How will these resources help you? 

In the 1840s, two American sisters claimed they could communicate with a ghost through messages tapped on a table. What began as an entertaining parlour game quickly spread on an international scale, and became a new religion whose acts of worship included séances and spirit-communication: Spiritualism. After World War I, mass public grief gave Spiritualism a heightened importance as dead sons were seemingly brought back to life in their families’ homes. But with this new belief system came equal scepticism, and fierce theological and legal battles were fought. These resources will take your students along the timeline of Spiritualism’s rise from the mid-nineteenth century to the aftermath of the Great War, to its decline after the legal trial of Spiritualist medium Helen Duncan in the 1940s. This topic aligns with AQA and Edexcel GCSE specifications regarding the Christian belief in the afterlife, as it discusses a moment in history where this was especially prevalent in society – and a moment where the Christian tradition of heaven wasn’t enough to soothe the pain of bereavement. These resources allow students to explore a seldom-discussed but vital chapter in global religion, and encourages students to think about the moral dilemma embedded in the way Spiritualism both comforted and exploited public grief. 

The Beginnings of Spiritualism

The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850–1914

by Janet Oppenheim, published by Cambridge University Press, (1984), 9780521347679

Janet Oppenheim’s book is the quintessential overview of Spiritualism, frequently cited in more recent publications on the topic. Beginning with the advent of Spiritualism in the 1840s, Oppenheim takes readers through a comprehensive history of the religion, exploring séances and mediums, psychical research organisations, sceptics, spirit photography, ectoplasm (a strange, glowing substance that could take the shape of ghostly hands and faces) and spirit materialisation, to its rapid rise to public prominence following World War I. It deals with myriad dilemmas within Spiritualism which will be useful points of discussion among students, such as the role of the female medium, the popularity of Spiritualist churches among the working-class at the time, exploitation and fraud, and the way Spiritualism was embroiled in a battle between science and theology. 

Spiritualism and World War I

Spiritualism after the Great War

by Jennifer Hazelgrove, published by Twentieth Century British History, Volume 10, Issue 4, (1999)

This is a fascinating article examining Spiritualism’s changing role in society after World War I. It examines how, in spite of deep class divides, wartime and post-war society was united by trauma and grief, and how Spiritualism became something to which the bereaved could cling. This will be a good resource to use when discussing how war and grief affect people’s belief systems, and why the public turned to a new way of thinking about the afterlife. 

Spiritualism and Scepticism

A Magician Among the Spirits

by Harry Houdini, published by Harper & Brothers, (1924)

This is an excellent primary text that looks at Spiritualism from the perspective of a sceptic. Students will likely be interested and surprised to see how involved Houdini was in the debate between religion and rationalism. He argues quite passionately against fraud and deception, but there are touching and intriguing moments where he wishes he could talk to his deceased mother. This resource would be useful in supporting students in the discussion around the moral and ethical implications of Spiritualism. 

Spiritualism on Trial

Hellish Nell: The Curious Case of Britain’s Last Witch Trial

by Malcolm Gaskill, published by Penguin, (2023), 9781802061994

This accessible non-fiction book tells the story of Spiritualism’s decline in the 1940s following the infamous trial of Helen Duncan, a medium who was charged and imprisoned under The Witchcraft Act for fraudulent practice. It is an excellent way to end discussion on Spiritualism, especially as it demonstrates a shift in the public’s interest away from paranormal spectacles as televisions became more widespread. 

Further materials

Secrets of Ghost Photography in the 19th Century by Sofia Rodriguez Cuevas, published by Daily Art Magazine, (2021) Find this book
Raymond or Life and Death by Sir Oliver J. Lodge, published by Methuen & Co., (1926) Find this book
The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult by Tatiana Kontou and Sarah Willburn, published by Routledge, (2017), 9781138109636 Find this book
A House Through Time: Newcastle’s working class spiritualism by David Olusoga, published by BBC Two, (2019) Watch this video
Dr Alice Vernon is Lecturer in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. Her research involves the history of psychical research and the interpretation of sleep disorders. She is the author of Night Terrors: 

Text © Alice Vernon, 2024.