Friday, 13 March 2015

Communicating With the Dead

A séance

For thousands of years humans have been curious about death and what happens to us after we die. Nearly every society, culture, and religion, from the Ancient Greeks and Romans to Christianity and Hinduism, have come up with explanations. Our interest in death and the possibility of an afterlife is unending, perhaps because it is a question that no living person can solve. The people living during the Victorian era were no exception. Popular between the mid to late 1800s was a movement called Spiritualism, which is simply a belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living through the use of mediums (“Definition of Spiritualism”).

The Fox Sisters

Various forms of Spiritualism had been practiced all over the world for years and years, but Modern Spiritualism began in 1848 in Hydesville, New York, when sisters Kate and Margaretta “Maggie” Fox started claiming “they had been plagued by unexplained raps that sounded throughout the house and disrupted their peace of mind as well as their sleep” (Tromp 163). Realizing the intelligence and responsiveness of the sounds, the girls began to question the entity and determined it could give them information about them and the lives of other people. They performed demonstrations and eventually grew to become famous mediums, the person through which the dead can supposedly contact the living.


The Fox Sisters, from left to right, Leah, Kate, and Maggie

Spiritualism and the Victorians

With the movement of mediums from America to Europe in the 1850s, Spiritualism was brought into English society. It became popular among the upper and middle classes, with one writer commenting that the “higher the class, the more fiercely did it [spiritualism] rage through it” (Gregory). But, why did it have appeal? It is no secret to anyone with a basic understanding of Victorian culture that the people of the time were concerned with morality. Wouldn’t contacting dead spirits go against this notion? Not necessarily. “The spiritualist movement both conformed to and rebelled against the Victorian concerns for moral respectability” (Gregory). The desire to contact dead loved ones reflected the idea of strong family ties, an important Victorian tradition. On the other hand, the performance of séances were done in more relaxed setting where “where many of the ordinary social restraints were dismissed” (Gregory). The hands of the sitters were joined, which “violated customary boundaries of age and gender” (Tromp 21).

Though it “broke countless rules of decency and decorum” (Tromp 21), Spiritualism, particularly the role of the medium, represented a means of freedom and power for the repressed Victorian woman. It “undermined the social structures that defined a narrow circuit of behavior for women” (Tromp 22). It gave them control over the séance, and by extension, over the sitters. Channelling spirits, making them both themselves and not themselves,  not only allowed them to speak openly on politics and religion, but gave their voice authority. As mediums, they could earn a living and were taken seriously. Opportunities, attention, and status were offered to them, allowing them to make what were otherwise considered “unconventional life choices” (Tromp 28).


The word séance produces similar images in everyone’s mind—that of a group of people gathered around a table, holding hands. Séances are the rituals through which mediums attempt to contact the spirits of the dead. These communications could come in the form of “raps, tappings, materializations of spirit forms, levitations of persons or objects, and anonymous lights that had no apparent source” (Gregory). While some séances were performed at a table with the medium present, there were some in which the medium would enter a darkened room by herself while the circle of sitters at the table would sing. After a few moments, a materialized spirit would emerge from the room while the medium stayed inside. The materialization of the spirit was “manifested through the spiritual energy and, as some theorists later claimed, the ectoplasm of the medium” (Tromp 22). Descriptions of the ectoplasm differ from “a slimy substance,” to “a fine muslin-like material,” to “something like smoke or of a rubbery dough-like consistency” (Hooper). To ensure there was no trickery on the medium’s part, she would be bound in some way to the room, whether tied to her chair, have her hair nailed to the wall, or have her pierced ear run through with a string that had a weight attached on the outside of the cabinet (Tromp 22).

Images clockwise starting from the top: Séance scene from television show Penny Dreadful; ectoplasm in movie A Haunting in Connecticut; Medium Eva C. excreting ectoplasm

The Ouija Board: History, Perception, and Popular Culture

Spiritualism may seem like a thing of the past, and other than the occasional palm reader or psychic holding their tarot cards, it generally is. Seances are not popular at dinner parties anymore. But, there is still a relic that remains from this mystical movement: the Ouija board. As Spiritualism grew in America, “so too did frustration with how long it took to get any meaningful message out of the spirits” (McRobbie). In an age when the speed of transportation and communication were increasing, waiting for a knock at the right letter of the alphabet was understandably considered slow and possibly even dull. The Kennard Novelty Company capitalized on this need, and thus the Ouija board appeared in 1891. “Contrary to popular belief, ‘Ouija’ is not a combination of the French for ‘yes,’ oui, and the German ja,” it was coined by Helen Peters, who was “a strong medium,” and who asked the board what it should be named; “the name ‘Ouija’ came through and, when they asked what that meant, the board replied, ‘Good luck’” (McRobbie). The creators of the board did not need to explain how the board worked—the mystery was no doubt a part of the appeal, as well as the company’s marketing strategy. The “wonderful talking board” proved to be a success not just in America, but in Europe as well (Pittsburgh dispatch). By 1892, the Kennard Novelty Company grew from being just one factory in Baltimore to seven—two in Baltimore, two in Chicago, two in New York City, and one in London (McRobbie).

The popularity of the board lasted for decades, particularly during uncertain times when the need for an outlet and belief is greatest. “Film and TV depictions of the Ouija board were usually jokey, hokey, and silly—‘I Love Lucy,’ for example, featured a 1951 episode in which Lucy and Ethel host a séance using the Ouija board” (McRobbie). That is, until 1973 when the perception of it changed with the release of The Exorcist. In the movie, Regan becomes possessed by a demon after playing with a Ouija board. From then to now, the game is associated with the devil and is the focus of all sorts of horror stories. It’s popularity has not decreased, however, though people’s reasons for buying it has: they are spooky rather than spiritual, with a distinct frisson of danger (McRobbie). In the past decade, it has been featured in television shows like American Horror Story and movies such as Paranormal Activity, and most recently, Ouija. Whether or not the board is a harmless game or the tool of the devil, it’s popularity does not seem likely to die anytime soon, and is the modern day’s continuation of Spiritualism.

Images from top to bottom: Ouija board; Ouija board scene in The Exorcist

Works Cited

“Definition of Spiritualism.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford University Press. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Gregory, Candace. "A Willing Suspension of Disbelief." A Willing Suspension of Disbelief. N.p. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <>.

Hooper, Mary. "Victorian Ectoplasm-producing Mediums: Freaks or Fakes?" The Guardian. The Guardian, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.

McRobbie, Linda. "The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board.", 27 Oct. 2013. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.

"Pittsburg Dispatch. (Pittsburg [Pa.]) 1880-1923, February 01, 1891, SECOND PART, Page 12, Image 12." News about Chronicling America RSS. Library of Congress. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. < #date1=1836&sort=date&date2=1922&words=Board Ouija&searchType=basic&sequence=0&index=0&state=&rows=20&proxtext=ouija board&y=0&x=0&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1>.

Tromp, Marlene. Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Print.

Links for Images (in order of appearance)

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