The period between the two World Wars was certainly a strange time to be alive. Historian Richard Overy has explored the major trends of the period in his book The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919 – 1939, and the title of the book speaks for itself. Civilisation itself felt like it was in peril.
The period was also notable for the resurgence of Spiritualism – essentially a new religious movement which believed in contact with the dead. In the late 1930s, one such story of paranormal activity, ‘The Haunting of Alma Fielding’, regularly made front page news and transfixed the public – even Winston Churchill commented on it. But why would societal and technological change create such an atmosphere? Here are some causes of the ‘ghost craze’ of the 1920s and 1930s in Britain.
World War One’s dead and missing
Perhaps the biggest factor in the rise of Spiritualism, and thus a belief in contact with the dead, was the horrific death toll of The Great War (as it was known at the time). This was Europe’s first truly industrial war, where whole national economies and manpower were called up to fight. In total, the carnage led to nearly 20 million deaths, with the majority of those being in combat. In Britain alone, nearly 800,000 men had died in the fighting in a population of roughly 30 million. 3 million people had a direct relative who had been killed.
Added to this was the astonishing number of nearly half a million men who had been reported as missing and their final resting place unaccounted for. This led to many parents, such as Rudyard Kipling, going to France to actively find their children – and many simply refused to give up hope that they might still be alive. This ambiguous end often caused more trauma amongst the relatives of the missing than it did for those who had their kin confirmed as dead.
Further to the heavy death toll caused by the war, the ‘Spanish’ flu pandemic, which began in spring 1918, was one of the worst in history by overall mortality. It is estimated that at least 50 million people died globally, and many of these were young people in the prime of their life.
The dead, therefore, were close – and many people wanted to communicate with them.
Nihilism and the questioning of authority
The destructive horror of Europe’s worst war to that point made many intellectuals question the existing world order. Had the liberal and imperial systems of government, growing in power during the comparatively peaceful 19th century, reached their nadir? Through the strains of the war, major imperial powers – Germany, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Austria Hungary had all collapsed through revolutions. New systems of government that dismissed monarchy, like communism and fascism rose out of the ashes.
Many thinkers compared the physical and political destruction to the fall of classical Rome, making the point that ‘civilisations’ don’t last forever. Arnold Tonybee’s epic three volume A Study of History, which addressed the rise and falls of civilisations, became a best seller when it was published in a single volume.
While the economy did recover during the 1920s, the moniker of ‘The Roaring Twenties’ can hardly be believed for many working class people at the time. Economic hardship and strikes were common, while the world faced economic ruin after October 1929’s Wall Street Crash, itself a consequence of economic over enthusiasm and speculation, and the ensuing Great Depression. Many people’s employment and savings were wiped away.
With the collapse of ‘grand narratives’ comes societal nihilism (essentially a rejection of human values) and a questioning of long held belief systems. In a turbulent political and economic atmospheres people often question the established order and what they hold to be real.
In such periods of turbulence, people may seek ‘alternative realities’ which question science and objectivity.
The scientific revolutions of the end of the 19th century was marked by leaps forward in the study of micro-biology and atomic physics. The electron was discovered in 1890, giving rise to ‘quantum theory’, of which Albert Einstein was a leading physicist – publishing seminal papers in 1905.
This essentially presented a new world of matter, where the long held laws of General Relativity did not apply. Meanwhile, broadcast technology began appearing with startling pace – telephony and radio, nascent pre-war technologies, suddenly became available to consumers. This in itself must have felt somewhat similar to the technological shift we’re seeing with the Internet today.
To many people, atomic matter and broadcast technology would have seemed an almost a magical force. That you can transport information through thin air is indeed a remarkable innovation that today we completely take for granted.
None other than American inventor Thomas Edison, one of the most influential communication technologists in history, said in an interview with Scientific American, “I have been thinking for some time of a machine or apparatus which could be operated by personalities which have passed on to another existence or sphere.” Meanwhile, a famous quote for paranormalists is attributed to him from the Canadian News magazine Maclean’s:
…if our personality survives, then it is strictly logical and scientific to assume that it retains memory, intellect, and other faculties and knowledge that we acquire on this earth. Therefore, if personality exists, after what we call death, it is reasonable to conclude that those who leave this earth would like to communicate with those they have left here. Accordingly, the thing to do is to furnish the best conceivable means to make it easy for them to open up communication with us, and then see what happens.
Even the most innovative thinkers of the time were considering communication with the afterlife. Indeed, Albert Einstein, while not a believer in the paranormal, wrote a preface to American journalist Upton Sinclair’s 1930 book ‘Mental Radio’, which explored the realms of telepathy. Such pseudoscientific publications were common during the period.
Photography was another technological advancement that furnished a wider belief in ghosts. Camera trickery appeared to ‘prove’ the existence of ghosts, some of which were apparently invisible to the naked eye. Popularity in ghostly photography grew as camera equipment became more widespread during the 1920s.
The ‘discovery’ of the unconscious
While the unconscious mind had been considered since the Enlightenment, Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was critical in its conceptual development. His work as a therapist in late 19th century Vienna led him to develop theories of the unconscious, which were published through many works before and after World War One. His seminal work, The Interpretation of Dreams was first published in 1899, and gained in popularity through several more editions until 1929. Freud opened his first edition as follows:
In the following pages, I shall demonstrate that there exists a psychological technique by which dreams may be interpreted and that upon the application of this method every dream will show itself to be a senseful psychological structure which may be introduced into an assignable place in the psychic activity of the waking state. I shall furthermore endeavor to explain the processes which give rise to the strangeness and obscurity of the dream, and to discover through them the psychic forces, which operate whether in combination or opposition, to produce the dream. This accomplished by investigation will terminate as it will reach the point where the problem of the dream meets broader problems, the solution of which must be attempted through other material.
This ‘discovery’ of the unconscious mind gave rise to ideas, already reinforced by new technology, that there was another plane of existence – and that perhaps the personality or soul (as Edison alluded to) could continue after death. Indeed, Freud’s associate Carl Jung, with whom he later split, was very interested in the occult, and regularly attended seances.
Victorian literature and culture
The ‘ghost story’ itself had been popularised during the Victorian era. The short story format was serialised on the front pages of newspapers and magazines.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, saw many of his stories published in this way. Many of the Holmes cases, such as The Hound of the Baskervilles (first serialised in The Strand Magazine) allude to the supernatural, but they are resolved logically by the intrepid detective. Conan Doyle himself was a committed Spiritualist who lost two sons in the Spanish Flu pandemic, and went on lecture tours and wrote books specifically on the subject.
MR James, perhaps the most famous ghost story writer of the period, published many popular stories from 1905 to 1925 and is known for redefining the genre.
Added to this was the founding of ‘Spiritualism’ as a new religious movement during the middle of the century. The 1840s and 1850s were a period of major political and industrial change in the Western world – particularly through the European revolutions of 1848. Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species also presented a significant challenge to the established religious concept of creationism. Spiritualism was in some ways a reaction both with and against this rapid change. The rejection of established religion led to a greater belief in Spiritualism, but also it could be seen as an alternative philosophy in an increasingly mechanical age.
Belief in being able to communicate with the dead through mediumship and seances subsequently grew in popularity. The Ouija board was ‘invented’ in 1891, becoming a very popular product across the world. However, a lot of mediums, and indeed Spiritualism, were debunked by the turn of the century. This was in tandem with the growing scientific consensus, alongside a rapidly decreasing rate of infant mortality.
But the trend was still within living memory by the end of World War One. In this traumatic time, many people also sensed a business opportunity as mediums could trade off people’s pain. Combined with the collective grief caused by the war, the turbulence of politics, new technology and the discovery of the unconscious, the ‘ghost’ could therefore make a significant comeback.