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Book Review Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life, by Dennis Waskul with Michele Waskul

Publication Details: 
Temple University Press, ISBN: 978-1439912898.
Publish date: 
June, 2016

Reviewed by Gerhard Mayer

At first glance, the title of the book under review does not arise the interest of a scientist. There is a vast number of small volumes about encounters with ghosts. However, the first author, Dennis Waskul, of this field and interview study is an established academic, an American professor of sociology. Waskul has not the average profile of an academic sociologist with regard to his research topics including studies on “nudity and nakedness (…), the social and cultural significance of smell and odour (…), going to the bathroom (…), the processes by which women discover their clitoris (…), and lying and deceitfulness (…), just to name a few” (p. 129). A passion for unconventional, somewhat disreputable, topics deviating from the mainstream might have led him to the “ghost issue”.

The author's openness is evident: his field study lasted about two years and included visitations to several haunted places. He also conducted no less than 64 interviews. With a comparative analysis, he generated a phenomenology of types of ghostly apparitions. Furthermore, Waskul analysed structures of argumentation and language strategies which are used to understand and convey extraordinary experiences. The main aim of his study was “to understand the persistence of uncanny experiences and beliefs in an age of reason, science, education, and technology and how those beliefs and experiences reflect and serve important social and cultural functions” (p. 5). 

The book consists of five main chapters with short case vignettes in between, and an appendix on methodology and data gathering. The first chapter, The Trouble with Ghosts, includes cultural critical considerations about the society’s dealing with ghosts or persons concerned by ghostly or poltergeist experiences. Despite a rather high prevalence of such experiences the latter are marginalized by science and religious authorities and run the risk of getting stigmatized. The author notes: “the evangelical Christian and the radical empirist scientist share a bed when it comes to absolute and certain belief structures, and they are among the least likely to believe in things like ghosts” (p. 17).  

The second chapter, Ghostly Reason, deals with the attempts of the persons concerned to understand their experiences and to integrate them into their world view. This is not an easy task for many because their socialization and cultural environment often provide no support. Waskul appropriately differentiates between “belief in something” and “belief that something happened or exists” (p. 28). The first concerns fix ideas of beliefs which don’t have to be experience-based, and the second is based on an experience. The strive for confirmation of ideas of belief is apparent in an interview: “I don’t really belief in ghosts, but sometimes everything comes together so perfectly that you just believe in it.” (p. 38). Eventually it becomes very clear that an apparition, or better: the experience of an apparition is a process and not a self-evident simple perceptual event. Not before “everything comes together”, that is, several things happen that seem to be meaningfully connected a ghost interpretation is considered: “the process by which uncanny events become ghosts is a highly individualized and contextual process of actualization” (p. 40).  

The third chapter, Ghostly Topology, provides a classification of “ghost experiences” which is purely based on his own data. At this point I realized that Waskul wrote this book without any knowledge of the thematically relevant literature. The few scientific references he provides are from the field of folklore. Thus, he writes in the following chapter that folklorists “... are the only scholars to have amassed a significant body of research on ghosts” (p. 117). In the appendix he admits: “I am unaware of any empirical study that examines reported first hand experiences with ghosts” (p. 150). Therefore, he missed a “whole continent” of research in this field (e.g., Gurney et al., 1886; Sidgwick et al., 1894; Green & McCreery, 1975).

Since Waskul did not know the common concepts and classifications he provides his own suggestions, which rudimentarily can be assigned to person-related and place-related recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis (RSPK) or haunting. However, a consequence of Waskul’s free-of-theory approach emerges at this point. Because his classification is purely based on the interpretations of the persons concerned, which are generally based on culturally transmitted patterns of interpretation, there is an overrepresentation of place-related haunting incidences, whereas the most frequent cases for parapsychological counselling centres, person-related RSPK, do not occur at all. An interpretation of RSPK phenomena and experiences as an externalization of implied psychical tensions in a family system, for instance, requires a respective (self-)reflexive dealing with the experiences. Hardly anyone easily relates the RSPK occurrences with his/her own psychodynamic difficulties. In addition to his classification of four kinds of hauntings Waskul differentiates six forms of ghosts: “apparitions”, “phantasms”, wraiths”, “poltergeists”, “spectres”, and “phantoms”. Although this differentiation is reasonable and understandable to some extent it is not easily compatible with existing conceptions. Thus, he characterizes “poltergeists” as being almost exclusively place-related, and extremely long-lasting (pp. 77f). This clearly deviates from the findings of parapsychological research. This third chapter is certainly the weakest of the book, although it includes interesting case examples for illustration. 

Chapter 4, Ghostly Legends, provides some enlightening considerations about the emergence of ghost legends, which can have serious implications, as the author shows by means of the example of Loon Lake Cemetery, which became well-known as a “paranormal hot spot”. It is connected with the legend of an allegedly decapitated young witch who is buried on that cemetery. The heavy metal group Megadeth wrote a song about this witch legend, and henceforth Loon Lake Cemetery became a great attraction for the goth scene and fans of horror (with disastrous consequences for the location). Although the legend is an invention, and the allegedly decapitated young woman verifiable died of diphtheria in another state, she got a sort of a reality status because “things defined as real are real in their consequences” (p. 112). Therefore, Waskul emphasizes how important it is to protect not only the anonymity of persons but also of places.  

With the last chapter, Ghostly Speculations, Waskul makes more general considerations about ghosts, and their epistemic and ontological relativity. Here, too, he presents himself as careful, self-reflexive, and critical of his scientific colleagues who easily and quickly tend to worm their way out of inconvenient ontological problems. Waskul took the risk to become affected by the subject of his research without losing his scientific distance. However, although the book is readable Waskul appears to be oblivious of the relevant scientific literature. This defect, however, cannot exclusively be held against the author. It is rather a general structural nuisance, parapsychological research and anomalistics are often excluded from the academic scientific discourse.   

References

Green, C., & McCreery, C. (1975). Apparitions. London: Hamilton.
Gurney, E., Myers, F. W. H., Podmore, F., & Sidgwick, H. (1886). Phantasms of the Living. London: Society for Psychical
   Research.
Sidgwick, H., Johnson, A., Myers, F. W. H.; Podmore, F.; Sidgwick, E. M. (1894). Report on the
   Census of Hallucinations. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 10, 25-422.