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Authors: Steve Volk

Fringe-ology

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FRINGE-OLOGY

HOW I TRIED TO EXPLAIN AWAY THE
UNEXPLAINABLE—AND COULDN'T

Steve Volk

To my parents, Gerald and Joanne Volk,
for absolutely everything.

Or: Why we can't even agree on just what it is we're discussing

My point is not that religion itself is the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but that religion is the principal label, and the most dangerous one, by which a “they” as opposed to a “we” can be identified at all.

—Richard Dawkins, “Time to Stand Up”

It's cramped and irrational to say that there is no God—and premature. Because we are pathetically ignorant of the universe.

—Martin Amis

People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?

—Rodney King

We have been sitting in the dark for hours. I am on the outside of a circle of a half-dozen strangers, reclining on the thick carpeting of a suburban home, watching the silhouette of a hulking man with a digital audio recorder. We are waiting, and listening, for some proof of a ghostly presence in the room. And I, for one, am not optimistic. I've come here with Lou Gentile, a well-known figure within the murky realms of ghost hunting. And so far, we have found nothing to confirm what this family in central New Jersey has told us: they tell us about strange rappings, jiggling doorknobs, and an occasional bang in the basement. We have heard nothing of the kind. But more than that, we both think the vibe this family gives off is strange enough without the additive of spirits.

The family patriarch, who I'll refer to here as “Paul,” moves with the disassociated air of a ghost himself. He is a quiet, intense divorcé who seems to rule over his girlfriend and son with his ominous silences. Like me, he has recently lost a parent—in this case, his father. And while his family seems to maintain an appropriate skepticism, he clearly wants to believe.

Earlier, he showed Gentile a series of odd photos, including one that displayed what appeared to be a large, jagged light in his bedroom. He seemed happy when Gentile told him he wasn't sure what kind of camera defect might produce that anomaly. “It could be a defect,” Gentile told him, “but I haven't seen one quite like this.”

Paul also showed us a video he made in the basement, which was about as interesting, aesthetically, as might be expected. The static image he captured was mostly darkness, with the outline of a weight bench in the middle ground and still more darkness fanning out behind it. Every few seconds, however, a ping echoed in the room. “The sound is probably distorted by the condenser microphone on your camera,” Gentile told him. “But it's worth investigating.”

Gentile sent me down to the basement at that point, to sit in the dark. And though I was suitably scared for a minute or so, it quickly became clear to me that the “mysterious noises” Paul drew our attention to were produced by nothing more spectral than the air conditioning ducts that cut back and forth across the ceiling. I reported my findings to Gentile, who expected as much. “It doesn't mean nothing is happening here,” he told Paul. “But the sounds on the video are just produced by your air conditioning unit.”

Paul, sitting cross-legged on the floor, looked distraught. Gentile readied his little digital recorder and asked Paul to turn off all the lights in the house. Hours passed. Gentile asked questions into the darkness, then played back the audio, listening for ghostly responses. Believers call this “electronic voice phenomenon.” I considered it a kind of investigative dead end, a series of unintelligible, scratchy noises that could easily have been produced by the recorder itself—the sounds occasionally coalescing by chance into a snatch that could be mistaken for a word or maybe even a phrase. On this night, Gentile didn't seem particularly impressed by the results either. So to shake things up, he invited everyone in the circle to take turns asking questions. When it was Paul's turn, he knelt down in front of the recorder and asked the only question of the dark that could be expected from a grieving son: “Are you my father?”

Gentile's recorder captured no response.

F
OR MANY PEOPLE, AND
especially hard-core skeptics, all the paranormal ever amounts to is the wishful thinking of the grieving. By this time, however, I already knew better. I had been out with Gentile on more than a half-dozen investigations, and while much of what we saw and heard could be easily tracked to some earthly origin, some couldn't. Further, while some of the self-proclaimed witnesses seemed to like the idea of ghosts in their houses, others were hoping Gentile might find some prosaic explanation. This in and of itself should not come as much of a surprise. If all our strange experiences could be explained so easily as a simple mishmash of wishful thinking and creaking floorboards, we'd have no need of the word
paranormal
. But we do. Paranormal experiences have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. And they don't seem inclined to go away any time soon.

In fact, just on the subject of spirits, researcher and folklorist Lionel Fanthorpe announced in 2010 that ghost sightings were at their highest point in twenty-five years. We continue to be inundated with tales of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), and some of the accounts could fuel a feature film: Winston Churchill supposedly quashed a dramatic UFO report, fearing a public panic; famous U.K. computer hacker Gary McKinnon went poking around in NASA's mainframe for evidence of alien spacecraft, evidence that he claims he found; but alas, he had no time to download the telltale photograph before his connection was cut off by an angry American government.

But the question we need to ask going forward is, What exactly are we talking about when we talk about the paranormal? I could, in fact, fill endless pages with odd, tantalizing stories. Did you hear the one about the cab drivers on the Solomon Islands? In the fall of 2008 they started complaining about picking up passengers who acted completely normal until they disappeared suddenly from the backseat. And they never did pay their fares. In the coming pages, I write about near-death experiences (NDEs), mental telepathy, quantum consciousness, UFOs, a mystic astronaut, ghost hunting, and a pair of scientists doing their level best to study aspects of human experience often derided as paranormal. But this book is about more than any of these things. This is a book about us.

We live in a world of false certainties: Whether we are discussing politics, religion, or economics, when we flip on our televisions or open our Web browsers to a news site, we encounter the often strongly held opinions of others—opinions that lead us into a series of binary choices: conservative or liberal, believer or atheist, capitalist or socialist. My argument, simply, is that these are false choices—that there are middle paths that bear more fruit. But unfortunately, as we'll see in the pages of this book, it is human nature and an automatic function of the brain to frame conflicting worldviews in extreme terms of right and wrong, good and evil, rational and irrational. And I would argue that this kind of Us Versus Them thinking is perhaps best and most readily seen in debates about the paranormal.

The word
paranormal
is itself a kind of victim of human psychology, too often conflated with
supernatural
: “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe”;
especially:
“of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil.” Paranormal
, conversely, can be and often is defined in far broader and more scientifically useful terms: “of or pertaining to events or perceptions occurring without scientific explanation.” In fact,
Webster's Third New International Dictionary
defines
paranormal
as “beyond the range of scientifically known or recognizable phenomena.” If we take these definitions, the supernatural seems to force us toward religion, while the paranormal merely forces us to say, “I don't know.” There should be no shame in that, but I think the faithful too often want to equate their beliefs with knowledge, while the skeptics fear that admitting a lack of a final answer opens the door to all manner of hoo ha, including God. The skeptics also tend to view the words
supernatural
and
paranormal
as if they are easily interchangeable, but whereas the supernatural seems to lie firmly beyond science, the paranormal waits patiently for the technology and the willing scientists necessary for its discovery
.

Whether we consider God in this equation or not, such a definition of paranormal as simply representing the unknown is striking because it encompasses a whole variety of phenomena we don't normally consider paranormal, like the placebo effect. It is beyond strange that people experience healing effects after being fed a useless sugar pill, but it happens. Researchers have pinned the cause to belief, but the exact mechanism of how belief in the efficacy of a medicine not actually administered leads to a reduction of asthma symptoms, for instance, remains unknown. Pharmaceutical companies are hoping to figure it all out, because incredibly, the placebo effect is getting stronger and no one is sure why. Is the placebo effect paranormal? Or belief? Hypnotism is another example of a phenomenon we don't normally talk about when we talk about the paranormal. And unlike the placebo effect, some skeptics try to deny hypnosis even exists, attributing its effects to the “power of suggestion.” There is reason for us to want to bury hypnotists in a great big hole: if careful procedures aren't followed, recovered memories are often false, and people have been wrongfully prosecuted based on “evidence” gleaned from hypnosis. But there are numerous, well-documented cases of hypnotism causing incredible relief from pain. Hypnotism has been dramatically effective in controlling the pain of surgery and childbirth. So if hypnotism isn't real, something dramatic is still occurring under that name. And scientists, again, have thus far failed to explain what it is or precisely how it works. Is hypnotism paranormal?

It is time for us to broaden our minds, lift the stigma from the word
paranormal,
and instead see the opportunities these odd stories present for us: in terms of science, the pursuit of the paranormal has propelled civilization toward some of its most important advancements. The study of alchemy—the power to transmute lead into gold—gave rise to modern chemistry. Francis Aston used the predictions of two occultists, which proved a springboard to discovering the isotope—a link long omitted from scientific textbooks. And then there is Hans Berger, who sought a physical mechanism for psychic events and landed on electricity as the answer. Berger invented the electroencephalogram, or EEG, to measure theretofore unheard-of electrical activity in the brain—and provided the foundation of modern neuroscience. In short, what is today seen as wacky often leads to tomorrow's progress. But in seeing the paranormal as grounds for investigation rather than argument, there is another, more immediate benefit we might get: to reconnect, each to the other, in a shared understanding that we are enjoined in a common predicament. At the most fundamental level of reality, we are fellow travelers stuck to the hull of a rock floating through space, without final answers to the questions that are traditionally most important to us:
What happens when we die? Is there a god? Are we alone in the universe? Why are we here?

All we really know, in an epistemological sense, is that we
are
going to die. How nice. This is the existential reality of the human condition. But the paranormal potentially offers us answers. Because if ghost stories are merely folk tales, the product of overactive imaginations trying to deal with the existential angst of human experience, as skeptics maintain, they are worth writing down as documents of our innermost selves. And if some aspects of the paranormal prove to be real, as mystics contend, then we will have made a discovery worth inventing new words for—a discovery of
ginormous
proportions. Toward the end of this book, in fact, we'll find that such a discovery—a couple such discoveries—have perhaps already been made. As a result, I argue, taking the paranormal seriously means we gain a greater understanding of the world, regardless of the outcome. People have reported anomalous experiences since literally the beginning of recorded history. Plato told the story of Er, a soldier who awoke upon his own unlit funeral pyre, descended from that stack of sticks and spoke of a trip into the afterlife. President Abraham Lincoln famously dreamt of his own assassination. Coincidence, or did the president really see it coming? Psychiatrists Colin Ross and Shaun Joshi claim paranormal experiences are so common throughout the population that psychology must account for them in order to be comprehensive.

It is time we take a firm accounting of these stories. And I have my own reasons for conducting this research. I am, of course, interested in the fundamental questions of our existence, expressed in the deep panic of an existential crisis:
whyarewehere? arewealone? whathappenswhenwedie?
But the source of my interest is also more particularized.

I have made my living as a reporter for a dozen years now. And standard operating procedure for any journalist is to play the paranormal for laughs. Reporters assigned to Halloween “ghost hunt” stories go out with a local crew of amateur ghost seekers. They spend a couple of hours in a supposedly haunted location. Nine times out of ten nothing remotely unexplainable happens, and the reporter files a story that pokes gentle fun at the “real-life ghostbusters” who interpret every dip in temperature as a disembodied spirit. But I can't write that story, or at least I can't write that story in good conscience.

My own family passed a series of ghost stories on to me, stories they swore to be true. And I have my own memories of the events they describe. I remember the banging noises, for instance, that sounded like something was trying to hack its way in through the roof. I remember my older brother throwing his hands on top of his head and staring up at the ceiling in dismay. I remember my sisters claiming that their bed covers had been jerked from them, violently, as if by invisible hands.

BOOK: Fringe-ology
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