A deep dive into nostalgia, liminality, and the paranormal.
Are we interested in the paranormal because we feel nostalgic? Could that be why so much paranormal investigation gear is inspired by 1980s and 1990s tech?
- Could a state of feeling deep nostalgia help with spirit communication?
- Radio Shack memories
- Internet aesthetics
- Attempts to find meaning in a chaotic world
Interest in the paranormal
Why are we fascinated by the paranormal? At one point, interest in the paranormal was mostly driven by a desire to talk to the dead. That's why spiritualism became popular following the Civil War and had a major resurgence after World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic. People wanted to communicate with their deceased loved ones, so they turned to the paranormal. They could be comforted by seances and the words of (often fraudulent) mediums.
Today, I think some people still turn to the paranormal for comfort and to find something they've lost. But in most cases, I don't think people get into the paranormal to talk to deceased loved ones. I think we're looking for something else.
On my blog, I've written a lot about the connections between the paranormal and nostalgia, so if you're a frequent reader, I'm sorry to retread ground here. Some of this is taken verbatim from my blog posts, and other bits have been reworked and reframed. This is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating, and I wanted to talk about it on the podcast, as well.
There's a lot of feel bad about in the world today. Being a person is stressful. It can be hard to cope.
I'm not one to defend organized religion or say that people need to have a religion. But religion can provide a sense of meaning, purpose, and comfort. It's something that at one point probably helped many people deal with the stress of daily life.
Faith also fills in a lot of gaps in human knowledge, such as what happens to us when we die or whether we can speak to the dead. Organized religion has been sloughing off followers for some time now; as of 2019, 26% of Americans identify as atheist, agnostic, or "nothing in particular," a number that's gone up ten percentage points from 2009. So, in the absence of widespread religious belief, what do people turn to?
If you'll forgive me for quoting a writer who was a shitty person but who nonetheless said some smart things that are still worth reading, I've never been able to get part of David Foster Wallace's speech "This Is Water" out of my head:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
In the speech, he talks about the importance of choosing what you focus on, being aware of the things that we unconsciously think and do. Because even when we're unaware of what motivates us and what we believe, something still motivates us, and we still believe in something, because as humans, we kinda have to in order to continue functioning.
It's not groundbreaking to suggest that an interest in the paranormal is linked to religion. Some paranormal investigators bring their faith into their work explicitly. Some folks are agnostic, but find spiritual meaning in the paranormal. Way back in the 19th century, when spiritualism arose, it became a religion that still exists today.
That's well-trodden ground, but I'm interested in the comfort that belief in a religion and/or the paranormal can give people.
Because while I think that venturing into the weird can be spiritually fulfilling, I'm even more interested in the other ways that it can be comforting.
Nostalgia and comfort
In times of chaos and uncertainty, it's natural to use nostalgia as a way to cope.
I certainly notice myself self-soothing with nostalgia. I watch YouTube videos about Frutiger Aero and the secret life of the fax machine. But I also dig through old newspaper archives, read old books that are considered paranormal classics, and literally try to talk to ghosts of the past.
I'd be lying to myself if I said that nostalgia wasn't a huge part of my interest in the paranormal. And I don't think I'm the only one.
Looking for ghosts can be fun. There is this sense of childlike wonder, a concession that there is something that exists beyond the mundane world. There is also the treat of getting together with friends and doing something that is not mediated by screens and doesn't involve consuming media products manufactured by corporate conglomerates.
Our ideas about the paranormal might be shaped by horror movies and paranormal investigation TV shows, which tend to be serious and gritty. But there's an element of delight, optimism, and creativity inherent in the idea of looking for unseen things, digging into history, and analyzing the things you experience in the physical (or non-digital) world.
Also, many people my age (and younger) grew up on paranormal TV and are nostalgic for the shows they loved when they were younger. Also, telling stories of urban legends and watching horror movies are staples of teen get-togethers and acts of rebellion. (Most of my high-school sleepover memories involve playing with Ouija boards, sneaking out to cemeteries past curfew, telling scary stories, and watching horror movies.)
While investigating, some folks may be, consciously or not, acting out or reinventing something that they once watched on television, and making it their own and tailoring it to their specific neck of the woods.
In his book, The Trickster and the Paranormal, George P. Hansen wrote about how the paranormal rears its head during liminal times—moments of transition and change. He writes about our discomfort with the liminal and about ghosts' liminal nature:
Ghosts are liminal (interstitial) creatures. They exist in the netherworld between life and death, and they challenge the idea that there is a clear separation of the two. The dread evoked by such beings can be profoundly disturbing.
Given all of that, it makes sense that paranormal weirdness bubbles up alongside a desire for nostalgia, since they're both so closely linked to liminality, uncertainty, and change.
Retro tech as paranormal investigation gear
In speaking of nostalgia: Have you ever noticed why so much ghost hunting gear resemble tech from the 80s and 90s? Ghost boxes are just modified radios. Vintage recorders like the Panasonic RR-DR60 sell for upwards of $5,000 because they're said to be better at picking up electronic voice phenomena than new recorders. Ever-popular instant cameras are classic late 20th century pieces of tech.
Why do paranormal investigators tend to favor old technology? Does that act of using old tech add to the potential allure of ghost hunting? Does our own feeling of nostalgia help to evoke the weird? Just like you might try to clear your mind and get into a meditative state before attempting spirit contact, is there some value to submerging yourself in a state of deep nostalgia?
Trust in technology
Some of the allure of the paranormal might be the fact that it isn't online. But, at the same time, I think we do have an innate faith in machines.
We might be trying to avoid what we think of as "contemporary" technology—the gruesome trappings of web 2.0 (which is defined by digital enclosure, walled gardens, social media, and surveillance). But at the same time, for whatever reason, many of us have faith in machines.
While I'm a fan of the popular Estes Method of paranormal investigation, which uses a spirit box, I believe that the human mind can access the weird without the help of technology. But technology often acts as a magic feather, something that helps us have faith in our own psychic experiences. We can "validate" the things we feel because we used a machine in the process.
Why should we trust a machine's output over our own perceptions? Why do we so often feel like we are more limited than the machines that we use?
That's a big question that I can't quite answer, but I think part of it is that we are taught to trust machines and science because they're "objective." Never mind that anything made by a human can be just as biased as a human—whether it's a machine, an algorithm, or a scientific study. We've been told that the machines are objective, and as our lives move increasingly online, we've put our trust in technology on a societal level.
Nostalgia and anemoia
So where does this leave us? As faith in organized religion wanes, many of us are looking for new things to comfort us. As our lives move online, we feel unmoored, spiritually and physically. As daily life and the state of the world makes us increasingly anxious, we turn to nostalgia as a balm. Looking for the paranormal gives us physical destinations to visit and a set of spiritual concepts. We're told to trust in technology and the scientific method, so when we investigate the paranormal, we lean on those. And when we choose what technology to use, it—coincidentally or not—is technology that we remember from our childhoods, or that evoke a sense of anemoia, or nostalgia for somewhere (or somewhen) we've never been.
Anemoia is a fairly new word, coined by the poet John Koenig in 2012, who compiled a Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It feels particularly a propos that the term came about in 2012, a year that I've always felt represented a bit of a turning point, in terms of our relationship with technology and with nostalgia.
I would argue that people younger than me (young millennials and gen z), are motivated by anemoia. In fact, gen z aesthetic trends are what inspired me to look into the connections between the paranormal and nostalgia.
In particular, I'm fascinated by the internet aesthetics of liminal space, cryptidcore, and cryptid academia, all of which lean heavily on nostalgia. Liminal space shows restaurants and malls from the 80s and 90s, old playgrounds, suburban neighborhoods. Cryptidcore images lean heavily on X-Files and Twin Peaks vibes: old recorders, cassette tapes, old mass-market paperbacks, camcorders. Cryptid academia leans heavily on the imagery of mid-20th century researchers and reporters like John Keel, focusing on dusty libraries, typewritten manuscripts and newsletters, and smart vintage clothes.
With all that being said, let's look at some specific retro paranormal investigation tech.
Shack Hacks and spirit boxes
Spirit boxes (or ghost boxes) are radios that have been modified to sweep AM or FM stations at a swift rate.
Radios have been used for paranormal investigation for a while. In 2002, Frank Sumption came up with the first modern ghost box, the Frank’s Box. In the late 2000s, “Shack Hacks,” became popular; people would modify cheap RadioShack radios to work as spirit boxes.
As TV shows like Ghost Adventures popularized the use of spirit boxes in paranormal investigation, purveyors of paranormal gear began selling (more expensive) purpose-made spirit boxes. Nowadays, when you search for info about Shack Hacks, you'll likely come across a lot of websites from 2009 or so .
Though many paranormal investigators carry an SB7 Spirit Box these days, the ghost-hunting device is still a humble, old-school radio.
Radio Shack nostalgia
Everything about the spirit box's origin reeks of nostalgia (for someone my age, at least.) For example, "Shack Hacks" came from RadioShack, a once-successful retail chain catering toward hobbyists. The company had its peak in 1999, began to falter in the 2000s, and finally declared bankruptcy in 2015.
RadioShack still exists, after a fashion, but it's a shadow of its former self. (And honestly, when I went to look it up while writing this, I was shocked to find that they're still around at all.)
I have such clear memories of going to RadioShack when I was a kid. There was one in the strip mall next to the grocery store, and while it never had the allure of larger electronics stores that sold computers, I remember going into the store and looking at their wares, such as radios and landline telephones (including very cool clear phones). And who could forget the novelty items that RadioShack carried, like Robie, an animatronic robot piggy bank? I had one that delighted me when I was a kid.
To me, radios inhabit the same nostalgic space as landline phones. Radios are an old device, a remnant from a technologically simpler time. We've since replaced most physical gadgets with apps; streaming services like Spotify and internet radio stations have rendered radios nearly obsolete. When was the last time most people used an actual radio to listen to a terrestrial radio station, aside from possibly in an older car?
I'm not exactly a Luddite; I'm pretty into technology (but then again, so were the Luddites, technically, so maybe I am a Luddite). At any rate, I do sometimes wax nostalgic when I think about the days when we were surrounded by physical gadgets.
There was something nice about being able to take something apart, see how it works, and fix it. If you had a radio back in the day, you could try to repair it yourself. But if you encounter a glitch in a streaming music app nowadays, you can go through a troubleshooting flow, but you're trying to fix something that's mostly invisible, out of reach, wrapped in code that you can't access and stored in a faraway cloud data center.
There's an immediacy to old tech that it's hard not to feel nostalgic for. And maybe that's one reason why physical gadgets are so popular when ghost hunting; when searching for something as immaterial as a spirit, it's nice to feel grounded by holding a simple, easily understood physical machine. In addition to that, ghost hunting apps are notoriously unreliable and known for putting their thumb on the scale, leading to inaccurate results. Part of that is their sheer opacity—it's hard to trust a random developer to write code that doesn't, say, favor scary-sounding outputs in the hope of pleasing their users. But I don't think that's everything.
These days, spirit boxes are the only sort of physical radios that I see discussed frequently. I have to ask myself: when people use vintage tech like radios to communicate with ghosts, are they just hoping to conjure conversation with spirits? Or are they also trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia or anemoia?
 In 2012—in my circles at least (which at the time was made up of 20something New Yorkers)—many people had smartphones, which made social media even more omnipresent in our lives. And to name just a couple concrete examples, 2012 was the year that Facebook purchased Instagram and went public and the year that Disney bought Star Wars . It felt like we were moving out of one world and into another, where walls were built around our digital gardens and around our childhoods. But, again, maybe that's just my age showing.