The traditional approach to ghost research is long dead and here to replace it is the Halloween Generation; They’re always on the look out for the next opportunity to both indulgence their sense of being at one with themselves and their addiction to hedonistic thrill seeking. Overnight stays at haunted “mental asylums” and the plethora of the “Most haunted” places in the land, piles of ghost photos that show nothing of importance, gruesome looking puppets that it’s claimed are haunted by demons, theatrical claims of being attacked by demonic entities, endless lists of modern technology that both seek and disprove the existence of spooks while actually accomplishing neither, mirror scrying (with both regular and black mirrors), seances, working with psychics and spirit mediums, dowsin- wait. No. Those are traditional methods that can be traced right back to our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors. So what has changed?
In his delightful book A Natural History of Ghosts Roger Clarke writes that ‘watching a TV show like TAPS, with its extraordinary emphasis on detecting and surveillance technology, modern American ghost-belief is a mixture of Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters, English Jacobean Protestant theology and a Halloween whizz or Irish Catholic and pagan tradition.’
It’s tempting to look about today (both in America, the UK or elsewhere) and complain that the modern world of ghost research has lost the plot, that those seeking fame and fortune dominate the field, that dodgy methodologies and personalities claim all of the headlines and attention, and that people are being stupid with their ill-supported conclusions. In the next breath many then point out that they wish they could travel back in time to a world where ghost research was honourable, decent, respected… but that’s a world that did not exist.
We ghost researchers of today are all cut from the same cloth of our predecessors and their predecessors, and the future generations of ghost researchers will also be cut of this cloth, and those that follow them and so on and so forth. Our influences as far reaching and muddled and sometimes hard to distinguish.
If recent surveys are to be believed more and more people believe in ghosts, but did society ever stop believing? I find it hard to believe that there was a sudden dip in ghost believers between the end of World War 2 and today. That seems odd. I would posit that we’ve always been a national of believers in ghosts and in a world that seems to be becoming less and less religious ghosts have become less taboo, and so has believing in them.
And although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the ghost stories from our ancestors would be thought of as dull and boring by today’s standards they’re actually as popular as ever, not to forget that the BBC have long breathed life into the ghosts that were born from the mind of M R James (more recently with the help of Mark Gatiss.) The adult generations of today grew up with stories of friendly ghosts – Casper, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Rent-a-Ghost, Nearly Headless Nick… is it any wonder that ghosts are as popular as ever? Is it any surprise that the traditional and modern seen to entwine to create the modern idea of what ghosts are and do?
The only thing that has really changed is the way that we live now. Gone are the crossroads ghosts wailing a warning to passengers on the road and here to replace them are the Road Traffic Collision hot-spot apparitions. It isn’t often one hears of sightings of ghostly horse drawn carriages, but stories of people hitting people with their cars who had seconds before appeared from nowhere in the road are plentiful. An otherworldly reminder to be careful.
It isn’t the ghosts that change, it isn’t the ghost researchers that change and it isn’t the ghost eye-witness who changes… it’s society.
Today we can talk to people from all around the world in real-time. We can share with them our experiences and our thoughts and, much like our societies, our ghost cultures have become multicultural. I’ve written before about Asian ghosts seen on British countryside tracks, creatures with fictional-internet origin that are seen (with alarmingly regular frequency) in the Midlands, beings with American folkloric roots haunting British families in their homes as they sleep.
If our ancestors had the internet their ghost stories would have been much the same as ours. If they had live television I think they’d watch a “live Exorcism” being broadcast (as you can this halloween), I think Harry Price would have been on This Morning with Holly and Phil on a regular basis…
‘…but today you have estate agents cashing in on haunted houses‘ you might argue, ‘so many places claim to be haunted to draw in customers‘ you might complain, and you’re right, but this isn’t new either and isn’t going to away any time soon. The “most haunted” brag pre-dates Yvette Fielding and her television crew, it pre-dates Harry Price and his “Most Haunted House” and it will continue to exist because ghosts are a human by-product and humans are going to be around for a very long time. Our frustrations with the modern world of ghost research are not new problems, the Halloween Generation has always existed, it’s never going away… it just has Twitter now.