October 25, 2009

The United States of Spooks and Spirits

By Daniel Stashower
Sunday, October 25, 2009
The Washington Post

THE HAUNTING OF AMERICA: From the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini
By William J. Birnes and Joel Martin
Forge. 400 pp. Paperback, $14.99

OCCULT AMERICA: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation
By Mitch Horowitz
Bantam. 290 pp. $27

"And how do you explain this? A man's heart stops beating in a hospital and he sees a blinding light that doesn't frighten him, but fills him with an indescribable feeling of peace..."

If those words -- the come-on from an old Time-Life Books "Mysteries of the Unknown" commercial -- get your juices flowing, you're not alone. America's fascination with spiritualism, the belief in the possibility of communication with the spirits of the dead, dates back to colonial times. Though Ralph Waldo Emerson once disparaged these beliefs as the "rat hole of revelation," spiritualism and its allied branches of the occult, such as theosophy and other so-called "secret teachings," have always found a rich breeding ground on these shores. Our ancestors gathered around seance tables to listen for ghostly raps and phantom voices. These days we scratch the itch by turning on John Edward and the Psychic Friends Network.

Two new books -- one by Mitch Horowitz and the other from the writing team of William J. Birnes and Joel Martin -- attempt to explain our fascination with the occult and provide a sense of historical context. In "Occult America," Horowitz recalls how, at the age of 9, he purchased an astrological star scroll from a vending machine at his local diner. "Look what it says!" he announced to his family, as he read through a series of vague, horoscope-style predictions. His enthusiasm drew a deflating response from his grandfather: "Does it also say you're a sucker?" But Horowitz would not be put off. "While I didn't yet know the lines from Hamlet -- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy -- I felt their meaning in my guts," he tells us. "Where did this stuff come from . . . and how did it reach Queens?"

It's a question well worth asking. Horowitz begins with a working definition of the occult as a movement that "encompassed a wide array of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an 'unseen world' whose forces act upon us and through us." He draws a careful distinction between the strivings of European occultists such as Aleister Crowley, who hoped to acquire superhuman knowledge and power, and their American counterparts, who "sought to remake mystical ideas as tools of public good and self-help."

To illustrate the point, Horowitz teases out fascinating stories of the "dreamers and planners who flourished along the Psychic Highway," such as Andrew Jackson Davis, the "Poughkeepsie Seer" who delivered lectures and even dictated books on metaphysical subjects while in a trance, or "magnetized" state, and Frank B. Robinson, a "Mail Order Messiah" who offered lessons in affirmative thinking under the headline "I Talked with God." In showing how the paths of these figures occasionally intersected with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Horowitz argues that the influence of the occult extends beyond the seance room and into the mainstream of American thought.

Horowitz is at his best when he dips into some of the more homespun manifestations of psychic belief. A chapter called "Don't Try This at Home" explores the surprisingly convoluted history of the Ouija board -- a staple of generations of basement creep-outs -- on which spirit messages are spelled out by means of a heart-shaped pointer, or planchette. A Ouija board found its way into a Norman Rockwell painting, and when Parker Brothers began mass-producing a home version of the "Talking Board Set" in the 1960s, its success soon rivaled that of Monopoly. It's fascinating to be reminded that this beloved, if strange, parlor game began as a tool of American spiritualists who "yearned to make talking with the dead as natural as dinnertime conversation."

Ultimately, Horowitz seeks to demystify the occult, especially as expressed through modern New Age thinking, and present it as something more than "a softheaded jumble of spiritual-therapeutic remedies or bromides." Not every reader will agree, but all will be entertained.

"The Haunting of America" covers much of the same ground as "Occult America," but with a particular focus on ghostly apparitions and spirit contacts. Authors William J. Birnes (host of The History Channel's "UFO Hunters" program) and Joel Martin set an ambitious pace, kicking off with a lengthy introduction that touches on ancient Mesopotamia, the lost city of Atlantis and the riddle of the pyramids. They give a lively account of the Salem witch trials and the influential mediumship of the Fox sisters in Hydesville, N.Y., but many readers will find themselves wishing for a bit more in the way of healthy skepticism. Early on the authors pause to ask: "Did outer space visitors many millennia ago play a role here on Earth? Are they the 'gods' the ancients referred to in their writings?" If, like me, you greet such statements with a certain amount of eye-rolling, this book is not for you.

At the same time, Birnes and Martin appear to have been selective in their research. Although Harry Houdini's name appears in the title, none of the major biographies of the escape artist are listed in the book's 15-page bibliography, not even the cornerstone treatment by Pulitzer winner Kenneth Silverman. Instead, we find a picture book and a biography for young readers -- both of which are excellent, admittedly, but neither of which sits at the pinnacle of the available scholarship. The effect of these omissions is keenly felt as the authors explore Houdini's tempestuous friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who famously embraced spiritualism in later life. As Birnes and Martin relate, the relationship between the two men reached a breaking point during an ill-fated seance in Atlantic City, when Conan Doyle's wife produced a highly suspect spirit message from Houdini's dead mother. In their retelling of the event, however, the "Christian allusions" in the message brought Houdini to such a pitch of anger that he "exploded in rage" and "unleashed a volley of insults": "She's Jewish, you imbecile, as am I!"

Well . . . that's not how I heard it. There have been dozens of accounts of this episode written over the years, and two books that focus exclusively on the relationship between the two men, but I don't recall seeing the "you imbecile" outburst in any of them. (Full disclosure: My own two books on Conan Doyle are cited in the bibliography.) In every version I've seen, Houdini keeps his composure in spite of his grave misgivings about the message, owing to his great respect for Conan Doyle. Only later, when the two men failed to reconcile their opposing views of what had transpired, did the friendship unravel. Am I making too much of a trifle? Perhaps, but as Sherlock Holmes once remarked, "There is nothing so important as trifles." Readers seeking a more balanced approach to psychic matters are directed to Horowitz. All others, keep watching the skies.

Daniel Stashower is the author of "Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle," and a co-editor of Conan Doyle's collected letters.