The Familiar Dead: Ghosts and Spiritualism in American Culture

Chapter 1: Defining Ghosts & The Origins of Modern Spiritualism 

Ghosts are commonly defined as spirits of deceased individuals who have the ability to manifest after the death of the physical body. It is evident that the concept of spirits is a rather universal concept. Cultures throughout history and across the world have different beliefs and superstitions about how the souls of the dead, or even supernatural entities, can both positively and negatively influence events in the material world. “Ghost” as a specific term emerged relatively recently in linguistic history, appearing in the 16th century. It derives from a German word: gast. The gast was originally referred to by Germans as being filled with fury and anger. The Germans were not the first people to come in contact with spirits of the dead, however. In 12th century France, it was common to come in contact with what were referred to as “Revenants.” These were greatly feared spirits who “refused to stay in their tombs and insisted on climbing out and stalking back to their towns and villages night after night to attach to the living.”  Contemporary Western culture has evolved in a way that has led the words “ghost” or “spirit” be synonymous with the word “soul.” Many contemporary and historic religious denominations and doctrines implied that humans were possessed by souls. The body was simply a host which, upon expiration, would allow the soul to continue living in another form or realm. There are also fundamental differences that are often noted when speaking about a “soul” compared to a “ghost.” It is the way in which these entities interact with the living that set them apart from one another. The existence of the human soul is accepted without question on both an individual and cultural level around the world, regardless of the need to see, hear, or feel one.

Ghosts, on the other hand, need to be seen, heard and felt in order for humans to accept that it is possible for a particular person’s “spirit” to continue living and interacting in the material world after death.  Ghosts have become a vital aspect of cultural heritage for people as human social culture has evolved. Haunted houses and buildings, for example, are important fixtures popular culture in places such as the United States and Europe. Even these experiences, manufactured by special effects, fog machines, and actors drenched in fake blood can inspire a particular individual to want to know more about what might exist on the “other side.” Today, there are many different kinds of ghosts, from residual entities that have no intelligence and simply repeat instances of their past lives to poltergeists who can manipulate inanimate objects and electronic devices. Each of these different spirits has the power to facilitate physical and emotional reactions in the living, however. Ever since the Enlightenment, the majority of scholars have attempted to force ghosts and the paranormal into strict categories and claim that the only way to confirm for certain that they are real is to see one with the naked eye. After all, when telling a friend or family member about a possible paranormal experience, the person telling the story is not asked what this entity sounded or felt like – they are asked what they looked like. It is not the concept of ghosts that causes historians, scientists, religious officials, or the common masses to criticize their rationality, it is how ghosts are “presented.” Ghosts have thus become a social phenomenon because they inspire the human race to think about how their existence changes the current understanding of concepts such as time, space and materiality. How they are perceived changes according to trends in cultural thinking.   For hundreds of years the attitudes of historians and scientists towards the paranormal had been that ghosts simply could not exist without a person present to actually see them. The problem with that attitude, however, is that spiritual energy or psychic phenomena does not conform to the known and accepted laws of physics. Since a ghost cannot be transported from a haunted old house into a laboratory, miles away, for examination, as can a piece of pottery or even human remains, there is no controlled setting through which researchers could run their experiments. Ghosts do not conform to traditional laws of nature or scientific guidelines, which made the possibility of their existence all the more baffling to researchers. Historians, for example, are taught to be objective about the topics they study. A researcher investigating the paranormal, therefore, should be interested in studying how the paranormal gave different meanings to different people’s lives. Their job is not to prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal.  Contemporary psychologists consider ghosts as central aspects of the human social experience of the physical world. These experiences resulted partly from “social relations of memory.” The paranormal, as a research discipline, therefore presents researchers with opportunities to examine human social experiences across centuries, because the concepts of life and death have evolved drastically since the dawn of intelligent human civilization. As science and technology have advanced over the last several decades, in particular, new methods have emerged that will allow for easier and more holistic investigation of the nature of ghosts. One such method emerged during the mid-nineteenth century that altered the perception of ghosts and the spirit world completely. At this time, ghosts shifted from mythical creatures and agents of the Devil to become knowledgeable, worldly entities that had the capacity to communicate with the living across the physical boundary of death. This phenomenon was known as Modern Spiritualism.  Spiritualism is not widely known or understood in modern Western culture, but during its peak during from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century, millions of Americans and Europeans came to adopt Spiritualist beliefs. Specifically, Spiritualism encompassed the belief that the spirits of the dead had the ability and desire to communicate with the living. In fact, when tracing through the history of the United States, ghosts are everywhere. Represented as forms of popular culture and media; interpreted as expressions of mourning for lost loved ones – ghosts have captured the attention of modern humans because humans have always chased freedom from death. This is evident in the fact that Modern Spiritualism emerged during an era of American culture that had one of the highest mortality rates ever. Jean M. Langford explains the fascination perfectly: 

Many have called to attention the way that modern states and capitals are themselves animated by the dead. Consider the spirits of those who died in national sacrifice or national terror to initiate and sustain U.S. democracy and capitalism: African slaves, soldiers and civilians in numerous wars, countless early residents of this continent, dead from smallpox, shrinking lands, heartbreak, alcohol, bullets. All these dead, the ones memorialized and the ones not memorialized, the ones buried on this soil or burned in this air, and the ones buried or vaporized elsewhere, belong to a U.S. nation-state of mind. All these uneasy ghosts are a part of a repressed story of national freedom…If the dead testify, they do so in terms that necessarily exceed modern political rationality. Ghosts do not speak in a discourse of civic rights and obligations…They do not bear witness in courts of law, war tribunals, or truth-and-reconciliation commissions. Ghosts interrupt the disciplinary shape of stories told about them precisely because they do not speak on law’s terms, on history’s terms, or even anthropology’s terms. Their grievances are always demands on our grief.

The Modern American Spiritualist movement’s beginning is largely believed to be centered in Hydesville, New York. The little hamlet is located in Wayne County, about thirty miles east of the city of Rochester. In December 1847 a farmer named John Fox moved into a small farmhouse located in Hydesville with his wife and two youngest children, both girls. Margaret is estimated to have been about 15 at the time, and Kate around 12. For the first few months life in the new house moved along as usual, but in late March strange noises started being heard at night. For two weeks these mysterious knocking sounds were heard by John Fox, his wife, and the two girls. Word of the strange noises spread throughout the town, and Mrs. Fox ended up delivering a deposition to a local attorney.  Mrs. Fox likened the sounds to knocks or shuffling sounds, as one would hear when furniture was moved just slightly. The sounds always occurred in the night after the Fox family had gone to bed. All of the Fox’s slept in the same room, and upon feeling a sudden jarring of their beds at the same time the sounds were heard, they all got up to try and figure out what was causing them. After searching the entire house extensively, however, no one could determine the source of the noises, and they continued to manifest each night without relenting. On the night of March 31st, 1848, Mrs. Fox stated:

I had just lain down. It commenced as usual. I knew it from all other noises I had ever heard in the house. The girls, who slept in the other bed in the room, heard the noise, and tried to make a similar noise by snapping their fingers. The youngest girl is about 12 years old; she is the one who made her hand go. As fast as he made the noise with her hands or fingers, the sound was followed up in the room. It did not sound any different at that time, only it made the same number of noises that the girl did. When she stopped, the sound itself stopped for a short time.

Following her sister’s lead, Margaret, the 15-year-old, joined in. She asked the producer of the knocks to “do just as I do. Count 1, 2, 3, 4.” She clapped her hands together as she counted and just like with Kate, the noises were repeated. As they continued, the girls gradually began to feel frightened, and Mrs. Fox took over by asking questions. She asked how old the girls were, what type of being they were communicating with, its gender, if they had died and how. Eventually, they discerned through the received answers that they were communicating with the spirit of a male peddler who had been murdered in the cellar of the house five years previously. He was allegedly buried ten feet under the house. As the nights continued to pass and the alleged ghost continued trying to communicate, it became apparent to John and his wife that the spirit seemed to be channeling through their daughters. The channeling of spirits is performed by mediums. A medium is defined as someone who is “particularly sensitive to the presence of spirits and serves as a conduit for communication between this world and the other side.” Channeling, in kind, is the act of communicating with the spirits of the dead via an “altered state of consciousness in which a human being, known as a channel, accesses and expresses spiritual information from a source located in an alternate realm of reality.” According to witnesses who attended seances performed by the famous D.D. Home, not everyone had the ability to channel spirits. In order to make contact and allow the influence of a spirit to take over one’s mind or body, there were certain atmospheric and psychological preconditions. If a medium tried too hard to make contact with a certain spirit, oftentimes their efforts would go unheeded because they were burdening their minds too much. Viscount Adare, a frequent sitter to Home’s seances, confirms that spirits would indeed speak through Home as a host in order to answer questions from the audience members. One question that was answered was how spirits are able to convey themselves, both audibly and visually, to living humans. The spirits answered, describing how they channel themselves through the human mind:

At times we make passes over the individual to cause him to see us, sometimes we make the actual resemblance of our former clothing, and of what we were, so that we appear exactly as we were known to you on earth; sometimes we project an image that you see, sometimes we cause it to be produced upon your brain, sometimes you see us as we are, with a cloud like aura of light around us…it pleases us to come to you, and to make manifestations. We get so charged by remaining any time in the earth’s atmosphere, that it is a positive relief to make sounds.

Eventually, the Fox’s became so burdened by the paranormal phenomena that they fled the Hydesville house and moved in with their eldest son, who lived a few miles away. They resided there a short time, but quickly learned the phantom sounds were not dependent on them being in the Hydesville house. It was concluded that the girls were the catalysts for the continuing phenomena. They split the girls up, intending to deceive the spirit, and Kate was sent to live with her older sister, Leah, in Rochester. The rapping, however, continued. The spirit of the peddler multiplied into several more spirits of unknown identity. After about a month of experiencing the continued attempts by the spirits to communicate, Kate made an attempt to spell out the alphabet so that true messages could be conveyed in plain English. In return, she and Leah received a message which stated: “We are all your dear friends and relatives.” The concept of being able to communicate with deceased loved ones became the main motivation behind the emergence of the Modern American Spiritualist movement. It indicated that the physical world only existed until a certain point where the physical life of the human body ended. A new life on the plane of the spirit world then began.