SPOOK: SCIENCE TACKLES THE AFTERLIFE by Mary Roach

I have always been a sucker for haunted houses. This time of year, I can easily be swayed into watching one of those Travel Channel specials about the Top Ten Spookiest Truck Stops (or what have you). I have even been on a couple of ghost tours (alas, to no avail, although it was interesting to learn about the pirate history of a small North Carolina town and to see the winding passages of the Winchester Mystery House). Despite the fun I take in these things, I would probably describe myself as a skeptic when it comes to haunted houses, albeit a light one. I have fun pretending I believe, and I like to keep an open mind, but it would be nice to have some proof.

This made me very excited to read Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach, a writer who has made a name for herself by following her insatiable curiosity down the most minutiae-laden rabbit holes. When I first picked up this book, I admit that I was a little daunted by the task: I didn’t necessarily want to confront mortality in a deeply existential way to get my Halloween kicks. Fortunately for me, this book manages to be a lighthearted and fun trip through some of science’s more bizarre chapters. Roach’s aim is not to prove (or disprove) the existence of the afterlife or the soul, but rather to highlight the quirky, surreal, and oftentimes pretty gross ways that people throughout history have tried to. As Roach says in her introduction, “It’s a giggly, random, utterly earthbound assault on our most ponderous unanswered question.”

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The best part of this book is Roach herself. She is definitely a roll-up-her-sleeves kind of writer, and she takes you along as she chases down every lead. The book is even filled with footnotes, allowing the reader to decide just how far they want to immerse themselves in these topics: in a couple of cases, the text of the book had taken me plenty far enough, but more on that in a moment. The other great thing about Roach is that she is so funny. Actually laugh-out-loud funny. Reading this book began to feel like having a conversation with Lorelai Gilmore, if Lorelai Gilmore had developed some strange obsessions of late (and anyone who knows my deep love for Gilmore Girls will know what a compliment that is). Roach’s humor is smart and fast and surprising, and I can’t wait to read more of her for this reason.

My only complaint about this book is that oftentimes, Roach has a much stronger stomach than I. You might not expect it, but some of our history’s ghostly obsessions have been, well, disgusting. Roach never shies away from the details of any topic, making sure that she sates all possible curiosity. If I were a different person, this quality would be a compliment, and really, I intend it as one. But as Haley, the same girl who had nightmares about the Magic School Bus after seeing the episode in which they shrink and are swallowed by a classmate, there were a few instances where I could have been spared the details. (This problem has also confirmed what I already expected, which is that I would struggle through two of Roach’s most popular books, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal). I only include this note as a warning to potential readers, and Roach herself does the same thing by titling the most difficult chapter “Hard to Swallow” (through it all, she maintains her sense of humor, which is greatly helpful).

Another thing to note: Spook isn’t really, well, spooky. The most frightening chapter was definitely the one called “Inside the Haunt Box,” which details one scientist’s work in determining if electromagnetic fields can cause hallucinations that could explain ghost sightings (or, perhaps, if such fields merely make us more in tune to these presences), but for the most part, everything in this book is more fascinating than scary. Which, again, is a compliment disguised as a complaint. I only include it as a caveat to make sure you have the right expectations if you decide to check it out.

I think that science writing is so important. Books like Spook are great not just for the information they impart, but for the way they inspire us to pursue it, to ask questions we might never have considered before. If you’re interested in a fascinating trip through some of science’s trippier moments, this is a great read, especially if you’re not too squeamish. As for ghost stories, I’ll probably still peruse the Travel Channel this year, but hopefully I’ll do so with a more discerning eye and Wikipedia at the ready. And yet, I would hate to paint Roach as a joyless skeptic. As she herself concludes, “The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with.” After reading this book, I can say with certainty that Roach would be a fabulous graveyard companion, just as Spook is a fun companion to the ghost stories and haunted houses of this season, whether you’re a believer or not.

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