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The reality of ghosts: Explaining our fascination with the supernatural

Updated Tuesday, 17th May 2011

Are modern day viewers of Most Haunted any different from their 19th Century peers? And are ghost walks extreme sports with added ectoplasm? Laurie Taylor and guests investigate.

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Laurie Taylor:
Ghost walks and ghost hunting and ghost tourism and ghost shows on the television all seem to be growing in popularity. A surprising development perhaps, but one which is comprehensively documented in a new book called Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits and Magic in Popular Cultuer and its author is Annette Hill, who's professor of media at the University of Lund in Sweden and she now joins me in the studio, together with writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet, who holds a doctorate from Oxford on the Sensationed Fiction of the 19th Century. We're defining paranormal, I think, aren't we really, as all those elements which are scientifically - phenomena which are scientifically inexplicable, all the way from ESP to hauntings. But Annette tell me what prompted your interest in this rather odd area.

Annette Hill:
One of the people I spoke to said that with the paranormal "why" is the key word and so, for me, why did I write this book? I've got three answers for you.

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The first is depicted by the front cover because on the front cover are my salt and pepper pots and my salt and pepper pots are in the form of little ghosts. And to me that captures why culture is ordinary and extraordinary, there's always this mix of the rational and irrational going on in popular culture and I wanted to look at that.

And the second reason is that the paranormal right now has gone really mainstream and that's captured by an experience where I went to a supermarket in Wales with my two sisters and there I am at the checkout and alongside Cosmopolitan I can buy Spirit and Destiny and several other psychic magazines aimed at me as a woman. So that shows me that the paranormal's gone mainstream and you can buy it with your milk, bread and eggs, so that was the second reason.

And then the third one is that, for me, the real payoff for doing this study is that it's about a quite intense form of cultural participation - people having this collective subconscious engagement with these live experiences. And talk about that with the metaphor of the audiences - the show - because people feel very alive and engaged when they're playing with the paranormal in popular culture.

Laurie Taylor:
When I was reading this I kept thinking "no it can't be as popular as that, no, no". I came across your surveys showing a steady rise in belief in the paranormal since the '70s, including a rise following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Is it possible to correlate the popularity of such beliefs with particular historical moments?

Annette Hill:
Yes, absolutely. One thing is it's a remarkable story that ghost belief has been going on for the last 500 years - it's nothing new to see spooky things, to see phantasmagoria as a part of popular culture.

But definitely you see ghost beliefs peaking at certain key moments of crisis, it could be war, it could be economic unrest, it could be religious uncertainty. And that kind of thing is so well-known that even this psychological interpretation of it - that we look for - in unusual places to deal with uncertainty is so well-known that Business Week anticipated there would be a huge rise in paranormal beliefs with the economic crisis and said, well, watch out because Paul McKenna's books are going to be through the roof; Most Haunted is going to be really popular; you're going to see mediums working; angel communicators working more and more. And they were right.

Laurie Taylor:
Matthew, you read through this. To some extent you share my surprise at really the extent of this phenomenon and the commercialisation of it?

The word ghost written in light against a ruin
Writing with light amongst ruins

Matthew Sweet:
Not quite because, in a way, I've been waiting for a book like this to come along for some time. The "phantom economy "has certainly been growing in the last few years, you can see it if you look at the back pages of any women's magazine, with all the tarot lines and this kind of thing.

And I think, in a way, all consumer culture is about the pursuit of something spectral, it's about magic in a way, and so this is somehow only what's going on in the rest of the shopping arcade - only more intense.

Laurie Taylor:
It's very funny, isn't it: the idea commercialises almost the search for something that almost [by] definition isn't going to be found?

Matthew Sweet:
Well that's the thing. In a way it's a bit like the sale of pornography in that you canring up a telephone line [and] instead of somebody saying something saucy to you, you'll have some kind of vague remarks made about your future, what the cards have in store for you.

Except that sex exists and to my mind the spirit world doesn't. So it is a much odder kind of communication, yet the currency that is exchanged here is as hard as the currency in any other commercial exchange.

Laurie Taylor:
It's real money.

Matthew Sweet:
It absolutely is. You can go to Selfridges now and a psychic will help you shop. I went along and did this myself, and there's a woman who sits you down, gives you a reading, tries to make some kind of a sort of psychic reading of your life to see where in the shop you might be about to go.

All of that was profoundly wrong I must say but in the end she recommended me that I should buy some Ghost jeans.

Laurie Taylor:
I won't describe what you're wearing now in case they were psychically determined, Annette.

Annette Hill:
But it's the perfect consumer product because it's never ending, you never get the evidence, you never get the full experience, so you always have to go back again and again and again.

In the 19th Century how was cinema advertised to people? As a séance - as a public séance - you know, 'come and see people come alive before your very eyes', as the Luminaire brothers advertised it.

And that's so fascinating for me, because it shows that in popular culture historically it's the selling of this ambiguous experience, it's been there from the get-go and professionals, like magicians and mediums, know how to use that to their advantage.

And I think we're a little bit behind in understanding the selling of this ambiguous experience today, because it's really common in popular culture.

Laurie Taylor:
I'm interested a bit in degrees of scepticism. Matthew, you know the 19th Century role. To what extent were these phenomena regarded with more credulity in the 19th Century than they are now?

Matthew Sweet:
Well I have a feeling that in the 19th Century audiences went along in a slightly more sceptical spirit than audiences do now to shows by psychic mediums. I think that the 19th Century audience for a spirit show - somebody like the Davenport brothers with their spirit cabinet where voices came from the inside, musical instruments were played mysteriously - I think that, by and large, they went along in order to say well how is this done, there's some enigma here to be solved.

That's absolutely not the spirit in which the contemporary audience for a show like this goes. I've been to these things [and] I think they go because they want something much deeper than that, and because there's a sort of a wound or some kind of damage that they want to be healed.

Laurie Taylor:
You're talking, both of you, about this combination between the sort of sceptical and believing and not believing as almost a simultaneous exercise. How does this apply, for example, to the extraordinarily popular television show on the Living Channel, Most Haunted. You spoke to people who watched this regularly?

Annette Hill:
Yeah, I call them armchair ghost hunters and that's actually from one of the producers at the time, Richard Wolf, talking about his audience as that.

Ghost walk through Victoria
A ghost walk in Victoria

And I would say that they're actually remarkably similar to the 19th Century, I mean there's examples of people going to see spirit photographs in the 19th Century on Cheapside and historians have shown them kind of going 'well, okay that's got to be faked, is that bit real, probably it's all faked but let me tell you about my experience the other week' or 'let me tell you about something that happened in my home - that is haunted'.

And when you talk to people watching Most Haunted today they're like 'well, this is made up, this is, you know, legally defined as entertainment, I'm probably not going to see any evidence on Most Haunted that something's really happening - but let me tell you about my own experience, let me tell you that we live with a ghost'.

And I think there's something very similar there where people are using media almost to say 'well I'm sceptical in this regard, I'm rational and intelligent and critical in this regard, but in terms of my own experience and what I want to believe in, in terms of an afterlife or in something else, let me then be more of a believer here'.

Laurie Taylor:
Considering this attitude, this very sophisticated account of the way in which these beliefs are grounded in the personal experience, you watch the television, you don't necessarily believe it, but still there's something there because I know there's something there.

You've been on ghost walks haven't you Matthew?

Matthew Sweet:
Yes I have, I went on a ghost walk in the old court building in Nottingham and what struck me about this - and this has struck me whenever I've been in the presence of a psychic medium who is trying to see things that are somehow coming through at them through history - is that the kind of images that they claim to see seem to me to say more about the poverty of their historical imagination then anything about the validity of the spirit world - they will always say things like well I saw a Victorian urchin, you know, they didn't see somebody protesting about the married women's property act.

And I remember going to Jamaica Inn with some ghost hunters who were having visions of men in buccaneer boots and people in kind of wenches' costumes, I thought 'well, I've seen a Margaret Lockwood film, too'.

Laurie Taylor:
And of course the other element here is very much the business of participation isn't it, because, people, when they go on these ghost hunts, they are actually participating themselves, they're doing something. Tell me, do they ever talk about benefits they experience as a result of these trips?

Annette Hill:
Yes. I think the crucial thing that's going on on these sort of "live ghost hunting" events is that people are really communicating with each other very intensely, a little bit like extreme sports, and you're doing that all night, with a group of strangers, usually, but there's a very intense sensory engagement with that and people really feel alive, that is absolutely crucial.

Matthew Sweet:
But that seems to me - [and] you ask this question in the book - why do people want to go into a room and hold hands in the dark? Well, there seems to me to be quite a clear answer to that and it's one that I kind of sensed in the air at these events and it's loneliness, it's dislocation from other people isn't it?

Annette Hill:
It's loneliness absolutely but I also think it's just having that sensory feeling, in a slightly different way you might get bungee jumping, there is something about that sensory feeling, that intense feeling of being alive that's crucial.

And then I think there's a kind of never ending search for evidence that people are doing and I think they like the search process, you know, you can be a plumber by day and a ghost hunter by night and do that for the rest of your life here. And I think there's something very tantalising about continually looking for evidence.

Laurie Taylor:
I get the feeling that your attitude towards some of these elements and areas is not quite so benign as Annette's, is that true?

Matthew Sweet:
I think Annette's reading of the TV show is very interesting because I think that once these events are conducted in public, in theatres, I think a very different sort of engagement comes into play.

I remember going to see a medium perform in Swansea to an audience largely of women and I had the very strong sense that here was a man fishing for tragedy - fishing for dead babies essentially - awful stories that he wanted to bring out into the open and then provide that audience with a moment of rather kind of mawkish emotional engagement.

Laurie Taylor:
Well on that slightly negative note we must finish. Matthew Sweet and Annette Hill, thank you very much indeed.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 11th May 2011

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