Putting Spiritualism and Spirit Photography in conversation with modern-day examples of our interaction with horror experiences, I want to consider humanity’s enduring fascination with its connection to the afterlife and the supernatural realm. By exploring this fascination, one finds that there are a few different avenues and reasons for our desire to interact with the dead.
ON MEDIUMS, SEANCES, AND PSYCHICS
Going to mediums is a popular form of interacting with the dead. This is indicated by its use in reality entertainment (shows like Long Island Medium and Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry come to mind), but also by the popularity of small shops or stands with psychic readers. Coming from Los Angeles, I can definitely attest to the prevalence of psychics and new age spiritualism all over the city. (I could go on a long spiel about the city itself embodying this fascination with the dead, but that would definitely be its own post!)
Mediums and psychics are an easy way to engage with the spiritual realm, but this horror experience is one of fascination with the unknown and clearing up one’s insecurities or confusions about what is to come (either during one’s life or in the afterlife). Mediums in particular showcase this fascination in the form of achieving closure. Many people go to mediums in order to have a final chance at interacting with a deceased loved one (just as Mumler’s customers desired a final photo); this opportunity is not a moment of horror for them even though, in and of itself, interacting with the dead is a horrifying concept. Instead horror transforms into a moment of healing, perhaps because of the strength of the emotions one experiences during a meeting with a medium.
An example that immediately pops to mind from the horror genre is Ari Aster’s film Hereditary. The seances held in the film are both held out of curiosity (does this actually work?!) and in the name of closure (reconnecting with a dead loved one). While the mother, Annie, participates in her friend’s seance with skepticism and fear, this soon turns into excitement and happiness when she is able to channel her daughter, Charlie, through these means. Horror and fascination play with each other in this film heavily, but the classification of mediums, seances, etc. as part of the supernatural realm will always lend a level of horror within its use.
ON GHOST HUNTING, HAUNTED HOUSES, AND RANDONAUTING
Discovery through interaction with the dead or supernatural is another manner in which horror manifests itself as fascination.
This is embodied in ghost hunting videos and even videos of people going into abandoned buildings or haunted buildings with the goal of finding creatures or spirits and capturing them on camera (sometimes not finding these entities, but still managing to create an ambiance of fear and anxiety through the viewer’s anticipation). It is not merely for the thrill and adventure of the horror experience, but also as a means of proving to oneself (and others!) that the afterlife indeed exists and that phenomena beyond our understanding are out there waiting to be seen and heard. In the case of those who go so far as to take their spiritual practices in their own hands (i.e. astral projection), one might even argue that this need to interact with the supernatural is also a means of learning and understanding what cannot be taught or understood in our realm.
Yet what is interesting about all of these adventurous forms of interaction with the dead is that, although they may induce fear and anxiety, often these people go into this experience with a positive excitement. The adventure is not punctuated or defined by the horror involved with ghosts or hauntings or astral beings, instead it offers its participants a chance at seeing what is unbelievable–almost as if it were a spectacle (and, indeed, it is a spectacle for those watching these horror experiences on shows like Ghost Hunters).
The adventure of hunting for the supernatural is now also becoming a bit more mainstream/accessible to all with the Randonautica App. While, of course, this app does not need to be used to find creepy or spooky items/places, many people set their intention on this type of atmosphere around the location they wish to manifest. So the question here is, “Why?” Why would people want to see something creepy in real life? There seems to be an innate magnetism for horror as an adventurous experience or as a way to pique one’s curiosity even when it’s not necessarily something someone would want to admit.
ON CURSED CONTENT
Continuing on the question of why people want to experience horror, examining horror in the form of cursed content, specifically cursed games like Bloody Mary (or cinematically in Candyman), is one attempt at figuring out our attraction to the supernatural. Interacting with cursed content seems to be a test of bravery and out of everything I have discussed, embodies the purest form of the horror experience. It is engaging with horror for horror’s sake. The goal is to conquer the horrifying while also encountering the horror and living to tell the tale the next day. It is no longer an adventure, but a date with danger (or at least perceived danger). There is almost an empowering component to interacting with cursed content in that one’s survival of the experience makes them transcendent.
This transcendence can also be extended to those who interact with cursed objects, like those found in the Warren’s Occult Museum. Having the bravery to share a space with an item that supposedly contains dark energy or the soul of a malevolent being seems to elevate the status of the person willing to do this. In this sense, the horror experience here contains the thrill factor of an adventure, while also pushing the limits of human fear/phobia. Implied within these tests of bravery and discipline is also a supernatural component onto the person who is able to endure these moments of fear or battles with malignant spirits.
Ultimately, I want to point out that, while these horror experiences may go awry, the motivation to have these experiences is not to experience horror. The subject matter defines these experiences as horror experiences, but for the participants, it seems that they are not going into these processes with fear in mind. Much like Mumler’s customers, the desire could be driven by an interaction with a deceased loved one (i.e. seances), capturing something that has never been caught on camera before (i.e. ghost hunters), or simply the curiosity of what the afterlife entails (all of the above honestly). The purest horror experiences that I have listed above mostly entail those regarding tests of bravery when interacting with the supernatural realm (i.e. ouija boards and cursed games).