Friday, 5 December 2014

The Macabre Victorians

The Victorian era and its people have become an almost stereotype in today’s culture, of stiffness and uptight behavior and views. They are caricatures of conservatism, believed to have hidden piano legs out of prudishness. So if they were, in fact, so intent on proper behavior, why then, are they also synonymous with an appreciation of the macabre? The Gothic genre was popularised throughout the Victorian era, with works of art and literature adopting this style and reaping success because of it. The influence the Gothic movement had on the Victorians can be seen today, in architecture and canonical literature such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and perhaps most famously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. However, the influence of the supernatural did not stop at Victorian art, it infiltrated the lives of these people, resulting in the then popular form of entertainment amongst adults – Séances. The fascination inspired by Gothic works created a desire for some to actually contact the dead themselves. Also, as the Victorians were so obsessed with progression and development, the art of the Séance became an almost pseudo science, in which achieving contact with the dead proved life after death – a pressing matter for Victorians.


Victorians performing a Séance 


What are Séances?

A Séance, in Victorian times, was a way in which a group of adults attempted to contact the dead – be they a deceased friend or family member, or perhaps simply a random spirit. The group would gather together and sit around a table, linking hands and channeling their energy into opening the gateway between the living and the dead. The group would be lead by a “medium”, a person responsible for providing the gateway, in the sense that they themselves would act as portal for the spirit to speak through and sometimes materialize themselves, in one way or another. There were many reasons why people took part in these events, for some it was a way of exploring alternatives to the predominantly religious views on death, a more spiritualistic approach, and for some it was simply a method of contacting a loved one and achieving closure. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, famously believed and participated in Séances after the loss of his son, Kingsley. Many elements of his work was influenced by his Spiritualist beliefs, however, this belief was later disputed by his friend Harry Houdini, who was adamant that the conductors of Séances were simply in it for the money and the fame[i].

 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at a Séance



Real or fake?


Harry Houdini wasn’t the only person who disputed the reliability of the mediums conducting Séances, and the Séances themselves. Many people believed the mediums conducting the Séances were simply taking advantage of a fad, hyping up a trend and encouraging people to pay for their services. To ensure believability, some mediums would swallow a substance prior to the Séance, which they would then regurgitate under a state of “possession”. This substance was supposed to emulate “ectoplasm”, a liquid that is said to ooze from the medium from various orifices in their body, when the spirit contacted them attempts to materialise. However, Some cases ended up with ectoplasm being produced without dispute from the patrons, for example, Conan Doyle described the substance as “a viscous, gelatinous substance which appeared to differ from every known form of matter in that it could solidify and be used for material purposes”[ii]. Despite this, ectoplasm has been scientifically disproved since World War II[ii], which in turn possibly suggests the mediums who experienced ectoplasmic oozings where more than likely frauds. Various methods for producing ectoplasm in fraudulent ways have been speculated on, with theories such as swallowing pieces of fabric covered with egg whites[iv] and then spitting them out at the right time – which clearly shows that the mediums valued belief in their “arts” over their own comfort! Despite that, the techniques used don't sound very much like they would be convincing at all, but when you imagine the setting - dark, candle lit room, tense atmosphere, the whole event being conducted by a "professional" - it's easy to see why people believed what they were seeing to be true. It also helps that photographs in those days had incredibly long exposure times, meaning that any movement was picked up by cameras and gave the photo a blurred, surreal effect...


 A medium expressing Ectoplasm


Modern Day Popularity

Regardless of whether the Victorians believed in the supernatural or not, one thing is certain. The popularity of supernatural acts popularised by the Victorians, such as Séances, has remained. In fact, it may have even possibly increased. Every year, a new film is released depicting the events of (usually) a group of teenagers that decide they want to contact the dead. Needless to say, it never ends well. However, this type of media just goes to show that whilst many people may have that vision of the staunch, uptight Victorian, they too share the same fascination in the unknown and may even one day partake in a Séance themselves.  And although some people may not particularly enjoy horror films and the like, they have probably read a classic gothic novel at some point in their lives. Charles Dickens describes the ghost of Christmas past in A Christmas Carol taking off his bandage and states "... how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!"[v] – clearly a disturbing image, but nevertheless, one people still enjoy today.


Alex Wright, Seance: The Summoning (2011)

John Leech's illustration for A Christmas Carol, 
depicting the ghost of christmas past 
and Ebenezer Scrouge.



The mere fact that these books can be referred to as “classics” just goes to show the unswaying interest people have with the macabre, even in this day and age, when science has answered most questions for us. Maybe, when it comes to enjoyment and appreciation of the supernatural, we as a society are not too different to the Victorians.




“The Victorians were haunted by the supernatural. They delighted in ghost stories and fairy tales, and in legends of strange gods, demons and spirits; in pantomimes and extravaganzas full of supernatural machinery; in gothic yarns of reanimated corpses and vampires. Even avowedly realist novels were full of dreams, premonitions and second sight. It was not simply a matter of stories and storytelling, though, for the material world they inhabited often seemed somehow supernatural. Disembodied voices over the telephone, the superhuman speed of the railway, near instantaneous communication through telegraph wires: the collapsing of time and distance by modern technologies that were transforming daily life was often felt to be uncanny.”[vi]



Images Cited



  • "Seance Ectoplasm - Viewing Gallery." Seance Ectoplasm - Viewing Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
  • "Seance Ectoplasm - Viewing Gallery." Seance Ectoplasm - Viewing Gallery. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
  • "Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini Were Fast Friends until Doyle's Wife Held a Seance. What Happened next Is Fascinating." Omgfacts. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
  • "Seance: The Summoning." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
  • "The Wonder of Christmas." The Wonder of Christmas RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
Works Cited

[i] "THE ODD SPIRITUALISM OF SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE." More Intelligent Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2014.
[ii]  Arthur Conan Doyle. (1930). The Edge of the Unknown. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Print.
[iii] Jan Dirk Blom. (2009). A Dictionary of Hallucinations. p. 168
[iv] John Mulholland. (1975). Beware familiar spirits. p. 142
[v] Dickens, Charles, and Trina Schart Hyman. A Christmas Carol: In Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. New York: Holiday House, 1983. Print.
[vi] Bown, Nicola, Carolyn Burdett, and Pamela Thurschwell, eds. The Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

1 comment:

  1. Love this, Lauren! Really like your reference to Frankenstein and how this fits in with your topic!

    ReplyDelete