Steampunk inspiration and resources

How to Punk Your Steam Part 8.2: Make it Supernatural (Prove it!)

In yesterday’s post I talked about the cultural and intellectual climate that made a resurgence in the belief in the supernatural possible during the 19th century. But believing isn’t everything. In fact, seeing isn’t always believing either. In the face of the rising claims of communications with ghosts and sightings of storybook creatures, people often turned to hard science. Or at least as hard a science as they could manage in a time when blood-letting was still a common cure for various illnesses.

The Vocabulary

By a funny coincidence, I find myself surrounded by books about the paranormal right now. My landlord is a statistician who crunches numbers for parapsychology studies, and I am using her office as my studio. When I am staring off into space, my eyes often come to rest on titles such as The Medium, The Mystic and the Physicist, The Encylopedia of the Paranormal and Natural ESP. People today often use terms like supernatural and paranormal interchangeably, but that isn’t exactly correct. So what is the difference? I found a great article that summarizes the difference between the first two terms very well:

The realm of the paranormal includes things that we might one day understand, and be able to duplicate in a scientific study or setting and figure out just how they work—once we catch up to them. That includes things like faith healing, telepathy and telekinesis, and clairvoyance. There’s also the field of cryptozoology: One day, Bigfoot might make the jump from paranormal to fact, much like the giant panda, the giant squid, the giraffe, and the okapi once did.

Supernatural things, on the other hand, we will never have a way to document simply because they don’t play by the same rules we do. We’ll never have a way to scientifically observe a god, a guardian angel, or a soul. We’re not going to be able to repeat a miracle in a laboratory. The supernatural is beyond our capabilities of understanding and is instead in the realm of the divine or otherworldly.

It seems pretty clear laid out like that. But in the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a lot of people trying to bring supernatural things into the realm of scientific explanation, ie, the paranormal. So its not surprising that there is conflict about the terminology and its correct application even today.

To confuse matters, there is also Theosophy, or the science of the occult. This is a subject fit for its own article at some point in the future, but in brief theosophy in the 19th century was a movement that promoted the elevation of the human being through a deep connection to the Divine (which may be called Nature). It was basically the idea that people could evolve into higher beings through their study of and tapping into some higher power. This could be the god of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage or some other divine entity.

But for now, let’s concentrate on the interplay between supernatural and paranormal, and the means of converting to unknowable into the knowable.

Photographic Proof

The word “photography,” which roughly means “light-writing”, was coined in 1839 by chemist and inventor Sir John Herschel. There were some cameras prior to this year, like the camera obscura, but 1839 saw the birth of many photographic techniques that were employed throughout the century. In this same year, Louis Daguerre introduced the “dagguerrotype” method of photography, which did not require the hours of exposure necessary for a camera obscura. It can be hard to get those pesky pixies to stay still for long, so these advancements made it possible for the first time to claim photographic proof, and so objective “scientific” proof, of the supernatural.

ectoplasmWithin a few decades of photography’s commercial success, “spirit photographers” emerged. They took photos during seances and documented the presence of ghosts, as well as the ectoplasm the mediums often exuded during spiritual encounters. Mediums would pull this spirit goo (which bore a striking resemblance to cheese cloth) out of all kinds of orifices (and I do mean all) to show a physical manifestation of contact with the beyond. The “ghosts” were sometimes mannequins the mediums worked with a pulley, or were created by the photographer during development.

Headless Portraits From the 19th Century (1)

Though they may not have had Photoshop in the steam era, they certainly had trick photography. It didn’t take long for people to realize that they could alter negatives and combine multiple photographs to create false images that looked totally real. I know it looks like those stone-faced urchins above gave their mama forty whacks, but headless portraiture was all the rage. Below are a few more of my faves, and you can find even more here.


One of Mumler’s most famous photos. The sitter is Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s wife. Supposedly, Mumler did not know the identity of the sitter when he developed the film.

And spirit photography was no different. Through double exposures, photographers could create semi-transparent beings looming over the shoulders of their subjects and create the illusion of an other-worldly visitor. The first of this particular brand of frauds was William H. Mumler and he was active in the 1860s. His first spirit photograph was actually a self-portrait, and his deceased cousin appeared to be standing behind him. At the time, none of the “experts” could prove that it was a fake and he went on to experience great success for a time. This was due in a large part to the grieving families who had lost loved ones during the American Civil War who wished to see their fallen sons and husbands one last time. Mumler reported broke into the homes of the grieving in order to steal likeness of the relatives he was supposed to be photographing. But his biggest misstep was when some of his “spirits” were recognized as living people. He was taken to court in 1869, and though he was never found guilty, he left the spirit photography business afterwards.

The Society for Psychical Research (London)

In 1882, a group of researchers came together to study phenomena such as mesmerism, mediums, and reports of hauntings. Their goal was to objectively approach various claims about the supernatural world and study them through observation, experimentation and sometimes duplication of these phenomena. There were several different committees that were dedicated to studying different aspects and claims. A similar group was formed in Boston in 1884, but became a branch of the London society after some financial problems.

Many famous mediums were debunked during the 1880s by this group, which led to turmoil among its members. When an SPR member, William Davey, began offering seances and then explaining the techniques he had used to deceive the sitters, it caused quite a stir. Led by Arthur Conan Doyle, 84 people resigned in 1893 because they said the SPR was hostile to Spiritualism rather than remaining objective as their mission claimed. The Spiritualists went off and created their own societies, and the SPR went on with their research convinced that while some things like mesmerism, clairvoyance and telekinesis had credence, communicating with the dead did not.

So Where Does that Leave the Supernatural?

If we adhere to the definitions above, none of the hoaxes or trickery have any bearing whatsoever. The supernatural can’t be explained, and any attempts to test it has led to controversy and debate. So despite all the frauds, there is still room for bit of the unknowable in works about the era. No researcher yet has cracked the code and discovered unequivocally that the human soul does or does not exist. Maybe our relatives really are hanging around in the aether, waiting for us to glimpse them in a photograph, we just haven’t figured out how to do it yet. What we know for sure is that superstitions abounded and people were easily swayed by “evidence.”

For my next installment of the How to Punk Your Steam series, I will continue our exploration of the creatures and legends that nightmares are made of.

And make sure to tune in for the whole month of October for spooky Halloween fun!

One response

  1. Pingback: Two Years of Halloween Fun at your Fingertips | For Whom the Gear Turns

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