The more I look for uses of the term ghost hunter (or ghost hunters or ghost hunting or ghost hunt), the farther back in time I travel. At first, I thought it might’ve originated around the 1830s. That’s the decade that gave birth to Morris Brady, the title character of Michael Banim’s novel The Ghost-Hunter and His Family (1833), and Thomas Ingoldsby, the protagonist of Richard Harris Barham’s short story “The Spectre of Tappington” (1837), where he’s referred to as a “ghost-hunter” twice. These were both well-liked works, and they probably did a lot to popularize the term.
But then Michelle McKay smacked the back of my head (figuratively, mind you) by rediscovering Richard Sicklemore’s 1809 novel Osrick; or, Modern Horrors, which uses both ghost-hunting and ghost-hunter. And then I found the term being used in newspaper and magazine articles about the Hammersmith Ghost in 1804.
And then I came upon this in Elizabeth Gunning’s 1794 novel The Packet:
Yep, a character named Sir William Montreville sets out late at night, armed with piftols and fword — uhm, pistols and sword — for some ghost-hunting with his servant! Earlier, the character interviews those who claim to have witnessed a specter at the church. While remaining skeptical, he promises “he would himself go in search of this terrible ghost.” Upon arriving at the site said to be haunted, Sir William sits hidden in a pew, watching and waiting. Nocturnal surveillance — the hallmark of ghost hunters since Athenodorus! In other words, this use of ghost-hunting isn’t a way of saying a fool’s errand or some other figure of speech. Though intending to debunk the haunting, Sir William is acting as a ghost hunter in the way I suspect most people today apply that label.
I’ve also found several other uses of the term in the early 1800s, and not all in prose fiction. I put together another TARDIS (Trusted Archival Research Documents in Sequence) to chart and link what I’ve found. There’s some interesting and pretty charming stuff there. For instance, there’s D. Lawler’s 1808 The School for Daughters, a play whose title page explains that the show was:
PERFORMED BY THE
PUPILS AT A LADIES’ BOARDING SCHOOL
There’s also the 1817 book about “preservation from the horrors of the grave by premature interment!” Author John Snart (a name Dickens might’ve loved) shares an anecdote about how he taught his kids to not fear ghosts. He had the children play at, yep, ghost-hunting, each one equipped with a bottle as if the spectral phenomena were butterflies. C’mon, that’s pretty adorable — and considerably cheaper than supplying the wee Snarts with spirit boxes!
Looking at what I’ve found — and imagining all the documents that have been lost or that still exist but have not been digitalized/put online — I’m left with a hunch that the term ghost hunt and its derivations were fairly well-known in the early 1800s in England and its linguistic colonies. I hope ghost hunters of the early 21st century find this to be kind of cool, a heritage to be proud of. I also hope you take a glance at The Rise of the Term “Ghost Hunt” TARDIS.