I have read many books on the supernatural – typically from a debunking perspective or a process of psychological evolution. Books like Paranormality by Richard Wiseman really get to the nub of supernatural belief how rituals and religions can develop from human creativity and self-awareness as a result of our intellectual evolution. Few deal with the wider implications in looking purely at why we believe.
Few go to the depth of looking at questions that many of us don’t want to answer, or maybe in places where we have never drawn comparisons. Why do we think items are imbued with luck or cursed? Why do we venerate objects, not just those we consider lucky, but also on those that we put great emotional value – family heirlooms become the family, as though it holds some ethereal power? On the flip side of this, we also consider that items are cursed and we won’t touch them for being contaminated by any latent “badness” within it. Don’t believe that? Would you wear a cardigan that you were told belonged to a serial killer? Most people wouldn’t because we we don’t want to be touched by evil as though it is as infectious as a virus.
In some US states, Realtors are required by law to tell potential buyers about the criminal history of a house. Was it the scene of a murder or other violent crime? Even, has it been reported as haunted? In the UK, authorities have demolished the houses of many notorious killers. Most recently, 25 Cromwell Street (the home of Fred & Rose West) and the home where Ian Huntley murdered Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells (both aged 10). The houses were deemed unsellable, but as far as I am aware, no attempt was made to sell them.
So we imbue places as well as items with power – either good or bad – and that is what this book is about early on, building up an idea of how we all have superstitious thinking, even for those of us who are atheists and consider ourselves sceptical and rational. That is a particular curiosity about people that this book examines: that conflict between our rational selves and our ingrained sense of the supernatural. I have to admit that even as a hard-nosed atheist and general sceptic, I may even think twice about wearing an item of clothing previously owned by a serial killer.
The major downside of this book is that it feels overwritten in two ways. Firstly that the author feels the need to keep hammering home a point when it has already been clearly made. Secondly, that some of his points feel like he is flying off on a tangent. Certainly highlighting the anti GM crowd and the wisdom of babies is relevant here, but I feel the author spends too much time on them that it feels like he is going off subject. Secondly, I am concerned at the inconsistency. In some cases, anecdotes are treated with a lot less scepticism than those on other subjects. Style were presented unquestioningly whereas others are presented as cautiously add one would expect.
A very fascinating book for sceptics and believers alike that will challenge what both sides think they know about human nature and the propensity for magical thinking, but I do wish it had been a little more challenging on its presentation.