Friday, July 31, 2009

Ghost Hunters

Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters is quite deceptively named—the subtitle, William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, is more apt. The book follows the life's work of the founding members of the Society for Psychical ResearchFrederic Myers, Edmund Gurney, and Henry Sidgwick—along with their American colleague, Harvard psychologist William James (brother of Henry). These scholars were caught between the charlatans of Lily Dale and the hardboiled skeptics of the scientific establishment, whose knee-jerk ridicule of psychical research seems just as dogmatic as those religious leaders who had pooh-poohed the theory of evolution only a few decades before.

There are poignant stories aplenty here: images from a dream used to locate the body of a missing teenager; the sad cases of mediums whose early promise dissolved into fakery and alcoholism; and a man obsessed with contacting his long-dead lover, whose golden memory eclipses the presence of his living wife. But the reader finds the scarcity of concrete 'proof' downright frustrating, so just imagine how those tireless researchers of the British and American Psychical Societies must have felt. It's all too fitting that these scholars should ultimately provide the most compelling evidence in the book—that is to say, their own after-death communication.

After the extraordinarily dedicated Australian researcher Richard Hodgson died of a heart attack on the handball court, he spoke to his old friend William James via the Boston medium Leonora Piper:

I am happy exceedingly difficult to come very. I understand why Myers came seldom. I must leave. I cannot stay. I cannot remain today.

The spirits of Gurney and Myers expressed this frustration in the cross correspondences experiment, which is the only one I found truly convincing. Several mediums separated by hundreds (or thousands) of miles, with no contact at all between them, came up with the eeriest corresponding messages using automatic writing. This "unlikely kind of chain letter from the dead" seems way too eerie for coincidence, really fascinating stuff. Anyway, I found it amusing how the spirits of the former psychical researchers sometimes took on the tone of short-tempered schoolmasters when talking to the mediums:
"Back in the old despondency," read one passage, taken down by Alice Fleming and signed 'Edmund Gurney.' "Why don't you write daily? You seem to form habits only to break them."

Mrs. Fleming told Alice Johnson that the complaint spilled out after she had been too busy to spare time for automatic writing. "If you don't care to try every day for a short period of time, better drop it all together. It's like making appointments and not keeping them," the Gurney message continued. 'You endanger your own powers of sensitiveness and annoy us bitterly."

Some of the messages signed by Myers seethed with frustration: "Yet another attempt to run the blockade—to strive to get a message through—how can I make your hand docile enough—how can I convince them?

"The nearest simile I can find to express the difficulties of sending a message is that I appear to be standing behind a sheet of frosted glass—which blurs sight and deadens
sound—dictating feebly—to a reluctant and somewhat obtuse secretary.

"A terrible feeling of impotence burdens me."
Ghost Hunters reinforced for me Jim Harold's belief that the paranormal of today is merely the science of tomorrow—or, put another way: "the unbelief of the educated classes...will be found by succeeding ages, to have been nothing better than unreasoning and unreasonable prejudice." That's from a Mr. Joshua Proctor, one of the correspondents quoted in Catherine Crowe's The Night-Side of Nature—a bestselling collection of supposedly-true ghost stories first published in 1848. I'll be blogging about that book next.

2 comments:

Susan said...

*sigh* Can't wait to put my feet up and read a good book...

Kate said...

Ahh good ol' William James--we studied him a few times in my different psyc classes.