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Contacting the dead on film: had the British lost faith in Spiritualism?

Dying and the Dead module

A haunted street sceneThis post is the first in our 2022 series from students on ‘Death, Dying and the Dead’, an MA history module at the University of Leeds. This post, by Chloe Sparks, looks at the relationship between spiritualism and the big and small screen.

Black cats, church graveyards, creaking doors and eerie music. If this popped up on your screen in black and white, you may assume you are watching an old horror movie. However, these are some of the scenes found in 1950s and 1960s British Pathé newsreels visiting haunted houses in Britain. Were these spirits and the mediums attempts to contact them fact or fiction? This is not something I can claim to know as a historian. However, the muddled relationship between fiction and belief gives us an interesting look into British views on spiritualism in the later twentieth century.

Today in twenty-first-century Britain there are many different beliefs about the afterlife, from varying religious and secular backgrounds. YouGov surveys show that many people still believe in an afterlife, ghosts, and the possibility of contacting the dead. The belief that we can contact those who have passed finds its roots in spiritualism, which was a growingly popular belief system that took further hold in Britain after the First World War.

Historians have tended to focus on the peak of British Spiritualism in the Victorian and Edwardian period. There has been less focus on beliefs in the later twentieth century. My research has led me to investigate this later period and I have found an interesting relationship between news, fiction and what British people believed about ghosts and the afterlife. Academic Simon Brown argues that there has been a relationship between cinema and spiritualism from the start. The continued framing of news stories about spiritualist experiences in a horror genre style shows us how this relationship never faded.

In 1957, Pathé News released a newsreel covering an allegedly haunted house in Wilbarston. Pathé News was a key part of the British cinema experience, creating documentaries and newsreels in a time before British families had a TV in their home. Again in 1964, Pathé covered a similar story visiting a haunted pub in Amersham. Both newsreels use scene recreation and sound effects, many of which are taken from horror movie tropes. Spooky music and panning shots of graveyards are found in both. News is usually expected to be presented as serious and factual, but especially in the second clip fact and fiction are mixed to entertain. This link to fiction they chose makes us wonder whether the British believed in spiritualism anymore.

The newsreels have a rather satirical tone, which alongside the use of horror tropes creates a mocking attitude towards belief in ghosts and the use of mediums. This suggests a generally sceptical approach to spiritualism by this period. Did the British no longer believe in contacting spirits? If we look at the clips this way, we might assume that by the 1950s spiritualism was believed only to belong in fiction and was not to be taken too seriously. In 1951 the Fraudulent Medium Act made it harder for spiritualists to practice, as there were concerns about the public being conned for money. Alongside this, the rise of horror films depicted spirits as something to fear or laugh at. This perhaps further established spiritualism as something fictional, rather than a serious belief. However, that is not to say that everyone lost faith.

Earlier in the twentieth century, comforting spiritualist art reassured the nations post-war trauma. In contrast, the growing relationship between the horror genre and spiritualist possibilities played far more on the emotion of fear. Associate Professor in Film, Alison Peirse looks at the 1957 British Horror film Night of the Demon to consider the “the power of storytelling to generate fear”. She shows how writers wanted to play with potential beliefs the audience may have held about the supernatural. There was also controversy in the production process surrounding the depiction of a séance. Others involved in making the film also understood the real possibility of the public taking contacting spirits seriously. Many can relate to the experience of watching something scary and this fear shaping our beliefs, even if we know it is fictional. When we look at the relationship between art and spiritualism, we must think about not only what comforted people about the afterlife, but also what scared people.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the news continued reporting on hauntings. As the TV moved visual media into suburban homes, ghosts were reported there too. In 1975 BBC Northeast covered a haunted maisonette near Newcastle. Although some clips from the 70s still borrow heavily from the horror genre, this particular news story does not lean much into fiction. Yet it does shows us how the British were still open to believing in ghosts. Rather than bringing a vicar or a medium round, they hold an investigation, and a scientific explanation is provided for some of the events. This demonstrates the powerful shift from religion to science in influencing British beliefs on the afterlife. However, the presenter is firm that viewers should not dismiss the family’s experience and is rather open to spiritualist possibilities.

A TV controversy in the 1990s displayed just how blurred the lines between factual and fictional TV regarding ghosts had become in Britain. In 1992 the TV drama Ghostwatch aired on BBC and so many people believed it to be real that the BBC decided to cancel it. By the end of the twentieth century, TV had truly broken down the boundary between fact and fiction. From the 1950s this boundary was pushed leaving audiences open to belief in an afterlife that can be contacted. By the later twentieth century British were even more so left to decide on their own what to believe.

It may have been more acceptable for factual news to display a level of scepticism towards ghosts and mediums by the 1950s. However, the British had not entirely lost faith in spiritualism, with many of its core beliefs still surviving today. In this time cinema and TV not only reflected the creators’ ideas but was also powerful in shaping the public’s beliefs about the afterlife. There is a complex relationship between faith, fear, and fiction. We still strongly link the horror genre to real-life experiences of the supernatural. For Halloween 2018 the BBC covered a haunted house in Nelson, Wales. The news clip is styled much like a twenty-first-century horror film, showing more continuity than change from the 1950s. With mediums still practising in Britain today, would you ever attempt to contact the dead? Or perhaps you believe that is the stuff that only belongs in a scary film.