Ghost stories: Ghosts in the machine


18 October 2022
Alex Davis explores the intersection of supernatural tales and technology

This November sees the first running of Winter Haunts, an online day focusing on ghost stories, Gothic and supernatural fiction. Running on the 6th November, the event draws together a superb line-up of speakers, including Sarah Waters, Paul Tremblay, Dacre Stoker, Stephen Volk and many more. With interviews, workshops, panels and talks, this promises to be a must-see event for readers and writers in the genre. You can find out more here.

To celebrate the event, we’ll take a look at the ghost story in a number of special articles from event organiser – and Writing Magazine's speculative fiction expert – Alex Davis.

Before attaching the title Winter Haunts, this particular event was known provisionally as Ghosts in the Machine – which may not have been a terrible title in its own right. The idea has become something of a shorthand for that intersection between spirits and technology, a concept that has started to be explored in recent years as advances in both science and computing have moved along apace.

Of course the likes of Sheridan Le Fanu and MR James would never have predicted this, nor did they have the chance to incorporate it into their stories. It’s hard to know how they would have felt about it either. And, as much as I love the traditional ghost story, I’m also very much fascinated by the idea of how we can modernise the form by incorporating technological elements – and there are numerous fascinating instances we can call upon to look at.

Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape certainly stands out as an early example of this, and while the film itself holds up well the technology is already 50 years out of date. And we have started to see more haunted devices over time – movies like Ringu (haunted VHS tape), Shutter (haunted camera) and Cell or One Missed Call (haunted mobile phone) have started to do some of this work, I’m left with the overriding impression that there’s much more ground to cover here, and I think authors and filmmakers will be going in that direction ever more.

For me, what makes the idea of technology being somehow inhabited by ghosts is that technology is ubiquitous in 2022. It inveigles its way into our every waking moment. You’re probably reading this on a computer, or on a phone. You might be listening to music or a podcast streaming or downloaded online. There’s a Portal in my house that I’ve never quite gotten on with – something about the way it follows you around with the camera, or ‘wakes up’ when you enter a room, doesn’t sit quite right with me. We invite technology into our lives, and how would many of us live without it? I personally need it to do my work, let alone the entertainment angle of things. And if that tech were to be haunted, what would we do? Maybe some people would rather live with ghosts than without their iPhones…

Of course maybe there’s a sense that ghosts and technology don’t quite click together, but haunted artefacts have long been part of horror and ghost story fiction. O Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, leaps out as an obvious example – so why shouldn’t said artefact be a phone or a computer? Interestingly, the idea is well examined in the realm of creepypasta, which makes sense given its internet origins. Check out a classic like Ben Drowned, featuring a haunted video game cartridge, on YouTube and you’ll see what I mean.

Ghosts are a universal theme – everyone has read or heard a ghost story, be it supposedly true or very clearly fictional. Equally technology is universal, something almost everyone has in some form or other. The two perhaps dovetail better than you think – in the same way a haunting may never leave us, so it may be with technology.

Jason Arnopp’s Ghoster is a written example that I love, but why not many more to come? Imagine a ghost existing in the ether of social media, carrying on posting long after the person’s death. Imagine a final phone call before death being repeated over and over, a call you simply can’t block for an unknown number. Imagine websites selling hauntings to users who believe they are just going for a thrill ride, but winding up in something genuinely supernatural. Imagine cryptic codes found on the dark web being cracked and releasing ancient curses. The possibilities – like the use of technology itself – is virtually endless.

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Like in all ghost stories, it will be important consider just what the interplay is between the ghost and the tech – what are the rules that you as a writer will create and then stick to? If you can conjure that up, there’s no reason you couldn’t create the next big story aligning these two elements.








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