Here’s the creepy, confounding tale of the life and death of John Barker, an English psychiatrist who, in the 1960s, began to believe that some people have the power to predict the future. Told in The New Yorker, by Sam Knight, with just the right mix of credulousness and skepticism, the story winds its way around Barker’s psychiatric studies at Shelton Hospital, the the phenomena of placebos and “nocebos,” and the awesome power of anticipation — all done in a kind of demented trick that will keep you up at night with fear, wondering if fear can kill you. After a mining accident in Wales that killed 116 children, Barker was drawn to the eerie anecdotes of children who foretold the disaster:
In the hours that he spent in Aberfan, Barker was struck by “several strange and pathetic incidents” connected with the coal slip. Bereaved families spoke of dreams and portents. On the eve of the disaster, an eight-year-old boy named Paul Davies had drawn massed figures digging in the hillside under the words “the end.” Davies died in the school. Barker heard the story of Eryl Mai Jones, a ten-year-old girl, “not given to imagination,” who had told her mother two weeks before the collapse that she was not afraid to die.
Barker began assembling a database of premonitions, and a horrifying number of them come to pass. Then, a man predicts Barker’s own death:
Shortly before one in the morning, Barker’s telephone rang. It was a panicked-sounding Hencher, who told Barker to check his gas supply. He had been worried about him all day. Barker lived with Jane and their three young children in a large rented house named Barnfield, on the edge of the village of Yockleton. There was no gas supply.
“Have you a dark car?” Hencher asked. Barker replied that it was dark green. “Be very careful,” Hencher warned. “Look after yourself.” Barker asked Hencher if he believed that his life was in danger.
“Yes,” the seer replied.