Paranormal Pop Culture

“All argument is against it; but all belief is for it."
Samuel Johnson

Within the last ten years an unusual combination of factors have accounted for an emerging pop culture trend towards “ghost-hunting” themed reality-television programs and the subsequent ghost tourism industry spin-off. Much like the Spiritualism phase seen in England and the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries, ghost sleuthing is again being monetized for our entertainment, and we can’t get enough. Instead of a visit to an ectoplasm-producing medium, we can now be presented with swathes of digital (often unclear) ‘evidence’ of the spirit realm across our various devices as passive observers, download specific apps, or purchase these technologies for our own use ‘in the field’. Even Google Maps has recently compiled a list of 31 Most Haunted Places in America designed for your exploration.

We’ve arrived at a fascinating intersection of our current understanding of neurology and computer science, coupled with our fear or outright denial of our eventual demise. Adding in our ubiquitous usage of technology as an extension of our earthly bodies, it’s these factors, and our leisurely lifestyles and insatiable desire for entertainment, which is allowing us to become armchair philosophers contemplating the afterlife in the comfort of our own homes.

The reasons for the popularity of this genre can be used as a signpost to reveal something about our present relationship to death, intertwined with our ideas about the afterlife in the information age.

Our conceptions of ghosts—the fears they provoke, the forms they take—are connected to the conventions and beliefs of each particular era, from the marauding undead of the Middle Ages to the psychologically charged presences of our own age. The ghost is no less than the mirror of the times.(1) The contemporary ghost arrives from the past as a didactic ether, and only through the use of ‘special’ technology can we have an ideal gateway to their intangible world.

In these reality programs, ghosts become a sort of quantitative and collectible data, untouchable but captured through static sound recorders, special cameras and computers, thermal devices, rigged Xbox hardware, and electronic ouija boards. Much like us, they prefer quick and disembodied communication methods, beckoning from beyond the internet veil.

What is the modern idea of the ghost confronting us with now? The prospect of eternal existence in a downloaded metaphysical form? And why can’t we stop reading clickbait articles about haunted locations?

Paranormal Pop Culture
Ghost Comedy, Beetlejuice 1988

Ghost Hunting & Spectral Machines

Series that featured ghosts as regular characters seemed confined to children’s animated programming until the popularity of reality-based series boomed in the 2000s. It was probably only a matter of time before a reality show dedicated to ghost-hunting was made, but even so, its immediate success still came as something of a surprise. Ghost Hunters debuted on the Syfy channel in 2004, and garnered high ratings. But despite an onslaught of sceptics who have repeatedly criticised their methods and debunked their findings, the show has generated numerous spin-offs and imitators. The success of Ghost Hunters has also sent the revenue of ghost tourism into the stratosphere.(2)  There are now over 250 paranormal television programs, according to Wikipedia as of 2017. There are also millions of websites dedicated to these topics; However, most of them are still experiencing a CSS dark-age from the early 2000’s.

The idea that ghosts often appeared to be vaporous or translucent was further reinforced by the invention of photography at the end of 1830’s; it was not long before shadowy figures, produced by the technique of double- exposure, were interpreted as ghosts that had been detected by the camera’s mechanical eye. It is paradoxical that it should have been advances in technology, in the shape of back-projection and the science of photography, which provided new ways of ‘seeing’ such age-old phenomena as ghosts.(3)

Paranormal Pop Culture
One of the most infamous and still-disputed ghost photographs, The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, photographed by Indre Shira in 1936

In other words, it was strange that these new inventions, instead of casting light upon the well-established idea of ghosts, further advanced the canon of methodologies on how to detect them.  

Ghost hunting has secured for itself an interesting spot between pseudoscience, superstition and real science. Now in the 21st century – with belief in supernatural happenings on the rise- anyone with a smartphone and a few pounds worth of apps can call themselves a ghost-hunter. However, more serious paranormal investigators require more than this, and ghost-hunting is now big business, with companies all over the world providing increasingly complicated devices. Although the twenty-first-century ghost-hunter may still employ traditional techniques, including mediums (or ‘sensitives’), dowsing rods (usually two narrow lengths of metal, which spirits are asked to cross to indicate ‘no’ and move apart for ‘yes’), gathering eyewitness accounts and relying on ‘bad feelings’ or even physical effects like headaches, ghost-hunting now has a veneer of scientific plausibility.(4) They employ ‘scientific’ methods with both cutting edge and old technology put to new uses in spirit chasing.The technology that is being used exists in a kind of grey zone. While it does measure real world phenomena, such as electromagnetic activity, infrared light, static, temperature and sound, its uses are limited to the paranormal and the results are not accepted by any outside scientific community. The parameters are very muddled, un-scientific and usually conducted in total darkness. This is apparently great for not only television ratings and injuries, but also for ghosts to feel comfortable, as a sort of natural environment for them.

Paranormal Pop Culture
Human-shaped anomalies caught on the Xbox kinect rig

Many of the ghost-detection tools on the market operate on the popular notion that ghosts are composed of a form of energy that falls within the electromagnetic spectrum and can thus be read on measuring devices that detect EMF (electromagnetic frequencies). As one purveyor of paranormal paraphernalia puts it, ‘At a haunted location, strong erratic, fluctuating EMFS are are commonly found. It seems these energy fields have some definite connection to the presence of ghosts.’ This belief that EMF correlates to spirit manifestation has its roots in Spiritualism. (5)

The series Ghost Adventures employs a four man crew and often features special guests, such as their house electrical engineer Bill Chappell, who’s always inventing new ways to capture ghosts. His methods involve the harvesting of large amounts of standard data values grabbed from the filming environment. These figures and values are then combed through and assessed for ‘evidence’ of the paranormal. Notably, his ‘Ovilus’ invention which is basically the electronic version of the Ouija board, which is now on version 4.

From the series Ghost Adventures
From the series Ghost Adventures

Interestingly, it was after the Civil War that one of the most notorious spirit communication objects was created- the Ouija board. Its also well worth a read on the origin story of the Ouija board which began its commercial life as a simple toy for children, and wasn’t until the 1973 movie, The Exorcist, that it took on its more frightening and demonic attributes.

After the Civil War, Spiritualism exploded in America. The mass deaths in the civil war created a widespread desire to contact the dead, and mediums began marketing their services in major cities around the country. According to historian Robert Murch, many families had to grapple with the bodies of their loved ones never being recovered and spiritual devices like the Ouija board answered questions that no one else could. “They gave people peace of mind because they couldn’t get answers any other way.”(6)

Paranormal Pop Culture
The infamous Ouija Board

Re-Enchantment

In an experiment in 1997, James Houran and Rense Lange, researchers at the University of Illinois at Springfield, took 22 test subjects into an old theatre; half were told that the theatre was haunted, and the other half were told it was undergoing renovation. After analyzing data collected from the participants , Lange and Houran concluded that ‘the mere suggestion that a location is haunted [is] sufficient to produce poltergeist-like perceptions such as reports of a “sensed presence”, apparitions, or other anomalous sensations.’ (7)

Even with our active imaginations, all these busy ghosts seem to be wary and cleverly elusive of our gadgets. And that’s the funny thing, we still keep believing even after being presented with logical evidence on the contrary. Still, one would be hard-pressed to find the average skeptical individual who is willing to endure a night alone in a supposedly haunted location, without at least an inkling of fear and a raised heartbeat.   

Are we tapping into the notion of the re-enchanted world, as the British artist Mark Leckey envisions? With the impending future of the internet of things and omnipresent connectivity are we starting to unconsciously sense the paradox that the more pervasive technology becomes in our lives the more it invokes the mindscapes of our ancestral past? Inanimate objects start to seem alive and networked like the totem spirits of yore. With our uber-connected devices we start to recognize that there is an immaterial cyber-world which hovers over our terrestrial realm like a suspension of disbelief; like the world in which the spirits ran wild.

Ghosts-if they cannot exactly be described as living history- certainly personify our shared past by replaying it. They are so valuable to us because they are externalised memories, reminding us of the layers of history beneath our feet, of the old stories that refuse to be erased.(8)

What is it about tempting these non-entities that make us so afraid, even in a golden-age of knowledge? Perhaps it’s because ghosts do not let us forget, and neither does the internet.

Paranormal Pop Culture
Beetlejuice 1988

Footnotes

  1. Owens, Susan. The Ghost: A Cultural History. (London: Tate, 2017)
  2. Morton, Lisa. Ghosts: A Haunted History. (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2015), 172.
  3. Owens, Susan. The Ghost: A Cultural History. (London: Tate, 2017), 170.
  4. Morton, Lisa. Ghosts: A Haunted History. (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2015), 129.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Woods,Baynard, 2016, The Ouija board’s mysterious origins: war, spirits, and a strange death, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/oct/30/ouija-board-mystery-history
  7. Morton, Lisa. Ghosts: A Haunted History. (London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2015), 141.Rense Lange and James Houran, ‘Induced Paranormal Experiences: Support for Houran and Lange’s Model of Haunting Phenomena’, Perceptual and Motor Skills, LXXXIV (June 1997),p 1455.
  8. Owens, Susan. The Ghost: A Cultural History. (London: Tate, 2017),