Fun with Skeptics

You have to love skeptics.  Really.  Like most people who’ve spent many years attaining a doctorate, I’m naturally skeptical about many things.  One thing that I only temporarily lost (between about 1991 and ’99, if I recall) was an open mind.  That is to say, I discounted many things out of hand because people with doctorates don’t countenance such things.  I eventually realized the folly of academic arrogance and went back to considering things by actual evidence.  The results were interesting.  In order to help with my Ed and Lorraine Warren dilemma, I decided to read The Science of Ghosts by Joe Nickell.  It’s hard not to like Nickell.  He was a stage magician and eventually earned a doctorate in folklore.  He then made a career out of being a paranormal investigator.

He begins his book by claiming to have an open mind about ghosts.  Very quickly, however, a skeptical reader with an open mind notices his magician’s tricks.  He’s very good at misdirection.  While putatively not debunking (but actually debunking) ghostly encounters, he time and again comes to the states of consciousness when individual super-impose images from the  unconscious mind onto what they’re seeing: when falling asleep, in the middle of the night, when waking up, when doing routine chores, when concentrating, when working.  That about covers over 90 percent of human time.  During these periods we’re likely to mistake what’s not really there for what is.  It could explain much of the driving I’ve witnessed in New Jersey, if not ghosts.  And he also picks straw men (and women) to knock over (pardon the violent metaphor).  Accounts by the credulous are his favorites to explain away.

What we really need is a middle ground between credulousness and a skepticism that can’t be convinced even by evidence.  Yes, ghost hunters use ridiculous methods for claiming “proof.”  Yes, some credible people legitimately see incredible things.  Nickell never deviates from his definition of ghosts as a form of energy left by the departed.  Nobody knows for sure what ghosts are, of course.  If they did there’d be little mystery about them.  Although Nickell claims openmindedness, he states at several points that at death brain activity ceases therefore nothing can think, walk, or talk afterward.  As any experimentalist knows, the results reflect the way an experiment is set up.  If the assumption is that there can’t be ghosts, there won’t be ghosts.  To get to the truth of the matter something between credulousness and biased skepticism must be brought to the table to see if it really tips.  Skeptics are fun, but an actual conversation might be more fruitful.

Now Hiring?

In keeping with my recent theme of jobs you never knew you could have, I recently read a story a friend sent me from The Vintage News.  The story concerns a spiritual counselor who is planning to marry a ghost.  I didn’t know that spiritual counselor was an available job.  You see, I had taken enough psychology courses in college that I could’ve had it as a minor, but I didn’t declare it.  At the time I was destined, or so I thought, for a career in ministry and psychology seemed a good subject to assist with that.  Also, I naturally tend to try to figure out what motivates people.  Like most career options, not having a science background prevented me from pursuing psychology as a fall-back career.  But spiritual counselor?

The woman in the story lives in the United Kingdom.  Here in the United States, where unhappy people seek any opportunity they can find to sue someone, having a job as a spiritual counselor probably involves ordination.  Even if you’re ordained, as I learned from long years both attending and teaching in seminaries, you always refer those who come to you to a licensed psychologist.  Clergy can easily be sued for providing bad advice.  That’s why the counselor part of this job seems so odd to me.  That, and the woman the story features is only 27.  I suppose that’s time enough to finish a doctorate, for the truly ambitious, but apparently she doesn’t have a terminal degree.  Just a post-terminal lover.

Also, I learned that spectrophilia is a condition with a name.  The idea of intimacy with spirits is nothing new, of course.  The ancient idea of incubi and succubi reflect this concept, and a number of the stories in the Ed and Lorraine Warren oeuvre include sexual attacks by demons or ghosts.  What’s different here is that the young woman wants to marry a spirit she can’t see.  Unlike most such reputed cases of spectrophilia, she claims spirits are superior to physical lovers.  Despite the oddities that make such a story newsworthy (in a sense) a potentially important point could emerge from all of this.  Love is not a physical phenomenon.  We all know it when we feel it.  I suspect that other such feelings, like finding the perfect job that matches your skills and interests, are likewise intangible.  The problem is finding out that such jobs even exist.

Mephistopheles

Jeffrey Burton Russell is one of the clearest thinkers I’ve ever read.  I first encountered him in my background reading for Holy Horror, and have subsequently tracked down his books on the history of evil.  In what is a dangerous move for a scholar, Russell admits in The Devil that he believes in some kind of personified evil.  Except for religion scholars employed in seminaries, such thoughts are generally kept carefully guarded as academia has followed the materialist paradigm since it boldly declared that there’s no other way to know the world.  Russell’s intellect penetrates through that posturing and logically lays out what can or can’t be known based on empirical evidence.  And in Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World, he concludes his historical sweep of an idea as old as civilization itself.

This is a wide-ranging book.  The previous three covered long periods as well: antiquity through the Hebrew Bible, New Testament through late antiquity, and the Medieval Period.  Mephistopheles has to cover from the Reformation through the present of the latter 20th century (when it was written).  Finding evil in the modern world is arguably way too easy.  Since 2016 it has become more fashionable to the point that an entire political party can laud it.  Russell writes with the strong conviction that love and the will to goodness can overcome the tendencies of humans to allow hatred, fear, and prejudice to rule.  What seems to be lacking, some three decades on, is the will.  We have given in to our cynicism and elected the worst of our inclinations.

In William Friedkin’s documentary The Devil and Father Amorth, Russell, looking depressed, is interviewed about the reality of demons.  His advice is to look for the good instead.  Nevertheless, having spent years of his life researching how evil appears and reappears, his own fascination demonstrates why we return to the subject time and again.  The world hasn’t righted itself.  His books indicate that there is a way, but we continue to ignore that way, preferring instead to follow the loudest of mouths rather than the warmest of hearts.  Some would personify this into Mephistopheles, the modern, entertaining aspect of the Devil.  Others would claim it’s merely a metaphor.  No matter which may be the case there’s no denying that evil exists.  And if it exists it behooves us to know about it.  And once we learn its identity we must name it.

Slight Reading

It will soon be time to turn to holiday-oriented posts, but if you’re like me you’ve been seeing the decorations and hearing the music for some time now already.  Given that, at least in name, Christmas is a religious holiday it fits naturally into this blog.  So does the supernatural in itself.  This year I have read most—there’s one book unavailable—of the book-length work of/about Ed and Lorraine Warren.  The latest, some five years after Ed died, was Conversations with Ed and Lorrain Warren by T. Sealyham.  My copy, which came used from a library, has all the marks of self-publication.  It really needed an editor to go over it.  The transcribed radio interviews with Tony Spera, the Warrens’ son-in-law, the accounts told are familiar to those who know the Warrens’ other work, with a few new ones thrown in.

What is immediately striking here, apart from the factual errors (the Isle of Skye is not in the North Sea and Loch Ness is not between Edinburgh and Jedburgh) is the strong desire for credibility.  Personal anecdotes are offered as proof.  Even on the radio claims are made to having photographs (which can’t be seen in that medium) that aren’t shown because of various restrictions.  There’s no doubt that Ed and Lorraine were completely sincere in that they believed in the reality of the phenomena they studied.  They have to be credited with taking seriously what mainstream science simply cannot study.  I often found myself wondering why there can’t be any middle ground here.  The truth only appears when all the hands are face-up on the table.

Volumes like this, that preserve misstatements of a clearly aging Ed, do not help the cause of credibility.  Yes, people get forgetful with age.  Yes, people sometimes misspeak.  Credulity, however, doesn’t lead to credibility.  Many times Tony, after receiving an intriguing answer to a question, would immediately switch the subject instead of following up with a probing request for more detail.  The interview becomes a pastiche of friends remembering old times and claiming this is the truth because they all agree that it is.  Perhaps my negative response comes from the fact that truth itself is under attack by the United States government even as I write.  The world has lost the ability to judge objective evidence and come out with a reasoned assessment.  Are there ghosts?  Perhaps so, but to get to the truth of the matter will require more than the insistence that we believe “because I told you so.”

Reading Lights

Late one night in Wisconsin—I had just come off the train from Champaign-Urbana—one of the students from Nashotah House was driving me to my spooky apartment on campus as part of his work-study job.  He mentioned what seemed an obscure topic to me, and I asked him why he liked it.  “Who can say,” he responded, “why they like anything?”  He had a point.  Work on Nightmares requires reading current studies of horror, and one that came out just before Halloween was Darryl Jones’ Sleeping with the Lights on: The Unsettling Story of Horror.  I don’t know why I like such things, but when the book was first announced I knew I’d need to read it, and soon.  It had to wait until the Warren books were finished, however.

This little gift book (with a novelty cover, even) contains quite a bit of insight.  In fact, while reading it I discerned that Jones had spotted something that I’d begun to write down independently.  Horror does that to people.  The book is divided up into chapters addressing different genres of monsters and analyzing why they have proven so popular with both horror authors and auteurs.  The discussion is lively and even witty at times, as befits a topic that most people really misunderstand.  I myself used to misunderstand it—I went through a terrible period of repudiating the things I liked when growing up (who could say why?).  I jettisoned my interest in the Gothic even as I visited ruined castles in the Scottish highlands, and thought that horror was something best left to the uneducated.

One of the realities of my own life—perhaps some of my readers will find it true as well—is that once you’ve been put through the mill once or twice your mind starts going back to childhood in what may be a vain effort to start all over again.  The likes of your youth come flooding back—this is why I began reacquiring Dark Shadows novels.  They aren’t fine literature, but they were one of the guilty pleasures with which I grew up.  As Jones notes, vampires are one of the most enduring of monsters.  He suggests that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was among the notably influential books of Victorian English literature.  As Jones points out, there are people who back away from him when he tells them he studies horror.  He also makes a clear case for its enduring connection with religion.  I might add as a coda here, that telling people you study religion often gets the same response as telling them you study horror.

Solstice Musings

Should my posts of late be castigated as against the Christmas spirit I would rely on Andy Williams’ song, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in my defense.  “There’ll be scary ghost stories,” the crooner sings amid images of cheer and celebration.  What may not be appreciated by my less sober celebrants is that the long nights of winter have as close an association with ghosts as they do with the numerous religious holidays that fervently pray for the return of the light at this time of year.  In merry old England, which along with Germany developed the modern concept of Christmas, the holiday was observed with evening ghost stories as is well represented by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (likely the source behind Williams’ lyric reference).

So I read about ghosts when the light begins to fail.  Or at least that’s my excuse.  When Ghost Hunters took to the air in 2004 the world became aware that electronic devices can pick up anomalies and other ghost-hunting groups began to appear.  Alan Brown, apparently curious about this development, wrote Ghost Hunters of New England as a field guide of sorts to paranormal investigators.  The book divides the region by states and includes the answers to survey questions asked to each of them.  The result isn’t especially inspirational, however, as these groups share in common the obvious absence of scientists.  It may be that professional scientists fear the career impact of such associations, but as is the case in many academic disciplines, their lack of participation simply erodes the credibility of science in the eyes of many.

Human investigation of the world has reached a point where many academic specialists can no longer communicate effectively with the average person.  I work in academic publishing and it is clear that many specialists simply do not recollect the level at which those without advanced training read.  We therefore see the rise of hoi polloi as self-appointed experts.  If scientists won’t investigate ghosts, plumbers will.  And since, no matter what science declares, many people experience ghosts, they will listen to those who at least seek answers.  The problem with books like Brown’s, of course, is that if a fad fades the groups disappear leaving the information outdated.  A couple of the groups were interesting enough to send me to the websites listed only to find the domain name for sale and the ghost hunting shingle removed from the door.  Still, the book had some useful information for those willing to consider the possibilities.  After all, the nights can be awfully long in December.  And there’ll be scary ghost stories…

Deliverance

Ed Warren died in 2006, effectively ending the cooperative ghost-hunting venture with his widow Lorraine.  The Warrens rose to prominence after being among the first to investigate what is now known as the “Amityville horror.”  Not being writers, the Warrens hired those more talented in the literary arts to recount some of their more famous adventures.  Their books were a hot commodity in the 1980s, selling well through commercial publishing houses.  These accounts then went the way of out-of-print books, settling into used bookstores and attic corners.  With the release of the horror movie The Conjuring, these titles came back into demand and enterprising publishers licensed the content in order to resurrect the books.  The latest effort was Deliver Us from Evil, written by J. F. Sawyer and published after Ed’s death.

Now, if you’ve been following the thread of my posts on these books you’ll know they were never belles lettres to begin with.  Many of them are disturbing to read, regardless of whether you believe in the supernatural or not.  Deliver Us from Evil, which is subtitled True Cases of Haunted Houses and Demonic Attacks, reads like a collection of juvenile ghost stories.  Unlike many of the other books in this informal series, it doesn’t go into detail of how the Warrens investigated the cases.  Although it doesn’t state this directly, it seems that since Ed couldn’t narrate the procedures and outcomes, the stories are simply left to stand on their own.  There isn’t much glue between them and the accounts themselves, which occasionally eerie, lack the conviction that a self-convinced Ed apparently gave to the other exemplars.

Since my follow-up to Holy Horror (which just arrived on my doorstep) deals with movies about demons, I have been eager to read the entire Warren oeuvre.  There are two remaining books, as far as I’m able to determine, and one has become a collectors’ item and is priced that way.  This is, it seems to me, an odd but working-class way to do research.  Books, even if not by academic publishers, are part of the public record, and as such, deserve consideration of some kind.  Yes, many books can simply be dismissed.  Nobody has time to read them all.  Nevertheless, it’s true that to be informed a researcher should put aside prejudice and see what the public record states.  Deliver Us from Evil was a quick read from that record with no real plot and a kind of haunting ending.  I wonder what Ed would’ve thought.