Ghosts in the machine
Dead ringers: how the smartphone can connect everyone – the living and the dead…
There’s a scene in Olivier Assayas’ 2016 film Personal Shopper where Kristen Stewart’s character travels from Paris to London. On the Eurostar, in the clear light of day, she receives a series of text messages from an unknown number.
“I know you,” runs one.
“Are you alive or dead?” she replies.
Stewart’s character is a medium who believes she is being haunted by the ghost of her dead twin brother. But are these increasingly intimate texts coming from a stranger, or from a spirit? “I want you,” another message reads. “I want you and I will have you.” Over the course of several tense minutes, the film plays on the invasiveness of receiving unsolicited messages, turning it towards something altogether more haunting as the train hurtles towards the dark tunnel beneath the English Channel.
Backwards satanic messages in vinyl, static on the TV, spooky radio transmissions, otherworldly answering-machine recordings: ghosts have long been part of how we think about our machines. Technology has always enabled us – but it’s always creeped us out, too. Now, well into the 21st century, those machines are the ones in the palms of our hands.
Unknown numbers, strange voicemails, glitched software, bugging-out apps. “Phone Numbers You Should NEVER Call”. “Top 10 Scary Phone Glitch Stories”. “Top 5 Scariest Things That Siri Has Ever Said”. Search the internet and it doesn’t take you long to find videos of cursed handsets and mysterious calls; “creepypasta” tales about spirits in screens; and apps dedicated to hunting ghosts using the tools in your phone.
The idea of being able to talk to the dead has long been a part of human culture. And, as our lines of communication have changed so, too, has this dream-slash-nightmare. The smartphone, with its age of instantaneous, near-constant communication, is the latest tool for haunting.
PHOTOS WITH DEAD COUSINS
“You can guarantee that whatever the latest technology is, the world of the paranormal will somehow incorporate it,” says Christopher French, head of something called the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. “Photography is a prime example. Right from the word ‘go’, when it was first invented, very quickly there were spirit photographers.”
In 1861, a jewellery engraver and amateur photographer living in Boston took a self-portrait. William H. Mumler found that when he looked at the image he could make out another person in the background – his deceased cousin, no less. Fast forward a few years and Mumler was working as a full-time spirit photographer, capturing subjects with spectral loved ones standing behind them. It was a lucrative business, especially in the wake of the American Civil War, when there were a great deal of the dead to grieve.
Mumler was eventually brought to trial for fraud in 1869, accused of breaking into people’s houses to steal photos of dead relatives, but was ultimately acquitted.
“We can look at those pictures now and see them as a simple double exposure,” explains French. “At the time, photography itself was a mysterious process to the public. So when you saw this transparent figure in the background, it could easily be passed off as a ghost.”
Around the same time as Mumler’s career as a spirit photographer, Thomas Edison was inventing the phonograph. Once mechanically recording and reproducing sound became a reality, people reviewing the technology thought about how it could facilitate a conversation with the dead. As Edison noted in an 1878 essay, it would “annihilate time and space and bottle up for posterity the mere utterance of man”. Sufficiently inspired to envisage a leap from science to the supernatural, in 1920 he told The American Magazine that he was working on another device, “to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us”.
The early camera and phonographs were a taste of what was to come. As the 19th century turned into the 20th, new technology made it ever easier to record – to “bottle up” voices and images of people, alive or (allegedly) dead. For ghost-hunters and spiritualists, they were fresh sources of investigation, new routes to messages from beyond the grave. Even buildings were framed as recording devices, with the “stone tape” theory speculating that traumatic events could leave traces of energy, literally imprinted into the material of walls to be played back under certain conditions.
STONE COLD SCARY
The 1972 British TV play The Stone Tape took this idea of “residual haunting” as its basis. In the drama a team of electronics researchers working in an old mansion have visions of a woman falling to her death. Much like magnetic tape, the walls of a particular room are believed to have recorded the “ghosts” of people in their final moments. Written by Nigel Kneale, who’d previously penned the Quatermass stories as well as a radio play about a haunted phone line, it reframes the idea of a haunted house for the TV age, the structure projecting ghosts like an architectural VHS player.
For modern paranormal investigators, the theory that stone is capable of storing traces of human thoughts or emotions remains a key line of inquiry in the age of the smartphone.
“Quartz crystals are a common component in devices like mobile phones, television receivers and, of course, watches and clocks,” says Dean Williams, director of operations for London-based company Spectrum Paranormal Investigations. “One of the main reasons quartz is used in so many electronic devices is because it is piezoelectric, meaning it generates an electric charge when pressure is exerted upon it.
“So, if it is believed that spirit entities require energy to be able to manifest,” he continues, “then it could potentially mean that any item that conducts electricity could become a vessel for the deceased to become attached to, draw energy from and make their presence known.” In this hypothesis, the science/supernatural crossover is already firmly en route. “As we head into 2020 and technology continues to grow at a rapid rate, it may just be the case that there will be more reported hauntings of people’s devices being interacted with or manipulated by a supposed ‘ghost.’”
Regardless of whether or not you believe in the supernatural, the idea of our devices being imprinted with some kind of remnant of its user strikes a chord with our digital age. We are increasingly familiar with thinking about our smartphones and computers as recording devices, not only in the thousands of photographs we take, but in the data points we leave behind, from search histories to checked-in locations, likes and purchases, clicks and swipes and lingering moments on the faces of loved ones.
The fantasy of these recordings opening a channel to the dead was the subject of Be Right Back, a 2013 episode of Black Mirror. In Charlie Brooker’s script a woman, grieving for a deceased boyfriend, signs up to a service that uses his messages, videos and photos to forge an artificially intelligent recreation. In a case of life imitating art, in 2016 software developer Eugenia Kuyda gathered thousands of messages from a friend who had been killed in a car accident in order to train a neural network – one that could then respond to questions in a similar manner to the deceased.
“Every time we open ourselves to mourning and melancholia, we’re also opening the floodgates to a haunting,” says María del Pilar Blanco, a lecturer in Spanish American literature at the University of Oxford, whose research includes ghosts and haunting. She mentions the South Korean app With Me, which attracted much interest in 2017 for allowing users to take pictures that feature 3D avatars based on the appearance of deceased friends and relatives. Even though it uses augmented reality instead of double exposures, it has a lot in common with the spirit photographs of the 19th century.
“One thing is to memorialise someone – I take pictures of my son to remember what he was like as a baby,” says del Pilar Blanco. “The other thing is how much you want to make that technology something that has the potential to haunt you.”
READING THE GLITCHES
3D avatars and AI chatbots might be haunting memorials to our dear and departed, but they’re purposefully designed by their very much mortal creators. The ghost in the machine, on the other hand, is an abnormality – one which, depending on your outlook and/or susceptibility to suggestion, might appear freakish. Paranormal, even.
“Glitches open the potential for things to be anomalous – and for then assuming there’s some kind of meaning there, even if it’s not immediately obvious,” says French.
He tells me about intentionality bias: the notion that whenever something happens, something made it happen for a reason. “It’s very strong in children. As we develop, it’s not that it goes away, but we learn to inhibit it. An example might be lying in bed and hearing a noise. Is it just the wind blowing against the window or is it a threat? We tend to opt for the threat.”
Historically, paranormal investigators have been interested in something called electronic voice phenomena (EVP). This involves listening to audio recordings made in supposedly haunted locations and hearing voices in the static. Like listening to a glitch, sceptics say it hinges on our human desire to find patterns and intentions, even when there aren’t any. Nowadays, there are many “ghost hunting” apps dedicated to helping users record EVP, even apps that automatically scan radio frequencies for fragments of speech.
But at a time when invisible digital infrastructures underpin obscure networks hosting an ungraspable number of words and images, the ghostly glitch is not only a crackle on the radio. It’s a sudden loss of control; a drop in the stomach when an app stops working or your internet freezes. For a modern ghost story, this is the feeling of horror — when the cracks appear in the black mirror. God – or science – help us when the Internet of Things comes fully onstream and your fridge/oven/heating/security cameras are able to talk to each other.
Breathe, created by Kate Pullinger in 2018, is a ghost story that presages all of this. Made to be read on a smartphone, it’s different depending on where and when you experience it, pulling on GPS data and pictures of the reader taken by the phone. As you swipe from one page to the next, words glitch and judder, making it seem like the story on the screen is breaking down. Much as you might want to, you can’t put it down. Talk about possession.
The image of TV static was shorthand for malevolent, unearthly forces in the days of horror classics like Poltergeist (1982) and The Ring (1998). But the technology has changed. Now it is the glitches of Breathe or the invasive messages of Personal Shopper that reflect the spirit(s) of our age. Ghosts still appear in our collective imagination, but these days the machines they haunt are much closer to home – in our pockets, in our hands, and right up to close to our ears.