Wednesday, August 17, 2005

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.

"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."
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.

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 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."
He died on his wedding anniversary? Is that creepy, or what? Cue the theme music from The Twilight Zone.

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.

8 Comments:

At 8/17/2005 10:30 AM, Blogger Mustang said...

1. If you are reading the Obits and come across my name, please notify me immediately.

2. Dying on your wedding anniversary isn't remarkable; he probably started to die on the day he was married.

3. So was the movie "Ghost Busters" based on the life and times of Robert Baker? Which character was he? And don't tell me that the movie isn't based on a true story . . .

4. My first wife's family was very heavily into moonshine in Henry County; her father gave me a swig once and I was convinced then and there that I was not destined to become a drinking man. Whew.

 
At 8/17/2005 3:07 PM, Blogger NYgirl said...

Mustang #2 has me LOL

Cool post AOW.

 
At 8/17/2005 9:36 PM, Blogger David Schantz said...

In 1912 8 people were murdered with an ax in the little town of Villisca, Iowa. Six of them were related to my Mothers Foster Parents. The murdered man was her Foster Fathers Brother. The house where this took place is now a museum. When my Grand Daughter and I visited it she says something touched her. You can read more about the still unsolved murders at www.villisca.com, click on The Mystery. I have updated Gas Prices In Your Area and it doesn't look good. I hope you will stop by to check it out.

God Bless America, God Save The Republic

 
At 8/17/2005 10:00 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

Mustang,

1. You'll be the first to know.

2. Tsk, tsk.

3. Wasn't John Belushi in "Ghost Busters"? He's dead now. Drug overdose.

4. On my mother's side, I come from a long line of moonshine drinkers, and some of them ran stills too. We women didn't take much to drink, and the next paragraph will explain why.

The menfolk (as they say in Tennessee) would get all liquored up and start shooting at each other. I've found lots of info about it online by researching newspaper archives. My uncle's attorney was famous: Ray Jenkins (aka "The Terror of Tellico Plains"), who had something to do with the Army-McCarthy hearings on Capitol Hill, if I have that last detail correct. Jenkins was a master defense attorney, and my uncle got off with a light sentence.

Ah, the joys of skeltons in the family closet!

 
At 8/17/2005 10:19 PM, Blogger Mustang said...

You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your family. We all live with the deeds of our ancestors and I find that in some cases, as a result of some of those past misdeeds, there is an impetus for some of us to "rise above" the earlier standards of behavior.

Even today, however, in some locations within Appalacia, the behaviors we've been discussing continue to be quite normal. Believe it or not, I've seen school houses in Ohio and West Virginia that are lucky to have electricity, never mind computer technology. My ex-inlaws had an outhouse until the mid-1980s, and they bathed in a tin tub that was brought in from the side porch once a week.

Hell, maybe John Edwards was right after all. Maybe there are two Americas.

 
At 8/17/2005 10:27 PM, Blogger Always On Watch said...

David,
A fascinating link! I wasn't at all familiar with the Villisca murders.

I have an amateur's interested in crime, particularly violent murders. I have extensively studied the Lizzie Borden Case--and not just by reading books and seeing films.

In 1985, while visiting Lizzie's hometown on a road trip to New England, we digressed from our planned route and paid a visit to Fall River, Massachusetts. At the Fall River Historical Society, I spoke with curator Florence Brigham, who, as a child, knew old lady Lizzie. Miss Brigham was convinced that Lizzie was guilty and didn't discuss the possible motives which have been posited, other than to say that Lizzie's sister Emily was NOT involved. In sum, Miss Brigham felt that Lizzie was justified in murdering her father and stepmother. While visiting the Historical Society, which housed many Lizzie "relics," I held Lizzie's lunch pail and sat on the stool she used during her one-year time in jail (between arrest and acquittal), but I felt no "vibrations." I've also visited her grave, several times--again, no "vibrations."

In 1992, on the 100th anniversary of the murders, I attended the Lizzie Borden Symposium in Fall River, Massachusettts. People from all around the world came to this event, and I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Dr. James Starrs, who also has researched the death of Jesse James. The symposium was quite an event! I have pages and pages of notes from the lectures I attended. Nothing corny about the symposium, let me assure you.

A few years ago, my husband and I visited the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast (opened a few years after the 1992 symposium). The B&B is located in the very house in which the ax murders occurred. Having walked all through that house, I've reached my own conclusions about the 1892 ax-murderers which so shocked Fall River.

 
At 8/17/2005 11:21 PM, Blogger Esther said...

What an interesting post, AOW!! Wow. I truly hope you get that collection of your father-in-law's! How cool would that be?

As for dying on your anniversary....actually I think that's quite common. Often people "hold on" for a special day (birthday, anniversary) and then finally feel they can "let go."

 
At 8/19/2005 7:31 PM, Blogger BonnieBlueFlag said...

Mustang, would that be Henry County, Tennessee, where they used to hide all of the moonshine stills in the "Land Between the Lakes" region?

Has anyone heard from Mr. Baker since his passing? Imagine how surprised he was, when he found out that he had been wrong all along about the after life?

AOW, I have been fascinated by the Lizzie Borden tale since I can remember. I'm quite jealous of your visit to "the" house.

Esther, I thought the same thing about his waiting until that date to let go, supposedly that is very common.

AOW, if you like "Lucy and Desi," stop by at http://mumbojumbo2222.blogspot.com/, there is a kindred spirit there. Oops, excuse the pun.

Well, I'm off to read up on the murders in Villisca, Iowa.

It was nice visiting with you all,

 

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