Monday, August 30, 2010


When I was a child, the scariest thing in the world to me was the 1963 movie, "The Haunting," based on Shirley Jackson's novella The Haunting of Hill House. One detail of the film is that the lead psychic investigator is a professor of parapsychology at Duke University. I failed to note this fine point until watching the film as a young adult living in Raleigh, and only some time after that did I learn that Duke once had such a person in reality: Joseph Banks Rhine. I eventually saw his Rhine Research Center where it now stands on Campus Walk, at a discreet distance from the university, and having heard that Rhine parted company with Duke in the early 60s, I assumed his relationship was a brief, early countercultural misstep by this prestigious school. Only very recently did I learn that this was far from the case - that, in fact, Rhine's psychic research is deeply entwined with Duke history, down to its very roots.

Preston Few, the president of Trinity College who became first president of Duke University, "staunchly backed" faculty member William McDougall when he brought Rhine to Duke and established the parapsychology program, according to Jean Anderson in her history of Durham. This was in 1927, when Duke was but two years old and West Campus still a twinkle in a stone mason's eye. Ten years later, Duke University Press began publishing The Journal of Parapsychology. The fact is that, from 1927 until some point shortly before its move to a building near Duke on North Buchanan in 1965, Rhine's parapsychology lab was based at the West Duke building on East Campus, which I now bike within sight of as part of my twice daily commute.

Rhine was led to his search for psychic abilities by his fascination with the prospect of an afterlife. Can the dead speak? Can anyone hear them? Oddly, for a lifelong secularist, I grew up with a terrible fear of ghosts. I was scared as that kid in "The Six Sense" to get out of bed to pee in the middle of the night, whether at my 50s vintage suburban residence near Cleveland or my maternal grandparents distinctly creepier turn-of-the-last-century home on Martha's Vineyard, though by all indications, no one had ever died in either place.

Today I live in a home where I know at least one person died: former Esquire editor and Durham Herald columnist Bob Sherrill, who retired from an evening of sitting on his (our) front lawn on the night of July 4th, 2007, and was found in his (our) bedroom several days later. However, though I now sleep each night in the room where he died, I awake and pee fearlessly. I catch a glimpse of myself in the darkened bathroom mirror and think how once this would have terrified me. But now, despite this known death and possible others in a house 80 years old, despite my daughter and her friends recently scaring themselves silly with a Ouija Board in the family room, despite the strange way the neighborhood fox barks at our house most every night, despite having an empty old mansion called Hill House just down the street, despite all this, I no longer feel at risk of visitation. Perhaps it's the dim view Sherrill took of death's approach, but I think it's more that I'm older and I've seen death, particularly my mother's piecemeal departure over twenty-some years, and I am no longer capable of belief.

It's sad, I suppose, but at least I get a good night's sleep.

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