Normal Activity

It’s Halloween time, so as one would expect, many ghostly happenings have been … happening.

A few nights ago I had a lovely date night with myself. I got some snacks and some wine, turned off all the lights except for a single candle, and sat down to watch a scary movie. I’d never seen The Changeling before, but it had a few rare moments of freaking the hell out of me with its simple but effective scares. It’s all the ghost story clichés done right.

Then today, at the Central Library, I went to see a talk by ghost researcher Cameron Bagg, who presented these same ghost clichés as fact. It was an interesting presentation; he told the story of how he first encountered ghosts (mysterious sounds, feeling a presence, teleporting objects, etc.), the tools he uses to hunt ghosts, some spooky anecdotes, all that. He showed some pictures of ghosts and spirit orbs. Ambiguous shadows and spheres of light.

At strange gatherings like this, I find the audience makeup and reactions as fascinating as the talk itself. This was a diverse group of people – old, young, crazy, not-crazy. Good old Roy McDonald was in attendance (he seems to be everywhere at once … like a ghost). And their reactions; well, I think this was the defining moment:

Bagg took out a television remote control. A regular remote, with an infrared transmitter on the end. He pointed it at the audience, clicked a button a few times, and said “does everyone see the flashing light?”

Many in the audience nodded. Murmurs of “ah, yes!” and “I see it!”

But there was no flashing light. His point was that cameras can see frequencies of light that are invisible to the naked eye (e.g., infrared; indeed, a flashing light could be seen when he pointed it through a camera). But there is a deeper point that inadvertently came out: when people are presented with a suggestion, they are likely to see things as consistent with that suggestion. When shown a static bulb and told it was flashing, many people in the audience, they literally thought they saw it flashing.

Similarly, when someone believes she is about to see ghost photographs, then you show her a shapeless shadow, she will see a human figure in it. Suggest that a dead woman lived in a house, and a picture of an empty room contains her face in a blob of reflected light. The noises at night aren’t the people in the next apartment bumping around, but ghostly rapping. An object appearing where it shouldn’t isn’t a lapse in memory, but a mischievous poltergeist.

I’m not saying ghosts aren’t real. Ghosts are an intense phenomenon genuinely experienced by a significant proportion of the population. These experiences can’t be explained by the speculations of armchair debunkers, and even though I wish he was more objective about it, I am glad that people like Cameron Bagg are out there actually trying to figure it out. But aside from any paranormal explanations, there is a lot of equally fascinating normal human psychology going on in the minds of those looking for ghosts.

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Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer

Under the Banner of Heaven tells three interwoven true stories: the history of the Mormon faith, the current life of Mormon fundamentalists, and the 1984 murders of an innocent woman and her baby daughter at the hands of brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty, two such fundamentalists. The implication is that the Lafferty murders were not an isolated incident, and indeed, the history and current practice of Mormonism are littered with acts of brutal violence.

Krakauer writes as if he takes the insane things that the killers and other Mormons believe at face value. It’s sort of an inside perspective, describing not what is objectively true, but what the major players believe to be true. This can be humourous when writing about, say, Dan thinking that his bowel movements are a sign from God. Krakauer doesn’t need to inject his own opinion into the descriptions; the stories are ridiculous enough in a straight telling.

That same matter-of-fact style can also be heartbreaking. Like when describing the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which Mormon militia slaughtered an entire wagon train of innocent travelers. Or when the timeline of the Lafferty murders is described in great detail, partly through Dan Lafferty’s own unrepentant words (Krakauer interviewed him directly in prison, where as far as I can tell, he still lives to this day). It’s hard to understand how any sane person could murder a baby.

Yet Krakauer argues that the Lafferties are not insane. The take-it-at-face-value writing underscores that, given what the brothers believed and their rationalizations for any setbacks, they acted rationally. At worst, he identifies Ron as having symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. The combination of the radical beliefs of Mormon fundamentalists, coupled with an extreme personality — the same sort of personality that has fueled the prophets behind all of Mormonism’s violent history — can be a dangerous mix.

This quote illustrates some of the workings of extreme religious minds:

“In one of Ron’s revelations, God had, in fact, instructed him to send his brother Mark to Nevada to wager on a horse to race to raise funds for the City of Refuge. With the Lord letting Mark know which mount to bet on, it seemed that they couldn’t lose. But they did. Afterward, Onias couldn’t resist telling the brothers ‘I told you so,’ causing relations between Ron and the prophet to deteriorate even further.”

With examples like these, on top of more serious ones, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could believe in prophets. In the history of mankind, no prophecy capable of coming true has ever come true. Ever. The bickering and splintering of the church over whose “divine” revelation is better further emphasizes that they are pure fantasy. Yet people do believe. There are over 13 million Mormons worldwide, their faith based on a prophet who, less than 200 years ago, claimed to have “translated” a book of golden plates an angel showed him in the woods, by putting a magical rock in a hat then stuffing his face in the hat. And these are the less delusional, non-fundamentalist ones.

What may disturb readers is that their own beliefs — especially other religious ones, but this applies to some atheists too — could be just as unfounded and dangerous if left unchecked. Krakauer briefly makes an explicit link with Christianity, but I think the lessons of this book are even broader. All beliefs should be questioned, as should all sources of authority – be it the voice of God, a charismatic prophet, or Richard Dawkins.

If I had to complain about one aspect of the book, it would be its overemphasis on polygamy. The polygamist relationships of both modern and historical Mormons are whipped out as if the mere mention of multiple partners should send shivers up the reader’s spine. I may write a follow-up post to this, but my opinion, in short, is that it’s not polygamy itself that is troubling. Rather, it is the irrational beliefs that are the cause of polygamy in Mormons, and the monumental abuse of women and girls that polygamy often (but not always) leads to, that should be eradicated.

Sarah lent me this book, thinking it’d be up my alley, and she was so right. It’s hard to say I “liked” it, since much of my reaction to it is jaw-dropped horror, but especially in the early chapters when both the historical background and the murder story are fresh, it is an astounding, mind-blowing read. Anyone with any interest in religious belief, true crime, or both, should pick up Under the Banner of Heaven immediately.

Reaction to Accusations of Police Brutality at the University of Western Ontario

Yesterday, a crazy person rampaged through the Social Science Centre at the University of Western Ontario – the building I would have been working in had I not been home sick – and after barricading himself in an office and threatening people, had a run-in with police. His arrest was captured on video and posted to Youtube almost immediately.

Here’s the full story at the London Free Press, and the video is below (warning: a bit disturbing).

Opinions are divided on this one. Many people think it is an example of police brutality. Others think the officers used an acceptable level of force. Here are my thoughts.

When it comes to a violent act, people often consider whether or not the person “deserved it.” This guy deserved it. He had already punched an officer and caused grief on upper floors (though it’s unclear whether he caused physical harm to anyone else) before being taken down on the first floor.

However, we, as a civilized society, and especially our police officers, should need better reasons for violence than whether or not someone deserved it. Judging someone as worthy of punishment is an emotional decision, and not a rational one. In my humble opinion, violence should only be carried out when it is the only possible way to bring about a greater good (e.g., preventing further violence). “Deserving it” has nothing to do with whether or not the violent act would be effective in accomplishing the actor’s goal.

I prefer to avoid having strong opinions unless I am fully informed about a situation. With many issues, I think it is more useful to identify the questions that would need to be answered in order to have an informed opinion, rather than immediately forming one based on gut reactions to incomplete information.

In this case, the crucial question is this: after the six police officers had the man on the ground, could they have subdued him without kneeing him, punching him, and beating him with a baton? Or were these actions motivated purely by a sense of “he deserved it”?

I genuinely don’t know. It is quite possible that the only way to get handcuffs on a strong, struggling, possibly insane man is to weaken him with pain, and this is reflected in police training and proper procedure. It’s also possible that the actions were motivated purely by the darker side of human emotion.

And I understand that. It’s quite possible this dangerous man passed by my office yesterday; I feel that dark desire to see him harmed and locked up, for what he did and could have done to me and people I care about. He deserved to be hurt. But if we want the world to be a better, more humane place, we need to resist these gut reactions and look at violence purely with cool-head rationality.

Book Review: Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris

Club Dead is the third book in Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries series. See my reviews for Dead Until Dark and Living Dead in Dallas for the general gist of the series. Vague spoilers for Club Dead lie ahead, but nothing you won’t forget before you get around to reading it.

A lot is familiar here, having read the first two books. The writing is better but still full of awkward moments. I suspect Harris started following some new writing advice, such as mapping out her locations before writing about them (in too much detail; “I walked into a 100 square foot room with a window in the wall in front of me, a door in the center of the right wall that lead into a hallway that lead into a bedroom which also had a window, and a broom closet on the left wall. I then left and never came back”), and buying a word-a-day calendar (which she cleverly gives to Sookie as an excuse for the sudden appearance of big words). Vampire Bill is still up to his delightful rapist ways, and adds a few other unforgivable wrongs on top of that (which are quickly forgiven). But this time he’s joined by a whole cast of loveable sexual predators.

Oh, and maybe I’m beating a dead horse here (LOLvampirehorse), but Sookie’s extreme shallowness also makes a return. Seriously, she’s about to go on dangerous mission with dangerous people, her life in jeopardy, and the first thing she thinks of is what to do with her hair. The world conspires to conform to her bizzarre superficial wishes, and the whole next chapter is spent describing her getting a surprise makeover. Let me reiterate: in this book full of vampires and werewolves and telepaths, a whole chapter is devoted to a fucking makeover.

As the hero of the novels, Sookie doesn’t really do many heroic things. For example, here is the complete Sookie Stackhouse Manual for How to be a Detective:

  • Get your hair done. Find a cute outfit.
  • Show up somewhere where there may or may not be stuff relevant to the case.
  • Get seriously injured.
  • Get saved by a supernatural creature.
  • Wake up in the right place at the right time to witness the mystery’s solution.

But there are a lot of good reasons to read the book anyway. For the first time, I felt there were actually some compelling mysteries, with answers that made sense but weren’t completely obvious. Also, that really dumb character I alluded to in my review for Dead Until Dark makes a significant reappearance, but this time doesn’t seem so out of place, and his silliness does add some comic relief.

All in all, I give Club Dead the same recommendation I did the other two books: read it for cheap thrills and nothing more.