Member of the Society for Psychical Research
Sarah Chumacero is a paranormal investigator and actively blogs at https://llifs.com.au/. She has a background in photography, which is a very handy skill to have when approaching the field of ghost research. Her active blogging has allowed her to accumulate a decent collection of short articles covering topics spanning all aspects of ghost research and paranormal phenomena. Her blog posts have subsequently been compiled to create this book. The material not only contains discussion of anomalies, but also the equipment used and, very importantly, the physical and psychological factors that can and do influence interpretations of anomalous activity.
Sarah’s book, The Stuff Paranormal Investigators Need to Know (Vol 1), is composed of 33 short chapters, each being around 3 to 5 pages in length. My initial thought was that these were too short, however, the format actually works very well. The shorter chapter format and the easy readability help to bypass any mental barriers the reader may have in accepting the information, increasing knowledge and reducing misconceptions. From a scientific perspective, I found that the lack of any references a little irksome. It is always good to provide supporting material to justify claims or direct the reader to other resources. However this is not a deal-breaker in view of the text being aimed at a non-technical reader. The reader will be left with a decent breadth of knowledge to allow them to pursue their personal topics of interest should they desire.
Due to many years of interacting with the general public about paranormal phenomena I am well aware that there are many common misconceptions, yet misconceptions which are really difficult to correct. No matter how many times explanations are provided of obvious and clear-cut instances of pareidolia, people swear blind that their photos are exceptions to the rule. The cold intellect might acknowledge the evidence for pareidolia but the irrational, emotional part within us resists and usually dominates. Believers are always going to believe (just like sceptics); trying to force facts down their throats only raises the barriers. Sarah’s book is written in a disarming style; like a conversation between friends. It presents information in small bites that are easy to swallow. The data is also interspersed with examples and personal experiences which help to give it a more friendly touch. This, I think, all helps to inform the reader without necessarily forcing logic and copious amounts of ‘incontrovertible proof’ on an unwilling reader.
The book is subdivided into 4 parts; Visual Experiences , Auditory Experiences, Memory & Perception, and Physical Responses. The most commonly encountered phenomena, which are visual and auditory are covered well. Sarah uses her own examples and various visual illusions to help illustrate her point that the brain can be fooled into misperceptions and misinterpretations. Chapter five, on the topic of seeing things in ones peripheral vision seemed to me somewhat confused, at least at first. The reason for this was the discussion of the blind spot. The blind spot, being only about 10-20 degrees from central vision, has nothing to do with peripheral vision and the commonly reported shadows in the corner of the eye. I initially thought that there must have been some confusion on Sarah’s part. However incorporating the blind spot and a self-test experiment for the reader to find their own blind spot actually works very well. It provides a clear example of how the perception by the mind can be ‘deceived’ by the sensory processing of the brain.
The topic of misperceptions and misinterpretations is a very important one when trying to undertake an objective investigation into the paranormal. From personal experience, when these topics arise during a conversation, the general public will nod politely but remain sceptical – especially if it is their own experiences that are under the microscope. What I like about Sarah’s style is that although she looks at the phenomena from a critical perspective (and rightly so), her style doesn’t necessarily leave the reader with an unpleasant taste as one might get from a more didactic writing style. Overall, I found myself agreeing with most of Sarah’s views and opinions on the paranormal. The attitude she portrays is that of an open-minded yet objective investigator. Positioning onself somewhere between a hardened sceptic, that rejects everything, and an ardent believer that accepts everything allows for a sweet spot with respect to garnering some decent evidence without all the noise of mundane false positives. Throughout the book there are helpful suggestions and pointers for potential investigators to make more informed decisions. In particular, I like the statement that “there is no piece of equipment that can actually detect a spirit or a ghost” (p. 138). Keeping this in mind during an investigation will stop investigators from jumping to conclusions.
When I agreed to review The Stuff Paranormal Investigators Need to Know (Vol 1), I didn’t realise the difficulty I would encounter when trying to provide a review from a truly unbiased perspective. The author, Sarah Chumacero and I came into the field of ghost research from different directions. Whereas my background was largely science based, Sarah’s appears to be more casual. Here I was, a ‘scientist’, holding a book about a subject matter that was very personal to me, being presented by a ‘layperson’; an internet blogger with a background in photography! To add insult to injury, many of the locations she investigated were the same ones I had investigated before I was pushed out of the market, so to speak. Ghost tour took over locations, set up exclusive contracts with the venues and inadvertently eliminated access to scientific efforts. The mighty dollar wins out over science any day. Rightly or wrongly I was surprised to see myself so conflicted when reading Sarah’s book. I had to put it down for several weeks in order to do some serious introspection and ego checking. This is just as well, because once I took off my scientist hat and put on my layman’s hat, I began to see this text for what it really was; a very useful handbook for the non-technical reader and budding paranormal investigator.