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Interview With
Joanne D. S. McMahon, Ph.D.
Joanne D. S. McMahonInterviewed by Michael E. Tymn via e-mail

If people need help in understanding paranormal phenomena, they can turn to Joanne D. S. McMahon, Ph.D., also known as “Dr. Ghost.” She heads up a business called Parapsychological Consultation Services, Inc., which is prepared to explore most any type of phenomena. If McMahon can’t answer a client’s questions, she has a number of experts to call upon.

“The consultation service offers credible information to individuals and organizations on issues pertaining to parapsychology,” she explains. “Because the media is saturated with fictionalized versions of paranormal phenomena, it is often important to separate fact from fantasy.”

After receiving her B.A. at Rutgers in 1977, McMahon, who operates out of Short Hills, New Jersey, went on to earn her M.A. in Consciousness Studies at John F. Kennedy University, and her Ph.D. in Human Science at Saybrook Institute, San Francisco. Her Master’s thesis was titled “The Effects of the American Funeral on the Bereaved and the Deceased,” while her Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Reported Spontaneous Psi in the Funeral Industry.” Before assuming her current position in 1994, she served as director of the Eileen J. Garrett Library at the Parapsychology Foundation in New York City for 11 year. Some questions were recently put to her by e-mail.

Dr. McMahon, how did you become interested in parapsychology?

“My interest in the paranormal evolved over time. The basic back story is that by the time I was 13 I had experienced three major deaths in my family. I began looking for explanations as to why they had occurred. Though raised Roman Catholic, the answers supplied by the parish priest did not resonate with me and ultimately felt painfully inadequate. The personal search became more professional when I entered college and majored in anthropology, which provided ample opportunities to investigate the supernatural. The natural result was a career in parapsychology.”

What are your special interests in the field?

“I am still fascinated by the phenomena of death and the experiences people have surrounding the dying process. As an adjunct to this, I am deeply interested in the use and theory of ritual. During my days at mortuary school, I was taught that funerals were for the bereaved serving as psychological support in a time of great need. My research, however, points toward another direction. I think funeral rituals help the bereaved to say goodbye but they may also assist the deceased. We know from case investigations that at the time of death people report experiences with the dead whereby they communicate, i.e., the dead appear to still be conscious and aware. When you combine this research with the fact that definitions of death and the problems surrounding when and how to declare time of death, it is clear that the personality, soul, or consciousness does not cease to exist precisely when the heart and blood flow stop. The notion of brain death does not serve to clarify the problem; it only complicates it further. In short, we do not know when death truly occurs and when consciousness terminates. It may very well be the case that the dead are in some way aware of the activities occurring during this time. If so, how can we make rituals surrounding death beneficial to everyone involved?

“Another area of interest is psychic fraud. When Anna Lascurain and I wrote Shopping for Miracles, we investigated this area extensively. It is fascinating how deep the desire to believe is for people especially when they are in the throws of grief. Clearly, some psychics can help fill the void without harm to the individuals but the unscrupulous can easily exploit this opportunity. The psychology and mechanics of psychic fraud has helped with my work with a professional police organization—Professionals Against Confidence Crime.”

How do you feel about organ transplants? That is, if the personality is still conscious even if there are no vital signs is it possible the "dead" person is experiencing the trauma of a physician cutting into him or her and being traumatized by it?

“As frightening as it is, I think the implication is that there is a possibility that the dead will experience some aspect of the transplant operation. We need to keep in mind, however, that in transplant cases there is evidence of brain death so pain receptors are not functioning. The trauma may be from witnessing the event, not necessarily feeling physical pain. In Japan, where brain death is not recognized, transplant operations are not as common as here. Anthropologist Margaret Locke wrote a phenomenal book (Twice Dead: Organ Transplants and the Reinvention of Death) that addresses the cultural differences. Madelaine Lawrence proposed an interesting study a few years back whereby psychics would communicate with patients in comas and those declared brain dead to see what they were experiencing. A psychic once told me that there are some people who are still “there” and others who have already clearly departed. It would be great to investigate this concept on a larger, more controlled scale.”

What do you consider the most interesting case you have dealt with?

“By far the most rewarding ‘case’ centers on a man who came to me looking for an explanation for experiences that were occurring to him. He assumed he was going crazy but the ‘help’ he had received from psychologists was unsatisfying. In fact, he was a gifted psychic who was particularly good at psychometry. He had kept his abilities a secret from everyone in his life including his wife of more than 20 years. I identified his ability, gave it a name, and reassured him that he was quite sane. Over the past decade I have watched him grow as a psychic, becoming increasingly confident and comfortable with his ability. He now openly acknowledges his talent, has assisted in criminal investigations, and has even documented one of his cases on film.”

Any other interesting cases?

“One of the most interesting cases was also one of the more famous ones. Though I have known the psychic Noreen Renier for a number of years, she and I had never worked together. Jackie Peterson, the mother of Scott Peterson, in the hope of finding her daughter-in-law Laci, had contacted Noreen in early 2003. Noreen, who normally works directly with the police, was unable to get their cooperation for the psychic session. She called and asked if I would be willing to conduct the interview with her. We had two sessions that resulted in some very interesting information, which was later confirmed when the bodies washed up on shore that April.”

What is your general view on psi phenomena?

“In my opinion, psi phenomena, understood as the acquisition of information by means other than known scientific processes, is a natural ability that is more pronounced in some people than others. It can be learned (as in the case of remote viewing) and will often occur spontaneously (as in times of extreme emotion, e.g., death).”

How receptive is the general public to your consultation services?

“People have always been receptive to the topic, but the services we offer have encountered some reluctance. For the most part, when people have an experience they are often looking for verification and confirmation of that experience as opposed to an explanation. For example, many of the questions we get concern apparitional experiences. People want very much for us to confirm that what they experienced was indeed a sprit lingering about the house. Unfortunately, what they describe is not the dead loitering but haunting type phenomena or retrocognition. In other words, they are seeing the past as it happened — what is often referred to as “place memories” or psychometry on a grand scale. In my opinion, there is no evidence that compels me be assign ownership to the deceased. Don’t get me wrong, ghosts exist but they exist in a way very different from the conventional view of disembodied personalities roaming a location. The evidence more logically points to place memories; that repetitive behavior seen in many apparitional experiences. Surprisingly, people are disappointed to hear this explanation; they would rather have conscious entities wandering in their homes rather than acknowledge their own abilities to perceive history.”

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