The Ghost in the Machine: Spirit and Technology

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Citations (Scopus)


The chapter deals with the relationship between the Spiritualist ‘apparitions’ and modernist apparatus. It argues that the western ‘image’ of disincarnate spirits produced since the 1860s has been shaped significantly by the devices used to discern and document them. The study focuses upon the contribution that the camera and audio recorder has made to both the fabrication of spirit entities and the endeavour to contact the dead. Photography and ‘audiography’ were, in the context of Spiritualism, the technological equivalents of clairvoyance and clairaudience (the supernatural abilities to see and hear the departed). Whereas the spiritualist medium could receive and send information to and from this world and the next, technological communication with the dead was unidirectional. The camera and audio recorder were merely depositories for the visible and audible presence of the dead, with whom one could no more interact than with the actors on a television and radio. While these new mechanical and electrical devices were, in this respect, far less serviceable than the older and more modest contrivances of the ouija board and planchette, they offered, it was supposed, a more objective and reliable demonstration of the reality of spirits. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, technologies such as the camera, radiograph, phonograph, electron microscope, deep-space telescope, and parabolic microphone brought what was previously invisible and inaudible into the realms of perception and permanence. Spiritualism redirected these facilities from the natural to the supernatural world. In so doing, technology was requisitioned to not only legitimize anomalous phenomena but also bridge the divide between antiquity and modernity, superstition and empiricism.

In this context: 1. The study examines the iconography and reception of spirits as mediated by technology. 2. Uniquely, it presents a comparative analysis of so-called spirit (or psychic) photographs and Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP). This in order to discern how their distinctive formal conditions (the one static and visual, and the other kinetic or time based and audible), and their means of encoding (sensitised emulsion and magnetic tape initially, and digital media subsequently) contributed to a cultural understanding of death, the afterlife, and the nature of spirits. 3. The study also explores the commonalities of process (ordinarily, neither the image nor voice of the spirit was evident when the ‘recording’ was made; they were manifest only after the ‘image’ on the photograph or tape was ‘played-back’). 4. Furthermore, it explores the commonalities of perceptual and auditory pareidolia – the viewer’s or listener’s propensity to interpret vague stimulus (the blurs and slurs on the surface of a negative or the interference of white noise on the soundtrack) as something known (a figure or a voice). 5. Finally, the chapter examines the discourse on spirit, (haunted) technology, and mediation presented in popular cultural forms, including films such as Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Nakata’s Ring (1998).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Ashgate Research Companion to Paranormal Cultures
EditorsOlu Jensen, Sally R. Munt
Place of PublicationFarnham
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages64
ISBN (Electronic)978-147240612-5
ISBN (Print)978-140944467-1
Publication statusPublished - 28 Dec 2013


  • paranormal
  • technology
  • spiritualism


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