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It sometimes appears that Hollywood has predicted the future, with events of our world having already been featured in movies, often with more aesthetically pleasing actors.
How this happens is a mystery, as there are no divinations or supernatural forces at work. Instead, it is a strange outcome of the narratives crafted by the film industry to attract an audience.
Before the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, how many times had terrorists struck Manhattan on the silver screen? Similarly, how many viral outbreaks had we already seen in films prior to the coronavirus pandemic?
As governments scrambled to contain COVID-19, their actions were reminiscent of pandemic films such as Contagion (2011) and Outbreak (1995).
It seems that, yet again, Hollywood had prepped our minds for what was to come, making the events of 2020, though unwelcome, familiar.
We ventured inside, and found screens had taken over our day. It wasn’t long before we were looking at grids of faces in a grainy, low-contrast light.
Video conferencing had an equalizing effect, making the most star-studded shows and family birthdays nearly indistinguishable in their awkwardness. People we once saw in person had now become digital images, competing with emails and Netflix.
These digital images were everywhere, and no longer just strange or creepy but also sad and monotonous. The sadness was contradictory: one yearned to see their friends and family, though they were always visible on the screen.
Seeing them, but not being with them. Presence, as rare as it is, had been condensed into a bunch of pixels.
For the past two decades, horror movie producers have been releasing films featuring ghosts using digital connections to haunt teenagers.
Titles such as Unfriended (2014), Friend Request (2016), and Cam (2018) are being released almost as frequently as software updates. These films typically have similar storylines, involving a suicide, disappearance, or rumor that is not as it appears.
Ghosts, demons, and even Satan lurk in the network. The purer genres are shot entirely with webcams or cameras designed to mimic webcams and use a grid format similar to video conferencing apps.
These films often contain hot-button topics such as teen suicide and cyberbullying, as well as jump-scares like “The ghost is right behind you!”
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 movie Pulse is widely recognized as the genesis of the “haunted internet” genre. It is often likened to Rosemary’s Baby (1968) for its singular poetic horror, and it inspired countless derivatives, remakes, and sequels.
This movie follows the story of a hacker who commits suicide and then leads to a realm of the dead that is overflowing into the present day Tokyo.
The film progresses to show characters receiving phone calls from beyond the grave, and the city gradually being emptied of its inhabitants as it is taken over by the afterlife.
Eventually, the few who remain must attempt to escape to South America by boat.
Pulse may lack sense, but this is not of importance. The movie uses atmosphere to surpass logic, and with it, the line “Instead, they’ll try to make people immortal by quietly trapping them in their own loneliness” takes on a significance of its own.
Pulse portrays the internet as a dreary environment that houses specters, as well as a space that is finite and liable to overflow into reality.
Every scene in the film is charged with a sense of loneliness that propagates like a virus.
This type of loneliness is also conveyed through the act of viewing: people observing others on screens, which in turn are being viewed by the characters, and with the audience as the last link in that chain.
There is an instance in which a character is looking at a monitor, and can see themselves from the back, which creates a self-referential loop of solitary surveillance.
Nowadays, it is difficult to overlook the premonitory nature of Kurosawa’s films. People are self-isolating within their homes, surrounded by mess.
Single, isolated deaths take place behind closed doors. Spent hours in front of computer screens observing other isolated individuals.
News bulletins with the faces of anonymous dead; each depicted with a smiling portrait. Towns void of people, hushed by a viral outbreak, with those remaining left feeling like the last human beings on the planet.
It is essential to modify the structure of the text without altering the semantic meaning or the context in order to eliminate any form of plagiarism.
It is not difficult to understand why our communication networks could be associated with the supernatural and life after death.
Ghostly presences have been a part of these networks since the beginning of the telegraph in America, which developed in tandem with the spiritualism movement.
The invention and growth of the electric telegraph was driven by a wish for communication–with the living and the dead–and both were hopeful investments in the future of the nation.
Spiritualism, which rose from the same untamed range of New York counties that introduced Mormonism, Adventism, and Millerism to the United States, was a progressivist movement.
It was mainly composed of white, educated men and women from the middle and upper classes who were disappointed with Protestantism’s conservatism and male domination. They were resolute in their mission to abolish slavery and give women the right to vote.
Political radicals of African descent, including Sojourner Truth, were also part of the spiritualist movement and spent a decade in the utopian spiritualist community, Harmonia.
Spiritualism was one of the only movements in 19th century America that was led by women; more of its writers, artists, and mediums–the latter being extremely famous and in demand–were female than male.
Historian Ann Braude has also demonstrated that spiritualism’s stages and seance tables were among the few places women could have their voices heard in America at the time.
However, it was paradoxical that at these places, women weren’t always using their own voices, as it was said that trance mediums were instead conveying the voices of dead men.
At the time, death was rampant; kids were dying young, slavery was devastating African-American lives and families were decimated by illnesses that could have been prevented.
Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady, held séances at the White House’s Red Room and the President was present at some of them. By 1890, 45,000 US citizens had joined a spiritualist society, although it is thought that the number of adherents was higher.
Americans of the time were introducing telegrams and telephone calls, which seemed like magic to the educated.
For the first time, the world could share information with each other quickly over long distances. Spiritualism used “spiritual telegraph” as a metaphor, but James V. Mansfield, referred to as “the spirit-postmaster,” seemed to be using it literally.
During his seances, he would spasm as if he had an electric charge running through him, and then tap out letters in an efficient manner. This was called a “human telegraph.”
Spiritualism had no defining text or organized theology, yet it was a form of communication. Its broad aim was to provide contact with the afterlife.
By the beginning of the 20th century, a variety of supernatural communication methods were employed, such as table rappings, talking boards, automatic writing, spirit slates, trances, and even some machines.
These practices had been used for centuries and the latest scientific knowledge relating to electricity and chemistry were often referenced.
Investigators were encouraged to be skeptical, and some of America’s most prestigious scientists, like Thomas Watson, an assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, were members of the movement.
Each Sunday in 1875, Watson and his comrade George Phillips would meet up to partake in a “spirit circle”.
The table they were sitting around would move and make noises in response to the questions they asked, which Watson believed to be the work of an “invisible spirit”. Later on, John Raymond, who was soon to become the Mayor of Salem, Massachusetts, joined them.
Rather than sticking to the rappings, the trio began to practice ventriloquism, with Raymond being the center of attention one time.
He started convulsing and, it appears, in preparation for his mayoral role, he gave a thirty-minute oration, supposedly from a dead speaker.
Watson found himself in a perplexing situation, as his simultaneous endeavors – being the invention of the telephone and the seances – caused a paradoxical mix-up between electricity and the supernatural world.
Later on, he wrote of the seances: “I was utilizing that covert power, electricity, and here was an opportunity to make some discoveries.
I was certain spiritual beings would not be able to scare an electrician, and they might assist the electrician in his work.” Notice the inversion: electricity was the veritable supernatural science, one that might explain the spirits away while likewise aiding the electrician in his scientific work.
Throughout the night, Watson was occupied with “attentively listening to the mysterious sounds from the telephone and attempting to explain their origin.”
He detected clicks, abrasive noises, and a chirping that resembled that of a bird. At that time, there was yet to be any scientific theories about electrical interference, so he theorized that the noises originated from outer space.
As Avital Ronell wrote in The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, Watson “created a new way of perceiving… [he was] the first person to truly listen to noise.”
Ronell is referring to electrical noise, or static, when they use the term ‘noise’. Thomas Watson was one of the first to pay attention to static, believing he could hear extraterrestrial voices.
In the 20th century, people began to explore this sound and search for hidden messages within it, sometimes as a joke, but often to uncover a greater meaning.
The telephone would be a major source of interruption in the coming century. Everywhere, it would break the peace of evenings and conversations and reading time.
Proximity and distance no longer had the same meaning. One could be contacted by anyone, including those they had tried to forget, or even the dead. Reports of such occurrences had been around since at least the nineteenth century.
For example, in 1878 The New York Sun wrote about a bell that was ringing in a cemetery office by itself. In 1907 there was a rumor of a haunted phone exchange in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where a night operator had died two years prior.
The January 1933 edition of the Telephone and Telegraph Journal featured a subscriber who had their phone fixed, but the gossip of a haunted house started up afterwards.
The narrative of a haunted telephone appears to have begun with Elliott O’Donnell’s 1934 story “The Haunted Telephone”.
In it, a rural doctor discovers that his identity has become entwined with his vanished predecessor following an unexpected phone call. This is one of the earliest works to explore the idea of telecommunication causing confusion between the past and the present.
Nigel Kneale’s 1954 BBC radio play, You Must Listen, is also said to have been inspired by the urban legends that circulated in the press.
This play follows the story of a solicitor’s office receiving a phone call from a woman delivering a sexual monologue, with no other voice responding.
The woman is revealed to be a mistress whose lover is refusing to leave his wife, leading to her eventual suicide and the haunting of the line.
Mario Bava’s three-part film Black Sabbath (1963) also contains an episode involving the voice of a deceased ex-boyfriend haunting a woman’s phone.
Additionally, the same year Richard Matheson adapted his short story “Long Distance Call” for a Twilight Zone episode (“Night Call”).
In this adaptation, an elderly woman receives calls from her late husband, before hearing his voice she hears static on the other end of the line.
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In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1965 short story “Dial F for Frankenstein,” the phone network is depicted as a living being. Set in 1975, which was the near future at the time, the narrative reveals a day in which all the phones on the planet start ringing simultaneously as a kind of global prank call.
Those who answer the call are met with a sound that can be compared to that of a roaring sea or the vibrations of harp strings in the wind.
Nevertheless, the sound that predominates is that of the sea, which many recognize as the “secret sound of childhood” when one puts a conch shell to their ear.
A conversation was taking place at a cafe near the Post Office Research Station in London, where a group of engineers were trying to figure out what caused the phone call.
They speculated it could be a power surge or the recent satellite launch, which was meant to link all phone networks.
The group’s resident sci-fi writer had another suggestion: since Alexander Graham Bell first introduced the telephone, it has been regarded as a large brain with each switch serving as a neuron.
Could the satellite launch have triggered the switches to create a critical level of connectivity, causing the phone network to come alive like a newborn searching for nourishment?
The lights flicker as the two engineers talk, and then a jet passes by low in the sky.
Quickly afterward, a fire alarm starts ringing, and one of them finds a bank receipt with a single employee having nearly a billion pounds.
A newspaper is opened, though the words appear as mere gibberish. The two then speculate if the new “supermind” is still in its infancy and is searching for electricity while creating mayhem.
A BBC report confirms that all over the planet there have been failures, missiles launched, and stock exchanges shut down. Furthermore, the communications satellites have become autonomous and cannot be turned off.
Ultimately, the BBC signal goes quiet, leaving the engineers to ponder if humanity is at its last gasp.
When the story came out, readers of Clarke’s work would not have envisioned a fire alarm being linked to the same system producing a newspaper.
At the time, the internet had not been invented, and telecommunications networks were an esoteric concept. Tim Berners-Lee, originator of the World Wide Web, claimed his reading of Clarke’s story during his childhood years motivated him to create the Web.
However, considering the story’s conclusion is a cataclysm, it is difficult to understand why anyone would have wanted to imitate it.
Decades before Pulse, “Dial F for Frankenstein” envisioned a network that traversed beyond its boundaries, causing destruction to those who created it.
Unlike other tales, the network itself was alive, yet unable to speak. Its calls to the world were without a spirit or presence. There was only the line, mute and soulless.
Friedrich Kittler, the German media theorist, was passionate about collecting mysterious, soundless calls that sounded like the ocean or the roar of a conch shell.
As documented in his book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, there is a story of a dream Kafka had where he discovers two telephone receivers, or Ohrmuschel (“listening shells”), on a bridge.
When he picks up the phone, he asks for news of someone named Pontus and hears “a sorrowful, strong, wordless song and the roar of the ocean”.
Despite realizing that it was impossible for human voices to be responsible for the noises, Kafka refused to give up and leave.
Kittler delves into early modern literature, from Kafka to Maurice Renard’s 1907 short story, to explore the analogy of a static-like sea sound.
In this tale, a composer and his companion, grieving from the passing of several members of their dinner party, interchange between playing a recording of their departed friends and putting their ear to a seashell.
One of them queries: “What if this ear-shaped mollusk stored the noises it heard at a significant moment–perhaps the suffering of mollusks? And what if the coral lips of its shell transmitted it like a graphophone?”
Kittler later addresses another vanished short story, “Goethe Speaks into the Phonograph,” composed by Salomo Friedlaender, a.k.a. Mynona.
The story’s premise is that vocal sounds and air vibrations never completely vanish: “These air vibrations meet obstructions and are reverberated, diminishing in strength over time, but not vanishing completely.”
The professor protagonist in the story is convinced that if the right contraption is created, it can retrieve the noises from the past, essentially bringing anyone back to life. His first subject of experimentation?
None other than the founder of German literature, Goethe.
Following a pilgrimage to Goethe’s grave, the professor connected a phonograph and microphone to a realistic artificial larynx modeled after the writer’s.
He then put the device on a tripod close to where Goethe’s mouth would have been located in his study.
There, the professor and his onlookers heard the writer in conversation with Johann Peter Eckermann about Newton’s theory of color.
Kittler’s invention of voice recording revolutionized how we think of media and its powers; it allowed us to capture not only the sign of a thing, but its physical trace.
Although Kittler was not particularly interested in spiritualism, a cluster of theories proposed the idea that no image or sound is ever lost.
This is similar to the present-day digital age, in which cloud storage and Time Machine backups make it possible to recover the past.
All that is necessary is either an ingenious machine, such as an artificial larynx and phonograph, or a supernatural talent that enables a person to reclaim the past.
At the time, Annie Denton Cridge asserted that she was one such individual. Little is known about her nowadays.
The evidence that has remained is her spiritualist magazine, The Vanguard; her autobiographical books, such as My Soul ‘s Thraldom and Its Deliverance; and the few references that have been found in records.
She was born in England in 1825 and went to the USA with her brother, the geologist William Denton, in the 1840s. By the age of twenty-three she was a writer, an autobiographer, and a socialist.
She was also a sorrowful mother who had perceived her baby’s spirit to ascend from its body and be welcomed by its passed away grandparents.
From then on, Cridge was a passionate spiritualist and held the ability to observe ghosts.
Cridge was allegedly a “psychometrist” according to her brother. The term was coined by Joseph Rodes Buchanan, a physician and her brother’s employer.
This term comes from the Greek for “soul measuring” and Buchanan believed that certain people had the ability to learn something about an object’s history by just touching it.
He documented experiments to prove that those with “acute sensibility” could read sealed letters without opening them and could produce a mental image of the owner of a written autograph.
Buchanan felt that this science could revolutionize many aspects of life and even lead to the reconstruction of all of human creation.
In his 1885 publication Manual of Psychometry: The Dawn of a New Civilization, Buchanan does not mention Annie Cridge, though her brother devotes several chapters of his 1863 book, Nature ‘s Secrets: Or, Psychometric Researches, to her and her sister-in-law Elizabeth.
William Denton presents the two with several rocks and fossils, and each woman recounts the objects’ stories with detail.
Annie is presented with limestone from near the Missouri River, and she envisions a hill and river. Elizabeth is given tufa from near Vesuvius, and she sees a violent eruption.
Psychometry’s starting point is touch, but its main sense is vision.
When the women profess their abilities, they typically say “I see…” William’s book on spiritualism begins with the idea that memories, even those we can’t recall, can be brought back later.
He then suggests that objects can retain impressions of the environment around them, in a similar fashion as a daguerreotype.
The author suggests that radiant forces are always present, registering images of the objects around them and that Annie and Elizabeth’s brains are sensitive enough to perceive those forces when they come in contact with the objects.
Denton’s work characterizes history in a manner similar to a photograph or film.
What is noteworthy in these writings is not their scientific accuracy, but rather how he unintentionally predicted the invention of film cameras.
When Cridge and Elizabeth share their visions, they are static and resemble paintings, however, their language hints at motion such as when Vesuvian lava enters the sea.
Denton’s writing resembles a kind of cinema prior to its invention, as history is seen as a phantasmagoria.
Long before Orwell and other surveillance organizations, the world is portrayed as a giant recording device with comprehensive information awareness.
The writer of the lost radio play, Nigel Kneale, incorporated these concepts into his cult TV show The Stone Tape which was featured on BBC in 1972. It told a peculiar story of a ghost being projected from the stone wall of an old building.
This ghostly figure of a lady seemed to fall from the same staircase over and over, as if caught in an inescapable loop. A group of scientists figured out that the wall itself was like a tape that kept replaying the same image.
It took a century for Denton’s ideas to find their ultimate destination in this show, the first to be filmed entirely on video. It revealed the afterlife as a space where a person’s image is destined to replay endlessly.
Film has been a consistent medium for spiritualism, with stories often repeating the same themes.
In movies like The Uninvited (1944), The Changeling (1980), and Hereditary (2018), seances and psychometric visions, child ghosts and mysterious chalkboard messages are frequently featured.
On occasion, the complexity of the movement is captured, as in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016).
However, generally Hollywood strips spiritualism of it’s politics, and reduces it to an eccentricity with a Christianized message warning against the dangers of Ouija boards and the presence of the Devil.
Though films like Pulse retain some elements of spiritualism’s theories of communication, these visions have become much darker.
Jeffrey Sconce notes that optimism concerning technology has been replaced by mid-century fears of the dead haunting and sabotaging.
Now, digital technology makes archives of the past more accessible than ever.
However, this does not mean that it can be retrieved free from worry and fear. The real question is how to keep the past in the past.
One way to avoid plagiarism is to alter the structure of the text without changing the overall context or meaning.
This can be done by making alterations to the syntax, phrasing, and sentence order.
Doing so ensures that the content remains original while still conveying the same meaning.
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