The History of Ghost Hunting

Part I – 19th-Century Spiritualism

The phenomenon we call ghost hunting today – the stuff we see on TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Kindred Spirits, and the stuff local paranormal investigation teas do – can be traced back to a social and spiritual movement that began in the 1800s called Spiritualism

A haunted house in Hydesville, New York

Most historians trace the beginning of the Spiritualist movement to the upstate New York town of Hydesville, where, in 1848, mysterious rappings or knocking sounds were experienced by witnesses in the presence of two adolescent girls, sisters Kate and Margaret Fox, in the house where they lived with their parents. Whatever was making the sounds was able to use the knocks to answer numerical questions, such as how many children a questioner had or how old those children were. 

The residents of Hydesville began attributing the raps to the ghost of a murdered peddler reportedly buried in the basement. Eventually the mysterious force would begin using the raps to answer yes or no questions. Amy and Isaac Post, a spiritually inquisitive Quaker couple who knew the Fox family well, experimented with the raps and brought the phenomena to the attention of their circle of like-minded friends. It was soon revealed that multiple spirits, including those of deceased loved ones of visitors who came to witness the manifestations, were communicating through the Fox sisters and their raps. 

Deeper forms of communication were made possible by Kate and Margaret’s older sister Leah Fox Fish, who discovered that she was able to commune with spirits while she was in a trance state. Soon a spirit communication craze was spreading across North America and crossing the ocean to Britain and the rest of Europe. You might say that Spiritualism began with a haunted house.

What is Spiritualism?

Historian Ann Braude defines Spiritualism as a nineteenth-century “new religious movement aimed at proving the immortality of the soul by establishing communication with spirits of the dead.” This basic definition is a good one. Communication with the dead was central to nineteenth-century Spiritualism, and one of the main goals of such communication was proving the immortality of the soul, whether the point of this was to soothe the religious uncertainties of practitioners or to assure practitioners that their loved ones had indeed continued on after death and were in an agreeable state.

The most common mode of spirit communication was the séance. To conduct a séance, a group would generally gather around a table in a darkened room with at least one medium present in the circle. The participants would hold hands or place their hands flat on the table. They would then seek to communicate with any spirits present through various means. Sometimes the medium would relay to the other sitters what the spirits were saying, and the medium would often do this while in a type of trance. Sometimes the medium would give her or his body over to be controlled by the spirits. A medium might also communicate through automatic writing, a process that involved a medium’s writing being controlled or inspired by the spirits. Sometimes sitters would employ a board with letters and a planchette, the early equivalent of a Ouija board, to communicate with the dead.

Other signs of spirit activity might also occur. One might hear rappings like the companions of the Fox sisters did. One might feel the table moving beneath one’s hands or experience other objects moving mysteriously. As the nineteenth century progressed, sitters experienced more and more physical manifestations of mediumship. For example, a strange substance that would come to be called ectoplasm might flow out of a medium’s orifices and form the shapes of spirit hands or faces; or a spirit trumpet, resembling the cone of a megaphone, might float around the room with voices issuing from it. Ultimately, there were many variations on both the séance and the phenomena that occurred during séances. 

How did Spiritualism influence 21st-century ghost hunting?

For the purposes of a history of American ghost hunting, I want to emphasize a few aspects of Spiritualism.

  • First, serious proponents of Spiritualism claimed their beliefs about spirits, the afterlife, and sometimes even the divine realm were based on empirical evidence or scientific proof.
  • Second, a significant portion of the people who found Spiritualism appealing were seeking to overcome religious doubt and disillusionment with traditional religious teaching and authority.
  • Third, Spiritualism had a diffuse or non-existent authority structure. Along with a keen interest in spirits of the dead, these three aspects of Spiritualism link nineteenth-century Spiritualists with early-twenty-first century ghost hunters.

Empirical proof of the spirit world

Much of the appeal of Spiritualism in the nineteenth century was based on the premise that Spiritualist practices could provide empirical proof of the immortality of the soul. With the aid of a spirit medium, a person – usually a woman – who had the heightened ability to communicate directly with spirits, one could experience the reality of the soul’s immortality through one’s own senses by seeing the medium enter into a supernormal trance state, hearing through the mouth of the medium the words of dead loved ones or famous persons, and sometimes seeing or hearing other amazing supernatural manifestations of spirit power.

A Spiritualist no longer had to accept on faith the reality of the immortal soul or the divine realm. A Spiritualist no longer had to found belief in spiritual truths on the second-hand teachings of traditional religious authorities or sacred texts. A Spiritualist could experience fantastic things with her own eyes and ears.

Scientific investigation of the spirit world

Often Spiritualists saw their practices as essentially scientific. This is not surprising given the Spiritualist emphasis on empiricism just described. Especially in the period after the Civil War, the prestige of science was on the rise in North America, and some of the scientific discoveries that boosted the prestige of science were as mysterious as spirit communication to the average observer.

Telegraph technology, for example, allowed previously inconceivable instant communication across long distances through mysterious unseen electrical forces. Braude provides an anecdote that is instructive in this case. When Samuel F. B. Morse, one of the inventors of Morse code, appealed to the U.S. Congress for $30,000 to build an experimental telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore in 1842, he was met with incredulity, skepticism, and mockery. A congressman from Tennessee suggested sarcastically that if Congress was going to give money to Morse’s project, they might as well also fund experiments in mesmerism, a widespread pseudoscientific, semi-occult practice of the day. Another congressman suggested, with equal sarcasm, that the Millerites, a radical religious group that was predicting that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1844, should also be given some funding while they were at it.

For these congressmen and others, telegraphy seemed just as outlandish as pseudoscience and forms of religious fanaticism. Eventually, some Spiritualists began to draw analogies between telegraphy and spirit communication, calling the process of spirit communication “the spiritual telegraph.” 

In 1869, renowned English Spiritualist speaker and writer Emma Hardinge described Spiritualism as “a religion” that was “separate in all respects from any existing sect, because it bases its affirmations purely upon the demonstrations of fact, science, and natural law.”

Examples of such attitudes and attempts to place Spiritualism within a scientific framework abound in the Spiritualist literature. For example, Andrew Jackson Davis, one of the writers with the most influence on nineteenth-century Spiritualism, conceived of the séance in terms of scientific principles pertaining to energy and electricity. In his writings, he suggests that sitters should be positioned around the séance table based on whether they had a positive or a negative energy. Those sitters who were more feminine in character were considered negative, and those with a more masculine character were considered positive. They were to be seated alternately around the table “as so many zinc and copper plates in the construction of magnetic batteries.” A “magnetic cord,” constructed of a rope covered in “silk or cotton velvet” with a copper and a steel wire wound around it, was to be placed in the laps of the sitters. The ends of the rope were to meet between two mediums sitting beside each other at the table and be placed in pails or jars of cold water. Furthermore, Davis suggested attaching the copper wire to a zinc plate and the steel wire to a copper plate to increase the rope’s conductivity. One could be forgiven for thinking that Davis was aiming to set up some sort of laboratory experiment.

Contemporary American ghost hunters, like the Spiritualists, often see their investigations of hauntings and attempts to contact spirits as scientific and see the scientific nature of these endeavors as one major source of their value and validity.

An alternative to troubling forms of Christianity

Many of those drawn to Spiritualism during the antebellum period were searching for an alternative to what they perceived as the cold Calvinism or the hellfire evangelicalism of their youths. Though many denominations during the time of Spiritualism’s rise were liberalizing and emphasizing a tender God of love, many of those drawn to Spiritualism still associated orthodox Christianity with the Calvinism that emphasized God’s wrath and power, or the Methodism that emphasized the condemnation to hell of unconverted souls.

The American Calvinism of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries generally taught that humankind was utterly depraved and deserving of damnation. God, then, was acting justly when he predestined many to suffer in hell after death and predestined a few to salvation.

The American Methodism of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries was a revivalist religion seeking desperately to make converts to a pietistic, heartfelt Christianity. Though Methodist evangelists rejected the idea that God predestined some to damnation and some to salvation without regard to one’s actions on Earth, they still emphasized the power of hell in order to motivate as many people as possible to embrace the Gospel and the salvation offered by Jesus.

Within the Spiritualist movement, those communicating with the spirits developed a theology they found more palatable and comforting. God’s love was emphasized far above God’s wrath, and hell was declared a fabrication by clergy gone astray from God’s truth. Spirits instead were generally thought to enter an eternal progression upon the deaths of their mortal bodies. A spirit may begin in a base, unpleasant state, but through the guidance of God and higher spirits, each spirit would move upward and upward into more glorious and divine realms. Unlike in traditional Calvinist teaching, God did not predestine souls to their fates. Free will and individualism were central to Spiritualist thought. 

Crisis of faith

Later in the nineteenth century, a different form of faith crisis helped draw people to Spiritualism. The rise of Darwinism, higher criticism of the Bible, and the expanding prestige of science caused people to doubt traditional religious orthodoxies on other grounds.

Darwin’s theory of evolution raised doubts about Christian accounts of how life came to be while also raising questions about how humans could be spiritual, ensouled creatures while being so closely related to animals and born of purely natural processes rather than special creation.

Higher criticism of the Bible was used by scholars to analyze Christian sacred texts as if they were any other historical texts and raised questions about how writings so evidently human in origin and historically situated could also be divinely inspired and authoritative. The rising prestige of science motivated people to pursue empirical and rigorous knowledge in all areas of life. The empirically verifiable was more and more highly valued, often at the expense of other ways of knowing, such as religious faith. For many, Spiritualism proved to be a worthy alternative to the traditional orthodoxies because of its claims to empirically or scientifically verify spiritual truths. 

Like nineteenth-century Spiritualists, early twenty-first century ghost hunters also turn to experiences with spirits to fill the gaps they perceive in traditional religion. I have already noted that the perceived empirical or scientific nature of ghost hunting appeals to practitioners. It should also be noted that the majority of ghost hunters I have interacted with come from religious backgrounds and sometimes identify with a particular faith tradition, but are generally not active in a local congregation. Ghost hunters are often seeking types of knowledge and experience that they are not getting from traditional religion. 

Resistance to centralized authority

Finally, it is important to note that nineteenth-century Spiritualists generally had weak or non-existent modes of organization and structures of authority. Spiritualism had a spirit of fierce individualism, and this was reflected by the fact that anyone could experience enlightenment through spirit communication. An important feature of Spiritualism is that many of its most prominent spirit mediums and speakers were young, uneducated women, who could command authority in a firmly patriarchal society by way of the spirit wisdom they channeled.

Ultimately, the spiritual truths of Spiritualism were experienced and discovered by individuals rather than taught. Spiritualist opinions about the spirit world abounded and could not be effectively struck down because there was no governing authority enforcing any kind of orthodoxy. These individualist tendencies also meant that Spiritualists did not organize themselves into large or long-lasting organizations. The National Association of Spiritualists, an organization that still exists today, was not founded until 1893 when Spiritualism was no longer at its peak.

All of this does not mean that Spiritualists did not gather communally. The séance, for instance, generally required a group, and Spiritualists also held large conventions as did most of the social, religious, and political organizations of the day. Spiritualists also formed virtual communities by reading and publishing periodicals and books. 

All of these features are evidence of the connection between nineteenth-century Spiritualism and twenty-first century ghost hunting. Ghost hunting also lacks any sort of authoritative organizational structure that can determine which beliefs about spirits or ghost hunting practices are correct or orthodox. As was the case with Spiritualism, certain ideas or practices are common and widespread among ghost hunters, but no central authority has the power to guarantee any one ghost hunter’s adherence to such ideas or practices.

Also, as in Spiritualism, there are people who are influential in the ghost hunting community, but they do not have any sort of official or institutional power. While ghost hunting does promote a certain individualism in that each member of a given group is an investigator seeking his or her own empirical evidence, ghost hunting also has communal features. Ghost hunters often investigate in groups, just as Spiritualists performed séances in groups. Ghost hunters often gather together at sizeable conventions held all around the country and at various times of the year.

Finally, ghost hunters also form virtual communities by consuming some of the same media, such as books, podcasts, and television shows; however, as was generally the case with Spiritualist periodicals and books, no one piece of media unites all ghost hunters. There is not one podcast, book, or show that one can say virtually all ghost hunters have interacted with except for perhaps some of the more prominent television shows, such as Ghost Hunters or Ghost Adventures.


Ultimately, nineteenth-century Spiritualists and twenty-first-century ghost hunters are grappling with similar problems of modernity. This is revealed in their similar commitment to empiricism and scientism, their struggles with mainstream religion, and their embrace of a diffuse authority structure. We can say that Spiritualists and ghost hunters are part of the same broad modern tradition.

Next up: Part 2 – Turn of the 20th-century Psychical Research


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: