Certain Historical Discrepancies; Or, Why I Wrote a Book About the Deep Roots of Ghost Hunting

History is full of surprises. I find it remarkable how similar paranormal investigations conducted in 2022 are to the one held by Athenodorus. The story of this ghost hunt had been circulating orally for about 100 years when Pliny the Younger (61–c. 113) jotted it down in a letter in the first century. As we do, the notion of ghost hunting at night — a practice I call “nocturnal surveillance” — appears to have been taken for granted.

Of course, Athenodorus didn’t have night-vision goggles or an EVP recorder. But even in our era of energy-sensitive equipment, we honor the long, long tradition of nocturnal surveillance. So did Antoinette du Ligier de la Garde Deshoulières (1636-1694) and Parson Richard Dodge (c. 1643-1746), who are said to have conducted ghost hunts. These three investigations are probably better understood as the stuff of legend rather than historical fact, since they involve actual people but the evidence of them going ghost hunting is dicey. However, much better documented investigations — conducted by the likes of Joseph Glanvill (1636-1680), Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), and John Jervis, 1st Earl of St Vincent (1735-1823) — also employed nocturnal surveillance. These investigators followed other standard investigative procedures when they performed witness interrogation and on-site inspection. The latter involves checking the pipes, the walls, and so on for ordinary explanations of what might have been mistaken for ghostly activity.

I only knew bits and pieces about the investigations conducted by Athenodorus, Deshoulières, Dodge, Glanvill, Johnson, and Jervis when I spotted people suggesting that the history of ghost hunting was relatively short. Some books and websites trace the tradition’s origins to the Victorians. To be sure, admirable work was done by members of the Society for Psychical Research, who conducted extensive witness interrogation, performed on-site inspection, and, like Athenodorus, rented houses reputed to be haunted and sat up for some nocturnal surveillance. Their work started in the 1880s, though, and there are additional reasons to assume that ghost hunting started at some point in the Victorian era (1837-1901).

Nonetheless, I muttered to myself, “Someone should write a book about pre-Victorian ghost hunting!” Then it occurred to me: I write books! And so Certain Nocturnal Disturbances: Ghost Hunting Before the Victorians was born.

This was a different kind of project for me. I’ve written several introductions to anthologies that trace the history of, say, sharing ghost stories by a fireside or speculating about life on the Moon. But I had never written a book-length history. I also trained as an Americanist, and this book demanded I time-travel to places such as Greece and France — and Cornwall, London, and Belfast. I think, though, that this just made me work harder, taking my time and doing solid research.

My goal — well, one of them — was to let people engaged in 21st-century ghost hunting know that they are part of a very long and honorable tradition. The paranormal investigators I discuss, whether their investigations are legend or historical fact, serve as examples to follow, as warnings of what to avoid, and as ancestors in spirit. If you’d like to learn more about the book, click here to get to its page. There, you can find my Introduction, links to online bookstores carrying it, and more.

— Tim

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