In underworld slang dating back to the late 19th century, the “ghost racket” or “spook racket” refers to a very particular type of con game. The racketeer poses as a “spirit medium” or “psychic” and claims a supernatural power, such the the ability to foretell the future, to remove magical curses or to communicate with the spirits of the dead.
Through the use of magic tricks and psychological manipulations such as “cold reading”, the “shut-eye mark” – typically a gullible, distraught person – is then convinced to pay for the ghost racketeer’s services, and to keep on paying for as long as the racketeer can perpetuate the scam.
Intriguingly, it is also possible to play the ghost racket without knowing that you’re playing it. “Shut-eye mediums”, for example, genuinely believed in their own powers, attributing their inherent skill at imaginative cold reading to actual communication with the spirits of the dearly departed. Similarly, little-known but entirely natural phenomena such as the ideomotor effect – the influence of imagination and expectation upon involuntary muscle movements – require no deliberate trickery to create (under the right circumstances, such as a Ouija board or “table-tipping” seance) a powerful delusion of supernatural forces.
The terms “ghost racket”, “ghost hoax” and “ghost act” have also been used to describe pranks and hoaxes in which illusions of the supernatural play a part. Roughly co-incident with the rise of Spiritualism during the mid-late 19th century and the early part of the 20th, there arose a very curious craze for “playing the ghost” by dressing up as a spectre to startle, assault or molest passers-by in lonely locations. By far the most famous exemplar of this craze was (and remains) Spring Heeled Jack, whose legend has recently re-emerged in several popular TV series.
This activity offers a fascinating example of ostension, or the enactment of folk-tales in real life, as reports on the mock-hauntings of “ghost actors” inspired their appearance in works of fiction, in turn inspiring new generations of ghost re-actors. Understanding this process is a useful tool towards examining many seemingly anomalous phenomena.
The heyday of the spiritualist ghost racket came during the 1920s, when the apocalyptic tolls of the First World War and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic spurred a widespread eschatological crisis. The confluence of mass bereavements and rapid scientific advancements weakened the spiritual hold of traditional religions, which found themselves challenged by seances, Ouija boards and strange new cults.
For as long as there have been ghost racketeers, however, there have also been “ghost exposers”. Skeptical investigators such as Harry Houdini and Rose Mackenberg took it upon themselves to “pull back the curtain” and reveal the tricks of the early-mid 20th century spook trade. Today, rational skeptics including James Randi and Derren Brown continue that tradition into the second decade of the 21st century, at a time when the “psychic services industry” is worth over two billion dollars in the US alone.
The symbiotic triskelion relationship between superstitious shut-eyes, the unscrupulous open-eyes who exploit their superstition and the investigators who expose the exploiters has been playing out in Western culture for the best part of two centuries. It has inspired works of investigative journalism, literature, feature films, radio and television shows, comic books and now this website.
TheGhostRacket.com is dedicated to exploring the netherworlds of supernatural belief, trickery and skepticism. Won’t you join us?