The Ghost in the Laboratory

Stacy Horn. Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory. Ecco (An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), 2009. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.
I rather doubt that Joseph B. Rhine the founder of parapsychology at Duke University would have really approved of this book. He wanted parapsychology to be a real science, which in effect meant the abstruse statistical analysis of what were, to be frank, mind-numbingly boring card guessing experiments. Not exactly the sort of material which goes into making a best seller, or a seller at all for that matter.

So Stacy Horn, whose previous work was on the New York Police's cold case squad, has to concentrate on the human interest, of which there is plenty in the mass of correspondence collected by DPL over the years, especially by Rhine's wife Louise. These spontaneous cases, tales of ghosts, poltergeists, telepathic flashes and claims of demonic possession, are probably a barely-touched mine of data to be excavated by future historians of American society and popular culture in the middle years of the twentieth century. Only a minority of such cases actually interested the Rhines, and certainly not ones about topics such as UFOs and such like. What did were stories such as the notorious Long Island Poltergeist, or the poltergeist story which was to form the basis of the film The Exorcist.

Apart from these spontaneous cases, there is the human interest of the interaction with others in the field, for example the attempts by Timothy Leary to get Rhine into his drugs culture, with little success, the antics of Peter Hurkos and Andrija Puharich, or the medium Mina ‘Margery’ Crandon etc.

It has to be said in all of this, Rhine remains an enigma, someone who never seems to come alive in these pages, almost a ghostly presence himself, but clearly inspiring others, to an almost equal amount of love and hate. It is as if even years after his death no-one really wants to speak too candidly for fearing that he will indeed come back and haunt them.

Though Stacy Horn introduces this book saying "every ghost story begins with a love story" and is about the survival of love, this is not really the case, though lost love usually inspires visits to the séance room. But what lies behind many ghost stories is not the hope of the survival of love, but fear of the survival of hate and rage, jealousy and vengeance, lust and hunger and endless despair. Ghost stories are dramas, soap operas of their day, and even now, self-appointed psychics tell these tales of blood and guts and endless vengeance, because that is what gets and audience going, and some examples are given here.

What to make of all of this? Stacy Horn, comes to no certain opinion, though she feels that it is the sheer implausibility of the "explanations" offered up by sceptics such as Mark Hansel, that provides the best evidence for their being ‘something in it’ which cannot be readily explained. Yet parapsychologists are no nearer to a solution than when Rhine started out to ensnaring that ‘something’ - or even really just hazarding a guess as to what it might be.

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