In Haunt

- By Ian Murphy 

Manchester saw an array of events around the Halloween period in 2018; from Halloween in the City to readings at Ordsall Hall and many more. Now an eyewitness retrospective account from Ian Murphy reveals another happening which took place on Halloween night: an event titled ‘Spiritualism and the Supernatural’ which was a showcase of research organised by the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies in collaboration with the North West Long Nineteenth Century Seminar, and invited two academics to talk about their work in this fascinating field. Areas covered included Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism, communication with child spirits and the rise of ghost tourism as Dr Tatiana Kontou (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Rachael Ironside (Robert Gordon University) arrived at No 70 Oxford Street to discuss their research in front of an audience. Ian Murphy was there for the showcase and gives an account here…

In 1966, the anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace suggested that the belief in supernatural phenomena would soon fade into obscurity. Two timely papers (delivered on Halloween night) take Wallace’s speculations to task. Tracing spiritualism from its roots in the nineteenth century through to the present day, Dr Tatiana Kontou (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Rachael Ironside (Robert Gordon University) probed society’s relationship with death and the afterlife, and questioned why, since its inception, a belief in spiritualism and the supernatural has permeated our culture.

Dr Kontou’s paper centred on two case studies of Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism, with a particular emphasis on how bereaved parents sought solace through spiritualism, the parents attempting to gain insight from their lost child ‘beyond the veil.’ Outlining the work of several major figures within Anglo-American spiritualist circles (the Fox sisters, F. W. H. Myers, Mrs Winnifred Coombe Tenant and Florence Marryat) Kontou explained that embodied within the figure of the revenant child are Victorian and Edwardian beliefs and theories concerning childhood and the afterlife.

Most interesting was Kontou’s exploration of Florence Marryat’s ‘relationship’ with the spectre of her deceased infant daughter. Attempting to commune with her daughter in the decades following her death, Marryat’s relationship with the afterlife permeates her memoirs and fiction, questioning and exploring how, in a post-Darwinian landscape, societal norms concerning the afterlife evolved and transformed as the twentieth century loomed ahead.

Bringing the audience into the present, Dr Ironside’s paper explored the explosion of interest in ghost tourism in recent years. Ironside challenged the view that contemporary society is sceptical of belief in the supernatural, arguing that statistics gained from recent polls posit that over half of the British population have some belief in ghosts. This interest in the supernatural, Ironside argued, has seeped into the marketplace, with ghosts becoming marketing tools with which tourist boards ensnare an audience, articulating how landscapes and buildings are visited because of the uncanny possibilities they offer. Ranging from the crumbling castles and manor houses of the pre-twentieth century to abandoned prisons and the ‘dark places’ of the modern world, Ironside’s paper traced the changing landscape of ghost tourism, and how both industries and visitors engage with a place that may or may not be haunted.

Both papers were followed by a lively joint question and answer session. Perhaps apt for a Halloween event, the audience seemingly teemed with self-identified mystics, spiritualists and psychics, all of whom offered their take on spiritualism from the nineteenth century through to the present day. Discussion stemmed from both speaker’s papers and beyond, with topics ranging from theories concerning spirits on the astral plane, the veil between this world and the afterlife, to the re-telling of ghostly encounters members of the audience had experienced in real life.

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