“There’s a rebellion at work trying to remind us that our world is bigger,” explained English professor Lynn Parker at the CELTSS Fall 2014 Lyceum Lecture on Oct. 17.
“We want to smugly say, ‘That was a story,’ and move on,” she said.
Parker filled the Forum on the evening of the lecture not just with eerie tales and the history behind them, but with fellow faculty members and students.
Parker’s lecture about the research she conducted over her sabbatical explored topics ranging from classic ghost stories from the Victorian era to more unexpected concepts on the connection between technology and the presence of apparitions.
One of those happened to be the newly invented art of photography, in which the photographers could fool the viewer by exposing the photo paper to two different scenes, which would superimpose the shadow of the second image onto the first. This caused not just curiosity, but in some cases, actual belief that there was a “spirit” in the photograph. Some Victorians believed that this proved it was possible to actually view and connect with ghosts.
“Technology is not just a metaphor, but a medium to communicate,” Parker explained.
In hindsight, this was obviously a hoax, and Parker said that some true spiritualists believed that it was degrading to their way of life. These included luminaries such as P.T. Barnum, Harry Houdini and even Arthur Conan Doyle.
Parker said the Victorian spiritualists believed that it was possible to contact the dead using science and technology to explain how rather than “parlor tricks.”
The idea of speaking with spirits is something that originally began not around the campfire or on Halloween, but around the Yule Log on Christmas Eve. Parker said the idea was to get all the fun but scary stories out of the way before the start of the New Year.
“When we tell ghost stories we kind of think we are invoking ghosts,” Parker explained.
Invoking ghosts was a practice that is still used by many people today, ranging from the traditional campfire ritual of storytelling to professional mediums that attempt to communicate firsthand with spirits. Parker said that we need that firsthand evidence to believe that we have actually experienced an encounter. This may include sight, sound or the ever-compelling “cold embrace.”
Many traditional written stories include this “cold embrace” as a way for the reader to become frightened. By nature, this first-person account makes the story much more compelling, Parker explained, just like a firsthand account of evidence in the court of law.
“The senses themselves are not reporting the same information,” Parker said. “The narrator is woefully ill-prepared.”
Junior Isabella Guyton said, “I think the relationship between ghost stories and technology was very eye opening.”
Junior Nora Chan said, “I loved the discussion about why people in Victorian England would want or need these ghost stories and then the connection to why we still believe in them today. It was so interesting to listen to.”
Photo by Melina Bourdeau