There seems to be an overt connection between analogue recording technology (of both the visual and aural varieties) and the narratives surrounding paranormal activity in 1970s British fantasy television. Of course, there are no doubt connections between the interest in such activity (with the genuine events surrounding the Enfield Haunting for example, recently made into a drama on Sky) and the technological means of the period with which people thought they could capture such activities but, in hindsight, the relationship goes far deeper than mere necessity. Instead, a better and more interesting way to view this technology is through the aesthetics of physical electronics and how the presence of such material in attempts to find paranormal activity in fictional narratives finds a natural link with reel-to-reel recording equipment, motion sensitive flash-bulb cameras, oscilloscopes and endlessly huge thermo gauges.
The links between such aesthetics and modern interpretations begins to explain their reoccurrences as well as raise further questions, chiefly through the etymology of the language used to discuss retrospective forms of electronic music in particular. The term Hauntology, first coined by Jacques Derrida, has been so appropriated by its musical connotations (discussing artists such as The Focus Group, Broadcast and The Advisory Circle for example), that it seems hard to fathom the connection between its original use and its modern use in the first place. The bridge seems to be crossed by these 1970s fantasy dramas, not simply because of their aesthetic likenesses in regards to their music (often Radiophonic Workshop created) but because of the narrative appearances of a very literal embodiment of the term.
Hauntology was specifically referring to the “Spectre of Marx” as Derrida called it in his 1993 book of the same title; in other words far from a music genre referencing cult artefacts from the 1970s. It is the combination of ideas within the word itself that really gives rise to the connection rather than anything Derrida specifically argued: “haunt” referring to the repeated manifestation of something (for example, ghosts, anything paranormal, or even something completely normal like a person regularly visiting the same place) and “ology” meaning the subsequent study of. If we link the aesthetics of these dramas (which all purport to be scientifically engaging with the supernatural in some way) then the reasoning behind why the musical genre finds the title fitting is explained – they are emulating in homage the aural aesthetics of these programs and therefore the bridge is an aesthetic and tangible one, from the music itself to the titles of tracks and album artwork. But now, to the programs themselves.
The ideas of Hauntology have no better example in any form than in Nigel Kneale’s 1972 play, The Stone Tape (which is discussed in psychoanalytical terms here). The play revolves around a sound technology team who stumble upon a haunted building’s ability to record past events. Lead by research director, Peter Brock (Michael Bryant), they seek to try and commercialise the phenomena in order to market it for the music industry. They do, however, underestimate the power and spirit of the place, leading to horrific consequences, especially for Brock and the team’s leader, Jill (Jane Asher).
Throughout the play, the aesthetics of the analogue technology are heavily emphasised, perhaps through sheer accident but more likely because of its role as an instigator of the paranormal phenomena being written heavily into Kneale’s script. In the play’s most famous line “It’s in the computer!” Kneale shows his exact intentions; that by emphasising the technology in such way, the public should be weary of its power and its almost supernatural likenesses. With Peter Sasdy’s direction, all sorts of tape loops, monitors, reels and various early analogue metres appear on screen and greatly highlight the greed of such further technological gains; that instead of using the already high-level technology created for the greater good of humanity, the team and company simply wish to make more money at the expense of their competitors (specifically the Japanese in the play). Self-service and personal gain are often at the heart of these technological hauntings, almost showcasing a post-hyper-capitalist slant on M.R. James’ varied attacks on academic, archaeological and scientific curiosity.
This theme is extended in various moments of the series The Omega Factor (1979) where psychic and paranormal phenomena are of interest to the government body that the characters are working for. In particular, its second episode, Visitations, features many of these technological visuals as the team try to track down what appears to be a haunting in a building that is now (aptly) used for voice recording. In the episode, the narrative goes to great lengths to explain the darker history of the building in question, one that first manifests supernaturally on a tape reel recording sent to the department.
When Tom Crane (James Hazeldine) and his team go to investigate, they take with them even more technology: specifically thermometers and motion activated cameras. By taking in even more technology, the visual advantage is given to the ghostly presence in question which finds a number of ways to manifest before the episode ends rather ambiguously (was it the presence of the past or was the presence of series’ psychic villain, Edward Drexel?). The aural potential was already tapped in the opening of the program and so the visuals of flash-bulbs firing (an inventive way to indicate the presence of a ghost in close proximity) and oscilloscope-like dials going berserk become an intriguing signifier for a haunting.
These zones of analogue recording seem to pre-empt the White Noise (2005) type of modern ghost film (now popularised in films like the Paranormal Activity series) but seem to occur often in this era of drama. Another example of this is in the oft-ignored BBC ghost story, A Child’s Voice, made the year before The Omega Factor. The story follows a radio broadcaster (T.P. McKenna) who reads ghost stories on the radio. He receives a mysterious phone call whilst reading his latest story on the air, warning him not to finish his narrative at the risk of dire consequences. The story is largely cliché, if well done, but essentially the emphasis given to analogue technology. Combined with the previous two examples, there appears to be a trilogy of hauntings all around recording technology; what was it that the era found so esoteric in recording technology (other examples include the Doctor Who episode, The Image Of Fendahl (1977))?
It is a question too general for a specific answer and so the last example to finish on is one that simply builds on the parapsychology-tech aesthetics for pulp uses rather than thematic. When the anthology series Out Of Unknown hit the 1970s, it dropped the realms of pure science-fiction in favour of more earth-bound, domestic weirdness (similar to Doctor Who again who suffered the exact same fate in 1970). This series was set in the Ballardian world of nightmarish suburbia; full of the desperate middle-classes who lived by awful shorts and misogyny. The episode in question is the Michael J. Bird penned To Lay A Ghost (1971) and would probably be considered extremely controversial if more well known.
The narrative follows a couple moving into a new home in the country. Diana (Lesley-Anne Down) is shy and somewhat distanced having been attacked and raped when she was younger. Her husband, Eric (Iain Gregory), begins to notice strange behaviour from his new wife as she begins to sleep-walk and even absentmindedly tries and kill him. He calls in a parapsychologist who finds out that the ghost of a 17th century rapist is haunting the house, being summoned into existence by Diana who has secretly developed a (now necessary) fetish around her own assault that her caring husband simply cannot fulfil.
The sexual politics are problematic if refreshingly confident in their own showcasing of a complex but tragic feminine sexuality yet it is the play’s use of the analogue technology that is most memorable. Philimore (Peter Barkworth) the parapsychologist brings in all of the usual gadgets mentioned earlier in the article and the direction of the play makes great effect of showing the presence of the ghost by ironically highlighting its lack of physical presence. While the ideas are not especially stretched (instead focussing on the aforementioned relationships of the characters), it is a powerful and very simple aesthetic use of the analogue technology; forever doomed to capture and repeat the horror of the past.