Why is does so much ghost hunting gear resemble tech from the 80s and 90s? Why do paranormal investigators tend to favor old technology? Does that act of using old tech add to the potential allure of ghost hunting?
As I've written about a couple times already, I'm interested in the idea that ghost hunting might be a way to turn away from the internet of today, in favor of interacting with the physical (and invisible) world using older technology. There's a sense of nostalgia there; for elder millennials, gen Xers, and boomers, many ghost hunting tools are reminders of older tech. For gen z and younger millennials, they're relics of an imagined idyllic time of 80's and 90's prosperity, something to satisfy a feeling of anemoia (nostalgia for a time you've never known).
In support of this idea, I'd like to explore different popular ghost hunting tools through the lens of nostalgia.
First up: the spirit box.
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. (To oversimplify things, spirit boxes are used to communicate with ghosts. The idea is that you can ask questions and potentially receive answers through the garbled audio of tiny snippets of different radio stations.) 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. [^1]
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.
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. [^2])
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 a Robie that delighted me when I was a kid.
To me, radios inhabit the same nostalgic space as landline phones[^3]. 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. And so, just like last time, 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?
[^1]Check out my episode about the Solo Estes Method for my sources and more info about spirit boxes.
[^2] In case you're wondering about other iconic 1990s consumer electronics companies, I also learned that Circuit City still exists, apparently, as does its sibling brand CompUSA (albeit in zombified form).
[^3] And also piggy banks--are they still a thing? Seems like coins are being phased out these days.