Phantasmic Science: Medieval Theology, Victorian Spiritualism, and the Specific Rationality of Twenty-First Century Ghost Hunting
Over the past decade, American “reality” television has been haunted by a proliferation of paranormal programs, the most popular of which combine documentary-style historical narration, the testimonies of those who have witnessed supernatural activity, and POV filming as scaffolding for their primary focus—the scientific proof of the paranormal. Shows such as the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures (2008-present) and SyFy’s Ghost Hunters (2004-present) feature heavily-equipped teams who investigate haunted spaces using infrared cameras, EVP recorders, heat detectors, experimental ghost-attraction devices, and a plethora of digital software. Other programs such as A&E’s Paranormal State rely not only on quasi-scientific technology but also on religious authorities such as priests and demonologists, the advice of paranormal experts, and the insight of psychics—all of which have their own authoritative languages of proof and truth. Paranormal investigation programs, by their very nature, weave together the specific rationalities of science, religion, and the supernatural and in so doing create a body of imaginary knowledge that resonates in the popular imagination. This paper will examine the roles of science and technology in paranormal investigation programs and how the scientific method is misappropriated in order to produce authoritative proof of a longed-for invisible world. The uneasy (if not imaginary) coalition of science, religion, and the supernatural in such programs speaks to deep anxieties in American culture about epistemologies, truth, and identity, as well as our desperate longing for the existence of the spiritual in an increasingly tenuous material world.