Friday, 9 August 2019

A critical look at the paranormal industry

Fake ghost photography by William Hope (1863-1933).We are living through the most intense era of ghost-fakery in human history. A combination of new technologies, market forces, popular culture and a widespread disregard for science has produced a thriving 'paranormal industry'.

This industry has a fundamental requirement for its business model: that enough customers believe in ghosts. Unfortunately, this commercial pressure has led many in the industry to fabricate evidence about the supernatural. Ghosts, Schmosts exposes some of this fraud, and the often-dodgy ethics of the paranormalists.

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The desire to understand the nature of existence, non-existence, and everything in between is an elemental part of being human. Over the millennia it has sprouted a thousand branches of religion and philosophy. Great minds have produced great works, and spawned great movements, yet the question remains unresolved.

Lesser minds have also engaged in, and exploited, the subject. The rise of Spiritualism during the 19th century - driven by a sincere curiosity about the afterlife - spawned an epidemic of fraudulent mediums and ghost-photographers, not to mention the 'playing the ghost' prank craze. These people were usually exposed as frauds, as were many 20th-century 'ghost hunters' such as Harry Price and Ed and Lorraine Warren. By the 1960s, a popular TV show for children - Scooby Doo - had one simple premise to every story line: the ghost or monster was a fake dreamt up by nefarious schemers. When it came to awareness of paranormal fakery, it seemed that progress was being made.

An angry mob chases a 'ghost hoaxer', Devon 1894. (Illustrated Police News, 21 September 1894)

And yet, here we are...

The forces of technology, pop culture and capitalism have combined to bring us a 21st-century version of the mediums and ghost-photographers of yore. Television is awash with multiple teams of 'ghost hunters' engaged in trickery to keep their audiences engaged. In real life, thousands of amateur teams act out what they see on TV. A cast of mediums provide pay-per-minute life advice on late-night phone-in cable shows. On the streets, 'ghost tours' tell sensationalist tales with flimsy (or zero) provenance that reduce historical landmarks to the status of novelty haunted houses.  

Ghosts, Schmosts draws on the lessons of history and my personal experiences to shine a light on fakery, to explore the cultural contexts of 'pop paranormalism', and to build the case for a better way of approaching the paranormal.

Chris Dawson
Brisbane, Queensland

Top image: Fake ghost photography by William Hope, (1863-1933).

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