Ghost Hunters (audio)

Are there truths that cannot be proven—that science simply has no answer for? If something cannot be definitively proven, does that make it any less real? Is there room in the modern world for “extreme possibilities”? (tm Fox Mulder)

At the turn of the 20th century, a group of scientists, psychologists, and other interested individuals, in both Great Britain and the United States, set out to investigate psychic phenomena and the mediums who showed psychic gifts. Some were skeptics, others were inclined to believe, but all claimed to want the truth. In Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death (which I learned about from Eva at A Striped Armchair), Deborah Blum writes of their investigations and their findings.

The stories Blum tells are fascinating. There are incidents of people having visions of loved ones right at the time of their death. My own favorite was the man who was writing to a friend when he heard a voice say, “What write to a dead man? Write to a dead man?” only to learn later that his friend had just died.  The very idea of disembodied voices just creeps me out.

There are stories of sittings with mediums with varying degrees of honesty and apparent psychic talent. Some are obvious frauds, others appear to resort to tricks some of the time (which causes many investigators to discredit them entirely), and one whose talents the investigators could never quite explain. And Blum just shares their stories. Never does she imply that of course they were all frauds and that the investigators were too dumb to see it. But neither does she declare that these phenomena must be real. Blum seems to be attempting to report, not to convince. Both skeptics and believers (or folks like me who are a bit of both) will find much here to support or to challenge their views.

Another point of interest is how Blum incorporates the transition to a modern, scientific society. Science was making huge, new leaps at the time. One of the investigators, in fact, was Alfred Russel Wallace, who developed a theory of evolution similar to Darwin’s, but independently of Darwin. Despite Wallace’s scientific credibility and William James‘s credibility as a founder of modern psychology, the scientific establishment wanted nothing to do with their scientific research into psychic phenomena. The men who pursed such research were perceived with suspicion, no matter how rigorous their methodology. I found this especially interesting, given that some of the investigators went into the work expecting to be debunkers. If the phenomena aren’t real, what’s the harm in investigating? In fact, what’s the harm of investigating if the phenomena are real? Shouldn’t truth be the goal? Blum, to her credit, does not priviledge one side of this debate over the other; she presents their arguments in a way that causes thoughtful readers (or listeners) to consider how we do arrive at truth, particularly truth about spiritual matters.

I will confess that I’m not particularly well versed in turn-of-the-century spiritualism, and it’s possible that some who are more knowledgeable than I could perceive ways in which Blum stacks the deck by leaving out certain facts or emphasizing others. However, as a reader new to the topic, I found Blum to be remarkably even-handed, and I appreciated her efforts to put readers into the minds of the people of the time, rather than to impose our more modern, more “enlightened” views.

I listened to this book on audio, read by George K. Wilson, and although I enjoyed it in that format, I did at times wish I had a hard copy. There were a lot of different names and incidents to remember. I couldn’t keep all the investigators, mediums, and controls (spirit guides) straight. If I had been reading a hard copy, I probably would have left sticky notes on key passages when new people were mentioned. With the audiobook, I’ve come away with a fuzzier grasp of the details than I might have otherwise. Still, it was enjoyable, and I learned a lot.

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18 Responses to Ghost Hunters (audio)

  1. This book is on my to-read list for next year. I’m glad to hear you say that Blum takes a fairly even-handed approach to the matter.

  2. Eva says:

    I can’t imagine trying to listen to this one, for just the reasons you outlined, but I’m so glad that you still enjoyed it! :) I loved Blum’s balanced approach as well. You should read Will Storr vs. the Supernatural for a hilarious, more personal viewpoint. ;)

    • Teresa says:

      Listening worked for the broad outlines, it’s just the details that didn’t sink in. Now I’ll have to look for Will Storr–as if my TBR pile weren’t scary enough ;)

  3. litlove says:

    I’m quite interested in Victorian spiritualism and have read a little about it before (in a very good book whose name I simply cannot recall now – it was several years ago). This sounds a very good book for further reading.

    • Teresa says:

      Litlove, it was certainly a good starting point for me, and there was enough detail that it would probably interest you, too, having already read up on the subject.

  4. Jenny says:

    This sounds fantastic! (In hard copy – I know I’d never keep up with it in an audiobook!) I think the whole spiritualism thing is so interesting and strange; when I was researching Oscar Wilde in college, I found out there was a medium (Hester something?) who was always claiming to receive messages from Oscar Wilde, and once I believe claimed she had received a whole play from him. Very silly.

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, I think I heard that Wilde story somewhere, too. That’s definitely on the more ridiculous side! The incidents Blum recounts are mostly not so ridiculous but still interesting.

  5. Jenny says:

    Like Litlove and Jenny, I find the whole topic interesting. I run across it in fiction fairly regularly (Possession, Sarah Waters’s Affinity, etc) and even as a tangent in the nonfiction I read (surprisingly, people trying to contact R.F. Scott after his expedition was lost) and I’d love to know more of the facts behind it — how popular it really was, how many people believed it to be true or not, etc. This sounds like a good place to start!

    • Teresa says:

      Jenny, I found this to be a great place to start. I don’t know if it would answer all your questions, but there’s lots of info. And the discussions of how to get at the truth made me think more than once of Mulder and Scully’s investigative approaches :)

  6. Kathleen says:

    I want to read this but I think it will scare me so I will hold off for the right moment. Maybe when I am on vacation in a sunny location…winter doesn’t seem the right time!

    • Teresa says:

      Kathleen, I’ve built up a tolerance for ghost stories over the years, but I do tend to find them terrifying. There were only a couple of incidents in here that gave me the chills, though. I think the journalistic, rather than sensationalistic style helps with that. But everyone’s different when it comes to scary stories!

  7. Dorothy W. says:

    Oh, this sounds interesting! Both for the historical information, and also for the way it seems to get you to think about what we can and can’t know. I’m definitely staying agnostic on spiritual and spiritualist matters and physic phenomena these days — I’m not disbelieving what I hear or believing it either, really. I’m curious to hear what people think, though!

    • Teresa says:

      Dorothy, This book is great for someone with that sort of agnostic attitude. There’s plenty of room to believe or disbelieve or to interpret the phenomena differently.

  8. I’m glad you liked this book! Deb Blum is one of my professors here at UW, so I’ve heard her talk about this book a little bit before. She’s a journalist by training, so it makes sense that she’d be so even-handed as she is.

    • Teresa says:

      Blum’s writing was terrific. I can imagine that she’d be great to learn from as a student! (I’d be curious, too, as to what she actually thinks about the spiritualists she researched.)

  9. rebeccareid says:

    I don’t know much about spiritualism but I have seen a show on Discovery Channel where they try to call out ghosts. Freaky.

    • Teresa says:

      Rebecca: I don’t actually believe in ghosts (well, I’m not convinced they are what we think they are), but I sure wouldn’t be trying to call them out!

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