Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture
Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture
“This is an ambitious, overdue book, steeped in the period’s popular culture, and offering a fresh, insightful perspective on a topic familiar to its scholars.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Starting with the story of the Fox sisters, considered the first spiritualist mediums in history, Natale follows the trajectory of spiritualism in Great Britain and the United States from its foundation in 1848 to the beginning of the twentieth century. He demonstrates that spiritualist mediums and leaders adopted many of the promotional strategies and spectacular techniques that were being developed for the broader entertainment industry. Spiritualist mediums were indistinguishable from other professional performers, as they had managers and agents, advertised in the press, and used spectacularism to draw audiences.
Addressing the overlap between spiritualism’s explosion and nineteenth-century show business, Natale provides an archaeology of how the supernatural became a powerful force in the media and popular culture of today.
“This is an ambitious, overdue book, steeped in the period’s popular culture, and offering a fresh, insightful perspective on a topic familiar to its scholars.”
“Natale’s study offers a helpful corrective to approaches that ignore the entertainment value of spiritualism.”
“An erudite, original examination of Victorian spiritualism and the rise of modern media. . . . This entertaining study fills a gap in the slighted investigation of spiritualism’s rise as a religious and cultural phenomenon. Highly recommended.”
“The key achievement of Natale’s book is his thorough documentation of the ways the spiritualist movement was, in spite of its framing as a ‘scientific religion,’ indistinguishable from other kinds of performance, and a vigorous participant in mechanisms of the growing entertainment industry.”
“An engaging and enlightening history of Spiritualism’s growth from a unique perspective.”
“Approaching Victorian supernaturalism as popular spectacle, Natale makes a compelling argument that nineteenth-century spiritualism made a significant contribution to what would become the dominant religion of the twentieth century: the entertainment industry. Rather than seeing the spiritualists and their energetic followers as gullible or deluded, Natale explores the more fascinating possibility that medium, circle, and audience helped redefine the possibilities of domestic leisure and public performance.”
“We all know that the supernatural is entertaining. Just turn on your television set or go to the movies. But this entertaining? Supernatural Entertainments is one of the most original books I have read in a long time. Simone Natale’s embrace of the history of technology, celebrity studies, material culture, popular culture, photography, and film studies to plumb the immediate historical background of the modern supernatural also makes it astonishingly capacious and interdisciplinary. Get ready for a ride. Or a show.”
“Supernatural Entertainments will undoubtedly inspire new studies of Victorian Spiritualism and occultism to further probe the nature and consequences of otherworldly amusements.”
“[This book] is a strong contribution to a burgeoning field of haunted technology and uncanny media history, has fantastic illustrations, and is always highly readable.”
“An important addition to the growing body of rigorous scholarship on international spiritualism. Natale’s argument, however, is fairly unexpected, even unique, inasmuch as it convincingly focuses on spiritualism as a form of show business.”
Simone Natale is Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at Loughborough University, UK.
List of Illustrations
Part 1: Configurations of Séances
1 The Medium on the Stage: Theatricality and Performance in the Spirit Séance
2 Parlor Games: Play and Social Life in the Haunted House
Part 2: How to Sell a Spirit
3 Breaking the News: Controversy, Sensation, and the Popular Press
4 Mediums and Stars: Religion, Consumerism, and Celebrity Culture
Part 3: Spirit and Matter
5 Stranger than Fiction: Print Media, Automatic Writing, and Popular Culture
6 The Marvels of Superimposition: Spirit Photography and Spiritualism’s Visual Culture
Most histories of spiritualism start inside a small cottage in Hydesville, a little town in upstate New York, where, in 1848, two adolescent sisters initiated communication with the rappings allegedly produced by the spirit of a dead man. The sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, were to be remembered as the first mediums in history and the founders of the spiritualist movement. Yet the most important location for spiritualism’s early history is arguably another one: a lecture theater called the Corinthian Hall—the largest theater in the nearby city of Rochester. It was there, on 14 November 1849, that the Fox sisters demonstrated spirit communication for the first time before a paying public. According to reports, nearly four hundred people paid twenty-five cents each to witness the astounding “Hydesville rappings.” This spiritualist demonstration was destined to be just the first of countless public séances in which religious beliefs mingled with live entertainment, converting spiritualism into a popular attraction for several generations of American and British Victorians.
Supernatural Entertainments argues that the rise of the spiritualist movement as a religious and cultural phenomenon was closely connected to the contemporary evolution of the media entertainment industry. Following the history of spiritualism in Great Britain and the United States from its onset in 1848 to the beginning of the twentieth century, the book documents how spiritualist mediums and leaders employed some of the same advertising strategies, performance practices, and spectacular techniques that were being developed within the field of spectacular entertainments. Their séances offered not just a confirmation of religious beliefs about the afterlife but also a brilliant form of amusement, with sensational effects embellishing a distinctly spectacular environment. More broadly, by stressing the distinctive ways in which spiritualists participated in nineteenth-century media culture, this book aims to demonstrate that beliefs in ghosts contributed to the rise of the entertainment industry as we know it. Rather than diverging from the ghosts that populated literary, theatrical, and visual culture in the Victorian age, beliefs in spirits should be regarded as part of a broader cultural turn that placed ghosts and other supernatural phenomena at the center of the fictional, the spectacular, and the religious imagination.
During the Victorian age, spiritualism was a very significant religious phenomenon in America and Britain, revolving around the belief that it was possible to exchange messages with the spirits of the dead. My claim is that in order to comprehend spiritualism’s prominence, it is essential to understand its inclusion in a growing market for leisure activities and spectacular attractions. As I discuss at length in the following chapters, in fact, performances of spiritualist mediums often had a theatrical character. Séances were held in theaters and public halls, establishing a theatrical situation in which the medium played the role of the performer, and the sitters the role of the spectators. Many spiritualist mediums were virtually indistinguishable from professional performers: they had managers and agents, advertised their performances in the press, and developed spirit phenomena characterized by a high degree of spectacularism and theatricality.
One might object that, despite the frequency of public demonstrations of spiritualism, spiritualist séances were most often conducted in private environments by closed circles of spiritualists. The sources examined in this book, however, point to the fact that spiritualist sittings staged in Victorian households also stimulated playfulness and amusement. Creating an opportunity for leisure, private séances integrated numerous elements that were connected to forms of domestic entertainment in nineteenth-century households, such as amateur prestidigitation tricks, parlor theaters, table games, and rational amusements. It was not by chance that spirit communication was performed through the use of tables, a domestic object frequently used to receive visitors, engage in conversation, and play cards. In order to establish a spiritualist circle, in fact, spiritualists opened their homes to strangers, organizing social events that played simultaneously with religious belief and with public performance and entertainment. As the well-known spiritualist medium Catherine Berry pointed out in 1876, “The sitters at my séances have been neither few nor unimportant, so that my [private] experiments have been conducted in public.”
Spiritualist mediums and leaders organized and conducted séances that were meant to be entertaining as well as uplifting; in doing so, they adopted strategies that were being developed and employed in the show trade. As James W. Cook points out, one of the most innovative marketing schemes in nineteenth-century show business resulted from the discovery that a degree of uncertainty about the authenticity of an attraction would contribute to the arousal of interest in the public and the popular press. Showmen such as P. T. Barnum understood that doubts about the authenticity of their spectacular feats only added to their appeal, and they would thus openly stimulate public controversies as an advertising scheme. As I demonstrate, spiritualists largely profited from this same strategy: mediums and leaders of the movement found in these controversies a way to grab the attention of the press and pique the public’s curiosity about spiritualism. Moreover, spiritualism benefited from the powerful publicizing mechanism connected to celebrity culture. Frequently, it was the appeal of famous mediums featured in the popular press that attracted the attention of the public. Celebrity mediums contributed to the cohesion of spiritualist communities by spreading the fame of the movement and by providing a shared ground of recognized personalities.
Indeed, one of the most significant characteristics of spiritualism is the extent to which it participated in the formation of modern media culture, defined, as Erkki Huhtamo proposes, as “a cultural condition, where large numbers of people live under the constant influence of media.” From the very beginning, spiritualists employed the newly established popular press as a vehicle for publicity, mirroring the seminal entertainment industry of the Victorian age, which found in the mass circulation of the press new opportunities for broadening its public and reach. Spiritualists published and circulated an astounding number of publications, establishing a circuit of spiritualist print media that played a key role in strengthening their sense of belonging to a dispersed but distinct community. They participated in the visual culture of their time, using photography and other visual media to produce images that functioned as religious items as well as attractions and visual curiosities. In short, as the following chapters will show, the rise of spiritualism coincided more than just chronologically with the rise of entertainment media that placed ghostly apparitions and supernatural phantasmagorias at the very core of popular culture.
Taken as a whole, my explorations into spiritualism’s spectacular character help frame the Victorian supernatural within the formation of a new commodity culture that changed the way public entertainments were planned, administered, marketed, and consumed. As scholars such as Fred Nadis, Sadiah Qureshi, and James Cook have shown, the nineteenth century signaled the growth of forms of live performance based on nontheatrical exhibitions of scientific, magic, anthropological, and human attractions. Freak shows, stage magic, popular scientific lectures, panoramas, and dime museums were part of a long-standing tradition of public display of wonders, by which unfamiliar objects and counterintuitive phenomena were offered to the gaze of curious viewers and spectators. While not all of these exhibition practices originated in the nineteenth century, what was unmistakably new about these attractions was their insertion in circuits of public visibility comprising commercial advertising, large-scale enterprises, and sensational reports heralded by the press. Tony Bennett uses the term “exhibitionary complex” to group the wide range of practices and performances that were offered to a growing public of entertainment seekers. Spiritualist séances, such as the one performed at the Corinthian Hall, shared many characteristics with these kinds of performances. The séance was set on a theatrical stage before a paying public and introduced by a short lecture. Advertising and publicity strategies were employed to attract potential audiences. Additionally, as in freak shows and other spectacular exhibits, the subject of attention was a “living curiosity,” a phenomenon that escaped normality to enter the dimension of curiosity and wonder. Séances, in this sense, participated in the exhibitionary complex that promoted the consumption of entertainment and leisure activities in the Victorian age.
Public demonstrations of spiritualism were also similar in many ways to popular scientific lectures, which presented technological and scientific novelties as sensational attractions. Magic and science in the nineteenth century were not contrasted but rather intimately allied: in an effort to appeal to the senses of their audiences through elaborate spectacular effects and performative strategies, lecturers mingled scientific lectures with stage magic. In London, for instance, the Royal Polytechnic—an institution devoted to the popularization of science and technology—mixed scientific divulgation with up-to-date illusions of stage magic, including in its repertoire the use of optical illusions to create an apparition of ghosts. The inclusion of elements of both science and magic in the exhibitionary complex of the nineteenth century is particularly relevant if we consider that one of the main characteristics of spiritualism, as highlighted by some of the most authoritative scholars in the field, was the insertion of its religious and spiritual viewpoints within a positivistic and scientific framework. Belief in spirit communication required the constant confirmation of empirical evidence: only the accumulation of facts and phenomena made it possible to profess and believe. This attention to empirical evidence came together with the sense, shared by many believers, that spiritualism was a “scientific” religion and that spirit communication could be experimentally verified. Moreover, spirit phenomena were explained by pointing to the agency of natural phenomena such as electricity, and spirit communication was frequently compared to communication technologies such as the telegraph. This emphasis on science and technology suggests that audiences who gathered for spiritualist demonstrations, not much differently from those who attended scientific lectures, could be attracted by the fascination of magic and, at the same time, by the appeal of scientific inquiry and knowledge. In fact, as scholars have noted, popular scientific lectures as well as stage-magic shows also benefited from the quasi-magical status of natural phenomena such as electricity and magnetism.
After the Fox sisters’ “discovery” of spirit communication, belief in spiritualism spread beyond North America, reaching countries as different and far away as Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Brazil. This book is mostly concerned with the British and American spiritualist movements, which maintained a relationship of continued exchange during the nineteenth century. The first medium to introduce spiritualism to Britain was the Bostonian Maria B. Hayden; moreover, many of the most famous mediums, including the Fox sisters, the Davenport brothers, and Daniel Dunglas Home, would travel from one side of the Atlantic to the other. While most historical works on spiritualism have focused on a unique national context, my choice to adopt a transatlantic perspective is meant to underline spiritualism’s international dimension. This was a characteristic that the movement shared with the new industrial-based show business. As the British magazine Theatre remarked in 1882, the “‘circuits’ of Bristol, Norwich and York of the last century are now replaced by those of the United States, South Africa, India and Australia, and a modern actor thinks as little of a season in Melbourne or New York as his grandfather did of a week’s ‘starring’ in Edinburgh.” Just as shows, performers, and attractions moved across exhibition circuits throughout the United States, Britain, Canada, continental Europe, and the rest of the world, so did spiritualist mediums and leaders travel from one continent to another, touring different countries in an effort to find new audiences of believers and curious spectators. In this context, the spiritualist movements of Victorian Britain and the United States exhibited a particularly high degree of mutual integration. This does not mean, of course, that British and American spiritualism were not different from each other. For instance, the United States in particular was regarded by spiritualists all over the world as a place where particular emphasis was given to the spectacular and theatrical character of séances. As one British medium put it, “American mediums are never lost for want of advertising; their light is not hid under a bushel.” Yet my analysis of the British and the American spiritualist movements reveals that intermingling with show business, entertainment practices, and consumer culture was characteristic of them both.
The time frame of this book spans almost the entire Victorian era, from the foundation of the spiritualist movement in 1848 to the beginning of the twentieth century. During this period, belief in spirit communication spread throughout America and Europe. The invention and commercial development of the moving picture as the nineteenth century drew to a close provides one possible apex for the rising entertainment industry and, consequently, an opportune—if arbitrary—end point for this book. The introduction of the moving image brought forth, as scholars have noted, the changes in the organization, marketing, and fabrication of attractions and celebrities that characterized nineteenth-century show business. Including a discussion of the relationship between cinematic representations of ghosts and spiritualism’s visual culture, this book aims to underline the continuity, rather than the rupture, between the spectacular entertainments of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries.
While Victorian spiritualism is sometimes depicted as a phenomenon that especially concerned the upper classes, the audiences of spiritualist demonstrations and the participants in spirit séances were, in fact, quite diverse in terms of class, gender, and, to a lesser extent, even race. Spiritualist communities in America and Britain varied in regard to religious faith, provenience, and social status; moreover, public events that displayed mediumistic phenomena were organized in theaters as well as more inclusive locations such as fairs and public halls. The multiplicity of environments in which séances and demonstrations were set defies a simplistic characterization of spiritualism as a pastime for the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.
The development of the media entertainment industry was part of a wide range of transformations in the culture, the economy, and the social milieu of both British and American society. While the birth of the entertainment industry is most often identified with the rise of classical cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century, this development was anticipated and readied by the transformations of spectacular entertainments and the show trade in the previous decades. Increasingly during the nineteenth century, large masses of people in Europe and the United States began to participate in leisure activities and recreation. As a result, large audiences became available for the consumption of popular entertainments. In the United States—first in the metropolitan areas along the Atlantic Coast and later in other contexts—managers and showmen seized the new entrepreneurial opportunities offered by the show trade, developing novel forms of entertainment and employing a range of advertising strategies. They strongly relied on the mass circulation of the newly established “penny press” as a vehicle for publicity. The rise of American show business was epitomized by the career of showman P. T. Barnum, who managed a system of spectacular attractions, including fairs, popular museums of curiosities, music, stage performances, and freak shows, and became one of the most famous personalities of his time.
The creation of new audiences and new exhibition practices also took place in the British context. As Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman observe, while Britain may have already become a consumer society by the eighteenth century, “it was not until the nineteenth century that most of the population had the opportunity to participate in this new world of goods, as products proliferated and the gap between prices and available income lessened.” In the middle of the century, the growth of the middle class and the institutionalization of the Saturday half holiday facilitated the development of an emergent field of showmanship and popular attraction. This was particularly true in metropolitan areas such as London, where the population increased from 900,000 in 1801 to 3,000,000 in 1851 and to 6,000,000 in 1901. Here, attractions such as panoramas and dioramas, stage-magic shows, lectures on scientific and cultural issues, freak shows, and cabinets of curiosities rivaled the popularity of theatrical plays.
Despite the attention that the history of the spiritualist movement has recently attracted in fields such as Victorian studies, cultural history, and the history of science, little emphasis has been placed on the movement’s overlap with the rise of the entertainment industry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Spiritualism is usually interpreted through a rigid framework, which leaves out the possibility that faith in spiritualism did not contrast but rather was embedded with the spectacular and entertaining character of séances. Historical works in this area have mainly focused on political, social, scientific, and religious issues, ignoring the ways in which spiritualism also interacted with entertainment practices and the show trade. As cultural historian Daniel Herman put it, most scholars have addressed spiritualism with “an almost grim seriousness that obscures its playfulness and its willingness to explore the profane as well as the sacred.” Although some scholars have acknowledged the fact that spiritualism was also a matter of entertainment and spectacle, their works have focused on the relationship of spiritualism with specific forms of entertainment, such as literature, theater, cinema, or stage magic, or they have not gone much beyond recognizing a degree of playfulness in the spiritualist experience. My analysis of spiritualism suggests that occult beliefs and practices should be interpreted in a more complex way. Spiritualist séances, in fact, were not only religious rituals and collective investigations into the phenomenon of spirit communication. They were also spectacular and entertaining events.
Scholars in media history, such as Jeffrey Sconce and John Durham Peters, have noted that spiritualism originated roughly at the same time that electric telegraphy was introduced in the United States; early spiritualists appropriated this technology as a metaphorical reference to explain communication with the world of spirits. Spiritualism, however, also coincided with another significant process in the history of media: the rise of show business and industrial entertainment during the nineteenth century. Beliefs in ghosts, haunted houses, and spirit communications existed (albeit in different forms) long before the advent of spiritualism. Yet, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the spiritualist movement succeeded in incorporating these beliefs into the growing market for entertainment and spectacular attractions. The extent to which spiritualism participated in this market is a distinctive characteristic of the movement that most set it apart from previous forms of belief in supernatural and ghostly entities.
More than 150 years after the Fox sisters’ rappings inaugurated the nineteenth-century craze for spirit séances, ghosts and other supernatural phenomena continue to haunt the imagination of entrepreneurs and performers in show business and the entertainment industry. In this sense, this book is not only a history of the relationship between spiritualism and spectacular entertainments in the nineteenth century. It is also a media archaeology of how the supernatural entered into the very core of twentieth- and twenty-first-century media culture—from cinema to television, from radio to new media, from comics to video games. By looking at spiritualism in the Victorian age, one might find a signal moment in which belief mingled with the spectacular and entertainment became a central element of spiritual and religious experiences. Understanding how this happened provides us with better tools to comprehend the key role played by beliefs in ghosts and other supernatural phenomena in contemporary popular culture.
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