Staring at the Backside of the Beyond

What is Behind the Beyond?

Let’s take a break, if we may, from trampling through decaying mansions in search of restless spirits, rotting swamps filled with things not quite dead, yet not really alive, graveyards that give one the heebie -jeebies even in broad daylight and morbid mountain hollows where ancient curses still have power to bewitch the unwary passerby, and reflect on the state of the OTHER SIDE in this day and age.

First, while I firmly believe there are many paranormal phenomena which science cannot explain, and I continue to collect accounts of uncanny events and weird doings, I have begun to believe that our collective quest to explore THE UNEXPLAINED may have gone a bit too far. Or rather, that the innate human curiosity to seek answers to the mysteries of the universe that motivates most of us, has been hijacked by many who are only interested in exploiting what has gone from an esoteric endeavor to become a popular pastime and cash in on it by any means possible.

The explosion in “professional” ghost hunting in particular I find a bit much.  There are all manner of self-anointed experts these days who conduct very expensive classes in ghost-hunting, “cleansing” or various and sundry other paranormal practices. It is all well and good to go to sites that have a reputation for being haunted and investigate them for yourself or even to help calm folk uncomfortable with the possibility that they are not alone in the old home.

But bringing along truckloads of seemingly high-tech paraphernalia and putting on airs of being “scientific” is not any more valid qualitatively than someone who investigates a site by their “gut feeling.” Sometimes one can divine the truth by what seems to be an entirely subjective and undocumented experience. And one person’s authentic paranormal experience may not be able to be duplicated no matter how many tri-quarter readings you take.

As Shakespeare phrased it, “by the prickling of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”

Please don’t put me in the category of the professional debunkers who, while pretending to investigate paranormal incidents objectively in reality approach every occurrence with the same closed mind, and simply seek to validate their predetermined opinions and present it as “proof” that it is all bunkum. I have read  some ghost hunting groups’ accounts that I personally find quite impressive; but I also know that insofar as the scientific community goes, their evidence will not convince any academic investigator.

The flurry of paranormal Cable TV shows in particular yank my chain.  Some, admittedly, are worse than others; a bunch of idiots running around an abandoned sanitarium with flashlights attached to their faces and scaring themselves is not only a waste of time, it’s just plain silly.

Likewise some dude on tv daring a spirit to “come out come out wherever you are” is  an exercise in the moronic. Moreover, if they are treading on territory where they are dealing, not with the deceased, but with the demonic, they may even stir up something they are unprepared to handle. Genuine cases of demonic possession are very, very rare–fortunately–but they do exist and, as the saying goes, don’t go kicking a nest of hornets unless you want to get stung.

The latest scam is some of these celebrity ghost-busters offering–for money–certification to people as ghost hunters.  Of course, if any of these media mediums read this criticism, I doubt they will be much dismayed–they are crying all the way to the bank as I speak.

Of course, charlatans exploiting a popular movement relating to the paranormal is nothing new.  In my book, The Paranormal Presidency, I document the birth of Spiritualism and the story of its suppressed relationship with President Abraham Lincoln.

President Lincoln was one of the many prominent men of his day who attended séances; he also believed in prophecy and other psychic phenomena

In the book I tried to maintain a certain objectivity about this subject. The truth is that, at that time and since, there have been many sincere people involved in Spiritualism, psychics, medium-ship, and also those involved in partaking in seances. In some instances these earnest explorers of the beyond may even have had genuine psychic experiences.

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Abraham Lincoln attended one séance where–allegedly–a young female medium was able to make the grand piano “dance.” Did it happen? Two eyewitnesses claimed it did and swear there was no trickery involved. Psycho-kinesis is rare, but real. 

But the truth is that there has also been a chronic problem with phonies and fakes who pretended to be psychic and have bilked gullible people over and over again over the years.  Moreover, with the advent of cable TV these charlatans have gotten a mass media following.

Unlike the professional debunkers, the Joe Nickols of the world, I refuse to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater.  Paranormal phenomena are real; I know of many people who have genuine experiences, even if only once in their lifetime.  Similarly, I have met a few people whom I believe to be genuinely psychic. I think that everyone has that potential, at the very least.

But there are also those only too willing to exploit popular interest in the subject for a fast buck.  The truth is, that some people want to tell us what is behind the beyond, when they don’t even know what is beyond their behind!

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The Paranormal Presidency is a biographical analysis of President Lincoln’s beliefs about the paranormal and his involvement with Spiritualism, as well as prophecy, omens and voodoo.

The Prophet and the Three Weird Sisters


While his name is not well-known nowadays, Andrew Jackson Davis was a man of great renown in early nineteenth century America.  His works–dealing with prophecy and the paranormal–were read by Abraham Lincoln and other notable men of the day. 

Davis’s ideas were heavily influenced by the works of the eighteenth century philosopher Swedenborg, who had once had a Near Death Experience and believed in the paranormal.  Like Joan of Arc, the witch turned Catholic saint, Davis claimed that spirit voices talked to him, guided him and told him of many unknown things.  Davis came from a part of upstate New York called “The Burnt-Over District” because so many radical spiritual and social movements arose there and then spread like wild-fire across the rest of the  country.

In 1843, Andrew Jackson Davis attended a lecture on “Animal magnetism” (an early form of hypnosis) and soon thereafter the spirit voices came to him, advising him of his mission in life.  Shortly thereafter Davis had an epiphany of sorts.  He went into a deep trance, and when he awoke three days later, Davis was on a mountaintop forty miles away from where he had fallen asleep, seemingly transported there by supernatural means.

Davis through his writings and lectures developed a large and devoted following.  Edgar Allan Poe heard his lectures on mesmerism and was inspired to write “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” in 1845 as a result.  Edgar Cayce, the “sleeping prophet” of Kentucky, was later inspired by his ideas as well.

At this point, enter the Fox sisters.  In 1848 the two younger sisters, Kate and Maggie, had just moved into a home that locals said was haunted.  Soon knocking sounds were heard around the house, but mainly focused on the sister’s room.  The father tried to nail and tighten every loose board and window in the house, to no avail.  They even sent the two young girls to their older sister Leah’s home, hoping the mysterious spirit would leave them alone.  It did not.  The ghostly activities not only continued in the parents home but the poltergeist activities also started up in their sister Leah’s house.  Leah, it turns out, was a dedicated follower of Andrew Jackson Davis, and she saw in her sisters paranormal activities the fulfillment of some of Davis’ prophecies.  Through trial and error the sisters devised a way of communicating with the spirit—a method which came to be called the seance.  Soon the girls went public and put on public displays of their abilities as mediums and the Spiritualism movement was born.

The Fox sisters became celebrities and put on public performances in New York City and elsewhere; politicians, publishers and leading intellectuals of the day attended and were impressed.  Spiritualism also began to take on the aspects of a social reform movement, with leading spiritualists also championing political and economic ideas of the day, such as Abolitionism.  Spiritualism also had a strong theatrical aspect to it, with many mediums performing before audiences on stage.  While many bereaved families used seances to get in touch with loved ones, it was also widely regarded  by many people as a sort of parlour game.  Individuals high and low tried for themselves and found that it worked.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and his wife attended a number of such seances, some by genuine mediums, and others held by charlatans.  While historians dispute that Lincoln was himself a spiritualist, many around him definitely were.

After the war, the two younger Fox sisters fell into alcoholism and also resented their older sister’s controlling influence on them.  When a newspaper offered one of them a bribe to “expose” Spiritualism and say it was a fake, she took the money; she later recanted, however.  The three sisters’ legacy remains controversial to this day.

For more on Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with seances and Spiritualism, see my new book, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (Schiffer, January, 2013).  If you want t read more about battlefield hauntings of the Civil War, then I recommend my Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War from Rutledge Hill.