The occult phantasmagoria in the Victorian era

Tayla Brown

Tayla Brown

Traditional culture in society shifted towards the wonders of the world. Magic and illusion shows came off 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: Max 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. Ghost stories, transmissions and weird phenomena slowly became Victorian hegemony as the entertainment of the occult grew more popular.

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” who performed around the United Kingdom, including seasons at Edinburgh, Glasgow and London from 1837-1840, even appearing before Queen Victoria herself in Covent Garden theatre, revealing the sheer popularity of his art. He even expanded his horizons by performing in the United States of America (1851-1853). His most notable tricks composed of the ‘gun trick’ where he appeared 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 a 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 unearthed comes the truth behind the illusion of popular magic tricks such as ‘the disappearance act’, and provided a logical explanation.

Though this would have seemingly lacked mysticism, other, more technological modes also had their fair 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 onto a screen.’ Some of the 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 the ‘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 a wide array of venues. Below is a video giving you a taste of what a Victorian Magic Lantern would show its audiences.

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’.

The appeal of the late Victorian spiritualist 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.

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 Victorian society can be examined and understood.’ According to the Bible, it is strictly forbidden to contact the dead: ‘Do not turn to psychics or mediums to get help. That will make you unclean. I am the LORD your God. (Bible Reasons, Leviticus 19:31). 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 Nurse’s 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 Victorians loved a ghost story. What with the rising popularity in magic, illusion and mediums that I have already mentioned, ghosts in Victorian literature were 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 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 instils 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.

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