Click here to read reviewer Deborah Adams' take on The Haunting of America.
The awareness of hoodoo and haints run deep in the American spirit, from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to
The Shining. The current low-budget indy film Paranormal Activity plays this theme through for modern young minds. Every generation has its sensational paranormal event or fictional exploration to keep the notion of a world just beyond physical reality alive in our consciousness. Our grandparents experimented with
ouija boards; our children will undoubtedly produce and watch their own versions of
Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Exorcist.
But the paranormal, as authors Birnes and Martin make clear, has not always been controllable and user-friendly. To the Puritan participants in the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the young colonies of the United States, spirits that caused mischief were devil-sent, and being possessed by Satan was not only possible but terrifying - and all too common. To modern folk with a logical perspective not immersed in the morality of the times, the irony of the witch trials has always been that those who confessed they were doing the devilís will were spared, while those who refused to admit their complicity with Satan and his minions were tortured and killed. In those days, confession was not good for just the soul Ė it was essential to keep body and soul together.
Many people trace the American annals of psychic activity to an area in New York state where two sisters heard knockings and disruptions in the night and were able to convince many that they could communicate with disembodied spirits of the dearly departed. From the eerie antics of the Fox sisters and the still inconclusive evidence of their powers, whether attributable to one girlís loud knee joints or to something quite beyond the physical, a new religion was injected into the belief stream of ordinary Americans: Spiritualism. Now too rational to believe that unexplained happenings were the work of the His Satanic Majesty, Americans in the 1800s were swept up by the powerful idea that the minds of the dead might be accessible, might have wisdom or comfort to share, and that living people who could contact them directly might also have other abilities such as predicting the future. Anything was possible, and scientists were equally divided, it seemed, some corroborating the activities of mediums as legitimate, others sure that it was all just so much hokum.
Harry Houdini was one of the noted ghostbusters of his day, a skilled magician who knew from the inside that trickery is easily passed off as reality in the hands of a talented prestidigitator. Houdini spent his later years debunking mediums, revealing gauzy cloths as the material supposed to be ectoplasm, proving that loud knockings supposedly from the spirit world came from mechanical, very earthly, sources. Yet among the con artists were some mediums who might well have been genuine, and whose motives were not purely financial.
One of the best known American believers in the paranormal was Abraham Lincoln. The Haunting of America cites several compelling stories of Lincolnís contact with mediums, his firm, almost childlike faith in their words as near-holy writ, and at the heart of it, his sorrowful longing to contact his beloved son Willie, who had died of typhus, and perhaps to find a way to forgive himself for the many deaths for which he, as commander-in-chief, was responsible. I found these accounts more credible for the case of psychic phenomena than most others in the book, especially Lincolnís famous dream that seemed to foretell his own death.
The book will not convince the skeptic, but will offer a good read, well-researched, for those interested in American history of the third kind. Written by two experts and nicely compiled, it is a great gift for the ghoulie-lover in your family.