Those Haunted Aykroyds

February 12, 2010

The Aykroyds—father Peter H. and sons Peter J. and Dan (of Hollywood fame)—have a strong interest in psychical research. Now Peter H. has written a book (with Angela Narth) titled A History of Ghosts: The True Story of Séances, Mediums, Ghosts, and Ghostbusters (New York: Rodale, 2009). I appear among the latter, having been able to assist with the project after Peter first queried me, in mid-2004, and we began to correspond. He said Dan remembered me from his show PSI Factor (which Peter J. produced).

The Aykroyds come by their interest in spirits naturally—if not supernaturally. Dan’s great-grandfather, Samuel Augustus Aykroyd (b. 1855), was an ardent spiritualist as well as a dentist of Sydenham, Ontario, Canada. The book reproduces a “spirit” photograph of Dr. Aykroyd, taken at the spiritualist village of Lily Dale, New York, in the early 1900s and showing four ghostly heads hovering over him. Dr. Aykroyd eventually convinced himself that two of the faces bore some resemblance to people he had known. Actually, the picture is an obvious fake: As is often the case, the subject was placed unnaturally low in the photo, indicating that the photographer knew in advance just where the “spirits” would appear in the picture!

The Aykroyd family farmhouse hosted townsfolk who came for meetings of Dr. Aykroyd’s Circle—séances in which they believed they communicated with the dead. The family medium was one Walter Ashurst, who developed, through the aid of a local medium, into a trance channeler of spirits—ranging from an Irishman named “Mike Whalen” and several Native Americans to an ancient Egyptian prince called “Blue Light.” One identified himself as “Lee Long”—who said he had lived in China in the Ming Dynasty and who became one of Walter’s “controls” (or “guides” to the spirit world).

Dr. Aykroyd’s notebooks—discovered after half a century in an old trunk—record some 80 of Walter’s séances. At one, Dr. Aykroyd’s own great-grandfather reportedly appeared, whereupon certain allegedly clairvoyant members of the circle saw him, while others could not. Sometimes a “whitish substance” appeared in the dark. (This was supposedly “ectoplasm”—a mediumistic substance, completely unknown to science and often fraudulently produced by mediums out of chewed paper, strips of muslin, even animal entrails.) The circle hopefuls waited in vain for a true “materialization.”

Nevertheless, speaking through an apparently entranced Ashurst, “Mike Whalen,” “Blue Light” and especially “Lee Long” chatted on. The latter discoursed in Chinese, supposedly, but Peter concedes that no member of Dr. Aykroyd’s Circle could understand the language. Therefore, it might well have been gibberish. Peter, who as a boy sat in on some of Walter’s séances, is convinced he was not a deceiver.

However, Walter may have been deceiving himself. Too little is known about him to be certain, but he seems to have had several of the traits that are indicative of a fantasy-prone personality: He experienced childhood “visions” (which his father insisted were nightmares), thought he was clairvoyant, engaged in apparent self-hypnosis, and believed he communicated with invisible entities. (For more on fantasy proneness, see my The Mystery Chronicles , 2004, pp. 111, 210, 296–297, 303.)

A History of Ghosts is too easy on spiritualists. For example, the Davenport Brothers were indeed caught faking spirit activity (see my “The Davenport Brothers: Religious practitioners, entertainers, or frauds?” Skeptical Inquirer 23:4, July/August 1999, pp. 14–17). But it is by no means a one-sided treatise. And it is an entertaining and often informative read. A bonus is Dan Aykroyd’s own account of the genesis of Ghostbusters .