It is not unusual these days to see a ghost. In one viral YouTube video of an auto accident, a motorcycle crashes into a light pole at high speed. The motorcycle rider hits the pole and lands on the pavement, lifeless. Then a shadowy ghost emerges, hovering above the body.
The video is disturbing. I’m writing about it because I think it reveals something important about secularity, enchantment, and media—namely, how user-generated content on platforms like YouTube fosters an enchanted digital landscape that makes nonphysical realities visible in new ways. If it is true, as the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler once wrote, that “the realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture,” then in the last twenty years we have expanded the realm of the dead considerably. The point here is that new storage and communication media are shaping a new kind of subjectivity—making it possible for many people to see and believe for the first time in the category of the living dead. Could these new technologically mediated visions of the supernatural—even if they are fake—make it seem more plausible or likely that such supernatural things exist?
Comments about this footage focused on whether it was real or fake. Clearly, one wrote, this “was photoshopped.” This is “lame.” “I can’t stop laughing.” One commenter inclined to belief in both the paranormal and the occult possibilities of televisual technologies exclaimed that “this is absolutely REAL! . . . CCTV footage DOES NOT LIE . . . Cameras see all, even things the human cannot!” This comment displays an understandable faith in the power of technology to see into beyond spaces: New technologies such as telescopes and microscopes routinely peer into beyond spaces, so why not?
All the same, video technologies do sometimes err or lie—in fact, they are famous for it. When people first acquired the ability to depict motion in early films, they created films with impossible elements—characters magically disappeared, transformed into other characters, changed gender, went back in time, or became ghosts. The history of early film is a history of uncanny visual effects. The motorcycle crash video could have been manipulated using similar kinds of technical trickery, and people who viewed it knew this. The video could have been deliberately faked with special effects, or it could be marred by a type of double exposure resulting from reusing CCTV tapes. “It’s not fake. It’s a glitch,” one person observed, offering a different explanation. Humans didn’t create the ghost; machines did. “You can see that the image is of a person standing at the corner milling about. I thought this could only happen on classic film cameras, but apparently it can happen in digital cameras too. No spirit here, except the spirit of whoever was hanging out on the corner the last time this camera recorded.” Snopes.com got involved in a similar case—a viral still image of an interstate crash scene in Kentucky, USA. The picture showed a shadowy humanlike entity rising above huddled paramedics. Snopes said it was “most likely an irregularly-shaped piece of dirt that has stuck to either the lens or the camera’s internal sensor.”
It may not matter if these ghosts are authentic or faked. Either way, the ghost is seen; either way it looks miraculous. I want to reverse Hent de Vries’s formulation that miracles are “special effects” and insist that special effects are a new form of the miraculous. The glut of online videos and televisual and filmic representations of ghosts or other supernatural phenomena function like miracles in their perceptual and imaginative effects. They produce new sensations of sacred presence regardless of what people say they “believe.” Frederic Jameson, writing about Jacques Derrida on “spectrality,” gets at this. “Spectrality does not involve the conviction that ghosts exist or that the past . . . is still very much alive and at work within the living present: all it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.” Derrida was concerned with the death of communism and its spectral traces, but there have been other repressed systems and ontologies that have unexpectedly reappeared in haunted forms, challenging, as Jameson says, the self-sufficiency and solidity of the living present. The ghosts that appear on YouTube do that kind of cultural work: enchantment online.
When I look at the crash video I don’t think about religious belief. Instead I’m struck by how curious and visually arresting this footage is. Perhaps this is because the ghost that appears confounds my ways of thinking. Ghosts are not comprehensible within secular intellectual frameworks—they are neither dead nor alive, neither present nor absent. Perhaps the video is arresting also because it presents us with a limit condition that we eventually have to confront but that is hard to imagine—the moment of death. Third and finally, the video is compelling because this medium is uniquely able to create in us a sense of nonphysical presence. It was for this reason that Derrida, in a different set of reflections, argued that there was an “irreducible bond between religion and media” especially in the West, where a preoccupation with incarnation (mediatization of spirit in matter) meant that modern electronic media came freighted with spiritual meaning. Like others, he pointed out that there was a directness and a liveness to TV and other video technologies such that these technologies tended to “efface themselves” and yield only (what seemed) the real presence of the thing transmitted.
YouTube ghosts are interesting not because they tell us something about belief or unbelief but because they organize new sensations of sacred presence. These videos make it feel like the totality of life cannot be understood, calculated, or captured in algorithms or CCTV—that, to use Max Weber’s old terminology, both the world and the beings in it contain forces and entities that remain stubbornly mysterious and incalculable.