WTD: Harry Price – Ghost Hunter (2015)

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.

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WTD: John Silence

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.

As I mentioned in my review of T. Kingfisher’s The Hollow Ones, I have views on Algernon Blackwood. The views in question revolve around the fact that Blackwood’s strength lies in his movement from town to country or, to be more specific, from urban home to foreign exoticism. In this respect, Blackwood is an interesting counterpoint to Lovecraft as while Lovecraft seemed to be suspicious of everyone and everywhere outside of Providence, New England, Blackwood’s fiction embodies a more nuanced attitude. On the one hand, a lot of Blackwood’s most memorable stories revolve around a doughy English person going on a foreign holiday and losing their mind when confronted with the awe-inspiring vastness of nature, that sense of fear is always marbled with feelings of joy and exaltation. One reason for Blackwood being more readily associated with the Weird than conventional horror is that a lot of his stories are about the sublime rather than the horrifying.

Given that I have these views on Blackwood and that these views have only grown stronger the more I have read of his stories that aren’t based on the sublime power of nature, I was intrigued to see how I would respond to Blackwood’s paranormal detective stories. Thankfully, the John Silence stories have been collected and re-printed fairly recently and can be found in a variety of formats including audiobook. So if you are interested in seeing what one of the giants of Weird fiction was able to do with ghost-breaking stories then you shouldn’t have much trouble tracking them down.

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WTD: Marebito (2004)

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.

J-Horror is a bit like New Metal in so far as its cultural impact seems to bear little or no relation to the quality of the art produced under that label.

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WTD: Hellier

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.

Streaming services may have been sold to the general public as a means of gaining instant access to the past, present, and future of cinema, but the reality is a good deal more depressing. For example, one of the things that happened when Amazon launched Prime in the UK was that they went and trawled YouTube in search of paranormal investigation channels that could be repackaged and sold as TV shows.

In hindsight, it is fairly obvious why this happened: Paranormal investigation shows are not only insanely cheap to make, they also have an audience that is almost absurdly easy to please as the genre has seen little to no evolution since the launch of Most Haunted in 2002.

The formula is easy to reproduce: Open with a series of to-camera pieces about the location that establish the lore. Then you break out the night-vision cameras and take a selection of excitable personalities into a darkened place and shoot for hours and hours. You then retreat to the safety of the editing suite and comb through the hundreds of hours of footage in search of a few seconds of ambiguity that can be presented as evidence of some form of paranormal happening. Some shows go long on the lore, other shows go long on the personality of the people in front of the camera, and some go to the trouble of hiring skilled film-makers who can evoke a particular mood without the need for ambiguous footage shot on consumer-grade cameras.

Some shows are better than others, but the overwhelming majority of paranormal investigation shows remain wedded to a playbook laid down during the early years of the Most Haunted phenomenon.

Even setting aside the genre’s refusal to show us anything that we haven’t seen before, it is interesting to note how little development there has been at the level of lore. Taking its cues from National Trust properties and rural pubs, the paranormal investigation genre is still struggling to move beyond its limited bestiary of white ladies, sad children, and ghostly misogynists. Even when the genre jumped the Atlantic and in so doing severely restricted its access to buildings that were more than 150 years-old, shows found themselves returning again and again to the same limited range of ideas flowing from the same narrow set of fears.

In order to understand the paranormal investigation genre, you first need to recognise that the genre did not proliferate across platforms devoted to SFF and Horror, but across platforms devoted to lifestyle and reality TV. Most paranormal investigation shows go out after home makeover shows and not horror films. This means that there is both a hard ceiling on the complexity of the lore that a show can have, and a limit on the range of themes that a show can address. In truth, most paranormal investigation shows are less about the afterlife than they are about the weird psychological backwaters of home ownership.

Aside from being the historical means through which middle-class liberals are transformed into conservatives, home ownership involves making a huge financial and psychological commitment to an object whose past is largely inaccessible to present-day owners. The ghosts dug up by paranormal investigation shows are simple because they reflect the simple fears that accompany home ownership: Is it possible to live in this house and be happy? If I die in this house, will all trace of my existence be erased by the people who move in once the house is sold? The Amityville Horror and The Money Pit are the same exact story told through the lens of different genres and it is no surprise that one of the few recent innovations in the genre came in the form of a show that splits the investigation into two parts: First comes the medium, and then the building inspector.

Watching Hellier is like watching someone blow up a dam. After decades of shows sticking to the same limited range of themes, ideas, and modes of visual expression, Hellier unleashes the full power of 21st Century prosumer film-making technology as well as seemingly every weird idea to have emerged from Fortean culture in the last half century. The result is a show which, though not entirely successful, is certainly fascinating when viewed through the lens of RPGs.

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