Hauntings and Poltergeists: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Houran, James and Lange, Rense, Eds. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc, 2001. vi + 330 pp. $85.00
As numerous surveys and best-seller lists have shown, many people in our society believe in the existence of paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, apparitions, or poltergeists. Many also claim to have experienced such phenomena, and some are puzzled or even upset by their experiences. There is therefore a great need for clinicians who have enough knowledge of the literature in parapsychology to recognize that, although many claims to have experienced paranormal phenomena are mistaken, delusional, or even pathological, there is also an extensive body of research strongly suggesting that normal explanations cannot account for all such claims. The present volume advertises itself as “intended to provide the reader with a thorough understanding of the manifestations and various explanations for haunting and poltergeist phenomena” (p. 9), but unfortunately in this it largely fails.
The book is divided into three sections, labeled “Sociocultural Perspectives,” “Physical and Physiological Perspectives,” and “Psychological Perspectives,” and there are 14 chapters. Because of limited space for this review, I will confine my remarks to those parts of the book most relevant for clinicians seeking an informed and balanced perspective on these phenomena. A few chapters are useful and even quite good. Part of Chapter 6 (by Roll and Persinger) describes some representative poltergeist cases and their investigation. Chapter 12 (by Lawrence) provides an excellent review of studies of social and psychological characteristics of people who believe in, or claim to have experienced, paranormal phenomena; but Lawrence concludes that such studies to date are “largely irrelevant to an understanding of apparitional beliefs and experiences,” primarily because of the “unsophisticated” or “overly simplistic” thinking behind much of the research (p. 258). In Chapter 13, Kumar and Pekala provide an excellent review of studies of the relationship of hypnotizability, imagery, absorption, fantasy-proneness, and dissociation to paranormal beliefs and experiences.
Authors of several other chapters, however, betray an unpardonable propensity to select only those phenomena, or aspects of the phenomena, consistent with their view that all claims of paranormal experience can be explained as delusional thinking, fraud, or other normal processes. It has been said many times before, but it is worth repeating: strong beliefs about the impossibility of paranormal phenomena can shape and bias one’s observations just as readily as strong beliefs in their existence. Nickell’s condemnation of “mystics” and “parapsychologists” as “those who begin with a belief and work backward to the evidence, selecting that which fits the preconceived notion and explaining away all else” (p. 214) is a two-edged sword that is all too applicable to Nickell himself as well as several other contributors to this volume. Nickell, for example, informs readers that many “ghosts” can be explained as hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations, deceptive illusions, or the result of suggestion, and he condescendingly tells psychic researchers not to adopt a paranormal explanation when a normal one will do (pp. 216–217). I wonder if Nickell is really so unaware of the pains parapsychologists have taken for decades to rule out these (and other) normal explanations before suggesting a paranormal one, and the extent to which they have contributed to the psychology of suggestion and hallucinations. Most of the cases described in, for example, the chapters by Nickell, Hufford, Brugger, Persinger and Koren, and Lange and Houran would be of no interest to parapsychologists as evidence for any kind of paranormal process.
Lange and Houran, the editors of the volume, criticize reporters of poltergeists and hauntings for “selection of accounts that readers might find interesting at the expense of…material that contradicts [their] point of view” (p. 287). Yet they also state that “most of the accounts we analyzed were…by authors with predominantly commercial interests” (p. 287), by which they presumably mean authors or journalists writing “popular” books. They apparently did not find it necessary to analyze cases investigated and reported by authors with predominantly scientific interests.
Lange and Houran “recommend that investigators of ostensible paranormal events routinely verify that similarly labeled experiences indeed refer to the same phenomena” (p. 283). They (and some of their contributors) should have taken their own advice. No responsible parapsychologist would conflate “entity encounters” involving fairies, demons, or Men in Black (see, e.g., p. 280) with well-investigated cases of crisis apparitions; or the contagious psychogenic illusions described by Lange and Houran with some of the collectively seen apparitions investigated extensively a century ago; or feelings of unease, fear, or sense of presence in a reputedly haunted location with poltergeist cases showing strong evidence of phenomena not readily explainable by normal processes; or surveys of uninvestigated claims or beliefs of undergraduate students with the large body of experimental evidence for ESP or psychokinesis.
The limited and selected range of phenomena considered in many of the chapters does not prevent several authors from drawing some quite sweeping and astonishing conclusions. Persinger and Koren, for example, assert that “there is not a single case of haunt phenomena” that cannot be explained by electromagnetic or geomagnetic forces, by temporal lobe disturbances, or by normal psychological processes (p. 179). Persinger has also repeatedly claimed, both in this volume and in a long series of short papers, to have produced in his lab (primarily by transcranial electromagnetic stimulation of parietal, temporal, and limbic structures) such phenomena as sense of presence, mystical and religious experiences, and near-death experiences. His papers, however, fail to provide adequate description of either the methods or the phenomena actually produced, and the few descriptions that he does provide (in this volume, see pp. 191–192) bear little resemblance to published descriptions of the naturally occurring phenomena that he claims to have reproduced. Moreover, he seems not to have controlled methodologically for such potentially confounding conditions as suggestion, expectation, or other contextual factors. Other questionable claims by Persinger and Koren, such as that “areas that are prone to haunt phenomena cluster along fault lines or areas where tectonic strain accumulates,” that there is an “increased incidence of death or illness for people who have been near the area for protracted periods,” or that most apparitions are “reported within about three days of the death” of the person perceived, are essentially undocumented (p. 180).
Other authors clearly start from an assumption that all paranormal experiences are delusions. Brugger, for example, asserts that all claims of paranormal experience are the result of mistaken attribution of meaning to chance or random events (p. 196). In answer to the question of whether any claims of hauntings or poltergeists might involve an element of paranormality, “I firmly respond. No!” (p. 210). Similarly, Lange and Houran believe that all haunting and poltergeist cases are explainable as delusions triggered by ambiguous stimuli in the environment and shaped by cultural and psychological factors, such as attentional biases, tolerance of ambiguity, belief in the paranormal, and fear of the paranormal. Although in their one analysis of an actual case Lange and Houran state that “it is irrelevant for our purposes. . .what the actual causes of these [poltergeist] events were” (p. 290), they later conclude that such events are the result of “standard physiological and psychological processes,” especially “people’s inclination to suspect the presence of hidden information in random configurations” (pp. 294, 289). Readers should refer to Roll’s descriptions of actual poltergeist cases (pp. 123–149) or to other reliable literature to decide for themselves how “ambiguous” or “random” they believe the stimuli in many of these cases were.
In short, little tolerance of ambiguity is shown by the editors and some of the other authors in this volume. In fact, the issues surrounding reports of hauntings, poltergeists, and other parapsychological phenomena are far more complicated, both psychologically and parapsychologically, than they would have readers think. I have gone on at some length in this review (and I could have listed many more errors and misrepresentations), in part because the editors of this volume have published their views in two recent papers in this journal, and I hope to alert readers to the limitations of their perspective. But I also want to dispel any tendency readers might have to dismiss my review as simply a defense of parapsychology by another “believer.” The field of parapsychology has long been plagued with a too-rigid polarization between “believers” and “disbelievers”; those who have tried to steer a middle course and learn something reliable have too often been lost in the fray. Despite the editors’ representation of the book’s purpose as a juxtaposition of differing views (p. 3), the resulting volume is unfortunately just a continuation of this long trend of polarization. There is no real attempt to produce a balanced understanding of these phenomena—one that takes into account all the phenomena in question, and not just those selected to support an author’s position. As one contributor (Hufford) said, “the level of public discussion [of these phenomena] tends to be intellectually pretty poor” (p. 18). Despite its abundance of neurophysiological, mathematical, sociological, and psychological verbiage, this book does not raise that level.