Spectra Ex Machina ramps up the terror as it progresses, beginning with a recording of Arthur Conan Doyle discussing the benefits of practising spiritualism. Doyle insists making the connection “absolutely removes all fear of death” and that it makes the deceased “intensely happy” to return. It is Hitchcockian in its positioning at the start of the album, quite conspiratorial in tone and designed to draw the listener in close. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the cases contained thereafter are not evidence of Doyle’s assertions.
Two largely unintelligible recordings of Londoners channelling spirits (one sounds like a mad parrot, the other like a man about to suffer a heart attack) are followed by a recording of the famous Houdini seance from 1936 Hollywood. In actuality, the experiment was a canny ploy set up by Bess Houdini’s business manager Ed Saint to attract studio funding for a biopic of the magician. As blatant a sham as the event sounds in hindsight, its drama remains undiminished and it is a fascinating relic of early Hollywood history nonetheless. One also gets the impression Bess at least achieved some genuine peace of mind as she extinguishes the light above the Houdini shrine with a final “Good night, Harry.”
Philippe Baudouin’s accompanying notes discuss at length the connections between recorded sound and the occult, which began to form, he posits, as soon as the phonograph was demonstrated to the public by Théodose Du Moncel in 1878. One academic present at the unveiling is reported to have grabbed Du Moncel, “[unable to] reconcile the frightening ghostly doubles that resounded in the amphitheatre with his way of thinking.” Yet the inclusion of the Houdini seance and recordings of famous cases such as the Enfield poltergeist cast much of the LP in a far more cynical light; it’s a rare haunting indeed that isn’t accompanied by an “expert” with a tape machine and a book to write.
The Houdini recording may be one of the earliest examples of the monetisation of the afterlife which continues today through countless disgraceful “mediums” and hyperbolic shows such as Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters. Although the majority of the recordings here have been supplied by long-standing not-for-profit establishments such as The Society for Psychical Research, it should not be forgotten that members like Guy Playfair and Maurice Grosse (both heavily involved at Enfield) most definitely had no qualms about cashing in on their findings. That said, the recording of eleven-year-old Janet Hodgson vocalising as though she has been somehow possessed by the spirit of Pat Butcher is still mighty spooky no matter what level you take it on.
Which presents us with the question of mental wellness and whether we should even listen to some of these snippets at all. Probably one of the most disturbing recordings I’ve ever heard is that of the “exorcism” of Anneliese Michel who was subjected to months of torment at the hands of religious figures and her own parents when her epilepsy and depression became unmanageable. Michel succumbed to dehydration and malnutrition at the age of just 23 having undergone close to 70 sessions with Roman Catholic priests Arnold Renz and Ernst Alt, many of which lasted several hours. The 90-second clip on Spectra Ex Machina is genuinely horrible – the two priests can be heard talking quite calmly beside the stricken girl’s bed as she struggles and growls, tangled up in the mythology impressed upon her and crying out for help from someone who is actually qualified to do so (although one doctor, contacted by Alt no less, reportedly said “there is no injection against the devil.”)
But the enjoyment or otherwise of Spectra Ex Machina is more than a question of belief. Aesthetically the recordings are never less than pleasing, from the startling “explosion” experienced by researchers at Charlton House in London, to the eerie scrape of a planchette during a live French radio broadcast and the medium Leslie Flint’s hilarious attempt at bringing to life Oscar Wilde, who continues to quip from the grave (“[If] you could see this medium as I do from this side of life, you’d realise what we have to contend with.”) It is certain the compilation will be mined for samples forthwith.
It is also interesting to contrast the methods used to contact the dead, the reactions of those involved and the ways in which the ghosts manifest themselves. Although Doyle was very pleased with himself, for example, he never encountered Anneliese Michel, and while Rev. WS Irving may find the knocking throughout “The Th. Case” highly amusing, the similar “P. Case” recorded only a few years later is a far more violent affair. This progression again suggests attention-seeking and monetary gain lie at the heart of many of these goings-on. So your ghost drums tunes? Mine knocks down walls…
The first volume in an intended trilogy (Sub Rosa will release instalments concentrating on “musician mediums” and “electronic voice phenomena” down the line), this is not a record you will spin on repeat. It is, however, thoughtfully structured, chilling, amusing and thought-provoking in equal measure, and it helps bring its subjects to a wider audience. If this invokes discussion, then all the better for it; like all good ghost stories it leaves its answers in the shadows for us to make of them what we will.