Author Mary Roach specializes in the pop science books displayed in stacks on the hot tables of Barnes and Noble. We’ve acquired quite a few via street finds, but I haven’t read any yet. I’m saving them for when libraries are out of reach because I’m living out my hermit dreams on a mountain top. Soon.
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife was too evocative to put in the save pile though. Here out chatty author investigates claims of the afterlife, reincarnation, ghosts. Do souls exist and if so how much do they weigh? What’s actually going on when a person believes they are having an out of body experience.
There once was a time when parapsychology was part of main stream science. When the question wasn’t is there an afterlife, but how do we prove it? Roach takes us on a guided tour through yesterday’s wacky experiments, to today’s fringe research with stops at the Donner Picnic Grounds and other places you may not think to bring the fam.
The journey begins with a trip to India to meet leading researchers documenting reported cases of reincarnation in rural villages. Unfortunately, the case studies mentioned sound kind of dodgy – a kid knowing details of a nearby village he’s never been to so everyone assumes he’s a widow’s reincarnated husband. The tone in this chapter comes across as patronizing, but I still found the subject interesting. Life in these rural villages seems particularly difficult. People die of curable illnesses and preventable accidents. Roach supposes believing their loved ones might be reborn to a family down the road makes such tragedies somewhat easier to process. I highly doubt that.
Fun fact: Apparently 25 percent of people in the US believe in reincarnation. I wasn’t convinced until seeing the brilliant Albert Brooks ad Meryl Streep movie Defending Your Life.
Annoyed at the author’s flippant approach, I kept reading and hoping she’d dig deeper. There’s a boring chapter on ectoplasm with lots of oh-those-Victorians anecdotes. I skimmed this chapter as the heyday for ectoplasm, seances and spirit photography is a well trodden topic. The MET did a whole exhibit a few years ago and even they couldn’t make it more than a bunch of cons manipulating cameras with lame effects, taking advantage of families grieving loved ones lost to the flu and war.
The chapter on controversial experiments conducted to prove the existence of the soul is mildly interesting. One scientist actually measured dying patients in their moment of death. He compared the weight before and immediately after and found a slight disparity. Mass lost could only represent the departed soul. The thing that makes you you weighs 21 grams. FYI.
A few chapters had potential. Roach attends 3 days of medium school. She enters with a closed, judgy mind and shockingly doesn’t come away with much. She takes this same good times attitude to catch EVPs at the Donner Camp Picnic Grounds with a group of ghost hunters. Yup, it’s a real place in California complete with a Donner Party Monument to commemorate history’s worst road trip ever. Also, I wasn’t sure why she attempted to debunk an obviously made up family ghost story concerning a will, disinherited sons and a lot of land. Nearly every town has a ghost story. Why not choose one where the people involved had nothing to gain?
I enjoyed the last chapter on out of body experiences the most. Some of the reported cases confirmed by doctors are compelling. She introduces one researcher who came up with a clever experiment to prove the validity of these experiences. No luck yet though.
Er. For some reason this book made it on The New York Times Bestseller list. My boyfriends says the author’s other books are much better. Overall, this is a mixed bag ranging from dull to curiously cobbled together. It never leaps off the page or manages to fascinate – it felt like she was as bored writing it as I was reading it. She complains that findings on the spirit world are mostly anecdotal then proceeds to tell us anecdotes. The again, I would’ve been equally annoyed if she presented evidence disproving that the afterlife exists. It’s a tricky topic to read about from a scientific lens because it doesn’t leave a trail of data.
Early on Roach makes a good point. She says the difficulty with believing in spirits is that they never communicate what the living most want to know: What happens when we die? Where do we go? What does it feel like? Do you eat? Feel? Is it cold? What about this light? Darkness? It’s like all they want to do is creep out the living.
The dead were alive, so they should know we want to know these things. BUT as many ghost shows, books and movies are quick to point out, if a line of communication is open, it’s way more subtle than we want it to be.
By the way, when I’m a ghost I’m not telling anyone anything about the afterlife. Screw you, living people. I’m just gonna hover at the foot of beds tickling toes and tugging at sheets and basically being a jerk who likes to knock things down, open cabinets and change the channel. I may want to hop inside a doll from time to time and slowly turn my head.