October is naturally the perfect time for creepy, scary, haunty reading, so I’m reviewing some ooky spooky supernatural, paranormal-themed titles throughout the month. Personally, I find nothing scarier than some of the true crime cases out there, so delving into the supernatural side of things feels more light-hearted than sinister and I love Halloween-time for that!
First up: Mary Roach’s Spook, truly a doubter’s dream.
I could not believe these [Biblical miracle] things had happened, because another god, the god who wore lab glasses and knew how to use a slide rule, wanted to know how, scientifically speaking, these things could be possible. Faith did not take, because science kept putting it on the spot. Did the horns make the walls fall, or did there happen to be an earthquake while the priests were trumpeting? Was it possible Jesus was making use of an offshore atoll, the tops of which sometimes lie just inches below the water’s surface? Was Lazarus a simple case of premature entombment? I wasn’t saying these things didn’t happen. I was just saying I’d feel better with some proof.
Mary Roach, inquisitive author of (very) popular science books humorously exploring the scientific logistics of things you may not have previously considered in detail (sex, space travel, cadavers), writes what might be the definitive account of supernatural debunking. Roach admits she’s something of an anomaly – an author who begins researching a book topic not as a specialist but a novice, albeit a curious one. Her naiveté allows for humorous moments as she researches, travels and confers with experts, and gets to the bottom of commonly held and historic beliefs revolving around that big question of life after death.
In search of science’s answers on the afterlife, or the soul’s survival after the body’s death, Roach travels to India to observe an alleged reincarnation case; gets to the bottom of ectoplasm, that spillover (literally) from the spiritualism craze; analyzes the “subtle bullying” of TV psychics while attending medium school, where those with clairvoyant tendencies can learn to commune with the “spit-its”; and recounts researchers’ experiments over time attempting to prove that souls live on in some form after earthly demise.
Roach employs sensibility, simply related but solid science, and plenty of humor to work through various elements of the supernatural, present and historic. Her description of sifting through the ectoplasm archives at Cambridge University is particularly delightful. As is a chapter on near-death experiences, where a professor affixed a computer to an operating room ceiling in case any souls gone wandering during defibrillator insertion, when patients clinically die, are able to later report back and verify the images it displays, only visible from this ceiling viewpoint. The lengths gone to to obtain proof are invariably entertaining.
This chapter was also enlightening because it’s something I knew nothing about, biologically-speaking, and the similarities in anecdotes always gave me pause and lent the possibility of NDEs (lots of paranormal lingo here) more credibility in my mind. The conclusions Roach, parsing others’ research, comes to make so much sense, while still leaving the door open to something possibly inexplicable. Maybe.
Roach is a skeptic but open-minded, willing to believe if evidence exists. That goes against the classic argument insisting on faith, whether in religion or anything similarly mystical and intangible. It was undoubtedly the best way to approach this project. (Unlike a book I read last year where a journalist used her job’s cache to automatically equal credibility while remaining gullible meeting with psychics and mediums.)
Many interesting explanatory points are raised throughout, one of which has always kept me listening to ghost stories: we believe stories told by people we trust. “The closer you are to the teller of a ghost story, the more likely you are to believe that the ghost in the story was a ghost, and not a raccoon or a temporal lobe seizure.” That’s what consistently brings me back to wondering about these topics and I was glad to see I wasn’t alone (as common sense as that trust bias seems now!)
Her writing is smart, fact-filled but accessible, and funny – a favorite moment was her description of an experiment involving a man wearing a sheet and walking like a ghost (arms outstretched) through a field in the UK as curious cows trailed behind him. I almost cried. Others were a little dad-jokey, but the tone worked overall.
In some chapters she encounters the societal elements linked with perpetuations of beliefs, reincarnation being the big one. The “timing of human ensoulment,” that is, when does the soul actually fuse with (get “installed” in, as she says) the physical body, highlighting the argument for personhood that’s dominated abortion debates, was another. Her coverage of the old experiments determining the soul’s weight (an alleged 21 grams) factored in here too thanks to the religious implications of a soul, and was surprisingly amusing.
Possibly most amusing was her profile of the sleight of hand (and other body parts) of medium/ectoplasm producer Helen Duncan in a chapter about spiritualism’s grossest side effect:
She had nine children, who hung from her hems and scaled her bulk like small mountaineers. One biographer described the youngest child atop her lap, dandling the flesh that hung down from her massive upper arms. Her séances were high drama. She tended to swoon and fall off her chair and occasionally wet herself in the frenzy of spiritual possession. She once emerged from the séance cabinet naked under a floor-length “ectoplasmic veil.”
It has so many good stories in general: like why scientific literature contains the measurement unit “meows per second”, and why the University of Virginia has a research lab on the survival of consciousness after death (Xerox is involved.) I wished there was a bit more about ghosts, as I’m drawn to either proof or disproval of ghost stories like a magnet. But for explanations of haunting stories, there’s Ghostland.
While attending medium school, Roach sensibly observes, “Of course, a seminar like this self-selects for those prone to embracing New Age beliefs,” which makes her proof-seeking perspective appreciated. It’s why I’ve had a problem with other books on the topic, aside from the aforementioned Ghostland – it seems the writers drawn to these topics self select as believers, and the research or scientific evidence against the juicier, spookier story ends up neglected or explained away in favor of believing.
I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science. Certainly most things can—including the vast majority of what people ascribe to fate, ghosts, ESP, Jupiter rising—but not all.
If you want to cement a belief in the otherworldly, this isn’t the book to get there. To understand the evidential flip side of popular myths and beliefs, it’s a great study and great fun.
Roach admits it’s more fun to visit the cemetery with believers, but for those with the nagging need to see the receipts, Spook is your best bet.