By Laura Kremmel
The 2020 film Host (dir. Rob Savage) was recently crowned the scariest horror movie according to a scientific study that measured the heart rates of 250 viewers watching 40 different films. As someone who watches a lot of horror and is usually not affected by it, I had to turn on all the lights in my house after watching it alone on a tablet. Why is it so scary? It’s all in the technology.
The film is about a séance held by five friends and a medium, all in different locations and connected to each other not only through the medium leading them or their shared concentration but also through Zoom, a program we’ve all come to rely on to make us feel connected to each other. As the trailer asks, what if it connects us with something else?
Though the premise is genius in how it takes advantage of COVID-times isolation, the reliance of the supernatural on technology is not new. Technology has long been used to detect ghosts throughout history and is also a notoriously easy conduit for hauntings to occur. This is what Host plays on, showing the unstable barrier between the virtual and the real, and this could be applied to other technologically-created spaces. The Victorian ghost story arose at the same time as train travel became the primary mode of transportation, giving us Charles Dickens’s ghost story “The Signal Man” (1866), and as the phonograph and then telephone introduced disembodied voices into the home. Thomas Edison invented a “spirit phone” to communicate with the dead through scientific means. Even earlier, magic lantern shows – special effects created by projections and early cameras – introduced ghostly images into a crowd, an experience that fueled late Romantic ghost stories.
The spiritualism movement explicitly sought to facilitate communication between the living and the dead. Centered around the séance, it relied on hidden technology in the form of special effects that made disbelievers into believers (or vice versa). The medium herself – a woman through whom the dead could communicate via voices, seizures, or ectoplasm (a material like cheesecloth that would emerge from the medium’s mouth, nose, or ears as a manifestation of psychical energy) – became a type of spirit phone. Communication was established through a series of ritualistic steps. During the séance, the medium was no longer herself but merely a tool through which the dead could communicate. This was not strictly true, as most mediums exercised a huge amount of economic and social power in this ruse as spiritual object. Unlike earlier interactions with ghosts, the séance created the appearance of safety and control: the medium summoned the spirit and decided how it would manifest. Attendees were not haunted. They were merely participating in the machine. Spiritualism was also validated through new technologies like spirit photography, which took advantage of double exposure to visually prove the existence of ghosts.
Out of the controlled technology of the séance come narratives like Host. The story becomes one of humans losing control of technology or facing its unintended consequences. But technology can also be used to tell ghost stories.
Cameras are still used to investigate paranormal encounters. We see historical representations of these techniques in films like The Conjuring (2013, dir. James Wan), based on the real-life work of investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. But film and recording equipment, along with thermal technologies, are also used in current investigations. EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) captured through sound recording equipment reproduce the experience of disembodied voices by the early telephone users: they speak to a world present but unseen. After all, ghosts are not dependent on the visual but often manifest only in seemingly impossible sounds and voices. The question then becomes, does that technology merely record a spirit or does it manifest one? We can look to films like The Ring (2002, dir. Gore Verbinski), which combines telephones, TVs, and VHS tapes, or Unfriended (2014, dir. Levan Gabriadze), which finds ghosts on the internet. These films show ghost detection and infestation manifested through seemingly innocuous technologies we use (or used to use) every day.
Photographic and recorded evidence of ghosts is still used to gather groups of nonbelievers and believers alike to explore the paranormal. I used to be a ghost guide for the Historic Haunting Ghost Tours in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and we would regularly post photos featuring orbs and strange lights taken by our guests on our social media. Technology, then, combines with space-based narratives that place audiences in physical locations and with the medium of a ghost guide, both producing a type of participation not unlike a séance.
The Science, Technology, and Society degree program is following in the footsteps of mediums and ghosthunters this Halloween by sponsoring two Ghost Tours of Rapid City. The stories on these tours are written and will be told by students in the Terror & Horror: The Gothic Tradition upper-level Humanities class. Tours will leave from campus (outside Einstein Bagels) at 6:00 on October 28th and 29th (with different students telling stories each night). All are welcome to attend! Please dress for the weather and wear good walking shoes. We wouldn’t want to have to leave anyone behind…
For more information about Séances, Spirit Photography, haunted media, and Ghost hunting, check out the following:
- Collin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
- Louis Kaplan’s The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer
- Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television
- Barbara Weisberg’s Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism
- Natalie Zarrelli’s “Dial-A-Ghost on Thomas Edison’s Least Successful Invention: the Spirit Phone” (Atlas Obscura)
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