Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

by Mary Roach

Hardcover, 2005




W. W. Norton & Company, (2005)


"What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that's that-- the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my laptop?" In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die. She begins the journey in rural India with a reincarnation researcher and ends up in a University of Virginia operating room where cardiologists have installed equipment near the ceiling to study out-of-body near-death experiences. Along the way, she enrolls in an English medium school, gets electromagnetically haunted at a university in Ontario, and visits a Duke University professor with a plan to weigh the consciousness of a leech. Her historical wanderings unearth soul-seeking philosophers who rummaged through cadavers and calves' heads, a North Carolina lawsuit that established legal precedence for ghosts, and the last surviving sample of "ectoplasm" in a Cambridge University archive" -- publisher's web site.… (more)

Media reviews

Roach ranges far and wide in "Spook," traveling to India to look into reincarnation and England to take a course in how to be a medium. She is a skeptic, but comes to some surprising conclusions in "Spook."

User reviews

LibraryThing member vpfluke
This is a disappointing book, The author adopts a very flip style that is as suspect as the evidence that the believers in extra-sensory phenomena utilize. The author presumes that all evidence of the afterlife is a hoax and then virtually laughs at those who do believe. For those of us who take a middle road on such subjects, you feel that the judge has passed sentence before the trial has begun. Her skepticism is probably right on a majority of the time, I'm just not sure how deserving of roasting her victims are.… (more)
LibraryThing member Lisa2013
recommended for: fans of books by Mary Roach; any reader interested in the subject matter

I loved Mary Roach's Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (how can I not adore an author who has me laughing heartily as I read about what happens to dead human bodies?!) (a 5 star book for me) and I’d like to read her book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void and maybe Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex too, but I wasn’t that enthusiastic about reading this book. But, it’s the October selection for my real world book club so I dived in, with maybe not an open mind but not a 100% tightly shut mind, just a 99.99% shut mind. This book, I’d likely never have picked up on my own, at least not until I’d read all other books by Roach.

This book is a delight because its author is funny. So funny! She’s also scientifically minded. Sense of humor and scientific mindedness are two things I value highly.

And, it’s a good thing that this book is laugh out loud hilarious because I also had to get through reading about absurd and gruesome experiments on animals and people that she describes. The contents turned out to be partly about a subject I’ve always enjoyed: the history of medicine.

And on page 72, there is even mention of the man I read about in the children’s picture book Fartiste by Kathleen Krull and Paul Brewer and illustrated by Boris Kulikov.

This is a remarkably quick read. I laughed and smiled more during the first half than the second half of the book, but I’m not convinced it got any less funny; I’m more inclined to think the humor wore thin for me, and I’d had enough of the subject. But there is plenty of humor throughout and even the “Acknowledgements” section is a hoot.

The book is organized beautifully; one chapter flows perfectly into the next.

Oh, and for all my talk of the hilarity present within these pages the subject is taken seriously, and with an open, albeit scientific, survey.

I must say I was a wee bit surprised by her expressed opinions in the “Last Words” section in the back of the book.

What I love most about this book (and Stiff and I assume her other books too) is that she takes her readers on a journey that she is also experiencing for herself.

There is an impressive Bibliography, materials listed for each chapter of this book.

My book club chose this as our October selection because it’s the month of Halloween. I’m not sure how much we’ll talk about the book vs. our own beliefs vs. general talk, but that’s the case for virtually all our book club meetings, no matter which/what types of books we read; most meetings we talk more about non-book related things than the books we’ve read, and the vegan food we’re eating and enjoying is a common enough subject of our conversation.

3 ½ to 3 ¾ stars
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LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Roach's humor and skepticism is laugh out loud funny. She's honestly trying to assess the current work being done on the human soul, but along the way, she gets swept up into the world of mediums, the Society for Psychical Research, NDE researchers, and everything in between. She puts a lot of research on the table and even the footnotes are worth reading.… (more)
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
3.5 stars

Mary Roach is not a scientist, but she decided to look at what happens when humans die, from a scientific viewpoint. Various things she looked into included: reincarnation, souls, mediums and ghosts.

I enjoyed this. This is my first book by Roach (though I already had planned to read more), and I hear it's not her best one, but it was still enjoyable. There are occasional humourous quips inserted as she reports what she's found, via research, interviewing people and doing her own research (including medium school!). I do look forward to reading her other books, as well.… (more)
LibraryThing member JLSmither
Spook explores not only the afterlife, but the history of the soul, ghost hunting, haunting phenomena, and mediumship. Although the scope of the book is broad, and Mary Roach touches lightly on each topic (or dives extremely deep into one aspect of the topic), I think most anyone could learn something new, no matter his or her spiritual beliefs.

The author provides a good review of obscure (and not so obscure) research into a variety of “paranormal” topics. It wasn’t so long ago that paranormal studies was a perfectly legitimate branch of science that many scientists from a variety of disciplines studied. I’ve done some reading on the Society of Psychical Research, and their early studies especially strove to remain as scientific as possible. At times, the author’s description of this older science--and even some of the modern experiments--struck me as a little too sarcastic, verging on outright laughing at people’s beliefs. If you are going to learn something new, you have to be open to bizarre-sounding ideas before you judge them. However, that eye-rolling may have been over-emphasized by the narrator on the audio edition I listened to. The narrator also came up with some amazingly annoying accents for various people, several bordering on the offensive, and mispronounced some basic, non-science words throughout the text, so I wouldn’t recommend the audio version.

The most fascinating new piece of information I learned was the intense reaction that some people have to psychoacoustics, which can make eyeballs vibrate and cause hallucinations. For all the ghost hunter shows I’ve watched, I’d never heard that explanation before. I was also fascinated by the ectoplasm chapter.

However, I would have liked a little more depth about the variety of things people believe happen to them after death. The opening chapter on a scientist studying reincarnation was brilliant (except for the Abu accent my narrator assumed). The author sort of addresses the Christian version of Heaven and Hell throughout the rest of the text, especially through the near-death experience stories. But what about other beliefs, like the post-mortem (and pre-mortem) baptisms that Mormons conduct for non-Mormons without their consent so they can come to the same spiritual paradise? What about the Buddhist idea of breaking free of reincarnation and achieving nirvana? Is no one studying these other beliefs?

Overall, Spook is a fascinating walk through the science of the soul (more so than the science of the afterlife, I’d say). I’d recommend it to anyone curious about ghosts and attempts to prove that spirits are distinct from physical bodies.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
The Book Report: Hot off the success of Stiff, Roach launched herself at an equally surprising topic: Does the soul exist? Is it possible to find it? Can the soul's survival of individual death account for the mysteries of reincarnation and hauntings?

In a word, No. Roach travels the globe looking for the kind of evidence that scientists look for when postulating the existence of muons and Higgs bosons, sans the billion-plus dollar measuring equipment and teams of serious guys in funny coats and booties. Unsurprisingly, she fails to find it.

My Review: All the stars in this book's favor are for Roach's hilarious writing and funny anecdotal collections. None are for the subject at hand, which she simply cannot bring herself to treat seriously. Her lapsed Catholicism made her too deeply skeptical to break free of it horrible fist-clench and look at the improbability of success from the few, one-quarter-assed feeble swats science has aimed at resolving this topic scientifically. Spend twenty or so billion dollars and a couple decades on it. Then let's see what science has to say. After all, they're doing *just that* for this Higgs boson dingus at CERN, so far with no success, and the immense machine they've built to see this particular angel dance on that particular pinhead seems as cranky as my knees on a cold morning.

So please forgive me for rating her quest at zero, failed utterly before it started due to prejudice on the part of the questor and her chosen henchrats, but that's the only honest judgment I can render. Going looking for something in a place where it just isn't, and you already knew it wasn't, isn't looking...it's looking for chances to be funny, snarky, and cool, plus scoring one off the mental midgets who spiritually abused you in the name of Jeebus.

But GOD this woman's funny! I laughed and laughed and laughed at some of her lines!
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LibraryThing member RachelfromSarasota
I loved this book! This was my first exposure to Mary Roach's crackling wit and acerbic humor, but it will not be my last.

Roach, who has had articles published in magazines ranging in diversity from Vogue to Discover, has taken on the question of whether there is life after death with a scholar's passion for details and support. Her book is a wide-ranging examination of both past experiments in the field of parapsychology and current attempts to figure out if near death experiences could be anything but neurological phenomena. A self-confessed skeptic, her investigations were as wide-ranging as her impressive intellect.

Yet for all her skepticism and insistence on replicable proofs, she confesses to some moments of doubt. For example, when psychic Allison DuBois (whose life is the basis for the NBC hit series MEDIUM) suddenly comes out with a statement purporting to be from the author's "discarnate" mother, a statement that is both specific and relatively abstruse, Roach admits to experiencing a "dazzle moment" of utter belief.

Her knack for poking fun at sacred cows, as well as her scalpel-like ability to cut away the bloated rhetoric of both researchers and true believers, makes this investigative journey eminently readable. Add to that Roach's ability to poke wry fun at her own predilections and you have a book that is a delightful literary adventure.

Very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
When "science tackles the afterlife" in Mary Roach's 2005 book "Spook," you don't find much in the way of answers to age-old questions, but you do find a good time. Roach, as in other books with mostly one-word titles like "Stiff," "Gulp" and "Bonk," seems more interested in satisfying her curiosity and discovering science's lighter side than in hard science. Her college degree was in psychology. Still she imparts some information you are not likely to find, at least not all in one place, in any other science book.

Her most amazing bit of information may be simply that a few scientists really have made serious studies of such questions as: Do human bodies lose weight after death, possibly because of departing spirits? Can mediums really communicate with the dead? Do near-death experiences really give glimpses into heaven? Can cameras, recorders and other devices capture evidence of spirits that cannot be detected by the human senses?

The evidence in these studies proves inconclusive, yet often suggestive. Roach herself, if still skeptical about an afterlife at the end of her book, nevertheless seems hopeful. "I believe in the possibility of something more ...," she writes. "It's not much, but it's more than I believed a year ago."

Thus, "Spook" is a book both believers and skeptics can take some comfort in. It doesn't prove their position, but neither does it disprove it. Is there life after death? This book leaves most of us where we began, relying not on science but on what we believe, or what we want to believe.
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LibraryThing member kvrfan
I loved Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars," and when I told that to a friend, he lent me "Spook." I enjoyed this book too, but not as much. I got some big laughs from "Packing for Mars" (while learning a lot), while Roach seemed more subdued in "Spook." Only in her last chapter did I feel some of the same spirit she showed in "Packing for Mars."

"Spooks" is subtitled, "Science Tackles the Afterlife." The title is a bit misleading. For most of the book, a more accurate subtitle would be, "Science Tackles the Psuedo-Science Intrigued With the Afterlife," as Roach investigates mediums, parapsychology investigators, and the like. In the few instances where she talks with true scientists, the final answer she arrives at to the question, "What might science tell us about any afterlife?" is, "Nothing, really."
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LibraryThing member Big_Bang_Gorilla
This is a moderately interesting examination of the work being done by various individuals, on different levels of elevation of credentials and intellectual rigor, who are looking for evidence of an afterlife for humans. My level of interest in this book was a tad below that of most reviewers, who tend to give the author a free pass sometimes. Although she certainly has the right to append her own opinions at the end of the book, I wasn't too impressed with the level of critical thinking that she put into the matter.… (more)
LibraryThing member MissLizzy
I read Roach's first book (STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS) and really enjoyed it, so when I heard that she had a second one out, I jumped at the chance. Got the last copy at my local bookstore, but didn't have the time to actually read it until I got back up to school.

I love how Roach is so scientific that she almost refuses to believe in anything that science can't explain. But just because it can't be tracked, recorded, photographed or catalogued, doesn't mean it's not there.… (more)
LibraryThing member alyce413
I didn't like this as much as Mary Roach's previous book, Stiff. Although it's often entertaining and informative, it takes a skeptic's view on the afterlife that at times seems a little too opinionated. Still, a fun read.
LibraryThing member PirateJenny
First she looked into cadavers. Now she tackles how science is trying to prove that there is an afterlife. With her same brilliant sense of humor (or, to quote Mary Roach, her fourth-grade maturity level) she takes us from mediums and ectoplasm (describing how she really hopes the students at her table at Cambridge University would go to lunch before she has to pull the ectoplasm out of its box file) to stories of reincarnation to near death experiences. The perfect follow-up to Stiff.… (more)
LibraryThing member TPLThing
Author Mary Roach takes a quick stroll through the work of a variety of researchers trying to discover the undiscovered country. She interviews experts on reincarnation, near-death experiences, spirit mediums and others. Much of the research she examines is surprisingly un-flaky, though it does tend to reveal much more about the living than it does about the dead.… (more)
LibraryThing member stephiekat
Mary Roach, who writes for Salon.com, is side-splittingly hilarious. I preferred her previous book, the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but this new book is also bizarre, funny, interesting, and many things... Pay close attention to footnotes - they often pack the biggest laugh.
LibraryThing member indygo88
I found this one to be on par with Roach's other two titles ("Stiff" and "Bonk"). I've enjoyed all three nearly equally, and while I don't typically read much non-fiction, I do enjoy Roach's humor for the most part. I would agree with the comment of another reader's review that I read which said this book might be more aptly titled something along the lines of "Spirit" or "Soul" or something similar, as opposed to "Spook", which leads the reader to believe there might be more ghost-story &/or spooky type anecdotes in the book, which is not the case. While most of the information in here was interesting, it seems that science continues to struggle to find evidential proof of a soul's existence.… (more)
LibraryThing member allthesedarnbooks
It's not very many books that can make me interested in science, and for the second time in a row (after Stiff), Mary Roach has done that and more. I stayed up all night reading (and laughing). Everything within the book is fascinating, even the footnotes, and my only wish would be that she would include more. I loved this book! Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member TZacek
Sandwiched between Stiff (her book about cadavers) and Bonk (her book about sex), is Spook, a book about boring. Honestly, there was some of the flavor of Roach's other books, with her typical humor and dry wit interspersed. I just found it bloody hard and tedious to get through. Perhaps it is my own cynical feelings on the afterlife, but I just could not get absorbed the way I was with her other books. Sorry, Mary, I love ya. But this one was a swing and a miss for me.… (more)
LibraryThing member mr_rhumba
Too tongue-in-cheek. Not bad but author does better with "Stiff".
LibraryThing member localpeanut
Utterly disappointed in this book. I should have waited to borrow it from the library. I really wanted to like this book. Her previous book, STIFF, was great. She was hilarious! But in this one . . . she came across as "condescending" and "in love with her own wit." All those nasty, patronizing asides while her subjects confided her in earnest belief of life after death. It became really tedious to read. (I was barely skimming the pages by the last chapter.)

I'm genuinely interested in the paranormal. (SPOOK seemed such a promising title from a genuinely talented writer.) But this book was nothing but a "debunkers" wet dream.

Some parts were appreciably informative. Like the charlatans she wrote about: phony mediums and cheesecloth ectoplasm. The notion of reincarnation. Figuring out the weight of souls.

But as I got further into the book, I got the notion that Mary Roach was enjoying herself at the expense of the people she was interviewing. And that she was out to prove that there is no afterlife. Because ghosts are really nothing more than electromagnetic fields wiggling our eyeballs or that spirit voices are radio transmissions from Belgium-- trapped in a layer of smog or whatever! I mean if you were genuinely trying to get serious about "hearing" the dead, why would you join a group of tourists who want to record the Donner Party!

I think Mary Roach was just milking SPOOKS for some mean-spirited laughs. A generous 2 for this book. Because I just had breakfast.

For something completely different but still in the paranormal area, buy THE DEMONOLOGIST instead. A reprint just came out.
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LibraryThing member cmc
Mary Roach’s last book, Stiff, was a lot of fun. I learned a lot of interesting (and disturbing) facts about what happens to bodies once they’re—so to speak—unoccupied.

Spook is a similar exploration, picking up where Stiff left off. Is there an afterlife? If so, can we communicate with the dead? What about reincarnation, near-death experiences, and other “spooky” experiences?

Along the way, Roach talks with various researchers into these questions. Some seem quite sane, others, well, not so much.

In the end, I think she kind of cops out. The book itself completely fails to build a believable scientific case for life-after-death, although there are some people with what seem like well-designed experiments who are still looking into the questions.

Still a very fun book (with lots of amusing bits to read aloud to friends and family), and appropriate for the season (the season being Hallowe’en, of course).
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LibraryThing member DanaJean
This is my second Mary Roach book, the first being STIFF which I found to be a really fascinating look into the curious lives of human cadavers.

This one is also captivating; just really well researched. I admire her work ethic by "spanning the globe" to bring us information about a topic that everyone has a curiosity about. Great sense of humor, too. I always enjoy subject matter that while teetering on being textbooky, can deliver the goods with laughs. I look forward to more of her work.… (more)
LibraryThing member nilchance
I didn't like this book as much as Stiff, honestly; it doesn't hit my forensics button, though Roach is still a joy to read. I did find the section on EVPs fascinating, mostly because I'm a big fan of Ghosthunters and the like. Would still follow Roach to the ends of the earth, because lo, she is awesome.
LibraryThing member missmath144
Mary Roach investigates near-death experiences, psychic phenomena, and other evidence of life after death. I thoroughly enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek humor of her writing.
LibraryThing member tloeffler
I have to admit, I didn't like it as well as Stiff or Bonk, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. I had recently read a book about William James and the early Society for Psychical Research, and she touched on a lot of stories that were also in that book. She admitted up front that she was a skeptic, which I guess is what you have to be when you're concentrating on the science of something, and although nothing like this is ever proven, it was fun to watch her do her research!… (more)


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