Rise Again

Resurrection, as I argue elsewhere, is a scary thing.  Since today’s Easter, at least in the western Christian world, people are—or should be—thinking about resurrection.  In the case of Jesus, a young man who died “before his time,” resurrection seems only fair.  Indeed, in the earliest biblical hints of the concept it applied to people in precisely that category.  The story’s different for older folk who are beginning to wear out and are ready to go to a better place.  Christianity made the idea of resurrection more palatable by stating that you get a new and better body next time around.  The creeds say, after all, “the resurrection of the body.”  Heaven, it seems, is an embodied location.  Resurrection is necessary to get there.

Horror writers and film makers have used revenants to great effect.  When they do, pop culture latches on.  Think about the vampire craze of the early 2000s.  Or the ongoing fascination with zombies.  Even your basic garden-variety ghost.  They’re all revenants that attract and repel us.  We’re not quite sure what to make of life after death.  It’s okay if it’s played out beyond human senses, but as much as we want life to go on we don’t want to witness it here.  Horror films like to play on this ambiguity.  They’re closely related to religious ideas.  I’m occasionally asked why I watch horror; it’s essentially the same question as why I study religion.  Sometimes you just need to look closely enough to find the connection.  Resurrection, as I discuss in Holy Horror, is tied to some of humanity’s most basic fears.

Just two days prior to Easter, Good Friday in fact, Lorraine Warren passed away.  A fervent believer in resurrection, she was half of the dynamic paranormal investigating couple of Ed and Lorraine, about whom I’ve posted from time to time.  This coincidental occurrence illustrates once again the connection between resurrection and horror.  The Warrens were fond of declaring that haunting spirits of the human kind were those that had not passed over into the next world.  Revenants were confused spirits (not to be mistaken as demons, which were something completely different).  Resurrection, presumably, awaits just the other side of the veil.  Clearly religion shares this roadmap with horror.  Just as the Warrens will be resurrected as characters in this summer’s forthcoming Annabelle Comes Home, such returns to life may take many forms.  It’s Easter for some of us, and it can integrate horror and hope, if viewed a particular, perhaps peculiar, way.

Devil or Con?

You can’t believe everything you read.  That’s one of the first tenets of critical thinking.  This whole process is about how to get to the truth, and in a materialistic world that truth can’t involve anything supernatural.  These were my thoughts upon finishing Gerald Brittle’s The Devil in Connecticut.  Controversy accompanied Ed and Lorraine Warren’s investigations and some of the people involved in these cases have later claimed the extraordinary events didn’t happen.  Others claim that the Warrens offered them to make lots of money by selling their stories.  The effect of reading a book like this is a blend of skepticism and wonder.  Among their fans the Warrens are held in the highest regard.  Anyone who begins to look into their work critically ends up frustrated.

So when I put this potboiler down—it is a compelling read—I went to the internet to find out more.  Then I realized what I was doing.  Using the internet?  To find the truth?  It’s a vast storehouse of opinion, to be sure, but what with fake news and alternative facts who knows what to believe anymore?  I found websites debunking the whole case as a hoax.  Others, naturally, claim the events really happened.  Both kinds of web pages have the backing of someone in the family involved.  It’s a pattern that follows the Warrens’ work.  In one of the many books I’ve read about them they claim to have ten books.  If my math is right this was number ten.  Even that remains open to doubt.

The word “hoax” seems a bit overblown.  Dysfunctional, maybe, but hoax?  Reading Brittle’s account it’s clear there were some issues in this family.  Having grown up in a working class setting, I’m aware such scenarios are extremely common.  Accusations were made that this was an attempt to spin gold from straw.  The nearly constant stress of blue collar families makes that seem less far-fetched than a stereotypical devil showing up in a modern house because a satanic rock band placed a curse on the family.  Lawsuits—the most avaricious of means for determining facts—apparently prevented a movie deal and have even made this book a collector’s item.  Somebody, it seems, is making money off the story.  As after reading the other nine books, the truly curious are left wondering.  My skepticism kicked in early on, but then again, I’ve always liked a good story. 

Long Journey

Although it may be only a venial sin, overwriting is nevertheless an offense.  As a professor I read many papers from students who had great difficulty clarifying what they were thinking only to disguise it with too many words.  I have finally finished Andrea Perron’s House of Darkness, House of Light.  Because academics too often dismiss personal testimony, I feel compelled to consider it.  Now over 1,300 pages later, I have discharged my duty.  Ed and Lorraine Warren, despite being famous, are difficult to assess in book form.  Yes, they (ghost-)wrote ten books, but they never had permission to include the Perron story that stands behind The Conjuring.  The eldest daughter took on the task herself and even seems to be aware of (in the acknowledgements) a dubious talent for overwriting.  What the Warrens saw as demons, she sees as ghosts.  Who has the right to decide?

I wish the author well in her writing career—those of us who write tend to be natural boosters of others—but it would’ve been nice to have had a more condensed version focusing on the events in the Harrisville house.  One interesting thing caught my attention here: according to Perron the Warrens called by phone after the Perrons moved from the offending house and tried to talk Carolyn, the mother, into a book deal.  Offering a healthy income from the proposition, they gave a hint of what other writers have claimed—they had the business angle firmly in mind.  I’ve read enough from people who actually knew the Warrens to believe they sincerely believed they were helping people.  They also had to make a living, and ghost stories tend to sell well.  Some use that as evidence that they were only trying to make money.  I’d remove the only, without dismissing the financial incentive.

It’s nearly impossible to read a very long book and feel that you haven’t come to know the author.  Also, it’s difficult to dismiss material written, even if overwritten, so sincerely.  We live in a world that we don’t understand nearly as well as we think we do.  Call it old school on my part, but I believe in extending the benefit of the doubt to eyewitnesses, particularly when there are several of them and they have a decade to observe closely what many others never get a chance to see.  This set of three books is a window into a realm over which the drapes are usually drawn.  For those willing to do some hard mining, there’s something of value here.

Yes or No

Reading about demonic possession is enough to scare you away from ever using a ouija board.  In fact, I’ve never played with one; growing up my strict religion would’ve prevented it in any case, and already as a child I’d been warned of the dangers.  During my research for Nightmares with the Bible, I’ve been reading quite a bit about ouija.  Originally a species of divination, the ouija, or spirit board, became popular during the growth of Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is a religion based on the idea that the dead still communicate with the living, ensuring believers that life continues beyond death.  It still exists, but not with the numbers that it boasted in the early days.  Among the solemn admonitions of Ed and Lorraine Warren (about whom I’ve posted much in recent months) was that ouija boards opened doorways for demonic entities.  Some of their stories are quite scary.

Image credit: Mijail0711, via Wikimedia Commons

Whatever else you can say about America, a fact beyond dispute is that if something can make a buck it will be marketed and sold.  So it was with ouija boards in the 1970s.  I remember seeing them on the shelf with other games at local department stores.  Even then I knew they weren’t a toy and I wondered how anyone could be promoting them for general consumption.  At Grove City College—that bastion of undergraduate conservatism—stories circulated about how students (usually coeds) were attacked in their locked rooms after playing with ouija boards.  This is, I was later to learn, a staple of collegiate urban legends.  At the time, however, I took it very seriously.  

Thus it’s strange when I find out that others my age were more curious about them.  Recently at a party with friends around Valentine’s Day, the question naturally came up of how some of us met our spouses.  One of the women mentioned that before she’d met or even heard of her future husband (who has an unusual surname) a ouija board spelled out his name.  She later met and married him, not on the board’s recommendation, but she remembered that years before she’d been given a hint.  Now these friends are not cheats and liars—they’re not even Republicans.  They’re people we trust.  On our drive home that night my wife mentioned she’d used a ouija board once, with friends, back in her high school years.  She asked the name of her spouse (long before we met) and came up with Sam.  I’m no Sam, but when we first met in grad school I was still going by my stepfather’s surname and my initials were S-A-M.  Coincidence?  Probably.  My future wife did not pursue me; indeed, it was the other way around.  Even so, there in the dark on the nighttime highway I felt a familiar frisson from childhood concerning a form of divination that seems to know more than it should.

Troubled Trilogy

The quest for the truth is never-ending.  New information keeps emerging and our poor brains have evolved to survive the perils of weather and wild animals, not to receive all available information.  It’s the fear that I might’ve missed something that has me going back to a place I’d rather not go.  Andrea Perron’s account of what happened in Harrisville, Rhode Island is the only real published source by eyewitnesses that’s readily available.  Her three-book account, however, is a deeply personal ramble that isn’t easy for the fact-finder to follow.  A couple of months ago I posted on volume one, intimating that I would probably have to go back and read two and three.  There’s a compunction about completion that humans have.  An economist once told me not to measure a venture by sunk funds.  The same applies to books, I guess.

In my ongoing research into demons, and particularly the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, I felt I had to continue with the troubled trilogy.  Volume one barely mentioned the Warrens.  Volume two finally revealed some of the story.  It took 260 pages to get there, but finally, an eyewitness account!  It has plenty of gaps, of course, but it is, as they say, different from the movie.  You have to understand that a certain sector of the internet was buzzing like flies in January over The Conjuring.  Based on a true story, it was a sympathetic treatment of the Warrens’ work that it was hoped would give credibility to the demon-hunting duo.

House of Darkness, House of Light in total is well over a thousand pages long.  I know, I know—“caveat emptor.”  Nevertheless, I’ve always felt that long books owe it to their readers to deliver on the promises.  I want my haunted house books to be scary.  Or at least moody with a gothic sensibility.  I do understand the desire—the compunction—to approach life philosophically.  Were I ever to put my life out there on display, beyond the occasional forays on this blog, I would hope to do it in a way that left readers wanting more, not less.  Biography is a dicey subject.  Autobiography even more so.  The traditional publisher steps in with an editor firmly in hand.  I know because I’ve been doing this for about a decade now.  The writer and the editor, like the farmer and the cowman, should be friends.  It’s tough, painful even, when someone takes a pen to what you’ve carefully crafted.  The results, when they work, give the reader what s/he wants.  The quest may indeed be never-ending.  At least trilogies have only three parts.

Turnabout

Fair play, so the adage dictates, includes turnabout.  Well, that may be overstating it a bit, but after reading Joe Nickell I decided to give the other side a shot.  Guy Lyon Playfair’s account, This House Is Haunted: The Amazing Inside Story of the Enfield Poltergeist, was originally written in the aftermath of the truly bizarre happenings at that location in the late 1970s.  My reason for reading the book, as maybe you’ve guessed, is that Ed and Lorraine Warren had a hand in the story.  Or at least a finger.  The movie The Conjuring 2 was based on the Enfield case and it placed the Warrens front and center in its resolution.  This is Hollywood, however, and since I’m working on a book on demons I need to try to dig beneath the surface a bit, into regions where tenure-seeking academics often fear to tread.

Interestingly, the Warrens are not even mentioned in Playfair’s book.  The edition I read was updated in 2011.  Playfair himself was one of the two primary investigators from the Society for Psychical Research.  The other was Maurice Grosse (who features in the movie).  Before eyeballs start rolling, it’s worth noting that the Society for Psychical Research is actually a respectable academic association.  As Playfair makes clear in his book, many of the members are skeptical and few believed that the evidence gathered by Grosse and Playfair indicated anything paranormal at all.  The book isn’t shy about dropping the names of the many investigators who dropped in—some uninvited—to either study or debunk the infamous poltergeist.  The incident, however, went on to inspire the movie Poltergeist by giving it free license to change almost all of the details.  Of the many investigators the Warrens remain unmentioned.

On this blog I’ve been chronicling the on-going struggle of trying to figure out what Ed and Lorraine Warren were up to.  Those who met and interviewed them invariably state that they were/are sincere.  They didn’t accept payment for their investigations, and often seem to have been genuinely interested in helping the people plagued by what mainstream science claims simply can’t exist.  Nevertheless, they had and have detractors even amid the parapsychology crowd.  Playfair’s account is quite interesting.  Called in early after the onset of strangeness on Wood Lane, Playfair recorded and recounted what he saw.  He caught some trickery and wasn’t shy about pointing it out.  At the end of the episode, however, he remained convinced that something unexplained had happened there.  Nickell dismisses it all with a sentence or two.  In the interest of fair play it would seem only right to hear the other side of the story.

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.