What could be more nostalgic than ghost hunting? You’re going through old, ruined places and looking for either the shades of the past, nature spirits, or some other lost and ineffable thing.
At one point, interest in the paranormal was driven by a desire to talk to the dead.¹ But is that still true today? As I watch the conversation about the paranormal unfold around me, I can’t help feeling that nostalgia is a major reason why many people are interested in the paranormal. I certainly recognize that nostalgia in myself. (And this question is certainly a fixation of mine; I talked about it in yesterday’s post too, and have a lot more to say on the subject, so stay tuned for that.)
What if, as we dive into the paranormal, we are looking for ourselves? Our childhoods? Or (as I wrote about last time) just something in the real world that we can connect to? What does it mean when the most real-feeling thing you can think of is as insubstantial as a ghost or an urban legend?
Millennials like me are said to be a particularly nostalgic generation. I happen to think that every generation has fond feelings for certain aspects of the past, but I will concede that most millennials I know — including me — are extremely nostalgic. You can blame it on a lot of things: we’re bombarded by bad news, made anxious by the constant threat of impending environmental collapse, and are becoming increasingly immiserated in general — you get the picture. There are a lot of upsetting things in daily life that anyone might want to escape from.
It’s nice think of a time when things were easier — or at least a time that you can look back at and imagine that things were easier. Our idea of the past is designed by our present selves, filtered through all the time that has elapsed since then, and shaped into something a little bit more palatable and beautiful than those bygone days actually were.
So when we’re looking for ghosts, what are we really looking for? What do we hope to find? Are we hunting the ghosts of other people or the ghosts of ourselves?
Looking for ghosts can be fun. There is this sense of childlike wonder, a concession that there is something that exists beyond the mundane world. There is also the treat of getting together with friends and doing something that is not mediated by screens and doesn’t involve consuming media products manufactured by corporate conglomerates.
Our ideas about the paranormal might be shaped by horror movies and paranormal investigation TV shows, which tend to be serious and gritty. But there’s an element of delight, optimism, and creativity inherent in the idea of looking for unseen things, digging into history, and analyzing the things you experience in the physical (or at least . . . non-digital) world.
Also, many people my age (and younger) grew up on paranormal TV. So there’s a nostalgia there, as well. While investigating, some folks may be, consciously or not, acting out or reinventing something that they once watched on television, and making it their own and tailoring it to their specific neck of the woods.
Liminality and change
In his book, The Trickster and the Paranormal, George P. Hansen wrote about how the paranormal bubbles up during liminal times — moments of transition and change. He writes about our discomfort with the liminal:
The middle area goes by several labels: liminality, interstitiality, transitional space, betwixt and between, anti-structure. These are dangerous positions, situations, and statuses. They break down categories, classifications, and boundaries. Violation of the boundaries was taboo and brought the wrath of the gods. There was a price to be paid.
And later he talks about ghosts’ liminal nature:
Ghosts are liminal (interstitial) creatures. They exist in the netherworld between life and death, and they challenge the idea that there is a clear separation of the two. The dread evoked by such beings can be profoundly disturbing.
When confronted with liminal times, we want to be comforted. Nostalgia can’t quite make us feel better, not completely, but it’s a balm, at least. From an article in Psychology Today:
Engaging in nostalgia is an emotional regulation strategy. Studies have found that we reach for it when we are experiencing negative affect, and especially loneliness (Wildschut et al., 2016), social exclusion (Seehusen et al., 2013), and feelings of meaninglessness (Routledge, Wildschut, Sedikides, Juhl, & Arndt, 2012). In those occasions, reminiscing not only helps us feel more connected but also bolsters our own sense of self-regard through social bonds. In a way, nostalgia allows us to place ourselves back in a supportive social context in which we feel connected and important.
Given all of that, it makes sense that paranormal weirdness bubbles up alongside a desire for nostalgia, since they’re both so closely linked to liminality, uncertainty, and change.
You can’t catch ghosts or return to the past
So often, people try to photograph or quantify ghosts and are disappointed. Despite what the Ghostbusters led us to believe, there isn’t a straightforward way to use a gadget to capture and control ghosts. They evade our perception more often than not.
But that doesn’t stop us from pursuing them. We think that if we keep looking, we’ll find our answer. Isn’t that also what we do when we try to recapture our pasts through nostalgia? We’re looking for something lost and gone that we can never recapture, but even the search is comforting in its way.
¹ To be clear, I know that some people are still motivated to investigate the paranormal because of loved ones who’ve died. But I wonder whether that has become a much smaller motivator.
Chris Amandier is a paranormal researcher and the host of Buried Secrets Podcast, a podcast about the paranormal, the occult, and weird and forgotten history. Their writing has been published in The Feminine Macabre Volumes I and II. They live in Queens, NY, with their wife and a friendly ghost.