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Spiritualism as supernatural entertainment, then and now


Writing for Public Books, James P. Stanley, a media scholar at Harvard, reviews a trio of new texts that in different ways try to uncover the sociocultural roots of Victorian spiritualism, both when it first emerged in the late nineteenth century and as it continued to be popular throughout the twentieth. Stanley delves especially deeply into the book Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture by Simone Natale, which draws a compelling connection between the initial spread of spiritualism and an embryonic entertainment industry. Taken together, these books suggest that the enchantments of ghosts and modern media often been intertwined. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Victorian spiritualism was a religious and cultural movement that began in upstate New York, in 1848, with the “rapping” sounds summoned by Margaret and Leah Fox, young sisters who became the first national celebrities of the spiritualist movement. The movement grew quickly, spreading across America and to England, and, from there, to the European continent. Its followers were not only religiously inclined country folk, but members of the urban middle classes: intellectuals, scientists, politicians, aristocrats, and artists.

The promise of spiritualism, what made it the right religious movement for its age, lay not only in its democratic nature—anyone, it turned out, could become a medium—but in its claims to be a “scientific religion.” In this age of reason and scientific discovery, spiritualism seemed to offer verifiable proof of the existence of a spirit world by providing direct contact with that world through ritualistic séances conducted by mediums in private homes, public halls, and theaters. “The spiritualist séance,” writes media theorist John Durham Peters, “offered a variety of religious experience that was potentially subject to empirical investigation.”1 And as the exhibition of spirit manifestations often mirrored the scientific lectures and demonstrations that were also popular at the time, those who bore witness to spirit communications could imagine themselves as participants in the rational evaluation of a natural phenomenon.

Spirit communication started as simple rappings in the dark, construed as coded knocks on walls, floors, and tables and bearing a conspicuous resemblance to the coded taps of telegraphic communication. In the context of the séance circle, these rappings seemed to answer questions with inexplicable accuracy. As the movement grew in popularity, the spirits expanded their repertoire to include writing, talking, singing, and lecturing (all performed through their medium hosts); physical manifestations such as the levitation of tables; the manipulation of objects and the playing of musical instruments; and, finally, the production of ectoplasm, a mysterious and ghostly substance often perceived to ooze from the orifices of the mediums themselves.

Media theorists have long noted the coincidence of the rise of spiritualism and that of telegraphic communication. In his new book, Supernatural Entertainments, Simone Natale likewise observes that “early spiritualists appropriated this technology as a metaphorical reference to explain communication with the world of spirits.” But, as he goes on to argue, “spiritualism … also coincided with another significant process in the history of media: the rise of show business and industrial entertainment.” And as much as spiritualism brought science and religious belief into conversation, its spread took place not through religious or scientific channels—networks of churches or scientific journals—but rather through the rapidly expanding world of the mass media. For the age of the telegraph was also the age of Barnum and the penny press.

Image: Ghost Hands. From Hereward Carrington, Eusapia Palladino and her Phenomena (1909). Via Public Books.