UNBELIEVABLE: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from

by Jacquelyn Lewis

Ghost stories paired with scientific research will send shivers up your spine.

It’s easy to dismiss ghost stories as pure fiction, but, from 1930 to 1980, they were the subject of serious study at Duke University. Helmed by J.B. Rhine—to paranormal research what Alfred Kinsey was to sex—the lab at the heart of Stacy Horn’s Unbelievable experimented in “parapsychology,” a moniker intended to avoid the hoaxes associated with the “paranormal.” As Horn, a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered, tells it, the psych research, with its funding battles and ego clashes, is just as fascinating as the ghouls. (One particularly lurid scene involves Mina Crandon, a Boston medium whose 1920s séances culminated in an alleged “ectoplasmic emission”—said to be the hand of her dead brother—emerging from her nether-regions.) It’s not a coincidence that a rise in belief in telepathy followed the popularization of the radio; people figured that “if you could send sound invisibly through the air, it didn’t seem unthinkable that our minds could tune in to the voices of the dead.” The studies—of telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and pyschokinesis—employed scientific methods in order to legitimize their findings, attracting the attention of boldface names like Carl Sagan, Jackie Gleason, Pearl S. Buck, Albert Einstein, and Richard Nixon. Famous cases covered include that of the Maryland boy who inspired The Exorcist, but best are the letters from average citizens concerned about their otherworldly experiences. “What they wanted was validation and an explanation,” Horn writes. And some of the explanations here, backed by scientific fact, will send shivers up readers’ spines.

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