By Tina Jordan
August 09, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Tales of the otherworldly have haunted for thousands of years. As Deborah Blum notes in her compulsively readable book, Ghost Hunters, ”Ghosts drifted like smoke through the pyramids of Egypt. Smoldering demons climbed out of fires in ancient Africa. Spirits walked with native hunters in the American forests…”

In the late 19th century, as Blum details, a craze for the supernatural gripped the U.S., leading to efforts by a group of scholars — notably William James, Harvard’s famous professor of psychiatry — to prove the existence of ghosts and psychic phenomena once and for all. The American Society for Psychical Research (whose British predecessor included, at times, the likes of Mark Twain, John Ruskin, and Lewis Carroll) spent years picking apart tales of mediums, telepathy, hallucinations, and poltergeists.

Although the society debunked many a charlatan and hoax, the scientists found that, in the end, they simply could not rationally explain everything they studied. In his final essay on the subject, James wrote, ”Those who have the fullest acquaintance with the phenomena admit that in good mediums there is a residuum of knowledge displayed that can only be called supernormal; the medium taps some source of information not open to ordinary people.” After reading Blum’s mesmerizing account, you might be tempted to dust off that Ouija board.

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