The Victorian era began in the 1830s and ended just after the turn of the next century, but its influence on every facet of human experience continues even to this very day. So why are we talking about this leading up to Halloween? Because the art, photography, science, and social culture of Victorian England had a profound effect upon one particular aspect of our lives: our belief in ghosts.
During this segment of western history, spiritualists began popping up left and right, providing exciting spectacles both private and public, and claiming they could commune with the spirits of the dead. Some of these self-professed mediums even offered what they claimed was proof of their purported abilities: photographs, witnesses, and in some cases, the public performance of séances. Of course, we now know how many of these validations were falsified. Lifting tables in the dark, hiding cotton inside the mouth to fake ectoplasm, double exposing photographic negatives. But during the Victorian era itself, the exploration and study of all things ephemeral was a social pastime as well as a developing science, and something to be taken very seriously.
In fact, the influence of British spiritualism led to some of the most famous (or infamous) intrigues in history. It was under the lure of ghostly inspiration that Henry James penned his masterpiece “The Turn of the Screw,” and subsequent works like WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) are likely to have felt this impact as well. In 1920s America it was prominent magician and escape artist Harry Houdini who debunked the work of no less than a dozen phony mediums, including the distinguished Mina Crandon, often performing their tricks at his shows. But after his own death, a male spiritualist named Arthur Ford claimed to have contacted Houdini’s spirit, and delivered a message, written in a code that Harry had only ever shared with his wife, Bess.
As for the best ways we can draw further inspiration from the Victorian age, adopting some Victorian creepiness for Halloween is definitely a great start. Just don’t get too into character though, or you might end up making contact with a few wandering spirits of your own.