Harry Price embraced the media, regularly using the newspapers and radio to enthral and inform an audience keen to hear and read about his adventures. In March, 1936 he broadcast an investigation from an old haunted house in Kent on the BBC. Price wrote a number of books, many of which were best sellers including the two Price wrote of his investigations at Borley rectory; the case for which he will be forever remembered. Harry Price was the first celebrity ghost hunter, famous not just in here the UK, but throughout Europe and the United States. After Price, the public were fascinated by the ghostly adventures of investigator Peter Underwood, whose regular TV and radio appearances and numerous books meant that he, like Price became a household name.
These were the days before the Internet, before social networking and before YouTube. Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters and the numerous other ghost investigation TV shows didn’t exist. These were the days when very few people ever hunted for ghosts, preferring instead to read about the exploits of the handful that undertook this spine tingling pursuit of spooks and spectres. Ghost hunting was the realm of the intrepid lone investigator, the academics from The Society for Psychical Research and the occasional storyteller, recounting spine chilling tales of past visits to haunted manors and stately homes.
Stories and accounts of ghosts and ghost hunters have been told and retold throughout the ages. Ghosts have always been popular; newspapers would be guaranteed to sell extra copies if they managed to include a good ghost story and every writer appreciated the value of a good ghostly tale. Dickens was a master of the ghost story and occasionally investigated the odd genuine case from time to time. Ghosts and Spirits could make an appearance in books about seemingly unrelated matters; writing in the 11th C. Gerald of Wales certainly understood the value of popping in a few accounts of the supernatural into his writings of his travels around Wales and Ireland. It was a good tactic for boosting sales that many other writers have adopted over the years. But once in while the opportunity arose for people to actually get involved with a haunting or poltergeist; in the 18th C. A small street in London was thronged with hundreds of people clamouring to witness at first hand the psychical rapping’s of Fanny, the Cock Lane spirit. In the 19th C. crowds flocked to Hydesville in upstate New York to witness the antics of the Fox sisters and the mid 20th C. huge numbers regularly travelled by car and by charabanc to sleepy little Borley in the hope of seeing for themselves the ghostly goings-on at the rectory that Price was reporting in the media and his books. The public’s interest in the periodic appearances of the dead in the world of the living (normally after dark), has always been high but nothing that had gone before can compare to the frenzy of interest seen in the past ten years or so.
In May 2002, Living TV aired the first episode of Most Haunted. The show was an instant hit as the team of presenters and experts visited countless locations in the UK and Europe, documenting their investigations of purported paranormal activity. Creepy green night vision and screams a plenty from the cast, fed the public’s desire for a good scary ghost tale. Brief contributions by the show’s sceptical voices were generally tagged onto the end credits, perhaps almost as afterthought or maybe as a sceptical sop to boost the credibility of the show. Audience figures soared and as the people watched they started to realise that anyone could become a ghost hunter. After all the Most Haunted crew were just normal people; a make-up artist, a couple of cameramen and a former Blue Peter presenter. They were not specially trained, they were not scientists; but they were hunting ghosts and if they could do it then surely anyone could. Viewers watched, and as they watched, they learned the methods and saw the experiments set up by the show’s cast and supporting team of parapsychologists and ‘investigators’. Anxious not to miss out on a share of the advertising revenue this unexpected hit programme was generating, other broadcasters quickly got their own shows into production. There were numerous attempts, by broadcasters here and in the USA, some more successful than others. The Sci-Fi channel got lucky with Ghost Hunters, a show centred around a pair of plumbers turned ghost investigators with a group amusingly named TAPS; but shows like Haunted Homes and Living with the Dead failed to inspire the public imagination in quite the same way.
The public had discovered that just about anyone could be a ghost hunter and they had been shown the way it was done, learning by watching week after week as this new breed of TV ghost hunting expert delivered compelling evidence of ghostly phenomena. So, rather inevitably they began their own ghost hunting. Tentatively at first, they visited many of the locations they had seen on the shows in the hope of having their own ghostly encounters. Groups were formed, all driven by a desire to capture for themselves proof that ghosts really do walk amongst us when the lights are off. Thanks to the TV, they saw the true potential of their domestic video camcorders which had an unusual mode called Nightshot, which previously they had only used for making the sort of home movies that were strictly for private viewing or for obtaining pictures of badgers and other nocturnal wildlife. Forget all that mundane stuff, these cameras could actually record the manifestations of ghosts. Ouija boards, for years only ever spoken about in hushed warning words of foreboding and generally avoided by every self respecting Medium as instruments of evil were once again popular. The public learned about EMF - well in reality they learned it had something to do with the energy fields that ghosts emitted or used (depending upon which TV show they last watched). They saw it was possible to buy a small handheld EMF Meter that would alert them to the presence of any nearby spirits.
Empowered by this new knowledge, equipment and not forgetting the obligatory fleece bearing a suitable logo, they formed themselves into teams and set off into the unknown to capture their own ghostly and ghastly evidence. Around this time, the internet was being freed from the constraints of dial-up and was being replaced by high-speed broadband (accordingly to the service providers at least). Computers had begun to replace the VCR as a means of viewing the footage from domestic camcorders and ghost hunters embraced YouTube as a means of sharing their evidence with other ghost hunters. Digital photography now meant thousands of pictures could be taken in haunted buildings and they proved to be a revelation. These cameras didn’t just save film and give instant pictures without needing Polaroid; they could actually capture paranormal evidence - Orbs appeared almost overnight. Like some weird paranormal rash they multiplied quickly via the internet, infecting people with the idea that they were manifestations of dead souls, angelic beings or entities from other dimensions and worlds. EMF meters flashed and bleeped unexpectedly to order and warned of the presence of assorted spectres, later the spirits were taught how to use these devices to communicate with the living. The number of groups hunting ghosts exploded, their evidence mounted as Ouija boards were ‘pushed’ into action, dowsing rods twitched and a host of previously undreamed of uses were found for odd bits of technology. Geiger counters, meat and greenhouse thermometers, garden canes, coins and crucifixes all found a new role as tools for the ghost hunter.
Meanwhile, Mediums sat up and started noticing all this renewed interest in the Spirit realm. For years they had been content communicating with the dead in the séance parlour or at numerous Spiritualist churches. They didn’t need to seek ghosts as proof of man’s survival of death; they had a direct line to the other side! But the savvy Mediums quickly recognised that here was a new and potentially lucrative market. Ghost Hunting TV shows relied on Mediums to obtain the evidence that their cameras were not that great at capturing and these Ghost hunting Mediums were good too; rarely failing to get the answers to questions or confirm the details known only to the show’s producers and apparently carefully protected from being leaked out beforehand. The Medium’s ability to communicate the evil intent of the prowling ghost and its inevitable cohorts thrilled and captivated the audiences. The amateur ghost hunters understood that if they were ever going to get real evidence they too needed a Medium. Many groups were fortunate to discover sensitive’s and mediums within their midst, others had to go out and find a resident medium to help them out until their own psychic skills could be more fully developed. Many mediums simply formed their own group, which would often make use of both scientific gadgetry as well as the skills of the medium, although it has never really been properly explained why they need to bother with Cameras and thermometers as they must already know where the ghost is, along with a host of other useful information that the gadgets are so rarely able to provide.
As the TV ghost hunters continued their weekly forays into the haunted places of the land and brought the ghosts often reluctantly, into people’s living rooms week after week the programme makers began to realise that the simple headless lost soul wandering aimlessly around darkened corridors or manifesting as a glowing ball of light needed to up their game. Ratings had to be maintained and the audiences and advertisers appetites needed to be satisfied. They had to get the evil entities on board too. The odd murderer was too tame, the sadistic Lord of manor was old hat; even an occasional fight-back staged by the spooks armed with small stones and the odd item of cutlery simply wasn’t up to the task any longer. Demons that were desperate for exorcism were recruited from the defunct hit US series Charmed and cast against the intrepid TV ghost hunters in ever increasing numbers. Vampires were dragged from their graves and put to work to boost the ratings. The scientists on the show’s team were sent back to their labs and told to come up with new experiments. New and novel ways to communicate with the dead, giant coils that shot powerful bolts of much needed electricity for the spirits to use and other odd bits of equipment that could be used in the hunt for the poor ghosts and their more evil relations were presented. Thermal cameras provided brightly coloured and unnatural images that could readily be interpreted as evidence of the paranormal. Thermal cameras also had the advantage that they were expensive and therefore were unobtainable, this provided excellent kudos for the TV shows using them and the benefit that nobody except maybe an elite few who flew around in Police helicopters could really contradict the claims of what was being shown.
The amateurs, spurred on, upped their game. New adversaries (as seen on TV) were discovered to be lurking in the dark recesses of every council house and tumbledown castle. They developed their skills, honed over many nights spent sitting around crazily tilting tables or bleary eyed behind night vision cameras calling out for the ghosts to show themselves and join in the fun by throwing stones and lowering the temperature. The ghost hunters stopped being simply enthusiastic amateurs into became highly skilled and expert investigators. They perfected their own new techniques for detecting ghosts and communicating with ghosts using high tech gadgetry bought from the internet. Others in the team became exorcists or specialised in rescuing ghosts and spirits - presumably after the ghosts had requested rescue using the high tech ghost communications gadgets.
As the number of ghost hunters grew, so did the demand for haunted places to investigate and the venues were quick to spot the potential to raise funds for their much needed restoration projects starved of lottery funding. Several million pounds is a lot of money to find but if people are willing to group together and pay £1,000 for a night in your dungeon then which restoration fund manager in their right mind is going to refuse? Still the demand to hunt ghosts grew; specialist companies were set up to provide ghost hunts for the masses. Like package tourists, people were herded every weekend into every conceivable venue. Nuclear bunkers, deserted town halls, old woollen mills and after-hours tourist attractions were suddenly and lucratively forced to give up their ghosts to willing punters armed with torches and digital cameras. Rarely disappointed, the intrepid one night ghost hunters got their share of experiences. Conducted around the location by the now highly skilled and experienced proper ghost hunters, they looked on as the ghosts went through their well tried repertoire of stone throwing, table tipping and bleeping away on EMF meters. Money well spent and a great night out. Many sceptics went away fully believing that the dark deserted corridors and spaces of just about every building in the land held its share of lurking spirits, clamouring to get heard and show what they could do. The groups and Mediums also spotted this growing opportunity to raise much needed funds and eventually almost every paranormal investigation team was offering members of the public a chance to join a real investigation - for a fee! Apparently at some point it also became necessary for them point out to those members of the public that TV shows like Most Haunted were nothing at all like the reality and that whilst TV shows were simply entertaining parodies, they were the real McCoy…
One sad evening in 2010 Most Haunted finally ended; to live on as a ghost itself, in repeats and rarely watched DVD box collections. A new generation of fully combat ready ghost hunters stepped into the limelight. Clad entirely in black leather and body armour to protect them against the new, more evil and more deadly spiritual adversaries and armed to the teeth with the latest high tech they were ready to take our TV’s and the spirit world by storm. Tattoos were obligatory, their approach to the hunt was proactive and provocative, these investigators certainly meant business. No ghost could hide, they were prepared to travel the World in pursuit of their prey. Ghost Hunters International and the Ghost Adventures team were up for anything, anywhere, anytime - I wonder if anyone has coined the term Martini Ghost Hunting yet? The groups of amateur experts have yet to fully respond to this new genre of TV ghost hunter. They can’t easily fund round the World trips without a big TV budget but they have enthusiastically adopted the new technology seen on the shows - or at least a Chinese made clone of it, offered at a reduced price on eBay or from one of a number of internet stores that specialise in supplying every need of the modern ghost hunter from Thermal cameras to dowsing rods and Ouija boards.
Despite being fully equipped for every ghost hunting scenario, it is the internet that has proved to be the most useful and successful tool for the 21st C. ghost hunter. No self respecting group can be without their website, these days they also need to have a YouTube channel hosting their own weekly and never-ending mini-series; allowing anyone to follow their exploits as they challenge and overcome the supernatural. Evidence is presented with fortunate regularity, ensuring that their viewers aren’t simply forced to watch ‘nothing very much’ happening. Week by week they visit different locations, usually chosen to conform to their pre-requisites for a haunted location; namely being old and dark, if it’s derelict or has some historical link to a murder so much the better. Using Microsoft’s Live Movie Maker or Adobe Premier to the full they edit the hours of video, dub the soundtrack, apply titles and from time to time analyse? the evidence to meet (their own perceived) mass desire to watch their team confront the location’s resident demons and maybe a few demons of their own too. Other ghost hunters have exploited the internet in other ways satisfying their unfulfilled childhood desire to become Radio DJ’s. Internet radio shows fill the cyber-ether 24 hours a day, with team interviews, tales of horrific hauntings and assorted paranormal chatter. The technology has allowed everyone to be their own DJ or TV show host, captivating their listeners and viewers whilst secretly hoping that their show will be picked up by the mainstream broadcasters and become the next Most Haunted or Ghost Hunters.
What of the future of ghost hunting? One day the interest will wane, the previous encounters with the paranormal prove this to be true. The huge interest in Spiritualism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that has faded into the poorly attended modern spiritualist movement show this. UFO’s that not so long ago abducted thousands every night have flown away and Nessie and Bigfoot are enjoying a largely peaceful retirement. Interest in Ghosts and hauntings will never go away completely and people will continue to investigate these interesting phenomena, the academics will continue their experiments into PSI and their quest to prove the only real ghosts are those which inhabit our minds and our dreams. One thing will never change however, the desire for recognition and the desire for celebrity status. If you can get into the media you can count yourself as a success; people behave differently toward you, they show you a deference and respect you just don’t get as a plumber or a make-up lady.
© Steve Parsons 2011