Perhaps because every stereotypical haunted house is a crumbling old Victorian mansion and every Woman in White invariably wears a long ruffled gown—when I think of Halloween, it always has an air of the 19th century to me. So every October, in honor of the season, I choose a classic of the horror genre to read, like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Turn of the Screw. This year I have been working through a collection of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. All those horror movie clichés are wonderfully absent—no drunk teenagers spending the night in these haunted houses- no- it’s all gentlemen scholars and nervous governesses. And many of the stories purport to be “scientific” accounts or read like witness testimony. This makes sense when you learn that for much of the 19th and early 20th century, thanks to the Spiritualism movement, ghosts were seen in popular culture to be as much a subject of scientific research as electricity or germs.
Adding the veneer of science and realism also just makes for plain old good storytelling. The reader or listener gets a boost of fear if they think, this could have happened– and it could happen to me! It was the same technique Orson Welles and the Mercury Radio Theatre used on October 30, 1938 when they retold H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds as a series of fake news broadcasts.
By the late 20th century, the science of “psychical research” may have fallen into the realm of “The X-Files,” but the scientific ghost story is thriving. The Paranormal Activity movies – with their “found” surveillance camera footage- can be seen as a modern version of stories like Fitz James O’Brien’s What Is It? in which initially fearless skeptics attempt to document evidence of a haunting. And then there are the real-life Ghost Hunters and those other writers who continue to tell ghost stories as non-fiction accounts or to approach them with a researcher’s eye.