A Low Tide for Ghosts: Disbelief in the Early 1800s

Ghostology 101a“Yet is it true that we do not believe in ghosts?”

— Mary Shelley, “On Ghosts”

While sniffing through 19th-century and early 20th-century non-fiction about ghosts, I have repeatedly bumped my nose on statements about belief in ghosts being a thing of the past. In almost all cases, the sources saying this are from the early 1800s. 1824, for instance, saw the publication of an essay titled On Ghosts,” written by Mary Shelley. The author of Frankenstein suggests that the advance of knowledge and time had taken the mystique — and yes, the ghostliness — out of life: “What have we left to dream about? The clouds are no longer the charioted servants of the sun, . . . the rainbow has ceased to be the messenger of the Gods, and thunder is no longer their awful voice, warning man of what is to come.” Fairies, witches, and ghosts, she continues, have similarly become endangered species. An ocean away, another important horror writer named Edgar Allan Poe would echo Shelley’s question about what’s left to dream about in “Sonnet to Science,” first published in 1829. The poet-speaker asks ever-advancing Science: “How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise, / Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering / To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies[?]”

Fiction writers and poets were not alone in lamenting this loss of an enchanted, if sometimes spooky, world while shaking a finger at an increase in knowledge. In the first of a series titled “Sketches from the Country,” published in 1827, S.S. introduces a secondhand tale about a witch by writing:

The apparitions that haunted the dark ages, have vanished before the light of reason and revelation — the fairies have forsaken their green rings in the forest — the merry hobgoblin has dwindled into a mere vapour, and quenched his wandering light in the marsh — and the country church-yard is no longer guarded by the flitting shadows of the beings whose years are with those beyond the flood.

Such an introduction is clearly intended to put readers on guard regarding the truth of the supernatural events to follow. (Shelley similarly follows her comments on the era’s trend toward disbelief with two “true” tales of ghostly encounters she’d heard.)

presenceIn an 1832 review of two books addressing supernatural subjects, an American writer says, “The whole tribe of ghosts, goblins, and witches has been rapidly disappearing during the last century, before the daylight of modern science and philosophy. In our own country the general diffusion of knowledge is driving them out from every corner of the land.” Other writers didn’t go quite so far, including the scribe who signed “Anslem” to “A Chapter on Ghosts.” Published in a London magazine in 1830, the article relegates a belief in ghosts to the uneducated, peasant classes: “The belief in ghosts and hobgoblins, in fact, is the basis and key-stone of all superstition; and though ‘the march of intellect’ has of late years done away a good deal with the prejudices of the ‘times of old,’ yet it still lurks, and, probably, will ever continue to do so, with the ignorant and vulgar of all countries.” Nonetheless, the editor assumed the literate echelon of society was interested enough in the subject of ghosts that a later issue of the magazine attributes “Another Chapter on Ghosts” to the same author.

About a century later, this period of disbelief was described by George Seibel in an article on the resurrection of faith in ghosts. He says that “at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century it looked as if the ghosts would soon be put out of business. . . . In that age of science, the ghosts got ready to flit. It is no fun to haunt a place where no one believes in you, where your moaning is attributed to the wind, your clanking chains to the house-dog, and your midnight visitations to mince-pie.” Yet, with the rise of psychical research and Spiritualism around mid-century, “the times improved for the ghosts. Alfred Russel Wallace survived Darwin, Katie King and Madame Blavatsky came along, telepathy and hypnotism became fashionable, like victrolas and the radio in our day. Then came the Society for Psychical Research and the séance room, and before long all the spooks were doing business at the old stand.”

BookshelfNot everyone agreed that ghosts had made a comeback, however. As early as 1886, the editor of Popular Science reports on a waning interest in ghost stories and attributes it to a vanishing belief in ghosts. This loss of faith, the editor says, can be traced to “the growing intelligence of the age. If people don’t care to talk or read about ghosts as they once did, it is because they no longer believe or even half believe in them.” Unlike Seibel, this writer sees psychical research as contributing to skepticism about ghosts: “Modern philosophers have not been afraid of the investigation; they have pushed the ghost hard from age to age, from race to race, from country to country; and their verdict is that, while the ghost-idea has been very potent in the world in past times, and still flourishes in the dark places of the earth, the ghost himself has no estate or effects that it would be worth anybody’s while to try to levy upon.” Even Spiritualism has “been an agency for discrediting the ghost, or, at least, for narrowing and regulating his heretofore willful activities. The spiritualistic ghost, in a word, has been tamed by the medium. He no longer goes gliding or skulking about upon his terrifying nocturnal errands; on the contrary, he comes meekly at the call of his master or mistress, and, the conditions being favorable, utters through the table-leg such harmless platitudes as seem most suited to the average intelligence of the audience.” (I’m reminded of Vera Van Slyke, my favorite ghost hunter, who explained her faith in ghosts and disdain for Spiritualist mediums by saying, “Ghosts are like cats. They’re real — but they hardly come when called.”)

Of course, it’s hard to confirm that ghost stories — and the belief in ghosts — had truly declined at all either in the early part of the century or after psychical research and Spiritualism had come to prominence. Some people said it had, but I’ve also found writers who refute the claims that ghosts had been left high and dry in a low tide of belief. These rebuttals, I hope, will become the subject of a future post.

In the meantime, you’re encouraged to wander through the many sources on my Ghostology 101: Recommended Reading bibliography of non-fiction works debating the reality of ghosts and relating purportedly true ghost stories.

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