Ghost History

Books on art are often eye-opening to me.  When I was young and trying to escape the working-class hell in which I grew up, I discovered high culture.  This was mostly through local libraries.  I would check out classical music LPs and look at books of classical art.  I did the latter until I could identify several artists by their styles.  (It was probably originally because they’d painted pictures of Jesus and I went to see what else they’d done.)  In any case, I never studied art history.  I recently read an art-historian on the Devil, and now I’ve read one (Susan Owens) on ghosts.  The Ghost: A Cultural History does not address the question of whether ghosts exist, but rather traces the history of how they’ve been portrayed in literature and art throughout time.

Owens quite ably takes us through ancient to modern, pointing out that ghosts change to fit the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times (not her pun).  In the early modern period ghosts were portrayed as physical revenants.  They were dead bodies that came back to physically harm the living.  We know this fear was widespread because some burials were clearly intended to keep the dead in their graves.  The idea of the physical ghost still comes up in modern horror as the monster you can’t kill because it’s already dead.  It was only gradually that ghosts became spirits and this was largely through emphasis on purgatory, which made it possible for the dead not to be in Heaven or Hell.  Once the idea caught on the literature and art began to focus on the spiritual nature of revenants.  As cultural interests turned towards ruins ghosts inhabited haunted houses.

This is a fascinating study of the way ghosts have evolved over time.  One of the things that struck me was that early commentators often didn’t distinguish clearly between ghosts, demons, and devils.  Demons, as we think of them, really depend quite a bit on The Exorcist.  The use of “devils” in the plural complicates the spiritual geography where we have God v Devil as the main poles of spiritual rivalry.  These ideas, and also those of ghosts, likely blended throughout most of history until a renewed emphasis on literalism came in.  Medieval scholars composed angelologies and demonologies, trying to keep everything straight.  They puzzled over ghosts, however, which don’t fit the scheme very neatly.  They would have benefitted, perhaps, if they had had Susan Owens’ book to help guide them.  It’s an exciting nighttime journey.


Are Ghosts Monsters?

It’s a question as old as my interest in horror.  As a child I kept ghosts distinct from monsters.  Ghosts may be scary, yes, but they’re people who’ve died.  Then zombies came along.  I was too young to watch Night of the Living Dead when it came out (I was only six).  Depending on how far you want to go with this, among the classic monsters they’re pretty much all human.  Dracula is undead, but originally human.  Frankenstein’s creature is dead folks stitched together.  The mummy is a person reanimated.  The invisible man is, well, a man.  So is the wolf-man.  The latest of the Universal line-up, the gill-man was more a human-like reptile with gills.  To add a few other favorites, Mr. Hyde was Dr. Jekyll.  Witches were magical women.  For sure, there are plenty of non-human monsters (Godzilla, the blob, and those various giant spiders) but it seems much of what we fear is warmed over human.

So ghosts—are they monsters?  I still have a difficult time sorting that out.  They seem different from other revenants, don’t they?  Uncle Joe or Aunt Sally don’t really pose an existential threat, do they?  (Unless one of them was a psychotic killer or something.)  Yet we still fear ghosts.  Many horror movies and novels feature them.  It seems more because they represent the unknown in a kind of ultimate way.  We can’t die to find out and then come back.  Although, it seems, that’s just what ghosts do.  That liminal line, or terminal line in the sand is the point of no return for the human imagination.  Yet on a dark night in a creaky old house it feels like more than just imagination.  Of course, other monsters could be lurking in the dark.

Image credit: Henry Justice Ford, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thing about horror is that it holds up a mirror.  We see what really does scare us and what we see reflected back is human.  We all die and most of us don’t like to think about that.  Ghosts force us to.  They make us confront perhaps the most primal of fears.  There are, of course, bad ghost—dybbuks and hungry ghosts and whatnot.  Of course they’re monsters.  But considering the garden variety, or perhaps haunted-house variety ghost suggests maybe our fears are misplaced.  Monsters can be scary.  Ghosts don’t have to be.  We classify them all together as horror, but that may be a hasty judgment.  As least for someone who used to be, and maybe still is, simply human.


Ghost Chasing

I’ve known about Quirk Books from their very first publication.  That’s a rarity, I suppose, since many publishers have been around far longer than I have.  I tend to think of Quirk as mainly a purveyor of unusual fiction.  I’ve pitched a book or two to them myself over the years.  In the last few years they’ve been producing some good nonfiction as well.  The topics are, well, quirky.  I just finished reading Marc Hartzman’s new book with them titled Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural.  It’s a good compendium of material that traces the very long history of human obsession with the restless dead.  It begins with some ancient ideas about ghosts and comes up to contemporary times.  Not all of this can be covered with great detail, of course.  But there’s a lot here.  And it has a great cover.

The chapter on Spiritualism and seances is necessary, but it also reveals one of the reasons, perhaps, that modern skeptics still scoff at ghosts.  Mediums (not necessarily Spiritualists) were often caught in trickery, but as Hartzman points out, that doesn’t logically imply that everything was a hoax.  For me, when the rules start to include special boxes or sitting behind a curtain the old skeptic meter starts clanging loudly.  Still, some of this happened because, it seems, you can’t force a ghost to attend.  If there are ghosts and if they retain personalities, well, how do you like it when people tell you that you must be here at this time so I can make you do what I want you to do?  

The chapter on haunted locations covers many of the expected and a few lesser known haunts.  Often a very real human tragedy has occurred in such places.  Is it unreasonable to think we might impress such things on our environment somehow?  Or that our consciousness—which we still can’t explain scientifically—might not hang around to resolve unfinished business?  The final section on using devices to “capture” ghosts brings us up to the present ghost hunter craze.  The pursuit of ghosts is extremely popular, leading to the predictable result that academics shy away from it.  It’s a shame, really.  A few universities have, and some still quietly do, sponsor(ed) departments or facilities to study such things.  It seems to me that if people have been seeing, hearing, and feeling something for millennia, it might be worth some serious effort to find out what’s going on.  Until then, quirky books like this one will always be a guilty pleasure.


Ghosts Again

In keeping with my holiday ghost interest, I read John Kachuba’s Ghosthunters: On the Trail of Mediums, Dowsers, Spirt Seekers, and Other Investigators of America’s Paranormal World.  Yes, that subtitle is a mouthful.  The book is a series of essays without an overarching thematic arc, but it does contain some interesting accounts.  If you’re hoping to walk away with proof of ghosts this probably isn’t your book, but a few of the people the author interviews have some pretty convincing stories.  Ghosts remain one of the great unknowns.  People of all intellectual backgrounds, every socio-economic class, and every religion have encountered them, and this is true throughout history.  Ghost hunting isn’t a science and has no developed methodology, but then ghosts don’t seem to perform on demand.

I was particularly interested to see what Kachuba had to say about Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They were the original ghost hunters and their work was controversial from the beginning.  One of the consistent problems with the paranormal is that advanced degrees tend to make you quite skeptical.  You look for proof in the fields recognized by your peers and although a few departments of “parapsychology” have cropped up from time-to-time, mainstream science is doubtful and drives doubt into all comers.  Those who investigate ghosts suggest that if you don’t believe you won’t see.  Here’s the basic paradox between faith and proof.  And it only raises questions when you learn that science doesn’t prove but rather provides the best answer, given the data as currently understood.

Kachuba presents himself as neither a firm believer nor a dismisser.  He clearly enjoys ghost hunting himself and several times mentions his Ghosthuntermobile.  He interviews not only Lorraine Warren (Ed had had a stroke by this time) but also a variety of mediums, Spiritualists, and ghost whisperers.  He writes about various haunted locations, but in the accounts he shares he doesn’t see anything that can’t be explained.  Some of the essays are written with a humorous take on the subject, while others are entirely serious.  It’s kind of a grab-bag of a book in that regard.  Like many readers, I suppose, I hope to pin down something certain when it comes to the unknown.  My guess is that if anything definitive appeared we’d know about it.  Given the goings on in the world these days it probably wouldn’t be front-page news, as much as any information on eternity should be.  In the meanwhile we can read and wonder.


Ghosts and Puritans

One of the victims of capitalism is the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.  We tend to relegate such downers to Halloween.  Christmas is a cozy time of getting new things, right?  Who wants to think of ghosts?  I recently read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  An article in the Smithsonian  a few years back makes the point that Dickens was cashing in on a venerable tradition.  Instead of sending children to bed expecting Santa Claus, it used to be the custom to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  That makes sense in context.  Christmas was established near the date of the Roman festival Saturnalia and the germanic Yule.  These festivities celebrated the passing of the equinox and the slow, but steady increase in light.  A liminal period.  It seems a natural time to tell ghost tales, no?

Image credit: Arthur Rackham, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The article by Colin Dickey (who has a history of writing about ghosts), calls for bringing back the tradition.  Do we want our cozy capitalism interrupted by revenants?  Why not?  For me the Christmas season is largely about time off of work.  I spend the time working on fiction writing that I tend to put off when I have a book under contract.  Most of those stories I write are some species of horror, often ghosts.  The real haunting factor is I don’t have time during the rest of the year to do the amount of writing that recharges my batteries.  Work seems to take more and more time and the Scrooge-like results are, I think, pretty obvious.  It’s time to bring back the Christmas ghosts.

Dickey points out that one reason Christmas ghost stories never caught on in America was that Puritans had little taste for them.  The more I look at society the more amazed I am at how Puritan we still are, but without their religious ideals (apart from various prohibitions of human behavior).  The fact that this article appeared in the respectable Smithsonian makes me feel a little more accepted for my disposition.  I know there are many horror fans out there.  Poll after poll indicates that people like horror, but, it seems, most don’t like to admit it.  At least among those I know in the neighborhood.  There are a slew of Christmas monsters.  For those who keep track of holiday horror as a sub-genre the most common holiday represented is Christmas.  In fact, I just had a Christmas horror story published (under a pseudonym, of course).  Maybe ghosts will be able to frighten off the specter of capitalism and bring us back the holiday spirit.


Ghost Publishers

Ancient Near Eastern studies, where my academic work has the widest recognition, is still an area of fascination.  I have to hold myself back when I see a new book published in the area.  You see, I learned when I researched in this field that there is little academic opportunity in it.  As per usual, the public seems quite interested so academia is not.  A few practitioners, however, have been able to break through.  One of them is Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum.  He’s been writing popular books about ancient ideas and getting respectable press for doing so.  His most recent book (The First Ghosts), as described in an article in the Smithsonian, deals with the earliest depiction of a ghost.

Perhaps because of copyright complications, his book on the subject doesn’t seem to be widely available in the United States, despite having been published by a trade house.  It could be that the publishers don’t think anyone will be interested.  Hello?  Ghosts and Mesopotamia?  Haven’t you been paying attention?  This is part and parcel of the academic publishing world.  The editorial board has to decide which books see the light of day and which won’t.  And how to price them.  Is this primarily a library book or can it somehow claw over into the crossover market?  Academic publishers will casually add five or ten dollars to the price, assuming it won’t hurt sales.  Guess what?  It does.  As much as I’d like to read Finkel’s book, my interest doesn’t hover around the 60 dollar range.

When I first studied Hebrew I wanted to buy a textbook my professor mentioned, but it cost nearly $100 in the US.  This was back in the 1980s, so that really was steep.  When we moved to Scotland I discovered the same book was available there is paperback for a reasonable price, so I bought it.  That’s when I began to realize copyright laws direct the shape of scholarship.  Publishers decide what makes it into reputable book form and who will be able to afford it.  That’s power.  You see, people have believed in ghosts from as long as we could convey the idea.  The dead never really leave us.  Finkel’s book examines a clay tablet used to exorcise ghosts and may contain a line drawing of a spirit.  Who wouldn’t want to read such a book?  It’s getting press coverage but those who make such decisions have decided, apparently, there’s no market for it.  When that happens a book hasn’t a ghost of a chance.

Postscript: Checking Amazon one last time before clicking “publish,” I see the book has now come down to the $30 range. I can’t take credit for that, but my point still stands.


Who Ya Gonna Call?

The haunting season is nearly upon us.  Apart from the usual fun of ghost stories, those of us with appreciation of science wonder about whether there’s any hope of confirming some of these tales.  Benjamin Radford’s Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits is a handy guidebook for those who don’t wish to be gullible.  Radford demonstrates just why much of popular ghost hunting reality television really isn’t scientific at all.  Knowing how science works, Radford is unusual in that he’s open to the possibility of ghosts.  He points out, however, that from the point of view of science there’s a conundrum—there is no consensus on what a ghost actually is.  Different readers and experimenters and experiencers have different ideas about them—everything from the spirits of the dead to “recordings” made by the environment to demons to time-travelers.  Radford’s quite right that to test an hypothesis you need to agree on what you’re testing for.

Ghost hunting groups, as he points out, are actually gathering evidence hoping to prove the existence of ghosts (whatever they are).  Evidence gathering isn’t the same as science, however.  If you’ve ever watched any of these shows you’ll likely enjoy Radford’s take-down of their flawed methodology.  Wandering an unfamiliar location at night with the lights off and gadgets in hand, they go here and there, possibly contaminating each others’ “evidence.”  Their theories behind why ghosts do this or that—make cold spots, turn lights on and off, make white noise into EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena—don’t match the science of basic ideas of ambient temperature, wiring, and audio pareidolia.  These things are well understood, but you have to read about them to apply them. 

The larger question, however, remains.  If ghosts exist, and if they choose (if they have will) not to cooperate, how can we learn about them?  Radford makes the valid point that coming in for one night with lots of equipment and little knowledge of what we might term “the deep history of a location” stands very little chance of achieving results.  It may be fun, and entertaining, and it may catch a legitimate anomaly or two, but it doesn’t, can’t scientifically prove the existence of ghosts.  We still seem to be stuck with the materialism that only measures the physical.  This fact may indeed fuel skeptics to suggest it’s “only this and nothing more.”  But science isn’t the only way we know the world.  It’s a pleasure to read a book from an investigator of this topic who has his head on straight.


Science, Religion, and Ghosts

August starts to suggest autumn.  Even with record-breaking heat, the quality of the air definitely suggests fall is on its way.  Ghosts are on our mind.  So a recent story on Religion Dispatches explores how ghost hunting is tied to enchantment.  In “What a Spooky Summer Trend Says about Enchantment in the Late Modern U.S.” Daniel Wise considers how, unlike predictions made to the contrary, science and rational thinking haven’t eradicated spiritual outlooks.  Church numbers are down, yes, but belief remains alive and well.  I have to wonder if the reason science and religion don’t get along is that specialists in the one really don’t know as much about the other as they should.  That, and once someone moves from private to public intellectual they think they have the authority to speak on that which they haven’t studied.

My role as experiencer, on the religion side of the artificial science-religion divide, is one of often being told why my field of study isn’t rational.  Those on the religion side sometimes lash out and retort that science is also based on belief.  What it really comes down to, as recent elections have shown, is how many people you can convince you’re right.  With the evidence of climate change all around us, many of us in the middle wonder how deniers can still exist.  They often take their information from somewhere else.  Many literalists groups, and other religious specialists as well, teach that this world isn’t the final reality.  There’s more going on than meets the eye.  As Wise points out, many find their own evidence of this in ghosts.  Most scientists simply dismiss the possibility without really looking into it.

Religion tends to be more experiential.  Those who practice it know it’s real because they feel it.  And they can be rational about it.  No doubt scientists feel similarly about the material world and their discoveries about it.  A funny thing happens, though, when you reduce it to only the physical.  Religion and science should have nothing to fight about, and they might well not if each side weren’t to make absolute claims to the exclusive truth.  Ghosts are a good middle ground.  Why can’t we admit that we just don’t know?  It’s no sign of weakness to be honest about such things.  Ghosts have been seen and reported for all of human history.  If they’re spiritual they can’t be measured yet, not in any real way.  As autumn creeps in, perhaps we should ponder such things.

Henry Justice Ford, via Wikimedia Commons

Learned Ghosts

For one memorable year of what I call a career, I taught at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.  One in a series of near misses, this came close to becoming a full-time job.  Apart from a couple of rather humorless colleagues, the department was welcoming and an enjoyable place to be.  I even got to know the dean, now elsewhere, and planned on working on a project with him.  It was a memorable year in many respects.  One was its inherent strangeness.  I was living away from home while teaching there, and saw some odd things on my drives through the Wisconsin countryside.  It also happened to be at Oshkosh that I first discovered H. P. Lovecraft, so the weirdness was, in a word, enhanced.

Students like to tell ghost stories.  A recent article by Jocelyne LeBlanc on Mysterious Universe caught my eye because it tells of students in Oshkosh that live in a haunted dorm.  These kinds of stories are ubiquitous and Oshkosh is in no way singular here.  Students, whose brains haven’t yet ossified, are often open to new experiences.  Most of them, however, don’t possess the research skills to get behind the origins of some such tales.  Sometimes there’s an explanation.  Other times there’s not.  At Grove City College, when I was there, students told of a haunted playing field.  It was the site, it was said, of a former gymnasium.  What made it haunted was the death of a basketball player who’d smashed through a glass gymnasium door during a game and bled out before help could arrive.  It sounds improbable and I never had time to research it.

We all, I suspect, have a longing for the supernatural.  We want to believe that there’s more to this world than physics and earning money.  And strange things do happen.  I never saw any ghosts in Oshkosh, but the things I did see helped to make up for that particular lack.  Edinburgh, where I studied for my doctorate, is widely rumored to be among the most haunted cities in the world.  Although I saw no ghosts there, people flock to the ghost tours.  In fact, one stopped right below our first apartment’s window every night during the tourist season.  By the time we moved out we had every word memorized.  The haunted dorm story is a revered tradition.  Thinking about it makes me wish I could afford to be a student again.


Ghosts, of a Sort

What happens when we die?  That question is perhaps THE question that drives just about everything we do.  Evangelicalism, masked behind love of Jesus, is really the desperate attempt to avoid Hell.  That idea is powerful and insidious.  The question of what happens, however, has also inspired a tremendous amount of literature.  Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is a recent example of how diverse such views may be.  Written mostly epitaphicly, it is a conversation among the spirits in the cemetery the night Willie Lincoln arrives among them.  Fearing what is beyond, these ghosts don’t admit they’re dead, but rather think themselves sick, awaiting recovery.  When the profoundly bereft Abraham Lincoln arrives to mourn his son, things begin to change.  

All through my reading of this book I found myself wondering about the many ways we conscious creatures reassure ourselves about death.  Materialists say it’s like the turning off of a lightbulb.  All goes dark and there is no soul to remember anything.  Many of them claim science for proof, although science has no way to measure the non-physical.  Various religious sentiments of the eastern hemisphere posit reincarnation until one’s soul reaches the point of no longer having to cycle through all of this again.  Here in the western world, influenced by a Zoroastrian-inspired Christianity, we posit a Heaven and Hell.  Some include various shades of Purgatory, which, to the classic Greek, would’ve sounded familiar.  Those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences often suggest a more dream-like reality of acceptance.

There are many more shades and nuances, of course.  We’ve entered the shadowy half of the year.  Those of us in temperate regions spend half of our lives with nights longer than the days.  Death, however, is generally a shunned topic.  We try to avoid talking about it since we really don’t know what comes after.  We have beliefs.  We have hopes.  We really just don’t know.  We often look to literature to help us explore these topics.  Lincoln in the Bardo does so with some humor, some sadness, and some soul-searching.  Those of us drawn to ghost stories naturally think about them as we wait later for the morning sky to lighten, and find it dark before we turn in for the night.  A great many options await us, some with a kind of historical anchor, and others that are completely made up for our edification.  The one thing they all have in common is they force us to think of that which we really don’t know.


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.


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.


Dark Houses

A book can be whatever an author wants it to be.  When it goes through the publication process, however, it becomes a group effort.  Granted, the other parties are motivated by money rather than by the message of the book, but they are professionals.  Editors can point out what’s irrelevant, or beside the point.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  What you’ve already said, if you happen to repeat yourself.  They change things, often, authors admit upon reflection, for the better.  The self-published book shows itself as just what an author wants it to be.  House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story, by Andrea Perron is a case in point.  In three volumes of about 500 pages each, it is (they are) the insider story of the family portrayed in The Conjuring.  After having finished volume one, it’s clear the book needed an editor.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some good stuff here.  The first couple hundred pages are fascinating, although there’s a slow build-up into moving into the Harrisville house.  One thing academics have always been too quick to do is dismiss the experience of non-trained observers.  We have to be skeptical, of course, to spot those who are intentionally deceitful, but a person doesn’t write 1,500 pages without cause.  People do experience strange things, and this book is a family’s recollection of events that inspired a horror movie.  There were a few points in the course of reading through that I found myself pondering new perspectives on the realm of ghosts—shifts of point of view.  There were many points, though, that I found myself muttering that an editor would’ve helped.

As a fully trained academic in the field of studies that handles issues of the soul, I am hungry for primary sources.  Sociologists and psychologists get their information from observers—ordinary people.  It’s only when the claims become extraordinary that such observations are called into doubt.  We have all heard of haunted houses.  We all know that sometimes strange things happen in them.  We can explain such happenings in different ways.  The skeptical explain them away as misperceptions, normal occurrences masquerading as paranormal.  The credulous accept everything at face value.  Truth, it seems to me, is a middle of the road phenomenon.  I’ve always sat on the fence regarding ghosts.  Too many people over too many centuries have reported them with great detail—witnesses include some very reputable and rational individuals—to dismiss them in toto.  After volume one, it seems that something worth exploring took place in the eponymous house.  For full impact, however, who you gonna call?  This time you’d better make it an editor.


Graymalkin October

It’s not like you need an excuse to read ghost stories in October.  At least that’s what I hoped other passengers on the bus would think.  Yesterday on my way into and out of New York City I read the next in the series of Ed and Lorraine Warren books, this one titled Graveyard, and written by Robert David Chase.  Now, you need to realize that I’d heard of the Warrens long before The Conjuring came out.  Those of us curious about ghosts to the point of reading at least semi-serious books on them know the brand.  What I don’t know is how to find out much about what “the Warrens” actually wrote.  These books are being (have been) republished by Graymalkin Media, after having originally been published by mainstream publishers.  This one was originally released by St. Martin’s Press.  Those of us in publishing believe that stands for something.

Loosely tied together around graveyard stories, featuring for half the book Union Cemetery near the Warrens’ Monroe, Connecticut home, the book ranges far and wide concerning ghosts.  Here we meet a man or two who turned into demons—I wonder how that works?—and a good demon punishing an evil person.  Some of these stories seem straight out of the high school scare-your-date playbook, while others are actually pretty scary.  A mix of accounts by either Ed or Lorraine, and stories embellished, it seems, by Chase, this book is like a trick-or-treater’s Halloween bag—you never know what you’re going to get.  It’s a little too bad because I’ve read some sober, and serious treatments of ghosts over the past several autumns, and with the Warrens’ vast experience, it’s a unfortunate that the accounts had been so dolled up.

It’s a shame that scholars of religion can’t be more forthright about their interest in the spiritual world.  I know many that I won’t call out here that are secretly—some openly—exploring these kinds of questions.  That won’t get you tenure anywhere (something the Ghostbusters reboot got right).  Even in the world of science there are forbidden topics.  That’s because, as this little book points out, spirits creak open the doors to all kinds of uncertainties.  I suspect that’s a similar reason that scholars of religion are treated with a certain mistrust by other guilds within the academy.  We need to play it straight and prove that we aren’t given to flights of fancy that might suggest something as unsophisticated as belief.  Still, as Graveyard shows, ghost stories are extremely common.  In fact, no October would be complete without them.  So I hope the other passengers think.