Remapping Cultural Hauntology: An American Perspective

The first three releases on the Ghost Box label

Since 2005, when Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher first used the term “hauntology” to describe the music being released on the Ghost Box label and by fellow travelers working in a similar vein, the word has gone fractal. What I mean by this, is that it has taken on new shades of meaning without losing its original sense. Although the term is admittedly sometimes misused, in general this seems to be one of those rare cases where a word moves from academia into the wider (albeit still somewhat fringe) culture, and becomes all the richer for it. As part of this evolution, thousands of pages have been written during the last decade or so on the implications of hauntology in the context of popular culture. But within the more casual discourse of social media and the blogosphere, the word has come to be used in a rather narrow sense: to refer to the early 1970s aesthetic that Jim Jupp and Julian House of Ghost Box mined so eloquently in those early days. This use of the term and the associated revival of this particular aesthetic, one that previously really had no name, has been something of a fascination of mine for a long while.

Often electronic, sometimes folkloric, this aesthetic lurked in the theme songs of children’s television programs, TV idents, library music, public information films, and in the sleek, modern, northern European design sensibility found in progressive educational media. In its day it was simultaneously very widespread, and mostly ephemeral. Although on the surface this look and sound could often feel optimistic—sometimes even saccharinely so—there was an ever-present, underlying sense of darkness and unease within it. It was as if this aspect of culture were already mourning its own demise, which according to Mark Fisher was to come with the arrival of neoliberalism and late capitalism, crouching unseen, ready to spring, just over the temporal garden wall. 

When I first heard the early Ghost Box releases, they immediately triggered in me a very deep sense of recognition. It was like meeting someone you once knew well, decades ago, but could no longer remember their name or even how you knew them. The records’ striking graphic design, along with their titles—evocative of an electro-etheric pastoralism: Farmer’s AngleSketches and Spells, and The Willows—scratched at something in the back of my brain. According to the dominant narrative, however, this should not have been the case. Most everything that has been written about cultural hauntology—a usage coined by Mark Fisher, and one that I use to refer to the aesthetic we are discussing here—has focused on how very British it all is. Although I grew up during the era in which it thrived, I was born and raised in the United States, and have never lived in Britain. So why was my response so immediate and powerful, if this music and its associated design aesthetic were based on exclusively British cultural forms?

Television was ground zero for the early Ghost Box sound. Much of the popularity and growth of interest in cultural hauntology has been due to audio- and video-archaeologists mining the archive for long-forgotten (mainly British) television programs from the 1960s and 1970s. The BBC’s experimental sound department, the Radiophonic Workshop, was responsible for much of the theme and incidental music for the more “out there” broadcasts of the era. Because of this, its output has gained legendary status among hauntologists. The Radiophonic Workshop would go on to achieve a degree of international fame even among those not particularly interested in things hauntological, as it was responsible for the original theme to the smash hit series Doctor Who.

Doctor Who in the US magazine TV Guide, June 1972

What is most always overlooked in hauntologically-centered writing on the early 1970s media landscape—the section on American hauntology in Simon Reynolds’ Retromania is a glaring example—is that this aesthetic was already present throughout the industrialized world by this time, and bits of British cultural hauntology could be found around the globe, including in North America. What was mainstream in Britain may have been slightly fringe in the US, with British television programs sometimes being repurposed into minor cinematic releases. They still made it across the Atlantic, though, and the sounds of the Radiophonic Workshop arrived with them. The film Dr. Who and the Daleks was released in the US in July 1966, and it was shown across the country, eventually being rerun on television. The early Jon Pertwee-era episodes of the Doctor Who series were first syndicated to American television in 1972. These weren’t particularly successful, but when the Tom Baker episodes were sold to PBS in 1978, the series became a familiar part of American geek culture. In the wake of this success, BBC Records released at least six LPs of theme music and sound effects by the Radiophonic Workshop for the American market between 1979 and 1982. 

Glimpses of this hauntological aesthetic could sometimes be found in the dim corners of the broadcast day of the big three commercial networks, especially late at night or very early in the morning, but the place where it really thrived in the US was on public broadcasting stations, both radio and television. In his book Ghosts of My Life, Mark Fisher makes much of the fact that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was state funded, allowing a group of educated experimentalists relatively free rein to create the distinctive, often eerie, electronic sound that eventually emerged. In his opinion, it was the arrival of neoliberalism that destroyed this idyllic situation. While not an exact parallel, in the US the state-founded and taxpayer-supported Corporation for Public Broadcasting has long been a major source of funding for National Public Radio (NPR), the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), and its immediate predecessor, National Educational Television (NET). A major difference from the British model is that public broadcasting in this country is also literally publicly funded, through individual and corporate donations.

American public broadcasting has long been something of a haven for an open-minded sort of “high culture,” that in the early 1970s included experimental uses of electronic music. But there is an even tighter connection between the BBC and its American analog. In the summer of 1970, BBC Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Desmond Briscoe—who would later compose much of the soundtrack for the influential 1972 BBC TV movie The Stone Tape—traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, to hold a workshop on “radiophonics” for employees of public radio from around the US. During the workshop, Briscoe and the attendees created a radio version of Tom Stoppard’s play The Dissolution of Dominic Boot, complete with electronic score and sound effects. A couple of shorter experimental pieces using local station WHA’s new Putney VCS3 synthesizer were also created. This shows that as early as 1970, a native spirit of sonic experimentation in broadcasting, complete with mini-Moog, was flourishing in the US just as it was in Britain, perhaps just a bit further below the mainstream radar.

The EMS Putney VCS3

As interest in cultural hauntology has grown, Nigel Kneale’s screenplays have come to represent the British hauntological zeitgeist nearly as much as the output of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. But his work was certainly well represented on US cinema screens, at least via the Quatermass films. Later, these same films would end up as late night reruns on television. Eastern European cinema of the era is also often cited as part of this hauntological aesthetic, many examples of which crossed the Iron Curtain into Britain. Somewhat surprisingly, some of these made it into mainstream American homes via the CBS Children’s Film Festival. The series ran from 1967 to 1984, and showed almost exclusively non-US films, many from the USSR and Yugoslavia. The late 1960s explosion of Moog-mania should also not be forgotten. Although mostly seen as novelty at the time, the work of electronic composers such as Walter/Wendy Carlos, Gershon Kingsley, and Jean-Jacques Perrey was a familiar sound throughout mainstream American media of the period.

Another important point is that many of the researchers and experimentalists who created the groundwork that allowed this sound to exist in the first place came from around the globe: Leon Theremin in the USSR, Dick Raaymakers and Henk Badings at the Philips Research Laboratories in the Netherlands, and Robert Moog in the US. Even the great names from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop did not emerge fully formed from some exclusively British petri dish: Delia Derbyshire worked early on with Italian composer Luciano Berio; Daphne Oram became inspired by electronic music after a visit to RTF studios in Paris in the 1950s; and Desmond Briscoe was hugely influenced by Pierre Schaeffer and Karlheinz Stockhausen. By diffusing the center of hauntological gravity from the UK into the wider world, I don’t mean to downplay the huge influence the British media had on the development of this aesthetic. No other single country even came close to achieving the perfect storm of experimentalism and fatalism—painted upon a canvas of dark, ancestral memories that were suppressed beneath a façade of social conformity—that resulted in what we now call British cultural hauntology. But the wider aesthetic did exist elsewhere.

The Legend of Hell House opened in the US in June 1973. Score by Delia Derbyshire. It later became a staple on late night US television.

Much of what has been written about the early Ghost Box releases focuses heavily on nostalgia, and implies that these discs triggered specific memories of the forgotten corners of British media. Listening to these recordings, though, it immediately becomes clear that the memory-mechanics of Belbury Poly, the Focus Group, and The Advisory Circle functioned at a deeper level. To the extent that direct samples appeared, they tended to be obscure, taken from the dusty shelves of archival almost-memory. The Ghost Box crew did not cite familiar sonic quotations from past decades, but immersed themselves in a selective vision of the past that included BBC children’s programs, horror movie soundtracks, and public information films, and then created new works that were so perfectly evocative of that aesthetic as to resonate strongly with those of us who spent our formative years within it.

Because I grew up exposed to the British cultural hauntology that made its way into US media, as well as to its native American variety—the electronic PBS ident, synthesizer-driven incidental music, early morning anti-smoking commercials, and educational films in school, all of which evinced a version of this same aesthetic—I had effectively the same visceral response to the Ghost Box releases that many Brits describe. The effect was not that caused by a memory of something specific, but the memory of a particular mood, something bordering on emotion, long forgotten, which the recreation of this sound brought back forcefully. Jupp and House had inadvertently hit on a certain alchemy that had cultural power far beyond their original idea of recreating an imaginary version of early 1970s British media. This brings us to Frederic Jameson’s idea of nostalgia that is not nostalgia—cited by both Reynolds and Fisher—in which longing is not for an historical period, but for a form. It is the not the details that move us, but the feeling.

Again, I am not suggesting that the British influence on what has become a full-blown hauntological subculture should be deemphasized. In fact, I feel strongly that Britain is very much the spiritual center for this aesthetic. But recognizing that during the period in which it flourished it also existed across the industrialized world opens up a huge new area of enquiry. This examination of its sources from an international perspective was already effectively begun—although rarely, if ever, using the term hauntology—by blogs from the last decade such as Toys and Techniques and Dispokino. They also did a wonderful job of showing the graphic design aesthetic that accompanied the musical aspect. But as fascinating as these blogs were, they presented their finds anecdotally, leaving much room for further research. I’m left wondering, how did this hauntological aesthetic manifest itself in Germany, Finland, Poland, or Japan? I would like to see researchers from other countries, those familiar with their own local media landscapes from the decades in question, approach this topic.

Closer to home, to my knowledge much of the eerie, electronic, incidental music done for NET, early PBS, and the various small US educational film companies has barely been examined by researchers. There are also almost certainly “lost” public information and educational films in this dormant American archive. What gems, what new cultural heroes might be hiding within this unexplored trove, or in those of other countries? Whether in the US or elsewhere, there is still much work to be done in simply unearthing, cataloguing, and documenting these sources without getting too bogged down in concepts of “lost futures.” Remapping this early 1970s aesthetic from a global perspective could lead to new interpretations, new voices, new ideas. As rich and engrossing as the topic may be, these days it often feels like anything relevant about British cultural hauntology has already been said. So, working towards a clearer vision of how this aesthetic moved and morphed throughout international media could refresh and revivify a discourse that is now beginning to feel a bit overworked and even moribund.

—Stephen Canner

2 thoughts on “Remapping Cultural Hauntology: An American Perspective

  1. This is something i’ve been thinking about deeply of late. The effect on me as an American is profound, but nothing to do with lost futures, at least not in Fisher’s sense. I’m put in the mind of how it feels to walk into a disused school building, even years later. That particular energy and atmosphere one associates with “school” still lingers eerily, very present yet absent at the same time. So a lost future in a sense, yes, but not strictly to do with capitalism. Perhaps it’s being confronted with your own lost self.


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