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.
MAGIC AND ILLUSION
|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|
SPIRITUALISM, SEANCE AND TABLE TURNING
|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.
SPIRITUALISM IN LITERATURE: THE TURN OF THE SCREW
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|
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)
(1) Occult. "Definition of Occult in English:." Occult.
(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.
(4) Description of Magic Lantern: < https://museumvictoria.com.au/learning-federation/video-temp/magic-lantern-show-video/video-of-magic-lantern-show/> web.
(5) "Definition of Spiritualism in English:" Spiritualism. <http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/spiritualismWeb. 16 Mar. 2016.
(6) Gregory, Candace. "A Willing Suspension of Disbelief." A Willing
Suspension of Disbelief. Loyno, Web. 13 Mar. 2016.
(7) Leviticus19:31 - <http://biblereasons.com/contacting-the-dead/>
(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. <http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-fashionable-science-of-parlour-magic>
The Magic Lantern. Digital image. Poppyland. Poppyland. Web. <http://www.poppyland.co.uk/lantfirst.html>.
"Magic Lantern Lights up College." YouTube. YouTube, video. Web. 19 Mar 2012. 15 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BraUVMDVNYc>.
The Fox Sisters. Digital image. Boroughs Of the Dead. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://boroughsofthedead.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/fox-sisters.jpg>.
Table Moving Pamphlet. Digital image. British Library Archives. British Library, n.d. Web. <http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-victorian-supernatural>.
The Turn of the Screw Book Cover. Digital image. Haunted Hearts. N.p., n.d. Web. <https://hauntedhearts.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/turn-of-the-screw.jpg>.
"Quint at the Window: (1959 - The Turn of the Screw)." YouTube. video, 27 May 2010. Web. 17 Mar. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Pth5rjpbqk>.