Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Ghost stories

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM

Morbidly curious Mary Roach, author of The New York Times bestseller Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, tackles a more hopeful subject with her latest book, Spook. What happens when we die? This time around, she’s homing in on age-old questions concerning our souls instead of our physical bodies. She serves as an irreverent and witty tour guide through the bastions of the unknown with the kind of genuine fascination that makes you want her to uncover all the answers.

In the first chapter, Roach travels to India to tag along with a reincarnation researcher to interview children who have memories of their past lives. Later she signs up for the “Fundamentals of Mediumship,” a course at Arthur Findlay College in England, where she’s trained to communicate with spirits through mind reading. Roach also joins the International Ghost Hunter’s Society, which claims to have 14,000 members in 78 countries, for a ghost-hunting outing. She stands in a supposedly haunted field with a tape recorder trying to pick up word from the dead (she doesn’t get a peep). She even surrenders her conscious to the research lab of a neuroscience professor in Ontario, where she’s exposed to high frequencies of electromagnetic fields that are believed to simulate “hauntings” or ghost experiences.

The biggest stumbling block to proving anything is the substantial number of wackos and eccentrics attracted to the subject matter. She dredges up historical accounts of their efforts, interviews researchers, and sometimes takes part in their experiments. It makes for a wildly entertaining mockery of the quacks of the occult, and there are many (it was once believed that mediums stored linens posing as “ectoplasm” in their vaginas). During the rare moments when Roach writes about someone more scientific than spiritual, more factual than fraudulent, there are tiny glimpses into the honest-to-goodness possibility of ghosts.

In the end, it’s a read worth more than a couple of chuckles, but if you’re looking for the stuff of the book’s title, the only conclusion is that there are no definitive answers out there. Leading to a surprise ending of sorts, Roach, who comes across the pages as a lighthearted but unflinching cynic, admits that she’s a convert. “What the hell,” Roach says. “I believe in ghosts.”

Meghan McEwen is a freelance writer. Send comments to


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