these Lincolnshire elves ‘and was able to watch swarms of them climbing up the stems of plants and sliding down again’. ‘Though I knew I was at home’, she wrote, ‘I seemed no more than a yard away from them in the woodland and could even sense their strong, magnetic quality.’

The FIS brought another boon to Marjorie: Alasdair Alpin MacGregor. MacGregor was a gifted Scottish writer and folklorist who wrote a number of books on fairies, ghosts and other unworldly traditions. He was a member of the FIS and he soon came into  contact with Marjorie Johnson. A bold, charismatic man MacGregor and Marjorie, ten years his junior, seemed to have quickly established a working relationship of unusual intensity. They were both passionate anti-vivisectionists and they both, of course, believed in fairies. The two decided to publish together the book of Marjorie’s fairy accounts. But MacGregor was used to doing things on a larger scale and proved a canny publicist. In 1955 and 1956 MacGregor took the whole idea of collecting fairy accounts to another level. He wrote letters to newspapers and journals, asking whether readers had fairy sightings to contribute to Marjorie’s survey.

Marjorie’s clipping book now seemed modest, as accounts, some very dramatic, began to pour in from around the English-speaking world, and sometimes from beyond: South Africa, Italy, Canada, California, Germany, New Zealand… MacGregor detached himself from the project in the next year: he was a brilliant but restless man and announced that he wanted to travel abroad. But Marjorie had gathered scores of accounts, convincing her more than ever that she was not an isolated eccentric, but part of a global encounter between humanity and nature spirits: an encounter that had to be proved and, then, explained to the general public. This was not the age of Aquarius but of Oberon. It is interesting that after MacGregor came into her life Marjorie no longer saw the rainbow flashes around total strangers. In fairy terms, perhaps the time for magic had passed; or perhaps it was simply that MacGregor’s more efficient but louder strategy had unsettled the fairies’ always delicate sense of decorum.

Collecting fairy accounts might have been central in Marjorie’s life, but the mystic quality of her day-to-day existence continued, often with her new FIS friends provoking and assisting. Marjorie reports, for example, the visit of a fairy seer named Vera Westmorland who found a fairy on one of Marjorie’s chairs. The fairy, after complaining about Marjorie’s decorating – this fairy did not like the smell of paint – decided to go on a journey with Vera and rode away in her car, returning several days later. Marjorie considered Vera the more powerful seer: her ‘psychic gifts far exceeded my own’, not least because Marjorie had not been properly aware of the fairy and had certainly not seen it. However, some days afterwards Marjorie spotted for the first time ‘a misty little figure’ in an upstairs’ room. Marjorie was, forever bumping into nature spirits in her house. Another day the dogs of two visitors alerted her to ‘the semi-transparent figure of a gnome or dwarf, one and a half to two feet in height, with a large head, a beard, and a pointed cap,’ in a downstairs corridor. ‘Although I was unable to see any colouring, he appeared to be wearing the traditional belted jacket and trousers of his kind.’

If Marjorie’s mystic experiences continued progress on the book was more uneven. MacGregor had claimed that Fairy Vision, as the two had wanted to call their opus, was almost ready for publication in 1956. But Marjorie was still looking for more accounts in 1960, when she had her most traumatic fairy experience. Through MacGregor she had learnt of the value of the media and had sometimes spoken to the press to drum up publicity for the FIS and more particularly for the fairy survey. In 1960 she was offered an interview with the Sunday Pictorial and met with one Tom Riley, a journalist, to talk about fairies. The article when it was published was cruel. It focused in on one small part of Marjorie’s interview where, unwisely, she had spoken about how fairies reproduce: no doubt goaded by Riley, who saw this eccentric Midlander as a meal ticket. A small photograph of Marjorie appeared under the title: ‘She Does a Kinsey on Fairies…’ To be mocked in this way in the national press, in an article with words like ‘bisexual’ and ‘polygamous’, must have been mortifying: this was 1960, remember, the year of the Lady Chatterley Trial and this was a middle class area of Nottingham where ‘keeping up with the Jones’ was as much about propriety as possessions.

Worse, though, was to come. The story was syndicated and slowly made its way around the world: appearing in a reduced form in newspapers from Florida to Australia. Journalists scented blood and turned up at Marjorie’s door: according to a later memory they ‘camped out’ there. The consequences, for Marjorie, were terrible. She demanded a retraction from the Pictorial and wrote imploringly to FIS members, many who had been shocked and embarrassed by the episode. Craufurd’s FIS now entered a hibernation from which it would never properly recover. Even ten years later, Marjorie’s successor as secretary, an English writer Leslie Shepard still talked about members’ privacy concerns. The organization was, finally, closed down in the early nineties. As Shepard himself noted the fey had fallen out of fashion as aliens, fairies with jetpacks, had taken their place.

The story of the visitor to a fairy feast is widely known. The human spent an hour in the underground halls of Titania, only to reappear in the world to find that a hundred years have passed. In fairyland times passes at a different rate. Marjorie’s book now entered fairyland. Marjorie was distracted, first, by her mother’s poor health, then by her sister’s and her own health problems. Through the next decades she continued to collect encounters but at a reduced rate. The fairies and nature spirits remained, however, loyal.

Perhaps the most moving passages in her writing, and one that gives an excellent flavour of her remarkable personality, is about a walk that she and Dorothy took to Colwick Woods in Nottingham, where the two had played together as children (it was where Dorothy had seen the floating ring many years before) and where they had walked with their dogs in middle age:

Now, after a long interval of many years, we were wandering again over the familiar haunts, this time in our old age, and (though we did not know it) for the last time together. We were in a nostalgic mood, and we sat down to rest on a hilltop, trying to recapture the old magic. After a while, feeling more peaceful and relaxed, we began to retrace our steps and were walking towards a tree, which had known us intimately in our younger days and grew apart from the others, when to our amazement it suddenly became illumined. This was no trick of the sunlight, for the tree shone from within, and its radiance rayed out in a golden-white aureole, ethereal and translucent. The tree wanted us to know it had recognized us, and we stood in silent communion under its branches, enfolded in its welcoming vibrations. After a while we had to say goodbye, and we continued our walk home feeling blessed and uplifted. It was a truly wonderful and touching experience to be greeted and remembered so lovingly by an old woodland friend.

Dorothy herself died in 1988. Marjorie describes how, the night before her sister passed, fairies came to dance in the air around her head. ‘I had a strong impression that they were preparing me and trying to strengthen me for something that was to come.’ The book, finally, emerged from fairyland in 1996. Marjorie, now eighty five, had rearranged the contents, added some new accounts and the title had changed from Fairy Vision to the more winsome Seeing Fairies: the entire work included some four hundred fairy sightings and encounters, from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the vast majority of which had never appeared before in print. British publishers turned up their noses. By 2000 Marjorie was ready to give up, but she had a dream. She was walking up a hill and was getting tired. But Dorothy, who had died fourteen years before, and a group of fairies, urged her to continue. She awoke with a new sense of determination and soon afterwards she learnt that a publisher was interested in bringing out the book in German: and so Seeing Fairies or Naturgeister as it came to be known, enjoyed some modest success among German New Age readers. Four years later thebook was translated into Italian and Czech. Marjorie now had her book in print in threelanguages, none of which she could read. She continued to look for an English publisher but had no success and, in her final illness, she even misplaced the English manuscript. That manuscript re-emerged after her death and Seeing Fairies was finally published, postmortem, in English in 2014.

As the dream of Dorothy and the fairies suggests, Marjorie’s mystic life continued into her twilight years. There is an account in Seeing Fairies of her homehelp, at that time, Maureen having a peculiar experience in Marjorie’s sitting room while cleaning:

[Maureen] told me that ‘a little shining thing’ had flown under the table on a beam of sunlight towards her and had risen into the air in front of her. She saw that it was about three inches in length and was sparkling all over as though speckled with stardust. It was so bright that she could not see its face, and as she watched, it flew down again and disappeared. ‘It was so wonderful, and so lovely,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it in my life before. I wish I could see it again.’

A one off and presumably unrepeatable incident? Well, Rose, another homehelp, in the years that followed, was shocked to see, on her first day at work, a transparent blue light pass before her while she was doing the washing up. Marjorie was now in advanced old age but her magic was still there, leaking out into the rooms where she and her sister had lived.

We all know the famous lines of Frost about two roads dividing in a yellow wood. There is the well travelled, and the less travelled path. Which should we choose? When, in her late teens or early twenties, Marjorie came to that fork, she, bamboo pipe in one hand, notepad in the other, ignored both. Instead, she thrashed her way through the undergrowth making her own way among the trees. Whatever, the reader thinks of Marjorie’s fairy experiences it is impossible not to admire the integrity of a woman who listened to her inner voice and lived her entire life according to its dictates. ‘They broke the mould when they made, Marjorie’, said one of her friends: it is the best epitaph I know for Nottingham’s fairy seer.

But the greater problem remains. What is the place of these natural mystics, in our industrial and post-industrial societies: particularly those who lack sympathetic support networks, or who have visions that do not cohere with the whims of a changing society, or who, worst of all, get lost in our mental-health system? What should they do? We have seen in recent years that archaeological and nutritional work into the Paleolithic diet have given us insights into how we should eat: we are digital men and women living in caveman bodies, goes the mantra. Perhaps new investigations into Paleolithic religion and the visions of our cave-dwelling ancestors will give us insights into our psychological well being. The propensity for some of us to have visions is well-established; the prehistoric roots of these visions are likewise generally accepted; the relevance of these visions to the modern world is interesting, but as yet unproven.

Author’s note: this article was based in large part on Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing Fairies: From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society, Authentic Reports of Fairies in Modern Times (Anomalist Books, 2014). I also used information from a number of interviews, and also back numbers of the FIS newsletter from the 1950s, which Marjorie edited.

Marjorie Johnson, c.1929

Encountering the Faeries in the 21st Century

Recently, I was sent an email from a woman wanting to share her experience of encountering what appeared to be faeries or nature spirits. As with many people who interact with faerie-type entities for the first time, she wanted to make clear that she was not intoxicated, had not taken any drugs and has no history of mental illness. In our rationalistic culture, this is understandable; any contact with something that may be termed supernatural is often met with suspicion, derision or concern as to the person’s mental state. Western culture is predominantly reductionist – anything that appears to contravene the accepted consensus reality based on material physical laws is usually deemed as a misrepresentation of a natural phenomenon, a hallucination, a dream, or chicanery. This is a narrow vision of reality. There are mountains of data describing supernatural, parapsychological and anomalous phenomena from around the world, but most of it is anecdotal. The data cannot usually be scrutinised by scientific protocols because most of it happens spontaneously; it is not possible to recreate the circumstances in a laboratory. Does this make the anecdotes less real? Does it disqualify them from our attention? It shouldn’t. Our entire lives are made up of a series of anecdotal incidents, stored in memory and recalled when necessary to inform the present. If an anecdotal account of an experience that seems supernatural is recounted with honesty and clarity, we should perhaps attempt to escape any reality boxes we find ourselves in and assess it on its merits, even if it contradicts an ingrained worldview. The following anecdotal testimony describes an encounter with faerie-like entities, which may be compared to the hundreds of reports made to The Fairy Investigation Society’s recent census, suggesting that whatever the faeries are, people are still experiencing contact with them in the 21st century. There is a palpable, authentic interface with a metaphysical reality, which doesn’t sit well with mainstream culture but is nonetheless continuing to happen.

The woman was 39 years old when the experience happened in July 2018. She has insisted on anonymity but given permission to publish her testimony on deadbutdreaming along with any interpretative assessment. The main body of her text is reproduced here in full, with minor spelling, grammatical and formatting corrections. She has seen the article in its first draft, corrected some points of fact and agreed for me to post it.

A 21st-Century Faerie Experience

“I live in London with my husband and two daughters aged 4 and 6. My husband and I are both professional people living what I guess you would call a middle-class life. We are happy and enjoy the culture available in London. But sometimes I find the city a bit pressured and claustrophobic. But I am lucky enough to have an aunt who lives in a cottage in Somerset, who I have visited twice a year since my eldest was born. The cottage has a very large garden (over half an acre?), which is the pride and joy of my aunt. She has help to look after it, but she does a lot herself and it is a beautiful mixture of lawn, borders, summer house, wild areas and a small orchard of a dozen apple trees and half a dozen plum trees. It is such a contrast to my London life and the girls have come to love being there.

The event I want to tell you about happened in July 2018. My husband was away at a conference and so I took the week off and took the girls to my aunt’s place. On the second night, once I’d put them to bed, I went out to sit on a lounger next to the apple trees. The sun had just set after a very warm day and I was feeling very relaxed, content to just gaze out beyond the trees to the soft light on the hill beyond the garden. I’d just been through a very stressful couple of months at work and this felt like heaven.

After about fifteen minutes I noticed what I thought were a couple of squirrels racing up the trunk of one of the trees. They were moving a bit oddly and so I pulled myself up from the recliner to focus in on them more clearly. When they moved into sight from behind the trunk I was suddenly jolted. My heart was in my mouth. The two squirrels were actually two small humans! They moved strangely, with jerky movements but I was convinced they had human form, although I could not tell the gender. They could have been no taller than two feet and seemed dressed in dull brown clothing that sometimes melded into the tree bark. I was about twenty feet away and although the dusk was coming they were very clear to me. They seemed to be ‘mucking about’ on one of the boughs, as if playing a game. But I heard no sounds. My feeling was amazement. I shut and opened my eyes several times and pinched myself. They continued to play their game for about five minutes, during which time I watched intently but did not move a muscle. I could just make out their facial features, and would be willing to testify in a court of law that they were human, albeit distorted and maybe slightly cartoon-like. After approximately five minutes they simply vanished. I mean really vanished. One second they were there, the next they just popped out of sight.

When they had disappeared I became slightly agitated. I watched for a few more minutes and then felt I needed to get back to the cottage. The next day I decided to ask my aunt outright if she had ever seen anything strange in the garden. She’s an old-school country woman and has lived there for over three decades. She told me she was always hearing laughter and tinkling bells when working in the garden but had never seen anything. I told her what had happened and she seemed quite relaxed to hear it. She suggested there might be ‘nature spirits’ in the garden and for some reason they had made an appearance to me.

The next evening at the same time I sat in the lounger again, but there was nothing. I started to doubt my memory even though I knew what I had seen. The following day the girls were playing in the garden under the apple trees while aunt and I took tea. I was convinced we were being watched. It’s hard to describe and I know it sounds like paranoia, but I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were all being observed by something. I said nothing to my aunt about this and obviously nothing to the girls. So once again that evening I sat in the lounger by the apple trees. I was relaxed but thinking about the feeling of earlier that afternoon. Then, again, I saw two squirrels on the same tree. This time they seemed to ‘drift’. I mean they were squirrels but they seemed to levitate from the bough, at which moment they became something else. It’s hard for me to describe. They appeared to form into misty shapes, slightly illuminated, which flew around the branches of the tree. Again, I watched for maybe five minutes and there was a deep feeling of peace as I did so. And the moment before the shapes faded away I heard a distinct voice, as if next to my ear, which said: ‘We tend the trees.’ It was like a whisper, maybe childlike, but ever so real. It made me jump from the lounger. I investigated the tree for about fifteen minutes before returning to the cottage. Again, once they were gone I became agitated.

I discussed this with my aunt the next day and she was very blasé about it, which surprised me. She didn’t seem to see the big deal, but it was definitely a big deal to me. Nothing else like this happened for the rest of the week and we returned to London. I haven’t said a word to my husband about this as he is a very practical, no-nonsense sort of person and I don’t want to rock any boats. In fact, I am a very practical person, non-religious and have never considered the supernatural anything more than delusion. But these experiences seemed very supernatural. I really don’t know what to make of it. All I can say is that I am as convinced as I can be that the incidents happened as I describe. They had a dream-like quality but I WAS NOT asleep. I haven’t drunk alcohol for eight years, have never taken illicit drugs and have no history of mental illness.

Since the experiences, I have researched into ‘nature spirits’ and found out something about fairy folklore, which is something I knew nothing about (although the girls have always loved fairy stories). I found your website and was amazed to read about modern people interacting with ‘faeries’ (why do you spell it like that?). You speak a lot about altered states of consciousness in your writing. Maybe I was in an altered state, but if so it must have been totally natural, because, as I say, I take no intoxicants. The experiences have definitely changed the way I look at the world. I feel that since they happened I have become more open-minded and questioning of the way the world works. It’s been almost a year now but the effect remains. I haven’t visited my aunt since, but the family is due there in July 2019, and so I’ll let you know if I see any more fairies!”

‘Tree Spirits’ by Brian Froud

Assessing the Experience

There is a lot to unpack here. As with any anecdotal testimony, the first question must be to assess the honesty of the account. People make things up and not always for clearly-defined gains or reasons. Without knowing the person giving the testimony it is difficult to ascertain whether they are fabricating the whole or part of the account or if they are exaggerating for effect. This is a perennial issue in folklore collection – the hermeneutical compounds of the testimonies are difficult to unravel. However, in this particular case (augmented by some additional email correspondence) I’m as sure as I can be that the person is telling the truth as far as she remembers it. It seems to be the deposition of someone who is genuinely confused and intrigued about an incident for which they have no explanation within their ordinary and familiar worldview.

But even the most scrupulously honest recall of an event is still subject to the vagaries of memory. The plasticity of memory appertaining to any eye-witness event is a well-studied psychological trait. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus conducted an in-depth study of how people remembered automobile accidents at various times after the event, concluding that: “findings seem to indicate that memory for an event that has been witnessed is highly flexible. If someone is exposed to new information during the interval between witnessing the event and recalling it, this new information may have marked effects on what they recall. The original memory can be modified, changed or supplemented.” This is, of course, unavoidable in any testimony of a past incident. In some ways, a non-ordinary supernatural event may be less prone to plasticity as it is likely to be a special event, detached from the everyday. Its unconventionality may burn it into memory in a more exacting way and its recall be more reliable than for that of a more commonplace occurrence. But potentially numinous incidents, such as encounters with supernatural entities, may also be subject to increased amounts of reconstitution, where the experiencer attempts to make subsequent rationalisations of the event and even suppress aspects of what has happened in order to codify it to accepted social and cultural belief systems. This is (and always has been) an unavoidable component of folklore. It does not, however, discredit the experience. So with these caveats in mind, what might this incident tell us about the faeries and how they may be able to interface with human consciousness?

First, the state of consciousness of the woman had been altered by her transplantation from her usual urban environment to a rural setting. This is not an uncommon occurrence for city-dwellers holidaying in the country, but it evidently had an effect on her state of mind, perhaps heightened by a period of work pressures leading up to the stay with her aunt. Many of the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census reported their experiences as happening during various types of special circumstances, where they were somewhere away from their usual habitat. The census also contains many descriptions of people being calm, happy, relaxed or meditative just prior to their experiences. These states of mind (along with more negative states such as grief, depression and anxiety) also play a part in many historical folklore accounts of interactions with metaphysical entities, where the protagonist is removed from their normal everyday existence and find themselves in a different mindset. This was the case with my correspondent. She had moved from an intense, stressful lifestyle to one of relaxation and calmness in a short space of time. While there were evidently no intoxicants involved in constructing her experience, the swift change of environments is an important element in terms of how her consciousness may have been altered and perhaps rendered more susceptible to a numinous incident.

Relaxed and calm, enjoying the ambience of a special natural environment she found herself encountering something outside her usual cosmology. The shock of what was happening finds common cause with the respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, where disbelief is a customary reaction. Such consternation is a natural response to something so out of the ordinary. And the disturbance of normality is likely to cause an adrenalin rush. This can have a variety of effects on how the reality of the moment is perceived, but one is that attention is concentrated so that events can appear so super-NatureSpiritsreal that they become abnormal. However, it is this type of intense concentration that was advocated by Rudolf Steiner when, in the early 20th century, he was suggesting we are able to recognise metaphysical realities sitting alongside our usual material reality only when we are capable of relaxing our usual sense-filters. He suggested that once this filter removal was achieved we would be able to ascertain the Supersensible world, where, he proposed, reside a multifarious realm of nature spirits, sometimes known as faeries. Steiner called this clairvoyance, and this is perhaps what was pervading my correspondent’s consciousness when she experienced supernatural entities in the orchard garden.

The observed entities themselves conform to folkloric and esoteric taxonomies. Most faeries (though by no means all) are described as humanoid. This may be the human observer translating what they are actually seeing into something tangible in order to make sense out of it. Although she did not describe any details of clothing, the description of them ‘melding’ into the tree bark has resonance with many historic and modern faerie encounters, where the entities seem almost a part of the natural environment, but not quite. They also seemed playful: ‘mucking about’ on the tree. This is another common attribute of the faeries – they like games. Are they doing this for the benefit of the human observer, or is this once again a trick of consciousness to make the supernatural more palatable? Childlike behaviour is less threatening than an intense encounter. The suggestion that faeries have in recent decades been updated to a new tech-form in the shape of alien abductors may indicate that our collective consciousness has lost the ability to code metaphysical encounters and that our cultural neurosis has turned them into specific sinister confrontations. However, although my correspondent felt agitated after the experiences, the actual time of the encounter was marked by a feeling of peace and wonder. She was not frightened, only amazed.

‘The Introduction’ by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872-1945)

The second experience seems to have turned the relatively traditional faerie-types into ‘nature spirits’. There is much discussion among folklorists, Fortean investigators and occultists about whether ‘nature spirits’ and faeries are two different forms of metaphysical entities. It is certainly true that most folkloric representations of faeries do not see them as environment propagators. But there is also a long tradition of allowing elementals into the faerie taxonomy. The 16th-century alchemist Paracelsus defined the metaphysical spirits of nature into gnomes (earth), sylphs (air), undines (water) and salamanders (fire), a typology followed by 19th- and 20th-century Theosophists, including Rudolf Steiner. And a large minority of respondents to the Fairy Investigation Society’s census described the entities they encountered as ‘nature spirits’. The difference between folkloric faeries and nature spirits is perhaps only semantic. They all seem to be coming from the same place and interact with human consciousness in the same concerted manner. The fact that my correspondent saw her entities on the same tree might strengthen the idea that they were simply different aspects of a common phenomenon.

‘The Elementals’ by Josephine Wall

The Faerie Phenomenon

What that phenomenon is, however, is a difficult question to answer. Deadbutdreaming has made several attempts to get to the root of faerie phenomenology:

A Faerie Taxonomy

Some Faerie Metaphysics

Frightening and Enlightening: The Phenomenology of Modern Faeries

But they are evasive, like many supernatural or metaphysical phenomena. This particular encounter is perhaps rather typical of modern faerie experiences in that there is an oblique quality to the interaction; the person is confronted by what they deem an irrational occurrence. From a materialistic perspective, it should not have happened. But if that perspective is allowed some leeway, then it is possible to accept that a human consciousness is interacting with a physical environment and what is intrinsic within that consciousness, albeit latent, makes itself visible (and audible) in a coded way within that environment. The concept of a collective consciousness, storing all human experience, allows the explanation of a transceiving brain to plug into mythological and archetypal subject matter when certain conditions are met. Faeries and nature spirits are deeply embedded within the mythological cycle of humanity. Historically, they have manifested in folklore and occult literature, but more recently (as in this incident) they appear anecdotally, often within the lives of people who do not expect their presence. This does not mean they are not real. They are subjectively real within the consciousness of the observer, just as any experience in life, and just because they cannot be captured within experimental conditions does not exclude them from an overall reality. Consciousness itself is not material; it exists as a metaphysical construct and, despite many centuries of scientific endeavour, its true nature remains elusive – it cannot be wedded to matter. It usually operates within the bounds of material physical laws, but when the bonds are loosened and the state of consciousness is altered – through psychotropic drugs, meditation, clairvoyance, emotional disturbance, trauma, or just a peaceful mindset – we appear to sometimes view things that are operating outside of normalised reality. They are non-local, i.e. they come from somewhere else; perhaps a collective consciousness to which we do not normally have access.

So do faerie and supernatural entity encounters have a purpose? If we allow the possibility of their existence at whatever level, are they conveying a message? In this particular testimony, they may have been simply manifesting in order to draw the woman out of her stressful lifestyle; to recalibrate a potentially unhealthy mindset. Her consciousness was perhaps tapping into a deeper, archetypal reality (as it might also do in dreams) to demonstrate to her that there is more to life than she had been believing. 9781593080723Her comment that she had become more “open-minded and questioning of the way the world works” since the encounter suggests the experience has had a fundamental effect on her worldview. This is a common motif among people who interact with faerie entities. Folkloric examples often describe a changed person after the faerie encounter and The Fairy Investigation Society’s census is replete with people who say their experience has changed them, usually for the better. Perhaps the faeries and nature spirit-type entities appear simply to drag us out of the dogmatic materialistic/reductionist cosmology we have become entrenched within. They may be (and have always been) metaphysical messengers, reminding us of William James‘ words: “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness that are entirely different.”

But there can be specific messages as well. “We tend the trees” does appear to be a definitive communication conveying the point about the nature spirits’ purpose in the metaphysical cultivation of the natural world to a person who had no idea this might be a possibility. Despite my correspondent insisting she was not asleep during the encounter, this does sound like the sort of audio-communication that takes place during a hypnogogic episode, when we are on the edge of sleep. This is, of course, another form of altered state of consciousness, when the waking state partly crosses the border into the unconscious realm. Once again, this state of consciousness is no less real than our everyday state and may constitute a special place where we are able to access information that is not usually available.

Whatever the various interpretations of this particular experience, it does seem clear that interactions with supernatural entities, which may be described as faeries, are still taking place in the 21st century. They do not seem to be consigned to folklore and appear to be a genuine phenomenon that pervades our contemporary culture. While there is a tendency in recent literature to relate faerie-type encounters to altered states of consciousness invoked by psychotropic substances, my correspondent’s testimony, as well as the hundreds of experiences recorded in the Fairy Investigation Society’s census, do suggest that anyone can interact with these metaphysical beings if certain circumstances are conducive. It would seem the faeries are with us for the long haul, unwilling to depart from human consciousness and perhaps hanging around to teach us a few more lessons about ourselves.

The cover image is ‘Midsummer Faeries’ by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

A Numinous Zone: Preternatural Modern Faeries

“A numinous zone is a state of consciousness in which numinous (supernatural or spiritual) experiences occur. It can be viewed as a highly dynamic state that gives rise to phenomenal shifts in one’s perception or abilities. These remarkably unique experiences often have a spiritually palpable intensity that includes a heightened sense of awareness, a kind of clarity and awe that emerges from a more open, curious and lucid mind.” Anthony Colombo

This article is based primarily on the results of the recent census into faerie sightings by Simon Young and The Fairy Investigation Society. It includes c.500 reports from all over the world, although the majority are from Britain, Ireland and North America. In some ways this is a follow up survey to that carried out by Marjorie Johnson, and published as Seeing Fairies in 2014. Johnson’s survey was restricted to mostly cases from the mid 20th century, but the new census (published as a free downloadable document in January 2018) contains encounters from the 1960s (with a few predating this) through to the present day, with the majority post-1980. In the introduction to the census, Simon Young explains how the publication takes a different tack to Johnson’s work: “Marjorie Johnson wanted to prove that fairies exist. I do not have this ambition. I, instead, want to get a better understanding of who sees fairies and under what circumstances by looking at the stories and the sightings.” And while contributors to the census were given the opportunity to state what they thought their experiences represented, there is no editorial evaluation into the sightings.


This analytical but interpretation-free approach allows the reader to reach their own conclusions about the anecdotal accounts, and provides us with a large dataset of faerie encounters that appear to be honest appraisals of numinous experiences, which (for the most part) defy rational, reductionist explanations. And as with most modern faerie experiences, they have not become entangled into folkloric stories – they are simply experience reports of one-off sightings that may, or may not, bear resemblance to the faeries made familiar to us through folklore.

In order for the full scope of these faerie experiences to be appreciated, the census needs to be read in its totality. What follows here, is an attempt to break down some of the themes and drifts that make the anecdotes significant, and provide insights into the phenomenon, which is quite evidently alive and well in the 21st century. And as always at deadbutdreaming we’ll be attempting to get under the skin of the data in order to elucidate what it all might mean.

The_introductionEleanor Fortescue-Brickdale
‘The Introduction’ by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

Some Examples from the Census

To give a flavour of the content in these accounts, here are four of the experience reports, numbered as per the census (all the reports remain anonymous). They cannot be considered typical, but they can perhaps be thought of as symptomatic of the general tenor of the survey, and convey the personal perceptions of people who are endeavouring to describe a numinous event in their lives that they are attempting to come to terms with and understand. The first is from Somerset, England, and was described by a female in her twenties. The experience happened during the 1990s:

#114 “Friends had gone ahead and I straggled behind. As I turned a corner, it was misty. The mist had a weird glow. As I walked into the low mist there was a procession. Around three feet tall. With lanterns! But in the mist, I paused and they saw me. They came forward and I waited for them to pass. They passed. I have never taken drugs and was not on any alcohol. This was the weirdest experience. It lasted three to five minutes. By [the] time I got back to cottage my friends were concerned as I was away for around forty-five minutes! Very strange. They looked medieval in dress. But their clothes were covered by the mist at times.”

The respondent also reported that there was a profound silence before the experience, and that her hair was prickling or tingling before and during the event. She also suggested that there was a sense that the experience marked a turning point in her life.

The second example is from the Rhondda Valley in Wales, and the testimony is from a woman in her forties, describing an event in May 2010:

#190 “I was sitting out in my garden. The rhododendrons were in flower and it was a hot bright sunny day. I was very comfortable and content to listen to the birds and just relax. Unexpectedly I became aware of the golden outline of a figure down at the bottom of my garden. I say outline because it was not solid, but looked as though just its outline had been drawn with golden ink. The figure shimmered and had tall wings, but mostly it was transparent, like a rough sketch. It was about three foot tall and rose up in the air a little way before descending; it did this several times. Then I saw a second winged figure, very much smaller. This was also golden, but I remember seeing a flash of blue and green. My first thought was that it was a dragonfly, but on closer observation I saw that it flew quite differently and its shape was not that of an insect but a small human-like figure. Next I became aware of someone on the seat beside me, although I could not see them, but they were trying to get my attention – I could even see something pressing on my left upper arm, moving my clothing. I had that strong impression that day that I was meant to see the fairies, and they were pleased about it. It was a lovely experience, totally benign; I was amazed to see how the fairies really did look the way they appear in traditional tales.”

This third report is from the 1960s, and happened in Illinois, US, reported by a female who was then in her twenties. This excerpt is slightly condensed from the original, but is interesting at several levels, including the incorporation of the common folklore motif of the faeries stealing household items:

#267 “Some friends came from the city for the weekend and the lady brought with her a pattern and fabric so I could help make [a] dress for a party. One of the items was a long zipper and when it came time to put the zipper in, it had gone missing. She drove into a nearby town and bought another and the dress was finished. A couple days after they had gone I was in my parlor and I looked up from what I was doing to see a wee man about eighteen inches high. He had a brown skin and a very old looking face. His hair was black and tousled like the hair on a baby. His eyes reminded me of apple seeds. And in his hand was the missing zipper. ‘HEY’ I called out and in that instant, he was gone and the zipper was lying stretched flat on the floor in the doorway. I had seen these things as dark blue shadows running along the wall. My toddler daughter played with them and called them ‘the Blue Bamboozies’. I saw the little fellow clearly one other time while she was playing with him. He had brown skin, black hair, black eyes. Knee length pants barefoot and a tunic like shirt of a cream color. My outcry was a scold since he had made us look for the zipper and cost my friend money to replace it.”

The woman also noted that there was music accompanying the experience: “It sounded like organ music. Like long chords being played.”

For the fourth sighting we’re back across the Atlantic on the Isle of Man in the 1970s. The respondent is a male, then in his thirties who was travelling in a taxi across The Fairy Bridge over the Santon Burn, where it is a custom among the Manx people to greet the faeries with a wave as the bridge is crossed. The experience was shared with the taxi driver, and it is an interesting example of possible psychological suggestion, where the cogitation of faeries may have conjured up an actual encounter:

#160 “I was in a taxi driving from a farm back to my hotel in Castletown. The driver told me of the story of the Fairy Bridge and gave the greeting as we crossed it. A few minutes later I saw in the headlights and several feet ahead of the car three strange forms going across the road. They were not humanoid in shape but looked as though they were flat rather than 3D and had a jagged outline about eight inches or so high. Strangely they appeared in the headlights to be bright pink! The driver saw this too but couldn’t explain it. They were six to eight inches tall and maybe five inches broad but like a flat sheet of fluorescent pink card with jagged edges. However they moved in a procession of three from the left to the right of the country road. The comments made earlier by the driver suggested fairies but it could have been something else. This memory has lasted clearly for many years. By nature I am sceptical and I have always tried to examine things with a view to finding an explanation. I never have been able to find one for this.”

‘The Fairy Bridge’, Isle of Man

Themes and Drifts in the Census

Many of the census reports date to the late 20th and 21st centuries, and so are relatively recent events in the lives of those reporting them, but there remains the problematic relationship between memory and what really happened. The plasticity of memory has become a well-studied psychological trait, and, of course, the further back in time the memory extends the more likely it is that extraneous elements are introduced into the remembered event, as well as the likelihood that parts of the experience become forgotten, or even suppressed. However, while allowances need to be made for skewed recollection, there is a resonant theme among the reports of the encounters being special events that have made an important impact on the respondents. These were numinous events, which due to their non-ordinary nature, have become important to the people recounting them. This may give more credence to our accepting the accounts as honest assessments of what happened, or at the least, what the respondents thought happened. And while a small number of reports might be put down to over-imaginative people misrepresenting an extraordinary experience, it becomes more difficult to write off c.500 statements from people who have taken the time and effort to communicate what appear to be vivid memories. They are also memories that in general seem meaningful and substantial to the respondents. The comment from the woman in report #114 that the experience marked a turning point in her life is a frequent refrain through the census. This is a significant point that will be discussed later. So while acknowledging the vagaries of memory, but accepting that the reports are conveying significant experiences in the lives of the individuals taking part in the survey, what are some of the thematic tropes that stand out in the census?

‘Fairies Appear’ by Charles Sims (1900)

A consistent theme in many of the testimonies is disbelief at the unexpected appearance of entities that are not supposed to be part of physical reality. And yet the reality of the experience remains vivid, even (and allowing for the afore-discussed plasticity of memory) when the event happened several decades ago, as is the case in report #18, from a woman who was in her teens during a family holiday in Cornwall in the 1970s:

“I was walking a few steps ahead of my mum and sisters… when I saw a gnome sitting by the side of the path. It was so unexpected; I think I remember feeling scared – or wondering if I was seeing things or going mad? I took another couple of steps and I saw his nut brown wizened face in detail. He was cheekily grinning at me. He had a mossy brown beard and dark brown shining eyes; he was wearing a peaked hat (brown) and a shiny jacket and trousers in shades of brown and ochre. I’d say he was about twelve- to fourteen-inches tall. I (literally) could not believe my eyes. I was even too amazed (dumbstruck is apt here) to turn around and tell my family to ‘look at the gnome’ by the path. Then the gnome cocked his head (again, cheekily), turned his back on me and kind of changed/melted (transmogrified?) into an old tree stump.”

Another woman reported an experience (#82) on Hampstead Heath, London, when she was eighteen in 1987. She was keen to verify her sanity: “I have only told a small handful of people about my faerie experiences, most folk would think I’m nuts, and I’m definitely quite sane, well educated, thoughtful and quite open minded. I’ve never been on any psyche drugs ever, or seen any doctor for mental health conditions.” Her experience made her “rub her eyes in disbelief’:

“I was at a festival on Hampstead Heath in the summer. They told us we couldn’t camp, so we made a makeshift shelter out of an old carpet and climbed under it. We were in the woods on the Heath. As dawn broke and the first shafts of sunlight poured between the leafy canopy above I could see things moving around in the branches. They were pale green and almost transparent in their delicacy. Around fifty or sixty little dryads staring down from the leafy boughs staring at me. They were almost camouflaged by the trees. They had kind little faces and were scurrying around trying to get a better look at us. The light coming from the trees was quite strange and there was early morning mist in the freezing cold woods. I just lay there staring at them totally mesmerised.”

The feeling of incredulity by respondents at the faerie encounters is often coded with assurances to the census that they are not suffering any type of psychosis. There is evidently a sense that the experiences are paranormal, and therefore outside the remit of an accepted materialist worldview, which may open them up to ridicule or disdain. Indeed, there is a persistent drift in the reports where the experiencers are keen to make known that their encounters were singular events in lives otherwise devoid of faerie, or supernatural, occurrences. They weren’t taking psychotropic drugs (with a few exceptions, discussed below), they are not insane or prone to hallucinations, and they usually see the experience as a special event in otherwise normal lives.

‘After the Faerie Ball’ by Josephine Hall

Particularly interesting is the ontology of faerie types described in the reports. There is quite a wide range of forms, but there is a predominance of what may be called traditional folkloric faeries and also a variety of winged faeries that may conform to a Victorianised stereotype: “Like beautiful little tiny women with clear wings” (#211, Canada); “He was about six inches long, with a set of double wings like a dragonfly’s” (#327, New Jersey, US); “The wings were large and flapped – she hovered in the same spot right in front of me for about twenty seconds. I could tell it was a female from her shape and long hair. The size was approximately twenty centimetres in body length, but the wingspan around sixty centimetres” (#179, Scotland). These are some typical descriptions of winged faeries from the census. In all, a little under 40% of respondents described the faeries they experienced as having some form of wings. Rather less described archaic clothing, but there is a strain of descriptions running through the census that depict the faeries as wearing ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘antiquated’ clothes, usually worn by entities that were almost human, but differentiated by their size or mutated features. A female in her twenties from Georgia, US (#256), even described her folkloric-style, three-foot high visitor as “like a classic Brian Froud illustration of a Gnome.” He had: “rustic clothes: pants, shirt, vest and slouchy leather hat. The pants and vest seemed a brownish green, the shirt pale. The hat was a russet color. His eyebrows were bushy, hair long, unkempt and both brows and hair were white.”

Brian Froud 02-3
Some gnomic and winged faeries from Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee

Are these faeries a transference of expectations, or are they simply what the entities look like? Some respondents make clear that they are familiar with folkloric faeries or that they are acquainted with the idea that the faeries are winged creatures in the style of Victorian or 20th-century representations. But for the most part it is not evident how culturally-coded they were before their experience. We will come on to what this might mean in terms of the reality of the experiences.

As discussed, most respondents are describing experiences that were spontaneous and unexpected. Only two reports are from people who had actively altered their states of consciousness by taking psychotropic substances, in both cases psilocybin mushrooms (a male in his teens during the 2000s from Powys, Wales, #189, and a male in his forties in 2010 from California, US, #240). Interestingly, the Welsh respondent suggests that the faerie encounter was different from the rest of his psychedelic experience, standing out as something apparently less subjective – not an internalised vision, but rather something that seemed to happen in external physical reality:

“I noticed these small two-dimensional creatures walking in procession in the grain of wood on a chest of drawers. There was one larger member of the procession that appeared to be female and in charge. The entities had long pointed noses, appeared organic, like beautiful little goblins, and were sort of swirling along in their procession. The largest one turned to look at me, noticed I was looking, and then continued with its procession. I shouted out to the other two people in the room ‘I can see fairies,’ because I didn’t know what else to call them. The fairies just continued to move along the grain of the wood, and I stopped paying attention to them. It was a strange experience – they seemed to be different to the rest of the psychedelic experience because they were moving along with deliberate intent, and seemed to possess a consciousness of their own. They clearly noticed me, but were not concerned that I had spotted them. The memory is still very vivid in my mind. [They were] like small, two-dimensional, beautiful goblins. They had long pointed noses.”

The Californian male (who shared the experience with his girlfriend) describes an interaction with a strange humanoid entity: “naked except for a pair of leather Celtic or pagan shorts (or maybe more like a loincloth?), like you’d see at the Renaissance Faire, and a leather vest (of similar style) that was fully open.” He had pointed ears and exuded a “glamour and repulsiveness” that marked him out as otherworldly to the respondent. It is fair to say that while both these encounters bear the hallmarks of the world seen through psychedelic trippiness, if the respondents had failed to disclose their mushroom intake, the reports would not be out of place among the rest of the census in terms of the phenomenology of experience.

A Californian psychedelically-induced faerie world transformed into a jigsaw puzzle

This phenomenology is shared relatively equally between males and females (a ratio of c.35m-65f), and whilst there is a diverse age range of respondents, all testimonies are from adults, with about 20% of accounts made retrospectively from when they were children. The census questionnaire also asked each person to explain what they thought the faeries are, based on their experiences.  A small number of testimonies suggest uncertainty as to whether the encounters happened in a dream, but the majority report incidences that seem to have taken place in what was perceived as physical reality. And while many people express no opinion about what their encounters represented (some simply state that they don’t know what faeries are), the predominant ideas expressed by respondents are that the faeries are either nature spirits (or elementals) or that they are inter-dimensional beings, interacting with consensus reality in an undefined way.

Most of the descriptions of the faeries as nature spirits take place in natural environments, and there is quite a diversity of visual and audial types of experience. They range from the typical small flower faerie type through to orbs of light, and a few encounters have no visual component but consist of tinkling bells, harmonious music or voices with no apparent source (music and bells often accompany visual experiences as well). A female in her thirties from Sydney, Australia (#468) sums up what many of the respondents thought of their contact with somewhat amorphous faeries in nature: “I believe they were nature spirits – I was in nature in their habitat. [Faeries are] nature spirits. They are there to protect nature.”

‘Nature Spirits’ by Thylacine-Girl

And a sizeable minority of respondents suggested that the faeries encountered were inter-dimensional beings. These were most often people who disclosed an interest in esoteric phenomena of some sort. Among these accounts there is a mixture of interpretations as to whether this meant the entities were actually present in physical reality after morphing from an extra-physical location, or whether the human participant was engaging with them in their own realm for a period of time. A few respondents suggest that the meeting ground is consciousness itself, with the possibility that a larger ‘Over-Mind’ is the space where humans and faeries can connect. A woman from Wales articulated her thoughts on this after an encounter during the 1990s with a zoomorphic entity, when she was a teenager:

#191 “[Faeries are] other dimensional beings, linked to our earth also, and our psyches, they seem to reflect our inner hidden natures. I am very interested in the awakening of the ufo/alien/faery connection worldwide and the connection to multi-verse theories and other dimensions… Could it be the same thing? How is our human consciousness connected? For we are [connected] or we wouldn’t have these experiences.”

These personal interpretations of faerie encounters also frequently include the recognition that the event was life-changing, or at the least, a special moment in the respondents lives. The mere fact that they took the time to respond to the census, is suggestive of the personal importance of their encounters. This significance is another theme running through the census, and tallies with many people who experience a numinous event in their lives. But if we move on from the subjective perceptions included in the reports, is it possible to get behind the phenomenon and make some assessments of what it means and where it comes from?

A Numinous Zone

A useful place to start might be to utilise David Luke’s three-part interpretation for metaphysical entity contact. He used it to assess a study into the otherworldly beings (many of which had faerie-attributes) encountered by people who had altered their states of consciousness with the potent psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT), but it is also a valid tool to evaluate what may be happening to anyone who reports a numinous experience that includes interaction with non-ordinary entities:

  1. They are hallucinations. The entities are subjective hallucinations. Such a position is favoured by those taking a purely (materialist-reductionist) neuropsychological approach to the phenomena.
  2. They are psychological/ transpersonal manifestations. The communicating entities appear alien but are actually unfamiliar aspects of ourselves, be they our reptilian brain or our cells, molecules or sub-atomic particles.
  3. The entities exist in otherworlds and can interact with our physical reality. A numinous experience provides access to a true alternate dimension inhabited by independently existing intelligent entities in a stand-alone reality, which exists co-laterally with ours, and may interact with our world when certain conditions are met. The identity of the entities remains speculative.

Of course, all three interpretations may be true at different times and under various circumstances. From a materialist-reductionist standpoint, all of the experiences in the census could be reduced to hallucinatory events. There is no physical residue as an after-effect of the interactions, and the reports are all limited to visual and audio experiences. While the specific adjuncts allowing for the hallucinations to take place cannot be properly analysed, seeing them all as aberrations of visual and audial fields remains one legitimate interpretation. This reductionist standpoint becomes more difficult to apply in the cases of shared experiences, of which there are several in the census (including #160 and #240, discussed above). Although even these could be put down to psychological suggestion, transferred from one participant to another.

‘Walking on the Edge of Your Mind’ by Ylenia Viola

This explanatory model is reliant on the theory that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain. The implication is that the brain, for whatever reason, is misconstruing sensory input from a physical world where things like faeries simply do not exist. This is the hard and fast materialist-reductionist standpoint, which is deeply embedded in Western culture. But it is a standpoint that is challenged at a fundamental level not only by religious and mystical traditions, but also by a recently reinvented philosophy of Kantian Idealism and by a growing number of quantum physicists, who (using a wide range of methodologies) suggest that the brain is a reducer of consciousness, not a creator of it.* This model sees consciousness (not matter) as primary; it is everywhere and it is everything, and individual human (and animal) brains are merely conveying it within the remit of what then becomes physical reality. For the most part, this physical reality has a closely defined rule-set, but under certain conditions the usual laws break down and metaphysical events can occur. These supernatural occurrences are thus as legitimate as any natural occurrence. The philosopher Jeffrey Kripal describes this in relation to traumatic episodes that cause apparently non-ordinary experiences in his 2017 book written with Whitley Streiber, The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained is Real:

9780143109501“The body-brain crafts consciousness into a human form through a vast network of highly evolved biology, neurology, culture, language, family, and social interactions until a more or less stable ego or ‘I’ emerges, rather like the way the software and hardware of your laptop can pick up a Wi-Fi signal and translate the Internet into the specificities of your screen and social media. The analogy is a rough and imperfect one, but it gets the basic point across. Sometimes, however, the reducer is compromised or temporarily suppressed. The filtering or reduction of consciousness does not quite work, and other forms of mind or dimensions of consciousness, perhaps even other species or forms of life, that are normally shut out now ‘pop in.’ In extreme cases, it may seem that the cosmos itself has suddenly come alive and is all there. Perhaps it is.”

While the census respondents did not (with a few exceptions) report their encounters as the result of any trauma, the preternatural events they experienced could be interpreted, using the Idealism theory, as something metaphysical being allowed to ‘pop in’ from either a greater, transcendent form of consciousness, or from an alternative reality to which humans do not usually have access. This would fit with either of David Luke’s second and third interpretations for supernatural entity contact. Simply put, a numinous zone has been entered and the participant is able to make contact with what usually resides external to their ordinary consciousness.

Apart from the two instances of respondents who had altered their state of consciousness with psilocybin mushrooms, the emotional condition of the people reporting the experiences remains largely undisclosed. We are sometimes given hints that they were calm, relaxed, anxious or unhappy, and for those reporting encounters in nature there is often a description of feeling contentment prior to the experience, but there is little to suggest any radical alteration of consciousness before the appearance of the faeries. The events just happened spontaneously. Whether they were aberrant hallucinations or numinous moments allowing access to otherworldly dimensions, it would appear that people from a diverse range of backgrounds and geographical locations experience the faeries in contemporary societies, much in the same way they have done for several centuries, perhaps even millennia.

Experiences in numinous zones could be extended to a variety preternatural encounters, from ghost apparitions through to Near Death Experiences and UFO abduction scenarios,  but it would seem that the faeries, as an ontological taxonomic, remain a consistent, even persistent, form of entity that interact with our consensus reality. While reports of the faeries from history have often been turned into folkloric stories (frequently with a moral lesson inserted into the plot line), modern encounters, such as those from the census, usually take the form of anecdotal testimony. But the phenomenological types of faeries retain an adherence to their folkloric roots. They can receive an updated appearance, and cultural coding, but they remain recognisable as faeries. Graham Hancock has summed up what may be happening if we allow the faeries some type of metaphysical reality; from his 2005 book Supernatural:

supernatural1-2“If we are prepared to set aside the automatic scepticism and reductionism of our age, and if we spell out the problem in plain language, then we find that we are contemplating the existence of highly intelligent discarnate entities belonging to an order of creation fundamentally different than our own… it really is almost as though the beings we are dealing with have been changing and developing alongside us for thousands of years, and that they therefore cannot simply be mass delusions, but must have a definite, independent reality outside the human brain.”

Whatever their true nature, it seems that for the faeries to make contact with humanity they require our consciousness to become loosened from its usual restraints, and to enter a numinous zone. If the model of reality affirmed by Idealism is correct, then this zone may be allowing us to access a greater Over-Mind, where exist entities that represent either a stand-alone autonomous class of their own, or perhaps aspects of the human collective consciousness (as explicated by Carl Jung), which is usually filtered out through the reducing valve of the brain. But even if this is correct, the question remains: why? What purpose are these encounters serving? And is there a meaning to it? Unfortunately, these are very big questions and beyond the scope of this present article. So, with the promise of exploring this in more detail in a future article, we’ll end with a somewhat Cosmic hypothesis, initially intimated by Terence McKenna, Rupert Sheldrake and Ralph Abraham in their 1998 book The Evolutionary Mind: Conversations on Science, Imagination & Spirit, but recently fleshed out in some more detail by Jeffrey Kripal. It opens up the possibility that the census respondents, and innumerable people before them, are tapping into a truly transcendent phenomenon when they find themselves in a numinous zone. Kripal explains it thus:

“I want to be explicit. I want to propose the idea that a rare but real form of the imagination may be what the conscious force of evolution looks like. And by ‘looks like,’ I mean two things: how the evolutionary force appears to a human mind in a particular culture; and, with a bit of a trippy twist now, how the evolutionary force itself ‘sees.’ I mean both sides of the two-way mirror. I mean both the reflecting back and seeing through. The second meaning of ‘how the evolutionary force itself sees’ shifts the conversation to new territory. That new territory involves the possibility that, in very special moments, the human imagination somehow becomes temporarily empowered, and functions not as a simple spinner of fantasies (the imaginary) but as a very special organ of cognition and translation (the symbolic), as a kind of supersense that is perceiving some entirely different, probably non-human or superhuman order of reality, but shaping that encounter into a virtual reality display in tune with the local culture: in short, a reflecting back and a seeing through at the same time.”


* A concise new article (loaded with links to detailed research) outlining how the philosophical theory of Idealism meshes with quantum mechanics can be found at: ‘Coming to Grips with the Implications of Quantum Mechanics’. It is by one of the foremost modern proponents of Idealism, Bernardo Kastrup, and the quantum physicists Henry P. Stapp and Menas C. Kafatos.

As linked at the beginning of this article, the Fairy Census can be downloaded for free at The Fairy Investigation Society’s website. It includes an introduction and explanation of the collection/editorial methodologies by Simon Young. The census was conducted between 2014-17, and there are plans afoot for a further survey. Look out for information on the website and also updates on The Fairy Investigation Society’s Facebook page.

The cover image, A.I.R., is by the preternaturally talented photographer and artist Ylenia Viola, whose artwork can be found at her website: Fairytalesneverdie. Deadbutdreaming thanks Ylenia for permission to use her images.