Ghost Buster Dies
I used to wonder at my older relatives custom of reaching for the obituary section before examining the rest of the daily newspaper. But I find that the older I get, the more frequently I check the obituary page. So far, I'm not checking the obits the minute the newspaper hits the front lawn. Once in a while, however, that section of the daily paper holds something of interest, even if I didn't personally know the departed one.
Probably because I grew up watching Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and definitely because I've read so many of Stephen King's novels, I've been curious about the paranormal most of my life. Therefore, a recent obituary title in the Washington Post caught my eye: Psychology Expert Robert Baker; Unmasked Ghostly Apparitions, excerpted below:
"Robert A. Baker, 84, a University of Kentucky psychology professor emeritus and a leading ghost buster' who worked on the premise that 'there are no haunted places, only haunted people,' died Aug. 8 at his home in Lexington. He had congestive heart failure.My one adventure with investigating a haunting was marginally more exciting than a wailing rock. When I was barely a teenager, my mother, grandmother, and I paid a summer visit to relatives living on the outskirts of Chattanooga, Tennessee. After several days of doing the usual things, my same-age cousin and I decided to become Nancy Drew types and solve a case. Having heard about the deserted shack up one of the nearby pig trails, late one night my cousin and I grabbed flashlights, sneaked out, and did a little ghost-busting of our own. Disappointment! What we found was a stash of glass jugs--a sort of storage unit for a moonshine operation. My cousin and I hurried out of there. We might have been young and foolish, but we knew what was good for us--and what wasn't. I was a grown woman before I shared that little story with my mother, who told me that I should have known better than to go exploring at night in moonshine territory.
"Dr. Baker was foremost a skeptic, believing that one could not assume from the start that unusual phenomena -- ghosts, UFO abductions, lake monsters, remembrances of past lives -- were real. In books and scholarly articles, he argued that they could be explained as mental states, that abductions by aliens, for example, were hallucinations -- or 'waking dreams' -- that occur in the twilight zone between fully awake and fully asleep....
"Dr. Baker worked more than 60 cases, volunteering his time to visit those who called the university's psychology department or found him through his writings and reputation.
"He often worked with [former Pinkerton detective] Joe Nickell, a senior research fellow at the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, a group based in Amherst, N.Y., whose members have included Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and B.F. Skinner....
"As a young man, he also grew disillusioned with ghosts after two acquaintances tracked down mysterious moans in a cave, reputedly haunted. A cracked boulder had been transforming gusts of wind into an eerie noise."
Returning now to Dr. Baker's obituary:
"During World War II, he was an Army Air Forces cryptographer, and he began reading hungrily about human psychology during those years. 'I resolved that the only thing that could save man from himself was a fully developed science of human behavior,' he wrote.He died on his wedding anniversary? Is that creepy, or what? Cue the theme music from The Twilight Zone.
"He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1948 and the next year received a master's degree in psychology there. He received a doctorate in psychology from Stanford University in 1951.
"He then became a staff scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, which conducted military research. In 1953, he joined the Human Resources Research Office at Fort Knox, where his work included finding ways to improve soldiers' alertness during guard duty.
"At Fort Knox, he also worked as an assistant at mental hospitals and began hunting ghosts. In 1969, after budget cuts there, he left for the University of Kentucky. He spent the first four years as psychology department chairman. He retired in 1988....
"He died on the 52nd anniversary of his marriage to Rose Paalz 'Dolly' Baker, who survives, along with six children and seven grandchildren."
Dr. Baker was also a prolific writer. Among his many books are Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics & Other Mysteries (1992); They Call It Hypnosis (1990), in which he criticized the validity of that technique; and Hidden Memories: Voices and Visions From Within (1992);and Mind Games (1996), in which he questioned the overruse of various psychotropic medications; he also edited Child Sexual Abuse and False Memory Syndrome (1998). I see some interesting books on that list. Maybe the public library has some of the titles.
One day, I hope to have a great collection of obits. Before retiring from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, my stepfather-in-law treated many celebrities in their final days. When one of his patients passed on, he saved the Los Angeles Times obituary of each of his famous patients, who included Lucille Ball*, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Marlon Brando, and others whom I can't think of right now. The file is fat, with lots to explore.
My stepfather-in-law has intimated to me that I can have his unique collection. What a treasure! I can add his collection to my stash of related items: letters I received from Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs, and Red Skelton, just to name two. I'll need to visit and photograph all those dead celebrities' graves to make the collection complete, however.
I really don't expect to hear from any of those dead celebrities because I believe that Robert Baker made the case for doubting the paranormal. Still, the paranormal remains a fascinating subject. The universe is filled with many mysteries, even if Robert Baker, like Harry Houdini before him, debunked paranormal happenings.
And I hope that after I get that collecion from my father-in-law, I'm not one of those whom Dr. Baker termed "haunted people." I'm almost certain that I'll be safe. Almost.
*Hat Tip to Gindy, who reminded me the other day of Lucille Ball.