In the wake of Darwinism, the world was left with one loaded question: what does this discovery say about God and the afterlife? This search for meaning helped to spawn the Victorian Era obsession with the supernatural, a movement that sought the answers to life’s big questions- by any means necessary. Seances, astral projection, and psychic readings caught the interest of the era’s intellectuals, including some of your favorite authors.
1. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
As it turns out, the author and creator of famous detective Sherlock Holmes was supernaturally gifted. Doyle was a devotee of the Spiritualist movement, a widespread pursuit of the mystical originating with three dubiously psychic sisters. In 1848, the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, NY used a pattern of taps to communicate with the spirits in their supposedly haunted house. In the United States, rampant industrialization (hello disease and poverty) led to a nationwide obsession with death. In a world where one-third of infants born in cities did not live over 1 year, the sisters thrived. Though they recanted their story in 1888, they later stated that they had been paid a bribe of $1,500 to… well, lie about lying. By that point, however, Spiritualism had its own supernatural power as a sweeping movement. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Spiritualist and mystery writer, was desperate to solve the greatest mystery of all: the secret of life beyond death.
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Conan Doyle’s fascination with the Fox Sisters led him to attempt a seance during his time as a physician. Known to fervently believe in telepathy, Conan Doyle publicized his beliefs during his notorious and brief friendship with magician Harry Houdini. Conan Doyle believed that Houdini had actual supernatural abilities, and, with his wife, convinced skeptic Houdini to participate in a seance. Conan Doyle’s wife claimed to receive a telepathic message from Houdini’s late mother; unfortunately, Houdini’s mother didn’t speak English. Yikes. Friendship over. Undeterred, Conan Doyle continued performing seances with his wife to contact his relatives who died in World War One. He would abandon his fiction writing at the height of his fame, focusing exclusively on his Spiritualist beliefs. After a lifelong obsession with ghosts, he eventually became one. Medium Estelle Roberts famously claimed to summon Doyle’s spirit in front of a large audience at his funeral in 1930.
2. Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens, literary genius behind A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, was also all about that spooky lifestyle. Close friends would say he had a “hankering for ghosts,” an obsession that lasted throughout his life. This passion is evident in many of his works, perhaps most famously in A Christmas Carol. Though he later became more of a skeptic, he still sought out evidence of the supernatural. Dickens once explained he would never rule out any possibilities: “don’t suppose that I am so bold and arrogant as to settle what can and what cannot be, after death.” More interested in the scientific and psychological aspects of the supernatural, Dickens went on to become a proponent of Mesmerism.
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The Mesmerist movement represented the crossover between proven science and faith in the unknown. A major part of Mesmerism was its focus on medical miracles and many (scientific?) attempts to cure disease with psychic energy. According to those who believed, a practitioner could put his patient into a trance and transfer his stronger energy into the weaker patient. This became (alarmingly!) a popular medical treatment in the 1830s and 1840s… not a time period known for its long lifespans. So much for your reason and skepticism, Dickens!
3. Henry James
Widely regarded as the bridge between American literary realism and modernism, The Turn of the Screw author Henry James had an occult connection through his brother. William James was a core member of the Society for Psychical Research, an organization of intelligentsia in pursuit of the secrets behind death. The Society sought to apply scientific principles to the unexplored territory of the supernatural. William himself was no crackpot, a Harvard man many call “the father of American psychology.” Although Henry James himself was not a member, the two brothers often stayed together, and Henry had frequent exposure to his brother’s ideas. One major area of William’s research was haunted houses, which he and the Society believed to be telepathic hotspots.
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The Society for Psychical Research had a documented impact on the rising Gothic literary moment. Elements of Gothic literature include elements of horror, death, and gloom, along with the Romantic emphasis on intense emotions. William’s psychical investigations directly influenced Henry’s later ghost stories; it’s likely Henry also drew upon William’s paranormal research for his Gothic novel The Turn of the Screw.
As it turns out, anyone can believe in the supernatural, even the literary greats. So now the question is… do you?
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