The Ghost and the Machine

When I was about 11 or 12 or so, I went through a phase of being obsessed with ghosts, psychic powers and all things paranormal. I owned a Ouija board, had seen all of the relevant horror movies, and tried my hand at “automatic writing” (otherwise known as illegible scribble, and then later, as really bad poetry).

It seemed to be a distinctly pre-teen girl preoccupation, and was widespread among my circle of friends at that time. We were all what I call “slumber party psychics” – attempting to levitate each other through some vague otherworldly physics, summoning the ghost of “Bloody Mary” (without the benefit of the alcoholic drink of the same name), screaming delightedly when a candle flickered or went out for any reason. I guess we needed something to be obsessed with — our parents couldn’t afford horses.

I eventually and predictably put aside ghostly things for the more corporeal interests of adolescence. Over the years, as my beliefs regarding an afterlife became uncertain, so too did my conviction that ghosts walked the earth, seeking resolution to their earthly traumas and refusing to relinquish pieces of real estate. But like most people, I continued to be intrigued by the mysteries of death, the nature of the soul, and the existence of the supernatural or divine.

So it was with some nostalgic fascination that I first observed the current paranormal “investigation” obsession that seems to have taken hold of reality TV. There’s Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted , Paranormal State ,Rescue Mediums and probably many more I’m not aware of. There are even “international” and “college” editions of Ghost Hunters, which presumably appeal to the well-traveled and academic.

When I first heard about Ghost Hunters, which seems to be among the most popular of the shows, I was intrigued. Featured on the SciFi channel, this show chronicles the work of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS), which was apparently founded by moonlighting Roto-Rooter plumbers. Apparently, when they aren’t plumbing other things, they’re plumbing the depths of the unexplained and the supernatural. On their website, it states that “contact between our existence and the one that awaits us is no more far-fetched to some than wireless phones would have seemed to the ancients.”

This reference to wireless phones is hardly a coincidence – the use of modern technology figures prominently into the show’s premise. The investigators of TAPS rely heavily on digital devices, cameras, and other technologies in order to verify or debunk the presence of ghosts.

The tools of their trade sound like a Circuit City shopping spree: hi-8 cameras, K-2 meter (a specially calibrated device for measuring paranormal magnetic fields), Trifield EMF detector, pocket IR Thermometer, USB temp/humidity data logger, ion/geiger counters, thermal-imaging digital camera, and passive infrared motion detectors. Gone are the days of merely sensing an eerie presence, or reporting a sudden chill or a cold draft. Now the cold draft is empirically measured and analyzed against the ambient air temperature.

The show, accordingly, looks and feels like a technology freak’s dream. It features a whole lot of rewound audio, red/green infrared, and photo-negative eyes. While these effects might look kind of creepy, they’re really just techno-creepy, the effects of all the equipment being used. The visual impression is more of a house haunted by gadgets than by ghosts.

Apparently, there’s been some recent controversy regarding the veracity of the data gleaned by the ghost hunters and the reliability of their methods. I suppose that would matter to me if I thought ghosts really needed to be clearly and irrefutably documented. But I don’t. What I think is that ghosts need to be interesting, at least, entertaining, at best.

And this is the crux of my problem with the new “ghost reality” (which seems to be a contradiction in terms). After watching some episodes of Ghost Hunters, for example, I found myself yawning. Watching these guys laboring over their high-tech equipment in the green LED haze like an IT department installing anti-virus software, I realized, a little bit mournfully, that something was missing. That something was fear.

Obviously, this isn’t the first hint of technology’s intrusion on the ghost story. The overall look of “scary” depicted in horror films, for example, has gotten a high-tech facelift. There’s the hand-held shaky-cam that was almost a character itself in The Blair Witch Project , the digitally-remastered version of The Exorcist, and the use of CGI in every horror film since CGI was invented. Films such as The Devil’s Rejects, Van Helsing, and Day of the Dead (a 2008 remake) utilize such distractingly ostentatious special effects that the grim absence of raw, visceral fear becomes the true danger.

But the use of technology in the service of creepy special effects is one thing; whether one likes it or not, it’s at least intended to augment the drama and enigma of the supernatural. Using technology to effectively suck the mystery out of possible real-life ghost stories is another thing altogether. In shows like Ghost Hunters the slavish insistence on “reality” seems to have collided most unfortunately with the availability of nerdy digital apparatus. It was a match made in heaven, hell, or some electronically quantifiable earthly limbo.

All of this seems to mark the end of the era of preteen girls sitting around Ouija boards with candles and delighted goose-bumps; they’ll probably be casually downloading the ghosts of their forbears onto USB memory sticks. Or they’ll be Twittering with the slain 1800’s chambermaid who poltergeists their house.

In fact, there are already several online Ouija board sites available, one of which, Pimp My Death disclaims that it “cannot be held responsible for accidental demonic possession or inadvertent hellish manifestations resulting from the use of online Ouija.”

Interestingly, it seems that the fascination with ghosts and paranormal phenomenon has always had a symbiotic, if somewhat conflicted, relationship with technology and progress. In her book Ghostwriting Modernism (Ithaca University Press, 2002) historian Helen Sword writes of the American Industrial revolution and its impact on the popularity of the supernatural: “New, speedier forms of transportation and communication which came into their own after the Civil War allowed mediums and others interested in the spirit realm to disseminate their ideas to a wider audience than in previous generations.”

Yet the very technology and modernity that helped spread information about the occult also served as a threat to spiritualism and spirituality. Author Ann Braude wrote that Americans living in the latter half of the 19th and in the early part of the 20th centuries hewed to the supernatural because this served to reinforce their religious beliefs: “This prop was especially useful in counteracting the materialist and amoral influences of science and technology,” she wrote. (“Why Were Americans Interested in the Supernatural?” from Cross

If the Industrial revolution both helped and hurt the exploration of the paranormal, the advent of the World Wide Web has only served to intensify this conflict. “There’s been a boom in ghost hunting ever since the Internet took off,” paranormal investigator John Zaffis has been quoted as saying. And really, the technology/spiritualism divide seems to have all but disappeared, with the seductive power and instant mass accessibility of computers persuading even the most elusive demons to capitulate and show up on a Geiger counter every now and then.

Things don’t just go bump in the night anymore – they emit high frequency Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), and are saved and recorded in .WAV format. The mysterious and unexplained no longer need to be imagined – now they can be imaged.

The wheels of demystification have been set in motion. I fully expect that there will eventually be Instant Messaging with God, or downloadable succubi, or meaning-of life implantable software. Maybe there will be an avatar-based life-after-death virtual experience, or an anti-death cookie. I don’t know; I expect to be dead before it gets too unbearable; before mystery is eradicated altogether. In my afterlife I intend to be synced onto some teenager’s iPod, exerting a magnetic field of 1.5 mg, and filed under MyHauntings. Very frightening, indeed.