Confessions about Confessions of Ghost Hunters

There are three books that are explicitly titled “Confessions of a Ghost Hunter” – from 1928, 1936 and 2002.

There is also one called “Confessions of a Reluctant Ghost Hunter” by Von Braschler (2014) that I confess I didn’t read. A defunct Facebook page and website also of the same name appears to be related. Several other media also nab this title in some form or another to the point where it’s getting stale, like just another ghost reality TV show. But I’m here to compare the three books.

I read them in order of popularity today: Price’s first which is also the most substantial and the superior of the lot. Then Taylor’s, who was (maybe still is) popular with the modern amateur ghost hunting community. Finally, O’Donnells, which is nearly forgotten or even unknown by today’s paranormal researchers.

I’ll introduce them in chronological order because I think they say something about ghost hunting over time.

Elliott O’Donnell (1872 – 1965)

O’Donnell’s original book is out of print. I have a reprint with very large text making it strange to read.

Born in Bristol, U.K, he was proud of his Irish heritage. His relatives were also interested in ghosts and the book contains many stories of them including the fact that the family has their own banshee. O’Donnell claims to be psychic and to have also seen fairies. References to his ancestors are prevalent in the book which is written with fascinating descriptions and elegant language. The many stories are unconfirmed and certainly seem embellished for dramatic effect. He quotes dialogue word for word, a level of detail I find difficult to accept as entirely accurate. Curiously, he also suggests other stories may not be all that reliable as if to bolster the credibility of those he does not disclaim.

The book is a good bit travelogue from an early part of his life including coming to the US. He provides engaging tales and impressions of the American West, specifically Sacramento and San Francisco. He relates the harrowing tale of being lost in the Cascades of Oregon. There are many sections of the book that relate not at all to ghost hunting. But I still enjoyed reading it very much.

Many did think that O’Donnell exaggerated his tales with some fictional flair. He also wrote fiction, dozens of nonfiction books on strange claims, as well as many articles about ghost legends and other mysteries. Chris Romer is a current paranormal researcher who recognizes O’Donnell as being a key writer and investigator of spontaneous cases. But even he admits “with O’Donnell it is hard to know exactly what to believe, and it may well be that some of his American exploits are as fictitious as his later ghost stories!”

Romer also notes that information on O’Donnell is scarce so his stories must speak for themselves.

It’s logical that this book was followed by its namesake written by Harry Price.

Harry Price (1881 – 1948)

A contemporary of O’Donnell, Price lays claim to the title of the first modern “Ghost Hunter” and he is justified in that. His popularity and influence, if not-so-stellar reputation, is still with us today. Maybe a reader will know if Price lifted the title of his book from O’Donnell’s.

The copy of his Confessions that I have is from 1974, a time when supernatural topics were experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Thus, this book was re-popularized. In the introduction to this edition, Michael Lord writes that “Harry Price was the greatest scientific investigator of psychical phenomena of all time.” However, the intro goes to (almost comical) lengths by crowing about the wonderfulness of Uri Geller and that Price was key to making the paranormal respectable.

Price, also from England, was a member of the prestigious Magic Circle of magicians, so he knew how tricks were done. Even though he exposed fake mediums and thought much of their acts were ridiculous, he still expressed the belief that he had witnessed genuine psychic abilities. He founded the first laboratory in Britain for the scientific study of such phenomena and was a great promoter in the media of psychic reality.

In testing mediums, Price was often impressed by the evidence and sought a consistent explanation. This was not forthcoming.

Price was the first, I think, to establish the concept of the ghost hunting “kit”. Long before high-tech ghost gadgetry, his collection was utilitarian and practical: soft felt overshoes, measuring tape, seals and a sealing tool, tape, tools and nails, small electric bells, batteries and switches, camera with film and flashbulbs and infrared filters, notebooks, color pencils, first aid supplies, string, chalk, matches, and flashlight and candle. Charming, isn’t it? Weird to us today is the inclusion of brandy (for settling nerves, perhaps), a bowl of mercury to detect tremors (unavailable and considered toxic today) and something called a “hank of flex” of which I have no guess about. (This list is contained in a footnote on p 31.)

Price understood that there were many natural causes attributed to ghosts and that faked phenomena were also prevalent. He warned others to be critical and to not say that measurements from instruments were evidence of ghosts. Imagination and the environment could lead to mistaken interpretations. He repeatedly warned to be wary of outright frauds.

His night stake-outs at places got public attention, which he obviously relished. This book explains his take on many of his most famous cases including Gef the Talking Mongoose, the Borley Rectory (which is not named outright in the chapter and does not mention his major investigation there that became another book), and the exposure of several mediums including the controversial Rudy Schneider. On page 169, he expresses his exasperation with the latter process by saying, “I was sick to death of exposing mediums”.

Price has been characterized as being arrogant and self-serving. I struggled to make sense of why he asserts some of these events were genuine while others were clearly faked. Price’s later career continued to be controversial as he was accused of exaggeration and fakery. He had a stormy relationship with psychical researchers in the field at the time. But that aspect of his life is not in this book as it occurs mostly after the publication date. Now those would have been some interesting confessions!

As with O’Donnell’s book, Price’s autobiographical ramblings stray from the realm of ghost hunting. The last chapter is entitled “How I brought fire walking to England”. Ok, then…

Price wrote at least 12 other books by my count and truly was a giant in the field, like him or not.

Troy Taylor (1966- )

After having two big names in the history of the field choose the same title, I found it presumptuous for Taylor to do so as well. Troy Taylor capitalized on the paranormal craze of the late 90s by establishing himself early as an (amateur) expert, founding the American Ghost Society. Using his own publishing house as well as other small presses, he has been a prolific author focusing heavily on Illinois and Chicago areas and the topic of “haunted history”. Most of these books appear to be collections of anecdotes aimed to serve the paranormal tourism audience. With over 120 books to his credit, he appears to aim for quantity.

He states that this book subtitled “Adventures and misadventures in ghost research” was not meant to be a retrospective but to show how events shaped his ideas about the field. Many fledgling ghost hunters in the early 2000s considered Troy a teacher and his ghost hunting guide book was cited by many as their handbook.

Taylor is certainly well-read in this subject and has consulted historical sources, but I don’t find his writing to be compelling. The book is missing a coherent goal (although you could say that for all three of the choices) and screams for a decent editor. The language is weak, unpolished, and slightly amateurish with extra padding and long tangents. He spends nine pages telling of the history of the Gettysburg battle. If I wanted this, I’d consult a history book; it has nothing to do with ghost hunting and is out of place here. The book includes play-by-play relating of the case stories peppered with rhetorical questions (“Or was it?”) or exclamations (“I was followed up the stairs by one of the theater’s resident ghosts!”) I find this tiresome and corny. Interspersed are sections of “ghost hunting information” for readers to follow if they are making efforts to do-it-themselves. These “best practices” sections seem as out of place as the bat motifs that sloppily festoon each chapter heading like ink blots. It’s just not a quality volume.

Taylor admits Harry Price was an inspiration: “my entire idea of conducting ghost investigations has been gleaned from Harry Price.” He even mentions Price’s version of Confessions – the comparison makes me cringe. Having worked with TV crews, Taylor makes a game attempt to provide good advice for those who wish to be like TV’s Ghost Hunters. I was dumbfounded that the book lacked a conclusion it so sorely needed to wrap it together. This omission reinforced the fact that the intent of the book was misguided.

I can’t believe I’m saying this but I wish that the modern revisiting of Price’s book would have been done by Jason Hawes (in about 5 years) when he reveals the truth of what all went on for 11 seasons of TV Ghost Hunters. I would read that and it would do justice to the title. Besides that wishful thought, I hope no one else attempts to join this Confessions club. That’s more than enough. I am “sick to death” of reading ghost hunter autobiographical volumes.

In conclusion, none of the books live up to their inflated title. But I would recommend reading Price, then continuing with Price’s other books for a better sense of the origins of ghost hunting in the media age. Read O’Donnell for the sheer joy of charming stories. Skip Taylor’s forgettable version altogether.

In these three examples, I saw an exhibition of ego ubiquitous in paranormal celebrities. Ghost hunting, these men suggest to us in their distinct voices, is such a special calling that it requires secrets to be kept by those who do it. It’s not some occult practice. What needs to be confessed? Do they think they are giving their audience a gift with their “confessions”? Ironically, none of these books confess to anything except the writers’ various degrees of hubris and vanity. Ghost hunting, now more than ever, is about getting into the public sphere and being noticed. Price succeeded worldwide, Taylor did in a small circle, O’Donnell did it first. So many ghost hunting crews keep trying to reach a state of popularity as if that is the ultimate measure of success. What happened to a progress of useful knowledge? Ghost hunters should confess that, after all this time, they have given us little of actual value in explaining what ghosts are and why they remain an integral part of human society. These guys just tell stories.

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