Wednesday, 2 December 2015

What got the Victorians so spooked?

Figure 1. Original London Ghost Walk: 
Tour Leader, Richard Jones
From the first gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole to the late nineteenth century ghost story The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James, it’s clear that the Victorians were obsessed with supernatural stories. Despite technological and scientific discoveries, the era saw an overwhelming surge in curiosity towards ghosts and, inevitably, saw an increase in the gothic literature produced. What raised these ghosts from their graves into the literary canon of the nineteenth century? My blog shall delve into the philosophical and psychological depths behind the golden age of ghost stories, discussing why they were (and still are) so alluring and why they were embedded in the foundations of the Victorian gothic texts. Ultimately aiming to answer one question: what got the Victorians so spooked? For the purposes of my blog, I attended the Original London Ghost Walk, led by Richard Jones, to expand my knowledge on local ghosts and supernatural traditions. Throughout my post, I have included thoughts and images obtained from my trip.

            During the Victorian era, phantoms of young children were exceptionally common in the literary haunting experience. For example, Catherine Linton’s ghost at the start of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847):

[M]y fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me […] and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in – let me in!” […] I discerned, obscurely, a child’s face looking through the window (30).

Figure 2. “Wuthering Heights Illustrations” 
by Fritz Eichenberg
This quotation reveals a connection between Lockwood and the young spectre; a hair-raising physical intimacy as his fingers “closed on” those of Catherine’s. The term “fingers” suggests an image of doubling, the window is a metaphorical barrier between the living world of the narrator and the supernatural world of the apparition. In addition, the phrase “little, ice-cold hand” provides a sensory representation of the ghost and signifies death in the child – a lack of warmth and thus, a lack of life. Furthermore, repetition of the phrase “let me in” is especially chilling, making the phantom seem mysterious. Who is Catherine Linton, the “wicked little soul” (32), and why does she want to be let into the bedroom? The ambiguity surrounding the child is provoking and distresses Lockwood, who describes his “maddening fear” (30) at the sight. Therefore, in this spooky scene, readers understand the narrator’s fear of the young, eerie spectre – a characteristic theme in Victorian gothic texts.
Apparitions spooked many Victorians, including Elizabeth Gaskell, who once wrote to Eliza Fox claiming “I SAW a ghost!” (qtd. in Laura Kranzler: xi). In Gaskell’s short text ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1952) we see apparitions clearly lingering in her writing too. A young girl, Miss Rosalind, is lured outside by a spectral child who had “taken her by the hand” (22) – reflecting the intimacy of hands used by Bronte. Miss Rosalind explains: “I hear my little girl plaining and crying very sad – oh, let her in, or she will die!” (29). Frequent punctuation here develops oppressive pauses,
Figure 3. Elizabeth Gaskell ‘The Old Nurse’s 
Story’ by M. Grant Kelleymeyer
elongating the pronunciation and enforcing an unnerving tone. Again similar to Bronte’s novel, the ghostly child is requesting entry into the house. Why were these images common in gothic literature? Such images inspire thoughts of the Freudian uncanny.  Children usually have connotations of innocence and naivety, however the infant spectres in these stories harbour information unknown to the reader, causing an unsettling secret to haunt the reader. As Julian Wolfreys notes: “The act of haunting is effective because it displaces us in those places where we feel most secure […] haunting is nothing other than the destabilization of the domestic scene” (5). Due to these literary child ghosts, we are forced to wonder why they spooked the Victorians. Perhaps the young phantoms were popular due to the high child mortality rates in the 1840s – around ten years before these ghost stories were produced. As Saira Ahmad comments in her blog “So, you call this life?” poverty and disease terrified the lower Victorian classes and inevitably caused many people to die – especially young children. Therefore, perhaps young apparitions, frequently appearing in gothic literature, were a consequence of the guilt felt by Victorians. The ghost children are isolated outside of the home, pleading for entry, as the dead Victorian children are outside of society and the boundaries of life. This is echoed by Elton E. Smith and Robert Haas who claim that “[ghosts] initial popularity could easily be attributed to the Victorian obsession with darkness and evil, as well as to Victorian repression and guilt” (vii). Consequently, we wonder whether the Victorians were spooked by the reality of their society, epitomised by the young, ghastly apparitions.
            Technological advances may have also been guilty in spooking the Victorians and causing a rise in spectral literature. Despite offering numerous possibilities, technology struck terror in many people. For instance, Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1876. Telephones offered the uncanny experience of being able to communicate with people without having them physically present.
Figure 4. Image of Alexander Graham Bell talking into a 
telephone at the Centennial Exhibition, Pennsylvania, 1876
This experience was thriving with superstition during the Victorian period, as Nicola Bown et al. points out: “The mysterious powers of electricity […] made the world seem as if it were full of invisible, occult forces” (1). The idea of sound being detached from a physical body is echoed throughout gothic literature. For example, in Gaskell’s ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ the harrowing and tormenting sounds of the piano being played: “my flesh began to creep […] the old lord, if it was he, played away more, and more stormily and sadly on the great organ” (18-19). Sibilance used here echoes the gloomy rhythm played on the piano: “more stormily and sadly”. This haunting tune, combined with the anonymity of the player, reveals the spookiness of noise in gothic literature. Therefore, it is probable that advances in technology and soundscapes during the nineteenth century created an uncanny fear and stressed the unnerving ghostly voice, thus, spooking the Victorians.
Figure 5. Original London Ghost Walk: 
Gas lamp located by Guildhall Buildings, London
Gas lamps may also claim involvement in the spooky ghost sighting experience and the surge in spectral literature. During the Victorian era, many homes were fitted with gas lamps as they provided stable, strong lighting. However, as Ruth Robins and Richard Jones both explain, carbon monoxide was sometimes released from incorrectly installed gas lamps. Carbon monoxide intoxicated the Victorians and caused numerous hallucinations – perhaps including visions of ghosts (Leeds Beckett University, YouTube). Consequently, gas lamps may indicate why there were so many ghost novels emerging during the nineteenth century – and why phantoms were spooking so many Victorians.
            In addition, scientific research may she spooking of the contemporary people. The Victorian era saw incredible scientific discoveries and was often known as the Age of Reason. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his text The Origin of Species, in which he proposes the theory of natural selection.
Figure 6. First Edition of The Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin
 Natural selection is the idea that human life occurred as a result of adaptation to environments, rather than being given from an almighty God. So, the era unavoidably saw people casting off religion to follow the evolutionary teachings of Darwin. This detachment from religion caused confusion and fear for many Victorians. Without God, there was no secure explanation for an afterlife and, therefore, the human soul was seen as ambiguous. If the soul does not go directly to heaven or hell, where does it go? Perhaps this is the reason for the Victorian belief in ghosts; a soul trapped on earth, eternally haunting the living. Some Victorians were even waiting for science to prove the existence of the human spirit. As Bown et al. explains “[in the nineteenth century] the spirit is viewed as an yet undiscovered material form, which awaits only new scientific discoveries for its true nature to be revealed” (7). On the other hand, ghost stories may have been used to reintroduce wonder into the contemporary society. With religion being reduced as a result of scientific discoveries, it is possible that the gothic novel was created to keep ideas of supernaturalism and spiritualism alive. Consequently, despite the rationality of scientific advances in the enlightened period, Victorian people became fearful regarding the placement of their souls and this may have been what spooked them.
In conclusion, the Victorians were obsessed with supernatural tales. Numerous gothic stories produced in the nineteenth century are centred on images of apparitions and uncanny hauntings. So, the question I posed was: what got the Victorians so spooked? In my blog, I have delved into four main areas that may have caused the public to be so frightened of phantoms: Child poverty among the lower classes and the guilt experienced by the living, the introduction of technology, including the telephone and its Freudian uncanny in regards to disembodied voices, gas lamps and the hallucinatory carbon monoxide they produced and finally, the Age of Reason and the enlightening scientific discoveries that inspired a detachment from religion and, thus, an ambiguity of the soul. To conclude, the Victorians were spooked by the world around them; regretting the past, troubled with the present and dreading the advances of the future.

Figure 7. Original London Ghost Walk: 
Photograph of London alleyway,
located near St. Paul’s Cathedral
Figure 8. Original London Ghost Walk: 
Photograph 2 of London alleyway, 
located near Bank station

If you are interested in historic ghosts in London, I highly recommend attending the Original London Ghost Walk, see details:

Works Cited:

Bown, Nicola, et. al. The  Victorian Supernatural. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 1-7. Print

Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights. Sydney: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1997. 30-32. Print

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Gothic Tales. Ed. Kranzler, Laura. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. 18-29. Print

Kranzler, Laura. “Introduction”. In Gothic Tales. Ed. Gaskell, Elizabeth. London: Penguin Classics, 2000. xi. Print

Leeds Beckett University. Professor Ruth Robbins – ‘The Victorian Ghost’. Ruth Robbins.YouTube, 2013. Web. 30 November 2015. <>

Smith, Elton E. and Robert Haas. The Haunted Mind. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999.vii. Print

Wolfreys, Julian. Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny and Literature. NewYork: Palgrave, 2002. 5. Print

Works Cited (Images):
Figure 1. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Original London Ghost Walk: Tour Leader, Richard Jones”. 2015. JPEG file.

Figure 2. Eichenberg, Fritz. “Wuthering Heights Illustration”. Modern Library. 1996.Web. 30 November 2015.<>

Figure 3. Kelleymeyer, Grant M. “Elizabeth Gaskell – The Old Nurse’s Story”. Deviant Art2014-15. 1 December 2015. <>

Figure 4. Alexander Graham Bell. Digital Image. Early Office Museum. 2000. Web. 30 November 2015. <>

Figure 5. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Original London Ghost Walk: Gas lamp located by Guildhall Buildings, London”. 2015. JPEG file.

Figure 6. The Origin of Species, first edition, 1859 (BV D10). St John’s College University ofCambridge. 2014. Web. 30 November 2015. <>

Figure 7. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Original London Ghost Walk: Photograph of London alleyway, located near St. Paul’s Cathedral”. 2015. JPEG file.

Figure 8. Bialkowski, Phoebe. “Original London Ghost Walk: Photograph 2 of London alleyway, located near Bank station”. 2015. JPEG file.


  1. Hi Phoebe,
    I really enjoyed your blog! It was really interesting to read. No wonder there were so many ghost stories going round, after all the new things the Victorians were experiencing, I think I'd be spooked too!
    (p.s.thanks for mentioning me)
    Saira :)

    1. Hi Saira,

      I definitely agree - the technological and scientific advances must have been terrifying for the Victorians. And thank you for letting me reference your post! It really showed me how difficult Victorian life must have been for all different kinds of people.


  2. Hey Phoebe,
    Love the original pictures.
    I recognize both those roads and they are definitely creepy.
    Great blog!

    1. Thank you, Deborah! Have you been on the ghost walk too? :)


  3. Hi Phoebe,

    I enjoyed your blog. I'd love to join the original ghost tour after reading your post.
    Victorian people's thinking about the soul is interesting. Now I see why Victorian people were so spooked. By the way, I love your photo (figure 7). It's so spooky but also beautiful.

    1. Hello Naoko,

      I'm really glad that you enjoyed my blog. Figure seven is my favourite too! The mood in the alleyway was so eerie and haunting - and the street lamps created a beautiful glow. I felt as though I had to capture it for my post! :)


  4. Hi Phoebe,

    I really love the fact that you went on a ghost walk to gather information, very original! also I love how you referenced other people's blogs! Generally I found this very interesting and spooky.


    1. Hey Eliza!

      Thank you for commenting on my post. The ghost walk was a great experience - I would definitely recommend it if you were interested. Richard Jones was an amazing guide, he was both knowledgeable and spooky, making the experience fascinating - and tickets were only £10 each!


  5. Hi Phoebe,
    This is a great blog! I particularly liked your reference to child ghosts, there is something seriously spooky about child hauntings! I also really enjoyed your link between ghosts and electricity, this is not something I had previously thought about or linked, so it was great to be informed by your perspective. The Original London Ghost Tour looks great and I will be sure to attend it myself! thank you for a great read! :)