This illustration from the Illustrated Police News of 18 November 1926 shows the unfortunate aftermath of an attempted “ghost hoax”:
This unusual book is an anthology, not of “ghost stories” in the usual sense, but rather of “ghost exposure” stories; mysteries in which each appearently supernatural event is revealed to be the product of innocent mistaken identity or mischievous trickery.
Here follows the introduction by the anonymous, skeptical author/compiler (who is often mistakenly identified as F.O.C. Darley – Darley was actually the illustrator).
What is a ghost? In the popular acceptation of the term, it is a visible appearance of a deceased person. It is called also a spirit; but, if visible, it must be matter; consequently not a spirit. If it is not matter, it can only exist in the imagination of the beholder; and must therefore be classed with the multifarious phantoms which haunt the sick man’s couch in delirium.
But ghosts have appeared to more than one person at a time;—how then? Can he exist in the imagination of two persons at once? That is not probable, and we doubt the ” authentic” accounts of ghosts appearing to more than one at a time. The stories we are about to tell will show, however, that in a great many instances several persons have thought that they saw ghosts at the same time, when, in fact, there was no ghost in the case; but substantial flesh and blood and bones.
(…)But to cut the matter short—the whole theory of ghosts is too flimsy to bear the rough handling of either reason or ridicule. The best way to dissipate the inbred horror of supernatural phantoms, which almost all persons derive from nursery tales or other sources of causeless terror in early life, is to show by example how possible it is to impress upon ignorant or credulous persons the firm belief that they behold a ghost, when in point of fact no ghost is there. We proceed at once to our stories.
We here at The Ghost Racket tend to agree with this thesis.
If you’d like to read these non-ghost stories, the anthology is freely available here.
The notion of a crook playing the ghost racket for fun and profit was already a narrative cliche by 1923. The phantasmagorical powers of the fake spook go unexplained in this early Felix the Cat cartoon; sometimes it’s best to just let art flow over you.
The Folklorist presents this accurate and very nicely produced mini-documentary on the famous Cottingley fairy hoax, including re-enactments of Frances and Elsie staging the photographs with their cut-out paper fairy pictures. The winking “maybe it was true after all” tag at the end grates a bit given the nature and history of the Cottingley case, though arguably it’s very much in the spirit of things given that Frances never completely came clean.
Dr. David Waldron, a lecturer in History and Anthropology at Australia’s Federation University, wrote this fascinating and highly detailed account of the curious craze for “playing the ghost” in 19th century Victoria.
A parallel craze took place in England during roughly the same period, as recounted in Jacob Middleton’s book Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Impersonations, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society. It will not be surprising to find similar “outbreaks” of DIY hauntings in many other places, just waiting for academic verification …