Paranormal Book Review: “The Science of Ghosts” by Joe Nickell

When I purchased Joe Nickell’s The Science of Ghosts had no knowledge of the author or his previous body of work. It turns out that Nickell is a well-known skeptic who’s published several books covering everything from apparitions to UFOs. He also writes for the Skeptical Inquirer.

In The Science of Ghosts, Nickell dismisses mediums and psychics, as well as various paranormal phenomenon like premonitions, spirit photography, and automatic writing. He also examines, and debunks, several famous hauntings which is what I found most interesting.

The Truth About Ghosts?
Nickell offers a variety of explanations for so-called ghostly experiences. For example, he argues that bedside apparitions are the product of “waking dreams” and that spirits seen during waking hours are mental images briefly projected from the subconscious mind. Other experiences, he argues, can easily be attributed to hallucinations, misperceptions, pranks, or flat-out trickery.

Ghost Tales as Folklore
In The Science of Ghosts, Nickell also notes the human propensity to exaggerate or invent spooky stories. He cites several legends in which a tragic figure is said to haunt a castle, lighthouse, or old mansion despite no evidence of the person’s existence or the events said to befall them. All it takes is a creepy legend and the power of suggestion, Nickell says, for people to start seeing ghosts.

I found this argument particularly intriguing as it’s something I’ve noticed as well. For example, the legend of Anna, of the 17Hundred90 Inn, is perhaps the most famous ghost tale in Savannah. However, there’s no historical record of her. There’s also no record of a jilted bride at the Adolphus Hotel, an Effie at the Skirvin Hotel, or a Susie at the Thomas-Carithers sorority house. In each of these stories, a young woman allegedly committed suicide in a shocking, public way, yet there’s no record of the women or their shocking demise. It seems many so-called true ghost stories are the stuff of legend and folklore rather than fact.

On the whole, I enjoyed Nickell’s book even though he refutes the existence of ghosts and refers to paranormal writers like myself as “credulous ghost mongers.” Nickell’s arguments raise a lot of interesting points even if they do take the fun out of spooky tales. What do you think of the author’s arguments?