The “afterlife” is.. well, a rather controversial topic. Death is part of the human condition, it is a universal experience we cannot escape (so cheery, I know), and of course, we have absolutely no idea what happens after we die. Answers to the “what happens” question can be found virtually anywhere but the reality remains that we have no concrete facts/evidence and (likely?) never will. The nineteenth century brought all kinds of new technologies and theories. One such belief that arose was Spiritualism.
Spiritualism is defined by the OED as:
The belief that the spirits of the dead can hold communication with the living, or make their presence known to them in some way, esp. through a ‘medium’; the system of doctrines or practices founded on this belief. [first cited in 1853]
The Spiritualist movement gained considerable popularity in the 1850. The movement attracted many believers, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as a slew of skeptics, such as Harry Houdini. (Doyle and Houdini disagreed so vehemently on the subject that it cost their friendship).
Out of this movement came Ghost or Spirit photography. At the forefront was an American photography, William H. Mumler. Experimenting with the still rather new form of photography, in 1862 while taking a picture of a colleague Mumler found that a double exposure could produce a “ghostly” image. Mumler’s “discovery” drew numerous people to his Boston studio who wished to be photographed ‘with deceased’ loved ones. (Mary Todd Lincoln was one of his famous sitters). Capitalizing on the opportunity, Mumler charged an exorbitant fee of 10 dollars a picture. People believed the photographs to be proof that spirits existed, however in 1869 Mumler was brought to court on the charge of fraud: he claimed the photographs captured the image of spirits, but was really using other live sitters or photographs. The case was eventually dropped, but Mumler’s reputation and business declined significantly.
But Mumler was not alone. Across the pond in England, Frederick Hudson and William Hope worked in the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. In France, Edouard Isidore Buguet (E.Buget) tied the ideas of channeling by photographing mediums while they were in trances.
While many images are obviously fakes, there are numerous reports that some images may actually have some grain of authenticity. Much to my surprise, Alfred Russell Wallace even speculated that some photographs could contain truths – From Spirit Photography: It’s Strange and Controversial History:
In 1891, the practice of spirit photography gained more credibility when Alfred Russell Wallace, the co-developer of the theory of evolution, spoke out with the belief that spirit photography should be studied scientifically. He later wrote about his own investigations into it and included a statement that he believed the possibility of it was real. He did not feel that just because some of the photos that had been documented were obviously fraudulent, that all of them could be dismissed as hoaxes.
Spiritualism remained popular throughout the early 20th century and still attracts people today.
Further reading and sources:
Do you Believe? ; The Mumler Mystery
Beyond the Grave: a Brief History of Spirit Photography
Met Museum: The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult
Spirit Photography: It’s Strange and Controversial History
I said I would share my ghost stories, but I figured I’d leave it up to you if you’d like to read them, it is relate as I believe – to some extent – in Spiritualism. So here you go:
Ghost Stories, Part 1: The Incidents
Ghost Stories, Part 2: Some Thoughts
I also wanted to add that one of the things I find interesting/intriguing/strange about spirit photography and its reception is how the technique eventually became used heavily in film.
Superimposition (the laying over of images) and the dissolve (when one image fades into another image) are especially integrated into early film. I had my final screening for my History of Wold Cinema class on Monday. We watched the film Sunrise (1927), directed by F.W. Murnau. Basically a married farmer/country man falls for a city woman who is on vacation, the city woman tries to convince the man to not only leave his wife but to do so by drowning her. Yeah… it is a strange movie. Anyway, about 40 minutes into the movie, when the man is contemplating the murder of his wife, he thinks of the city girl, resulting in this scene:
First, the woman appears to the man’s left (our right), she drifts in the space and holds him, leaning in for a kiss. The man is imagining this, but he jerks his head his left and the vision vanishes. As he looks forward again, not one, not two, but three apparitions appear; two kissing him (though someone in my class commented that it looks like she’s eating his hair), the third is just her face, staring out (which reminded me of the billboard from The Great Gatsby). He puts his hands (in fists) on his head and she completely disappears as the scene cuts to the man’s wife.
I was so stunned by the scene, having just posted about spirit photography the night before and here, before my eyes, film was producing the same thing! I’m certain that even in 1927 folks would find the scene ghostly/eerie, Spiritualism was still popular at the time as well. I just had to share.
You can watch the whole film on youtube, but this particular scene occurs at about 30 seconds into part 3: