I am one of the few people disappointed by Steve Volk’s Fringeology. It’s well written, compelling, interesting and thoroughly researched, so I certainly can’t fault him for providing us all with a great read. I do, however, fault him for not fully exploring and embracing the significance of his Family Ghost Story (spoiler alert warning: if you are planning to read the book, you may not want to continue here. I will reveal the ending!).
Volk tackles several areas of paranormal activity and/or research, such as aliens and U.F.O.s, lucid dreaming, consciousness outside of brain activity, Near Death Experiences, and—of course—ghosts. In every chapter, he makes the case that most people will ardently defend paranormal phenomena without applying sufficient critical thinking skills, or rabidly debunk it without considering the evidence. He argues for a middle ground where one is not forced into either position, but allows the paranormal to remain a mystery. On the surface, I find that argument compelling. Of course, the two camps will always war over the reality of survival of death or the existence of alien civilizations; that does not further discourse or advance our search for the truth. However, maintaining the fence-sitting position does nothing to move us forward in our quest for knowledge. Volk’s contention that much of the paranormal is “unprovable” by the scientific method doesn’t take into account the vast amount of research that has been conducted in this area over the last 150 years (at least). Yes, attempting to recreate paranormal phenomena in a laboratory setting is nearly impossible—or at the very least, very difficult. The psi results obtained so far, for example, are fairly unimpressive but statistically significant.
Clearly, much of the frustration of anomalous phenomena consists of its amorphous, changeable nature. Volk doesn’t appear to place much trust in the truth of people’s experiences and stories, which is how most of what we know about the paranormal is examined. Volk comes across as afraid to take the stories too seriously, because so much of our current knowledge is anecdotal. “Proving” the existence of another reality is more like making a court case and presenting the evidence. In the legal profession, we rely on eyewitness accounts and a preponderance of evidence indicating that something is more than likely true than not when deciding someone’s fate. That is precisely what we need to do with the paranormal—treat it at as a court case, subject it to academic and legal standards for evaluation and interpretation instead of our odd insistence that only hard science can validate what most of us already know is real.
The average citizen appears to believe that only a laboratory can yield the hardest of truths, but I am at a loss as to why we treat the paranormal that way. After all, so much of what we accept as truth comes from sociological, psychological, legal and historical epistemology (ways of knowing) and our own hard-won wisdom gleaned from experience. Volk still has traces of that annoying “you can’t trust yourself” philosophy that bases everything we perceive as potentially explicable by chemical reactions and primitive responses. Yes, it’s true that we are often governed by chemical and endocrine processes, but that does not mean we can’t separate reality from fantasy or understand on a profound level the meaning and validity of our experiences. Fringeology is a text afraid to move too far from science when it comes to documenting and understanding anomalous experiences.
What really bothers me about this book, however, is the way Volk refuses to explicitly state what he believes about the Family Ghost. The phenomena he describes during his years in the family home are so intense and compelling that it boggles the mind to think there is any explanation other than the paranormal (assuming we believe that our author is telling the truth, and I have no reason to disbelieve him). When he discovers the answer to what he thinks caused the disturbance (which, apparently, continues to this day) through lucid dreaming, he REFUSES TO ACTUALLY DISCUSS IT or openly state his hypothesis. He has boxed himself into a corner with his own philosophy, which is to leave the strange stuff to mystery and wonder. We can feel and appreciate the mystery and wonder without refusing to come up with a theory or advance a belief. Volk forces the reader to figure it out on her own, through suggestion and hinting, a literary practice that does not work for me here.
What we are supposed to divine from the last chapter or so is that his grandfather’s alcoholism created the disturbances, or perhaps the ghost of the grandfather himself, unable to be at peace with his soul due to his substance abuse issues. Volk doesn’t want to SAY that, yet I don’t see what other conclusion can be drawn based on his presentation of events and the content of his lucid dream, which he either takes seriously but is embarrassed to admit it, or he doesn’t take seriously, in which case there is no point in wrapping up his entire text with that revelatory vision. You either take your dreams/visions/lucid hallucinations as meaningful, or you don’t—but it’s a coward’s way out to refuse to delve deeply into the implications of what you have discovered.
Judging by the reviews the book has received, I am fairly alone in my assessment here. Perhaps most readers will find the mysterious ending to be consistent with the book’s message and perfectly appropriate. My issue is that the ending is NOT mysterious, simply vague. Yes, I get what the author is attempting to convey here—but sometimes, you need to take a stand and tell the world what you suspect is or has been happening in your haunted home. Volk seems to KNOW, to have a theory, but I get the sense he is far too embarrassed to lose his street cred as a hard-nosed, objective journalist and acquire the dreaded Paranormal Taint from which he sees the worst of the skeptics flee.
I love mystery and a good ghost story. More than that, however, I am passionate about the pursuit of truth. That requires taking a stand with the evidence that you have at your disposal. It also requires that you risk making a mistake or having to revise your beliefs. That is the dialectical method, and it moves forward your thinking and that of others who engage with you in debate and discussion. If your grandfather haunts your house in a violent and negative fashion, it’s time to dig in and go deeper. Yes, you could leave it as a “mystery”, or you could dare to confront the questions of a family tragedy that will haunt you forever if you don’t.
–Kirsten A. Thorne, Ph.D.