I’ve just watched Philippa Perry’s episode of Victorian Sensations, and one of the thoughts in the film resonated with me in particular.
Maybe it’s not surprising that people of the age saw so many ghosts because, in a sense, spirits did haunt the Victorian home. Every Victorian innovation – from photography to motion pictures, phonographs to fantasy books – had its own supernatural genre. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes, drew on his real-life experience as a ghostbuster to write his ghostly fiction.
If I’m remembering correctly, this – from the programme description – is a direct quote from the script, and as the first spoken sentence concluded, I actually thought it was going to go in a different way.
Before the technological media innovations of the Victorian era – voice recording, cinematography, photography – the only way a person could be present in our world was to be present. The phonograph and cinematograph, and even photography, however, meant that a person could appear to our senses to be present even when absent, which was surely as unsettling as it was exciting. Even realistic depictions in paint or marble couldn’t summon up a sparkling, vital presence in the same way, and so might it not be arguable that this techology-led blurring between, I guess, sinew and soul – this explicit fracturing of reality – was part of what created a chink for spiritualism and metaphysics to spread into the world?
If you have only ever experienced people as living, breathing, real things, tech that made them seem to come alive or travel in space and time must have made you question and challenge your frameworks for reality.
Maybe I’m over-egging this; shamans, drugs, magicians would have been deliberately eliding the natural and supernatural for long, long before the 19th century, and maybe I’m overplaying the penetration of these technologies. Maybe too this is a well-worn trope, which I’m just ignorant of. It’s just that a possible link between the technology which allowed people to be present while actually being absent, and the rise in spiritualism, had just never before occurred to me.