By Leila A. McNeill
On the surface, it seems like any serious investigation into the supernatural goes against modern science’s very foundations of objectivity and observable, empirical evidence. But, well into the 20th century, scientists in England, Canada, and the United States made concerted efforts to establish inquiry of the supernatural as a legitimate field of scientific study called psychical research. Psychical researchers, made up of physicians, psychologists, and physicists, attempted to create a science of the paranormal by observing, measuring, and quantifying alleged encounters with otherworldly spirits. This was not just a fringe group of scientists obsessed with the occult. Prominent physicist Oliver Lodge supported psychical research aims, and many men of science formally organized psychical research organizations and publications. The mystery of the séance was dragged out of darkened rooms and into the sterile laboratory of the scientist.
Though psychical researchers of the 20th century were interested in mediums and spirits, they wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from the spiritualists of the 19th century. Spiritualists believed that communication between the living and the dead was possible through a medium, who was almost always a woman. Historian Alex Owen finds that the rise of spiritualism coincided with society’s renegotiation of woman’s place in public and in the domestic sphere. In a Victorian culture where women had limited opportunities for social power and prestige, women were particularly attracted to the spiritualist movement because it revered them for their ability to commune with the unseen world. Women were considered ‘natural’ mediums because of the underlying cultural assumptions that women were the ‘feeling’ and passive sex with a closer connection to the natural world. Men often used these assumptions about women’s nature to relegate them to the domestic sphere. But, through mediumship, women could stay within the confines of their prescribed femininity while finding power in it at the same time.
Mediumship also appealed to women, especially those that might embody gender or sexuality in nonconforming ways because it gave them permission, at least temporarily, to challenge the status quo. During a séance, mediums didn’t just summon spirits to flicker the lights and shake tables; they also became vessels for spirits to inhabit. If in the possession of a spirit, the medium would submit her conscious self entirely to it. And if possessed by a male spirit, she would take on the voice, mannerisms, and behaviors of that man, sometimes becoming aggressive, vulgar, overtly sexual, or blasphemous. While the men and women who joined or supported the spiritualist movement accepted the unconventional behavior of mediums under spirit possession, medical men believed this to be nothing more than pathological hysteria and sexual deviancy in women. The threat of being carted off to a Victorian asylum was quite real for some women mediums.
The séance itself was quite a spectacle to behold. In addition to direct communion with the dead through an entranced medium, summoned spirits made mysterious knocking noises, adjusted the lighting, or toyed with the sitters by lightly touching them or pilfering their possessions. Sometimes the unseen spirits played musical instruments or moved objects around the room. Written accounts also claim that spirits could partially or fully materialize. Séances occurred almost exclusively in a domestic setting, either in the medium’s home or in the home of someone hosting a séance. But, between the 1880s and World War I, the organized movement of spiritualism gradually lost its flair.
In the interwar period between WWI and WWII, however, North America and Britain experienced a resurgence of interest in the paranormal, but this time with some striking differences. Spiritualists did not wholly reject scientific inquiry; they did, however, reject the scientific method as it applied to their work because they understood the supernatural to exist outside the known matter of the universe. Psychical researchers, on the other hand, did not accept this argument and believed that rigorous application of the scientific method could uncover the forces behind mediumship. Applying the scientific method was essential to establishing psychical research as a legitimate field of scientific study. Thus, psychical researchers were required to establish themselves as objective, rational, and skeptical observers.
Unlike a typical sitter who participated in the paranormal activity of the séance, the researchers distanced themselves as methodical, objective observers of the phenomena to avoid any misperception that their study could be tainted by subjective experience, which could not be measured or quantified. To follow the example of mainstream science to establish their legitimacy, psychical researchers were typically middle- to upper- class white men. While some women attempted to establish themselves as researchers in their own right, they could never reach the same authority as their male counterparts. As women, they embodied the same passivity and qualities of the medium being studied, which made their observations inherently suspect and untrustworthy. Just like in every other scientific field, men were the scientists, women were the things that scientists studied.
The moment that mediums and séances were moved from the darkened room of home and hearth and into the laboratory of the researcher, women lost all authority in the world of the supernatural. For the most part, mediums were willing participants in the research, but their participation hinged on their complete submission to the researcher. In a typical séance, the medium would need to become completely passive in order for a spirit to possess her; however, she still remained the authority in the room. This authority was overthrown by the psychical researcher because building a case around a woman and her subjective evidence of the supernatural defied the scientific method of objective, observable inquiry. Ultimately, the cultural assumptions about women’s natural passivity and feeling that lent them power and prestige in 19th century spiritualism now rendered them as mere objects of scientific study. In the case of the famous medium Leonora Piper, the researchers deferred to one of her alleged male spirits to learn about the phenomena rather than a conscious and aware Piper. The only part of the woman medium that mattered to the researcher was her body as a vessel for phenomena.
Though most mediums were women, some men also claimed to have the ability to commune with spirits. Male mediums were quite an enigma for researchers because as men, they were not supposed to be the same weak-minded and passive creatures as women. With a man as a research subject, he disrupted the the gendered power imbalance between research subject and scientist. By taking up a craft that was built upon the cultural constructions of femininity, men were forsaking their masculinity and were subsequently marginalized as effeminate or queer. In the case of medium William Cartheuser, researchers believed his powers to be true, but, according to historian Beth Robertson, they also perpetually questioned his masculinity and described him in femininized terms, like weak-minded and childish. That one of Cartheuser’s main spirits was a girl named Alice only further worked against him. While it was acceptable for female mediums to display masculine behaviors during possession and later resume their traditionally feminine roles, male mediums who displayed feminine behaviors during possession could not so easily escape their transgression of gender norms.
Even after the psychical researchers removed the séance from the domestic setting and stripped the space of all the parlor tricks of a fraud, they were still left with the living breathing medium in front of them. Once a medium’s eyes rolled back in her head and a man’s voice came from her mouth, the researchers, for all their attempts of objectivity and skepticism, could not help but become wrapped up in the supernatural. These questions remain: How do you apply an objective and measurable method to study something that is inherently subjective? How many of these women were just utilizing a safe space to challenge a patriarchal society? How many of these mediums had a pathological illness? How many of them were simply frauds? I do not know, and after researching this piece, I am even more uncertain. But whether the phenomena is real or not, it is clear that a seemingly objective scientific lens, whether we turn it on the natural or the supernatural, is never really objective-- it is always undercut by cultural assumptions about gender and who has power and who does not.
Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
Beth A. Robertson, “In the Laboratory of Spirits: Gender, Embodiment, and the Scientific Quest for Life Beyond the Grave 1918-1939” (Dissertation: Carleton University, 2013).