Have you read anything spooky scary this month for Molly’s Frighteningly Good Reads? My second book for the event this year quickly became one of my favorite frightening reads: Will Storr vs. The Supernatural: One Man’s Search For the Truth About Ghosts.
British journalist Will Storr begins this undertaking into supernatural research with the idea that he wants to learn more about the people who believe in various aspects of the supernatural and while doing so, figure out whether he, a skeptic, can be convinced of these things as well. And if not, to determine what rational or scientific explanations apply.
He starts out with the promise to himself that he will believe that his interviewees truly believe these things themselves, i.e., whether or he not he buys it, he will accept that they think they are telling the truth.
This had the most Jon Ronson-esque feel of any of Storr’s books I’ve read (he even blurbed it). It begins with Storr tagging along with a self-described demonologist (to be fair, I suppose all demonologists are self-described) outside of Philadelphia. He expected to be easily skeptical but was surprised when he did see and feel unexplainable things at the supposedly haunted home.
The more I explore this murky and ancient cellar of the human experience, the less everything else makes sense. The steely, rational scaffold poles that used to structure my ordinary life are slowly breaking down, and through all the holes that have appeared in my world, the ghosts are swooping in. I can feel their chilly slipstreams on my skin as I lapse into yet another daydream in the office. I sit at my desk and ruminate on death, hell and my earthly moral legacy, and I wonder if they can see you in the bath.
In his investigations, which take place in both the US and England, he visits people who believe their homes are haunted, including with poltergeists, sleeps in haunted sites in Britain, interviews demonologists, ghost hunters, exorcists, mediums, and gathers any number of ghost stories in order to pick apart what may, rationally, have taken place.
Perhaps his most recognizable interviewee is Maurice Grosse, the paranormal investigator involved in the infamous Enfield haunting, and eventually he even gets to talk to the now-adult Janet, who was at the center of the Enfield poltergeist activity when she was an adolescent.
Storr writes in a camera-like observational style, and this was frequently hilarious as he describes so many American oddities. That’s something I probably should have mentioned right away: this book is (intentionally) hilarious, at times laugh-out-loud so. Storr has such a gift for description that makes this endlessly entertaining and compelling.
I liked seeing his progression as he worked out his own thoughts and beliefs for himself. Although some of the events or so-called “incidents” are patently ridiculous (he’s a journalistic witness to an eye-rolling taping of the UK TV show Most Haunted with the medium and ghost hunter Derek Acorah), he’s also a believable narrator when the inexplicable occurs.
As he documents his interviews and experiences, he researches the various concepts that are used to disprove or debunk paranormal experiences, including Carl Jung’s hypnagogic states, good old hallucinations, the “Stone Tape” theory of traumatic events being recorded and replayed, mental illness, and false memories. He even ties string theory into spirit sightings, which was a scientific connection I’d never seen made before. He also enlists experts, including philosopher/firm skeptic Dr. James Garvey, who provides some rationalization of various belief systems and puts a lot about the psychology of supernatural beliefs into perspective. Dr. Garvey also provided one of my favorite ideas from the book:
Maybe all the information that people accumulate over a lifetime…maybe that’s it. Perhaps that’s what ought to be celebrated. That bit there that we got. Hoping that there’s more, looking for ghosts or religion or whatever, is wasting that little good bit that you’ve got.
I couldn’t agree more.
But he also acknowledges, in the same way that Mary Roach did in Spook, the classic in this genre of journalists investigating the supernatural, that there are things we can’t explain yet. Referencing string theory and other avenues of scientific progression, he makes the point that spirits and what we consider hauntings – the really inexplicable happenings – may very well become scientifically explainable in the near future. I agree that there are certainly unexplained phenomena, but I’m of the mind that we just don’t have the proper scientific explanation for it yet, in the same way that humans used to think something like a volcano erupting was because a god was angry.
The simple truth is — nobody knows. Nobody, not Dr. Salter, Dr. Garvey, Father Bill or the Founder, knows what happens when our brains finally flicker off. We’re in the dark about death and the purpose of existence. And an awful lot of people, it seems, are scared of the dark. This is the thing that I’ve learned over the last twelve months about blind belief in the supernatural: faith is for the frightened. These are the things that scare humans more than anything else — death, loneliness, and guilt. That’s the ominous three, the holy trinity of dread. If you sign up for a supernatural belief like Christianity, these timeless problems disappear in a puff of incensed smoke. Death? No worries. Paradise awaits you. Lonely? Don’t be daft — God loves you and is with you always. Guilt? Just say the word, and you will be forgiven. And it’s not just Christians. There’s a certain type of ghost-believer that’s victim to the same syndrome.
This is what I love about healthy skepticism-type of investigations: you eventually come to the real reasoning behind why these stories exist, or why we attribute the meaning to certain unexplainable events that we do. Highly entertaining, funny, smart, and insightful, this has surpassed Spook and Ghostland as my favorite in this little genre.
published 2006 by William Morrow. Used or new @SecondSale.com
Wow! Funny, insightful, and better than Spook? I’m in!
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I would say it might be slightly less serious and sciencey than Spook, but does the same kind of good work and had me laughing out loud. I hope you get a chance to read it – I thought it was so much fun 😊
I want to read this, based on your review, and I am not usually interested in supernatural stuff. But as you say it is funny and Jon Ronson-like…
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I’m only interested in the supernatural as far as it’s someone debunking/applying science to it. This does that so well while being unbelievably funny (giggling to myself all the time while reading it) and still acknowledging that the world does still hold some mysteries. That worked for me!
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Sounds like a fun and interesting book. I love the citations you provide. The man has a way with words!
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He really does! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of his but this was far and away the most fun. He’s got that perfect knack that many journalists can’t seem to find of incorporating just enough of himself into a story.