Who.s there? Not Houdini . not yet

Who.s there? Not Houdini . not yet
By Chris Mooney

10/27/99 – Reprinted from USA Today

Early Celts thought the souls of the departed returned and walked among the living on the night of Oct. 31. According to a 1996 Gallup Poll, about a third of Americans agree: Ghosts or spirits of dead people, they told the pollsters, can return in certain places and situations.

But believers aren’t the only ones on the lookout for ghosts in late October. This Halloween, I will be at a s�ance, an ironic but traditional attempt by card-carrying skeptics to contact the spirit of Harry Houdini, the world’s greatest “ghostbuster.”

Houdini’s life, and the poignant Halloween ghost story that arose surrounding his death, remains to this day a perfect example of the importance of skepticism and critical thinking at all times – and especially at Halloween time.

Fittingly, Harry Houdini died on Halloween in 1926. He is best remembered today for his mind-boggling escapes – from maximum-security prisons, immense sets of manacles, submerged torture cells – and for his magician’s abilities. Less well known is that after establishing himself as a premiere entertainer, Houdini devoted the latter
part of his life to investigating the paranormal, particularly spiritualist mediums who claimed the ability to contact the dead.

The modern version of spiritualism originated in 1848 in Hydesville, N.Y., when the young sisters Maggie and Katie Fox began to produce strange rapping noises in response to yes-or-no questions, sounds that were attributed to spirits. The Fox sisters later confessed that the rapping had been made by Maggie cracking her big toe, yet spiritualism caught on and continues to thrive today. A 1998 poll found that 52% of American adults believe in it “somewhat.”

Critical thinking in the s�ance room

Houdini performed as a medium early in his career and quickly learned he could convince audiences he was communicating with spirits by using simple conjuring tricks in darkened s�ance rooms. But after his beloved mother died, Houdini became desperate to contact her. He attended many s�ances, often as a guest of the British spiritualist and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes.

Houdini soon realized Doyle did not practice the critical thinking skills with which he had endowed his famous literary detective. When it came to spirit communication, Houdini was forced to side with the empirically minded Holmes over the credulous Doyle, writing, “The more I investigate the subject, the less I can make myself believe.”

Houdini was particularly unimpressed by the work of Doyle’s wife, who claimed to transcribe a message from Houdini’s mother during a s�ance, but wrote in English, a language Houdini’s European mother had never known.

Houdini began to train police to expose spiritualists, a practice for which his magician’s abilities uniquely qualified him. He also gave public lectures denouncing the famous mediums of his day and showing how their tricks were performed. Houdini’s friendship with Doyle crumbled as he became more and more the writer’s nemesis: a real-life Sherlock Holmes.

When Houdini died, stories circulated that the famous skeptic had arranged to contact his wife, Bess, from across the grave, if such a thing proved possible. Bess fanned the rumors by offering $10,000 for evidence that someone had heard the words Houdini whispered to her privately on his deathbed. The message was “Rosabelle, believe,” a reference to a song Bess was singing when Houdini first saw her in 1894.

For 10 years, Bess awaited a message from Houdini, burning a light by his portrait in her living room. But in 1936, after yet another failed Halloween s�ance, Bess turned out the light.

Maintaining the proper skepticism

Now it’s a Halloween tradition among skeptics and magicians to hold Houdini s�ances. In each attempt to contact the spirit of the great skeptic lies an important object lesson about critical thinking: No matter how many years pass, we must never dismiss outright the possibility that Houdini might someday return. On the other hand, we must regard claims of his return – like all paranormal or supernatural claims – with skepticism, and apportion our belief to the available evidence.

As all skeptics know, most ghost stories turn out to be mere bumps in the night, and there really isn’t any convincing evidence that spirits come back from the grave. But what about that handful of truly mysterious, truly amazing sounding accounts of ghosts and the paranormal? This Halloween, as the air thickens with stories of hauntings, let us follow Houdini’s lead and investigate – skeptically.

Chris Mooney is public relations director of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which publishes Skeptical Inquirer magazine.