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Metaphoric Interplay: “Indiana Jones” and “Ghost Hunting”

“Archaeology has become a metaphor for going underground, which in turn is a metaphor for the truth” (Holtorf 2005:33).

The “truth” lies beneath the surface of things, though not necessarily located “deep down”. The truth has become lost today because many have evaded what is true, and others have not be truthful to what remains of a past that is still “buried”. The real nature of a haunting lies buried in this mesh of “untruths”! Context, association, and resonance (together with a moral stance) still remain “buried” on many “ghost hunts”, and certainly on what is shown on paranormal reality TV!

The myth of the archaeologist as “Indiana Jones” is not a cinematic stereotype. It was once as real as “ghost hunting” is today:

“Those were the great days of collecting. Anything from which a fancy was taken, from a scarab to an obelisk, was just appropriated, and if there was a difference of opinion with a brother excavator, one laid for him with a gun”.

  • Howard Carter

I would suggest that contemporary “ghost hunting”, compared to a scientifically-controlled contemporary ghost research/ field practice, is certainly akin to the practice of archaeology at the turn of the 20th c. and the cinematic exploits of Indiana Jones! Many “ghost hunters” are (or consider themselves to be) an “Indiana Jones” character at haunted locations. The “collecting” mentality (seen as number of haunted locations “investigated”; amount of “anomalous” photos and EVP’s recorded) is clearly evident in “ghost hunting”. So, too is the opinionated politics and oft times “hostile” relations between various groups of “ghost hunters”! Lost in the melee of “paranormal politics” and “territoriality” is the understanding that both archaeology and ghost research do not (cannot) offer an exact translation (nor a complete record) of past presence. Rather, ghost research should follow archaeology’s lead: archaeology is a mediation between past and present. It works with what is left of the past. I propose that ghost research should follow similar intentions. Let’s end these pretensions of ego-driven fieldwork, territoriality, research as entertainment, and the controlling power of TV producers (rather than educated and knowledgeable investigators)!

Another relation between contemporary “ghost hunting” and “Indiana Jones” is the search for the “Holy Grail”. Many “ghost hunters” today continue to mention this “Holy Grail” find. In “ghost hunting” terms, the “Holy Grail” is a video or photo of a “full-bodied” apparition. What is less mentioned or emphasized is the importance of contextual documentation. This “contextuality” means that this video or photo must be a result of a contextual and resonating field practice that is relative to a particular historical period and known individual agency, and not the result of a random scan or survey of the contemporary environment.

My concern is this use of “Holy Grail” as a principal objective in many “ghost hunts”, variants of which come in many guises (many as EVP recordings). The “Holy Grail” is a major motif of Modern Western mythology. It is a mystical object in legends, serving as a metaphor for intense and fervent religious belief. It also involves an emotionally-charged “belief” in its mystical (“paranormal”) importance. Are these “ghost hunters” searching for the documentation of “authenticity” in past presence, or a mythical one, metaphorically- speaking? Should a religiously-focused “belief” be part of a science of ghost research? Should ghost research, as a “ghost hunt” for a “Holy Grail”, continue its “Indiana Jones” façade and metaphor?

Archaeology today as a scientific discipline determines the precise location of material remains, and then carefully digs down to extract the objects and structural features without (as much as possible) damaging content and context. Archaeologists keep accurate records of this content and context because many (if not most) sites are multi-layered, occupied by more than one cultural group through time. Archaeology is not an exact science, but rather a discipline that works with what remains of the past. Still, it is a good (and adequate) model on how to conduct ghost research.

Most haunted sites contain numerous layers of haunting (intellectual) uncertainties. Fieldworkers must determine the precise location of haunted space(s) by these layers of uncertainty. A careful non-evasive “excavation” must be conducted. This is accomplished through field performance, and contextual, resonating cultural practices to determine if the “traces” that remain are “interactive”. These field performance acts, I propose, “awaken” former memory (habitual) practices of past presence. Once a space is determined to be “interactive”, it must be accurately recorded, layer by layer. Without this control, any trace manifestations cannot be assigned to particular historical/cultural horizons and specific individual past actors.

Ghost hunting today, in large measure, is similar to archaeology, as it was practiced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first excavations were not performed by “professionals” and archaeology was more a “hobby” (or a “treasure hunt”) than a scientific discipline. Entire layers of past presence were destroyed in search of “treasured” artifacts. Records were sketchy and context was lost. Similarly, many “ghost hunters” today conduct surface instrument scans and the monitoring of space without taken into consideration layered context, the association between field practice/manifestation/content/space, and past human behavioral patterns (rather than physical anomalies).

There are some forms of archaeological “excavation”, as a practice rather than a metaphor, than can “unearth” past layers of presence. This, I propose, is a “ghost excavation”. Sometimes, past presence may be more than mere material, inanimate remains, even more than a residual replay of a past event. Sometimes, within the symmetrical layers of haunted space, there may be the continuation of ancient rites that, though contextual for the time, are “out of time” today by their acts of behavioral practices. And that is a time when there is a need for a real investigator, not a reel one, or the metaphor of a “ghost hunt” investigation! Is this possible? Such a possibility has been written and recorded on British TV. The Stone Tape (1972) is one example! When this occurs at a haunted “ruined” site, it’s time to call a real archaeologist, a “ghost excavator”, but certainly not an “Indiana Jones” ghost hunting type!!

Holtorf, Cornelius.  2005.  From Stonehenge to Los Vegas: Archaeology as Popular Culture.  AltaMira Press.