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.


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.


Ready, Ames,

Ames, Iowa is famous for many things. Not only is it where my wife grew up and where we were married, but it’s also the home city of Howard Bannister from What’s Up Doc? and it served as the staging ground for the crew of Twister, which includes some scenes shot in the area. Probably its greatest claim to fame, apart from the sadly defunct Do-Biz Cookies, is being the location of Iowa State University. Often I lingered near campus during family visits, wistfully hoping that someday someone in the religion department would welcome me among the faculty. My academic curse, however, is a powerful one. And that brings me (finally!) to the topic of this post—the haunted history of ISU.

Even the first president had a biblical name.

The website onlyinyourstate (we’re evolving out of the need for a spacebar) has a whimsical story about the hauntings on ISU’s main campus. The story isn’t scary at all, but it does raise that interesting specter of the ghosts of higher education. I’ve read a few of Elizabeth Tucker’s books about haunted campuses (Tucker teaches at another family school, Binghamton University) and, having spent a good deal of my life in academia, I’ve heard many tales first-hand. The very institutions that repeatedly bash our heads with facts can’t escape their own spooky pasts. Even conservative Christian Grove City College had its share of hauntings that we all knew about. You know, the Ketler ghost, and the spirit of the basketball player who broke through a glass door and bled to death right there on campus? Every campus I’ve known has had its baleful wraiths.

Sometimes I wonder if such stories aren’t a natural reaction to having the wonder excised from the world as we mature. Most of us can make it through high school somehow believing in the real possibilities that the world might offer, only to graduate from college to a 9-to-5 existence robbed of any supernatural splendor at all. Is it any wonder coeds see ghosts? Just the other day I read that a tree trimmer with a high school education in Iowa makes a much higher salary than I do with a Ph.D. working in New York City. Maybe that’s why I enjoy the movie Ghostbusters so much. When the reality of higher education and its politics and cruelty become clear escapism can be your best friend. And if you find yourself in Ames, you might want to avoid Friley, just in case.


All There Is To Know

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude but I just had to laugh. A friend sent me an article from Science Alert titled “A Physicist Just Explained Why the Large Hadron Collider Disproves the Existence of Ghosts.” Intrigued, I read, “there’s no room in the Standard Model of Physics for a substance or medium that can carry on our information after death, and yet go undetected in the Large Hadron Collider.” One of the reasons, I believe, science has trouble among hoi polloi is such arrogant statements as this. I don’t know about ghosts, and for a very good reason. There is no experimental way to test for that which doesn’t exist in the material world. The LHC may tell us all we can know about the world that we perceive (although I doubt it) but it can’t tell us about that for which there is no measure (e.g., consciousness). I don’t mean to get all complex here, but let’s stop and think about this for a moment.

What we know of the universe is what we can perceive and extrapolate from that perception by reason. We, however, don’t perceive everything. Our five senses evolved for one purpose and one purpose only—to survive in this particular environment. That’s a trait, hate to admit it as much as we might, that we share with other animals. It helps to be able to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell things clearly. These traits give us valuable information about the world around us—is that plant poisonous? Is this heat going to kill me? Should I avoid approaching that large, angry-looking bear? Things like that. What our senses don’t tell us is the aspects we didn’t evolve to perceive. We understand everything about nothing. Put another way there is nothing that we understand completely. Entire books can be written about the concept of zero and that’s just an abstract. We only experience a small piece of this universe.

That’s the problem with being in the backwater of the galaxy. I grew up in a backwater so I know what I’m talking about. Things might be different if we lived near the galactic hub, where beings with different senses may well exist. We know, for example, that even on our planet some animals perceive magnetic fields. Who knows what kinds of abilities might have evolved on worlds that posed different challenges to survival than our own? Who are we to say that here in our basement on earth we have a machine that can uncover every possible permutation of anything in the known universe? I don’t know about ghosts, but, I suspect, they’re laughing too.


Looking for Light

The one problem with Halloween is that most people suppose that when it’s over we need to wait another year for the scary stuff to come around again. Since we tend to skip from holiday to commercialized holiday, we have a capitalism-induced mindset of Halloween—brief pause for Thanksgiving—Black Friday—Christmas, spending money all along the way. Halloween, however, is a marker that stands near the beginning of half the year. The half with short days and long nights. Traditionally the holiday associated with ghost stories was Christmas, which falls near the shortest day of the year. Once the light starts creeping back, however, we tend to find reason to be optimistic that the chill can’t last forever and light follows darkness just as surely as life ends in death. All of this is prologue to say that a friend recently sent me a story about Irish witches which got me to thinking about origins once again.

The story, a piece called “Witches of Ireland,” by James Slaven, tells a few tales of Hibernian lore involving witches. As I read the article I was thinking about the origin of witches. Some of the phenomena associated with witches parallels that associated with demon possession—contortion, spitting up needles and nails, even levitating. There is a complex of ideas here that revolves around unseen forces that are categorized as evil. We tend to think the Enlightenment opened the door and shed strong sunlight into the closet, but that’s only true for half the year. The other half we’re mostly in the dark.

Pondering origins, I wonder where these associations began. We have no “histories” to tell us whence these ideas arose. Witches and demons both had, in Christianity, associations with the Devil. That connection doesn’t apply in other religions which, I suspect, is where the origin of many tales of witchcraft lie. You see, the Christian god is a jealous fellow—it says so right there in the Good Book—and displays of power over nature that most good monotheists lack will always be suspect. Perhaps we need to pay more attention to our pagan forebears.

Source: www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

Source: http://www.imagesfrombulgaria.com; perspective- and color-adjusted by Martha Forsyth (Wikimedia Commons)

These are merely nighttime thoughts, written in the dark. Already I begin to see the sun rise as I reluctantly trudge eastward across the island of Manhattan. I welcome the longer days, but somehow I strangely miss the comfort of the longer nights of yesteryear.