Many years ago, starting out a new job in a new city, a good friend and I moved into an apartment together to save on rent. On moving day, we got all the boxes indoors, dug out the necessities for the night, ate carry-out on the bare floor, and passed out for the night. Neither of us so much as got up to go to the bathroom until morning. And yet when we blearily emerged and went into the living room, we found all the windows covered in dewy condensation, unsullied…except for a clear and unmistakable handprint right in the middle of one pane. On the inside.
In Spook, Mary Roach traces highlights in Western history chronicling creepy happenings and stories, fraudulent mediums, and genuine scientific inquiry into the existence of ghosts, a measurable soul, and other phenomena that might seem to share some indication of what might happen when we die. Most of them are a little more dramatic than my apartment haunting, and a good number of them are downright bizarre. While I definitely knew the stories of mediums faking ghostly knocks or “levitating” tables, I had not encountered the records of gifted people who cleverly executed their crafts by smuggling anything from baby rabbits to “ectoplasm” in their vaginas. I imagine at least a few readers have crossed their legs at this point, but I still urge you to try this book.
Having mostly read Roach’s work in short form in the back copies of Reader’s Digest at my grandmother’s house, I was expecting more rapid-fire humor and was pleasantly surprised to find solid research and storytelling along with the dry wit commentary and clever turns of phrase. Roach digs up historical documents and significant items, interviews researchers and witnesses, and even joins gamely in on some experiments and lessons herself. She is honest about her skeptical nature but never comes across as condescending towards those who might believe, often validating the recorded experiences while offering scientific explanations that have since come to light. She never seems to think that any of the people were stupid for coming to the conclusions they did given the information they had, even if the light of hindsight makes it all seem terribly obvious now.
Speaking of which, closer inspection showed that the handprint on the window was the exact size of my hand. We figured I had learned on the glass when peeking out at the neighborhood and the sweat and oils from moving had prevented the condensation from forming on that spot overnight. In the following years in the apartment, we had no more eerie occurrences and learned to appreciate the value of a dehumidifier. Despite the lower level of research involved, I like to think Mary Roach would approve.