March 16, 2012

Revival of Interest in the Dead

Fascination with ghosts and hauntings seems to be on the rise these days.

Of course, the ghost story has been around for centuries, and interest in ghosts and the supernatural never seems to die, go to ground, or be otherwise put to rest. But today, stories of hauntings and the paranormal are everywhere. Think of the popularity of television shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State, or films such as Paranormal Activity, Dark Water, The Woman in Black, or Possession, not to mention the wealth of great short stories and books by talented contemporary authors.

Initially, the ghost story really came into its own during the Victorian Era. Launched by writers such as Edgar Allen Poe and Sheridan Le Fanu, the "Golden Age" of the ghost story rose up in the 1830s as interest in the Gothic novel declined. However, the start of World War I (September 1914), saw an end to that golden age. Coincidentally, a strong interest in a system of beliefs called Spiritualism was be on the rise.

The Fox Sisters
Spiritualists, simply stated, believe that communication with the dead is possible because a spirit, or soul, survives death. In the United States, Spiritualism emerged in Hydesville, New York, in 1848 with three sisters -- Leah, Margaret, and Kate Fox. Known as the Fox sisters, the two youngest (Margaret and Kate) had a knack for contacting the dead, producing spirit rappings in answer to questions posed to them. With the oldest sister, Leah, managing their careers, the Fox sisters enjoyed success as mediums for several years. Unfortunately, they were eventually denounced as frauds; their communications with the dead as hoaxes. Poor Margaret and Kate died penniless. Yet Spiritualism did not die and eventually picked up where the ghost story left off, in the aftermath of WWI.
Those years saw a surge of interest in the paranormal, especially the afterlife. Again, spiritualists and mediums led the way. The horrors of that war had shocked the world to its core. The inventions and machines that promised to light the world and lead the way to a more utopian existence had been turned to perverted purposes, destroying lives and spewing destruction. Faith in the goodness and civilized decency of Humankind had been shredded. On top of that, religious faith had been terribly shaken. Was there anything left to believe in? Yet some stubborn conviction remained that there was something more than this life of sorrow and, for many, physical and emotional torment; something beyond. There had to be. So many people went seeking answers in the world of spirits. Spiritualists and mediums, for all their deceits, offered hope and comfort.


Did something similar occur during the post-WWII years? Not as notably, though Spiritualism was still alive and well. However, it was splitting apart, evolving in three different directions: Syncreticism, Spiritualist Church, and Survivalism. These exist today.

Still, those post-war years did usher in a tremendous wave of ghost stories by gifted authors such as Robert Aickman, Charles Birkin,, Ramsey Campbell, and so on. Like Spiritualism, the ghost story requires belief in the afterlife. Though the ghost story rarely offers the comfort of Spiritualism, it does offer hope that something survives death.

What about today? Contemporary times embody a similar sense of uncertainty. Daily, we're bombarded with news of death, mayhem, torture, and war. Life seems tenuous, and while religious faith can still be a powerful weapon to fight despair, some people are seeking more solid proof that there is something beyond this fleeting existence. Hence the explosion of reality based ghost hunts as well as growing hunger to hear the stories of personal encounters with ghosts. Perhaps the fictional ghost story, with its one foot in the living world and one foot in the spirit realm, expresses these longings more artfully and, as fiction, can explore the subject more deeply, philosophically or spiritually. For that reason, we turn to them, seeking that ray of hope; that light in the darkness.
Of course, some people just like a good scare, end of story.

What are your thoughts?

Happy Hauntings,

P. A. Peirson 

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