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Communing With the Dead: Are Historians Resurrection Specialists?

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

I realize that anything paranormal is perhaps an odd addition to a history blog… but on some level historical research involves a certain amount of communing with the dead. I'm assuming that we are not like Mr. Mumler of Boston who "summoned" President Lincoln for this eerie photograph, but historians are able to commune with the dead through any number of tangible sources they have left for us.

At some point in our lives as researchers, there has probably been that one nagging question that nothing short of a séance would answer. I’m not suggesting that route, but if at some point EVP’s or electronic voice phenomena become accepted as a type of oral history then I at least deserve a footnote mention. Anyway, my point is that historians commune with the dead or engage with the past through sources, and part of my continued concern is the type of source base we will leave for future historians because so much of our life is catalogued digitally.

Late last summer I was watching a recorded episode of a show that explored the Lindbergh baby’s disappearance. During one commercial break, an image of Sybil Leek and Hans Holzer caught my eye as part of a teaser for a new paranormal show called The Holzer Files. I don’t know whether all cultural historians have a brain full of odd cultural references befitting a Family Guy writer or if it’s just me, but this triggered some recall of Hollywood types connecting with parapsychologists in the 1950s and 1960s. Images of Broadway Star June Havoc (Gypsy Lee’s sister) listening intently to an entranced Sybil Leek while Dr. Holzer records the session popped into my head along with a flash of young Regis Philbin ghost-hunting as part of a morning show segment at the Whaley House Museum in San Diego, California. Spoiler alert—in both of those particular investigations the paranormal information or evidence gleaned did not match the historical record, but paranormal explorations were big back then and right now you can’t throw a dart at your channel guide without hitting a show about ghosts, Nazis, or aliens.

The Holzer Files premiered in October 2019, and the show recounts the investigative exploits of a foul-mouthed paranormal sniffing DJ, a sharpie-wielding psychic medium, a third-wheel that trips over his own shadow, and Holzer’s own daughter, who pops in a few times via Skype with a book-laden shelf hanging tenuously behind her head. The investigators have access to Holzer’s recordings, which are played so that the audience can hear bits and pieces of Sybil Leek’s breathless British accent speak for the dead, and they flip through yellowed-notes held in Cold War Era manilla folders to set the scene for re-investigation.

The most interesting part, for me at least, came at the end when the DJ takes the canister containing Holzer’s recording, the manilla envelope, and a portable hard-drive of the information, footage, and other “evidence” the new team collected and places it in a fireproof safe for future investigators to use. This paranormal team is essentially trying to find ways to preserve their experiences for the future while practicing a type of preservation of the past. There is no shortage of things that have inspired me to work toward the History Starts Now movement so that more people will engage the present, leave traces of their experiences, and continue to preserve the past. But oddly enough, this paranormal show is actively practicing preservation techniques that everyday people should be doing!

Obviously, digitization is a great form of preserving and increasing access to archival materials, but we live in a culture where the digital has sometimes supplanted the physical. Many of us, in the midst of this pandemic, are thankful for digital access to texts and journals through our libraries, but there is something nostalgic about holding a book or something ritualistic about putting on white gloves, placing an archival folder in a cradle, and then mining its stale-smelling resources. Not only do we need to continue to digitize and preserve the tangible past, but also take care that we are creating and curating a digital archive of our own lived experiences that will be accessible to others in the future.

Historians commune with the dead and resurrect and re-present the past in a variety of ways, but the point of History Starts Now is that we do our part so that future historians do not have to disturb us in the afterlife because our digital archives were lacking or nonexistent.

History starts now. Engage the present. Preserve the past.

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