C.A.S.P.E.R Research Center

The Road Taken Back...To the Present: Memory and Performance in Ghost Research

Media/Press Announcements

There are many routes leading back to the past. These include memory, historical narrative, relics or artifacts, and material remains of past cultures. Another approach, mostly neglected and/or relegated as impossible (by many) is the investigation of hauntings, specifically those investigations that are performance-based.


The routes, mentioned above, are synthesized in a performance-based symmetrical investigation which leads from the present back to a presence through reflective resonance of an individual (or collective) past. The awareness of a past is founded on memory. Yet, our inventory of stored memories is continually in a state of flux: we add, delete, and change. These memories are characterized by two things:

         We retain these set of memories in the present; yet they concern the past;

         These memories may or may not be consciously remembered.


These characteristics are symmetrically-related. An example of this would be the habitual activities that we perform “routinely” on a daily basis (riding a bicycle or driving a car, walking, eating).


The use of performance strategies is a method that uses a process to recall those memories that are still retained, but unconsciously may be forgotten. Since memory is a personal experience, most memories end at physical death. Those that remain are called “hauntings”. As in life, so in death, these memories are “remembered” and can be recalled through sensory stimuli in the form of a “triggering” mechanism ( a trigger object or activity). These create heightened recollections which help to bring the past (historical present of the ghost) not only “back to life”, but also into a social relationship with the present, and those present. Of course, this potential social relationship occurs with an interactive entity, not a residual manifestation.


Each type of memory, as recall, has its own relation to the past of a ghost. Residuals are “instrumental memory”, lacking involvement. “Reverie” recalls particular feelings, and forms the fragments of a haunt drama. “Total Recall” is the haunt drama, relived almost as if it was still occurring (and it is). This last type of memory recall is the investigative goal of a performance-based methodology. Repetitive events and activities merge in recall, adding to the symmetrical mix of the physical space at a haunted location.


A haunt drama is based on two characteristics of memory recall:

         Intensity of initial experience: We remember and recall those events, activities, and perceptions of/at a location that were “striking”, tending, at the same time, to exaggerate the original feelings. The same is true of a ghostly presence. The emotional recall of the original event is highly emotional, thus altering the environmental atmospherics of the physical space in which the event and/or activity is being recalled;

         Interactions between “bleeding” and “suppression”: Because of the aforementioned “exaggerations” (emotionally-charged spaces), we tend to suppress other, less intense, feelings and memories of a event and activity. This memory inventory (and its recall) is constantly changing, as our experience at still other locations (or more recent experiences at the same location) continues to grow.  New experiences also reshape those previously remembered ones.


The haunt drama, itself, is based on this: if we see, hear, feel something (exceptional or unusual), we are likely to remember it for a long time, even after physical death. Haunt dramas are the recall of these types of remembered experiences, most of which occur as non-interacting residuals or fragments in contemporary space.


Through performance-based investigative activities, the memory retrieval of the past drama of an interactive entity is accomplished. The events and activities of a once-living human are recalled by association ( a certain scent, melody, activity, etc.) and, in the case of the ghost, this association is through the use of “trigger” objects. These “trigger” objects, and associated activities, are re-contextualized by the investigator in such a way that the recall is not a traumatic memory of an experience lived. The recollected past of the ghost, and the performance are contextual. If we assume that interactive entities retain the same ability for situational personalities as they had in life, then the kind of person (ghost) one may be in a certain context is quite different from the kind of person (ghost) one might be in another. These contextual situational circumstances are themselves “events” in which different social forces and interests come into play and are influential in the type and amount of interaction that is possible during the investigation. This is the most important element missing in most EVP recordings. Since EVP assumes an interactive entity, the non-application of situational relational principles (such as the use of such phrases as “Is there anyone there…? , or the command, “Do something for us!”) label the speaker as an outsider and stranger, and shows a lack of respect for social identity (even to a dead person). This is what produces “silence” (“ghostspeak”) in ghost investigations. In performance-based investigations, EVP is used in conjunction with the structured and framed sequence of activities, and are relative to the context in which the haunting drama occurs.


The use of “rehearsal” performances form constraints on social interaction but, at the same time, enable communicative action to occur by providing a situational relevance with an identifiable image (memory). These rehearsals are a way of looking for the mechanisms of transactions between people. Many times one hears that, because it was an investigation, “nothing happened”. That is the nature of an asymmetrical approach: either wait for something to happen or be engaged in such a way that prevents communication to take place. The result is, in most cases, the “silences” of “ghostspeak” (the lack of a defined social identity). In a symmetrical approach, advocated here, objects, in the form of sensory manifestations, reflect emotional and experienced memory states, and thus can be understood as “people” (though physically dead), since both the living and the dead are constituted through the same processes of reflection. In a performance, one reveals oneself, and oneself to others. One group of human beings may come to know themselves – and one possible future – through observing and participating in performances that were generated by another individual or group from the past. This reflection reveals a past that is present, and a present that leads toward the past.


Recall is the process of “summoning back” to awareness an experienced situation. The ability to do this in performance-based activities is based on “emic soundness”, the ability to stimulate the memory to remember a past contextual situation or a particular experience. “Trigger” objects, that are culturally-contextual, are one method of recall. Memory, in living entities, is a persistent modification of behavior as a result of continuing experience. Ghostly memory, on the other hand, is based on a set of historically-present recalls affecting the continuation of a past event that is permanently set. These ghostly memories may take various forms:

  • Remembrance: these are specific acts of recall, embodied and manifesting in more than one sensory mode, and stimulated by “mementos” (“target objects”);
  • Recollection: this is limited to a specific recall, which is deliberate and practical, not sentimental. This can take the form of an habitual activity;
  • Reminiscence: this is a pleasurable, casual recall of an intimacy. This could be a fondness for a particular location or activity;
  • Retrospect: this is a purposeful recall, often evaluative. This could be related to a tragedy or a dramatic event in the life of the dead individual, and the source why many ghosts have not “crossed-over”.


What this basic analysis of memory teaches us is that all historical events (and memories of them) are symmetrically subjective, and affect relations to other more contemporary memories of experiences, events, and activities. Our sense of the past, and particularly hauntings as past events, comes from the everyday things we see and do. One of the prominent means to sense this past is through audio recordings. We have access to sounds of the past, yet all of them can be part of the present. This is the symmetry of space, and non-linear personal history.


To recognize a haunting, we must compare circumstances, perceptions, and sensory stimuli which, unlike those of the present, are not too dissimiliar (supernatural or paranormal). This recall is situational, spatially-specific, and depends upon how far back our memory extends of/at a particular location. We also have to separate our personal “memory ruins” from the archaeological fragments of a different past (haunting). This separation is based on the identification of contextual artifacts (sensory manifestations) from our personal “ruins” (fragments of past memories) and those of the historical past (fragments of ghostly memories). Thus, the types/levels of “ruins” exist simultaneously, both individually and collectively, in the past and the present. This is the symmetry of space at a haunted location: a contemporary entity as investigator, a past entity as ghost, a contemporary dramatic performance (the ritual of investigation) directed toward a still performing drama from the past.


The significance and relativity of a haunting is based on (and certainly demands) engagements with previous experiences, one’s own and those of the other “presence”. This is all based on memory, history, and comparative associations (our “ruins” vs. theirs), Yet, as time distances events and “clouds” memory, these experiences in living functioning beings give way to history. The same cannot be said for the dead. They sense no history, because their memory recalls an unchanging experience of their own history. This is the difference between memory as “nostalgia”, and memory as “haunt behavior”, between ruins of remembrances and “past artifacts” (anomalous sensory manifestations), both re-occurring in the present.


The performance is an investigative “ghost dance” in that, like the Native American rituals of the late 19th c., it is an invocation for a return (a recall) to a former condition: the memory of a physically-dead individual. Performance enhances knowledge of the past by diminishing the efforts needed for recall, and does provide a key “cross-over” mechanism. In this symmetry of past and present, the key is memory, which, in the end, is an exit strategy out of the “liminal space” of a “ghostly existence”. It should be used, as Hans Holzer has stated, with “compassion and understanding”. For we (all of us) are the “ghosts within”.

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