The Science Behind Unseen Phenomena
Stacy Horn

Stacy Horn

Stacy Horn, the author of Unbelievable, is also a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. She lives in New York city. Ask Stacy your questions about ghosts, poltergeists, telepathy, and the science behind the paranormal. She’ll answer as many of your questions as possible during the week of March 22 through 27th.

During the early 1930s, Duke University went against the grain and opened a parapsychology lab. J.B. Rhine, who actually coined the term parapsychology, along with his colleagues sought to uncover the truth about various phenomena using scientific methods. In Unbelievable, author Stacy Horn chronicles the decades of research done in the lab.’s Catherine Schwanke recently spoke with Horn by phone to discuss her new book, and the unbelievable.

Plus: Got a question for Stacy Horn? Ask away! We’ve devoted a forum to your queries. Ms. Horn will answer as many of your questions as possible, also in the forum, during the week of March 22-27.

Feeling lucky? Leave a comment (any comment) below. Ten commenters, randomly chosen on March 31st, will win a free copy of Unbelievable How did you first hear about the Duke Parapsychology Lab?

Stacy Horn: I had heard about it off and on. It has been mentioned in the movies. When something paranormal happens, they usually say, “Let’s talk to the Duke guys.” So I had heard about it before. I had previously written this book about the NYPD Cold Case squad and it was depressing, so I needed to find something different. My original plan was to write about a ghost story in Harlem. After I wrote it up, I sent it to my publicist. She read it and said, “Hey, I grew up in North Carolina not far from Duke where they had the Parapsychology Lab. I lived so close to it, but I don’t know anything about it. You should look into it.” And I did, and it turned out to be a better than the ghost story. Was it difficult to get permission from Duke to write about the lab?

Horn: I made a few phone calls and basically, yeah, I had to convince them that I was not going to attack the work of the lab. I had to prove that I was a good researcher; I gave them my other books to look at. These people were academics, not ghost hunters, so I had to convince them that I was not going to paint them this way. How long did it take you to go through all the case files?

Horn: By the end I was practically crying, “I want to go home!” There were over 700 files! I basically had to sample them. I picked boxes from every decade because there was no way I could go through all of them. By the end, I had a good idea of what went on in the lab, so I could look deeper into the files.

The most fun part for me was going through the letters that were sent to the lab because most of what went on in the lab were experiments in math and science, which was above me. But Duke had a reputation, so anytime anything strange happened, people would write to them about their experiences, so in between the stories of Duke, I wrote about the experiences of these people. I picked a selection of letters and I’m literally reading this letter about how the bed shakes and this boy is seeing visions of the devil and it sounds exactly like the Exorcist. I Googled it and it turned out that this is in fact the little boy the movie was based on. So I did more research about the case and it turns out, the initial priest involved did not think it was a demon. Rhine, the director of the lab, thought it was some sort of psychokinesis and they both thought that mental illness or emotional trauma was involved. They thought it was something scientific that could be explained. The boy was going through puberty at the time, so they even thought maybe that had something to do with whatever was going on. Wow! So was it spooky reading about the cases?

Horn: Everybody asks me that. No, it really wasn’t to me. It was exciting! The possibility that the things they were studying were real was exciting. I just thought that it was more fun. The only time I became scared was when I was reading about a study of letters about people’s ghost experiences. The Duke lab compiled hundreds of letters people sent them about experiences with ghosts. After going thorough all of them, they found if people were having experiences with ghosts, they were hearing them more than seeing them. It’s known as EVP, electronic voice phenomena, and I started researching this stuff. I started Googling EVP and I found there are people who record the noises they hear and actually do put this stuff on the web. I started listening to the noises and even though I did not believe I was listening to the dead or ghosts from beyond, I got scared. I was at my computer and I looked up at the ceiling in my apartment and said, “Please don’t speak to me.” If there are ghosts or spirits in my apartment, I didn’t want to hear from them. That was the only time I was scared. What case impacted you the most?

Horn: There were two. One got to me emotionally. I came across a letter a father wrote, asking for help finding his missing son. He wanted Rhine to give him the names of psychics he could contact. Rhine did not want to give the father any names because he felt psychics were unreliable and could cause more harm than good. But the father was persistent, and Rhine was a father also, so he gave him the names of two psychics. One said the boy was murdered. The other one said the boy was alive, that he had been picked up by a couple who always wanted children and was living on a farm. Of course the father believed the one that said the boy was alive and spent years agonizing and looking for him…but Rhine never just believed in something, there was always an explanation for what was going on.

The other was a poltergeist case that I wrote about just because it seemed to be real, it wasn’t a hoax. It was like the movie Poltergeist, things were being transported around the house, objects were moving…And after all the research, it turns out the things that were happening were real. Most of them do turn out to be hoaxes, so it is exciting when it turns out this really happened. Most people do not think of studying unseen phenomena and ESP the work of scientists. What did Rhine and his colleagues do to make their work considered scientific?

Horn: They identified an effect, like psychokinesis, and went through the process of studying it. They went about coming up with calculable experiments, just like any other experiment in science. They specifically designed experiments to study the different things like psychokinesis. The most famous of the experiments that I think most people are familiar with were the tests with ESP cards. They used the experiment in the movie Ghostbusters. They would test mostly Duke University students and would see if the students could recall the shapes and symbols on the cards. And it turns out they could. It was all statistics and probability and they tested it over and over again. By the end, they were testing double blind, the researchers and students did not know the symbols on the cards, and they found the students could still recall the images. And that is science, establishing an experiment, refining controls and using statistical methods to analyze the results. Were you a believer in the paranormal and life after death before you began your research?

Horn: No, and I would not say I am necessarily a believer now. I researched this to the best of my ability and found no reason to not believe the work done by Rhine and the lab. Over the years scientists tried to say the experiments were not controlled, but that is simply not the case. I think they made a case for telepathy and to me it is exciting. It implies there is another way to get data out there in the world and some people seem to have access to it. I don’t know if telepathy is necessarily the answer but some people seem to have access to another realm.

Feeling lucky? Leave a comment (any comment) below. Ten commenters, randomly chosen on March 31st, will win a free copy of Unbelievable