As long as there has been death, there have been ghosts—or at least, ghost stories. Ghosts fascinate us. They star in cautionary tales, promise existence beyond death and provide glimpses of lost loved ones. For these reasons and many more, ghost stories have both frightened and delighted humans throughout history.
In Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination With Spirits and the Supernatural, Marc Hartzman, who has previously written about Oliver Cromwell’s embalmed head and sideshow performers, gives a lighthearted account of ghostly legends, haunted houses and other unearthly visits from beyond the grave. Using humor, fun illustrations and interesting anecdotes that will appeal to readers of all ages, Hartzman makes the serious point that ghost stories say as much about the world of the living as they do about the dead. After all, a good ghost story not only entertains the listener but also reminds them not to break their vow of chastity or forget to bury their dead relatives properly.
The bulk of Chasing Ghosts is devoted to humanity’s attempts to reach out to the dead. There are hucksters galore in this entertaining book, and Hartzman goes into great detail about different mediums who used all kinds of gimcrackery and stagecraft to pull off their frauds. He also catalogs the lesser-known spirit photographers, levitators, automatic writers and other con artists who separated the susceptible, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from their healthy skepticism—and money. Hartzman also documents the serious scientists who, even today, use sophisticated equipment to explore the other world. Once the scientific method is applied, most “visitations” have reasonable explanations—but there are many others that remain mysterious and, well, haunting.
So, what are ghosts? Mass hysteria or hoaxes? Reactions to invisible environmental factors or the lingering embodiments of souls? Chasing Ghosts raises these questions but wisely avoids offering any definitive answers. So the next time you walk through a sudden cold spot on a hot, humid evening, you might want to consider the possibility that ghosts are chasing you.