On Spiritualism

Calahan

From Telegraphs to Text Chains

The invention of the telegraph brought with it a bevy of confusion regarding its stunning capability to transmit messages over such long distances. People were baffled at how this technology could possibly work, and so, naturally, many turned to the supernatural to explain its function. Wild ideas of communicating with other dimensions and ghosts were popular among those “true believers” who were a part of the growing spiritualism movement of the 19th century. But as ridiculous as these claims may sound today, one would be remiss to say that we as a society have moved past such antiquated notions regarding the paranormal. Rather, it would seem that with every step forward in technology, we take a step backward in our collective reason (depending on your perspective regarding the supernatural, of course). The most prominent of these steps has been through the growth of the internet and social media. In the web’s early days, it wasn’t uncommon to be sent an email chain regarding some sinister haunting or conspiracy. As frightening as it may have been to be a sixty-year-old or especially a young child receiving an email that said if they don’t forward this chain to five other people they will be visited in the night by Bloody Mary, the more damaging messages came in the form of political misinformation. And as ready as people were to believe in ghosts, they were just as ready to believe in any wild conspiracy that was told to them in the email. With this newfangled technology, it was easy to convince and rope people into the alt-right pipeline, and this only continued with the rise of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The internet, with its many niche spaces and corners, is a world full of echo chambers, making it easier than ever to be convinced of something outlandish. Back when the telegraph was invented, as out-there as many claims were, everybody was still living in the same world. After a while, and as the general population began to catch up on its science, these claims became less popular. However, that’s not to say we stopped believing. Technology such as the telegraph, the radio and even the phonograph still carry with them a sort-of “haunted” connotation. It’s common knowledge that self-proclaimed “ghost hunters” try to carry around radios to try and reach a frequency through which a spirit can communicate. We still have an odd obsession with these devices. It would appear that, rather than having fallen by the wayside, we as a society accepted this notion of the telegraph and such as being gateways to the paranormal.

Glass Half Empty

It is important to note the tone of the Spiritualist movement. Today, we might look back and assume that this was a frightening phenomenon spurred on by figures who wished to torment themselves and others. However, the reality is quite the opposite. Those who sought out mediums, or a spirit photographer like Mumler, were not doing so seeking a cheap thrill. They wanted assurance that their loved ones were alright. They wanted to know that they were happy in Heaven, or the like. It was not horror-based at all but rather a quite positive and optimistic movement. Which is why the assumption of horror and spookiness from today’s perspective is so fascinating. Why has there been such a shift in mindset? Why do we view the concept of a ghost as being scary, rather than reassuring? Stanley Kubrick once noted in a conversation with Steven King that any ghost story is surely a rather optimistic one, because it confirms the existence of an afterlife, that we don’t just cease to exist upon our death. And yet, ghosts scare us. Perhaps this has something to do with Spiritualists themselves. As time passed, we began to see these people more as swindlers with bad intentions rather than goodhearted people wishing to help us see our loved ones. But, almost paradoxically, as our mistrust in mediums grew, our superstition remained the same, if not was strengthened. Because we associated the paranormal with these people who we start to view as bad, we naturally began to ascribe those bad intentions to the paranormal as well. We cannot help but believe in ghosts, but humans are easy to lose faith in. Therefore, as the reputations of the people associated most heavily with the supernatural began to sour, so did the that of ghosts. Nowadays, a picture that claims to have captured a ghost will not only be met with skepticism, but also fear, fear of an unknown to which we no longer have a trustworthy human connection. Without that human connection provided by mediums, ghosts become more alien, less like us. We don’t understand them anymore, and so we are afraid.

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