Musings on The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau and the Rise of Spiritualism

From my very limited view of the world, it seems as though the belief in the paranormal, the presence of ghosts, and all things strange has been increasing over the years. It certainly has for me. Whether this is due to the media’s attention placed on paranormal content like TV shows, radio, and podcasts or the world’s growing distance to traditional Christianity. Spiritualism has had many ups and downs over the centuries, with very clear revivals in certain decades. 

The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau takes a look at the late 1800s during the invention of photography and how that came to influence people’s belief in the existence of spirits. I was introduced to this book by a colleague of mine at work who was telling me how interesting the concept was, and I’ve had this on my reading list for awhile. I finally had the chance to read it during quarantine and found it to be very interesting for the kinds of ideas it presents and the overall narrative of how photography developed in close proximity to Spiritualism and the fairly prominent court case that was spread around the US with the creation of Morse Code at about the same time. This intersectionality of technology and spirituality is super interesting to me because we are seeing it again in modern times. 

However, I think one of the biggest ideas that stuck out to me while reading this book was the connection that Manseau makes between the devastation of the Civil War and growing interest in ghosts, the paranormal, and spiritualism. He writes that the huge loss of life that came with the Civil War made people feel even closer to death and the afterlife since so many people knew someone who died during battle. Not to mention that many of the bodies of the fallen soldiers sat out on the battlefields for quite a bit before either being buried in mass graves or being sent back to their families. Death was always on the minds of Americans during that time. 

The advent of spirit photography coincided with the rise of seances and mediums who claimed to be able to speak to or channel the dead. WIlliam Mumler didn’t think he would be pulled into the spiritualist movement when he took up photography, but after a chance meeting with another female photographer and spiritualist, he found he could capture the forms of spirits with his camera. Whether or not his photos were a hoax was hotly debated and not really known, but the effect of his photos was certainly felt by believers in the supernatural. Hundreds of people flocked to his studio to get their picture taken, hoping to see the face of a loved one they had lost. 

I think if an event with a huge loss of life like the Civil War hadn’t happened, Mumler’s spirit photographs may not have had the same effect on the American populace. One of his most famous clients was Mary Todd Lincoln after all, who sat for a photo for him twice, one of which capturing the ghost of Abraham Lincoln after his assasination. Grief compels people to do strange things, like search for reassurance that their deceased loved ones are happy in the afterlife or searching for one last glimpse of their face anyway they can. 

Manseau’s connection between war and spiritualism intrigued me the longer I read, and made me wonder if there was a modern day equivalent. If a huge loss of life like the CIvil War could prompt people to become more interested in the afterlife and the paranormal, could something similar like World War Two or 9/11 have the same effect. I think in the modern era we have a similar combination of a huge increase in technology and similar instances of tragedy. In past-World War II America we had a rise in the Hippie movement during the 60s that opened up the possibility of less traditional beliefs. We also had a Pagan revival during the 1940-50s that saw the creation of Wicca by Gerald Gardner. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if I can say for certain that it was the effect of wartime tragedy that spurred the increase in non-traditional beliefs.

There is some evidence in the last 20 years or so though that Americans are becoming increasingly interested in ghosts, the paranormal, and extraterrestrials. A 2019 survey from YouGov found that more than 4 in 10 Americans believe in the existence of ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings. Forty-five percent surveyed said that they believed ghosts exist and a similar 45 percent said they believed in the existence of demons. They also found a difference among belief down partisan lines, with the survey showing that Republicans believed in the existence of the supernatural more than Democrats, maybe owing to religious differences. 

Chapman University also did a similar survey in 2018 that took a look at different beliefs among Americans when it came to paranormal ideas. They found that 58 percent of those that responded said they believe a place can be haunted. They also found that from 2016 to 2018, paranormal beliefs were on the rise. In that two-year period, belief in hauntings increased from 46.6 percent to 57.7 percent, showing an 11 percent increase. This is about what I thought might be happening considering the rise in technology, social media, and other broadcasted media (TV, radio, podcasts) that have allowed people to share their opinions and experiences. 

Some studies were done on the effect 9/11 had on American’s religious beliefs, but I don’t think it quite relates to what I’m talking about here. Most of those studies were based on church attendance and admitted belief in a certain religion, not exactly a belief in the afterlife or existence of spirits. I’m not sure I can make the claim that modern tragedies lead to an increased interest in the paranormal, but we can definitely say that the overall interest in non-traditional beliefs has been increasing over the past decades. 

Manseau’s book The Apparitionists gives a look back in time at the height of a technological boom that just so happened to coincide with the greatest loss of American life in history. The combination of these two things created an environment rife for innovation in all areas. I really loved seeing where this book would take me and trying to find ways to apply his ideas to modern times. Unfortunately I can’t make a definitive conclusion on this musing, but it was fun to theorize. 

I hope you all will consider giving this book a try, especially if you’re interested in photography, ghosts, spiritualism, or the late 1800s America. 

~~Thanks for Reading!~~

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