Ghosts, Mediums, and Scientists: A Review of Spook by Mary Roach

Reading Spook was one of the most enjoyable pieces of research I’ve done. My fiction often involves ghosts and other forms of contact with the dead, as well as psychic phenomena. I’ve found numerous studies of mind-to-mind communication, remote viewing, precognition, etc., but this is the first time I’ve read about scientific attempts to study the afterlife. I read a couple of books on ghost-hunting and paranormal investigation; however, the author of those books is more a professional skeptic than a solid scientist.

Mary Roach explores current science on reincarnation, soul weighing, out of body experiences, and also the history of mediums and other interactions with the spirits of the dead. She’s one of the funniest writers I’ve come across. She manages to find the strangest items in the historical record—her chapter on ectoplasm, for example. The fact that it was regarded so seriously at the time it was a popular mediumistic trick is as fascinating as the methods used to produce it.

Roach participates in a training for becoming a medium; takes part in a study on creating the perception of a ghost through infrasound; goes along on reincarnation research trips in India; visits a small North Carolina town where a ghost helped a man win a lawsuit; and more. Her inquiries are serious, but she never takes herself seriously. Much of the humor comes from her ability to laugh at herself, and to notice the workings of her own mind.

Whether or not you believe in ghosts or life after death, you can enjoy and learn from the author’s journey.

Seeing a Ghost

ghost

As research for the seventh Mae Martin book, I recently read a book on paranormal investigation techniques by a professional skeptic. It reminded me of this post I wrote three years ago, which some of my current blog readers may not have seen, so I’ve updated and recycled it.

Once in a while, writing paranormal mysteries, I need to introduce a character who is no longer alive.* In Shaman’s Blues, Mae has no concept of ghosts at first, but Jamie, an anthropologist’s son, assures her that every culture has them.

Ghosts fascinate us, even when we don’t believe in them. People sign up for ghost tours of historic districts, and some choose the option to get the presumably haunted room at a B&B. Part of the attraction in ghost stories is the curious pleasure of safely experienced negative emotions. There is something frightening about an encounter with the dead, and most ghosts are said to have fallen into the place between worlds through tragedy. By seeking out ghosts, we can dip into terror and sadness for a quick swim and come back out, invigorated by the plunge.

It’s different for the ghost. Stuck in the crack between two worlds, attached to earthly life yet incapable of living it, looking, perhaps, for one particular soul, the ghost must be frustrated, bewildered and lonely. No wonder they behave badly sometimes. It can’t be much of an afterlife.

I say that lightly, but at the moment that I met a ghost, I was scared to the bone. It was quite some time ago, but I can still feel her when I think about her.

The cold is what made her frightening.

I was a college student on Christmas break visiting my sister and her husband, and my boyfriend and I stayed in the attic bedroom of their old house. In the dark before dawn, the alarm went off, and my boyfriend got up to go to work. We spoke briefly, kissed goodbye, and he left. Wide awake, I stayed in bed under a heap of quilts and blankets, hoping I could go back to sleep. Our shared body heat had made a cozy nest of the bed and I didn’t want to get up early on my vacation.

I snuggled the blankets around me—and was suddenly chilled. I wasn’t alone. A woman’s head and shoulders floated on the far side of the room. She stared at me, her face stern and judgmental over a high-collared dress, her hair pulled back in a severe tight bun. I was terrified, not by her apparent resentment, but by the deep, unnatural chill. At the same time, I thought her features were like the country comedian Minnie Pearl. I’ve cited Stephen King’s Danse Macabre in a book review before, and it fits here: comedy and horror go hand in hand. I pulled the blanket over my head until the cold went away.

Prior to that, I didn’t believe in ghosts. I’m not sure I do now, either, but it’s like what anthropologist Michael Harner says about shamans not believing in spirits. They don’t have to. They know.

*****

*My books containing characters who are ghosts or spirits are Shamans’ Blues and Soul Loss.soul ebookshaman

 

Seeing a Ghost

Once in a while, writing paranormal mysteries, I need to introduce a character who is no longer alive. In Shaman’s Blues, Mae has no concept of ghosts at first, but Jamie, an anthropologist’s son, assures her that every culture has them.

Ghosts fascinate us, even when we don’t believe in them. People sign up for ghost tours of historic districts, and some choose the option to get the presumably haunted room at a B&B. Part of the attraction in ghost stories is the curious pleasure of safely experienced negative emotions. There is something frightening about an encounter with the dead, and most ghosts are said to have fallen into the place between worlds through tragedy. By seeking out ghosts, we can dip into terror and sadness for a quick swim and come back out, invigorated by the plunge.

It’s different for the ghost. Stuck in the crack between two worlds, attached to earthly life yet incapable of living it, looking, perhaps, for one particular soul, the ghost must be frustrated, bewildered and lonely. No wonder they behave badly sometimes. It can’t be much of an afterlife.

I say that lightly, but at the moment that I met a ghost, I was scared to the bone. It was quite some time ago, but I can still feel her when I think about her.

The cold is what made her frightening.

I was a college student on Christmas break visiting my sister and her husband, and my boyfriend and I stayed in the attic bedroom of their old house. In the dark before dawn the alarm went off, and my boyfriend got up to go to work. We spoke briefly, kissed goodbye, and he left. Wide awake, I stayed in bed under a heap of quilts and blankets, hoping I could go back to sleep. Our shared body heat had made cozy nest of the bed and I didn’t want to get up early on my vacation.

I snuggled the blankets around me, and was suddenly chilled. I wasn’t alone. A woman’s head and shoulders floated on the far side of the room. She stared at me, her face stern and judgmental over a high collared dress, her hair pulled back in a severe tight bun. I was terrified, not by her apparent resentment, but by the deep, unnatural chill. At the same time, I thought her features were like the country comedian Minnie Pearl.  I’ve cited Stephen King’s Danse Macabre in a book review before, and it fits here: comedy and horror go hand in hand. I pulled the blanket over my head until the cold went away.

Prior to that, I didn’t believe in ghosts. I’m not sure I do now, either, but it’s like what anthropologist Michael Harner says about shamans not believing in spirits. They don’t have to. They know.