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Science and the Supernatural

Human beings generally tend to view science and the supernatural as oppositional forces: the bright light of rationalism forever struggling against the darkness of outmoded superstition. However, in the nineteenth century, as new technological developments and the accelerated pace of modernity swept away the cobwebs of antique fancy, the relationship between science and the supernatural was not constructed in such a simplistic or binary manner. The age of the Industrial Revolution, the phonograph and early cinema, this era was one when the world was opening up, relinquishing its secrets and its mysteries to the curious human eye. New discoveries about the influence exerted by imperceptible yet empirically verifiable forces such as a gravity, sound and light waves, and the electromagnetic spectrum taught contemporary observers that the world was governed by unseen forces.

In 1803, the British chemist John Dalton posited his atomic theory of matter which described a world comprised of minute, indivisible particles: an atomic realm that cannot be perceived with the naked eye. Dalton’s theory very much inaugurated a modern understanding of our reality as controlled by invisible powers beyond our flawed, inadequate human perception. Likewise, Luigi Galvani’s experiments with electromagnetic fields in the late eighteenth century created a widespread conviction amongst both scientists and the general public that the world we know is governed by the mysterious laws of unseen forces and the imperceptible movements of invisible realms. For nineteenth-century observers, it therefore seemed equally possible that the spiritual world existed as merely another invisible realm, one that might also be discoverable through the application of scientific techniques, empirical rationality and increasingly sophisticated photographic and optical technology. This faith in the power of science to unveil the previously clandestine mysteries of the spiritual realm was a unique characteristic of nineteenth-century intellectual discussion, a mode of thinking that figured science and the supernatural not as opposite poles, but rather as complimentary modes of observation and investigation. Thus, at this time it was a common belief that if human beings could utilise new technologies and techniques to penetrate to the core of such inscrutable mysteries as the nature of gravity or electromagnetism, then so too could such methods be employed to unravel the hidden wonders of the spirit world.

It was this belief in the applicability of rational empiricism—the methodologies and apparatuses of the natural sciences—to the supernatural that underpinned the explosive popularity of one the century’s most innovative religious movements: Spiritualism. Fusing the mystical and the scientific, Spiritualism “sought to unite the natural and the supernatural realms and to bring the dead into conversation with the living.” The movement has its origins in a strange occurrence that took place in upstate New York, in the small town of Hydesville. In 1848, a pair of adolescent sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed that they had made contact with a spirit residing in their home. Strangely enough, rather than being seen as an essentially mystical occurrence, this event was viewed by many of the friends and neighbours who crowed the Fox home to experience the supernatural for themselves as real, scientifically-verifiable evidence of a spirit world capable of communicating directly with our world. As Barbara Weisberg discusses in her book Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, the sisters’ connection with the spiritual realm inspired one of the assembled neighbours, Isaac Post, to establish a more comprehensive system of communication. Post’s method would allow spirits to respond to questions by producing a rapping or banging noise as the alphabet was slowly recited in séances led by the Fox sisters. Although driven by a curious mixture of wonder and pragmatism, Post’s implementation of a methodical system whereby spectral rappings would correspond to letters of the English alphabet and ultimately spell out responses to questions seemed reflective of the scientific method; it was a means of collecting and recording data gathered from the spirit realm.

The success of this endeavour and of the Fox Sisters’ uniquely methodical means of communicating with the dead ensured that within months of the original rappings, thousands of eager Spiritualist across the north-eastern United States gathered around tables, dimmed the lights and held hands; all in attempt to replicate the Fox Sisters’ initial success. While we, as contemporary observers, may initially dismiss the growth of Spiritualism as a triumph of irrationality and superstition, for the movement’s many nineteenth-century acolytes, this method of spirit communication was inherently scientific. Defined by a rigorous methodology and underpinned by theoretical speculations about the nature of the spirit world, Spiritualism appeared to reflect the scientific methodology of experimentation, observation and categorisation. According to Ann Braude, the standard séance in the nineteenth-century generally had twelve sitters, 6 men and 6 women, alternating between males and females in a perfect, unbroken circle. The reason for this, Braude claims, is that the séance participants function as a sort of spiritual battery, with men representing the “positive” charge and women representing the “negative” charge. Operating according to a similar principle, the Ouija board was also believed to function because the planchette responds to a magnetic force residing in the bodies of those who touch it, thus allowing a message to be transmitted, through the users, from the spirit world.

Spiritualists considered their techniques and the methods they employed to bridge the chasm between the earthly realm and the spirit world to be essentially scientific. Grounded in a then-modern rhetoric of electricity, magnetism and transmission, Spiritualism relied heavily on nineteenth-century scientific advancements in order to conceptualise the process of spirit communication. In an era when new technologies such as the gramophone, the telegraph, photography and early forms of cinematic projection were beginning to carry voices and images through the ether, making possible communication across vast geographical and temporal distances, it seemed equally likely that messages from the spirit world could be likewise transported across discrete existential planes. Indeed, Ann Braude notes that so closely interlinked were notions of spirit contact and communications technology that some people actually referred to mediumship as the “spiritual telegraph.”

From this, it is clear that in the nineteenth-century science and the supernatural were not viewed as diametrically-opposed adversaries but instead, they were figured as closely connected systems of knowledge. The spiritual realm was, in this sense, not a remote, intangible space, but a sensible reality subject to the laws of physics and biology. It was not simply comparable to scientific reality, it was part of scientific reality. As such, investigators of the spiritual plane not only endeavoured to utilise rigorous scientific methods to communicate with the other world, they also firmly believed that they could collect tangible, scientifically-verifiable proof of spiritual activity; proof that could be observed and possibly even analysed. The belief that the empirical principles of scientific research could be applied to the spiritual world as rigorously as to the biological world can be clearly observed in the nineteenth-century obsession with ectoplasm. According to the Cambridge University Library, which counts some ectoplasmic specimens amongst its holdings, “Ectoplasm is a substance believed to exude from a medium during a séance. It can materialise in different forms, being sometimes vaporous, sometimes viscous, sometimes a mass of fine threads and sometimes a cloth-like substance. It supposedly disintegrates when exposed to light or human touch.” In a rather sceptical article from 1922, James Black observes that in addition to emanating from the mouth, nose or other orifice of a medium, ectoplasm is also “the stuff of which perambulating spirits from the great beyond are made. It is unanimously possessed of some power or force that enables it to tip tables, rap floors, fabricate faces and limbs, and indulge in varied and remarkable phenomena”. Although the ectoplasm emitted by famous mediums of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was generally little more than a fabric like cotton or “cheesecloth mixed with bits of paper”, the contemporary belief that it was possible to capture a spectral specimen as evidence of ghostly activity again underscores the close relationship between the scientific and the supernatural at this time. Although mediums claimed that ectoplasm “disintegrates when exposed to light or human touch” and therefore could not usually be tested in a laboratory, it could be witnessed by empirical observers and photographed for posterity. Moreover, some specimens, such as those housed in the Cambridge University Library could be preserved and examined. Like other, more mundane, physical or biological phenomena, ectoplasm was a tangible substance. It existed and provided empirical proof of a spirit world just beyond the boundaries of everyday experience.

“The medium Eva C during a séance.”, 1920s via Wikimedia Commons

While the phenomenon of ectoplasmic manifestation is a clear indication of a culture entranced by the possibility of a scientific approach to the spiritual, the nineteenth-century fascination with capturing and cataloguing tangible evidence of supernatural activity was perhaps epitomised by another contemporary craze: spirit photography. As the name suggests, spirit photography described “the practice of taking photographs in order to produce visual evidence of ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural elements.” Emerging alongside the growing Spiritualist movement, this form of photography became, for all intents and purposes the central method “by which those who believed in an afterlife could actually offer ‘proof’ of their convictions.” According to Nancy M. West, the first documented instance of spirit photography occurred in the early 1860s when a Bostonian jewellery engraver named William H. Mumler attempted to take a photograph of himself and unintentionally produced a ghostly image of a woman on the photographic plate. While this apparition was little more than the result of a dirty photographic plate retaining the negative of an older picture, the incident nevertheless sparked a national (and international) craze for spirit photography after Mumler showed the image a friend interested in Spiritualism. The news of the supposed spirit photograph quickly spread after an article about the incident was published in The Herald and Progress Newsletter, only to be later reprinted in the Spiritualist journal Banner of Light, along with the address of the studio where the original photograph had been taken. Sparking a unique cultural phenomenon, Mumler’s spirit photograph captured the attention of many prominent Americans of the time, with even Mary Todd Lincoln visiting Mumler after her husband’s death.

Fake spirit photograph, 1888 via Wikimedia commons

Although a modern readership may immediately identify Mumler’s spirits as little more than double exposures, faint traces of an earlier image materialising in the background of a new one, in the nineteenth century, when photography was still a new technology and its possibilities uncertain, the potential of the medium seemed limitless. Moreover, the explosive popularity of the spirit photography craze serves as a clear indication that new technologies, future-looking new developments, were not seen as irreconcilable with a belief in the supernatural. Instead, technological advancement was viewed as potentially opening up a new path to the spiritual plane, laying bare the supernatural realm just as the telescope and the microscope had uncovered the secrets of the natural world. Indeed, in her article “Camera Fiends: Early Photography, Death, and the Supernatural,” West notes that even as late as the 1890s, the invention of X-Ray photography prompted new speculation about the possibility of “soul photography”.

Likewise, as the century drew to a close, this interrelation of the scientific and the supernatural showed no signs of unravelling. In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research was founded in London for the express purpose of carrying out scientific research into supposed supernatural occurrences.  Led by the Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick, the Society saw no contradiction in applying a rigorous methodology to the investigation of spiritual phenomena. Adopting a thoroughly scientific system of observation and experimentation, the SPR explored claims of spirit contact, mesmeric trances and other psychic phenomena. They collected data and carefully recorded their findings. They even produced an academic journal showcasing the results of their studies. As one-time president of the American branch of the SPR William James noted, psychic techniques such as automatic writing or Ouija boards were “instruments of research, reagents like litmus paper or the galvanometer, for revealing what would otherwise remain hidden.” For nineteenth-century researchers, this sort of investigation was far more than enthusiastic amateur ghost-hunting; instead, it represented a new, yet wholly valid, system of scientific enquiry. As such, the dividing line between the scientific and the supernatural was, for much of the century, incredibly porous and unstable. The well-known scientist William Crookes, a pioneer in the fields of chemistry and spectroscopy, became deeply interested in Spiritualism, conducting numerous experiments to investigate the veracity of mediums and psychic practitioners. Such was his dedication to the scientific exploration of the supernatural that Crookes constructed a special high-security room in his house where he could conduct these experiments in a controlled environment.  He even carried out extensive tests on a conjurer by the name of Daniel Dunglas Home, who under observation by a number of researchers caused an accordion, safely housed in a cage, to play itself.

The nineteenth century is, in many ways, an era that is at once familiar and alien in its attitudes towards the supernatural. Its mediums, spirit photographers and psychical researchers invariable evoke comparisons with modern-day ghost-hunters and TV psychics. The drive to pursue the mysteries of the spirit world is certainly an impulse that transcends epochs, figuring as prominently in the twenty-first-century imagination as it had in the nineteenth. However, where our understanding of the supernatural departs from that of our Victorian ancestors is in our belief that the spiritual is fundamentally divergent from the scientific, that the two represent the opposing poles of naïve faith and empirical rationalism respectively. Yet, in the nineteenth century, many accepted branches of science were still new and could not be easily differentiated from what we now term “pseudo-science”. New discoveries in fields such as physics, optics and acoustics unleashed an unprecedented faith in the power of scientific methodologies and new technologies to explain once mysterious operations of the physical world. Consequently, for many people watching these new sciences unravel the enigmas of light and sound and matter, it did not seem like such a giant leap of the imagination to believe that similar scientific techniques could illuminate the mysteries of the spiritual world. In the nineteenth century, as modern science appeared to offer comprehensive explanations of the entirety of the material world, the possibilities seemed infinite and the supernatural seemed like just another field of enquiry.

About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature in University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural and witchcraft.

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