Have we commodified ghosts?

In addition to my interest in researching the paranormal, I am also a lecturer in Events Management. One of the modules that I teach on and have an additional research interests in looks at the rise of the experience economy and our desire to communicate our identities through lifestyle consumption. During the first couple of years of my doctoral research whilst living in York, and prior to this, I was involved in organising ghost tours and paranormal events. Indeed my involvement in this area influenced my decision to pursue research into the paranormal, with my undergraduate dissertation focusing on the reasons why individuals consume paranormal events and experiences (the work can be found here). As such, I have always been fascinated by peoples desire to pay for paranormal experiences – a practice which has become increasingly popular. To the extent where I think we can start to question whether we have somewhat commodified ghosts?

It could be argued that for a long time people have paid to have some form of interaction with the paranormal world. Be this paying a spiritual healer or witch doctor for their time, paying to visit a séance during the rise of the Spiritualist movement, or paying simply to be entertained by books, films or people telling ‘spooky’ stories. However, in the last 15-20 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of organisations that offer the potential to have a ‘first-hand’ paranormal experience, for a price. This is without doubt a reflection on the popularity that surrounded, as Koven (2007) calls it ‘supernatural reality TV’ series Most Haunted, which launched in 2002. Regardless of the authenticity of the show it is fair to say that it attracted significant viewing figures (approximately 1 million per new show according to the shows producers) and popularised the notion of ‘ghost hunting’ as a hobby that was open to the general public. As a result, a number of amateur paranormal groups started to emerge with it being suggested by researchers such as Hill (2010), that there are about 2500 groups operating in the UK alone. At around the same time several businesses also started to emerge often formed as ‘side-lines’ for the amateur groups, and offered the paying public the chance to have the ‘Most Haunted experience’. Most Haunted themselves also started offering ‘live’ shows in 2005 attracting in a substantial viewing audience of over 5 million.

Initially, businesses offering paranormal events were fairly few and the cost to attend an event was relatively high. For instance, you may be charged £70 to £100 per person to stay overnight in a supposedly haunted building and take part in a range of activities (such as séances, ‘vigils’, table tilting, Ouija boards etc). However, over the years the number of businesses offering these types of events has increased resulting in more competition, this has also led to the uniqueness of the offering being reduced, and as such the cost of attending paranormal events has also dropped. These days you might pay £20-40 to attend a ‘normal’ paranormal event, perhaps more if an overnight stay is involved. In addition to paranormal event companies, the ‘ghost economy’ has diversified with the number of organisations offering ghost tours increasing, hotels capitalising on their ‘haunted rooms’ (there is even a website to find them),  and destinations have even incorporated it into their tourism strategies (York is apparently the most haunted city in Europe).

The ‘ghost economy’ is quite literally ‘booming’ (don’t mind the pun). However, it does not stand alone with the desire to consume varied and meaningful experiencse identified in a range of other sectors (i.e. events, tourism, hospitality). Indeed, it could be suggested that the desire to consume paranormal experiences reflects a movement towards a more experience-based economy generally (as discussed by Pine and Gilmore, 2011). Further, a rise in dark tourism (travelling to places associated with death and suffering i.e. prisons, war camps etc) has also been identified by researchers such as Dr Philip Stone who has established a research institute dedicated to exploring the phenomena. It is plausible to suggest that there is a link between dark tourism and ghost tourism with those sites often associated with death and disaster often attracting speculation for potential hauntings as well. The difference being that rather than simply learning about these sites which is often associated with dark tourism, those visiting these sites as part of a paranormal event will be seeking a ‘dark’ experience there also.

The consumer market that now exists for paranormal events and experiences has resulted in the uniqueness that these experiences once had becoming somewhat lost in the milieu of options available. It has become a relatively commonplace and fairly competitive market place – there is money in ghosts and they are being capitalised upon. As such, it could be argued that ghosts or certainly the ‘ghost experience’ has been commodified. And perhaps this raises some interesting questions about whether the meaning of these experiences has changed, the role they now play in our society (from spiritual to entertainment) and what is next for ghosts and their stories after they have been consumed by the ‘ghost economy’?

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