Many modern day conveniences are electronic in nature. These devices, such as cell phones, computers, stereos and televisions, are not only useful; they are also testaments to the triumph of science and technology. Ingenuity and reason have given us capabilities far beyond anything that we have naturally. Yet the popular imagination connects the fruits of that labor with the supernatural.
There are two prominent ways in which the supernatural is connected to electronics. First, there is a claimed connection between electromagnetism and ghosts. Ghost hunters are fond of claiming that ghosts create electromagnetic radiation or consist of electromagnetic energy. See, for example the repeated claims made on Ghost Hunters.
Second, a direct connection between electronic devices and the supernatural is often asserted. The most common form of this claim is the so-called EVP or electronic voice phenomena. These occur when individuals claim that supernatural entities, especially spirits of the departed, communicate through the static in electronic devices.
EVP, despite their obvious pareidolic nature, are taken seriously by many people. See for example the American Association of Electronic Voice Phenomena . EVP also is common in movies and other elements of popular culture. White Noise, for example, is about using EVP to communicate with the departed.
Many similar ideas exist in popular culture that are not precisely EVP but are similar. One Missed Call is about a vengeful ghost that travels from cell phone to cell phone, killing each owner and then moving onto another number listed on that phone. The Ring is about a cursed videotape which kills anyone who watches it.
In many other movies, the presence of the supernatural manifests itself with interference with electronics, causing static or causing lights to flicker. In many films, ghosts appear on videotapes even when they cannot be seen with the naked eye. This is related to the idea that photographs can reveal what the naked eye cannot. Serious ghost hunters take this idea seriously for both photographs and videos.
The general idea that electronics are somehow connected to the supernatural is not new. There is an old story about Thomas Edison trying to make an electric device to contact the dead; this story is roughly contemporaneous with Edison. In fact, the Edison story was used as the main premise of the truly wretched movie The Brink in which an engineer discovers Edison’s old plans and uses them to contact the dead.
Why is this connection so prevalent in the popular culture? One cause is that there is a self-reinforcing element. The more common the idea ,the more it will get used. This is especially true given how much derivative junk is written by half-baked writers with as much chance of having an original thought as I have for being the next cover model for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition. There are two other reasons for the connection between electronics and the supernatural. First, poor understanding of science makes electronics seem similar to magic. Second, there is an element of particular terror when our technological marvels betray us.
The general public has little to no understanding how electronics function. If one asks individuals on the street what charge an electron has , they are as likely to say positive as to say negative. As far as they are concerned electricity is supernatural. When they turn on a light the electrons coursing through the filament may as, well be faeries. Thus, it is not at all unreasonable to the common mind that one supernatural phenomenon may be connected to another. Why shouldn't ghosts use the supernatural television set to manifest themselves? And if both spirits and electromagnetic waves are invisible things of which one has only a very vague notion, why shouldn't they be connected or be the same thing? This is made all the more plausible by the capabilities of our electronic devices. They can repeat the words of the dead to us. We can with the click of a mouse hear the speeches of saints and sinners who died before we were born. It is not a far leap for the imagination to wonder if such beings still exist in the same devices which record what they have to say.
When this phenomenon manifests itself in movies ,there is another element at play. The notion that the modern devices on which we rely for our every day luxuries could betray us, or open portals to horrors, is a potentially scary premise.
There's a distinct way that electricity and science also interact with the supernatural, more common in books than in movies. Rather than see electronics as connected to the supernatural, they see electronics as an enemy of the supernatural. When this occurs, science as a whole is set up as a system that opposes magic Thus, for example, in Harry Potter electronics do not function at Hogwarts or at other locations of heavy magic use. Similarly, in John DeChancie's Castle Perilous series, every universe has some amount of "science" that works and some amount of "magic". The more science a universe has, the less magic. . Similarly, in Randall Garret's Lord Darcy stories, people in the late middle ages discovered the laws of magic instead of science. In an old Spiderman comic, when Spiderman fights a certain villain who uses alchemy, Spiderman zaps him with electricity since the opposite of alchemy is science and electricity is scientific.
Again, this is an attitude that does not just exist in fiction. I've met at least one New Ager who said that (slight paraphrase) "science only works if you believe in it. I believe in magic and that works for me." In this view, mystical reasoning is not opposed to rationality just as a conflict of world views. It is not just that either rationalism explains the universe or mysticism explains the universe. Rather mystical thinking and rational thinking are actual opposing forces at work in the universe. Given the triumphs that we have through electricity, it is not surprising that it is considered to be the champion of science.
Both these views of science and electricity-- electricity as something supernatural; electricity as something anti-supernatural -- reflect profound misunderstanding of how science works and what rationality and science represent. The first view is one of classical bad reasoning, relying on ignorance and sympathetic magic.
The second view has problems, but it takes slightly more work to articulate them. In a nutshell, if there were special people who could use sticks of wood and point them and say "Crucio" or "Wingardium Leviosa" or "Latinus Mangledus Maximus" and get specific results on a consistent basis, this wouldn't cause the scientific method to vanish, nor would it negate anything that had been learned with the scientific method. Indeed, we could apply the scientific method just as well to these people and their powers. We could perform controlled experiments and derive laws and theories to explain their powers. We could test hypotheses about how magic worked. I'm reminded of the psychics who claim that their powers don't work around skeptics because the skeptics' skepticism creates a psychic dampening field. Such attitudes reflect the worldview that how we think about the world alters it. This is the essence of magical thinking. If someone believes in a dichotomy between the forces of reason and the forces of magic, they don't really believe in a dichotomy; they believe in a world which is just supernatural.
Both of these views are symptoms of irrational and ignorant populations. To the general public, there are two options. Either electricity has little or nothing to do with science, but is connected to things that go bump in the night or electricity is connected to science where science means some natural force that humans exploit, a force that is opposed to forces of magic.
Edit:See also this followup piece discussing why one can be reasonably certain that there is no genuine connection between ghosts and electronics.
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