Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween from Marie and Pierre!

These phenomena that we have seen seem to us inexplicable by any trickery--tables rising from four legs, transport of faraway objects, hands that pinch and caress you, luminous apparitions.  Everything in a place that was prepared by us with participants we know well and with no possible deception. --Pierre Curie
Image courtesy of the National Media Museum.
The spooky image to the right is an example of spirit photography, a relic of the Spiritualist craze that swept Europe and North America in the mid-19th century.  Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish mystic, theologian and scientist, is widely credited with inspiring the Spiritualist movement: his writings on the spirit world and the nature of the human soul were devoured by readers eager for some hint of what lay on the "other side."  Swedenborg's work, and the work of those who followed him, became particularly popular in the Victorian agethe era of Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper and Count Draculawhen the intersection of the scientific and the spine-chilling did not seem wholly unlikely.  Many prominent figures of the time were fascinated with spiritualism, including Pierre Curie.

Spiritualist mediums and mystics made claims of communication with the dead, and seances were usually well attended by believers and skeptics alike.  Pierre Curie was particularly interested in the work of Eusapia Palladino, a famous Italian medium.  Her veracity was highly contested; it was quickly discovered that she would "cheat" whenever possible, but her fans insisted that plenty of things took place at her seances that could not be explained by trickery.  Pierre Curie treated the seances as a science experiment, taking careful measurements and notes.

Image courtesy of the National Media Museum.
Spirit photography was just as popular as the seance, perhaps more so, because the photographs were believed to be documented proof of ghosts and other spiritual activity.  One of the most famous cases was that of the Cottingley Fairies: photographs were published of two young English girls sitting and playing with fairies near the brook at their country home in the early 20th century.  The photographs were declared by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to be undeniable evidence of psychic activity.  Decades later, the two girls in the photographs, now elderly women, admitted that the entire affair was a hoax.

In her October 15th lecture on campus, Lauren Redniss pointed out that the Curies, with their interest in Spiritualism, were simply following their instincts as scientists: they could not dismiss the idea simply because it seemed unlikely.  After all, the isolation of polonium and the discovery of radium had once seemed equally unlikely.  Why shouldn't two scientists entertain the possibility that there might be more to the world than they knew?

If you'd like to explore the world of Spiritualism, or just want to get into the Halloween spirit, check out these spooky links:

The Spirit Photographs of William Hope, a Flickr gallery by the National Media Museum
Do You Believe?, a "Ghostly Gallery" from the American Museum of Photography
Spiritualism at the Victorian Web
The Case for Spirit Photography, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Disembodied Spirit, Alison Ferris
Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena, Hereward Carrington
Spirit photography is alive and well today (pun intended)!  Check out these galleries of modern day spirit photos.

Happy Halloween!

Brooke Williams, GBR Grad Student

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Anonymous sneha said...

this is great. thank you for sharing . Hope you like halloween ideas

October 27, 2014 at 3:00 PM  

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