In my 2016 book Here’s To My Sweet Satan: How the Occult Haunted Music, Movies, and Pop Culture 1966-1980, I devoted a chapter to the era’s craze for “unexplained phenomena,” like Bigfoot, ESP, and the Bermuda Triangle. Richly capitalized on by the film and publishing industries, the proto-New Age material attracted a wide audience of the curious, but the creators themselves were no less earnest in their beliefs. One of them was D. Scott Rogo, whose 1977 paperback The Haunted Universe was typical of the genre, in both its charm and its cheese.
Rogo is identified in the book as a former Director of Research for the Southern California Society for Psychical Research, a credential worth a book in itself, and re-reading The Haunted Universe today one is transported back to the pre-internet counterculture of tabloid news, alternative presses, and long-forgotten special interest magazines such as Fate, Argosy, and Flying Saucer Review. The author quotes a Who’s Who of contemporary paranormal investigators, including Ivan Sanderson, Raymond Bayless, and John Keel, as well as the godfather of the field, Charles Fort (1874-1932), covering disparate claims of disappearances, teleportations, apparitions, and alien encounters with a pretense of scientific detachment that never quite masks his credulity. “There is little doubt in my mind that a very definite relationship existed between the UFOs and the poltergeist in all of these cases,” he sums up at one point. Of course there isn’t; why on earth why would there be?
As with so many of its competitors in the book shops and department store spinning racks of the 1970s, The Haunted Universe was a mixture of exploitation (of a proven market for occult or speculative nonfiction) and innocence (the writer’s evidently sincere fascination with his topic). Much of Rogo’s research consisted of recycled accounts from sources such as Beyond Earth: Man’s Contact With UFOs, The Hollow Earth, and Keel’s classics The Mothman Prophecies and Strange Creatures From Time and Space, lending a self-reinforcing validity to what a more rigorous survey would call circular reasoning, confirmation bias, conclusion-jumping, or downright flakiness. Elsewhere Rogo goes on coincidental first-person tangents describing his own (not very) inexplicable experiences. Today there are infinitely deeper rabbit holes to explore online, but The Haunted Universe and its ilk, however suggestible or gullible, are testaments to the genuine conviction and dogged scholarship – eccentric and selective as it was – of the people who created them. They were all pseudoscience, undoubtedly, but at least they were comprehensive collections that gathered the legends, exaggerations, and fabrications in one mass-marketed place.
Yet even when Rogo’s anecdotes have not been rationally explained or debunked (e.g. the spate of mysterious vanishings around Bennington Vermont in 1945-50), they seem oddly diminished today. Rogo, Keel, Sanderson, Fort and their peers seemed to be striving to connect a grand chain of unaccountable facts which would force a rethinking of the entire cosmic order, but surely there are now enough verified phenomena to do that already: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, climate change, dark matter, Donald Trump. The truly haunting thing about all this is that D. Scott Rogo himself, who also wrote An Experience of Phantoms, The Poltergeist Experience, ESP and Your Pet, In Search of the Unknown, and numerous other books, was murdered in his home in 1990. The alleged killer was released on a technicality, and the crime remains officially unsolved. Some people might say Rogo knew too much. If his hopeful but hopelessly trusting written legacy is any indication, it’s more probable that he didn’t know enough.