New Book Sheds Light on the Supernatural

History prof explores our fascination with the unknown

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History professor Sofie Lachapelle

You may have never attended a séance, but thanks to movies and TV, you probably have an idea of what’s involved: people holding hands around a table in a darkened room, the spirits of those who have died communicating through a medium, ghosts appearing, tables tapping, and mysterious music playing. From the mid-19th to the early 20th century, there was great interest in séances and other supernatural occurrences. Inevitably, there were also many people attempting to understand and explain these puzzling phenomena.

U of G history Prof. Sofie Lachapelle’s new book Investigating the Supernatural (published by Johns Hopkins University Press and mentioned in the June 2011 Hot Type column of the magazine Vanity Fair) provides a fascinating look at the various attempts made to explain séances and other such events with a focus on events in France.

Why such an interest in supernatural research? “We have this impression of the 19thcentury, and particularly its second half, as a time of triumph for science and rationalism,” says Lachapelle. “But the reality was more complex. In France, for example, there was a rise in reports of stigmata, demonic possession, and apparitions of the Virgin Mary coming out of the countryside. Claims of haunted houses were discussed in the newspapers, and ghosts were appearing in the salons of the cities.”

She adds: “It’s true that science was becoming more organized and scientific innovations were celebrated, but many scientists of the period still firmly held to their Christian beliefs. They were torn between their religious faith and their enthusiasm for science. Some of them participated in séances with the hope of discovering a group of phenomena that could be observable and provide an authentic proof of the existence of life after death.”

Some of these scientists were quite famous. Charles Richet, for example, was a member of the prestigious Académie des sciences and a Nobel Prize winner for his work on anaphylaxis. He developed an interest in the séances that lasted until his death, and he was never shy about it. In 1905, he publically declared his conviction that a ghost he had seen at a séance in Algiers was genuine.

Others, like Swiss psychologist Théodore Flournoy, were more sceptical but still thought the séances worthy of interest. Flournoy spent four years studying medium Hélène Smith. “She entered into trances and recalled her previous lives as Marie Antoinette and an Indian princess. She also claimed to be able to communicate with the inhabitants of Mars and to speak and write Martian,” says Lachapelle. Flournoy developed a close relationship with Smith, but when his book From India to the Planet Mars came out in 1900, he presented her case as one of split personality that had been exacerbated by her participation in séances. “The book was a huge success, but their relationship completely soured.”

In her book, Lachapelle explores various groups of investigators who studied séances and related phenomena: Spiritists, who hoped to develop a spiritual type of science based on the séances; occultists, who were trying to blend ancient occult wisdom with contemporary science; psychiatrists and psychologists, who understood mediums as patients and their claims as pathological; and psychical researchers and metapsychists, who believed the phenomena of the séances were real but caused by still unknown abilities of the mediums. Although they had different approaches, they all considered the study of the supernatural to have some value.

Lachapelle ends her account in the early 1930s, not because séances and claims of mediums to communicate with the spirits stopped, but because it marks the end of the very dynamic period of research on the subject in France and the rise of parapsychology as the dominant approach to study the supernatural, or the paranormal, elsewhere, most notably in the laboratory of Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University in North Carolina.

Lachapelle’s next book will be about French magicians in the 19th century and their use of the language and the imagery of science in their performances. “Magicians at the time called themselves ‘professors of amusing physics,’” she says. “They often talked about doing experiments rather than magic tricks.  They blended science and magic together. One minute they could make an object appear or disappear on the stage, the next they could perform a trick involving notions of physics or chemistry.”

The years from 1830 to 1914 were considered the golden era of magic shows, as these “professors of amusing physics” performed to packed audiences. This ended with the arrival of the cinema. Within a decade of the first public showings of films, many magicians were forced to sell their theatres and join other performers of the music halls and vaudeville. They adapted their magic acts to the new venues, abandoning the grand illusions and amusing physics that had characterised their magic theatres for shorter, often silent, sketches. Other magicians went to work in the new film industry, making special effects for the camera. Through their work, the magic of the stage would become magic on the screen.