The Psychic Friends Network. Crossing Over with John Edwards. Miss Cleo. Sylvester Stallone’s mom. The Onion horoscope. It can’t be denied, Americans love spiritualism. People want to hear from the other side—or be reassured it exists—and psychics, mediums, and mountebanks are here to help.
Though it’s surely existed for millennia, the latter half of the 19th century saw spiritualism explode into the western cultural zeitgeist. In the mid-1800s, table-tilting, emerged as one of the first popular ways to communicate with the dead. The “table” was a sort of multi-person device like a Ouija board, supposedly moved by spirits. Famed scientist Michael Faraday revealed it as a fraud, but Pandora’s box had been opened, and other methods of post-mortal conversation poured out: slate writing (recording ghostly messages on a chalkboard; in reality a sleight-of-hand in which empty slates were swapped for pre-written ones), spirit trumpets (horns that amplified the voices of the deceased), and spirit cabinets (assorted spooky happenings when the medium was locked in a chifforobe). In turn, each was revealed as chicanery. And yet these near-constant revelations of fraud did little to slow the booming spiritualism enterprise, despite the seemingly obvious implication that either (a) mediums are flim-flammers or (b) spirits are constantly changing how they communicate with the living.
By the late 1800s, the popularity of spiritualism collided with the increasing prominence of science, and a group of distinguished researchers banded together to study the phenomenon. Chief among them was William James: philosopher, psychologist, general intellectual heavyweight, and most relevantly for this tale, first president of the American chapter of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).
The SPR investigated paranormal claims. One might think it was filled with credulous Fox Mulder types, all hoping to grasp that elusive final proof of ghosts, witches, or Nessie. But most members were capable researchers with varied motivations. One prominent member did not believe in any psychic phenomena, and became a workhorse debunker; still others believed in spirits, but spent long hours debunking con-men who gave spiritualism a bad name (though not an SPR member, Harry Houdini fell into this category). William James never quite settled the question of his own belief. He seemed intuitively to feel that this was all nonsense, but yet found that inherent skepticism difficult to square with some of the things he witnessed.
James wasn’t the only famous scientist to dabble in the paranormal. Largely forgotten now, Alfred Russel Wallace developed the theory of evolution by natural selection around the same time as Darwin, but was beaten to the punch. By the 1860s Wallace became obsessed with moral purity and spiritualism, and was essentially blacklisted from the scientific establishment. Even more than James, Wallace was denigrated for even bothering to study mediums, as though even the mere proximity to the non-scientific dark arts sullied him.
Like Houdini, Wallace thought some mediums were real, even if most were frauds. This was not a widely-held or well-respected belief. Thomas Huxley (grandfather of Aldous) was once invited to a seance by Wallace, whom he rebuffed: “Better to live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a medium hired at a guinea a seance.” Wallace got a bum rap from the spiritualism thing: he made important contributions to our understanding of color vision and island evolution (for instance, did you know that island gigantism is a thing?); he also proposed radical ideas like ‘scientists should be ethical’, ‘food should have ingredient labels’, and ‘there should be a minimum wage.’ Sadly, he spent most of his life in penury, though he does appear in the acknowledgements of The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.
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James’s uncertainty owed mostly to the few mediums (media?) the SPR couldn’t debunk. One, Leonora Piper, recited facts about visitors she couldn’t possibly have known—information about their childhood, pets, or family. More popular was Eusapia Palladino, a fiery Italian woman (I’m not being stereotypical, she really was fiery) whose shows had considerably more pizzazz than Piper’s: levitating tables, mysterious gusts of air, instruments playing by themselves, and all manner of inexplicable telepathic and psychokinetic tricks. Her trance states left her sexually invigorated, and she would often, in a wonderfully Victorian turn of phrase, “shudder with pleasure” during them. She delighted in tweaking the stultifying mores of her researchers by describing in graphic detail the sexual exploits of her spirit lover. She was great.
Like Piper, no one ever quite proved her act was for show. She was caught using parlor tricks several times, and anyone who studied her inevitably left annoyed, because if they stopped paying attention for just a second, she’d default to simple tricks and sleight-of-hand. And yet even when they took extreme monitoring efforts, she left them befuddled. Several SPR researchers came to think she was, for lack of a better word, lazy—she had some psychic ability, but would use parlor tricks if given the chance. Most likely she was employing complicated illusions that weren’t recognized as such, but even now many of her feats remain unexplained.
Here’s the real question: even if she was doing parlor tricks, why was she so good at it? There were hundreds or thousands of trance mediums floating around, and most were debunked. What did Eusapia know that others didn’t? There’s a magician who is a freakishly good and wildly entertaining pickpocket. But almost more intriguing are his explanations for how he does it—or more accurately, his lack of explanations. He must have internalized some rules of cognition and attention and how to manipulate them, but he can’t ever quite explain how he’s doing it; it’s like trying to tell someone how to ride a bike. The end result are these bizarre, almost superhuman feats of sleight-of-hand, even though the knowledge they rely on is entirely implicit. It’s weird that James—the father of psychology—was so worried about debunking her that he never stopped to think what he could be learning about psychology from her.
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I’m not a believer, but I find ghosts, bigfoot, and UFOs strangely compelling. I think it’s mostly because I like the idea of us not knowing things. If a bigfoot was discovered, we’d have to reckon with how—somehow—we’ve gone centuries with only the occasional yarn about a he-beast to show for it. The sense that we have everything figured out, or that humans have really mastered the natural world, would be punctured. This is why I love Tremors: imagine the implications of uncovering giant carnivorous underground worms, especially if Kevin Bacon were involved. Mulder’s I Want to Believe poster is right, because the world would be a more interesting place if Nessie was real.
Random context-free book quote: “I’m not born to be hashish’d out of my organism.”