Last October 2021, we gathered some friends, historians, a museum curator, and fellow spectrophiles to run an experiment at the Museum of the Home in London. We wanted to see if we could recreate spirit photographs using historically accurate Victorian methods.
This post contains three parts. First, a short history of spirit photography. Second, an interview with our photographer Selina Mayer. And finally, our Spirit Photography Album with the outcomes of the experiment.
***If you want to skip straight to our Spirit Photography Album first, scroll to the bottom of this post.***
Whether it was considered an intellectual pursuit, a genuine religious order, a feminist flag, or just a grand excuse for a gin-soaked party, Spiritualism was a crucible where many of the conflicting and newly forming ideas of the late Victorian era brewed and clashed. At one point it was the domain of the intellectual elite, who held literary salons discussing Swedenborg and Blake. At the other extreme it was reverse colonialism gone mad, with female liberation, drunkenness—and worst of all Americanness—running rampant through England.
The Victorians had long been fascinated by a wide range of phenomena that might loosely be termed the ‘occult’; and earlier manifestations of interest in spirituality had made their mark during the first half of the 19th century. Tracing Spiritualism’s lines of origin, we’re driven through these occult pathways into the heart of Bloomsbury. Button your greatcoat and steel your nerves as your tour guide Dr Romany Reagan leads you on an audio journey through the Bloomsbury backstreets into a landscape of gothic intrigues and Victorian ghost stories.
I made this video with The Dickens Project out of University of California, Santa Cruz for their Dickens-to-Go project.
Just in time for Halloween, Dr. Romany Reagan explains how the Victorian revival of Mesmerism of the 1830s allowed Dickens to explore “ideas about the workings of the mind [that] come through in his work when you start to see his characters and their hauntings through the lens of his mesmeric philosophy.”
Noises? I myself have sat in the dismal parlour listening, until I have heard so many and strange noises that they would have chilled my blood if I had not warmed it by dashing out to make discoveries. Try this in bed, in the dead of the night; try this at your own comfortable fireside, in the life of the night. You can fill any house with noises, if you will, until you have a noise for every nerve in your nervous system.
—Charles Dickens, Haunted House
In honour of Charles Dickens Day, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death on 9 June 2020, I’m dedicating both last week’s and this week’s posts to one of my favourite storytellers. For this week, I’ll delve deeper into the meaning behind Dickens’s ghosts.
Did you know that Charles Dickens had an enduring obsession with Mesmerism? It’s so strange when you start to dig into it, because you can begin to see how this belief informed his conception and presentation of ghosts and the supernatural within his stories. The themes that Dickens addresses most famously in his writing are the state of Victorian society and its treatment of the poor; but his ideas about the workings of the mind come through in his writing when you start to see his characters and their hauntings through the lens of his mesmeric philosophy.