Paranormal research groups can come and go so fast they seem as elusive as the spectres they seek, so when one reaches its 30th birthday it's a fine excuse to celebrate.
The UK-based group ASSAP will pass that milestone this Friday. For those unfamiliar with the initials they stand for Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, which may not be the snappiest name in the world but it's a name that was chosen with enormous care.
One of the key words there is "anomalous", which is similar but not identical to "paranormal". The ASSAP website defines anomalous phenomena as "those reported events for which there is no widely accepted scientific explanation". This covers a dizzying spectrum of topics that includes not only ghosts and UFOs - focussed on by numerous groups, often with one subject overlooked in favour of the other - but also takes in such areas as psychic phenomena (e.g. premonitions), accounts of vampires and mysterious animals, "earth mysteries" (e.g. ley lines), "Fortean" events (e.g. accounts of fish falling from the sky), and so on. A full list of every subject covered would take in the entire A-Z of reported weirdness, from alleged abductions by aliens through to the use of Zener cards (those peculiar decks with symbols of stars, circles, wavy lines, and so on) in parapsychology experiments.
This multidisciplinary approach is invaluable because it allows consideration of the ways in which one category can blur into another. Did you know, for instance, that some people show a tendency both to have psychic experiences throughout their lives and to report UFO encounters? This surprising overlap isn't the sort of curiosity that can be explored by concentrating on a narrow field of enquiry.
Just as important in the association's name is the word "scientific". ASSAP is a registered education and research charity and -- unlike some groups -- it has no overriding desire either to prove or disprove the phenomena it studies. Naturally, individual members will hold their own opinions and many will be disposed towards one view or another, but the association itself holds no corporate beliefs. It can be a tricky balancing act walking that tightrope between unquestioning acceptance and unthinking rejection of claims but as the ASSAP website states: "We simply want the truth, whatever it may turn out to be."
In pursuit of that truth is a network of accredited investigators, each trained to work in an open-minded and scientific way and eager to look into spontaneous reports of anomalous phenomena as and when they are received.
Away from the front line, ASSAP members also carry out research projects and recent work has looked at such questions as whether there is truly anything paranormal about those ghostly "orbs" that continue to pop up in people's photographs. Their findings would indicate not - although the debate will doubtless continue for some time to come!
It is probably ASSAP's wide-ranging and impartial approach to serious research that has allowed it to endure so well since its formation all those years ago, on 10 June 1981. Today, the association has members around the world and many will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in style later this year when the University of Bath hosts the Seriously Strange event over the weekend of 10-11 September. Tickets for members and non-members alike are now available but book early to be sure of a place.
I lack the patience to wait that long though, so Happy Birthday ASSAP and here's to the next 30 years. Come this Friday I'll be raising a glass or three to toast you - sticking to spirits of course!