The Production of Haunted Space: Its Meaning and Excavation
John G. Sabol Jr. (Bedford, PA: Ghost Excavation Books, 2013).
Probably one of the oddest and most original books I have read. I saw the author give a talk at a paranormal investigation conference, where he went down like a lead balloon, because most of the audience misidentified what he is doing with the usual ‘paranormal reality-show’ schtick. It is more sophisticated than that. Yet whether it offers a valid approach to paranormal research is a separate question.
Sabol is an archaeologist by training. In mainstream scientific paranormal research it is not known what a ‘ghost’ is nor what ‘haunted’ means. Sabol’s approach, in contrast, is to use archaeological concepts to ‘produce’ ghosts and hauntings. He identifies a site, takes his team onto it, and re-enacts historical incidents that took place at the site, recording as he goes. His is a social science methodology that utilises fundamentally pragmatist and postmodern concepts in its approach. A ‘historical incident’ for Sabol is a set of culturally-conditioned codes whose traces persist through time in one form or another. If he can identify traces of those codes in his recordings – for example, sounds that resemble words that could have been spoken on the battlefield – then a trace of those codes has been retrieved and is re-presenting itself to us for interpretation in the present. This is a ‘haunting’, a ‘ghost’. There is nothing ‘paranormal’ for Sabol about haunted sites. A ‘haunting’ is the persistence and retrieval at a site of social codes, of signs. A ‘haunting’ is a semiotic process, rather than anything ‘spiritual’ or – indeed – exclusively material. What differentiates Sabol’s method from your run-of-the-mill ghost hunter is that the traces returned by it will have some kind of historical accuracy.
This is not science, because it re-creates hauntings according to a particular definition, rather than seeking to establish what a haunting is through material evidence. But it is not magick either, because no claim of truth or validity is being made for the phenomena that the method creates – the phenomena are regarded simply as signs, open to further interpretation.
Sadly, there are a lot of typos in the text, which lets it down a little. It is such an uncompromisingly original book, however, I cannot help but admire it. On the question of whether it constitutes a substantial contribution to the understanding of paranormal phenomena in general, or offers instead only one angle on a particular spectrum of experiences – I am tending towards the latter. But it is a unique book and it certainly provoked a lot of thoughts.