Thursday, 17 March 2016

The Victorians and the Occult: Entertainment, Magic and Ghosts

The Victorians and the Occult: Entertainment, Magic and Ghosts

Introducing the 'Occult'

The 19th century was an age of exploration. A form of this exploration manifested itself through the concept of ‘the occult’. By definition, the term occult symbolizes ‘mystical, supernatural, or magical powers, practices, or phenomena.' (OED)(1)Traditional culture in society shifted towards the wonders of the world. Magic and illusion shows came off of the streets and entered the luxurious backdrop of the theatre to be enjoyed by society, particularly sparking interest in the educated, middle and upper classes and spiritualism became a mode of ghoulish entertainment (though this was a profanity in the bible). The occult also touched literature in the way that many famous writers such as Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Henry James pondered on the notion of the supernatural and ghosts in fiction as a riveting and deeply unsettling way of storytelling. Sociologist Max Weber referred to this as a process of disenchantment in the world: ‘Weber wanted to indicate the growing importance of rational science (instrumental rationality) in everyday life, and hence the corresponding disenchantment of the world and the erosion of religious powers’ (Weber, 26)(2). Ghost stories, transmissions and weird phenomena slowly became Victorian hegemony as the entertainment of the occult grew more popular.


The Fashionable Science of Parlour Magic
As a product of a growing secular society, the umbrella of spiritualism widened, creating many avenues of wonder. To match the high level of craftsmanship that thrived within the industrial revolution, a newer form of creativity began to prosper – and this was magic. Great figures of the magical world included that of John Henry Anderson, famously known as ‘Professor Anderson, the Wizard of the North’ performed around the UK, including seasons at Edinburgh, Glasgow and London from 1837-1840, even appearing before Queen Victoria herself and in Covent Garden theatre, revealing the sheer popularity of his art. He even expanded his horizons by performing in the U.S (1851-1853). His most notable tricks composed of the ‘gun trick’ where he would have been seen to catch a bullet fired by an audience member. Before the Victorian period, Magic could only really be seen in the likes of travelling street shows and at carnivals, but as fascination with new possibilities developed, magic would luxuriously be exhibited in theatres for the curious upper classes to indulge in. From a Victorian tome titled Magic (3) unearthed is the truth behind the illusion of popular magic tricks such as ‘disappearance’, provided logical explanation. 

The Disappearance Explanation

Though this would have seemingly been lacking in mysticism, other, more technological modes also had their share in bringing wonder to the world of the Victorians. Moving entertainment was animated through the Magic Lantern, a ‘slide projector, incorporating a light source which is projected through lenses onto a screen. The placing of an inverted slide in between the light source and lens allowed the image to be projected on a screen’ (Museum Victoria) (4). Stories projected involved that of a dog who stole meat from the butchers, or an elephant picking up a man with its trunk. These would be commonly referred to as a ‘Catastrophes’ series. To the Victorian who had never experienced cinematography or moving pictures, the sense of awe and excitement at these stories would have been heightened. In one case, a Victorian man ‘Mr. Salter’ produced a catalogue of slides that could be hired to be used in widely and in differing venues. Below is a video giving you a taste of what a Victorian Magic Lantern would show its audiences...

The Magic Lantern


The Fox Sisters
Now on a less light-hearted note, no mention of Victorian occult entertainment would be complete without speaking of the concept of spiritualism – a term denoting ‘a system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with spirits of the dead’. (5)
The appeal of the spiritualist late Victorian realm attracted all social classes, particularly that of the well educated, middle and upper classes. ‘One writer of the period commented that the "higher the class, the more fiercely did it [spiritualism] rage through it."’ (C. Gregory) (6). Spiritualism first made its way into English society in the mid nineteenth century. A factor that encouraged spiritualism was the migration of mediums from America in the 1850s. More particularly, it was the prominence of New York’s Fox sisters who rose to fame through their alleged ability to contact the dead. The phenomena of spiritualism swept through England hence, gaining immediate popularity. Through the agent of the medium, they would contact spirits by different means such as: tappings, fabrications of spirit forms, orbs (a light emanating from an unknown source) and by levitation. With this being said, it is unsurprising that spiritualism would soon become a source of entertainment, wonder and a social pastime. 

Table Turning - A Pamphlet
Candace Gregory maintains that ‘the spiritualist phenomena incorporated many of the fascinating general aspects that could be found in any study of the Victorian culture; spiritualism is an excellent focal point from which the various dynamics inherent in the Victorian society can be examined and understood’ (Suspension of Disbelief) (6). According to the bible, it is strictly forbidden to contact the dead: ‘[d]on’t turn to physics or mediums to get help. That will make you unclean. I am the LORD your God. (Bible Reasons, Leviticus 19:31) (7). Therefore, this reveals the high level of secularity in Victorian society - the fact that Victorian people were (perhaps ignorantly) going against Christianity in this way, in the pursuit of curiosity truly made them a daring population, showing the immensity of the spiritualist culture.


Ghosts and the supernatural were major themes explored in many great Victorian novels, such as: A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), The Old Nurses Story (Elizabeth Gaskell) or An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Augier Street  (Sheridan Le Fanu). It would hardly be surprising to state that the Victorian’s loved a ghost story. What with the rising popularity in magic, illusion and mediums that I have already mentioned, ghosts in Victorian literature was not a vessel left untouched, in actuality… many Victorian novelists tried their hand at the ghoulish, gothic genre. Though for me amongst many of the other brilliant Victorian stories on the supernatural, one stands out as being perhaps the most enthralling read – and this is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1890). Published in the late nineteenth century, the The Turn of the Screw is a novella about a governess (Miss Jessel), two slightly creepy children (Miles and Flora) and their dealings with chilling ghosts, specifically one named Peter Quint. Henry James conquers the prospect of supernatural storytelling by his way in which he instills trepidation and horror in the reader. In this account of Miss Jessel’s first experience with Peter Quint, the reader would be able to regard the perceptions of the excited, hungry Victorian spiritualist:

The Turn of the Screw
One step into the room had sufficed; my vision was instantaneous; it was all there. The person looking straight in was the person who had already appeared to me. He appeared thus again with I won’t say greater distinctness, for that was impossible, but with a nearness that represented a forward stride in our intercourse and made me, as I met him, catch my breath and turn cold. He was the same—he was the same, and seen, this time, as he had been seen before, from the waist up, the window, though the dining-room was on the ground-floor, not going down to the terrace on which he stood. 

His face was close to the glass, yet the effect of this better view was, strangely, only to show me how intense the former had been. He remained but a few seconds—long enough to convince me he also saw and recognised; but it was as if I had been looking at him for years and had known him always. Something, however, happened this time that had not happened before; his stare into my face, through the glass and across the room, was as deep and hard as then, but it quitted me for a moment during which I could still watch it, see it fix successively several other things. On the spot there came to me the added shock of a certitude that it was not for me he had come there. He had come for someone else. (34)’ (8)

Though Henry James does not refer to a ghost, the gradual anxiety built in the excerpt creates eeriness. Upon seeing the figure she turns ‘cold’ and describes the prolonged presence of Quint, long enough to ‘convince’ her that the apparition was real, however it is likely that the avid Victorian spiritualist would need little convincing. In a more general view it could be discerned that the conundrums of Quint’s ghost manifests itself as a reflection of a sort of social chaos, or usurping of traditional Victorian pastimes. Furthermore, the occult was one celebrated through much literature and theatrical means, mirroring the popularity of the abstraction.

Works Cited

(1) Occult. "Definition of Occult in English:." Occult.
            Mar. 2016.

(2) Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Milton
            Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2009. Print.

(3) "Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions." Sci Am
            Scientific American 77.7 (1897): 99. Web.

(5) "Definition of Spiritualism in English:" Spiritualism. <>Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

(6) Gregory, Candace. "A Willing Suspension of Disbelief." A Willing
            Suspension of Disbelief. Loyno, Web. 13 Mar. 2016.

(8) James, Henry. "The Turn of the Screw”. Ibiblio. Elegant

            EBooks. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Images and videos (in order of appearance)

A Shilling's Worth of Magic. Digital image. British Library Archive. British Library Archive. Web. <>

Disappearance Explained. Digital image. Public Domain Review. Public Domain Review. Web. < (scroll down for image)

The Magic Lantern. Digital image. Poppyland. Poppyland. Web. <>.

"Magic Lantern Lights up College." YouTube. YouTube, video. Web. 19 Mar 2012. 15 Mar. 2016. <>.

The Fox Sisters. Digital image. Boroughs Of the Dead. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

Table Moving Pamphlet. Digital image. British Library Archives. British Library, n.d. Web. <>.

The Turn of the Screw Book Cover. Digital image. Haunted Hearts. N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

"Quint at the Window: (1959 - The Turn of the Screw)." YouTube. video, 27 May 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2016. <>.


  1. Hi Tayla
    What a great topic for a blog. Our study of W.B. Yeats sprung to my mind as I was reading it. He carried the avid interest in mysticism and occultism with him from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and it's interesting how different the reaction to these beliefs was in the twentieth century: Auden's description of Yeats as "silly" springs to mind.

    I was wondering if you came across any other strange or interesting aspects of Victorian horror?

    1. Hey Alastair,

      Thank you for taking the time to read through my blog and for your praise! Your acknowledgement of Yeats in regards to this subject is very intriguing and I would agree with you. Particularly I am reminded Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening” (1973) in this respect, and the lines: ‘[t]he glacier knocks in the cupboard, The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the teacup opens A lane to the land of the dead.’

      In regards to your question, I did a lot of research on the concept of phantasmagoria in the Victorian era. Phantasmagoria also utilised the magic lantern, however these shows endeavoured to terrify its audience. The show was effectively a horror show. The spectators were led through a graveyard, into the showroom and plunged into darkness and the lantern would then project various ghoulish images onto a screen. Yet a fascinating aspect of these shows was that the audience were often given drugs and alcohol to heighten their experience. You may be interested in this video - .

      Kind regards,


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