Meet Gabi: She’s chasing ghosts through the 19th Century


January 29, 2019 
“It’s like if a Buzzfeed writer got really sick of their job.”
But in the Victorian era. With ghosts.

Gabi is looking at how people in the 19th Century reported on ghost hoaxes. They were popular in the media, but there’s a noticeable shift in tone toward the end of the era.  

“Even if you knew it was someone running around town in a sheet, you wouldn’t say that. You’d say ‘There’s a ghostie.’ ”

"And that attitude of writer to reader is super gendered and class-based on who believes in ghosts and who doesn’t."

That’s just one theory she’s investigating in a massive, multi-faceted project looking at how the shift from oral culture to print influenced ghost hoaxes in nonfiction. It all changed remarkably fast: innovations made printing cheap. Literacy shot up so much, even the gender gap in literacy closed in the UK.  

“Once the lower class started reading, journalism became less about function and more about form,” Gabi said. “You had you had to include interesting narrative and character.”

So it paved the way for more “ghostie” stories.

What's so interesting to me about ghost stories is how formulaic they are, and how formulaic they remained throughout the centuries.”

"These stories are always going to be popular. It’s just a cultural phenomenon: people really love to read scary stories. I can depend on it being something people actually read, and that made an impact on the way people thought.”

Gabi’s mapping each story by digitally marking up location, themes, and other elements that might reveal a interesting trends.

She’s looking at ideas like:

  • In-print markers that the information is false, like using quotes around the word ghost or saying supposed ghost.
  • Did people stop caring where the ghost stories came from the more they gained access to other places through print and travel?
  • Why did some stories, even when they were presented as true, happen in cycles?

It’s all mired in a cultural context that’s hard to decode. We’re so immersed in textual culture today, it can be hard to fathom an oral culture world. But she wants to make it accessible online, and also set up the context so people can view it the way she does.

“I’m a little bit different than most material text people, because I want to look at things people would throw away. I'm interested in how a working-class, middle-class person understands the world that they're in.”

“We do a disservice to ourselves and the people who preceded us by only reading things for or by people who had means. I think it’s sad.”