She was nothing like the sweet old lady in Poltergeist, a film that gave me, an overly imaginative child growing up in the 1980s, my most memorable brush with the spirit world.
In fact, Caroline seemed so down-to-earth that I wondered if she truly believed this stuff. Maybe she just enjoyed pulling people’s legs and catching the money falling out of their pockets.
‘Well, don’t force it,’ I told her. ‘I mean, if he’s not here, he’s not here, right?’
‘Ian’s definitely here,’ she snapped. ‘I feel like he’s outside, not in the house. It’s just, either he doesn’t want to do this, or something won’t let him.’
I thought of Poltergeist again, the final tug-of-war between the forces of good and evil over that creepy little blonde girl, who died of an illness in real life. That’s real life for you. We live and we die: that’s it.
If I were to be convinced that there’s more to the afterlife than frauds, wishful thinking and special effects, I’d need evidence. And I’d come here — to a sprawling 300-acre estate just outside Charlottesville, Virginia — to get that evidence from the property’s former owner, Ian Stevenson.
I’d tagged along with Caroline the psychic and Emily Williams Kelly, who has a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Edinburgh, and was a trusted protégé of Professor Stevenson.
Stevenson died six years ago, aged 88, after a bout of pneumonia. What happened to his conscious mind after that, or where ‘he’ went, nobody knows. Then again, if the mind is what the brain does, why do we even bother to ask where our minds ‘go’ when our brains power down? Isn’t it obvious that the mind is dead too?
Stevenson had a fascinating mortal existence. In the 1960s, he stepped down from his position as head of the Department of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia to become a fully fledged parapsychologist.
Trading in a successful career studying the disordered minds of the living for one investigating the hypothetical minds of the dead was a risky career move. But Stevenson thrived, quickly becoming a star paranormal researcher. In the 1980s, he even served for a while as president of the Society for Psychical Research in the UK, a high honour for an American.
I should confess that, unlike Stevenson, who made no secret of his lifelong belief in the supernatural, I’m a sceptic. In fact that’s probably putting it too mildly. In my book The Belief Instinct (2011), I reviewed scientific findings from my own research as well as that of my colleagues in the new field of the ‘cognitive science of religion’.
I laid out a case for how the human mind evolved to deceive us into believing in a ‘demon-haunted world’, as Carl Sagan put it, because such supernatural beliefs were biologically adaptive — at least they were adaptive tens of thousands of years ago, when our mental abilities were carved out by the godless forces of natural selection.
That said, I’d be happy to be proven wrong about the afterlife. As Stevenson once wrote: ‘The wish not to believe can influence as strongly as the wish to believe.’ Sometimes we sceptics are really just cynics.
I was beginning to think that Caroline had a better chance of finding every last particle of Stevenson’s ashes, scattered here after he was cremated, than of picking up the signal to his discarnate consciousness.
‘Shhhh. Wait a minute,’ Caroline said, pointing with her chin to Stevenson’s house. ‘There. He’s up there somewhere.’ Off she trotted, and I followed along with Emily.
Given all the effort Stevenson had put into what he called the ‘combination lock test for survival’, it would be a pity not to try to contact his spirit. He had come up with the idea for the test in the late 1960s after reading about a British widow whose husband died without telling her the combination to a lockbox that held important documents.
After many frustrating attempts to open it, the despairing widow said she heard her husband’s voice giving her the code. When she tried that set of numbers — voila! — the lockbox sprung open. Not exactly a bulletproof case, but it got Stevenson thinking.
After consulting with his paranormal research colleagues, Stevenson had the basic study design down pat. First, a person would choose a six-word phrase, something he or she would never forget. ‘I have no fear whatever of forgetting it on this side of the grave,’ Stevenson wrote of his own secret code, ‘and, if I remember anything on the other side, I shall surely remember it’. Whatever it was, the code was to be kept to oneself. This sworn secrecy was critical for the sake of the test.
The subject would then use a special formula, developed by Stevenson, to encrypt the first letters of the six-word phrase into three double-digit pairs. Let’s say your secret code is ‘Storms are more fun than sunshine.’ Using Stevenson’s formula, s, a, m, f, t, s works out to 41-36-19.
Next, you’d set a combination lock using those three numbers. Stevenson recommended the brand Sargent & Greenleaf ‘Model 8088’, one of the few locks that could be set to the owner’s chosen combination. Finally, and most importantly, the time to share your secret code would be after you die, through some sort of message from beyond the grave.
This wasn’t just some fleeting idea scribbled on a bar napkin after a telekinesis conference
The whole affair, in other words, was to be a coordinated effort between the living and the dead. Still, Stevenson worried that the latter might forget all about their promise, or even renege on it. ‘A recently deceased person who survives death will have many new experiences to assimilate,’ Stevenson wrote, ‘and many things on his mind apart from the combination lock that he set.’
All the living could do was hope that the dead kept their word, because if anyone ever managed to spring a deceased’s lock, it would be (for Stevenson) cold, hard proof of the afterlife.
Along with a few other forward-thinking souls, Stevenson set a lock of his own. This wasn’t just some fleeting idea scribbled on a bar napkin after a telekinesis conference. He kept at it, publishing multiple articles on the test over a 25-year period.
However, for one so eager in life, Stevenson hasn’t been very co-operative in death. Ten days after he died in hospital on 8 February 2007, The New York Times ran his obituary, mentioning the lock test. Soon, emails, letters and phone calls besieged the Division of Perceptual Studies (DOPS) at the University of Virginia, the still-active parapsychology unit founded by Stevenson. People from all over the world claimed his spirit had given them the secret code to his personal lock.
‘None of them worked,’ Bruce Greyson, Stevenson’s friend and successor at DOPS, told me. ‘We tried them all. Most of the codes sounded nothing at all like Ian, but we tried them anyway.’ Greyson, a psychiatrist himself and an expert on near-death experiences, is the keeper of the locks, which today mostly collect cobwebs at the bottom of a drawer in his office.
Was all that about to change? Back at Stevenson’s property, Caroline emerged from her bristly cove next to the tennis courts. ‘This is going to sound weird,’ she said. ‘What I heard was: “Feeling free on the courts alone.” He was just repeating that over and over, like a mantra or something.’
‘Feeling … free … on … the … courts … alone.’ Six words. I looked over at Kelly, a seasoned professional who had experience with psychic mediums. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s worth a shot. Ian did like tennis.’
As we didn’t have Stevenson’s lock with us, we had to go back to the University of Virginia where Greyson could decipher the mantra to see if Caroline’s spiritual antennae pointed in the right direction. I took one final glance at the tennis courts, half-expecting to see the ghost of Stevenson spinning a racket and staring back at me for a quick meeting of minds — mine stuck in the recalcitrant brain of a sceptic, his floating freely.
Caroline grabbed my elbow and said: ‘Hey. Ian actually gave us a really icy reception. He’s not into us being here. Seriously. You especially. Just so you know, it felt like he was trying to get rid of you.’
Stevenson wasn’t the only scientist to attempt to solve the ageless (non)mystery of what becomes of our minds after death. A new hunt for the soul began in 2012 under John Martin Fischer, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, and the man in charge of the ‘Immortality Project’.
He is funded by a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports innovative research that seeks to bridge religious and scientific questions. Earlier this year, scholars from across the globe competed for a slice of this tidy sum.
Fischer announced the winning proposals in May. Surprisingly, only one of the 10 projects to be funded deals directly with the juicy question Stevenson was so keen to answer: ‘Do we, or do we not, survive death?’
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