Frighteningly Good Reads: Unbelievable and Zodiac

Are you joining up with Molly @ Silver Button Books for Frighteningly Good Reads? There’s still one week until Halloween!

I managed to surprise myself by reading not only the book I’d specifically set aside for Molly’s very fun challenge, but another that had been on my shelves for awhile and is, arguably, the spookier of the two.

First, the book I specifically chose: Stacy Horn’s Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory (2009, Ecco).

Horn looks at the history of the Duke University Parapsychology Lab, where, from 1930 until 1980, scientists worked to try and investigate paranormal events and those claiming supernatural skills using accepted scientific principles and rigorous testing methods. The lab was under the direction of J.B. Rhine, a figure now mostly lost to history but who Horn points out may eventually be credited with much more, calling him “the Einstein of the paranormal”.

She sets up Rhine’s background and that of the lab, how and why it was funded, and how it worked. This is all very interesting, but the juiciest parts are the stories of hauntings, poltergeists, and alleged psychics that the scientists tried to verify. Some were familiar, like Dutch psychic Peter Hurkos who often got involved in investigations of murders and kidnappings, but in typical psychic fashion only made vague pronouncements and didn’t actually solve anything.

Others I’d never heard of. My favorite was the story of Eliza Jumel, whose second marriage was to Aaron Burr, onetime vice president and dueler of Alexander Hamilton. Jumel allegedly haunts her former mansion in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, has an eyebrow-raising life story, and may have been the inspiration for Great Expectations‘ Miss Havisham.

As she explores the lab’s workings and its attempts to apply scientific methodology to seemingly supernatural happenings, Horn also examines the culture of belief, putting it succinctly: “faith trumps science when it tells you what you want to hear”. It even turns out that “the more science explains the unexplainable, the greater our willingness to believe in the fantastic,” citing a Gallup poll identifying that belief in the supernatural is increasing among Americans.

Scratch the surface of any ghost story and it always turns out more sad than scary.

That’s definitely the case for the majority of stories debunked here; for another excellent in-depth example see The Haunting of Alma Fielding.

Although Rhine’s name isn’t widely known today, Horn makes a good case for why the work was important, even though it couldn’t conclusively prove or disprove many of the hauntings or strange events investigated. This was kind of the conclusion of Mary Roach’s Spook too, namely that there are things science can’t explain right now, but don’t automatically jump to the supernatural as the reason for why that is. I completely agree so I enjoyed this, including its skeptical perspective, a lot, but if you’re apt to believe that no evidence indicates proof of the paranormal, you may be less enamored.

It’s as informative as it is creepy, and Horn is a skilled storyteller, able to weave lots of information into an easily readable narrative.

There are many who believe the Rhines will one day be hailed as historic figures, but it looks like that won’t be sorted out until anyone reading this is gone.

They looked for evidence of life after death, but the evidence was inconclusive. Everyone we love dies and disappears, and whether or not something more substantial than a memory survives of all that love is, scientifically, an unanswered question. In the end the men and women of the Parapsychology Laboratory were left with […] “an uneasy truce between the dread of then hereafter and the solace of faith,” which could, more than likely, be a truce we’ll have to hold on to forever.

Buy it used at SecondSale.com

But this one was absolutely terrifying, because it’s definitely true.

That’s right, I finally got around to reading Ted Cruz’s biography! It is DARK.

I kid, I kid. Honestly, I’m mildly embarrassed that I read this. But Zodiac: The Shocking True Story of the Hunt for the Nation’s Most Elusive Serial Killer was in my neighborhood thrift store for $1.50 and I didn’t actually know much about this story, aside from the movie, which I absolutely love. Though it seems like the consensus is that the guy Robert Graysmith thought it had to be isn’t really the Zodiac. That’s the same problem with this book, upon which it is based!

Luckily his suspect crush is really only the subject of a couple chapters near the very end, the rest is mostly about the crimes and investigation. A few weeks ago some people who are some kind of citizen detectives or something? — I’m not really clear on it — said they’ve figured out who they think it is but, not that I have infinite wisdom here, it seems kind of doubtful.

I do remember in the last couple of years when his Z-340 cipher was allegedly finally solved, I really hoped he was still alive to see that because you know it would’ve just burned his ass. He seems ungodly arrogant but I guess anyone would be when you’ve written 30-some letters taunting the police and have still gotten away with it for more than 50 years. It kind of blows one’s mind. Did they check if he licked the envelopes?

Anyway, that’s basically the extent of my Zodiac knowledge, but apparently the movie is actually very accurate, aside from its suspect. The book is highly entertaining, at least up until about the final third when it becomes detective drama and those eyerolling assumptions about things being connected by the most common street names or ridiculous astrological links or crimes being near water (keep that in mind the next time a psychic uses that too, they love that one — oh you mean something happening near what covers 71% of the earth’s surface? What a surprise. I’ll believe it when they predict a Kennedy having a car accident in the desert).

So the last bit dragged but the rest was pretty interesting. As usual I think they went overboard chalking victims up to him, there’s no way there were that many. I do hope they eventually find out who it is though, because my god this guy has so many bats in his belfry. Like I cannot even conceive of the Silence of the Lambs house of crap he surely has/had and all the weird stories from whoever knew him. Which makes me think it’s so odd that this has never been solved, how has no one been cleaning out their dead Uncle Crandall’s house and been like “what’s this paper bag hood with clip-on sunglasses attached to it? And this shirt with a homemade crosshair symbol stitched on? And why does this copy of The Most Dangerous Game have so much highlighting?”

It just seems like one of those where somebody has to know something. Unless they’re covering it up on purpose, because the Zodiac is still alive and still bent on spreading death, chaos, and utter revulsion…we’re back to Ted Cruz.

I do wish they’d do an update or add footnotes of what information has changed since publication. I googled one name that was mentioned as a missing woman who’d been in the area of one of the crimes and was said to have never been found, but has since been identified. And I think Graysmith’s suspect was excluded on DNA at one point. I don’t know enough about it but I think there are more such examples of outdated information.

This wasn’t a review of the book, sorry. But it doesn’t actually need a review, does it? You either know you’re going to like reading it or you won’t. If you’re really unsure you can’t go wrong with the movie. Buy it used or new at SecondSale.com

Have you read either of these? What spooky nonfiction have you been reading lately?

23 thoughts on “Frighteningly Good Reads: Unbelievable and Zodiac

Add yours

    1. I think you’d like Unbelievable, it’s very well written and information-packed while still being completely entertaining.

      And I’m glad I could make you laugh! I can’t stand to see Ted Cruz’s face or be reminded of his existence but truly my favorite thing to ever come out of the ridiculous internet conspiracy machine is the one about him being the Zodiac. It’s forever the funniest to me!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Double the scares! I am obsessed with finding Unbelievable and your review has me calling my local bookstore…..why aren’t they open already!?! I need it!

    And I love the narrative experience of your Zodiac reading. This is the kind of content that brings me joy, like listening to a friend hold the book and yammer on about their thoughts. Its perfection.

    Thank you for participating in FGR! I am always a little worried that it is too low-key but it feels perfect for welcoming all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yay, I’m so glad I could convince you on that one! I thought it was totally fascinating and a perfect spooky read this time of year 🙂 I hope you can get a copy soon!!

      And I’m even happier I could bring you joy with my ramblings!! 🙂 Sometimes if I can’t summarize something eloquently it feels worthwhile to just give the thoughts that were running through my head 😂

      Thanks again for doing this event…it’s definitely the only reason I would’ve finally gotten Unbelievable off my reading list, and picked up Zodiac which has been sitting around on my shelves forever! I agree, it feels completely welcoming and no pressure, which, honestly, I really need. Thank you for all of it!!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for participating! I am pretty happy to do my own thing but the joy I feel when people join me is immesurable.

        And I got a copy of Unbelievable coming my way. I think it will be the perfect book to bridge FGR —> NonFiction November.

        Keep the ramblings coming!

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  2. These books both sound amazing! I love following the Zodiac cases and seeing the investigation so I’ll definitely have to check that book out somehow! I have seen the Zodiac film and it is really good, I recommend it if you haven’t seen it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. These definitely sound frightening – glad they turned out to be good as well! I had good intentions of participating in Frighteningly Good Reads but have been a bit too busy – but if I get the chance I might try and squeeze something in this weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s not too late! I almost never manage any kind of challenge or reading event unless I specifically set something aside and plan for it, and I love this one so I try to do that every year. If you can’t manage this time, keep it in mind for next year 🙂

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  4. I’m curious what percentage of the books you read could count for the frighteningly good reads theme even when you’re not intentionally reading for it. It seems like a lot of your topics of interest (and some of mine too; can’t pass up a good book about death and dying, weird though that may be) seem to overlap nicely 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s fair, probably so many 😂 I think I always just try to pick a ghost-y one for this event. I agree with you, some death and dying ones fit this topic so well though…I read Being Mortal a few months ago and loved it, but I did find so much of it terrifying!

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