Psychology Expert Robert Baker; Unmasked Ghostly Apparitions

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 12, 2005

Robert A. Baker, 84, a University of Kentucky psychology professor emeritus and a leading "ghost buster" who worked on the premise that "there are no haunted places, only haunted people," died Aug. 8 at his home in Lexington. He had congestive heart failure.

Dr. Baker was foremost a skeptic, believing that one could not assume from the start that unusual phenomena -- ghosts, UFO abductions, lake monsters, remembrances of past lives -- were real. In books and scholarly articles, he argued that they could be explained as mental states, that abductions by aliens, for example, were hallucinations -- or "waking dreams" -- that occur in the twilight zone between fully awake and fully asleep.

Much of his work involved being a sympathetic counselor to those who believed they were being toyed with or tortured by unexplainable forces.

In the 1960s, he visited a traumatized young Kentucky wife who was convinced that she was seeing a "golden-haired 3-year-old girl" in her home.

"After talking with her and her husband," he wrote, "I quickly learned that she was the only one who ever saw or heard the child. Moreover, I learned that she and her spouse wanted children desperately but had no luck. I urged them both to consider adoption, and as soon as they took these steps, the 3-year-old spirit disappeared forever."

Dr. Baker worked more than 60 cases, volunteering his time to visit those who called the university's psychology department or found him through his writings and reputation.

He often worked with Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a group based in Amherst, N.Y., whose members have included Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and B.F. Skinner. Nickell said Dr. Baker was seldom confrontational in his methods and knew when a little theater was needed.

One investigation took Dr. Baker and Nickell to an Indiana farmhouse, where a family was disturbed by loud noises near their children when they were sleeping. When Dr. Baker began questioning one boy, he confessed that he was responsible but begged the professor not to tell.

Agreeing to amnesty, Dr. Baker decided to solve the matter by playing to the mother's deeply religious convictions.

"He took out a little vial and told the woman with a straight face that it contained the powered bones of saints," Nickell said. "He went around upstairs sprinkling this powder, this charm, around and telling the woman this would be very effective at keeping out bad forces. . . . He did not want to offend her, and this was an emergency situation."

Robert Allen Baker Jr. was born June 27, 1921, in Blackford, Ky. His father fixed shoes, and his mother was a drugstore clerk. Both were poor and unschooled, he wrote, but "they encouraged me to read, think and get an education."

"They also, inadvertently, started me on the skeptical path by taking me at an early age to the local First Baptist Church, where the new minister -- one Percy Walker -- a kind, gentle, soft-spoken man, turned into a fiery-faced, screaming maniac every time he took the pulpit. . . . When I asked my father what was wrong with the reverend, he smiled and said, 'Religion makes some people crazy.' "

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