Tonawanda News


October 29, 2012

BOOK NOOK: 'The Science of Ghosts' — Halloween stories for realists

NORTH TONAWANDA — Ghosts are everywhere this time of year — not just the bedsheet-with-two-eyes-cut-out sort of phantom, or the smoke-and-mirrors, sometimes gore-encrusted haunted house spooks, but the real thing, as well.

Or so many would have you believe.

TV channels promote ghost-hunting documentaries galore. Ghost walks beckon those interested in the mysterious and supernatural. Legends and tales and stories for any building with a bit of history attached to it are told and retold with relish. And why not, because who doesn’t like a ghost story?

Joe Nickell certainly seems to like them, but in a totally different way.

The Amherst resident’s newest book, “The Science of Ghosts” (subtitle: “Searching for Spirits of the Dead”), is a critical, serious (but  not dry) look at ghost stories around the world, including a few in Western New York. Nickell has a resume that includes such roles as stage magician, private investigator, blackjack dealer and carnival pitchman — probably worthy of a biography in his own right — but for this book, he’s billed as “the world’s only full-time, professional, science-based paranormal investigator,” so that’s what we’ll focus on.

This is by no means his first book (there are more than 30, including “Adventures in Paranormal Investigation,” “Tracking the Man-Beasts,” texts on forensics and even children’s books), but it’s the first I’ve read. Nickell makes no secret of the fact that he’s a skeptic as far as ghost stories go, but states in the introduction that he tries to avoid being either a “believer” or “debunker,” as both tend to “start with an answer and work backward to the evidence.” Instead, he writes, he tries to “discover the best evidence and let it lead to the most likely solution” ... and cites the principle of Occam’s Razor, as in, “the simplest tenable explanation — the one requiring the fewest assumptions — is most likely correct.”

Anyone who cites Occam’s Razor, in my book, has earned a chance. Carry on, Mr. Nickell.

The book is divided into four parts, focusing on stories relating to belief in ghosts, supposedly haunted places, spiritualism, and mediums and ghost hunting. There is also an appendix and copious notes and references.

This is not a particularly light read. It’s thick with history, and its many tales of (so-called) hauntings circle the globe, from Germany to London to Morocco and China and right back to Western New York. Topics range from Sylvia Brown to 9/11 to Elvis sightings. Science, of course, plays a heavy role and some of the more detailed glimpses into psychology and “ghost forensics” lost me a bit. However, I found the subject interesting enough to plan to go back for a re-read.

For all the book’s globe trotting, Western New York is represented, from Old Fort Niagara’s “phantom of the well” to Thirty Mile Point Light on Lake Ontario. A chapter on theater haunting tales, “Stage Fright,” has sections on NT’s Riviera Theatre and Ghostlight Theatre.

Van Horn Mansion in Burt has an entire chapter dedicated to it, focusing on “how a previously unhaunted place acquires ghosts.” Nickell has explanations for the site’s myriad legends and writes of the ghost “bandwagon” effect there over the years. He writes of attending a seance there in 2003, receiving supposed messages from relatives he had, well, made up. “I never saw anything I regarded as authentic spirit communication, but I was impressed with the credulity of superstitious folk.” Ouch. Other mediums, spiritualism and ghost hunters receive similar treatment.

That said, for all his role as skeptic in the world of supernatural phenomenon, Nickell also writes (in his afterword) of the need for an eye on the human fondness of ghost stories. As with other paranormal phenomenon, he writes, “belief in ghosts is sparked by our deepest hopes and fears, and so is worthy of our serious attention.”

Believers might not like Nickell’s no-nonsense attitude toward hauntings, spiritualism and ghost hunters (unless they’re in the mood for a good argument), but “The Science of Ghosts” is good reading  for anyone who likes a good ghost story ... with a healthy dash of skepticism, history and science alongside.

Jill Keppeler is a writer for the Tonawanda News. She can be reached at


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