This page considers 'haunted media' - notions of the telegraph,
radio, television or internet as gateways to the 'spirit
It covers -
It has been common for people to ascribe supernatural
properties to new media, with belief by some users that
particular devices are haunted, offer a means of communicating
with the dead (or their undead cousins) or can record
the presence of ghosts, fairies and angels.
Those perceptions reflect -
will to believe, something that is independent of intelligence
special status of devices that appear to be animated
and are used in communication (people are more likely
to believe that their phone or television is haunted
than their toaster or a brick).
The prevalence of those perceptions tends to decrease
as consumers become familiar with the technology and scammers
or enthusiasts get debunked. However it is clear from
the history of 'spirit photography' - running from early
contemporary brouhaha about kirlian imaging - that some
consumers have been resolutely resistant to explanations
other than those involving ectoplasm.
Some have been egregiously exploited by mediums and other
scammers. Others, including the mainstram media, have
gone along for the ride - happy to be entertained by preposterous
claims or to peddle books, news items and videos about
the supernatural and stupid.
conduits to the beyond
Jeremy Stolow in 'Techno-Religious Imaginaries: On the
Spiritual Telegraph and the Circum-Atlantic World of the
19th Century' commented
invisibility and intangibility of electric current,
and its capacity to collapse time and space onto a single,
continuous plane of reference provided the perfect analogy
for the existence of the human soul beyond the body.
And if telegraphic technologies could harness electromagnetic
forces in order to communicate intentional messages,
why should it not be possible to develop comparable
techniques in order to communicate with the dead?
with the telegraph
- used to deliver commodity prices and instructions about
which steam train to catch rather than provided communiques
from the beyond - was followed by claims that radio
would allow reception of messages from ghosts, aliens
or even evil spirits.
Uptake of television
in the 1950s saw reports that receivers were haunted or
delivered messages, typically supposed to be discerned
in the white noise of badly tuned boxes or as the glow
from the CRT faded.
Televangelists, tweaking the long tradition of miraculous
cures through physical contact with relics,
have similarly exhorted the faithful to embrace the screen
and thereby enjoy a blessing or cure through a telepresence
'laying on of hands', one to be followed by a genous donation.
Adoption of tape recorders in the 1960s led to what devotees
label 'electronic voice phenomena' (EVP) or intrumental
transcommunication (ITC), with the voice of the dead supposedly
being heard on playback of reel to reel or cassette tapes.
It is also common for new media to be adopted as metaphors
for traditional communication.
Allan Kardec's 1861 The Book on Mediums for example
used the telegraph as a model for describing spirit mediumship,
claiming that a psychic's activity
that of an electrical machine, which transmits telegraphic
despatches from point of the earth to another far distant.
So, when we wish to dictate a communication, we act
on the medium as the telegraph operator on his instruments;
that is, as the tac-tac of the telegraph writes thousands
of miles away, on a slip of paper, the reproduced letters
of the despatch, the visible from the invisible world,
the immaterial from the incarnated world, communicate
what we [spirits] wish to teach you [living people]
by means of the medianimic instrument.
gullible or unscrupulous have also embraced what were
purported to be state of the art devices, including the
contraptions promoted by Wilhelm Reich and L Ron Hubbard
and the supposed 'Telephone to the Dead'.
The latter is attributed to Thomas Edison (who indicated
that he'd been hoaxing credulous journalists) and characterised
a highly sensitive piece of equipment that gives us
the ability to achieve two-way contact with entities
on other frequencies and dimensions. While we are able
to conduct tremendous research with spirit scientists
and spirit technicians that we fully trust for information,
we also deal with a wide variety of other entities that
may or may not be trustworthy. During field investigations
we often speak to spirits that were involved in the
history or crime associated with that site. This is,
of course, a tremendous benefit to any research being
done at the time.
who were prepared to believe that their radio or phone
would deliver a message from a deity (or merely from a
deceased partner) seem to have shifted focus to digital
technologies, with fringe publications breathlessly reporting
incidents of spectral communication via mobile phone or
personal computer. There have been similar reports from
One paranormal site thus proclaims that spirit communication
occurs on Windows machines, and has come in the form
of simple text messages, Microsoft Word document files
and a wide variety of digital image formats, including
.tif, .jpg and .gif. With the popularity of the Web
and e-mail, one might think that the spirits would use
the Internet as a communication medium but specialists
claim the Internet includes too many "troubled
thought-forms" that disrupt the harmony necessary
for instrumental transcommunication contacts to occur.
ghosts and ghoulies are allergic to Linux the way that
vampires avoid garlic!
Some ghosts in the machine do more than appear on a monitor.
Kenneth Webster for example claimed that in 1984 he received
several hundred printouts from a 17th century English
spirit, presumably a kindly spook wishing to spare him
the task of deciphering Jacobean orthography.
"Pet psychic to the stars" Christine Agro offers
telepresence psychic readings that "give voice"
to celebrity companions dogs. The New York Times
noted in 2008 that
Agro doesn't need to see the pets to talk to them, just
a land line — she communes with the pets while
simultaneously relaying the conversation to their owners
fakes and fakirs
Scammers have long exploited the need to hear from 'the
other side', using supposed skills or affinities as a
tollway to the afterlife rather than a gateway.
One of the more entertaining, if frequently saddenning,
areas of literature regarding 'new media' is thus accounts
of fraud by mediums - people who claimed to facilitate
contact with the dead.
Some have used technologies such as the telegraph or radio
to explain their activity, with mediums from the 1840s
to 1870s advising clients that they were instruments connected
to the 'spiritual telegraph' and conveying a sort of morse
code from the beyond. Their epigones from 1900 through
the 1920s, after the Great War, Middle European economic
collapse and Spanish Flu, referred to capture of radio-style
signals from the aether.
Those accounts also highlight vogues in commercialisation
by third parties, with for example a trade in 'shields'
or other apparatus that purported to prevent spooks getting
into or out of your telegraph key, tickertape machine,
radio or television. Such shields were a precursor of
beanie mocked by MIT.
Legal responses to spirit scams are highlighted in the
following page of this note.
Points of entry to literature about 'telepresence' include
Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy
to Television (Durham: Duke Uni Press 2000) by Jeffrey
Sconce, Dark Light: Electricity & Anxiety From
the Telegraph To The X-Ray (Orlando: Harcourt 2004)
by Linda Simon, The Body Electric: How Strange Machines
Built the Modern American (New York: New York Uni
Press 2003) by Carolyn de la Pena, Literature, Technology
and Magical Thinking, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 2001) by Pamela Thurschwell, When Old Technologies
Were New: Thinking About Electric Communications in the
Late 19th Century (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1990)
by Carolyn Marvin, Avery Gordon's Ghostly Matters:
Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis:
Uni of Minnesota Press 1997) and Avital Ronell's The
Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech
(Lincoln: Uni of Nebraska Press 1991).
For mumbo jumbo and its reception see Ghost Hunters:
William James And The Search For Scientific Proof Of Life
After Death (London: Penguin 2006) by Deborah Blum,
Servants of the Supernatural: The Night Side of the
Victorian Mind (London: Heinemann 2008) by Antonio
Melechi, Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis
(Lanham: Uni Press of America 2007) edited by Bryan Farha,
Alfred Gabay's Messages from Beyond: Spiritualism
and Spiritualists in Melbourne's Golden Age, 1870-1890
(Melbourne: Melbourne Uni Press 2001), Howard Kerr's Mediums
and Spirit-Rappers and Roaring Radicals: Spiritualism
in American Literature, 1850-1900 (Urbana: Uni of
Illinois Press 1972), Molly McGarry's 'Spectral Sexualities:
Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism, Moral Panics, and the
Making of U.S. Obscenity Law' in 12(2) Journal of
Women's History (2000), Visions of the Future:
Almanacs, Time & Cultural Change 1775-1870 (Oxford:
Oxford Uni Press 1996) by Maureen Perkins, Independent
Spirits: Spiritualism & English Plebeians 1850-1910
(London: Routledge 1986) by Lynn Barrow, Spiritualism
& British Society Between the Wars (Manchester:
Manchester Uni Press 2000) by Jenny Hazelgrove, Rene Kollar's
Searching for Raymond: Anglicanism, Spiritualism &
Bereavement Between the Two World Wars (Lanham: Lexington
Books 2000), The Other World: Spiritualism & Psychical
Research in England, 1850-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 1985) by Janet Oppenheim and The Perfect
Medium: Photography & the Occult (New Haven:
Yale Uni Press 2005) edited by Clément Chéroux
Introductions to the literature on phantoms, ectoplasm
and other things that go bump in the night include The
Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (London: Palgrave
2008) by Owen Davies and Michael Bailey's Magic and
Superstition in Europe: A Concise History From Antiquity
to the Present (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield
Biographies include Notorious Victoria: The Life of
Victoria Woodhull, Uncensored (Chapel Hill: Algonquin
1997) by Mary Gabriel and Other Powers: The Age of
Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull
(New York: Knopf 1998) by Barbara Goldsmith, Exploring
Other Worlds: Margaret Fox, Elisha Kent Kane and the Antebellum
Culture of Curiosity (Uni of Massachusetts Press
2004) by David Chapin, The First Psychic: The Peculiar
Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard (London:
Little Brown 2005) by Peter Lamont.
For contemporary strangeness see 'To Absent Friends: Classical
Spiritualist Mediumship and New Age Channelling Compared
and Contrasted' by Wayne Spence in 16(3) Journal of
Contemporary Religion (2001) .
Works by proponents of EVP include Friedrich Jurgensen's
Radio Contact with the Dead (1967), D. Scott
Rogo's Phone Calls From The Dead (Englewood Cliffs:
Prentice-Hall 1979), Kenneth Webster's The Vertical
Plane (London: Rare 1989), Peter Bander's Voices
from the Tapes: recordings from the other world (New
York: Drake 1973), Katherine Ramsland's Ghost: Investigating
the Other Side (New York: St Martin's 2001) and Konstantin
Raudive's Breakthrough: an amazing experiment in electronic
communication with the dead (New York: Lancer Books
Salient studies of nonsense include Guidelines for
extrasensory perception research (Hatfield: Uni of
Hertfordshire Press 1997) by Julie Milton & Richard
Wiseman, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience,
Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (New
York: Freeman 1997) by Michael Shermer, How We Know
What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday
Life (New York: Free Press 1991) by Thomas Gilovich
and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (New
York: Norton 2005) by Mary Roach.