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Mary Roach – Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

November 17, 2008

143. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach (2005)

Length: 312 pages

Genre: Non-Fiction; Pop-Science

Started: 14 November 2008
Finished: 15 November 2008

What’s next when we die?
Roach sets out to see whether
Science has answers.

Summary: In Spook, Mary Roach sets out to examine what science – both historical and modern – has to tell us about what happens to us after we die. In a series of chapters that read somewhat like extended travelogue-esque magazine articles, she examines a variety of areas of paranormal research, starting with reincarnation and the question of ensoulment, moving through soul weighing, soul visualization, ectoplasm, mediums, electronic communication with ghosts (i.e. voices of ghosts appearing on tape recordings), some non-paranormal explanations for paranormal phenomena (i.e. infrasound), a legal case in which instructions from a ghost led a family to a revised version of their father’s will, and current research into near-death experiences.

Review: Mary Roach writes this book with a bias – for a subject as open to personal interpretation as life after death, it’s impossible not to. However she’s up-front about her biases: she’s an agnostic, but tending to lean more towards the skeptical side. To quote: “I wasn’t saying these things [biblical miracles] didn’t happen. I was just saying I’d feel better with some proof.” I trust it’s not a huge spoiler to say that she doesn’t find proof of anything one way or another. However, she sets out to examine the currently available scientific evidence (or lack thereof) regarding what happens to our us-ness after we die, and offers her interpretation as to whether or not its credible. As any scientist will know, it is damn near impossible to prove a negative: finding no evidence for something is NOT the same as finding evidence against it. Therefore, her ultimate conclusion is: maybe? She doesn’t turn up anything she considers to be a smoking-gun example that our consciousness exists after death, but there remain things that she can’t quite explain away, either.

Roach clearly set out to write a book with as popular of an appeal as possible; however, by sheer dint of her subject matter and inherent personal bias, she’s already alienated a large chunk of her potential audience. Anyone who already “knows” what happens to people after they die is going to be disappointed – hard-line atheists will take issue with the fact that she presupposes the existance of a soul, and will dismiss the rest as twaddle and delusion; hard-line theists of every flavor will be offended that her fall-back position is to dismiss the supernatural/religious aspect out of hand. Luckily for me, I fall smack in the middle, happily in line with Roach’s viewpoint: it’s possible, although I think it’s unlikely… but either way, where’s the proof? Roach – and I – tend to view science as the best possible way of getting that proof, but when the subject is one that modern science has by-and-large declared ineffable, we’re left looking at the fringe cases, where every piece of evidence is going to be colored by personal interpretation.

Okay, philosophical ramblings aside, I mostly enjoyed this book. I thought the chapters on modern paranormal research were the most interesting, while the material covered in the historical chapters have been done better in other books, and tended to drag on. Similarly, I was more interested in the chapters that looked for non-paranormal explanations for hauntings – infrasound triggering feelings of unease, fear, and the flight-or-fight response; tiny electromagnetic pulses that mimic temporal lobe epilepsy producing the feeling of being surrounded by invisible people – and less interested in the chapters that presupposed paranormal phenomena to be real, and went looking for causes. Overall, though, I found it to be interesting, easy, and frequently funny (at one point during a class on becoming a medium, Roach strikes out for the bar, “to commune with spirits I know how to relate to”), although it is ultimately (and unsurprisingly) somewhat light when it comes to answering the questions it set out to ask. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you’ve already made your mind up beyond a shadow of a doubt about the afterlife (or are saying “what afterlife?), this book is probably not for you. If you don’t know what happens after we die, aren’t sure, or don’t think it’s possible to know, this book is not going to provide you with any answers, or even any strong hints, but it will provide you with plenty of interesting tidbits about the sometimes ingenious, sometimes extremely silly ways that scientists are going about trying to find out.

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First Line: I don’t recall my mood the morning I was born, but I imagine I felt a bit out of sorts.


  • p. 68: “On the website Ask the Rabbi, a mohel from Paris posted an e-mail seeking information about the luz.” – the person who performs the circumcision in the Jewish rite of circumcising a male child on the eighth day after his birth.
15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2008 9:41 am

    Interesting. My belief in an afterlife is based on my religion. Still, I can’t prove whether one exists, though I’ve had some personal experiences that make me lean toward yes. Sounds like an interesting book, regardless.

  2. November 17, 2008 9:58 am

    Anna – I’d be interested to hear what you (or other religious people) thought of this book… I think there’s a distinction to be made between “knowing” something is true because your religion tells you so, and “believing” it’s true without knowing (which is pretty much the definition of “faith”, anyways.)

    I didn’t mean to imply that this book is going to alienate *all* religious people – just those who would be offended that her default assumption is skepticism and not faith.

  3. November 17, 2008 12:22 pm

    Though I do tend to say “what afterlife?”, your review made me very curious. I completely agree with you on the impossibility of proving a negative, and though I have my beliefs (or my lack thereof), I readily acknowledge that there’s no way to be completely sure.

    I think I’d find those chapters with non-paranormal explanations for hauntings particularly interesting too.

  4. November 17, 2008 1:05 pm

    Nymeth – It’s really just “hard-line” atheists – those who KNOW there is no afterlife, no arguments – who should probably avoid this book… anyone with even a hint of agnostic leanings should be fine. I think as long as you’re willing to admit the possibility of the existence of an afterlife, no matter how extraordinarily unlikely you find it, then this book should be fine for you on philosophical grounds.

    The physical explanations for hauntings were super-cool. I knew that infrasound could trigger feelings of upset and unease, but apparently 19 Hz is also the resonant frequency of the eyeball, and can produce visual hallucinations (misty grey blobs in the corner of your eye) when it’s intense enough. Also cool was that they went to several highly haunted sites with an infrasound detector, and found high levels of infrasound at the sites – or at least nearby.

  5. November 17, 2008 5:55 pm

    I enjoyed the book.

  6. November 17, 2008 11:09 pm

    Well it certainly sounds different, I’ll give you that!

  7. November 18, 2008 11:26 am

    Carrie – Have you read any of her other books?

    Jen – It was! It’s hard to write about a topic like the afterlife without introducing your own beliefs and biases into the subject – something I try to avoid doing too much of on my blog. I thing it’s too close to religion to be polite-dinner-conversation fodder, but it was definitely an interesting read.

  8. November 18, 2008 11:48 am

    I first discovered Mary Roach through my parents’ Reader’s Digest subscription and then when I found a copy of her first book, Stiff, I couldn’t resist. I loved that one. I admit I had a little too much fun talking about that one while my coworkers ate lunch around me (that was back in the day I read in the breakroom instead of finding a hiding place in the office where no one could find me). I learned quite a bit from that book besides just finding it extremely entertaining.

    I did enjoy Spook, although not quite as much. I didn’t find it quite as entertaining or informative.

    I haven’t yet read Bonk but I do want to even though I’ve heard it’s the weakest of the three.

  9. November 18, 2008 12:16 pm

    Literary Feline – I actually really liked Bonk, although that might be because I know a few people who do sex research, so I’m fairly familiar with a lot of the topics, and I enjoyed seeing it from an outsider’s perspective.

    I haven’t read Stiff yet, but it’s on my wishlist!

  10. November 18, 2008 7:14 pm

    This is a great review, I have read Spook and Stiff. Of the two I preferred Stiff mainly because it was based on fact rather than hypothesis or personal opinion.
    Right now I’m reading Bonk, and enjoying it quite a bit too. I’m at the pig part and giving the hubs a hard time by quoting passages to him – his face turns the loveliest shade of green :)

  11. November 19, 2008 9:55 am

    Joanne – Hee hee! Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation is another excellent source of quotable trivia with which to mortify your friends and family. :)

    It looks like I really need to pick up a copy of Stiff, doesn’t it?

  12. November 19, 2008 2:48 pm

    Great review! I’ve avoided this one, but I can’t remember why. It seems like it’s gotten mostly lukewarm reviews. I’ll tell you a book I really loved about the possible afterlife — Will Storr vs. the Supernatural. Storr has a terrific sense of humor and he truly went from die-hard skeptic to believer.

  13. Taja permalink
    November 20, 2008 5:36 am

    This book sounds like an interesting read. So I looked for some more info and discovered that Roach has two more books which, of course, also interest me (Stiff; Bonk). That’s too much to buy at once, but at least I now know of them (and the author) thanks to your great review.

  14. November 20, 2008 1:48 pm

    Nancy – A lot of the other reviews I’ve seen give this one a lukewarm review either because it’s not as funny as Stiff (which may well be true), or because they think Roach’s approach is either too personalized and not scientific enough, or too skeptical and not accepting enough.

    I’ll have check out Storr’s book.

    Taja – I only discovered Roach earlier this year, when I read Bonk. My sense is that she’s a great go-to author for funny, trivia-filled, irreverent non-fiction… hope you enjoy whichever of her books you can get your hands on first!


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