The idea of a life after death has fascinated and enthralled cultures all over the world throughout history. From the Egyptian Pharaohs being buried with all their worldly possessions to take with them, to the Fox sisters starting the spiritualist movement in 1848. It’s a core part of what makes us Human, the curiosity about what happens ‘next’.
For so many centuries knowledge and teachings on the spiritual were the remit of religious leaders building up or preying on an ignorant populace. This moved from churches to village and concert halls with the spooky Victorians and the Fox sisters. Access to knowledge and demonstrations of the afterlife started to spread. As is usually the case it was quickly realised that this could be a source of entertainment and more importantly, wealth. So of course, spiritual meetings and séances moved to theatres where tickets could be sold. The seats filled with people all seeking something; entertainment, a better understanding or just maybe a message from a passed loved one.
Nothing exists without an opposite also being created as a reaction. So, as the popularity of these spiritualist faith meetings grew organisations started to pop up using scientific processes to prove that these mediums and spiritualists were real or frauds. The most notable organisation in Britain was and still is The Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in 1882.
From their own website (www.spr.ac.uk):
“The first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. We hold no corporate view about their existence or meaning; rather, our purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education.”
This is not to say that they are cynical sceptics, far from it. Many are looking to validate an experience or belief with some scientific evidence. Others are believers desperate to experience something paranormal.
Over the decades though notable individuals have stood alone in their attempts to prove that most if not all of it is fraudulent activity. The most famous being Harry Houdini. Houdini sought solace in spiritualism following the death of his mother, only to prove each medium he visited to be a fraud using his knowledge of illusions. He became so set on his course that it ruined his friendship with Sir Author Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle, a member of the society for psychical research, was a dedicated believer publicly speaking passionately on the subject. He went to the extent of supporting and vouching that the Cottingley Fairy photos were genuine. Seriously, go and google these photos and you will start to see why Conan Doyle’s reputation started to tarnish as he got older.
Obviously neither man concretely proved their case before their death, as the arguments still go on between believers and sceptics. However, interest in the subject started to wane during the second world war, only being the interest of dedicate followers and old women reading tea leaves.
It was not until several high-profile cases of supernatural activity (The Amityville Horror and the Enfield Haunting) erupted into the world media and pop culture in the 70’s that things changed again. This became kick started the ‘satanic panic’ and the paranormal came on to everyone’s radar once again. This resulted in paranormal celebrities springing up. In the UK we had Uri Gellar and in America there was Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Ghosts and ghost hunters had appeared on the silver screen since the earliest horror films. Movies were one thing but people were clamoring for evidence of the real thing. However, it would seem that no one was willing to take the final step and take the risk of putting the practices of the SPR or even the Warrens on mainstream television. Not until 1992 at least.
On October 31st 1992 the BBC broadcast Ghostwatch a TV drama designed to look like a live broadcast. It used known TV presenters, not actors and a ‘live’ on location broadcast from a family’s haunted house. The show caused controversy and has become a cult sensation in Britain when it was banned for 10 years. However, it has one more legacy that can’t be ignored.
It was the jumping off point from everything that had gone before. All that desire to see a ghost, proof of an afterlife or just a quick scare … but based on ‘scientific’ evidence was funnelled through the fictional drama of Ghostwatch to become every ghost hunting show that has come since. In the UK I would refer in particular to ‘Most Haunted’, which started in 2002.
Since the early 2000’s dozens of Ghost Hunting shows have started on channels all over the world. They’re cheap to make and fun to watch. I doubt these mediums, spiritualists or ghost hunters will go away any time soon. They will just find a new medium through which to present their case and make some money. However, the question remains, whether in a church, theatre or on TV have they proven the existence of ghosts?
Do you believe?
I will be going into a lot more detail on Ghostwatch in the next episode of 20th Century Geek, when I talk with the writer and creator Stephen Volk. After that I will be looking at the other side of the coin and talk to several close friends about their own supernatural experiences.
If you have any stories please send them in (20thcenturygeek@gmail of use the contact us page) or find me on Twitter (@20thcenturygeek).