This article, by the late Joanna Timms, examines the relation between popular ‘ghost-hunting’ – typically the pursuit of eccentric aristocrats and opportunistic journalists – and scientific psychical research in interwar England. Scholars of the history 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. 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 scholars from both fields to elucidate the practice of popular ghost-hunting in interwar England and to highlight its largely unexplored intersection with psychical research.
It focuses on the way in which psychical researcher Harry Price persevered in trying to establish ghost-hunting as a legitimate science while at the same time playing to its popular appeal. Price’s efforts allow historians to trace some preliminary connections between the ideas and practices of the ‘occult’ in the period and broader themes such as the relation between heritage and modernization and the public perception of science and the supernatural.
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 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.
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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 the intellectual implications of the paranormal, its members generally discounted the spiritualistic explanation of ghosts and derided the base public fascination with them.8 The SPR’s interest in hauntings was in fact exceeded by its commitment to the investigation of mental phenomena such as telepathy, hypnotism and clairvoyance in the twentieth century.9 Hauntings appeared to have a different evidential status: if discussed in the SPR’s Journal or its Proceedings they were presented as the hallucinations of impressionable or damaged minds, rather than indications of post-mortem survival.10 Reflecting in 1952 upon the achievements of the SPR, the psychical researcher Robert H. Thouless noted that the Society had made no real progress in its investigation of hauntings.11 Between 1894 and 1923 it had published no major study on the subject.12 The Society’s interest in apparitions and hauntings, it would seem, decreased in the twentieth century, perhaps because its members could find no explanation for them. Despite renewed interest following the First World War in spectres as evidence of spiritual survival after bodily death,13 the SPR was more concerned with pursuing cases that strengthened its links to psychology and orthodox science.
According to Owen Davies’s account The Haunted (2007), the modern ghost-hunter was a product of the twentieth century.14 Ghost-hunters, he argues, sought to be ‘thrilled’ by their engagement with the supernatural, rather than to uncover the profound ‘religious truths’ that had preoccupied psychical researchers.15 In Adventures with Phantoms (1946), the English ghost-hunter and journalist R. Thurston Hopkins referred to his fellow ghost-hunters as ‘mere dabblers’ who ‘collect facts and suggestions and pass them on to the men who make extremely delicate experiments in the laboratories’.16 These ‘laboratory men’ were psychical researchers. Hopkins was content to be regarded as an amateur who ‘patiently searches into the history of… haunted houses’.17 The Irish-born journalist Elliott O’Donnell similarly described himself as a ‘mere ghost-hunter’ rather than a psychical researcher.18 With less self-deprecation, he scoffed that the scientific instruments used by psychical researchers were ‘futile’ if hauntings were caused by ‘denizens of another world’,19 and insisted that dogs and monkeys knew ‘more about the supernatural than the most eminent psychical researcher’.20
Although Hopkins and O’Donnell employed scientific and psychological terminology used by psychical researchers (‘serial time’ and ‘telepathy’, for example),21 they also drew on populist journalistic language, being ‘thrilled’ and ‘excited’ by ghost-hunting.22 In 1937 O’Donnell kept vigil one night at a reputedly haunted house near Bristol with a motley entourage of journalists and actors, whose hopes of a paranormal climax were however disappointed: ‘Every now and then the watchers started as a loose board creaked and a mouse or rat raced across the floor. But no ghost came’. Unlike Price and Joad, O’Donnell and his companions did not even wait until first light to depart: in the darkness before dawn, they ‘abandoned [their] watch and went [their] respective ways’.23 In his 1953 memoir, Ghosts over England, Hopkins wrote of the ‘innumerable half hours’ he spent ‘peeking and prying’ at Hangleton Manor in Sussex with his spaniel, Duster. In spite of his tenacity, Hopkins was ‘rewarded… only once’ by seeing an ‘exciting manifestation’.24 He was even more disappointed in 1941, when he went to investigate a rectory that supposedly housed a nude ghost, only to find that the ‘haunted’ building had been razed and replaced in the 1890s. He ‘groaned inwardly’ at the ‘melancholy end to all my expectations of a thrilling ghost-hunt’.25 The satisfaction such hunters derived from paranormal experiences, and their disappointment when ghosts did not appear, suggest an affective investment in the chase. This stands in contrast to the idealized objective stance adopted by members of the SPR. In psychical research, a cool detachment was demanded in order to conform to the observational practices of the natural sciences.
Ghost-hunters used the methods as well as the rhetoric of journalism. In Adventures with Phantoms, Hopkins likened the pursuit to being ‘hot on the trail of a story’.26 They researched the history of haunted houses, interrogated witnesses of ghostly phenomena, and attempted to persuade the householders to let them stay overnight in order to experience and so accurately report any events. Their accounts of sightings were generally sensational in tone and content. Ghost-hunter James Wentworth Day relished the gruesome tales that lay behind such hauntings. In the eighteenth century, he breathlessly reported, a hanged man was left to swing by the sea for months, ‘polluting the breeze’ with his rank odour. His eyes were ‘pecked out by rooks’, his ‘rotting flesh torn off in strips by carrion crows’.27
It was not by chance that the ghost-hunting practices of O’Donnell and Hopkins were reported in popular newspapers and magazines between the wars: the publicity devoted to such stories attracted a wider readership, and it also garnered potential customers for entrepreneurial phantom seekers. Hopkins organized midnight tours of reputedly haunted sites in southern England in the 1930s, causing a ‘sensation’.28 Journalists from newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Evening News took part. Gordon Meyrick’s fictional ghost-hunter Arnold Perry (discussed below) recognized the importance of maintaining a working relationship with the press. Though Perry was characterized as gruff and scientifically minded, he treated journalists with respect.29
The association between ghost-hunters and popular journalists between the wars differentiated them from serious psychical researchers. Members of the SPR did not seek interaction with a mass audience and their specialist scientific discussions were mainly restricted to their in-house Journal and the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research.30 Both groups, however, placed value upon direct impression and evidence. Thus in a 1939 address on hauntings and the ‘psychic ether’, the SPR’s President H. H. Price (who was not related to Harry), emphasized that psychical researchers needed to gain ‘first-hand experience’ of psychic phenomena, rather than merely relying on the reports of witnesses.31 At the same time, differences with ghost-hunters were pointed out: at the SPR it was felt important to question and challenge witnesses, not merely to record their views.32 Clearly, the public perception and the actual practice of interwar ghost-hunting were distinct from the activities and objectives of the psychical researchers, even if the two were sometimes conflated by detractors. Psychical research was largely presented as an objective and detached activity, whereas ghost-hunters characteristically sought to appeal to a wider public through obviously emotive language and popular journalistic tactics, stressing human interest and the excitement of the pursuit.
Nonetheless, to see the ghost-hunters as excitable overgrown boys flitting from one haunted locale to the next would be simplistic.33 The ghost-hunting of O’Donnell, Hopkins, Day and Sir Ernest Bennett reflected broader socio-cultural concerns in interwar England, not least the perceived disintegration of national heritage as landed estates were being broken up and the heirlooms of their aristocratic owners dispersed among the new rich.34 Interwar ghost-hunters were trying to reconnect with an endangered history and culture in the face of rapid modernization. A particular concern was the way that swathes of countryside were being consumed by characterless suburbs, and rural vistas marred by motorways and pylons and telegraph poles.35
This transformation was captured and lamented in various writings of the time. As the English playwright and liberal J. B. Priestley motored through England in the autumn of 1933, or the rural revivalist L.T.C. Rolt traversed the country by canal boat a decade later, they made similarly jaundiced observations (despite their contrasting political affiliations). Priestley commented on the Americanization of English culture: ‘arterial roads’ led to cocktail bars and dance halls and factory girls dressed like actresses, while gramophones ‘scratched out… tunes concocted by Polish Jews fifteen storeys above Broadway’.36 The unique ‘character’ of England was felt to be endangered.37 Eccentric aristocrats, he thought, added a ‘charm and poetic play to life’,38 and stretches of unaltered countryside harboured ‘pleasant ghosts from history and art’. Rolt similarly praised ‘old’ England and condemned the blandness of suburbanization. On passing an abandoned stately home, he mourned the demise not just of a formerly imposing piece of architecture, but of the entire way of life that the house had represented.39
In 1919, standing below a spring-burdened apple tree as the furniture from Monk’s House, Sussex, was auctioned off, Leonard Woolf reflected that it was ‘as though one were watching the disembowelling, not merely of a house, but of time’.40 Some twenty years later, when he and Virginia Woolf visited the Kent manor, Penshurst, in 1940 with their friend, Vita Sackville-West, his sense of history was inflected with irony. After touring the antiquated halls, they were introduced to Lord de L’Isle, the current owner. Leonard was struck by the incongruity of the situation: he and his wife, ‘the descendents of the Scottish serf and the ghetto Jew’, promenaded through halls of priceless antiques while Lord de L’Isle, the manor’s owner, ‘sat in a poky little room drinking tea from rather dreary china’.41
The writer Osbert Sitwell, in a 1940 article in John O’London’s Weekly about a visit to Tuscany, used a ghost to dramatize the contrast he had observed between the old-world glamour of a Tuscan palace and the lurid modern order that was steadily encroaching. While his aristocratic hosts still inhabited a world of tea parties, footmen and horse-drawn coaches, modern Tuscany was abuzz with motor cars and cocktail parties.42 Sitwell’s host had confided that the palace was haunted by a fifteenth-century ghost. There had been a painting of the spectre, his host explained, but they had been forced to sell it in order to afford electric light fittings.43 Sitwell’s reference to this apparition appears to signal his disenchantment with modernization and resonates with the work of certain ghost-hunters.
In his portrait of interwar London the popular writer H. V. Morton similarly employed the device of a ghost to suggest how an impersonal modernity had overridden traditional culture. Passing the ruins of Devonshire House and reading on a billboard that office blocks and flats would be built in its place, he appealed to the ghost of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Morton was sure that the Duchess’s spectre would pass the billboard ‘tut-tutting’.44 Ghosts, to Sitwell and Morton, were eloquent relics of a more civilized age.
Nostalgia for an ‘old’ England ruled by stable landed families living in great houses is similarly evident, as already suggested, in the writings of interwar ghost-hunters.45 In his 1939 book, Apparitions and Haunted Houses, the Tory psychical researcher and ghost-hunter Sir Ernest Bennett wrote of a phantom manor that materialized before two women near Bury St Edmunds. ‘It may first appear impossible’, Bennett reflected, ‘that no recollection or tradition should exist today of an imposing Georgian mansion… But the perpetual drift from the countryside to the towns, and the decimation of a whole generation in the Great War, are factors which have rudely shaken the former continuity of village tradition.’46 O’Donnell expressed similar sentiments in recounting a visit to a ‘haunted’ manor between Ealing and Windsor. The house, O’Donnell wrote, appeared ‘sorely out of place among the modern villas that the vandal builder of the twentieth century had erected on all sides of it’. The contrast between this house and its soulless modern neighbours encouraged O’Donnell to conclude that it was haunted even before he had commenced his investigation.47
The phantoms that haunted such accounts in interwar England tended to highlight the country’s unique cultural history. After discussing ghosts and haunted houses as part of the BBC’s ‘Inquiry into the Unknown’ broadcast in 1934, Bennett received over a thousand letters from listeners detailing their personal encounters with spectres.48 He devoted Apparitions and Haunted Houses to these accounts. Not surprisingly, a considerable number of ghosts were linked to sites of historical significance, and wore period-specific attire. In 1934, men motoring by the site of an ancient battlefield near Ripon, North Yorkshire spied three armour-plated spectres that vanished behind the fog.49 A woman sleeping at a manor near Basingstoke, Hampshire awoke to find a ghost at the foot of her bed in an old-fashioned gown.50 O’Donnell and Day reported frequent sightings of spectral nuns and monks, sometimes accompanied by eerie organ music.51 In the 1920s, the solicitor and ghost-hunter Reginald Hine saw a ‘fragile’ woman in a crinoline and an ivory crucifix walk through a wall in an Elizabethan manor.52 Harry Price even investigated a Shropshire cottage built over Roman remains, which was supposedly haunted by a toga-clad phantom.53 Famous historical ghosts were also consistently reported throughout the interwar period. The Dean of Windsor informed O’Donnell that Windsor Castle was undoubtedly haunted, and that one of the ghosts was Henry VIII.54 In 1933, one of Henry’s decapitated wives was spotted at the Tower of London.55 Sir Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart, who was found dead at the foot of a staircase in 1560, was also rumoured to haunt a rectory built on the sight of her former home in Norfolk.56 The sensationalism of those interwar ghost-hunters, in other words, went alongside their endeavour to highlight a particular kind of English heritage that was seen to be at threat or indeed in rapid decline.
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It is instructive to consider the role of Harry Price in this context, and to analyse his popular monographs, periodical articles and newspaper pieces, because of the deliberate way that he sought to combine the roles of psychical researcher and ghost-hunter, thereby blurring the boundary between the two categories and helping to reconstitute the image of both these fields in interwar England. Price expertly conveyed himself as a psychical researcher and yet helped shift the discipline from academic preoccupation with telepathy and clairvoyance towards the more obviously popular fascination with ghosts and poltergeists. Indeed, Price artfully combined academic language and popular discourse as he built his reputation as a ghost-hunter.
His friend R. S. Lambert, reflecting in 1940 that Price had altered the perception of psychical research for the better, caught something of this. Lambert, an editor and journalist who worked for the BBC, took an interest in psychical research but claimed that the SPR was too ‘stodgy’ to be publicly appealing.57 Price, on the other hand, achieved a kind of balance between authoritative science and popular interest. He possessed ‘not the secretive attitude of the ordinary research worker, but the technique of the skilled publicist, ready to give to the world the fruits of his work at the earliest moment and in the most palatable form’.58 Although Price’s writings exhibited the journalistic flair that characterized the writings of a number of other famous ghost-hunters, he also exploited his association with the press to promote an image of scientific legitimacy. While he relished the thrill of the chase (spending nights in reputedly haunted houses with journalists, and even releasing a book entitled Confessions of a Ghost-hunter), he maintained, through his use of technical language, that he was a sober psychical researcher.
Price traced his interest in psychical research back to his adolescence, when he had spent the night in a reputedly haunted Shropshire manor and experienced for himself the heart-stopping excitement of poltergeist phenomena.59 After this Price became a prolific reporter of spectral phenomena. His monographs did not eschew sensational language or appeal to the emotions. A 1926 poltergeist case in which crockery and windows were shattered at a house in Battersea, and shreds of paper inscribed with minute writing flurried down from the roof, was portrayed as an ‘adventure’: a ‘thrilling… amazing affair’.60 His account of a night spent in a ‘haunted’ Somerset manor resembled the reports by amateur ghost-hunters such as O’Donnell and Hopkins; he aptly captured the anticipatory atmosphere of settling down for the night with his fellow ‘investigators’ after a makeshift supper, ‘trying to keep warm and hoping that something would happen’.61 More broadly, Price’s activities connoted a sense of socio-cultural displacement experienced and remarked upon by many others too in the interwar period, not least in the language of the ghost-hunters. For example, in Poltergeist over England Price recounted his 1944 investigation of a haunted Essex village. The villagers maintained that the haunting had started after American bulldozers widened a local road, dislodging a stone that had ‘marked the remains of a seventeenth-century witch’.62 Similar evocations of the past characterized the publications of ghost-hunters such as James Wentworth Day, who made reference to a Dorset agricultural committee that superstitiously refused to plough fields near a haunted castle during the Second World War.63
In Fifty Years of Psychical Research, Price warned his readers against believing newspaper reports on hauntings; this was despite the numerous journalist friends and correspondents mentioned in his own accounts and experiments.64 It was indeed the press that guided Price to the ‘haunted’ Borley Rectory, his most famous, and controversial, psychical case, in the summer of 1929. While lunching with a friend he was telephoned by ‘the editor of a great London daily’.65 As one of England’s best-known psychical researchers, Price, it seems, was needed to ‘unravel the mystery’ of the Essex rectory, which was ‘infested’ with phantom nuns, monks and poltergeist phenomena.66 He spent the night in the garden with a reporter keeping watch for the Rectory’s phantom nun. The tone of the account was a mixture of journalistic intrigue and high seriousness. It was through the Borley case specifically that Price was fashioned as a renowned psychic ‘expert’ who had undertaken a ‘painstakingly scientific’ investigation of a haunted rectory, with a team of carefully picked empiricists.67
Price’s willingness to co-operate with the press meant that reporters frequently asked him to comment upon new ghostly phenomena. If he exploited his populist appeal, he was also recognized as the ‘Honorary Director’ of the impressively titled National Laboratory for Psychical Research. In a 1939 review of Sir Ernest Bennett’s Apparitions and Haunted Houses for John O’London’s Weekly, Price praised Bennett’s ‘critical attitude’ while declaring the book ‘the best collection of true ghost stories that has appeared for many years’.68 In a 1940 review of Sacheverell Sitwell’s Poltergeists, Price recommended the book to the ‘armchair investigator’ and ‘general reader’, and endorsed it as ‘delightful’ and ‘entertaining’.69 It can be argued that with his combined common touch and gravitas, Price significantly influenced the popular view of the discipline. To the public, poltergeists were not perhaps the ‘mediumistic’ phenomenon produced by the ‘agency of an incarnate [mind]’ that H. H. Price conveyed in his exclusive 1939 Presidential Address to the SPR.70 They were rather Price’s ‘loveable’ mischief-makers who hurled wine-bottles, mothballs and pebbles like obstreperous toddlers, and transformed white wine into eau de cologne.71
When writing for popular newspapers, as well as in his monographs, Price notably employed popular terms such as ‘ghost’ rather than the psychical equivalents ‘apparition’ or ‘phantasm’. However, he also employed sufficiently psychical and psychological terminology to maintain his credentials as a serious researcher. Thus in an article for the Sunday Chronicle in 1928, Price recounted his experiences with a Romanian girl, Eleanore Zugun, who was allegedly the victim of poltergeist violence. Although the case was reported in sensational manner, he consistently referred to the ‘scientific’ methods he employed.72 In Confessions of a Ghost-hunter, Price not only appealed frequently to the ‘scientific’ nature of psychical research, but also referred to basic psychoanalytic theories of the ‘conscious’ and ‘subconscious’ mind.73 In a 1935 article on photographing ghosts, in Sight and Sound, Price blurred the distinctions further still, writing of scientific psychical research and popular ghost-hunting as interchangeable activities.74 Sensationalist accounts of a journey in a haunted train carriage on the Orient Express and of being stalked across Germany by a repulsive phantom were moderated by references to down-to-earth empirical inquiry.75 The journalist Campbell Nairne, in his 1940 review of Price’s monograph on the Borley Rectory case, The Most Haunted House in England, praised the book’s impartiality and ‘scientific thoroughness’, while recommending it to the ‘general reader’ as a ‘well-told ghost story’.76 Whatever Nairne understood the scientific method to be, Price had succeeded in modulating the seemingly impenetrable discourse of psychical research to make it palatable to a popular audience.
Interwar public perceptions of psychical research did indeed often suggest that the field consisted largely of ghost-hunting. Hence in a letter to John O’London’s Weekly in August 1940, J. Hewitson felt it necessary to remark that he was not a psychical researcher when he wrote of the ‘haunted’ vault that he and his sister had frequented as children. For Hewitson it was as though, in other words, normally the one activity implied the other.77 In an account from a man in Oxford, sent to Ernest Bennett after the broadcast of his ‘Inquiry into the Unknown’, a ghost in a dressing-gown was said to have been seen passing through a closed door. Although identifying himself as never a ‘believer in things connected with the spiritual world’, this correspondent declared how, having now seen a ghost, he was ‘convinced that there is something in this form of research’.78 Thus too, in a 1946 BBC broadcast, the psychologist Cyril Burt was able to describe psychical research as tantamount to the ‘study of spooks’.79
Characters in short stories of the period were similarly undiscerning in their definition of psychical research and their recourse to the imagery of the ghost-hunters. In Cynthia Asquith’s ‘The Playfellow’ an Englishman warned his American wife not to ‘start any of that psychical rot’ when she speculated that their daughter had befriended a ghost.80 E. M. Forster’s ‘The Purple Envelope’ projected the psychical researchers Mr and Mrs Bellingham as opportunistic thrill-seekers, in spite of their (grating) use of scientific terminology.81 In Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Green Holly’ a psychical ‘expert’ stationed at a country grange during the Second World War became romantically linked to a phantom.82 Such representations of psychical research give something of the flavour of how the subject was perceived by the general public and how far it was from the image of the discipline propagated by the SPR.
No less telling is the uncertain boundary between psychical research and ghost-hunting in the fictional psychic thrillers of the interwar period, such as Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, Sax Rohmer’s The Dream Detective and Gordon Meyrick’s The Ghost-hunters. While the fictional ghost-hunters John Silence, Morris Klaw and Arnold Perry were distinguished from psychical researchers, they nonetheless employed the very scientific and psychological language that supposedly elevated psychical research above popular ghost-hunting. They also adopted seemingly scientific methods in their cases. Blackwood’s ‘psychic doctor’, John Silence, exhibited a compassion not generally associated with conventional psychical researchers, even criticizing the latter for their insistence upon ‘classifying’ their results, which he regarded as ‘uninspired at best’.83 O’Donnell and Underwood – the real ghost-hunters – could perhaps exemplify the fictional Silence’s declaration that there are ordinary people who ‘undergo an experience so strange that the world catches its breath’.84 The presentation of these would-be detectives drew upon the staid language of psychical research and so underscored their scientific method. However, the ways in which such distinctions were created and sustained were subtly different in each case. Further literary critical research on the characters of John Silence, Morris Klaw and others might attend to the shifting valences of their methods in terms such as ‘thought control’ and ‘psychometry’, and the relation between such language and their investment in the ‘scientific future’ of ghost-hunting.85 Although he emphasized the importance of human intuition, John Silence insisted upon experimentation and frequently urged his clients to refer only to ‘facts’.86
Gordon Meyrick’s ghost-hunter Arnold Perry provides the most explicit literary example of the porous boundaries between interwar ghost-hunting and the ideology and methodology of psychical research. Unlike the gentle, empathetic Silence, and the eccentric, endearing Klaw, Perry was brusque to the point of inhumanity. While Silence cared about the emotional implications of psychical phenomena for his clients, Perry dismissed the human element of his work. He was also, as Owen Davies points out, strikingly similar to Price.87 Not only did Perry operate from a London ‘ghost-hunting laboratory’ equipped with scientific implements, he also advertised his services in newspapers, and was so famous that he often had to conceal his identity during investigations.88 Perry was tailed by a less astute co-investigator – Charles Marsh. The latter served as a foil to highlight his mentor’s cool precision. Marsh was conscious of how the pursuit of phantoms ‘thrilled’ and excited him, and believed that he himself had too much imagination to be an effective hunter.89 To Marsh, Perry’s approach to the pursuit was ideal: he regarded his cases ‘in the light of… cold, scientific investigation’.90 At a séance which caused Marsh’s scalp to tingle with excitement, Perry resembled a ‘disinterested spectator at a rather boring funeral’. His clients became laboratory specimens rather than human beings.91 Marsh aspired to replicate this approach.
The characterization of Perry intriguingly combined those elements of scientific method and terminology on the one side, and taste for excitement and the most sensational features of the case on the other, that marked the work and reputation of Price. Like Price, Perry scattered starch powder on the floor of a séance room, and bolted its doors to ensure that whatever occurred within the room would be authentic.92 If the case was ‘to be of any value to science’, he explained, ‘we must be satisfied that all phenomena are genuine’.93 In the short story ‘The Death of Mr Eccle’, Perry and Marsh investigate a dilapidated grange in Essex that was famed for its poltergeist phenomena and had in fact been ‘written up in one or two ghost books’.94 While investigating the ‘haunted’ grange, Perry is confronted by a reporter from the Monitor who encourages him to share the latest news on the haunting. Perry’s usual uncompromising gruffness is replaced by a curious openness. After informing the reporter of the latest details, Perry reminds him that he must ‘not mention my name [in connection with the affair] – yet’.95 Of course, on picking up the Monitor the following day, Perry finds that his involvement in the investigation of the ‘haunted’ grange is a front-page story.96 Aside from the parallels between Price and Perry, Meyrick’s The Ghost-hunters provides insight into the public understanding of psychical research, and the discipline’s association with ghost-hunting. Alongside John Silence and The Dream Detective, The Ghost-hunters conveys how the ‘ghost-hunter’ had now become an authoritative figure through his employment of scientific methodology and rhetoric. The relation between these fields was to an extent reciprocal: the press was partly responsible for seizing upon ghosts as a subject of popular interest, and sought to draw on the legitimacy of psychical research when discussing ghostly ‘phenomena’.
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In 1954, six years after Price’s death, an article published in Shropshire Magazine traced his life and career. He was described simultaneously as a famous ‘ghost-hunter’ and ‘psychical researcher’.97 Through Price, it now appeared as though the two practices were integrated, forging a new image of psychical research. In addition to raising questions about the uses of popular and scientific discourses of the paranormal and about the career of Harry Price in particular, this article has suggested that the concerns of ghost-hunters may also be seen, in part, as a rejection of certain features of modernity and an attempt to evoke a vanishing social world. Further research may seek to discover how far this suggestion can be substantiated, and how far such accounts of ghost-hunting may profitably be understood in relation to social flux, cultural representations and interwar fear of the loss of English heritage.
As this article was not fully finished upon Joanna’s death, some further editorial work was undertaken by Daniel Wilson, at the request of History Workshop Journal. Kathleen McIlvenna provided help with footnote checks, illustrations and permissions.