The man throws open a door and swings his arms like a maître d' presenting his finest table. He's wearing a bright purple button-down shirt and a neatly kept beard. "Step inside," he says. Through the door is a small vault, sealed off from all outside sound, all electrical and radio signals. Cautious, I enter. As he shuts the door, my iPhone's "3G" symbol turns to an "O."
Have you ever seen a ghost? If so, the Rhine Research Center in Durham is interested. The two-story brick building off Morreene Road looks identical to the others in its office park: white awnings, mulched flowerbeds, squirrels—no grotesque gargoyles or loitering phantoms. Ordinary appearance aside, it's one of the last institutes in the country dedicated to parapsychology, a field Merriam-Webster defines as "the scientific study of events that cannot be explained by what scientists know about nature and the world."
The Rhine Center strives to harden apparitions into data—to quantify the ethereal. Relying on donations, its researchers study telepathy (mind-to-mind communication), clairvoyance (physically remote perception), precognition (received knowledge of the future), psychokinesis (moving objects with the mind), and survival, a human personality existing outside of a physical form—in short, all manner of spirits, specters and spooks.
But no, they are not Ghostbusters.
The staff is sensitive to the comparison, particularly because the Rhine's founder, Dr. Joseph B. Rhine, made Zener cards famous. The cards are a guessing game that test for psychic ability and were used by Bill Murray's character in an attempt to seduce a coed in the movie's opening scene. But the Rhine's researchers maintain that speculation is their business only when hypothesizing, not when conducting experiments or drawing conclusions.
Still, one can't help but imagine Slimer floating down Geer Street in a Durm cap: Full Steam or Motorco ... decisions, decisions.
A day of attending research meetings and touring laboratories at the Rhine leads me to Tanous Library. The stacks contain more than 3,000 volumes of parapsychological and occult literature, from The Tibetan Book of the Dead to How I Know the Dead Return, composing one of the five largest collections of its kind in the U.S.
Around the library's conference table, a conversation ensues about the uptick of reported incidences of psychokinesis, or "PK," over the last decade. The Rhine dropped PK from its public survey in the late-'90s. "No one was saying things like, 'Yeah, I had a clock break when Uncle Joe died,'" says visiting scholar Nancy Zingrone. "We had to put it back in."
Modern incidences of PK are usually reported regarding effects on electronic gadgets—the ability to turn power sources on and off or to interfere with phone reception. "My mother collected 14,000 ESP experiences and 179 PK experiences in the early '70s, about things falling or clocks stopping," says Sally Rhine Feather. "It's nearly all electronics now. One didn't hear about many PK experiences until you got to know the person and they would say, 'Now, let me tell you what happened to me.'"
Feather is the 88-year-old daughter of the Center's founder, and her presence is commanding for more than her lineage. A small woman with a lilting voice, she is dapper and feisty. She holds a doctorate degree in experimental psychology from Duke, and she's the Rhine's foremost historian. After all, she lived it.
Joseph B. Rhine was a Methodist living in Pittsburgh. But he questioned his faith upon hearing Arthur Conan Doyle lecture on communicating with the dead, and parapsychology became his passion. After earning a doctorate degree in botany from the University of Chicago, Rhine came to Duke in the late-'20s with his wife and collaborator, Dr. Louisa Rhine, and began testing students for psychic abilities with Zener cards and dice. His experiments led to the creation of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory in the East Duke Building in 1935. Feather says that Duke provided Rhine a salary and free lab space, but not direct funding, which came from grants.
That same year, a New York Times article made Rhine famous, reporting, "Out of several thousand test subjects he selected eight who proved to have outstanding telepathic and clairvoyant powers" and calling his experiments "the most important research of the century in his subject." Rhine's book New Frontiers of the Mind coined the term "extrasensory perception," propelling "ESP" to nationwide attention.
Rhine retired in 1965. John Kruth, the Center's current executive director, says Rhine was given the choice of whether to leave his lab with Duke or take it with him. He chose the latter. Feather believes that her father didn't think the university would maintain the lab, as skepticism was rising, and he wanted his life's work to continue.
Dr. Seymour Mauskopf, professor emeritus of history at Duke, coauthored the book The Elusive Science: Origins of Experimental Psychical Research. "When I came to Duke in 1964, what intrigued me was that Duke was probably most famous at that point for parapsychology," says Mauskopf. "A lot of people were unhappy with that, because it was pretty much thought to be pseudo-science."
Over three decades, academic interest in Rhine's theories abated. Many universities stopped teaching parapsychology, which is tethered to a strong stigma. In the '70s there were dozens of professional parapsychology labs in the country. Now there are perhaps three, Kruth says, mentioning only one with university ties: The University of Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies. No U.S. university offers a parapsychology degree.
"You have maybe 200 active parapsychologists working in the world," Kruth says. "They don't have millions of grad students willing to do grunt work for a small opportunity to push their way in, like in physics. Anybody that wants to go into academia will avoid this field."
Feather agrees that people in control of academic endowments shy away from parapsychology for fear of personal discredit. I witness a presentation on electronic voice phenomena (phantom voice recordings) whose presenter will remain nameless for this exact reason.
The university's affiliation and patronage were expunged and the Parapsychology Lab left East Campus in 1965. With the help of private benefactors, Rhine then started the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man off campus. In 1995, 100 years after Rhine's birth and 15 after his death, the Center was renamed in his honor. In 2002, it moved to its present facility, designed expressly for parapsychological research.
Feather strongly supported hiring Kruth in 2009 and promoting him to executive director in 2011. "We hadn't had a director that was good with finance since 1965," she says, adding that the Center has relied on a multimillion dollar matching endowment from Xerox founder Chester Carlson since then, which has recently been depleted.
When asked if the Rhine was in danger, Feather said that it also relies on small donations, fees to see public speakers (a May 23 event deals with "PK, Mind-Matter and Consciousness") and membership dues. "These things had slipped down but are being built back up [by Kruth]," she says. The Rhine also offers online educational courses and two monthly public workshops, the Remote Viewing Group for clairvoyance and the Psychic Experiences Group, where people share their supernatural encounters.
During the Rhine's 70-year existence, cards and dice have given way to more sophisticated technology. In the Center's bioenergy lab, Kruth uses a photomultiplier (an electrical engineering tool) to measure the output of biophotons of people who claim to manipulate energy, or "chi," including martial artists, meditation masters and energetic healers. A scientifically taboo term in the '70s for its association with "auras," which were considered hokum, biophotons are now studied in graduate courses at MIT.
An empty room produces five to eight biophotons per second, while a sedentary individual produces 12 to 20, Kruth says. He has measured more than 120 people, 8 or 9 percent of whom produced a variance from the baseline. And a few, when asked to "do their thing," produced even more striking results.
"It will jump up to 60 photons per second—three times the baseline!" Kruth says. "I've had people go to 200,000, 400,000. I even had two people go over a million." The most drastic results come from energetic healers and Kundalini yogis. "You don't need statistics to figure out that something strange is going on in here."
Kruth, who holds a master's degree in psychology from Capella University in Minneapolis, Minn., is no mad scientist, but a fervent guy whose commitment to unbiased research seems sincere. "Ouija Boards are toys," he says. "They are not portals to the afterlife and the devil does not come through the board. It doesn't matter how much I believe or know. If I can't put it into a laboratory and demonstrate it in a scientifically viable way, it doesn't matter."
It's Kruth that leads me into the sealed vault, called a Ganzfeld room, which he says provides evidence that an altered state of consciousness helps people score higher on psychic aptitude tests. It's furnished only with recliner where a "receiver" sits, calmed into hypnosis with all outside sensory input removed. Ping-pong balls worn over the eyes and bathed in red light simulate closed eyelids.
In a similar room down the hall, a "sender" faces a screen, watching a movie clip over and over, attempting to psychically send the image to the receiver's mind. The receiver talks in a stream of consciousness for 30 to 45 minutes. Afterwards, the receiver is shown four movie clips and asked to give each clip a score from 0 to 100, measuring its similarity to what they saw in their mind's eye.
"With four clips to choose from, a person has a 25 percent chance of getting it right. But studies have yielded results closer to 32 to 35 percent. This is a tremendously significant statistic," Kruth says. Conducted at Juilliard on music students, the test yielded accuracy as high as 75 percent. There will always be critics and skeptics of parapsychology's academic standing, but to Kruth and the Rhine, this is science.
I ask Kruth how writers do in the Ganzfeld experiment. He doesn't know. "Probably poorly," I offer. He doesn't disagree.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Paranormal activity."