Science of Souls: A Review of Mary Roach’s ‘Spook’

Written by Brittany Means

Spook (2005) by Mary Roach is a detailed investigation into cultural attitudes toward the idea of the afterlife. In her other books, such as Bonk (2008) and Stiff (2003), Roach takes a scientific approach to the subjects of sex and the life of cadavers, respectively. Spook is no different, which Roach conveys in the introduction when she writes, “[T]his is a book for people who would like very much to believe in a soul and in an afterlife for it to hang around in, but who have trouble accepting these things on faith” (14).

The first chapter of the book focuses on the trip that Roach took with Dr. Kirti Rawat, the director of the International Centre for Survival and Reincarnation Searches. Dr. Rawat travels to see Indian children who are rumored to be the reincarnation of recently deceased people. Roach experiences the ways that villagers she encounters think of reincarnation as fact, and states, “I’m not saying the events of these cases are untrue; I’m saying that no villager is likely to judge them with an especially critical eye or ear” (45). Roach’s attitude toward the subject matter contrasts with the attitudes of Dr. Rawat, who uses a scientific approach to a field that many of his colleagues write off as nonsense, and the villagers, who want so badly to believe that they are witnessing reincarnation that they fabricate evidence and give dramatized accounts. This contrast illustrates one of the reasons that studying the afterlife can be so difficult. Those who have blind faith in the supernatural do not want to contribute to a scientific discussion of the matter. They want only for others to believe as they do. Roach and Dr. Rawat took the villagers’ statements with a grain of salt, but did not attempt to dispel these attitudes.

Roach goes on to explore the history of attempts to observe the soul, which have been instigated through the use of scales, x-rays, a device called the “Snook tube” (113), and electrographs. The search for the soul led to the “discovery” of ectoplasm in 1914, the result of photographers’ attempts at capturing souls on film. Roach describes ectoplasm as “a link between life and afterlife, a mixture of matter and ether, physical and yet spiritual…that unfortunately photographed very much like cheesecloth” (124). The original medium who was observed “calling forth” ectoplasm was Eva C., a medium who would enter a trance and bring forth a matter which Roach notes one observer described by saying, “’That there stuff is just gauze!’” (126). It was eventually discovered that many mediums would simply swallow lengths of fabric and regurgitate them during sessions while someone took photographs during séances. Roach approaches this subject with amusement at the uproar that the phenomenon caused, while recognizing that it also increased skepticism toward paranormal studies in general.

Though ectoplasm proved to be a farce, séances continue to be a popular means of reaching out to the other side and are now held both privately and publicly, and even televised. Roach’s exploration into the world of mediums led her to enroll in a class on interacting with the spirit world. Her reaction to this class was that being a “successful” medium depends on the willingness of a client to buy into the process. She states,            “[P]eople who visit mediums and psychics are often strongly motivated or constitutionally inclined to believe that what is being said is relevant and meaningful with regard to them or a loved one” (178). Again, Roach conveys the frustration of scientifically approaching a subject which some believe is beyond logic. The willingness of mediums to humor those who want only to experience the excitement has created a roadblock in studying the afterlife. While they might otherwise offer insight into the world of the supernatural, these mediums have pushed it further into a world that scientists see as unworthy of exploration.

In the last chapter of the book, Roach reflects on all of her experiences throughout the various fields and states, “I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science” (294). Despite her experiences with the damage that blind faith can do to scientific progress, Roach still believes that some things perhaps are better off unknown. However, allowing any subject to be looked at without speculation allows for misconceptions and ignorance that might otherwise open the door to discovery and understanding. Belief in the afterlife, while a crutch for some, is a subject which could lead to a better grasp of what life is worth, and what it means to live and die.

Works Cited

Roach, Mary. Spook; Science Tackles the Afterlife. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. Print.

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