If ever there was a religion or belief system that I really wanted to believe was real, it’s Spiritualism. When your loved ones die, they stick around and help you out. If not your loved ones, then spiritual beings from another dimension or something can help you. They leave you presents and help you get parking spaces.
In this book, the author travels to Lily Dale, New York, several times and gets to know the mediums and other residents who live and work there. She participates in the touristy activities--getting readings, going to group meetings–but she also goes behind the scenes and gets to know the characters in the town. She starts the book as a skeptic, and she basically ends as a skeptic too. But in between, she questions both her pre-conceived ideas and what she learns from the mediums.
The author presents the characters as real people that you could imagine knowing, or maybe you do know. And you really want them to be right. They even admit to faking experiences some times to play to their paying crowd, and you still want them to be right. Because what happy and magical lives they lead! What confidence they have in themselves and their own lives! How wonderful life would be if this was all true!
As I mentioned, the author stays a skeptic, but she comes away with more questions than answers. I found this refreshing. The mediums seem to live in a grey zone between the cold hard facts of reality and the magical world of “well, maybe.” And it’s not hurting anyone--in fact, a case could be made for this kind of thinking improving a lot of lives, I think--so why not go for it? If you get a good parking spot, you acknowledge and appreciate it and thank some spiritual being for picking it out for you. And if you don’t get the good parking spot, you shrug and determine that your spiritual guide wanted you to walk farther that day for some reason that’s not yet clear to you. What’s the downside of this, especially in terms of mental and emotional health?
Probably, there are some, and the author certainly struggles with the idea that people should just do what they want to do all the time, knowing that the universe will keep everything on track. But by the end of the book, even if you don’t believe, you’re left wanting to.
Spook explores not only the afterlife, but the history of the soul, ghost hunting, haunting phenomena, and mediumship. Although the scope of the book is broad, and Mary Roach touches lightly on each topic (or dives extremely deep into one aspect of the topic), I think most anyone could learn something new, no matter his or her spiritual beliefs.
The author provides a good review of obscure (and not so obscure) research into a variety of “paranormal” topics. It wasn’t so long ago that paranormal studies was a perfectly legitimate branch of science that many scientists from a variety of disciplines studied. I’ve done some reading on the Society of Psychical Research, and their early studies especially strove to remain as scientific as possible. At times, the author’s description of this older science–and even some of the modern experiments–struck me as a little too sarcastic, verging on outright laughing at people’s beliefs. If you are going to learn something new, you have to be open to bizarre-sounding ideas before you judge them. However, that eye-rolling may have been over-emphasized by the narrator on the audio edition I listened to. The narrator also came up with some amazingly annoying accents for various people, several bordering on the offensive, and mispronounced some basic, non-science words throughout the text, so I wouldn’t recommend the audio version.
The most fascinating new piece of information I learned was the intense reaction that some people have to psychoacoustics, which can make eyeballs vibrate and cause hallucinations. For all the ghost hunter shows I’ve watched, I’d never heard that explanation before. I was also fascinated by the ectoplasm chapter.
However, I would have liked a little more depth about the variety of things people believe happen to them after death. The opening chapter on a scientist studying reincarnation was brilliant (except for the Abu accent my narrator assumed). The author sort of addresses the Christian version of Heaven and Hell throughout the rest of the text, especially through the near-death experience stories. But what about other beliefs, like the post-mortem (and pre-mortem) baptisms that Mormons conduct for non-Mormons without their consent so they can come to the same spiritual paradise? What about the Buddhist idea of breaking free of reincarnation and achieving nirvana? Is no one studying these other beliefs?
Overall, Spook is a fascinating walk through the science of the soul (more so than the science of the afterlife, I’d say). I’d recommend it to anyone curious about ghosts and attempts to prove that spirits are distinct from physical bodies.
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