Straining Credulity

Ed and Lorraine Warren aren’t easy to figure out.  I realize that for someone who holds an actual doctorate from a bona fide, internationally recognized research university this might be something strange to say.  That’s because the standard academic response is simple dismissal.  Ed, at least, was known to have stretched the truth from time to time, but that’s not the same as never having reported weird things that actually happened.  This is why I’ve long advocated academics at least looking at the evidence—rare though it may be—before the simple hand-waving dismissal.  Part of the problem is that the Warrens’ books were written by credulous followers who don’t question things nearly enough.  Ghost Tracks, by Cheryl A. Wicks, may be the last of this strange genre of hortatory, biographical accounts “by” the Warrens written while Ed was still alive.

Skepticism is very important.  But so is listening to people.  What I find compelling is that similar weirdness—frequently dismissed out of hand—has been recorded throughout the length and breadth of history and across the entire globe.  The problem is that many of these things fall outside current scientific means of testing.  While perhaps not widely known, very reputable universities quietly explore these possibilities with actual science.  Part of the problem of the Warrens, as well as various other “ghost hunters” is that they use scientific equipment and think that makes them scientists.  It doesn’t.  Science requires deep engagement and many years of strenuous study.  And yes, skepticism has to be part of it.  The thing the Warrens have to offer is that they realize(d) that when science does engage the supernatural interesting things emerge.

Sensationalism, however, is the slave of capitalism.  Books sell better when they make extraordinary claims and declare they’re based on true events.  Trying to make a living investigating the paranormal led the Warrens, it seems, to tip the balance a little too far in the way of credulity.  Some of the stories in Ghost Tracks are more believable than others.  Some are just plain frustrating.  Ed’s interview with George Lutz (of Amityville fame), for example, is full of dropped balls.  A good question receives an intriguing answer only to have the subject immediately switched by the interviewer.  Even just a little skepticism and a follow-up question would have done scads to improve the believability of the story.  This is something a scientist would have known.  Someone as smart as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although his Sherlock Holmes generally found  ratiocination led to physical explanations, believed in the supernatural.  If only his Holmes might’ve been brought to this discussion we might possibly have learned something.

Twist of Lime

witchoflimeOctober enters as a liminal month. A few remaining hours of lingering summer but more shortening days of winter’s encroaching wolf. A time of harvest and celebration. Lengthening nights bearing strange noises. It was a couple of Octobers ago that I noticed The Witch of Lime Street either on Amazon or some bookstore shelf. I knew I’d read it this time of year, but I had to find the time to appreciate it appropriately. David Jaher’s debut book, subtitled Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, spins a story appropriate to this time of year. The story of Mina Crandon, aka Margery, is as misty as the ghost she apparently conjured during the roaring ‘20s. The story is all the more remarkable in that the medium who’d attracted so much attention has been all but forgotten now that mediums and psychics tout their wares “for entertainment purposes only.” No one wants a fraud misdemeanor on his or her record, just in case.

Margery emerged during a contest set up by Scientific American that offered $2500 for any medium whose effects could not be explained by science. A board of experts, including Harry Houdini, was established and the contestants tried their best. Unlike most mediums Margery was from a secure household, being the wife of a surgeon. In other words, she didn’t need the money. Some of the feats she performed, according to the records scoured by Jaher, are truly amazing. So amazing that she had nearly convinced the prize committee that she deserved the prize. Houdini, however, led the opposition. During the course of all this she had, at points, convinced Harvard faculty that she was genuine, and submitted herself to controlled conditions. Some very intelligent men, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed she was authentic. Never actually caught in trickery, evidence suggests that she faked some manifestations, but many educated observers nevertheless believed in her powers.

This engaging account has as many twists and turns as a corn maze, and features several prominent players. Houdini and Doyle clearly top the charts, but for those who’ve read about the history of parapsychology there will be some familiar names throughout. The one who is least known is Margery herself. Being an historian, Jaher can’t proclaim his own verdict on the medium’s claims. His account, however, is even and provocative. Based on the many records that were available on the subject before seances became artifacts of a more gullible age, this book will leave you scratching your head. Then, you may wonder, were those my fingers or those of someone else doing the scratching?

Things Unseen

The reductionistic mind doesn’t care for mystery. Unlike a lover, the unknown is a problem to be solved so that the march of nice, neat solutions may continue to march on, unabated. Fear of fuzzy thinking leads to a coldness that those of us experiencing life find not a little unsettling. Take the cougar, for example. Right now I’m in one of the few habitats of the grizzly bear in the lower 48. It is also home to mountain lions (pumas, panthers, ghosts of the Rockies). Just a week before I came here a local website posted a rare photo of a cougar caught unawares. These creatures are seldom seen, and are officially extinct for most of the country east of the Mississippi. That doesn’t stop them from existing, however. Reports from my native Pennsylvania continue to be filed. I saw tracks when I was a child, but never saw an actual cat. A friend in West Virginia had seen one shortly before we visited that state some years back. Even New Jersey still gets the occasional sighting. Officially these are misidentifications.

I recently read a couple of books that addressed the beast of Dartmoor, in the United Kingdom. Dartmoor is a wild and remote area and for many years an uncomfortable story has circulated about an unknown creature that haunts the moors. The story is older than Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had the detective face the hound of the Baskervilles in that region. Those unhappy with the unknown have sought a rational explanation and now some are claiming that escaped cougars are the basis for the tale. A zoo owner even declares that some of his escaped in the 1980s, causing the stories to arise. The fact that the beast had been part of folklore for over a century already at that point suggests that this may be a little too little a little too late. It’s better than mystery anyway.

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My minimal experience on Dartmoor didn’t lend itself to seeing folkloristic beasts. Even my somewhat extended time in this wilderness hasn’t led to a cougar or grizzly sighting. The mysterious gains its reputation by rarity. The thrill of seeing a relatively common moose is akin to theophanic. I know it’s just a big deer. It’s more than just a big deer. Wonder is an essential part of the human condition. Without it we become as soulless as the mechanistic universe some so desperately want to explain neatly, according to the rules. Cougars escape. Cougars escape detection. What else might we be missing in a universe we’ve only just begun to explore.