The Ghost In The Grain: Analogue Hauntings of the 1970s

This presentation was originally given at the Folk Horror Revival day at The British Museum (16/02/2016).  My thanks to the fellow admins of the Folk Horror Revival, especially Jim Peters and Andy Paciorek.

There’s an overt connection between analogue technology and the narratives surrounding paranormal activity in British horror, especially when made during the 1970s.  No doubt there are connections between the interest in such activity and the technological means of the period but, in hindsight, the relationship goes far deeper than mere necessity.  For analogue technology is not only a prime factor in many of the strongest examples of ghost stories from many eras but, in regards to my own creative practice as a filmmaker, there is for me no better way to summon up the spirit of such past horrors than to revert back to older technology; summoning a literal ghost in the machine.  From reel-to-reel recording equipment, motion sensitive flash-bulb cameras, oscilloscopes, grainy camera footage and endlessly huge thermo gauges, all of these elements seem to embellish and heighten 1970s hauntings especially, in a way that is almost inconceivable in all of their digital equivalents.  This presentation is both an attempt to trace a strong trend in the emphasis on such technology in televisual horror but also to attempt to understand why analogue and ghosts make for such a fitting pairing.


To start with, it is first essential to consider what is actually being suggested by the word analogue.  Two dictionary definitions can be considered though both require a leap of some distance to reach exactly what this presentation is discussing.  The two definitions are as follows:

  • An analogue recording is one that is made by changing the soundwaves into electrical signals of the same type.
  • Something that is similar to or can be used instead of something else.

From these definitions, we can make some basic connection to both aspects of what is being discussed.  The former has clear technological implications upon the sort of devices just listed, whilst the latter surprisingly has some symbolic likeness to analogue media (films shot on film, for example) and its ability to retain an Adornian ghostliness; that, perhaps because of its aesthetic and imperfect facets highlighting that it is not the original perceptive event, there is an actual departure and differentiation from the aliveness of the artefacts.  In other words, the recording of the human presence upon analogue media essentially locks the living matter that it captures into a fluctuating form of purgatory as if rendering people as a sort of living-dead palimpsest.


This can account for the almost obsessive reoccurrence of analogue media in many classic television ghost stories from 1970s (in contrary to it simply being explained by the prominence of such technology in the decade) and also my own adherence to using super-8 film when attempting to capture more haunting aspects of the landscape; fiction seems to tie the supernatural down to some sort of analogue gateway or portal whilst also capturing a moment between living and death.  But how do these ideas manifest in more typical narrative forms?  Like so many analyses of ghosts of any form, we begin with two typical names; the quintessential Victorian, Charles Dickens, and the Victorian taken out of time, M.R. James.


Dickens is, of course, noted for his skill in writing ghost stories though one in particular has obvious links with analogue technology. It is The Signalman, written for the Christmas edition of the magazine, All the Year Round, in 1866.  The story tells of a haunted signalman whose signal box resides near the mouth of a tunnel; touching upon the genuine post-traumatic stress that Dickens suffered after a particularly bad train crash some years before.  The ghostly appearance of his story acts as an ominous warning of future incidents, manifesting supernaturally the character’s own paranoia over his ability to do the job.  More than this, however, the ghost explicitly communicates through the abundance of pre-digital technology; through the wires and bells of the Victoriana sketched out in the story.  This is beautifully surmised numerous times in the prose, a favourite being Dickens writes: “‘As to an imaginary cry’, said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires.'” (1866, p.265).  The dead spirit is working in analogue ways, changing its communicative form into something that is literally a signal, the irony being that the actual “signal man” fails to ultimately realise this before it is too late; the dead changing its form into something with horrific, lasting agency.  The story was adapted in 1976 by Lawrence Gordon Clark for the, still then regular, BBC ghost story for Christmas slot.  In the adaptation, the argument is emphasised further with a beautifully eerie and analogue sound design by Stephen Deutsch who realises perfectly the analogue attempts to attract and perhaps torment Denholm Elliot’s troubled custodian of the railway.


This story is the best example of the fictional embodiment of Gilbert Ryle’s idea of the “Ghost in the Machine” already mentioned as a phrase earlier.  It is mentioned in his 1949 work, The Concept of Mind where he writes of “the myth of the ghost in the machine.” (1949, p.15).  Though originally a criticism of Rene Descartés’ theories of dualism between the inner mind and the physical body, the theory can be contextualised to account for more supernatural aspects in fictional media; a non-living object’s power to do something physically, create a noise or movement for example, implying a logical inner aspect that can be read as some form of intelligence.  In other words, analogue potential occurs for the ghostly form to manifest more viscerally when tapping into the hums and ticks of pre-digital technology with all of its noises and clunkiness.  But this isn’t to say that the technology need even have some sort of electronic potential either.  In M.R. James’ story, A View From A Hill, the analogue is treated quite literally through its ability to  augment perspective.  It concerns the finding of an alchemically altered pair of binoculars which allow antiquarian, Dr. Fanshawe, a view into the past landscapes surrounding the house whose library he has been sent to catalogue and value.


The analogue here takes a turn for the macabre as the reasoning behind the binoculars’ magical ability to look back in time – achieved by their previous owner, Baxter – becomes clear, much to the misfortune of Fanshawe.  As Robert Macfarlane describes, the analogue process here has gone down a ghoulish avenue:

Eventually the grim secret of the binoculars is revealed. Baxter had filled their barrels with a fluid derived by boiling the bones of hanged men, whose bodies he had plundered from the graves on Gallows Hill, formerly a site of execution. In looking through the field-glasses, Fanshawe was “looking through dead men’s eyes”, and summoning violent pasts into visible being. (2015)

Though not electronic, the analogue potential within James’ story is palpable and one that I explored myself for a short film made some years back.  The film is called The Coastal Path and was conceived more as an experiment in itself to explore the Jamesian potential within such analogue happenings; boiling down the whole narrative, just as Baxter had done with the hanged men’s bones, to concentrate on the object and replacing the binoculars with a far more obvious piece of perceptive-capturing analogue equipment, the super-8 camera.  By amalgamating the two aspects, I wanted to show a common fit between the phantasms found in the landscape and their ability to be conjured by such analogue equipment.  So here’s The Coastal Path:

By now, we should be able to see some common threads weaving between ghostly apparitions and analogue equipment so it is now best to turn to more typical trends and examples, the majority of which are found in 1970s British television.  We can’t quite discuss these examples without bringing in another term to the analysis, that of Hauntology.   Hauntology was specifically referring to the “Spectre of Marx” as Jacques Derrida called it in his 1993 book of the same title.  It is the combination of ideas within the word itself that really gives rise to its appropriation rather than anything Derrida specifically argued for: “haunt” referring to the repeated manifestation of something and “ology” meaning the subsequent study of.  If we link the aesthetics of the dramas of interest (all of which purport to be scientifically engaging with the supernatural in some way), the links to the technology becomes more obvious and clear.

The writer, Mark Fisher, has usefully split the term into two distinct types:

The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic “compulsion to repeat”, a fatal pattern).  The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour). (2014, p.19).

We can, therefore, see Dickens’ story as an example of the latter and James’ story as an example of the former.  In terms of the position of hindsight and perhaps even nostalgia, analogue media cannot help but evoke the hauntologically ghostly; a compulsion to repeat through some longing for paraphernalia of the past and its eccentricities, including its technology.  I myself am guilty of this.  Though, looking back at the 1970s in particular, the era that is both rife with analogue hauntings and the subject of Hauntology as a whole, this is surprising to find; the ghosts and the technology that houses and tracks them in this period are more unforgiving and violent than the ghosts of previous decades gone by.  The ideas of Hauntology have no better example in any form than in Nigel Kneale’s 1972 BBC play, The Stone Tape.  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, 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 computer expert, Jill.


Ghosts were already becoming a common theme in Kneale’s work, of course, through recontextualisaion in Quatermass And The Pit, in the missing play The Road and in the (yet again, missing) episode of Out Of The Unknown, The Chopper (1971).  But it was to be a theme honed in The Stone Tape where technology breaks open a wound in the history of a semi-built-up space to unleash horrific and disturbing consequences.  The Stone Tape has genuine applications in regard to cultural and technological theories but this is not to distract from its sheer success as a piece of drama.  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 a way, the public should be weary of its ghostly 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.  Self-service and personal gain are often at the heart of these technological hauntings, showcasing a modern slant on M.R. James’ varied attacks on academic, archaeological and scientific arrogance.


Analogue equipment of the recording kind would often play on this relationship outside of Kneale, especially in work after the broadcast of The Stone Tape but also before.  When Out Of The Unknown moved from hard science-fiction to strange sleazy tales of 1970s suburbia in its third and fourth series, the shift opened up even starker areas technologically.  The second episode of series 4 highlights this disturbingly in the story, To Lay A Ghost (1971).  The narrative follows the lives of a newly wedded couple who have moved into a new house.  The wife, Diana, has a seeming aversion to sexual intercourse due to being raped when she was younger.  Her analogue photographer husband, Eric, begins to notice strange behaviour in her in the new house, almost as if she’s possessed.  A figure appears in several of his photographs and a parapsychologist is brought in with his various analogue equipment to track down the ghostly figure.  It turns out that Diana has grown a fetish regarding assault and is only sexually aroused by being forced into intercourse.  This has been taken advantage of by the ghost of a 17th century rapist who is shown to fulfil her desires at the end of the play.  Again, it is the analogue technology that seems to link the palimpsest of past events from buildings and landscape allowing the ghost to manifest.  The photography also reminds of the Alan Garner adaptation, The Owl Service (1969), where the process of analogue photography both captures the ghosts of the past but also adds tension through the very slow process that comes with such technology.  Perhaps this partly explains the link between the two; with process comes tension, a natural and desirable facet for any ghost story.


The same technological paraphernalia can be found in many other examples such as the one off ghost story, A Child’s Voice (1978), the second assignment for Sapphire and Steel (1979) and, with more overt knowingness, in the Doctor Who stories, Image Of The Fendahl (1977) and Hide (2013).  This theme is also 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 used for analogue 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.  Many of these examples actually reverse the reasoning that Jamie Sexton suggests when discussing the resurgence and subsequent envisioning of analogue media and the era it signifies, appropriately when discussing the music label, Ghost Box Records.  He writes that:

The warmth and human associations that various analogue media have accrued may also relate to their ghostly nature: if digital media are marked by absence of humanity, for example, then they are perhaps capable not so much of producing ghosts as they are of producing a form of “soulless” interference. (2012, p. 18).

The “human associations” with analogue media are treated with some regard today though it’s easy to forget that the ghosts summoned by it in the 1970s were rarely pleasant; if they did have the human associations that digital media is apparently incapable of ultimately possessing, it relied on the very worst of humanity’s impulses being retained.  I have done something slightly deliberate here; I have mixed the diegetic presence of ghosts in the tape-spool with a reasoning for that same logic to applied outside of the fictional reality.  There is a reason for this, in that it somewhat excuses my own use of super-8 film and, at least in my own view, attempts to move out and away from purely an addiction for second hand nostalgia.  To prove the point in finality, this presentation will end on another film, mixing the arguments presented with that of M.R. James again.  This film is in essence a cine-poem nod-of-the-cap to both James’ 1925 story, A Warning To The Curious, and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1972 adaptation of it.  1972 being the most haunted year to date in the British television calendar with both The Stone Tape and the anthology series, Dead of Night, being broadcast as well.  The film attempts to supplant some of the dramatic quirks of Clark’s film back on to the original Suffolk landscape that inspired James’ story (Clark’s version being filmed in north Norfolk rather than Aldeburgh).  The film is shot on super-8 with a stock that is only a few years younger than I am.  The point being that, in spite of essentially not seeing anything at all ghostly in the visual, and taking into account the aural elements no doubt imbuing the visuals with a sense of narrative and the haunted, the analogue visual should hopefully in itself be seen as having captured something both imperfect and doused with the potentiality for a ghostly experience; in other words it should hopefully summon in its grain, scratches and eerie living-dead likeness, the ghost in the machine.


3 thoughts on “The Ghost In The Grain: Analogue Hauntings of the 1970s

  1. Excellent piece, Adam – a highly persuasive account of the connection between analogue and the ghostly. Memorable stuff. Thanks.

  2. Really very good… I feel like there is a real convergence in our research projects after reading this piece. I too am fascinated with those haunting qualities possessed by certain obsolete media, those that can’t be reduced via notions of nostalgia – it is something more, something innate, lurking in the analogue substrate itself…

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