The Rise of Ghost Stories in Victorian Literature

Ghost stories appear in the folklore of countries all over the world. But ghosts as we think of them today in America and the UK where the majority of Steampunk stories occur have their roots in Spiritualism. Some people treated Spiritualism like a religion and others viewed it more as a science. Either way, it’s based on the belief that spirits are hanging around waiting to have conversations with the living. And they do so by knocking on tables, moving around objects, and occasionally even taking medium’s clothes off. They speak through people who claim a supernatural ability or through the use of hypnotized volunteers. And very rarely say “wooooOOOOoooo!”

Many notable historical figures, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Queen Vicky herself, were taken in by the “evidence” of spirits among us. Most historians point to an event in New York in 1848—sisters Margaret and Katie Fox supposedly contacted a ghost and got media coverage—as the true beginning of the movement. Four years later, mediums started popping up in England and conducting séances. By the late Victorian period, many people claimed to have communicated with the dead.

Back in the United States, mediums especially found business booming after the Civil War ended in 1865. For a soldier to die in the field, rather than surrounded by his loved ones, was considered a “bad death.” The fallen soldier’s relatives sought reassurances that their sons, brothers, and husbands were happy in the beyond.

Death is the Great Equalizer

In a time when class division and a clearly patriarchal society predominated, Spiritualism was movement that crossed these boundaries. It could bring people from all walks of life into its fold. Women like Georgiana Eagle and Leslie Flint dominated the medium business during a time when most jobs were strictly for men. The 1860s saw a slew of pamphlets, newspapers and public spectacles for the spiritually-inclined. They were read by prince and pauper alike.

The Setting

Victorian households were the perfect setting for seances and ghost stories. Often, the homes of the aristocracy had been inhabited for generations. Plus, these old mansions and castles had creaking floorboards, unexplained drafts, and gaslights. We now know that leaks from these lights, as well as the CO2 they emit while functioning properly, could cause hallucinations and the occasional fainting spell. Not to mention, their meager light did not reach all of the dark corners of a room. These homes often were equipped with “secret” passageways for servants to pass through unseen. So, there was a very real possibility of someone popping out at you with no notice, be it servant, medium, or “apparition.”

Contacting the “beyond” was often conducted during private parlor sessions in one of these old houses. Besides talking deceased loved ones, many of these sessions were specifically designed to contact famous people. Charles Dickens (who died in 1870) was one of the most popular spirits to contact. In addition to speaking through the mouths of mediums, ghosts would sometimes also use a typewriter or the like to pen a message from the beyond. Dickens died before he finished his last novel, and in 1873 an American author claimed to have been contacted by his spirit who dictated the ending of the story. Thus, the term “ghost writer” was born.

Making Contact with the Dead

One big difference between tales of encounters with ghosts and the experience of a séance was the presence of ectoplasm. (Think Slimer from Ghostbuster) Mediums claimed this substance was behind floating tables and other parlor tricks, as well as occasionally being excreted by them while in a trance state. Some also claimed that this was also the means for spirits to take a visible form. So, the “ghosts” that would appear during a session would be draped with sheets or strips of gauzy fabric or cheese cloth.

Ghost stories, on the other hand, make no mention of ectoplasm. The most famous ecto-hoaxstress was an Irish medium named Kathleen Goligher. Her sham did manage to fool at least one engineer-turned-psychical researcher, William Jackson Crawford. But the sketchy photographs of ectoplasm (which often “emanated” from Goligher’s genitals) and the closed-door nature of their sessions did little to convince the rest of the growing community of researchers.

The Stories and Their Scribes

Charles Dickens wrote one of the most famous ghost stories of all time: A Christmas Carol. Leading up to Victorian times, ghost stories were often told around the dwindling light of a fire during the holidays. But before the 1840s they were rarely written down.

Ruth Robbins, professor of English literature at Leeds Metropolitan University, attributes the popularity of ghost stories to the rise of periodicals. By the 1850s, these magazines had become hugely popular. Editors needed a massive amount of content to be competitive, so ghost stories began to be recorded en masse. A Christmas Carol was first published in this way in 1843. Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Edgar Allan Poe, also found a platform for their creepy stories in periodicals.

But Were They Scary?

The thing that struck me the most while reading was how they actually weren’t particularly scary. Usually, they were told by a first-person narrator. This eliminated the possibility that the protagonist would fall victim to a spirit. The facts are reported in a very straightforward manner and without trying to build suspense. Instead, they were often morality tales about the mistreatment of women and children. Or the guilty conscience of an old man (not unlike A Christmas Carol in that respect). So, if you are looking for a good scare, you probably won’t find it in tales from earlier end of the spectrum.

On the other hand, a stage adaptation of The Woman in Black has to be among the scariest things I’ve ever seen. In terms of freak factor, it was only surpassed by the film adaptation in 2012. Susan Hill penned her haunted house tale in 1983, but takes place during the Edwardian era. This story does a great job of blending the historical setting and a more modern notion of a horror story. The film lived up to my expectations, and led to many a gasp. As well as an unfortunate incident with my laptop when I jumped from fright and knocked it off the table…Or perhaps it just was a friendly spirit moving the table to say “halloo” from the beyond.

I’ll be bringing you reviews of some of my other favorite creepy Steampunk movies all month long. So stay tuned for more freaky fun!

Have a haunted story to share? Ever been to a séance? Tell us about it!

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