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31 Days of Halloween

‘Stiff’ and ‘Spook’ — Digging into death and the afterlife with books by Mary Roach

The scientific way to celebrate the spooky season with spirits, psychics, and cadavers.

Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October, we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and sharing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media — books, comics, movies, and television — to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Halloween is creeping up on us, and you know what that means. It’s the only time of year when people don’t seem to mind if you enjoy life a little on the macabre side. During this season, we’re asked to entertain our imaginations with mystery and to live in a fantasy world where monsters and ghosts abound — they’re usually looking for candy, in my experience. That’s all in fun, but what about the real world?

While the stories of hauntings and things that go bump in the night can occasionally be exciting, they leave skeptics, curious thinkers, and science-minded individuals hanging on the edge of a cliff. It’s murky there, where what’s known is just as messy and confusing as quantum physics or the answer 42.

We hang on to the edge of the short, seemingly simple question, “What happens when we die?”

Author Mary Roach approached this cliff, dove off the edge, and swam through research looking for answers. She’s penned two science-based books that explore her findings — Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers digs into the special journey of dead bodies, and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, which searches for the existence of life after death. They may seem a bit morbid, perfect for a spooky Halloween read, but rest assured, you can expect a near-lethal dose of laughter in both books.

I’m dead, now what?

Stiff, which came out in 2004, goes behind the scenes to shed light on what remains today a taboo topic: what happens to our physical body when we expire. Of course, Roach talks about the various methods of body disposal, the processes your body will go through with each, and alternatives that you may not have considered. Where this book makes waves is in showcasing all the work that cadavers do. Yes, some of the dead have postmortem jobs.

Roach explores the “curious life” of the cadavers who, when they were living, opted to be organ donors, as well as those who donated their remains to science. You’ll dig deep into the history of body snatchers and dissection, take in the rich aroma of fields stocked with decaying bodies, transplant yourself into the world of a life-saving organ donation, and even stomach (if you can) some hearty cannibalism.

So much taboo still lies with cadavers and the dead, yet it’s something we’ve all got to deal with at some point. And it’s more involved in our daily lives than we like to imagine. Having plastic surgery? Just ate a candy bar? Driving a car with a good safety rating? Remember that old anatomy book with all the biological structures named? Death has touched them all, and though we owe cadavers (human and animal) the utmost gratitude for their services, we can’t afford to keep washing the topic down the mortuary drain.

Stiff is one of my personal favorite books ever; I own two hard copies that have been read several times each and I’ve listened to it once as an audiobook. It’s an emotional ride at times, but it has its own gracefulness that I can’t quite put my finger on. Scientifically, it’s sturdy and well-researched, and it’s tastefully respectful to the dead, as well as the people who work in cadaver-related jobs.

Still it’s, well … I choose to use the word “gory” here. It’s describing dead bodies, murders, entrails, and more, concepts of death that we tend to shy away from socially. Stiff is not covered in photos, but the imaging in your own mind may be less than appealing. If death and dead bodies disturb you, or you may be a bit squeamish, you might want to try Spook instead.

You can’t live forever, maybe

Roach wasn’t done dealing with the dead. In 2006, she published Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. To say this book is different than Stiff wouldn’t be honest — it’s on a completely different plane of existence. It isn’t at all concerned with cadavers, but purely of what’s inside our individual minds, the part of you that is explicitly “you.” Your “spirit” or “soul,” for some; for others it may be defined as your mind and includes your personality and everything you know and think about.

Roach approaches the subject with exhaustive research and presents interesting historical documentation of the search for the soul’s physical location inside the body. You’ll find some horrors within these pages, of course, like untimely deaths, awful experiments, and long-winded chats about quantum physics with those who do “paranormal research.” There’s a wealth of information on near-death experiences, how mediums tricked folks during the spiritualism craze, and tests of how much the soul weighs.

While she makes it clear that she’s a skeptic with no religious ties, Roach promises to approach the idea of the afterlife with a (somewhat sarcastic, snarky) open mind. She travels to India to investigate claims of reincarnation, enrolls in a psychic medium class, and travels back in time to solve an old mystery of a ghost who gave a last will and testament. You’ll learn about EVP (electronic voice phenomena), infrasound, and even ELFs (no, not that kind of elf).

Though this book is well-researched and scientifically backed, the sociologist side of my spirit enjoyed it far more than the science communicator part of me. It’s really a difficult topic for science to pin down, and I’ll tell you now, Roach makes no final decision on whether the afterlife is or isn’t. Ultimately, the purpose of the book isn’t to decide for you one way or the other, so if you go in expecting to debunk all the things or alternatively rejoice in paradise, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Spook isn’t nearly as dark as Stiff. Some of the chapters do get a bit long, and admittedly they did occasionally overload my brain with too much information, but Roach brings her charming wit and humor and ultimately makes everything blend together. The two books complement each other nicely, though they are drastically different from one another, not just in terms of content, but in the way they feel as Roach tells the story.

If you’re bored with trick-or-treating and are looking for a humorous, thoroughly researched way to spend your Halloween (or any other day, really), you definitely want to give these books a read. They’re to die for!

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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