From Parlor Tricks to Primetime: Fame, Gender, and the History of Ghost Hunting

elenor sidgwick

By Sam Wall

When you read the words ghost hunter, what kind of person springs to mind? I’ll wager many of you picture what I do: someone between the ages of 21 and 35, probably white, lit by the eerie glow of a night vision camera asking, “Did you guys hear that?”

Oh yeah, the ghost hunter is always a guy.  Why is that?

I initially doubted that impression, figuring I had to be exaggerating, so I researched modern ghost hunting groups (groups operating within recent years and using gadgets like Electromagnetic Frequency Meters to conduct their word). My search of the ghost hunting teams receiving media attention (particularly television shows) brought back one all-woman team, a few teams with a token woman, and a lot of all-male groups.  Reassured that I wasn’t imagining that mainly men got to be high-profile ghost hunters, I set out to see if I could figure out why.

There’s no obvious reason for this gender gap, no requirements or goals of the profession that favor a specific gender. Ghost hunting is at its heart, a search for answers to questions as varied as “Is there life after death” to “What the hell is making that noise in the attic.” It’s also a way that we share and spread ghost stories. Those stories, according to Colin Dickey’s excellent Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, are as much a way for us to make sense of our culture and history as they are a way to scare ourselves at sleepovers. Like any stories, they can reinforce or challenge accepted ideas about gender, race, or class. Famous ghost hunters develop a sizable platform to tell the stories of the places they investigate. The risk is that when one group dominates that platform, those stories lose their detail and context and get parred down to flat, palatable versions.  The woman killed by an abusive husband becomes the ghostly remnant of a lovers’ quarrel, the murdered slave becomes a “trusted servant” whose ghost haunts the house where she was forced to serve.  The way we talk about the dead influences how we treat the living. That’s why it’s crucial to examine who tells the stories and how they choose to frame them. If the only stories we have reinforce the status quo, we end up erasing the experiences of marginalized people in the past and the present.

Ghost Hunting Gals of the Past

Part of my perplexity about the lack of famous modern women ghost hunters stems from the fact that women were central to Spiritualist movement of the early 20th century. Spiritualism, with its belief that the dead could speak to the living, sparked a national interest in ghosts and the beyond that can still be seen in our fascination with ghost hunting shows.

Spiritualism owed a large part of its success to the Fox Sisters, who convinced droves of people that they were spirit mediums, people who could communicate with ghosts through techniques like rapping and automatic writing. The cultural beliefs of the time helped the Foxes and women who came after them dominate the profession of spirit mediumship, even though the sisters confessed to using trickery to achieve the ghostly sights and sounds of their presentations.  Women, especially young white women, were thought to possess spiritual purity that made them excellent intermediaries for the dead. There was also an assumption that women were more sensitive or emotional than men and thus more receptive to spirits from the beyond.

“Ghost hunting is at its heart, a search for answers to questions as varied as “Is there life after death” to “What the hell is making that noise in the attic.””

Since early ghost encounters revolved around spirit mediums and other paranormal professionals like spirit photographers (who claimed to capture images of ghosts in their cameras) early ghost hunting focused on examining those claims and sorting the genuine evidence of spirits from the parlor tricks. Just as women were at the core of supposedly communicating with spirits, so to were they at the heart of early ghost hunting. Three of the most influential female ghost hunters were a writer, an academic, and the right-hand woman to one of world’s greatest magicians.

Night Side of Nature

The writer was Catherine Crowe whose book, The Night Side of Nature, was a foundational text in the history of ghost hunting. According to Shane McCorristine’s Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 Crowe believed that science needed to pay attention to ghosts and other paranormal matters, insisting that some ghost stories were credible enough to warrant sincere investigation and compiling dozens of what she saw as reliable eyewitness accounts of ghosts into the book. She took pains to research these accounts, looking for historical evidence that supported the idea that a ghost may inhabit a location. She analyzed the accounts she collected, attempting to separate gossip and embellishment from earnest testimony. Her insistence that science and the paranormal could merge into one field of study remains at the core of modern ghost hunting.

Forty years after Crowe’s book, feminist and mathematician Elenor Sidgwick helped form The Society for Psychical Research. The society embodied Catherine Crowe’s dream: a group of dedicated scientists investigating ghosts. While technically invited in as an “administrator” by her husband, Elenor was not simply there to serve tea. She was an integral part of the society: Investigating hauntings, developing experiments to test paranormal claims, and documenting the investigations and findings. She combined first-person observation and thorough analysis of eyewitness testimony into a formidable approach to ghost hunting. She focused considerable energy on refuting spirit photographs, drawing on contemporary research about how human memory and perception fails or plays tricks that lead to people seeing familiar faces in the unclear images produced by spirit photographers. She was also adept at figuring out the tricks used by spirit mediums and taught herself many of the codes mediums used during their presentations. Elenor began and ended her career as a skeptic, although she maintained that she was very open to the idea that ghosts existed. She’d just never found evidence of them that held up to her scientific rigor.

“Her insistence that science and the paranormal could merge into one field of study remains at the core of modern ghost hunting.”

Rose Mackenberg, who often went by Mac, was the spiritual successor to Sidgwick.  Mac began her career as a private investigator, and when one of her cases involved “spirit fraud” she soon crossed paths with Harry Houdini. Houdini, impressed with her investigative skills, invited her to join his team of undercover agents. When Houdini planned to debunk a particular spirit medium or other person who claimed contact with the dead, he sent his agents into the town ahead of time to pose as true believers. They gathered information and observed the medium in action, then reported their findings to Houdini. When Houdini visited that same town, he used the intel from his agents to demonstrate exactly how the medium was a fraud.

Mac proved so skilled that Houdini made her his lead investigator. Not only could Mac unravel the trickery used by her targets, she went to great lengths to avoid detection, observing local women and matching their style in a series of elaborate disguises. While this was all done in the name of blending in, it demonstrates Mac’s flair for drama (later in her life she would go to psychic sessions in order to confront and chastise the politicians in attendance). Indeed, Mac’s methods share similarities with modern ghost hunting shows. She went on location, she actively participated in situations where encountering a ghost was a possibility, and there was an element of danger that nowadays would make for ratings gold; fights often broke out between spiritualists and skeptics, and there was always a risk that Mac would find herself in the midst of one. Too, enough people were angered by Houdini’s exposing of mediums that the great magician carried a gun in the event that “angry” became “murderous.” He urged Mac to do the same. She never did.

rose2

Mac also shared the ability of modern ghost hunters to work the media to her advantage. After Houdini’s death, she took his place in the public eye as ghost and psychic buster. She wrote for major publications about the “ghost racket,” her name for business using spiritualism to con others out of their money, and gave a touring presentation demonstrating the tricks used by mediums and other ghost racketeers. In her later years she appeared on television to give similar presentations and carry her crusade against the ghost racket into the modern era.

Modern-Day Ghost Hunting

In order to see how ghost hunting looks today, I reached out to the Northern Nevada Ghost Hunters. Their team consists mainly of women, and I wanted to get their thoughts on gender in the profession and why more men seem to “make it” as ghost hunters.

A recurring theme in their answers is that the greatest divide within the ghost hunting community is not gender, but motive. There are those who want to, “help people understand the paranormal and what goes on in their home. Studying and preserving our history is crucial in understanding the paranormal and helping the haunted” or believe that it’s “a job well done if one assisted others, helped save and promote historical locations, and advanced knowledge within the field.” Then there are those who are ghost hunting in the hopes of becoming famous or making money, who get territorial about locations and prevent other investigators from learning about them.  Or worse, who generate false experiences or otherwise play on people’s fear to make a profit. This mirrors the early days of the profession, with fellow investigators taking the place of predatory spirit mediums. Accounts from both Sidgwick and Mac show they saw their work as a means of stamping out those who exploited people’s grief for fame and profit. Mac in particular saw rooting out spirit fraud as a calling. Throughout her career, she insisted that she had no problem with people who practiced spiritualism as a genuine faith or sought out the ideology because of grief. Rather, she could not stand people who used claims of ghosts and other paranormal phenomenon to profit off of the loss, hope, and belief of others.  Even though the women I spoke to are far more convinced of the existence of ghosts than Mac ever was, they share the belief that ghost hunting is meant to ease people’s pain or fear, rather than use it for personal gain.

“Too, enough people were angered by Houdini’s exposing of mediums that the great magician carried a gun in the event that “angry” became “murderous.” He urged Mac to do the same. She never did.”

What struck me most during my research and my back-and-forth with the NNGH was all the ways in which ghost hunting is another way in which women work with death. For some, the investigation of ghostly claims was and is one way to engage with the mystery of what happens after death. For others, ghost hunting is a way to ensure that death, or rather loss, does not make someone into a target for fortune-hunters who know that many of us would pay almost anything for one last chance to talk to a deceased loved one. Finally, there are those who recognize that telling the death-shrouded stories of a place is as much a part of preserving its history as telling the more light-hearted stories.

The Gender Question

Given the history and context of the profession, how do men end up as more successful or visible ghost hunters? One initial theory of mine was that men are more prone to risk-taking or, if you’re being unkind, worse at self-preservation than women. After all, even if you’re not afraid of a vengeful spirit coming after you, ghost hunting poses very real, physical risks. It often happens at night in buildings that are old or decaying. There are multiple reported cases of amateur ghost hunters getting hurt or killed during investigations from things like floors giving out beneath them. But this theory is contradicted by Rose Mackenberg’s experiences and the many women who participate in some form of ghost hunting in spite of the risks.

If it’s not their willingness to go into dark and spooky places that’s impeding women’s ghost-hunting fame, what is? A few members of the NNGH suggested that men may be more ego-driven in their ghost hunting, pursuing paths likely to bring them fame, while women may be more altruistic when selecting cases. One member speculated that technique may play a role as well: in her experience, women tend to be more patient and less apt to try confrontational investigation techniques (like loudly demanding a presence “show itself”). She believes that while there are women that have no problem with confrontation, “doing things for “ratings” and creating phony situations is easier to swallow for men.” But ego and confrontation style are not the whole story. In the words of one member, “I have encountered many women who want to be famous and doing everything to get noticed so it’s not lack of women trying to get famous that’s keeping them from making it big.” If that’s the case, it suggests the answer lies less with the culture or motives of ghost hunters and more with the people deciding whose ghost hunting stories get to be on T.V

“If it’s not their willingness to go into dark and spooky places that’s impeding women’s ghost-hunting fame, what is?”

If we’re talking about who gets a job and who gets to tell their story, then we’re talking about good old-fashioned sexism. Men are treated as the default in most forms of media. Presenting an all-male group of ghost hunters is an unmarked choice, while a group of women reads as appealing to a niche audience or trying to be politically correct.  There’s also the fact that men and women are often socialized to show emotions like fear in very different ways, one’s that lead an audience to view a man and a woman freaking out over the same strange noise very differently. Ironically, the same emotionality and sensitivity that supposedly makes women adept at connecting to the dead may work against them in the context of a T.V show. Said one investigator, “I think in general, men are more believable behind a camera frame, where women seem to carry their emotions which could be over the top for some viewers and not that believable.” Another investigator pointed out that the fact that many people view men as braver than women may cause them to view incidents involving male ghost hunters as move believable. She continued, “If you have a female investigator on TV and she jumps or screams she will be labeled a scaredy cat who shouldn’t be doing this line of work. A male doing it who jumps because he gets scared it’ll be the whole ‘oh no way!!! That must be real, he just got scared.’” This explanation gels with what we know about the way people perceive women and men’s emotions  leads to the assumption that women are “too emotional” to be objective in certain situations. It’s not ridiculous to assume that sexist stereotypes about believability and bravery influence who’s offered the chance to be a high-profile ghost hunter.

Barring getting funds for a mini-series or a book deal, I doubt I’ll dig up an all-encompassing explanation for the overrepresentation of men in ghost hunting. What I took away from my quest, and what I hope others remember, is that ghost hunting is another way that women have worked, and still do work, with death. Even if ghost hunting seems contrived or silly to some, people use its’ process and findings to make sense of everything from history to the afterlife. When the answers offered by ghost hunting influence our understanding of the world, it’s worth examining who’s asking the questions.

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Sam Wall is a queer writer and sex educator living in Nevada. She is the Assistant to the Director of Scarleteen.com, where she helps provide high-quality sex ed to young people around the world. She is interested in all the ways that gender, sexuality, and death intersect throughout history and in current cultures. She also enjoys exploring the ways in which marginalized communities use elements of horror and the macabre as forms of self-care and resistance.

Follow her on Twitter

 

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. I think the same could be said for a lot of female horror fans or female podcasters who focus on the darker side of humanity. My cohosts and I have experienced a weird fetishization from all-male channels who want to take us on as the token “ladies shock us by talking about weird stuff” podcast. We’re not a novelty item to be acquired. We exist in droves, but they’re just not looking because they’re not actually interested in what we have to say.

    Liked by 1 person

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