- Ghost-Hunters and Psychical Research in Interwar England
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Click for larger view
View full resolution
[End Page 88]
In 1932, the psychical researcher Harry Price and the Birkbeck College philosophy lecturer Cyril Joad spent the night together in a 'haunted' bed in the London suburb of Chiswick (Fig. 1). It was rumoured that whoever occupied the bed was bucked from it, or kept awake by a 'dreadful presence'. Price and Joad photographed themselves tucked into the bed, impatiently smoking cigarettes as they awaited paranormal activity. But they left their post disappointed, at dawn, 'just as the milk was arriving'.1
Hauntings were reported and investigated often in interwar England, particularly in locations of historical significance. Phantom nuns roamed corridors in country rectories.2 Headless horses pounded the roads outside great houses.3 The ghosts of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were periodically observed.4 Ghost-hunting was typically the pursuit of eccentric aristocrats and opportunistic journalists. So what were a purportedly 'scientific' psychical researcher such as Price (donor of a vast and valuable collection of occult literature to the University of London's Senate House Library) and a respected academic such as Joad doing hunting ghosts? This article will examine the relation between popular ghost-hunting and scientific psychical research in interwar England. It focuses on the way in which Harry Price conveyed ghost-hunting as a legitimate science while seeking to retain its popular appeal. Price's efforts in this regard allow historians to trace some preliminary connections between the ideas and practices of the 'occult' in the period and certain broader themes including that of the relation between heritage and modernization, as well as the public perception of science and the supernatural.
Historians of English hauntings have demonstrated that belief in ghosts often mirrors social values and reflects the cultural trends of the age in which it arises.5 Scholars of the history of psychical research, in contrast, have focused upon the intellectual nature of the discipline, overlooking the important dynamic between psychical research and popular ghost-hunting. The present account builds upon the work of researchers from both fields to elucidate the practice of popular ghost-hunting in interwar England and to highlight its largely unexplored intersection with psychical research. The first part of this article examines the values and aims of English ghost-hunters as well as the characteristics that distinguished ghost-hunters [End Page 89] from psychical researchers. While ghost-hunters were 'thrill-seekers' who pursued phantoms for the exhilaration that the activity ensured, ghost-hunting also reflected serious socio-cultural concerns in interwar England. As well as thrill-seeking, ghost-hunters were motivated by a desire to re-engage with English heritage, which they believed was being threatened by suburbanization and American influence. The second part of this article argues that the English psychical researcher Harry Price played an important part in reshaping the public perception of interwar psychical research by merging the 'science' of psychical research with the pursuit of popular ghost-hunting. Price was a keen ghost-hunter. He projected ghost-hunting as an acceptable aspect of psychical research, and discussed the activity with a display of scientific precision. Not only did Price's popular 'psychic' journalism and writings succeed in presenting such investigations as a facet of serious research, but popular thrillers by the writers Algernon Blackwood, Sax Rohmer and Gordon Meyrick compounded this effect by familiarizing audiences with the use of scientific and psychological terminology in relation to ghost-hunting.
What were the aims and characteristics of ghost-hunters in interwar England? How were these distinguished from the endeavours of psychical researchers? The organized investigation of ghosts has been associated with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), not least because after the SPR was founded in Cambridge in 1882, one of its research committees was dedicated to the investigation of haunted houses.6 The connection has perhaps been overemphasized, however.7 In the twentieth century, as the Society became increasingly preoccupied with...