Magazine | February 9, 2009, Issue

Chance of a Ghost

I was somewhat surprised recently to be told by a friend that she had had a “reading” done. I didn’t grasp her meaning immediately. The Church of Scientology came first to mind. Don’t they have some ritual (sacrament?) of wiring you up to a device that locates Bad Thoughts? Then, getting more up to date, and having just read Steven Pinker’s New York Times piece on the topic, I wondered if she had been to one of those services that sequence your genome for you.

It was neither. My speculations had been too up to date. My friend had, she told me, been to a “psychic counselor.”

“You mean . . . a fortune-teller?” I asked, honestly seeking clarification.

This was apparently a faux pas. “I knew you’d make fun of it,” she sniffed. “Should never have told you.”

She thereafter refused to divulge any details of the “reading.” Had I been more tactful, I might have learned the precise technique she’d submitted to. Crystal ball? Tarot cards? Palmistry? In China they read the moles and blemishes on your skin.

I feel pretty sure, at least, that my friend’s early-21st-century “psychic counselor” was more presentable than the famous one Captain Gronow attended in Paris circa 1820:

It was impossible for imagination to conceive a more hideous being. She looked like a monstrous toad, bloated and venomous. She had one wall-eye, but the other was a piercer. She wore a fur cap upon her head, from beneath which she glared out upon her horrified visitors. The walls of the room were covered with huge bats, nailed by their wings to the ceiling, stuffed owls, cabalistic signs, skeletons . . .

The worldly Captain Gronow — he fought at Waterloo, served as a member of Parliament, enjoyed the Vanity Fair high life of Regency London and Restoration Paris, and wrote a book of engaging “reminiscences and recollections” — tells us that he did not at the time believe one word of the sibyl’s predictions (she used cards), but that they all came true nonetheless.

This area — the occult — is one that is remote from my interests and temperament. Having an empirical cast of mind, and a mathematical education, I take a dim view of the whole business. Should I ever feel the need to engage with the Supernatural, I shall return to my church, which at least attempts to supply some intellectual underpinnings to the powers of the air. I’ll leave the crystal balls, Ouija boards, and séances to those who are that way inclined.

I’m a bit surprised to find it still going on in this prosaic age. I thought popular occultism had faded away across the latter half of the 20th century. Certainly such things were much more commonly spoken of in my childhood.

#page# Ghosts, especially so. In the England of 50 or 60 years ago, everybody had a ghost story, every town at least one haunted house. Half a mile from my own home was an old manor, built on the site of a medieval abbey. The place had been bought up by the county and opened to the public. One of the garden walks was haunted. Children would step off the path to let a nun go by; but no adult could see the nun.

I’ll admit I never saw the ghostly nun myself, though I wanted to. Perhaps that empirical mindset got in the way even then. I recall wondering how, if ghosts could pass through walls, they could walk on the ground. If solid matter was insubstantial to them, why didn’t they drop through to the center of the earth; or, if they were immune to gravity, why didn’t they float up into the stratosphere? We never reason as well as we do aged eight or nine.

I think people in the mid-20th century believed in ghosts, or at least were interested in them, much more commonly than nowadays. I was fed a regular diet of ghost stories as soon as I could read, some of them considered classics that every well-read person ought to be acquainted with: M. R. James’s “The Mezzotint,” W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw,” Hugh Walpole’s “The Tarn,” and many others. Walter de la Mare’s wonderfully spooky poem “The Listeners” was a great favorite, known to everyone:

But only a host of phantom listeners

That dwelt in the lone house then

Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight

To that voice from the world of men . . .

Dennis Wheatley’s occult thrillers were selling a million copies a year, there were up-market occult movies — Mervyn Johns (father of Glynis) in Dead of Night lingers in the mind; TV’s hit series Alfred Hitchcock Presents often featured occult themes; and even a hit Broadway musical, Carousel, had a ghost as protagonist. (Though the century’s best ghost story, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, wasn’t published till 1967.)

As the old gothic strain of literature had given birth to science fiction earlier in the century, so, at around the same time, had classic occultism brought forth Extra-Sensory Perception. Dr. J. B. Rhine had been busy trying to demonstrate telepathy and psychokinesis in his lab at Duke University since 1931, and busy also trying to fend off old-school occultists who wanted him to help them speak to the dead. In the 1950s Rhine’s researches got the attention of the U.S. military. Various ESP projects were launched, culminating in a psychic espionage unit named Stargate, whose congressional funding ended only in 1995. The Soviets, too, were researching ESP for military purposes. (They called telepathy “biological radio.”)

We have, as I said, since drifted into a more prosaic age. We get a decent ghost movie now and then — M. R. James would have loved The Sixth Sense — but for the most part, interest in the occult has faded. TV lawyer shows have reared a whole generation of show-me-the-evidence empiricists; cheap camcorders and cell phones have made fakery much harder — the Amityville Horror would never fly nowadays; and cognitive-science popularizers like Pinker have sapped away at the Ghost in the Machine.

It’s a duller, flatter world. No, I won’t be going for a “reading” anytime soon, but it’s oddly comforting to know one still can.

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