Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.
There is something deeply satisfying about the on-going relevance of Harry Price. Price was born in 1881 and died in 1948 meaning that his career as a ghost-hunter straddled a period in which British ideas about ghosts transitioned from the earnest sub-Christian spirituality of the Victorian era to something more fluid and complex. This relevance is satisfying because, if you consider Price’s career and his various writings on the subject of ghosts, you will find ideas and attitudes consistent with every single point on the spectrum between absolute scepticism and utter credulity.
Harry Price was a passionately idealistic cynic and a laughably credulous sceptic at the same time except for those moments in which he was the opposite. His life and actions are peppered with so many lies, reversions, rebuttals, and inconsistencies that it is almost impossible to work out where genuine belief ended and cynical pragmatism began.
When viewed from a historical perspective, Price’s inconsistencies are fascinating as the contradictions in his thoughts and deeds often serve to highlight tensions that are still present in the beliefs of people who claim to believe in ghosts. For example, Price’s tendency to double down on his own claims whilst rigorously debunking the claims of others reflects the way that people who believe in the paranormal will often make a great show of their own studious scepticism. I mean… sure… I believe that the spirit of my dead grandmother is feeding me the week’s lottery numbers but at least I’m not a credulous imbecile like those Bigfoot wankers! When viewed from a dramatic perspective, Price’s inconsistencies and reversals are almost unfathomable. How can you make sense of a man who seemed to believe both in everything and nothing at all?
Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is a 2015 TV movie inspired by a series of novels by Neil Spring. The film tried to account for Price’s ideological mercuriality in terms of lingering trauma, financial necessity, and something far more engagingly pragmatic. The result was a short film that really should have become a longer series as its vision of Price was just as compelling as its willingness to engage with the idea of spiritualism as a form of ersatz psychotherapy.
The film begins with Price somewhat out of favour with British high society. The suggestion is that while he was once a celebrated figure, he is now viewed as a vulgar fraud by all but the most credulous of true believers. The film never makes it clear how Price’s reputation came to be damaged but we are shown Price faking a haunting in order to pay the bills only for him to spend his evenings wracked by guilt over a suicide caused by someone buying too many of Price’s fibs and deciding to blow his brains out in an effort to ‘join’ his loved ones on the other side.
This struck me as quite an interesting way of reconciling the various inconsistencies in Price’s worldview as it presents him as a believer who has fallen further and further into grifting people as a result of both trauma and his own mistakes. In other words, Price is a romantic who has been forced into cynicism by the ugliness of the world. As one might expect given the form, redemption does eventually come… it just assumes a somewhat unexpected form.
The story begins with Price’s downward trajectory being arrested by an offer from a high-ranking political fixer. Said fixer is convinced that the government of the day is due to fall and believes that his protégé has the charisma to not only lead the party but also the country. The only problem is that the wife of said politician has acquired a tendency to wander the streets naked and when quizzed on the matter, her answers suggest some sort of paranormal influence. The problem is that this film takes place in a version of British history where mental illness bears a heavy stigma and where psychoanalysis has yet to be popularised. In other words, either the politician’s wife is haunted or she’s a mad-woman who needs to be stuck in an asylum. Given that the existence of a mad wife would bar the politician from public office, the pressure is on for Harry to find some evidence of a haunting.
If the point of this investigation seems somewhat obscure then you are starting out one step ahead of Price who arrives at the politician’s lavish country home and begins searching for ghosts. However, as the investigation progresses and Price goes back and forth on the question of whether or not the woman’s symptoms have a paranormal cause, it becomes quite clear that there is a lot more at stake here than the outcome of a scientific experiment.
When viewed through a scientific lens, Price’s investigation has two potential outcomes: Either he finds evidence of a ghost and the woman is deemed sane, or he finds no evidence of a ghost and the woman is deemed insane. The problem with this binary is that it serves only to obscure a number of more important questions: Assume for a second that the haunting has no paranormal element and the woman’s symptoms have an entirely physical cause, what are we to make of that conclusion? Assuming the symptoms have a physical cause, can the woman be healed? Assuming the symptoms have a psychological cause, can the woman’s mental health issues be resolved? Assuming the symptoms have either a physical or a psychological cause, who is responsible for causing them in the first place?
I said at the beginning of this piece that the film is inspired by a series of novels and I think the main element to be taken from the work of Neil Spring is the introduction of Price’s female sidekick, a woman named Sarah Grey. Grey is first introduced as a maid who assists the politician’s wife but she also serves as something of a viewpoint character that helps the viewer to better understand Price’s methods and motivations. Initially sceptical to the point of outright hostility, Grey turns out to be the daughter of a woman who spends all of her money on psychics in order to remain in touch with her dead husband. At first, Grey serves as a low-key antagonist who keeps getting in the way of Price’s investigation but the more time the pair spend together, the more they come to understand and learn from each other’s perspectives.
Grey learns that while trickery and stage-magic may be central to Price’s take on spiritualism, the trickery is actually a bit of theatre designed to provide people with a sense of closure that will help them to overcome their grief and move on with their lives. The problem with spiritualism is not that mediums use lies and trickery, the problem is that some mediums use lies and trickery to get paid while offering little but empty promises in return. This realisation helps Grey to understand Price’s methods and allows viewers to situate Price’s morals but it also serves to remind us that hauntings are complex social phenomena that cannot be reduced to simple true/false binaries.
This is where the series gets not only clever but also quite contemporary as Grey’s growing closeness to Price grants him access to her lived experience as a working-class woman and what the lady’s maid sees when she looks at her employers is people who are trapped in a failing marriage where neither party feels able to speak their mind and address to obvious sources of tension. This sense of emotional constipation is vividly rendered in a scene where the politician insists upon observing Price’s experiments only to become increasingly tense and angry as the evening wears on. At first, we assume this anger is coming from the fact that the politician is deliberately hiding something but the truth is much less about conspiracy and much more about the awkwardness and upset that would inevitably come from having someone snoop around a load of marital issues that you can barely recognise let alone confront. Had Price retained the emotional distance and class-based politeness demanded by his job and station, he would have walked straight past the root of the haunting but because Grey is present and Grey sees the world through the eyes of a lady’s maid rather than a male scientist, the pair are able to work out the real issues affecting the marriage. By working together and combining their perspectives, Price and Grey are able to not only see through the layers of upper-class emotional repression but also the lies and trickery that have been deployed to keep those issues hidden from view.
Kate Summerscale’s book The Haunting of Alma Fielding is set a little later than this film but Summerscale looks beyond the true/false binary of whether or not ghosts exists and suggests that, rather than being an objective investigation into the existence of ghosts, spiritualism might be better understood as a form of pre-Freudian popular psychotherapy whereby a bunch of repressed and largely uneducated people used myths and symbols to discuss personal matters in a way that made it look as though they were talking about things that existed outside of their heads. While Harry Price: Ghost Hunter never quite acknowledges this idea, it does present ghost-hunting as a therapeutic undertaking and suggests that upper-middle class British people would have rather admitted to being haunted than to confront issues like marital infidelity and spousal abuse.
If we accept Summerscale’s understanding of spiritualism then Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is less the story of a man’s journey from cynicism to idealism than it is a story of a man’s journey from rigid to pragmatic definitions of truth as while this film may contain no actual ghosts it is full of events and ideas that could only be addressed through the use of therapeutic fictions like ‘ghosts’ and ‘hauntings’.
Much like Summerscale’s book, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is an attempt to tell a story about paranormal investigation that is evades the form’s usual genre entanglements. For example, Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is not interested in the kind of undead-battling you’d get from a work situated closer to the fantasy genre and it is definitely not interested in the kind of scientific speculation that might allow the story to be situated within traditional science fiction. By focusing less on the ghosts and the details of the investigation and more on the human context for the haunting, the story situated itself far closer to what might be considered a ‘literary’ subject matter and that makes for the kind of rich, character-centric storytelling that you most likely would not get from a story more interested in portraying Price as a kind of occult detective. In some ways, it might have been more accurate to call this film Harry Price: Marriage Counsellor but either way, I am deeply saddened by the fact that it was never spun-up into a proper series.
Looking at this from a gaming perspective, it is interesting to reflect on how many RPGs revolve around investigation and how few of them provide any assistance with the human elements of the mystery. Call of Cthulhu is happy to provide endless stat-blocks for monsters and there are loads of resources for dealing with cults, but what about the emotions that cause people to join cults in the first place? Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is a great example of how much drama and intrigue can be extracted from something as simple as a failing marriage. I wish more RPGs and adventures put those human elements front and centre.