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.

Guns and Ghosts

The irony of a nation that has gun laws made by those with body guards is especially cruel in the shadow of Sutherland Springs. Just a month after the worst mass shooting in United States history, another cohort of corpses receives only empty answers from DC. The solution to all the shooting deaths, 45 asserts, is more guns. This from the same White House that can find no credible alternative explanations for global warming, yet continues to break down any emissions barriers it can. The real noxious emissions are coming from the greedy mouths of the chicks in the feathered GOP nest. What is the word for what lies beyond insanity? We need it now.

Like many thinking people I’m very pleased with the results of the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. It seems, temporarily, as if reason has found its voice. The mistake at this point would be to relax and feel as if the job were done. We have raving lunacy at the national level, gun violence out of control, and politicians who just can’t live without NRA blood money. The story of Sarah Winchester’s ghosts may not be true, but it doesn’t have to be. We have a nation full of ghosts. Barely elected candidates claim a mandate to destroy the infrastructure that has allowed them to become rich. The wealthy, you’ll notice, are those who want to take all the marbles and go home. And they live in houses with guards to protect them from all the firearms they’re handing out like candy on Halloween.

Stop and think about this. The White House admits that climate change is human caused. The conclusions are quite dire for those who own property in New York City, let alone entire nations that will be underwater in a few years’ time. The response? Ignore the facts. Boast a bit more about how great we are. Give tax cuts to the wealthy and guns to the poor. Why doesn’t this equation add up? Pardon my jeremiad on what is the first hopeful morning a reasonable person has had in a long time. We have to start taking back local politics and let the national government know that it no longer speaks for the people that somewhat giddily gave it power just a year ago. Otherwise there are bound to be many more ghosts about. And one thing we know for certain, Washington doesn’t believe in ghosts.

Scared Space

Ghosts appear whether they exist or not. People have seen them, we know, since as early as written records permit us to know. I first ran into Colin Dickey’s name in a review of the new Ghostbusters movie. The bio made mention of his book, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. Then it was a matter of waiting until autumn to read it. It’s a book that will long stay with me. Dickey’s not out to prove or disprove ghosts—they are simply there (and sometimes not). Ghosts, however, teach us quite a lot about the living. What we value. What we fear. What we disdain. Some of the ghost stories in this book are famous and familiar, others obscure and pedestrian. What they all have in common is a sense of place.

This book is primarily about place. Ghosts seem to be generated by the fact that people have lived here before us. Focusing on the United States, Dickey points out that land stolen from others has inhabitants already. On top of Native American sites, we now have a few hundred years of European and African and Asian building. Lives lived on top of other lives. And although we can’t say for sure what ghosts are, they do seem to be associated with buildings, or at least places. Organized in a kind of concentric structure, the book describes ghosts of haunted houses, then haunted businesses and public buildings, including haunted outdoor spaces. And finally haunted cities. These hauntings are residue of our own making. We build, we inhabit, we die. Whether ghosts are just memories or uncanny feelings, they are ghosts nevertheless.

Combining a couple of my favorite ideas—ghosts and the sense of space—Ghostland is a rare blend of history and folklore. The architecture of our constructions functions like tombs for our imagination. We are spiritual beings, whether religious or not. Even if we’re in denial of that spirituality, we sense that somehow life doesn’t simply end. We’ve left a mark, a scratch, a dent. As long as those who’ve known us live, we continue on in their minds and lives. And some, it seems, remain beyond even that to be seen by strangers centuries later, maintaining the sacredness of space once familiar while living. Ghost stories are human stories, and Dickey is a sure guide along the way. He doesn’t tell you what to believe, but he tells you something you already may know but not realize. No matter whether they’re ever proven, or whether they even really exist, as long as there are human beings there will also be ghosts.

Average Reality

One of the stranger dynamics of higher education is its unquestioning acceptance of a one-size-fits-all methodology. Don’t get me wrong—the empirical method works. The only real problem with it is that not all phenomena in the universe cooperate with human observation. It’s something I call the problem of occasional phenomena. Perhaps because of the rancid taste left in scientific mouths by lingering creationism, anything that isn’t slow and regular enough to be directly or theoretically observed simply can’t fit in this old world. The weird, the anomalous, the strange—these open the door to possible spirits and spirits have no way of being measured. At least not yet. The most convenient way to deal with them is to call them superstition and end the discussion right there.

The larger problem is that people see things. Unless said people are scientists, they are considered amateur observers, liable to mistake what they see. The classic example of this is ghosts. From the beginning of recorded history people have claimed to see them, or hear things go bump in the night. Some of the first modern people to make a profession out of exploring such things were Ed and Lorraine Warren. Unfortunately, they didn’t write books about their experiences. Largely because of movies made about some of their high profile cases, there has been a resurgence of interest in the couple and the books originally published by other presses, such as Prentice Hall and St. Martin’s, have been reissued by Graymalkin Media. These are co-written tomes of uneven quality. They’re also like candy—once you start on them it’s hard to stop. Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist is one such book. More than others in the collection that I’ve read, it concentrates on a single phenomenon that overlaps with the world of religion—demons. Unlike trained religion scholars, however, the Warrens aren’t shy about declaring what demons are (fallen angels) and how they differ from devils (it’s all about rank).

What makes these books so interesting is the dispassionate description of the cases the Warrens investigated. Unless they are pathological in their connection to telling untruths, there’s some very odd stuff that goes on out there. Although they declare once in a while that other religions and their practitioners can also deal with demons, there’s a simple kind of black-and-white view of morality that fits what you might have learned in Sunday School. One of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that most academics don’t take an academic interest in demons. Once they’re filed in the mythology folder there’s no reason to try to figure out what they might “really be.” The Warrens’ outlook, therefore, has become canonical among ghost hunters. They certainly have more credibility in that crowd than most Harvard Ph.D.s. It’s funny what can happen when you refuse to explore what the average person considers to be just as real as the physical world we all think we know so well.