The United States of spooks and spirits

(Spencer Rowell - Getty Images)
By Daniel Stashower
Sunday, October 25, 2009


From the Salem Witch Trials to Harry Houdini

By William J. Birnes and Joel Martin

Forge. 400 pp. Paperback, $14.99


The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation

By Mitch Horowitz


290 pp. $27

"And how do you explain this? A man's heart stops beating in a hospital and he sees a blinding light that doesn't frighten him, but fills him with an indescribable feeling of peace..."

If those words -- the come-on from an old Time-Life Books "Mysteries of the Unknown" commercial -- get your juices flowing, you're not alone. America's fascination with spiritualism, the belief in the possibility of communication with the spirits of the dead, dates back to colonial times. Though Ralph Waldo Emerson once disparaged these beliefs as the "rat hole of revelation," spiritualism and its allied branches of the occult, such as theosophy and other so-called "secret teachings," have always found a rich breeding ground on these shores. Our ancestors gathered around seance tables to listen for ghostly raps and phantom voices. These days we scratch the itch by turning on John Edward and the Psychic Friends Network.

Two new books -- one by Mitch Horowitz and the other from the writing team of William J. Birnes and Joel Martin -- attempt to explain our fascination with the occult and provide a sense of historical context. In "Occult America," Horowitz recalls how, at the age of 9, he purchased an astrological star scroll from a vending machine at his local diner. "Look what it says!" he announced to his family, as he read through a series of vague, horoscope-style predictions. His enthusiasm drew a deflating response from his grandfather: "Does it also say you're a sucker?" But Horowitz would not be put off. "While I didn't yet know the lines from Hamlet -- There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy -- I felt their meaning in my guts," he tells us. "Where did this stuff come from . . . and how did it reach Queens?"

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