Bernico uses the example of the GameBoy “b” button to give him extended powers in his Pokémon game, a fact that was relayed to him by a school friend. It was only on researching this in forums later that he discovered that the “b” key had no effects on the game outcome. He expected it to work therefore it did. This is a process of reification, where the behaviour of a machine reinforces the idea that a ritual is having an effect.
I’m reminded of a similar situation from my own childhood. Our home computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a relatively low-spec, entry-level device. Programs were stored and distributed on analog cassette tapes, and played back through a cassette player as an audio signal. These chirps and beeps were then converted from frequencies into bits. Tape drop out, tracking misalignments and warp made this storage medium notoriously susceptible to loading error.
My favourite game of all time was Jet Set Willy, so my cassette was well worn making loading it unreliable. As a joke, I told my older brother that the Spectrum didn’t like being watched when it was loading and in order to load a game successfully one had to close one’s eyes for the full three minutes that it took to load. To my disbelief and his delight, this actually worked. Not only that time, but subsequent times too. I appeared to have created a magic ritual that directly influenced the behaviour of a piece of digital equipment.
Relating the development of the telegraph as described by Sconce (2009), I was surprised to read that the phenomena of table rapping, spiritualism is a relatively new cultural artefact, dating back to the mid-1800s. The histories of the “electro-magnetic” and spiritual telegraph shared a confluence. The spiritualists saw the boundary between the electromagnetic and the phantasmagorical as porous and coterminous. After all, what difference between the raps on a table to signify a spectral presence, and the dot-dash of morse to similarly embody the disembodied?
Electricity at this time is seen as entangled within the spirit realm; witness the intriguing “spirit battery” (Sconce, 2009, p. 29). This was a magnetised rope grounded in a bucket of water that seems to follow the logic of an earthed circuit. It’s difficult nowadays with the ubiquity of electricity to understand how miraculous electricity must have seemed at the time, so no wonder that it took on an aura of the spiritual.
Later on, Bernico illustrates the use of EMF Readers – used by plumbers to detect pipes and electrical wiring behind walls – as a device to sense paranormal activity. In fact, a cursory search on eBay brings up listings for a variety of ghost hunting devices. I was most taken by the Rem Pod Bear KII EMF Meter (Fig. 2), a ghost detector in the form of a teddy bear whose paws light up to indicate the presence of spirits. The mechanics are housed within a plush toy with the rationale that it’s more appealing to the ghost of a child. The device is apocryphal in the sense that it functions as an EMF detector, yet the interpretation of these readings weaves a narrative that supports the beliefs of the user:
“Humans have a huge capacity to apply meaning over the top of unstructured and chaotic events. Whatever is produced from the machine will necessarily be correlated into the paranormal investigator’s scheme of cultural understanding. (Bernico, 2019 p. 10)
Whereas the EMF detector is a passive detector, other devices classed as Instrumental Transcommunications offer the possibilities of dialogic communication. This includes analogue devices such as dowsing pendulums, ouija boards and electronic, such as the Spirit Box and the Paranormal Puck. The former is an AM/FM radio unit, with an attached microphone for asking messages that sweeps through bandwidths listening for voices in the radio aether. The latter is a multi-sensory unit (ionisation, temperature, humidity etc) that connects via Bluetooth to one’s smartphone. What makes these units noteworthy is the technological paradigms that connect them to two respective eras. In the first case, it’s clearly at home in the realm of the radio ham of the mid to late 20th century. The latter updates this as a smart device, giving the user the power to send messages into the spirit realm in the same way one would communicate via WhatsApp or Twitter. If Apple is using the language of devices that work automagically, why would that magical technology not also be pressed into service to speak on the etheric plane?
It’s as if there’s a drive that attempts to repurpose the latest technological discoveries, not as revealing the mechanistic, reproducible, ordered logic of the world, but instead showing that the spiritual realm is just within our grasp. The technical appearance of these devices, the semiotics of dials and gauges, legitimises the experience of spectral phenomena. Steven Connor makes the point that “All machines are contingently imaginary because all machines need to be imagined.” (2017, quoted in Bernico, 2019, p. 11). This imaginary drive is also present in the users and appropriators of these technologies, using the objectivity of devices to support and confirm their own beliefs.
Perhaps one could draw a taxonomy of devices: those that aesthetically belong to the same phantasmagorical world, like crystal balls, black mirrors, ouija boards, and those that are squarely situated within the ordinary, technical and objective. Witness the use of CCTV as an aesthetic trope in modern ghost stories.
I wonder if there is a democratising force at work here? Instead of being gifted with second sight, being the seventh son of a seventh son, or being initiated into a secret society, all one needs is an FM radio. Like Apple’s computing for the rest of us, this is a window into the spiritual world for the rest of us.
There appears to be a dual dynamic at work here – one that encourages further investigation. Firstly that as more of the curtain of the visible world is pulled back, the more we need to see that there’s an abyss of the unknown behind it, rather than a brick wall.
Secondly, there seems to be a vestige of a previous age’s caution, of delving too deeply into the nature of the universe, lest it unleashes powerful, malign forces that we can’t control. This is a well-trodden theme in horror fiction where unsuspecting teens summon a demon through a Ouija board, or the counter trope of the hubristic, sceptical scientist prodding the etheric hornet’s nest to prove that spirits don’t exist.
Bernico, M (2019) Apocryphal Media: An Archaeology of Mediated Paranormal Presence. continentcontinent.cc 8.1–2
Connor, S (2017) Dream Machines. London: Open Humanities Press
Sconce, J. (2009) Haunted media: electronic presence from telegraphy to television. Durham: Duke Univ. Press.
Figure 1. projectzme (2012) ZX Spectrum loading screen [screenshot/GIF] Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2012/8/23/3262382/5-tech-things-i-wish-the-younger-generation-had-endured (Accessed: 12 March 2021)
Figure 2. ghost_hunting_gear (2021) Rem Pod Bear KII EMF Detector [screenshot] Available at: https://www.ebay.co.uk/usr/ghost_hunting_gear (Accessed: 12 March 2021)