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Ghost in the Machine: The disembodied voice haunts us daily via mass media technologies, professor says


The makers of horror movies know what’s frightening. In “The Exorcist,” a girl is overtaken by a demonic voice. In “Poltergeist” a nursery schooler puts her hands on a snowy television screen to listen to the voices inside it. (“Hello,” she says. “What do you look like? Talk loud, I can’t hear you.”) In the more recent “Scream,” which pokes fun at slasher films, Drew Barrymore picks up the phone to find an unidentified caller asking her questions.

What the filmmakers know is that the voice from nowhere—faceless, nameless and locationless (or worse, near at hand)—is uniquely suited to haunting.

Joshua Gunn
Dr. Joshua Gunn

That’s not just true in horror films, according to Dr. Joshua Gunn, assistant professor of communication studies in the College of Communication. Gunn argues that the recorded voice, disembodied and ubiquitous, is the ghost of our time. Whether a message on an answering machine, the canned laughter of a sitcom or the truly unnerving tapes of emergency workers on the scene in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, we are haunted all the time by the recorded voice.

“That disembodied voice, the voice that we cannot place—it’s there but it’s not there—is a ghost,” Gunn says. “That’s what I mean by contemporary ghosting. We experience ghosts all the time in our everyday lives, we just generally forget about them.”

To understand what Gunn means, we have to expand our idea of the ghostly from the supernatural to something more common to our lives. The ghosts of a conversation we can’t shake, for example. The ghosts of a childhood home or an old friend with whom we’ve lost touch.

“The thing that’s particular to haunting,” Gunn says, “is that we’re haunted by something that bothers us that we can’t quite grasp, we can’t quite see. That’s the quality of the ghost; it is both seen and not seen, heard and not heard. It occupies this in-between space.”

Modern mass media technologies make this in-between space more present. Given our ability to be where we are and also be involved in a conversation halfway across the world, we are increasingly split and fragmented. It’s possible to exist in multiple different places at the same time. Or to leave a message that is picked up later, allowing you to exist in different time periods simultaneously.

Littlefield Home staircase

In fact, it was the answering machine that got Gunn thinking about ghosting. He and a friend had a conversation about strange messages that had been left on their answering machines, sometimes obscene, sometimes garbled or in a different language. The experience of hearing those messages was disturbing.

“What is it about this voice that disturbs me? Well, I can’t think of a body for it,” he says. “I can’t place it anywhere. Or the body that I’m imagining for it is hideous. You jump to extremes, and it may even be demonic. We get creeped out when we cannot figure a body for a strange voice.”

This is what horror films trade on: our tendency to take that which we cannot see or understand and assume it is evil. And it’s this tendency that fascinates Gunn and was the topic of his first book, “Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century.” Much of what our culture considers “dark” may actually be neutral, and one of the questions that rhetorical scholars ask is how people come to decide if something is good or bad.

Empty studio audienceThe Ghost of Laughter

Where has the studio audience gone? With the exception of “live” shows like “Saturday Night Live,” studio audiences have disappeared from television. Instead of hearing real people respond to a show, we are given canned laughter. These recorded tracks, executed with the click of a button, are in essence the ghosts of the studio audience. And they’re ghosts we have become so habituated to that they are largely unnoticed. Many scholars believe that the laugh track even laughs for us, making the act of watching television absolutely effortless.

In some cases, it’s clear. Many of us have saved messages, whether they are from a new love or a child or a beloved grandparent, so that we can return to them. Gunn knows someone who saved a message from his late wife so that he can still hear her voice. There the ghost is positive. On the other hand, the obscene message is clearly a negative ghost. But what about those that aren’t so clear?

“Everyday, recorded voices can be ambivalent,” Gunn says. “This is where rhetoric comes into play. In part, rhetorical studies examines how people make judgments by using narratives or rules that are constructed with language. So I’m interested in finding the calculus, the cultural stories and myths, or better yet, the fantasies, that enable people to determine whether an initially ambivalent voice could be threatening or not.”

At the root of Gunn’s research on the recorded voice is a paradox. We are told we live in a visual culture, and it’s hard to deny that our world is laden with images. Yet rather than diminishing the power of the voice, it seems we are putting more stock in what we hear. The human voice, Gunn argues, is indelible.

“The overemphasis on the image in our society,” he says, “causes us to tune into the voice when it’s brought to our attention, when it’s isolated outside the image.”

Young woman listening to a voice on the telephone

Take the recordings of emergency personnel in New York on Sept. 11 that were released in August. After four years of images and books and articles about the terrorist attacks, it may seem that the public had absorbed the horror of the day. But the recordings, totaling nine hours, unnerve listeners anew. The fear and panic discernable in the voices of personnel, and the real-time way in which the events unfold, are chilling. Gunn calls the voices “spectral,” recognizing the way they come out of the past and evoke the dead.

Book cover for Joshua Gunn's Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century

The voices can do this because ultimately voices register on a primal level. We know that images can be manipulated, but the voice seems to appeal to something more basic. Hearing the pain in the voices of emergency personnel, we are taken back to the emotions of that day.

“There is a culturally scripted response to primal sounds, to someone in pain or someone weeping,” Gunn says. “It’s not that we’re hard-wired, but that we’re trained because one of the first senses to come about, along with tactility, is hearing. Our primary identification as a baby is our own cries and the voices of our parents.”

Gunn argues that because our first memories are of voices, some good (mother’s) and some bad (our own cries for mother), the experience of a human voice stimulates a more visceral response from an individual than imagery. Hence, hearing the voice of a loved one on the phone is a comfort, but hearing the voice of a loved one crying or in pain is horrific.

If we cannot help responding to the voice, then when the voice is recorded, we respond to something that isn’t actually there. It is a ghost. It’s worthwhile to remember, as Halloween approaches, that we are haunted all the time: when we save a new love’s message on the answering machine. When canned laughter suggests an audience that isn’t present. When we listen to a clip of a talk by someone who has died. And, of course, when kids in white sheets come to the door, hands thrust forth in hope of candy.

BY Vivé Griffith

PHOTO on banner graphic and Littlefield Home staircase photo: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 31 October 2005
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