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Hill, Annette. Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits, and Magic in Popular Culture.

Hill, Annette. Paranormal Media: Audiences, Spirits, and Magic in Popular Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-415-54462-7 (cloth) $131.00; 978-0-415-54463-4 (paper) $39.95; 0-203-83639-1 (e-book), no price listed.

In this book on paranormal media, Annette Hill uses a variety of research methods to investigate what has become a very popular form of media. Programs dealing with the paranormal in various forms seem to continue to appear in considerable numbers.

The book itself shows many layers of thought and research. Just what is it that makes such programming so popular? Where do ideas of the paranormal come from? How new is this "new phenomenon"? How are media and the paranormal related? Attempts to answer these questions can be found inside this book, which is an eminently readable one.

Humankind always seems to want to know that there is "something else" beyond the quotidian, humdrum experience of their lives. For many, if not most, it is religion and the belief that there is a supreme being or beings, but as long ago as Kant and Nietzsche there was the suggestion that God was dead and this was taken further by the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, who believed or believe that there is no God. Yet despite this, belief seems to have hung on. The website: 23rd March, 2012) states that religious belief is declining in the united Kingdom; figures given on this website vary considerably from those of the National Secular Society (accessed 23rd March, 2012), who give an even lower figure for those who have belief. The Pew Forum, however, states that in the United States there is a very competitive market of faiths looking for adherents, since over a quarter of the people polled had changed from the faith into which they were born ( accessed 23rd March, 2012). Tariq Modood (2011, p. 51) notes that secularism in Europe seems to be increasing, but that it is rarely militant. In the meantime, as Hill says (p. 2) there has been a paranormal turn in popular culture. Humankind does not seem to want to think that THIS is all there is. What surprises me is that while so many paranormal experiences have been proved to be fraudulent (either to entertain or to garner money from participants in the experiences, or both), people still attend paranormally-oriented events and the paranormal tourist destinations about which Hill writes in Chapter 5. Many people now watch paranormal programming from the comfort of their own living rooms. I suppose this is a way to get some of the thrill without actually having to be there, which might potentially be rather frightening. This, of course, has resonance with the work of Dayan and Katz (1992)--television enables us to participate at an event without our actual presence. For me, it also resonates with programs that I watched as a teenager--scary dramas, mainly dealing with unexplained hauntings--that terrified the wits out of us. Not only do we want something more than the present life, but we also want to be frightened and to like it when we are.

Here Professor Hill demonstrates how, despite contemporary secularity, such programming would not work without a history based on religion or religions, on myths and stories that most people know. One wonders if the trend towards secularity will mean that such stories and myths die and that new generations will not be able to interpret or understand inferences in the same way that most people now cannot understand inferences to, say, Greek or Babylonian myths and stories--even if these continue to be present in our cultures to some extent. While many people do not believe in things that cannot be proven scientifically, Hill shows (pp. 24ff) that scientific advances actually helped the growth of the spiritualist movement that was developed by Swedenborg and others. Mediums began to use new technologies as part of their demonstrations--spirit photography, for instance. As long ago as 1896, William James, suggested that:

I confess that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling, to prompt our curiosities and hopes and suspicions, all in equal measure, so that although ghosts and clairvoyances, and raps and messages from spirits, are always seeming to exist and can never be fully explained away, they also can never be susceptible of full collaboration. (James, 1909, p. 580 in The Confidences of a Psychical Researcher, cited in Hill, p. 28).

Hill shows that ghost shows have been "part of the industrialization of mass cultures" since the 19th century (p. 29), following the historical development of the genre. In the united Kingdom recently there has been a rash of programs that deal or seem to deal with the paranormal and these vary from visits to haunted buildings to what are really magic shows. They bring in quite large audiences. It is here that the "armchair ghost hunters" come into play. As I mentioned above, this is perhaps where the audience is interested, wants to be frightened but, at the same time, needs to feel safe.

As well as the armchair ghost hunters, there is psychic tourism, to which Hill dedicates another chapter. Old cities in the U.K., like York, Edinburgh, and London, have developed such tourism. Guides take the tourist to supposedly haunted sites for what Hill (p. 100) describes as sensory journeys. These nearly always take place at night and in the quiet. Here, the audience--the tourists--become part of the show themselves. It is they who have the experience. As Hill mentions, audience members often hold hands, and so the experience of one audience member may easily be passed on to another. From those in my own family who have visited the Edinburgh haunting evenings, I know that even the most sceptical have had some sort of experience.

In one of her chapters Hill writes of the things that many have experienced and which convince those people that "there is something [other] out there." It is probably that we have all had some sort of experience that could be described as at least feeling that there is something supernatural going on. This type of experience may be what drives the psychic tourist, those who visit mediums and so on--some, of course, just go because they can. The growing area of ghost tourism, as Hill says, produces a strong sensory experience:
   a structure of feeling, where the structuring principles
   of the ghost hunt as an event connect to
   history, and ghost stories, paranormal beliefs,
   and mix with the creativity of people's cultural
   practices. The event organizers and the participants
   work together in a purposeful shaping of a
   unique cultural experience. (p. 107)

Hill's chapter "Beyond Magic" (pp. 128-150) considers the work of Derren Brown, whose oeuvre combines psychology, magic, and showmanship. She notes (pp. 137 ff) that there is a strong connection between psychology and magic. Magic was, and in some cultures still is, used for many purposes: healing, for instance. Here, she analyses Brown's show in the light of the historical development of such shows and with the assistance of interview material from audience members. Brown admits to using psychology for the purposes of misdirecting his audience. The audience look for both rational and irrational reasons for what they are viewing (p. 145). However, sceptical they are, they tend to want a reason for what they have seen or believe they have seen.

Without an audience, there would be no show. There would be no point. Transubstantiation, if one is a Catholic, is the belief that the bread and wine before us at the Mass becomes the body and blood of Christ. This is, in essence, magical. The difference is, however, that transubstantiation would still occur whether or not there were an audience. Without his audience, Derren Brown would have neither a reason to perform his show, nor anyone to whom to perform, nor--important here--an income stream. It is his audience who makes his show. As Hill shows, the attentive audience which sits quietly and watches a show is a relatively new thing. The audience were very much part of the show in Shakespeare's time and perhaps this type of show is a throwback to that sort of audience participation. Like the medium, the magician must make his/her audience believe in him/her. This is often done by picking somebody out of the audience (although we all know that the shill is one of the oldest tricks in show business). Participation of one of their own number aids the audience's illusion. Believable performance is now part of the repertoire of performers of all sorts, including politicians (see pp. 163-164). Politicians, being truthful or not, have lost elections or their position due to their lack of ability as believable performers. Two politicians from history that this affected were Richard Nixon and Sir Alec Douglas Home, whose tv performances let them down badly.

For Hill, the paranormal has gone mainstream and such events may be transformative. She suggests (p. 167) that they are connected with our desires to engage with life and death. As one of her respondents says, "nobody knows when you die, so we all want to know" (p. 167). The book says much about emotions. How often have we met somebody who has had no belief in spiritualism, but who decides to go to see a medium following the loss of a loved one? We still want to be in contact with that person and this medium may be able to help us open that channel. All of this is part of our culture which, as Hill says, "is both ordinary and extraordinary" (p. 169).

The human being is a sensory being. We want and need sensory experiences: "a sensuous knowledge in the visible and invisible in social relations" (p. 171). At the same time, we fear death, we miss those who have died, we want answers to unanswered and unanswerable questions. We may look for a paranormal reason for an anomalous event (p. 177). Events, positive or negative, can be disquieting. In the West, there has been--or so we are told--a move away from religion, which might once have provided answers to some of the questions we have. Professor Hill (p. 187) quotes a classical conductor as saying that through his/her "experience of working with an orchestra that together they transported themselves through music to a mystical realm." A final quotation from a respondent is: "we've all got to die. I'd like to tell someone, there is something up there. I'd like to give a message if I could." While Annette Hill says these are voices from the greatest show on earth (p. 187), I would like to think that it is mankind's need to re-enchant modern life and that perhaps this will lead some back to the belief which lies behind some of such experiences, that of an everlasting after life.

Like Professor Hill's previous books, this is both eminently readable and useful. It is based on sound research and would be useful to students and academics in sociology, media and cultural studies, and also to those interested in religious practices. I would highly recommend it.


Dayan, D., & Katz, E. (1992). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press.

Modood, T. (2011). Post-immigration "difference" and integration: The case of Muslims in Western Europe. London: British Academy.

Maria Way

Independent Researcher, London, U.K.
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Author:Way, Maria
Publication:Communication Research Trends
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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