It’s October, and at last time to talk about Ghostbusters (1984). Featuring two cast members from the first season of Saturday Night Live, the paranormal comedy was an instant hit and has been an enduring cult favorite for the geek community. As noted in my provocative Nothing But Trouble (1991) review at 366 Weird Movies, Dan Aykroyd was probably destined to make at least one weird movie, given that both his parents were Spiritists and he’d been fascinated with the occult throughout childhood. This background led him to both pen Ghostbusters, and, tragically emboldened by its success, take his sole turn as director with the misfired passion project Nothing But Trouble.
But what if I told you (sparing you the Matrix meme) that there was a real-life Ghost-Busters?
We mean a real-life Ghostbusters club, one that has counted among its members such geek icons as inventor of the digital programmable computer Charles Babbage, Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Star Wars actor Peter Cushing. To name just a few! The club is “The Ghost Club,” a non-profit UK society in operation near-continuously since Victorian times until now.
Furthermore, they take members! You, too, can join the Ghost Club for a few-dozen pounds membership. Come to that, they even have a Twitter, @GhostClub1862, which is pretty neat for a club which started in 1862. The Ghost Club does exactly what you think it does; they investigate claims of spooks at various “historic houses, heritage sites and unusual locations,” usually with an overnight stay straight out of a Shirley Jackson novel.
My steps to the Ghost Club started with my new fascination for esoteric lore spurned by the game Cultist Simulator. I paid it tribute with an inspired IMGUR dump of occult images and facts, which got marked ‘mature’ for being too edgy even though there’s no smut involved. While I was double-checking facts over real-life occult societies and influential esoteric writers for that thread, that’s how I barked my shins on the Ghost Club.
Shifting Attitudes of the Ghost Club
When it comes to paranormal investigations, most everybody comes at it with one of two approaches. To borrow a metaphor from The X-Files, you can be “the Mulder,” a wide-eyed credulous believer who is trying to prove that paranormal phenomena is real, or the counterpart “the Scully,” a scientific skeptic bent on debunking all this spooky stuff as a hoax.
You can also be the objective investigator who is willing to be convinced that there’s something there if only it would manifest in some way you can document, but who are we kidding? As time and disproven claims pile up, you’re just the Scully with a more objective approach.
When the Ghost Club first formed in 1862, it seemed to be aimed more at debunking claims of spiritual manifestation. One of their earliest “busts” was proving the Davenport Brothers, a trope of magicians, were faking a spirit cabinet in their performance. Around the time of the death of member Charles Dickens, in the 1870s, the club disbanded.
The Ghost Club was revitalized in 1882, by a pair of Spiritists, Stainton Moses and Alaric Alfred Watts. They fraudulently claimed to have been with the club the whole time. At around the same time, the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) formed, and the two settled into opposite aims. With the SPR being the scientific, scrutinizing skeptics, the Ghost Club switched over to being an esoteric Spiritist society, more prone to talk to your ghost with a séance and Ouija board than prove that it was all in your head.
Getting up to around the turn of the century, the Ghost Club attracted many noted authors who at least dabbled in Spiritism, including Algernon Blackwood (recognized as a horror master by H.P. Lovecraft), Arthur Machen (The Great God Pan), W. B. Yeats (Irish poet), and Dennis Wheatley (inspiration to James Bond author Ian Fleming). Membership slowly shifted from an esoteric society back to a skeptical paranormal investigator’s club. By the 1930s, they’d been joined by renowned paranormal investigator Harry Price, who showed up to purported hauntings with his “ghost kit”:
Professor Egon himself would have been proud to call him a contemporary. Among Price’s famed adventures was 1932’s “the Broken experiment,” in which he and members of the National Laboratory performed a public attempt at a black magic experiment which was supposed to have transformed a goat into a boy, to prove that black magic doesn’t work. Photo:
I don’t care what you believe, the objective truth here is that, if a photograph exists of you dragging a reluctant goat into a black magic circle while attempting a transmutation rite, you can credit yourself for having lived a full life.
Despite this kind of fun, the Ghost Club shuttered yet again in 1936, only to be reopened by Price only a year and a half later. Since that time, barring a few fits and starts, the Ghost Club emerged into its modern incarnation as an open society. As it stands today since rounding the corner into its third century, the Ghost Club is run democratically and has broadened its scope to investigating everything from UFOs to cryptozoology to claims of dowsing ability.
Motivations of Ghost Club alumni
Reading over the past members of the Ghost Club is bound to raise an eyebrow. It makes sense for an author who writes ghost stories to join a ghost club, for authenticity and the occasional muse, if nothing else. One can easily imagine Dickens or Doyle taking notes from a report of a paranormal encounter which later showed up in a story. Other Ghost Club members are enigmatic in their interest.
What the devil was steampunk computing pioneer and employer of Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, doing there? It seems that Babbage was raised in Judeo-Christian religion, and like any scientific inquiring mind, soon had a crisis of faith between the evidence of the real world and the incredible events reported in the scripture of his religion.
So he tried to resolve it the way any geek would, by trying to scientifically prove the existence of miraculous phenomena one way or the other. Notably, he decided that he would not trouble God with a skeptical experiment, but instead tried to summon the devil. This in the 1800s, before even heavy metal music was invented. Babbage was a pretty testy character anyway, so it’s probably just as well he and the devil were a missed connection, given how abrasive he could be.
Sir William Crookes
Crookes was a physicist and chemist credited with discovering thallium, working on spectroscopy, and pioneering the use of vacuum tubes. Living in that era in Victorian England, spiritism was hugely popular and it wasn’t long until he encountered it. Having already worked with a few unseen forces like the electromagnetic spectrum and vacuum in his science research, it was a simple hop from that to conducting numerous experiments to investigate whether ghosts were one more unseen force he could prove.
Cookes made the rounds debunking several mediums and frustrated many spirit reports with attempts to capture photographs of one, before returning to more orthodox science. That’s really all there was to it, just a scientist investigating the universe like any busy mind, and one more time where science and the occult crossed paths.
A highly decorated Air Chief Marshall in the Royal Air Force (RAF) honored for his direct role in defeating Hitler’s plans for an air raid of England during WWII, Hugh Dowding nevertheless stepped down from his military career when postwar military politics left him with a bad taste.
Apparently he decided to indulge his idiosyncrasies after that, so he plunged into the occult. Not only was a he member of both the Ghost Club and the Fairy Investigation Society, he also signed up with the Theosophical Society. Dowding wrote several books on occult topics, along with his beliefs spanning from vegetarianism to reincarnation. The part of this story that raises a lump in your throat is when he mentions having been visited in his sleep by “RAF boys,” ghosts of dead airmen he’d known in the war. And now you know what provoked his interest in spirits. When you look at it that way, it’s a wonder more veterans don’t turn to spiritism.
Now we come to the true riddle of the celebrated and famous actor. Not only did he have a pivotal role in Star Wars, but he made a huge splash in British Hammer horror films and had a busy career in general acting in TV and film. Apparently for awhile, Cushing would just not turn down a role.
The only main motivation one could suspect Cushing had for joining the Ghost Club was pure mourning for his late wife. Cushing was devastated enough to have suicidal thoughts, turned to clergy for interpretations of his wife’s final words, and was inspired by his wife’s own views on an afterlife. Reportedly, when he faced death, he was so calm about it that he practically celebrated leaving the mortal world at last.
These stories get grimmer the farther we dig. Suffice to say, if a person takes to a sudden and uncharacteristic interest in the occult, it’s usually because Death got in the last word with them but they don’t consider the matter settled.
What the Ghost Club will and won’t do
If you’ve got a spook around the house and you reside in the UK, you can indeed give the Ghost Club a call, or rather an email. They conduct overnight investigations to attempt to capture spiritual manifestations of hauntings. They hasten to caution that they do not perform clearances or exorcisms, and the use of Ouija boards is strictly prohibited, because apparently most sites don’t allow it. The Ghost Club’s literature also sternly cautions us that they are not for entertainment purposes, but aim to conduct serious research.
Due to the nature of their work, the Ghost Club usually has to deal with a historic site, since ghosts are generally reported at castles, priories, cathedrals, catacombs, and the usual swampy digs. By necessity, they have to take precautions not to damage heritage property along the course of their investigations.
While the Ghost Club is careful to distance itself from sensationalizing its mission, all kinds of commercial interests have shown up eager to cash in on their fame. If you’re thinking they make a good topic for your next horror feature, you’re a little late to the game, because the Ghost Club has been fictionalized in story, novel, film, and TV reality show many times over the years. The club itself almost reluctantly publishes a newsletter, journal, and the occasional book compiling recent investigations, whose proceeds go to fund the club’s further studies.
Legacy of the Ghost Club
The Ghost Club is hardly an original idea, even going that far back. They are only one of many paranormal investigator groups, albeit one of the few to be cheeky enough to keep the word “ghost” right in their name.
There has traditionally been a steady demand for paranormal investigators and debunkers of same, in what Carl Sagan deemed our “Demon-Haunted World.” So far, the debunkers are losing ground. Exposing phony psychics and spiritists just about an obligation for a sufficiently seasoned magician. Harry Houdini started this tradition, which has been followed more or less by James Randi, whose offer of a million dollars to prove any paranormal claim never got cashed in, and Penn & Teller, through their hit docu-series TV show Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.
There is no doubt in the present author’s mind that the Ghost Club bristles are the comparison between them and the movie Ghostbusters. But come on, they’re clearly heard worse!