Cabinet of Curiosities
You could say that when Ella Fitzgerald was singing about "These Foolish Things" some freaky stuff was going on...
Cigarettes, airline tickets, tables, daffodils. Ella's laundry list of emotional objects that remind her of a long-gone lover at first seem ordinary, "foolish" we might say. But by the time we get to the bridge, things take a turn for the spooky when she croons "Oh, how the ghost of you clings." Suddenly the tinkling piano, ringing telephone, and candle lights take on a more unnerving tone. Not downright frightening, but... unsettling. These objects have some bad affect.
A telephone that rings but who's to answer
Affect is a notoriously sticky term. It's the unformed, spectral energies that draw us toward or away from one another; it's the vibrations usually just before we process something emotionally or intellectually. For this post on haunted objects, I want to use affect as a way of talking about the creeps, the heebie-jeebies, or the vibes that come with objects that have entirely much or not enough archivable history.
There shouldn't be anything freaky about "provenance."
"Provenance" is one of the foundational principles of archiving. Like many of the keywords in this digital freakatorium, it too can be exceptionally difficult to boil down to an easy definition. For this post, "provenance" refers to the chains of ownership that establish an archival collection or document's authenticity. When it comes to provenance and archives, we're really interested in being able to ascertain the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. So what does this have to do with haunted objects? Provenance gives us historical and contextual grounding for cultural belief traditions under which the collections or documents were made. Provenance could be a tool for helping us figure out why things are haunted and potentially soothing the restless spirits. But sometimes our quest for provenance backfires-- when we know too much or too little about an object's origins and chain of ownerships, some freaky stuff starts happening. In what follows, I'd like to spotlight some objects from the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal to explore how the question of provenance looms large over objects with bad affect.
Things got a little crazier than usual for the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal when the Crone of the Catskills arrived (click at your own risk!)
The diminutive wooden statue with a noose around her neck and nails in her eyes was busy raising hell in New York state after two hikers found her in a cave in the Catskill Mountains and took her home with them. After unexplained knocking and moving shadows escalated into muddy footprints and a pond in the living room, the hikers shipped her off to Greg Newkirk and Dana Matthews, the owner-curators of the country's first traveling paranormal museum. If anyone could manage the crone it would be the seasoned vets who run Planet Weird. But, the crone had her own agenda and soon the telltale wet footprints (among other incidences) appeared at Weird HQ. Newkirk and Matthews liken their haunted objects to children: "Haunted objects, like misbehaving children, tend to respond and retaliate to the attention given to them during “tantrums”, but our usual routine of ignoring the bad behavior wasn’t working. We were past due for a sit-down discussion with The Crone." After an unsuccessful sit-down, the crone went into a permanent time out, "the box"-- a locked, solitary confinement for the most malevolent objects. And when she goes on tour with the Traveling Paranormal Museum, the curators have instituted a strict no-touching policy.
So what makes the crone so haunted? I'd like to trace it back to the fact that she's nearly untraceable. The most verifiable link of ownership is from the anonymous hikers to the museum. The most conclusive theory is that the crone was originally created to summon the spirit of an unknown witch, so even her origin story is mired in swampy matter of doubt and unanswerable questions. This is an object without provenance and one in which no one necessarily wants to claim ownership. Her biographical entry on the museum's digital site notes that the "donor wishes to remain anonymous," a striking change from archiving-as-usual that maps out the circuits of ownership. Another way to think about it: the crone suffers permanent archival redaction, the concealment of sensitive information. When materials are redacted it's framed in terms of protecting privacy or classified information.. But what if the crone doesn't want to be classified, and her bad affect is in part a response to the archival principles at work in her afterlife? This secrecy perpetuates her haunting qualities and makes archival research a haunted task. The unanswered questions about the crone linger with those of us who read about her and try to catch a clarifying glimpse wherever we can: Newkirk and Matthews smartly don't provide a pat conclusion, rather leaving it open to speculation summed up by their question: "Who Created the Crone and Why?"
Sometimes, there is too much a good thing...
If the crone's haunted qualities come out the inability to peg down her provenance, some objects offer the opposite case: what makes them haunted is that we know too much. When the ritual sword with a very possessive streak first arrived at the Paranormal Museum, it was an underwhelming object-- it's daisy-etched hilt about just as banal as Ella Fitzgerald's haunted daffodils. But, when they took it on tour, the sword showed its true origins in a spectacularly frightening way. Part of the dangerous allure of the Traveling Paranormal Museum is that spectators can interact with the objects.
"HOLD HAUNTED OBJECTS"
Touching, holding, and directly engaging with the supernaturally-influenced artifacts is allowed and welcomed to the fearless few. A woman who requested to hold the sword experienced something
akin to possession, if not complete possession. Once she picked up the sword, the only thing the woman could remember was some bad affect: "something very strong, very old, and very dark attached to the artifact." Unlike the crone, this object's hauntedness was confirmed through being able to track the intentionality and origins behind the object. Because of its small hilt, a weapons expert claimed that the sword was made specifically for ritual purposes, although no original source of creatorship exists. However, the next link in the chain verifies and helps to emphasize the haunted status of the sword: a Kentucky family whose son was dipping a toe into the paranormal received the sword as a present from a distant family member and sword took on a life of its own, emanating a strange, unexplainable ringing sound. And then from there, the sword made its way to Weird HQ as a part of the freaky antiques road show in which it temporarily possessed a spectator after falling into her hands. This ascertainable chain of ownership confirms the haunted qualities of the sword, just as unverifiable chain of ownership did the crone, suggesting to us that hauntings are fueled by affects, the unformed urges to connect or not connect.
After writing about these objects I, too, am haunted. The bad affects may vibrate through my computer interface (too much time with the crone?), but other questions half-formed linger. Figurative hauntings shadow the humanities scholar-- they are a familiar part of our rhetorical arsenal. But what about actual hauntings? How do we archive, preserve, and display objects with their haunting affects, with attachments not ready to die? To what extent do traditional archival principles give us surprising answers to these questions? I will no doubt will be pondering these as I go to sleep tonight, with the lights on of course...