- Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Cultureby Simone Natale
What if the real inauguration of the Modern Spiritualist movement took place not, as historians have long asserted, on March 31, 1848, but rather on November 14, 1849? The former date marks the night when sisters Kate and Maggie Fox initially communicated with the alleged spirit forces haunting their Hydesville home; the latter, when the girls first performed séance phenomena on stage for a ticketed audience. For those who see Spiritualism primarily as a sincere, consolatory, and largely private new religious movement, the earlier date must stand, but for those, who, like Simone Natale in this fascinating new study, view it equally, if not even more importantly, as an extension of the period's burgeoning mass entertainment industry, the later amendment is required. A welcome breath of fresh air to Spiritualism studies, Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Cultureshifts our attention from the depths of the movement's engagement with religious and political discourse to its playful, commercial surfaces. Recasting the movement's participants as "spectators" rather than "believers," Natale shows us how transatlantic Spiritualism appropriated and exploited show business strategies, new media platforms, and advertising techniques to create a public for itself, one in whom sincere belief was by no means required (11).
Supernatural Entertainmentspursues its analysis of Spiritualism's mass media history through a series of six tightly coordinated chapters on stage channeling, home séances and mass-market Ouija boards, public test séances and exposés, celebrity mediumship, popular Spiritualist fiction, and spirit photography. Clearly the product of substantial archival research, the case studies Natale presents in each chapter demonstrate what he calls "a signal moment in which belief mingled with the spectacular and entertainment became a central element of spiritual and religious experiences" (8). One consequence of this study is to break down the long-strained distinction between the public and private realm in Spiritualist practice, showing that home séances were just as likely to be public-facing and involve "playfulness and amusement" as their theatrical counterparts (2). Another is to distance participants in Spiritualism from their sometimes reductive characterization as either credulous dupes or mercenary charlatans. Instead, he contends, Spiritualism thrived upon and invited doubts about the authenticity of its phenomena, encouraging its public to be not passive consumers but active participants whose contribution was essential to the entertainment value of the movement. Natale presents Spiritualist participants as individuals who moved frequently, and perhaps more importantly, enjoyably, between poles of faith and doubt, and for whom the anti-materialist face of the movement seemed in no way incompatible with its reliance on popular entertainment and publicity techniques. This bold and exciting re-positioning builds on the recent efforts of Marlene Tromp, Mark S. Morrison, and Andrew McCann to expand our understanding of the non-serious, mass participatory, and commercial aspects of Spiritualism, ones that have arguably for too long been subordinated to its religious, political, and avant gardedimensions.
While Natale's insistence that transatlantic Spiritualism be recognized as "a brilliant form of entertainment" is very welcome, there are, however, times in the study [End Page 335]where this assertion can lead to slightly odd or thin interpretations of the material at hand (1). To say that Spiritualism was part of the entertainment industry is not necessarily the same as declaring it to be universally entertaining, and I found myself wanting to hear more about the séances, lectures, and popular publications which must have been patently boring and dull. How is Natale's thesis to accommodate those reports of sittings in which nothing happened at all, or accounts of podium speeches whose inspired speakers spouted clichéd platitudes and banalities for hours on end without interruption? This tedium, let us not forget, was as often a target for the movement's critics as its ontological claims. What was the incentive to return, again and again, for...