Play and the Paranormal
A Conversation with Dr. Raymond Moody by Sharon Barbell
Nearly twenty years ago, Dr. Raymond Moody wrote Life After Life, the culmination of groundbreaking study on the Near Death Experience. His work helped legitimize a phenomenon that had once been regarded as fantasy, hallucination or something we simply could not explain and most often, would not even acknowledge. Dr. Moody is once again helping to en-lighten us all by having written Reunions: Visionary Encounters with Departed Loved Ones (Villard Books). This book is hot off the presses and is certain to intrigue and fascinate its readers. The following is part of a recent conversation I was privileged enough to have had with the author at his research facility in Anniston, Alabama.
SB: You are noted primarily for your research on the Near Death Experience. How and when in your career did you become interested in this phenomenon?
RM: Well, to go back to my childhood, I really was never into religion. The few times that they did take us to church, to me this was something quaint. Never did I seriously entertain this idea that there was a life after death. I always assumed that when you die, it was like a wipe out or an obliteration of your consciousness.
And so, in that context, when I was at the University of Virginia in 1965, one of my philosophy professors told me about a psychiatry professor there, George Ritchie, who had had an experience when he was pronounced dead some years before. I can't say that it entered my mind that it was life after death. But then, four years later, I was teaching at East Carolina University and a student of mine came up after class one day and asked if we could talk about the question of life after death. And when I asked why, he said that he had had an experience about a year before when he was pronounced dead, and when I asked him what it was, it was identical to what I'd heard from Dr. Ritchie. So, at that point I realized that this was something that was fairly common.
SB: For those who are not familiar with the classic Near Death Experience, can you briefly describe the traits associated with this experience?
RM: These people tell us that at the point when their heart stops beating or during this close call with death, they seem to leave their physical bodies and go up above and watch as down below the doctors try to get their heart started again, and they talk to us of going through a tunnel into a very brilliant and loving light. And very often at that point, they meet relatives or friends of theirs who have already passed on. And who seem to be there to help them through this transition. Undergoing a panoramic memory review in which they see all of the details of their lives displayed around them in a vision. They learn a lot about themselves at this point, where they realize their actions and the effects they've had on other people.
And I think most interestingly from the point of psychiatry is that we find that when these patients come back they really have had their lives transformed in a very dramatic fashion, that they are not afraid of death anymore. They come back feeling that the most important thing we can do while we're alive is to learn how to love. They will also add that this experience doesn't make you a saint. In other words, that it's still difficult on a day to day basis to keep in mind that what we're here for is to love each other and so on.
SB: How did you become interested in establishing the Dr. John Dee Memorial Theatre of the Mind?
RM: One thing I would like to say in the very beginning in saying these things, I am not in any way attempting to denegrate the study of the paranormal, which I think is very important. But, if you look at the history of this venture, and we can take it back several thousand years, say 2500 years, basically, there has always been a tendency among some people to look at allegedly paranormal experiences and events and to say that these are proof of life after death or other dimensions of existence, and then on the other hand, another group of people come along and say these are frauds or hoaxes or that these are, in the case of Near Death Experiences, physiological events in the brain or they have some naturalistic explanation. And the 2500 years of this adventure, this kind of debate, has resulted in absolutely nothing. And I am a person who is totally outside of that debate. I mean, I am in complete agreement with the skeptics, that these these experiences don't prove life after death, for instance, and they don't prove ESP and all of these things.
But to me, nonetheless these are very important things, and to me the skeptics, in the sense of the inveterate debunkers, they are people with an axe to grind and to me that's an uninteresting attitude. And also, with respect to the believers, I'm sure they're so uncritical.
But I have evolved over the years another way of looking at this. In our society we try to make the paranormal a department of science. The systematic study of the paranormal we call parapsychology. And the parapsychologist presumes that the scientific method can be used to prove or disprove, like to establish things like ESP or life after death, or whatever, which is to me, barking up the wrong tree.
And so I started thinking of the paranormal in a new way, and that is not as a branch of science, but as a branch of entertainment. That it has connections with science, in the sense that the paranormalist is obliged by the truth, you have to stick to the facts. But that it also has to do with entertainment in that the world of entertainment is a world which evokes realities, if I can put it that way, rather than proves them. You can sit there in a theatre and see Macbeth come alive before your eyes or see a wonderful performance which can take you into another world.
And then if you look at the paranormal, well, in many jurisdictions, psychics and fortune tellers and astrologers and so on, are classified for the purposes of licensure as recreation workers. Where do you see fortune-tellers? At beachside amusement parks, the boardwalk, etc. Where does the public most often encounter parapsychologists or talk about the paranormal? On the talk shows. Most people who are involved with the paranormal have it as a leisure time activity. It has a very pronounced overlap with folklore.
And so the way I look at it is not to denigrate the study of the paranormal, but rather to elevate it, because to me entertainment's just about one of the most important parts of life. If I had a choice between science and entertainment, it wouldn't be much of a choice for me. It's really the entertainment that gives us the most consolation. Like the great spiritual dramas, the Greek tragedies, all of these things plumb the depths of the spiritual concern of mankind. And so entertainment has this really profound function.
And I like to think that parapsychology, in the sense of the systematic study of the paranormal, can do the same. It can evoke feelings of wonder and make us realize how little we know and even though it can't prove anything, at least it can leave the crack of the door open for hope. I mean, you can't prove that Near–Death Experiences are life after death, but you can't prove that they're not, either. And so, at least that little doorway is open, you see, that allows us some hope.
SB: What prompted you to begin working on the research that has culminated in your most recent book, Reunions?
RM: Well, from the very beginning of my work with the Near Death Experiences, I realized that one of the things that is the biggest difficulty with studying this phenomenon of the Near Death Experience systematically is that you can't reproduce it under controlled circumstances of observation. And so that was a major difficulty for a long time and was one of the reasons why I kept thinking this Near Death thing is very fun and very interesting to research and perhaps we can learn something about psychology from it and so on, but it's going to reach a point where you just can't do anything else with it.
And then as it evolved, a friend of mine pointed out to me back it's entirely possible to look at it not as a global experience, but in terms of its elements and components, where each one may have its separate kind of cause. Like the going through the tunnel, being out of the body, seeing the light, and so on and you can divide it that way.
Well, then it occurred to me that you might be able to study the Near Death Experience by studying its components, each separately and maybe you could reproduce one or more of those. But, also I was stuck on that, because how do you do that? So, over the last few years I gradually became aware of all those studies—there's a great deal of evidence of a demographic nature that a high percentage of the bereaved will see apparitions of the deceased. So, with all of this in my mind, I was sitting downstairs one night about three years ago, and I had been working at that point for about four years on mirror visions and I had found that a high percentage of the normal population can be shown how to see extraordinary visionary phenomena in a mirror or other optical clear depth. Like three dimensional, moving, holographic figures. And so as I was sitting down one night, just sort of mulling all this over and all of these things just came into my mind at once.
Herodotus is one of my favorite writers the first historian. And so I remembered that Herodotus wrote about a place called the Oracle of the Dead. I didn't remember that they called it the Oracle of the Dead, all I remembered was that Herodotus described the place where somebody sent a delegation and that they saw a ghost there. And so I shuffled through that that night. It took me quite a while, but when I found it, there it was, the Oracle of the Dead on the river Acheron. The tyrant Periander had sent a delegation there to conjure up the spirit of his departed wife, Melissa. And Herodotus says in so many words that the ghost of Melissa appeared and told them the information they wanted.
Well, what was that all about? And I remember thinking at the time I read that, that couldn't be, that poor old Herodotus, too bad that this guy didn't have any judgment when it came to that kind of thing. And then I remembered a similar thing in The Odyssey, where Circe sends Odysseus to a place to conjure up the spirits, so rapidly I looked through my Odyssey and found that. And as I was reading it, it says that Circe sent Odysseus to the moldering house of Hades. I love that term, on the river Acheron, and at that point, whammy! Uh oh, I'm getting closer! And he digs a hole in the ground two feet by two feet and he sacrifices a ram and a ewe and then the spirits start coming up.
Well, what does that mean? That's just baffling and scholars by and large have just dismissed that as a fantasy that he came up with because we know that that can't be. But then the moment I read that I knew what it was. Because I had read a story about the Pawnee Indians of the Western part of the United States, they would sacrifice a badger which they would eat, but they would drain the badger's blood into a bowl and there in the reflective surface of the blood they would see mirror visions. So that was it. I figured at the Oracle of the Dead they went and they saw the spirits in mirrors. And, incredibly I looked at everything I could about the Oracle of the Dead and one of the books I found said indeed that what they found in the central apparition hallway was a huge bronze cauldron. So I knew it would work.
SB: Can you tell us about the psychomanteum?
RM: The Greeks called their facilities for doing this psychomanteums, which were Oracles of the Dead, in effect. So I decided to make my own psychomanteum. As far as I could tell from the Oracle of the Dead, the way it works was that it brought together a huge number of distinct modalities into one spot—natural beauty, since this was one of the most beautiful places you've ever seen; an underground facility, caves have always been associated with the spiritual quest; chemical alteration with hashish; mirror gazing a bunch of things brought together in this one place.
And so I decided to bring all those things together and to combine it with my ideas of play and the paranormal. And to build a place where people could come and see their deceased relatives, and have visitations with them. I hadn't thought of using mirrors to conjure up the dead and I use that term kind of jokingly, I just think it's so outrageous to think of that, but really that's what I'm doing, I guess. And so you put it all together and imagine my surprise when the very first person I conducted through here, it worked. It was really quite astounding.
SB: Do you have any interesting stories to share about people's experiences?
RM: The most important thing that I see going on is people reconciling and healing. The ones that come to my mind are usually the most recent ones. Just a week or two ago, we had a wonderful couple from Texas come here and this woman saw her father who had died and her grandparents. And really felt that a reconciliation occurred, she saw the three of them just come right up to the mirror and there they were in that in between space, the Middle Realm as it were, and communicated with them and got things really reconciled and found out that everything was fine there.
A very wonderful ophthalmologist came and saw his mother, who had been a very influential figure in his life. All of these are very, very significant events in my own life. I just really feel so privileged now to have been with 35 people right after they have seen apparitions of the departed. And actually to be able to talk with them and to participate almost with them. It's been just really wonderful. I strongly recommend this to all therapists who might want to find a new technique to help people with this. This is just really extraordinary, I would say. Far and away the most interesting work I have ever done in my life.
SB: Did the research proceed as you expected or were there surprises along the way?
RM: Oh, this was so wonderful because it revealed to me again, which is often revealed to me, my arrogance where I think that I know things. As I look back to three years ago, I really thought that I knew what was going to be the result of this. I thought that maybe one out of ten people would have an experience. In fact, almost all of the major findings were a surprise. What I had expected was that a certain percentage, like 10% of the people would see a vision. But, in fact, it's been much more than that. So far, it's been 50%, which is a big surprise to me.
Secondly, the big surprise is that the apparitions actually come out of the mirror in a sizeable proportion and the fact that the apparitions talk and you actually hear them is absolutely mind–bending to me. Most mind–boggling of all, the fact that the people actually think this is real is so amazing. My colleagues on this—a woman who has reproduced this in Houston, was very surprised that one of the subjects she conducted through this was literally a behaviorally oriented psychologist, who apparently went there to sort of disconfirm this, and came out of there talking about an apparition emerging from the mirror and talking with her. I really am just so curious as to where this is all going to lead, because whatever happens I'm ready for it. If they conclude I've lost my mind, I'll just have to say, "Great! Wonderful! So this is what losing your mind is like. It's really a lot of fun..."
SB: Have you encountered any resistance to this research from colleagues, friends or relatives?
RM: That has been so funny. One thing is that my family had me put into a mental hospital about it, and I suppose you can call that a form of resistance (laughter). And so it was a really funny situation. And of course the people at my college thought that I had lost my mind. One of them told me that it just wasn't good judgment to think that I could move out to Alabama and have a place where people would want to come and gaze into mirrors.
So, that part of it was really fun, in retrospect. At the time it was very distressing. But as I think back on that it was really good that I went through that, because as you look into the history of this, invariably the people who get into this are condemned in some way. It's just part of the nature of this pursuit.
And the reason is that society has to maintain the line between the living and the dead. I mean, even very basic relationships are defined in terms of death. Marriage—till death do us part. And so society, for social and cognitive reasons, has to maintain a line between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Well, when someone comes along in society and challenges that line, then a microscope is brought to bear. Like, the first thing that's going to be investigated is this person, right? And so under that microscope, which one of us can live up to that? Certainly not me. We've all had these breakdowns and failures. And so, in that situation the microscope comes along and finds these things, which they can find on any of us and then this is used in a backhanded sort of way to cast aspersions on the procedure itself.
And so we've all now at this point just got to face up to it, that you can evoke the spirits of the dead, which is there in the Bible. The Bible, of course, says not to do it. I quote the section in The Bible where it says not to do it and I point out that they also say, in the same place, not to sow two different kinds of seed in the same field, not to wear a garment made of two different kinds of yarn, not to shave the edge of your beard, and all of these other things in the same breath. And one that I particularly pointed out is it also says, if a man commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, then he shall be stoned to death and so shall the adulteress also. And so what I say in my comment on that is that I fully expect the fundamentalists, if they're gonna take me to task on this one, that they've got to live up to all the other ones, too. So, no cotton and polyester garments, guys.
SB: What do you think we as a society can learn from all of your latest research?
RM: That's exactly where I am in my life right now, getting ready to appear either a huge fool or else a prophet. And I would much rather appear a fool than a prophet, I assure you. It's a lot more acceptable role to me.
Well, who knows where this will lead. My publishers share my sense that this is going to be a rather astounding event, in the sense that this will direct the attention of a lot of people to a modality of consciousness studies that perhaps can tell us something about a lot of phenomena that were very puzzling in the past. I think, number one, historically, we'll be able to look back now to Homer and to the ancients in a new way, historically and literary. It opens the possibility for millions of people who have never had a "paranormal" experience to now experience one and to make up their own minds about it, rather than hearsay. And hopefully it will open a therapeutic modality. I don't want to make that as a conclusion yet, but rather as a hope and as a possibility that maybe now we will actually be able to use this for therapeutic means to bring about resolution in the case of where someone has passed on and where this is still a dangling issue, as it so often is.
I would like to hope, and I have some grounds for believing this already, that this will bring together a community of scholars and clinicians and give scholarship and clinical studies a whole new dimension to go into, to find out new things and to do new work and to open up new horizons, and so on. If you really want to sum it up, that's what it's all about to me because that's what I most enjoy: opening up new prospects to my colleagues and plowing up ground.
I really do fondly hope that a few years from now there will be scholars around who have been turned on by this and have been benefited in their studies, in the same sort of way that Life After Life did for a lot of scholars and opened up things for them. That is my fondest hope about this.
Sharon Barbell is a certified hypnotherapist and personal development trainer. She teaches workshops and seminars in addition to her private practice.
Dr. Raymond Moody's books are featured on this website