Ghost Hunters is wonderfully strange piece of writing, even by the standards of books on the paranormal.
The book recalls a series of psychical investigations conducted by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens were a pair of American ghost-hunters who first shot to fame in the 1970s based on their involvement in the infamous Amityville haunting. Their lives and exploits then went on to form the basis for the interlocking Conjuring and Annabel series of horror movies. Ghost Hunters is actually the second in a series of six books, all of which were published in the 80’s and 90’s, after the couple’s star had begun to fall.
The first intriguing thing about this series of books is the weirdness of the format. Books about the paranormal are in and of themselves an interesting edge-case when it comes to categorisation: Are they fiction? Are they non-fiction? Are they memoir? Depending upon the rhetorical style adopted by the author, there’s actually a good deal of variation in how information is presented and, by extension, which literary genre the books most closely resemble.
This book presents as a series of case files from the Warrens’ archives that are basically self-contained short stories. Despite supposedly being co-written by the Warrens, different stories contain either extended quotes attributed to the Warrens or weird little vignettes where someone is asking them questions. Once you move beyond the Warrens’ own words (more on which later), the book is not just well-written but written with a good deal of literary panache. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Ghost Hunters works better as an accessible horror short-fiction collection than it does as a book about paranormal investigation.
So given that this is both a well-written collection of stories and a book in which the Warrens are quite obviously in dialogue with someone, who actually wrote Ghost Hunters? The name on the cover is Robert David Chase and Robert David Chase turns out to be a pen-name for a moderately successful and award-winning crime and horror writer named Ed Gorman. Gorman’s literary career spanned four decades starting in the mid-1980s and aside from being a permanent fixture in such magazines as Cemetery Dance and Mystery Science, he also produced dozens of detective novels under a variety of different names and a fair few horror novels to boot. These collaborations with the Warrens date from quite early in Gorman’s career when he was still young enough to take work-for-hire gigs but you can see that the craft and quality were already sliding into place. Ghost Hunters is a really well-written and evocative book; it’s just that the things it evokes are insanely dissonant in a way that fans of the Conjuring films will find instantly familiar.
I must admit that my heart sank when I read the book’s first case-file as it’s all about the Warrens being invited to give a lecture at West Point military academy (!) and encountering first the ghost of JFK, and then the ghost of an old woman who once lived in the residence. The story goes on and on about how it was an honour to lecture at ‘the Point’ and contact is made with the ghost before the story is brought to something of an anti-climactic end.
My heart sank because, aside from the fact that its lack of conflict means that it doesn’t really work as a story, the case file mirrors a lot of my problems with the affect surrounding ghost-hunting. What I mean is that a lot of ghost-hunters seem to back away from the idea that ghosts are scary and in so doing often wind up reversing either into weird form of sentimentality (that sees them talking to ghosts in the way that one might try to coax a kitten out from behind a sofa) or a kind of detached low-brow historicism (that has them talking about the past in the style of a local historian forced to give a lecture with about fifteen minutes notice). The story also raises a further question that hangs over the entire collection: What is it that the Warrens actually do?
Most of the stories have someone approaching the Warrens for help. The Warrens then travel to their home and Lorraine uses her psychic powers to ‘make contact’ with the ghost. At which point, they either declare themselves victorious for having ‘solved’ the mystery by putting a name and or face to the ghost or they reach out to a local Catholic priest who comes in and does an exorcism. So in other words, while the Warrens can ‘find’ ghosts and demons, they can’t actually do anything with them once they’re found and so they appear to serve as a kind of ecclesiastical fixer or project-manager who knows who in the Catholic Church you need to talk to in order to get the okay for your exorcism. It’s a bit like those old consumer rights TV shows: They can’t actually do anything to fix the problem but they can shame other organisations into taking action. All the stuff in the Conjuring movies about the Warrens actually dealing with ghosts and demons themselves is apparently fiction even according to the real-life Warrens.
One thing that fans of the movies will recognise is the somewhat jarring combination of Conservative spirituality and intense horniness that suffuses every one of these stories. In the films, the horniness comes from the fact that Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson are both very attractive and have great on-screen chemistry. Together they exude a form of wholesome grown-up sexuality which feels almost completely unique to the 1970s in that it seemed to acknowledge the hedonism of the 1960s while also bending the knee to the demands of respectable bourgeois heterosexuality. You can imagine the cinematic Ed and Lorraine Warren being big wheels in the local swinging community despite the fact that they always wind up having sex exclusively with each other and insisting that everyone share a prayer before the fun kicks off.
This combination of sanctity and horniness feels a bit weird to modern eyes as decades of culture war have turned wholesome heterosexual Christianity into a resoundingly sex-negative cultural space. It’s not that these people don’t fuck… it’s more that they tend to loudly object to anyone else enjoying a similar set of pleasures. Nowadays, the only times we hear about Catholic sexuality is when someone has been revealed as a paedophile or some other kind of sexual predator. Just the idea of someone that intensely devout having sex with someone who isn’t a cowering child feels somehow weirdly unrealistic. I expect hypocrisy and violently projected self-loathing from these people… not honest horniness.
The books are a good deal less jarring than the films as they are straight-forwardly hypocritical: The quotes and interviews with the Warrens paint them as deeply reactionary 1970s Culture Warriors who see evidence of the demonic in anything that departs from the experience of 1950s American suburbia: Listening to rock music? Reading weird books? Jerking off? All of these things are not just bad for you; they are literally signs that you are infested with demons.
There’s one particularly unpleasant story in which a single man with an overbearing mother develops an interest in going to porn cinemas and so starts wearing disguises in order to avoid getting recognised. He goes every week and he enjoys a non-diet soda while he jerks off; it’s his little treat and you get the impression that it’s the only thing that actually makes him happy. However, his decision to go out to the movies once a week makes his overbearing mother suspicious and so she calls in the Warrens who subject him to what can only be described as a struggle-session that goes on and on until he breaks down and admits to interfering with corpses as part of his job as a mortician. It is utterly bizarre as even if he was shagging dead bodies, it had nothing to do with him going to porn cinemas and surely the real problem was that the guy’s Catholic up-bringing and utterly demented mother had left him too ashamed and filled with self-loathing to even try to get a date?
The fact that the story lavishes attention on the guy’s trips to porn cinemas and the stuff he did with corpses is a great demonstration of the weird hypocrisy that suffuses this book: On the one hand, these are bad people who have become infested with demons because they dared to stray from God’s teachings as delivered through the Glory of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand… here’s a lengthy description of a guy jerking off in a porno cinema and then feeling up a bunch of dead bodies.
The intellectual dissonance is also evident in the story where Lorraine Warren helps the police to investigate a murder and there’s a lengthy and graphic description of not just one but two gang-rapes. It’s not enough to mention that the murder victim was raped, or even that she was gang-raped. Instead there’s a description of them passing her back and forth and then resting a bit and starting up on her again. This all makes for some very weird tonal shifts born of the hypocritical need to have one’s lurid cake and object to the idea of eating it too.
The dissonance between what the Warrens do and how they frame their activities also raises some interesting questions about human nature and the processing of transgressive desires. For example, about a decade ago, there was a huge vogue for what were then called ‘misery memoirs’; supposedly first person accounts of people surviving sexual abuse, these books were often so lurid as to be voyeuristic thereby raising the possibility that the market for misery memoirs was actually tapping into a vast and officially unacknowledged demand for child pornography. None of those books would have seen the light of day had they been pitched as steamy romances but the fact that the depictions of CSA were placed in an unambiguous moral context made it both socially and psychologically acceptable for people to buy books about kids getting railed.
A similar psychological process seems to be at work in media like To Catch a Predator as well as the hundreds of amateur Facebook groups who spend their free time pretending to be under-aged girls who flirt with dubious men and then lure them to public meetings where they can be filmed and publicly humiliated. Just as fans of misery memoirs spend hours reading graphic depictions of child-rape, amateur paedophile hunters spend hours and hours marinating in the details of adolescent sexuality only for this weirdness to be expunged by the fact that they are supposedly only doing so in order to ‘help people’ and ‘raise awareness’. Obviously, it’s possible to push this line of speculation too far (‘a police officer who spends all day investigating rape? Bit sus…’) but I do find it interesting how hand-wringing moralism and conservative social values are used to justify sets of interests that might otherwise be viewed as transgressive. For example, in one story, the Warrens investigate a teenaged girl who has started reading books about demons and this is taken as a sign of her infestation. Meanwhile, Ed Warren is literally wandering about the place bragging about his occult library and describing himself as a literal demonologist. Why is Ed warren’s interest in the occult deemed not just healthy but spiritually enlightened while the girl’s isn’t?
This tension reminds me quite a bit of the on-going conflict between so-called pro- and anti-shippers in fan fiction. Originally the terms were used to denote one’s support for or interest in a particular character pairing. However, as the arguments between different sets of fans became increasingly moralistic due to the vagaries of online discourse, a lot of the arguments became abstracted into people being more generally pro- or anti-. Nowadays, the term ‘proshipper’ applies to people who defend the presence of tropes deemed problematic by some. For proshippers, the debate is largely about harassment and being able to explore one’s ideas without having to deal with the moral condemnation of others while antis claim that problematic tropes shape minds and so replicate harms visited upon the world by skewed moral frameworks.
Particularly interesting is that while the pendulum appears to be swinging away from the idea that media should be relentlessly policed for ideological impurities, there is still a perceived need to justify interest in transgressive and/or morbid shit and so you will often find people defending transgressive imagery in popular culture in terms of catharsis and people ‘working through their own trauma’. I would argue that a similar process of post-hoc justification was at work in the minds of the Warrens: They were either abject hypocrites who used their religion as a way of marketing themselves to middle America, or they were repressed Catholics who struggled to reconcile the demands of their religion with their persistent interest in fucked-up spooky shit. Either way, the tension at work in this collection results in some wild tonal shifts. Look beyond the weird reactionary Catholic moralising and you have a really fun collection of short stories (the one where Lorraine Warren trades psychic pictures of sunsets with Bigfoot is particularly silly) but the tendency of the Warrens to editorialise from a TradCath perspective tips the whole book out of lurid, silly fun and into outright crazy.