Computers are haunted objects – but they are not haunted by the same specters that frequent the halls of Victorian mansions, Southern plantations, or castles in the deep, dark Bavarian Forest. The past haunts those locales, but computers typically present themselves as past-less objects. They are quintessentially modern and are thus defined purely by their quantitative power. Even though personal computers have been with us for decades, they are still, in some sense, products of the future. The future moves towards greater and greater quantification, while the past seems to be a realm more acquainted with the qualitative side of existence and the life of the body. For this reason, a computer cannot become possessed by the ghosts of suicidal chambermaids or depraved aristocrats. The spirits that possess it enter through different channels.
There are numerous urban legends (“creepypastas” being the online term) that relate to malevolent supernatural forces entering our world through the digital realm. One involves a pop-up that makes you die or go insane when you try to close it, while another involves a theme song for a specific level in a Pokemon videogame that makes children become suicidal. Another famous online urban legend involves a man who went on to an abandoned online videogame platform, interacting with a clown-like character he thought was a digital creation before realizing it was an unknown player – or entity.1 Most famously, the “Slenderman,” a demonic pied-piper figure popular online, inspired two twelve-year-old girls to stab another twelve-year-old girl nineteen times.2 A few years ago, an allegedly haunted laptop was put up for auction on eBay.3
The mythology of haunted technology has been part of Hollywood for decades as well. Japan, always the precursor in technological myths, generated the tale of the demonic video tape that kills viewers in Ringu (later adapted into The Ring). Another Japanese film, Pulse, depicts ghosts using computers as a portal to enter our reality. Like Ringu, it also generated an American remake. In these modern myths, computers and other forms of technology become gateways into dimensions of evil and abysses of isolation and despair. But why do they naturally fit this role? Why is a computer, this sanitized and past-less product of modernity, such a clear choice for a vessel of the darkly supernatural?
While haunted houses are conventionally haunted by their history, a computer is paradoxically haunted by its lack of history. It is an empty vessel waiting for habitation, an object unmoored from the usual constraints of time and place. History not only desecrates, it sacralizes. Hence, the existence both of cities of alluring decay like Venice and New Orleans and of sacred cities like Jerusalem, Mecca, Varanasi, and Haridwar. But no history inoculates computers against evil intrusions. No gargoyles adorn them to scare away the demons. Computers possess only anti-viral software, mechanisms of quantification designed to temporarily ward off infection. They are, in a final sense, pitifully outmatched and ineffective. The human Id dominates them.
A computer lab, more than most spaces, possesses an atmosphere of sterility and neutrality. Almost everything associated with uncleanness is a product of organic matter, while a computer cannot defecate, cannot eat, cannot experience sexual release. It is purely inorganic and otherly. It exists in a nigh angelic state of detachment, plugged into a different source from that which sustains us. Yet this makes it susceptible, just as angels are susceptible to falling; it lacks a spiritual immune system of sorts. The feeble taper of scientific enlightenment is insufficient to prevent the darkness of memetic magic from permeating a computer. A computer is thus both the ultimate product of scientific rationality and the ultimate playground for the forces of irrationality. Its apparent cleanliness allows it to easily become the abode of all uncleanness.
In the urban legend examples given above, computers are not usually haunted by past events and crises so much as by fictional creations that take on a life of their own – like Slenderman or the evil pop-up. They are haunted by cast-off fragments of worlds that never were, futures that never manifested, dark fragments of fantasy and desire that never realized themselves in our world but take on a strange pseudo-life in the virtual realm. They are haunted by meme magic, by virtual golems, egregores, and tulpas. All these forces at their most negative remind one of the qliphoth, a term taken from Jewish mysticism, which refers to “shells” or “husks.” These are forces of evil or impurity, left over from God’s creative process, with the capacity to invade the human spirit and knock it out of balance.4
The ghosts that menace us through computers are thus not usually the ghosts of history, but the ghosts of unrealized futures and alternative realities. Similarly, in Henry James’ story “The Jolly Corner,” the protagonist returns to his home in New York after years in Europe to discover that his house is haunted by an alternative version of himself – the version that chose to stay in New York. Similarly mind-boggling hauntings are afoot in the virtual world. Perhaps some of us are haunted by our own digital avatars – false or demented versions of ourselves that we created and then loosed from our control.
The French sage, Rene Guenon, discussed the metaphysics of Alexander the Great’s “Great Wall” in terms particularly relevant to digital hauntology. According to the Koran and earlier Christian legends, Alexander the Great constructed a wall in the north to protect the people who lived there from the rampaging giants, Gog and Magog. (A similar story exists in a Chinese tradition, in which a woman repairs a hole in the sky created by a giant). Guenon interprets this symbolically. In The Reign of Quantity and the Sign of the Times, he states that, as history moves onward and people begin to forget traditional sources of wisdom, “fissures” form in the metaphorical wall that insulates our world from “inferior subtle influences.” Towards the end of a historical cycle, Guenon asserts, the number of fissures increases. These inferior influences thus begin to permeate our world.5
Computers can themselves become cracks in this wall. Lacking the defenses of a traditional culture that takes the spiritual realm seriously and understands that our minds can be affected by repetitive memes and algorithmized messaging in terrible ways, a computer can become a locus for the darkest parts of the psyche to explode outwards. This should be evident to anyone who has spent five seconds reading the comment section on any Youtube video or news article. Or who has spent three seconds on Twitter. And, of course, as the Left and the Right face-off online, the true extent of this derangement becomes progressively clearer. The ghosts, jinn, and demons were inside us all along, while the computer was only the magical talisman that drew them forth. The recent Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, demonstrates just how far Big Tech companies have gone in (to use the jargon of our time) monetizing the antics of these subtle forces. We live in the midst of bizarre manifestations of human consciousness, shaped to the specifications of shadowy Silicon Valley overlords. They are more than willing to conjure the demons from the machine, if it suits their bottom line.
The radical social critic and Roman Catholic priest, Ivan Illich, wrote in Silence is a Commons, “Clearly you foresee that machines which ape people are tending to encroach on every aspect of people’s lives, and that such machines force people to behave like machines. The new electronic devices do indeed have the power to force people to “communicate” with them and with each other on the terms of the machine. Whatever structurally does not fit the logic of machines is effectively filtered from a culture dominated by their use.”6 Yes – but what is filtered away always comes back in the end. The repressed returns. In our culture, both the transcendent and the supernaturally debased are repressed. I imagine that it is these demonic supernatural elements, the perverse residue of consciousness, that manage to make their return first.
Yet there is some hope. I remember a friend of mine told me that he was (somewhat) deterred from looking at porn in high school because his mother had made Jesus the image on their desktop. Computers and smartphones don’t need to be completely neutral and desacralized objects. This technology can be used against itself. For instance, I know many Muslims have a phone app that reminds them to pray five times a day and another app that indicates the qibla, the direction of Mecca. No doubt, similar apps exist for people from all religions. The transcendent can filter back in as well.
In other words, it is possible to baptize this technology. It may yet be subject to the aura of the sacred and the numinous. After all, while a computer may seem curiously past-less, it has another kind of history – an internet history. And that history is what we make of it, a reflection of our own consciousness as it struggles to contain its darker elements and cultivate the Good, the Beautiful, and the True.
Two verses from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Secret of the Machines” provide us with a final warning and a source of consolation. Machines manufactured by human beings speak these lines at the end of the poem:
“But remember, please, the Law by which we live,
We are not built to comprehend a lie,
We can neither love nor pity nor forgive.
If you make a slip in handling us you die!
We are greater than the Peoples or the Kings—
Be humble, as you crawl beneath our rods!-
Our touch can alter all created things,
We are everything on earth—except The Gods!
“Though our smoke may hide the Heavens from your eyes,
It will vanish and the stars will shine again,
Because, for all our power and weight and size,
We are nothing more than children of your brain!”
Note: this essay originally was featured on Sam Buntz’s blog, The Muted Trumpet, at themutedtrumpet.wordpress.com.
- Belinky, Biju. “Ghost in the Machine: Inside the Internet’s Paranormal History.” Huck Magazine, February 25, 2019
- Robinson, Kelley. “Slender Man Stabbing Victim Speaks Publicly for the First Time: ‘Without the Whole Situation, I Wouldn’t Be Who I Am.” ABC News, October 24, 2019
- Lorenz, Taylor. “A Haunted Laptop That Has Been ‘Levitating and Displaying Creepy Wallpaper Images’ Is Up for Auction on eBay.” Business Insider, February 10, 2015
- Scholem, Gershom. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, at 238-239, 266-267. Schocken Books, 1974
- Guenon, Rene. The Reign of Quantity & The Signs of the Times, at 172-174. Sophia Perennis, 2001
- Illich, Ivan. “Silence is a Commons.” The Coevolution Quarterly, 1983