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BOOK INTERVIEWS
Mary Roach

author of Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Prior to writing these books, she wrote columns, essays, and feature articles for several national publications. Mary was a National Magazine Award Finalist in 1995, and in 1996 she took the American Engineering Association Media Award in the category General Interest Magazines. Mary is also a contributing editor at the science magazine Discover


RMP – Spook was very popular here at Rocky Mountain Paranormal, and we hope the book gets the sales it truly deserves.

M – Spook was a bit of a – you know the topic attracts sort of – not the WRONG person, but not your typical Mary Roach reader, so in order words it’s this weird sort of schizo blend of me and sort of a more spiritual crowd that found the book sort of irritating.

RMP – I’m curious…who is your typical readership?

M – People who liked Stiff…people who liked to read about things a little more tangible and scientific…they were a little frustrated by Spook because of the topic, because it’s maybe a tough read. I don’t know…it’s hard to explain. I don’t think Spook was necessarily the kind of book they expected.

RMP – I believe that Spook originated from a chapter you wrote in Stiff?

M – Yeah, actually two chapters. One was the one where I got interested in people ages ago actually opening up cadavers and trying to find the soul, to locate it as either this blob over here or this weird organ there, before we knew what the liver or pineal gland was for. I loved that blending of religion and science. Usually you don’t bring them together and use science to prove anything religious. Duncan MacDougall, he is also one of the people I came across, and I got intrigued by him and wanted to find out more.

RMP – You focused exclusively on the scientific search for the afterlife, which distances your book from a lot of the new age stuff that’s out there, thankfully. But it did make me wonder what kind of material was excluded because you disciplined yourself in that way. I remember you saying in another interview that there was material that didn’t go into Stiff that involved military use of cadavers during World War II…

M – Operation Mincemeat! If I included all the cultural stuff about belief in the afterlife, my God, it would be like fifty volumes because there’s an overwhelming amount out there. I needed the lens of science to focus it. There’s exorcism for example, which is fascinating…

RMP – There’s a book, all by itself!

M – Yeah! Good luck getting access! The Catholic church still performs exorcism.

RMP – Peter Underwood wrote an excellent book about that, which is unfortunately now out of print. Not a great deal has been done on the since.

M – What’s his name again?

RMP – Peter Underwood. He’s the United Kingdom’s foremost living ghost hunter, and very much the heir to Harry Price.

M – Oh really? That’s great! I went to Price’s lab and you know, he was this fantastic debunker, but he still wanted to find someone who was for real, weeding through the phonies but he had such an open mind. He really was a believer, and he wanted to find…you know, like at the end of the Helen Duncan book, he’s pretty much figured out that she’s regurgitating the stuff [ectoplasm] but I’m very excited about Rudy Schneider, I think he’s the real deal…you know, he just kept going, he had to show faith, I really liked him.

RMP – There’s a new biography of Price coming out in December by Richard Morris, which looks pretty interesting. Price underwent some controversy when there were claims that he faked some of the Borley Phenomena for his own personal profit.

M – Oh, really? I’m disappointed to hear that, because he was not going to let anyone pull the wool over his eyes, always figuring out “what kind of magicians are they”, what props are they sticking up their vagina, or whatever…he still had this core of belief and optimism, I’m so bummed to hear he might’ve faked some of that.

RMP – Well, he remains one of my heroes, and he was pretty much the first populist ghost hunter…

M – Yes, that’s true. Well, there was Houdini…

RMP – Houdini was more of a dedicatedly outright debunker though.

M – He wanted to find someone who could put him in touch with his mother. It seemed like part of the motivation for him was…it pissed him off that people were fraudulently profiting off this stuff. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was another one that just…you know, that whole incident with the Cottingley Fairies…

RMP – Yeah, the ladies that did that admitted they had fooled everybody including Conan Doyle, and then claimed at the end of their lives that they had actually been telling the truth all along.

M – The same as the Fox sisters, they said this is how we were doing it, being double-jointed and rapping on the floor – I forget exactly how she was doing i
t – but then recanted her admission.

RMP – It was supposedly her toe bones cracking against the floor.

M – That’s right. I believe they were paid to make a confession like that.

RMP – Changing gears, you spent some time in India researching reincarnation, which must have been a fascinating experience, but I got the impression from the book that there were some cultural differences that might have been frustrating.

M – It wasn’t really frustrating because I ended up just loving that period because…well the research itself is a little frustrating because it’s all hindsight and hearsay, so much “he-said-she-said”, and what you need is someone to get to these families right when the child starts talking and document exactly what the child says, and then go out and try to see if that fits with a past life. Sadly, that’s almost never done. It’s not “here’s a list of the things that the child said”. I don’t know what I expect from this research, but we’re not going to get “here it is on a platter, absolutely, verifiably real”, because obviously if that was out there then we would all know it.

RMP – Reincarnation is so prevalent in India and across that geographical region, but belief in it is not as widely held in the west.

M – No, and that is the aspect that Ian Steven is most uncomfortable with. And I asked Chick Tucker about that at the University of Virginia. He said, “Well, look at it this way… in India, in a rural village, when a child talks about a name, a house, an address, the name of someone who doesn’t exist, whatever, the parents think immediately ‘reincarnation!’ whereas here in the U.S. the parents will more likely say that he has an imaginary friend.” His point was that this may happen all the time in the west, but we are not brought up with that cultural construct of reincarnation. But that’s a valid point.

RMP – You spent some time with amateur ghost hunters, which is obviously what our own research group does. How impressed (or not) were you with their scientific standards? Did you find that they were doing valuable work?

M – The group that I went out with, the IGHS, their foundation was a little shaky in that I wasn’t sure…looking at the EMF meters, it’s really very hard to positively or negatively prove that they register spirit energy. The only thing that we know for sure is, they measure EMF. So I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that you can take this equipment and…maybe it does, because I called up the guy making the tri-field EMF meters that they market as a ghost-busting device right now, and I asked if he had any grounds for selling this piece of equipment, is there any evidence that you can use an EMF meter to detect the energy from a dead person? He said “No, but maybe they do.”

RMP – It’s quite a lucrative market, that’s for sure.

M – The gauss-meter guy was like, “I don’t want to be associated with this kind of work, I don’t want you to use my name or the name of my company.” He hated it. But the EMF guy, the people at Tri-Field, they have the right attitude, which is “Why would you turn down a whole market segment? If people want to use it, let them use it that way, who cares? We’ll sell more meters that way.”

RMP – It’s always been my opinion that parapsychology and astronomy are the only two sciences left where the guy in the street can make real and valuable contributions towards the expansion of that scientific frontier, and I think that collecting evidence and submitting it to the PhD research professionals is extremely useful. Our understanding of physics is not quite there yet, but I am convinced that there is some relationship between EMF fluctuations and paranormal activity, the questions is “What kind of relationship?”

M – Right. On the ship that I was on, I was asking about large pieces of metal because that can affect EMF readings just walking past them, affecting the gaussmeter because of residual magnets in the iron. There is so much that needs to be controlled, and I sometimes think that people who get involved in this as a weekend thing or whatever are not understanding the many different things that could be picked up by their equipment.

RMP– I think that’s a very valid point of view.

M – The bottom line is that it’s really fun to go to these places and really fun to look into this, and that’s why I wrote a book on this. I find it as intriguing as anyone else, and in a way I was uncomfortable because I felt like a bit of a pill, for stepping on beliefs, sometimes being a party pooper by pointing out large pieces of iron or whatever.

RMP – No doubt you did a lot of Internet-based research and came across some of the nutty theories out there. There are charts that purport to show the various stages of ghostly manifestations via orbs and all kinds of groundless rubbish.

M – I feel bad for people who are trying to seriously work in this field because they are sort of tainted by that.

RMP – There are definitely some interesting and militant personalities out there.

M – I wouldn’t want to have an argument with some of those people! First of all, I don’t ever want to get into an argument, I’m not a debunker. I really wanted to find the best possible evidence out there. It doesn’t mean the evidence we want is not out there, just that science is not at a point where it can do anything with it.

RMP – Precisely, like trying to explain the Internet to somebody from the 1800s.

M – That’s exactly right, and I think it’s terrible to say “There’s nothing to it.” People who look down on people for believing in an afterlife and believing in spirit energy…that’s an extreme, and I find it frustrating. It’s this huge mystical and unknown thing. I mean, I can’t even fathom quantum mechanics!

RMP – The saying is that if you think you understand quantum mechanics then you haven’t understood it.

M – Yeah, and I hear string theory is on the way out, which is good because I’ll never understand it.

RMP – I must have been out of school on the day that was taught. <laughs>

M – You’re lucky. <laughing>

RMP – The amateur teams are gathering good data that scientists may be able to make use of in the future.

M – It’s such a huge field, there’s so many groups…like three in each state? There’s a wide range of quality out there, both of people and of work.

RMP – An open mind is very important for this kind of work.

M – I very much agree. I think that my approach is always to have fun with something, and to some extent I didn’t realize what I was getting into with this topic because it is something that people hold very dear to their hearts, and my books use a lot of humor which, if I had been thinking about it, I should have realized might offend some people. So many people have said to me…I lost my husband last year, and I had read so many things about people making contact, and I tried so hard, tried to keep my mind open, tried to do whatever I could, and nothing came through, and some people feel like this is something we should all be able to do, like opening up the refrigerator and taking out the orange juice, you should be able to open up the channel and chat with your husband. The sheer number of people claiming to be psychics and claiming to be having chit-chats with people in the beyond, people read that and they think, “Well why can’t I do it?” They feel like they’ve failed.

RMP – Going back to the subject of Dr. Duncan McDougall, the guy who weighed deathbed patients trying to find that elusive twenty-one grams, do you think that he was onto something or following a scientific dead end?

M – There was a guy who read about McDougall and tried to do his own experiment using sheep. Strangely enough, the sheep across the board registered a weight gain, briefly. A brief jump in their weight, I forget the number of grams. I said to him, “Wow, what could that be?” He had no idea. I think it means that when people die, their spirits go into sheep! <laughs>

RMP – As good a theory as any I’ve heard! But seriously, I would guess somebody of a religious nature would say that sheep don’t have souls to begin with?

M – That’s true. There was a very odd guy who self-published a book where he was trying to essentially do what McDougall did. Another guy wrote a proposal that used quantum theory. So who knows?

RMP – You have written one of the few books (and we at RMPRS have read a lot of the literature in this field) that highlights the fact that there is no government money going into this research field at all. Arguably the most important scientific mystery of all time, and there is no official funding!

M – That’s right, there’s no money. Well, Gary Schwartz gets a bit of money, but that’s to study alternative healing. At the University of Virginia, there is some research going into the survival of the personality after death. Academics are very wary of wandering into parapsychology because of the reactions of their colleagues. At one University I  visited (the name is being excised at Mary’s request), after I went to visit, they got a new president of the University, and he told the department in question that they must not talk to the media about their work. It was really too bad, because this was a cardiology department had actually gotten involved, and I mean, why not do it? It doesn’t cost much money, where’s the harm? Why the hell not do it?

RMP – I loved the chapter where you attended the English “school for mediums”.

M – They didn’t, I’m sure!

RMP – What’s your take on the prevalence of the “psychic medium” in the modern media? We have all these TV shows now, a glut of books on the subject…what do you make of all that?

M – My take on it is a little uncomfortable when something is so prevalent in the media, it develops its own aura of truth just because “well there wouldn’t be all these shows if there wasn’t something to it, right?” I think some of them do have a gift, I’m not saying they don’t, but people accept it as given when there are still a lot of questions. I mean, it could be that this woman was in touch with my mother, I just wish people would not be so hasty to make up their minds based on “iffy” evidence, and that the massive presence in the media has eroded the healthy sense of…and when I say skeptic, I don’t mean it as in “debunker”, I mean it as in “well that’s theory, and maybe that’s what it is and maybe it isn’t”.

RMP – You mentioned Gary Schwartz, a man who studied alleged psychic mediums in his lab. The few mediums who have been agreed to be tested under laboratory conditions have not performed spectacularly well, have they?

M – No, not statistically. The data doesn’t suggest that they are getting information paranormally. If you’re doing a double-blind, where the person is looking at four readings and doesn’t know which one is intended for him or her…but Gary focused on…there were a couple that did get a higher hit rate. My impression of people who do psychic work or medium work is that they can’t just switch it on and use it like plugging in a light, it’s more something that comes and goes and is not something they can control. So stick it in a laboratory and it’s bound to not perform very well. Maybe they’re having an off-day or maybe feeling pressure. You can’t use it as a tool to say “Oh, I’m going to check in on my husband and see where he is right now.” Putting it in a lab might not be the best way to do it, and perhaps that’s why the results are disappointing.

RMP – You also covered the subject of EVP, which is a fascinating area. We live in a world now where recording media of all kinds have never been more widespread, you know, twenty bucks at Wal-mart buys you an MP3 recorder, most cell-phones have cameras, what do you make of EVP as a phenomenon…is there legitimacy to it? And with so many cameras around, why are we not seeing a greater number of inexplicable ghost photographs?

M – I think very few people know how to go about getting EVPs. It’s still a very small fragment of the population knows what it is. With cameras, most people don’t interpret things as inexplicable…they don’t tend to see everything unusual in a picture as paranormal.

RMP – You went to Dr. Michael Persinger’s Consciousness Research Lab and tried on his…what does he call it… the “God Helmet”?

M – He had a big multi-syllabic name for it, so jargon-heavy I forget it. I tried it on, and that was really interesting, that whole lobe of temporal lobe and partial lobe epilepsy. Very subtle micro-seizures that happen to people, causing odd inexplicable effects.  Fascinating!

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