The Psychogeography of Ghost Hunting

#atmosphere #architecture #psychogeography #capitalism #theology #SergeiBulgakov #atmospherictheology


Ghost hunting has once again crawled out of the ether and is haunting much of pop culture. Television shows like Ghost Adventures, podcasts on the paranormal, countless internet hubs, as well as real-life expeditions seem to have gained a second life. Some interpret this phenomenon as symptomatic of how quickly America is given to fantasy thinking and delusions from reality. Others interpret this as a renewed longing for a spiritual dimension. And of course, there's the Bob Larsons of the world who claim that it's all just demons attempting to trick America away from following Christ. However, what interests me about the phenomenon is not so much whether ghosts exist. Instead, it seems to me that ghost hunting and ghost tours present an interesting form of psychogeography and cognitive mapping of urban and suburban environments. Within this new cognitive mapping of material environments, I believe it's possible to see cracks starting to form within our truncated, secularist milieu. And even though ghost hunting itself does not necessarily purport explicit theological or religious commitments, I think there is an interesting theology of space and material environments that could perhaps emerge from or exist in dialogue with cryptid psychogeography.

My Experience on a Ghost Tour

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. It purports to be one of the most haunted hotels in America, and so, naturally, I took a ghost tour.

For background, I am not a materialist or a secularist. I am a Christian, and thus supernatural, preternatural, or spiritual phenomena are a possibility within my worldview. For example, I believe in angels and miracles. However, I'm quite skeptical about paranormal encounters. Perhaps that's a result of living in secular age or seeing firsthand how often claims of numinous encounters can be abused by church leaders. Additionally, despite having numerous religious experiences throughout my life, I have never had a ghost, demonic, or paranormal encounter of the explicit kind one would label as supernatural (at least, that I'm aware of). Nonetheless, I try to keep a critically-open mind because I do believe that the universe is filled with spiritual qualities and high strangeness.

The Crescent Hotel tour was a lot of fun. The genre of ghost tour storytelling was fascinating as well: a combination of historical narrative and the horror genre. Furthermore, the introduction of “scientific” language — such as ghost hunting technologies — is an interesting combination of more ancient spiritual phenomenology (ghosts and spirits) with modernity (technology and science), even if the “science” might make professional scientists pull their hair out.

Unfortunately, I did not have a ghost encounter. Neither did I even have an experience of the heebie-jeebies. But it was certainly fun, and the hotel is quite beautiful and features a dark academic aesthetic, which is certainly worth checking out. Additionally, the experience of navigating a material environment from the perspective of a ghost tour really got me thinking about the psychogeography involved in ghost hunting.


Psychogeography is a concept that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s within the realm of avant-garde movements and cultural theory. It explores the relationship between the geographical environment and the emotions, behaviors, and experiences of individuals within that environment. Psychogeography seeks to uncover the psychological and emotional impact of urban spaces on individuals and how these spaces shape our perceptions and interactions.

The term “psychogeography” was coined by the Situationist International, a group of artists, intellectuals, and activists who sought to challenge the dominant capitalist culture and transform everyday life. They viewed psychogeography as a means to disrupt the prescribed patterns of urban life and create new forms of engagement with the cityscape.

Psychogeographers engage in a variety of practices to explore the effects of urban environments. For example, they often undertake “dérives,” which involve purposeful drifting or wandering through urban areas to uncover hidden aspects and unexpected encounters. Through dérives, psychogeographers aim to break free from predetermined routes and discover new perspectives on the city.

Psychogeography also involves the concept of the “psychogeographic map.” These maps deviate from traditional cartography and instead represent the emotional, cultural, and subjective experiences of individuals in a particular place. They may incorporate elements such as personal anecdotes, historical narratives, and symbolic representations.

The goal of psychogeography is to challenge the mundane and passive experiences often associated with urban spaces. By encouraging exploration, critical observation, and subjective engagement, psychogeographers aim to transform our relationship with the built environment and inspire new ways of perceiving and interacting with our surroundings.

Paranormal Psychogeography

It seems to me that ghost hunting and ghost tours represent a peculiar type of psychogeographical experience. Modern urban spaces are often not designed around spiritual matters, but rather upon the flows and accumulation of capital. One is meant to navigate an urban environment as primarily a cog in the machine of capitalism: either a consumer or a laborer. Of course, this is not entirely the case for every square inch of a city because one could contend that spaces like parks are centered around human interests more than capitalism. But these respites of human interest are still relegated to confined areas rather than permeating the urban space as a whole. The point of psychogeography is then to find ways of navigating a city in a way that brings a sense of the truly human, rather than a machine or zombie-like consumerism.

It seems possible to me that ghost hunting could be one such example of this alternative navigation — especially because ghost tours provide an alternative cognitive mapping of one's urban environment. A cognitive map is a mental representation or internalized image of a person's spatial surroundings, including landmarks, routes, and relationships between locations. It is essentially the way in which landscapes and urban geography — perhaps even one's own culture — exist within one's mind.

Thus, instead of one's cognitive map only being filled with points of consumerism, such as shopping malls, retail stores, and even necessary locations like grocery stores, ghost hunting creates new data points on one's cognitive map. Regardless of whether these places are actually haunted by paranormal forces, ghost hunting adds a sense of spiritual mythology to one's material environment. There is, at the very least, a potential for spiritual places, “thin places,” or locations of high strangeness to break through the cracks of the secular materialist mind into which we are all conditioned.

Ghost hunting trains one's brain to look for the spiritual dimension of a material environment. Even if there is no such thing as a location haunted by a ghost, the very act of delving into the mythological histories of haunted locations and contemplating the relationship between possible spiritual forces and one's material environment can be a means by which we leave open the door for religious materialism.

The Spiritual Dimension of Material

“Religious materialism” is a term I learned about recently while reading the essay “Relics” by the 20th-century Russian Orthodox theologian, Sergei Bulgakov. Bulgakov wrote the essay in response to vandalizes who had desecrated sacred relics of saints. Bulgakov uses the topic of relics to articulate the vitality of the material world from a religious perspective and how, from his perspective, there is no such thing as dead matter.

Sergei Bulgakov's theory of religious materialism proposes that the material world is intrinsically connected to and infused with divine energies and attributes. According to Bulgakov, creation is not separate from God but rather a manifestation of God's presence and creative activity. Bulgakov emphasized the sacredness and spiritual potential inherent in the physical world, rejecting the dualistic notion that matter is inherently sinful or separate from the divine. Instead, he argued, based on the Orthodox doctrines of the Incarnation of Christ and deification of humanity, that matter is a vehicle for divine revelation and the realization of God's purposes, of which the Incarnation of Christ and sacraments like the Holy Eucharist are prime examples. As he wrote, “The spiritual bread, the heavenly, food, is also bodily bread and food; by no means does the spiritual sacrament become incorporeal — rather, it is corporeal to the highest degree, corporeal par excellence. [...] [Christ] came not to destroy the world but to save it. Therefore, in the gracious life of the church, all that is spiritual is corporeal [...].” (Bulgakov, “Relics,” page 9, Boris Jakim translation).

For Bulgakov, the materiality of the world is not dead, but rather something sacred, given that it is thoroughly infused with divine life. However, this picture contrasts sharply with our Cartesian-capitalist paradigm in which matter is a dead resource waiting for exploitation. Material environments, human spaces, and urban buildings become little more than cogs in a wider machine. However, from a Bulgakovian perspective, a psychogeographer can resist such a truncated imagination and cultivate a way of seeing the city as a spiritual entity as well. And perhaps ghost hunting — the investigation of haunted places — might be one means toward that goal.

Ghost Hunting and Numinous Experiences

Related to this notion, I think ghost hunting shows how many individuals within our society are still searching for religious experiences or “numinous experiences” as the theologian Rudolf Otto called them.

If you want to read a full engagement with the topic of ghost hunting as chasing the numinous, you can read this great article by Daniel Wise from the Journal of Gods and Monsters linked here:

To give a shorter summary, Rudolf Otto invoked the term “numinous” to refer to a transcendent and mysterious quality encountered in religious experiences. It represents a unique and awe-inspiring encounter with the divine that elicits a sense of fascination, awe, and even fear in individuals. The numinous is characterized by its 'wholly other' nature, going beyond the ordinary and mundane. Otto described the numinous as a sense of creaturely finitude when confronted with the divine. He emphasized that the numinous experience includes both a tremendous sense of mystery and an irresistible attraction. It involves a paradoxical combination of both fascination and trembling before the divine presence — a type of theological sublime.

Ghost hunting is, for many individuals, both scary and exciting — terrifying and supernatural. To encounter a spiritual entity in the world is to encounter the numinous.

Paranormal Psychogeography as Cruciform Cognitive Mapping

Most likely, however, one will not encounter a paranormal entity whilst ghost hunting or walking a ghost tour — if such an encounter is even possible. Nonetheless, adding “haunted” locations to the cognitive map of one's environment can still be a worthwhile endeavor because the stories behind such hauntings often contain historical-mythological narratives of one's city beyond the conventional narrative of capitalist expansion. Instead, the stories often testify to the underlying trauma of our cities, focusing on the exploited and marginalized individuals who were failed by society.

For example, the Crescent Hotel's foundation for being (allegedly) haunted rests primarily with the original history of a wealthy con artist named Norman Baker selling a “miracle cure” for cancer. Of course, it was a total sham, and many people died horrible deaths under his watch while he shamelessly exploited their illnesses for personal profit. It's a horrific story of exploiting the most vulnerable for greed and profit. The hotel is thus haunted, if not by ghosts, by the history of America's failed medical system and our society's continued apathy toward the mistreatment of those who have illnesses. The full story is way crazier than I could describe, so I'll link the Wikipedia here:

The Cresent Hotel is not the only building in America haunted by tragedy. Cities are often built on trauma: environmental devastation, pollution, exploited labor, racism (such as red-lining), and even genocide (such as the treatment of First Nation and Indigenous Americans). Furthermore, there is tragedy and violence all around us, such as violence and poverty. Often in paranormal lore, places of tragedy and trauma are most likely to be haunted. Thus, by engaging with these stories — even if they are mostly mythological — one can develop a perception of one's material environment that pays special attention to those who need it most.

In this sense, ghost hunting or paranormal tours can possibly witness toward a cruciform hermeneutics of the city. Within the tradition of Christian liberation theology, there is a strong emphasis on God's special concern and favor toward the poor, marginalized, oppressed, and suffering. The crucifixion is often pointed to as a testimony to how God, in Christ, willingly enters into the suffering of humanity in order to co-suffer with them and bring about their liberation from the condition contributing to that suffering.

In a tangentially related vein, ghost hunting and ghost tours often focus on stories of suffering, tragedy, and trauma that happen within the modern city. Death in the workplace. Domestic violence. Murder. Depression. Suicide. Natural disasters. The prison industrial complex. These are all common phenomena associated with hauntings. Indeed, even if ghosts do not exist, our towns and cities are haunted by these tragedies. Ghost hunting and ghost tours ask us to confront these hauntings existing all around us. Now, I'm not claiming that ghost hunting is a form of liberation theology, but there might be a resonance here when both are applied to an analysis of the tragedies produced by human systems.

However, it's not the case that ghost hunting and ghost tours are the anti-capitalist praxis par excellence. Like everything, capitalism is perfectly capable of appropriating the supernatural into its system. A guided ghost tour costs money, and businesses often exploit the “haunted” label in order to attract more customers. But these seem like minor problems compared to other major issues within capitalism, such as climate change, supply chains, and privatized healthcare. Furthermore, visiting haunted locations, embarking on ghost hunting expeditions, or following ghost tours does not necessitate spending money. These activities can be co-opted quite easily through self-organized tours and independent research on the Internet. Doing so even opens up the possibility of meeting more people in one's community.

Against the backdrop of an ever-suffocating and truncating secularist materialism, I think it's great to imagine new ways of engaging with high strangeness so that the spiritual might break through the rusting machinery of modernity. Ghost hunting and ghost tours might be one small tool within our arsenal as we seek to move out of the secularist ennui. And the cherry on top is that developing a new cognitive map of one's urban environment is something that one can begin today. So start researching, start wandering, and let yourself feel a little spooky.

Appendix: As a final thought, I think it's important to mention how sacred spaces should not be neglected when it comes to developing a post-secularist cognitive mapping of material environments. Sacred spaces such as cathedrals, church yards, and prayer gardens (which are often neglected but more common than one might think) can likewise be spaces of high strangeness. Sometimes, they even overlap with ghostly hauntings. At least speaking for myself, I have stepped into several cathedrals and sacred spaces that were so beautiful that it was as if I stepped into another world.