Last Laugh

Raymond A. Moody. The Last Laugh: A New Philosophy of Near Death Experiences, Apparitions and the Paranormal. Hampton Roads, 1999.
Accused by 'scientific' parapsychologists of becoming an entertainer, for his 'vision room', Moody accepts that he is just that, and that indeed the paranormal is essentially part of the realm of entertainment. To contrast with what he sees as the literalness of the parapsychologists and their sceptical and fundamentalist critics, he coins the phrase 'playful paranormalist', by which it appears that he means those who bracket out the question as to whether any of these claims are "really true" and runs with the stories as human experiences.

There is much of interest in this often very perceptive book. The central thesis looks very appealing, and from our own experience in ufology, a lot rings true there too. This is that stories of the paranormal and 'paranormal experiences', like literature and the performing arts, transport us to other worlds. The central appeal of this material is precisely its ambiguous unknown quality; its reminder that the world is finally ungraspable. One reason why so little progress occurs in the fields of the paranormal is that no one really wants it. If any of these mysteries were solved the believers and sceptics alike would be out of a job.

The connection with showbiz is obvious; there is often a grey area between the two. Uri Geller is a prime example of the paranormalist showbiz star, and who can doubt that Daniel Douglas Home was a showbiz star of the Victorian era. We can also recall the stage appearances of the Davenport brothers or the Fox sisters, or Lulu Hurst the electric girl. Moody reminds us of the role of fasting girls, fire walkers, magicians and others in the history of vaudeville.
Much of what he writes here has resonances with the ideas of the anthropologist of ritual, drama and play, Victor Turner; and with Rogan Taylor's much neglected Death and Resurrection Show (London, 1985). The latter argued that the showbiz superstar was a descendant of the shaman, as of course is the psychic virtuoso. There are also distinct echoes of the writings of the Colin Brookes-Smith and his séance parties in the 1960s. Of course the Victorian séance was entertainment also; a dark place where the laws of physics and sexual propriety alike could be transgressed.

Moody argues for the comic potential of the paranormal; taken literally it is nonsense, absurd, because it transports us outside the boundaries of the world of daylight reason and common sense. This clearly has echoes within ufology, where stories have been called "a festival of absudity". Ufology has great entertainment value, and Moody is surely right in saying we are in the game because it is fun. It also illuminates a point made earlier by George Hansen: the play-like nature of much the abduction business. It involves a willing suspension of disbelief for a scary thrill, and for playing a variety of roles. It also, of course, makes it clear why Phil Klass's demand that the FBI be brought in to investigate Linda Napolitano's kidnapping by her two stalkers is absurd. It would be like bringing in real police officers to investigate the murder in a soap opera. It isn't really real, and Budd Hopkins knows that as much as the rest of us.

There is a clear likeness between drama and dreams. Both involve journeys to "other realms", where astounding things can happen. They can be both places of extraordinary joy and terror, but we know that when the curtain falls and the lights come back on, the daylight and its mundane common sense return. Or at least we hope they do.

One fault of Moody's presentation is an over-indulgent view of play and entertainment. He acknowledges in places the dark nature of much entertainment in the past and notes, as part of his polemic against Christian fundamentalists, that one of the early Christian visions of heaven was as a giant amphitheatre, a super celestial Coliseum, from which they could look down with pleasure on the torments of the damned in Hell. But he never really incorporates this in his general vision. As I am writing this [2001] the papers are full of the agonised debate over the fate of the killers of James Bulger. His killing, the high school massacres, the kids throwing rocks at soldiers using live ammunition in Palestine, remind us how dark and dangerous and utterly out of control play can become.

Another interesting line of Moody's argument is that we need to get beyond the trapped literalness of taking everything at face value. Rather he argues we should see these narratives as seeking to express, within our culture-bound language, some sense of the encounter with . . . and here he notes all the language that is used, the paranormal, the occult, the uncanny, weird, awesome, outlandish, supernatural, fey, spooky, enchanted, strange, unknown, beyond and, we might add, cryptic, and alien. All words hinting at something beyond the bounds of the socially constructed given world. Perhaps the anthropologists' notion of wilderness or wildness, or the theologians' use of words such as "other" come in here, as might Turner's ideas of communitas and liminality.

In Moody's own idiom he has a fine sense of the comic, but I suspect, being a nice person, he has a less fine sense of the tragic. That being said, this is a provocative and interesting book, which while no doubt likely to give rise to cries of "English Literature" in certain quarters, is definitely worth reading. Not easy in places but worth the effort. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 33, February 2001

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